Tagged: family drama

Domains (Japan 2019)

Aki and Nodoka in the rehearsal room

I don’t like streaming. I prefer a physical video or a broadcast I can record. I don’t know how anyone can write about films seen once on a TV screen. Cinema screenings are slightly different as concentration is much easier in a cinema context – at least for me. It’s too easy to turn away from the screen and do something else when you are at home. It’s especially difficult to watch avant-garde or ‘experimental’ narratives on TV. Domains, which has just finished its run on MUBI is a case in point. This Japanese film by Kusano Natsuka is 150 minutes long and I found myself trying to watch it on its last evening of availability. I have to confess that there were moments when I switched to a faster speed and tried to shorten the running time without losing the sense of what I was watching. You might want to bear that in mind as you read my comments.

Domains is the second film by Ms Kusano. Her first, Antonym, was released in 2014. This new film was shown at Rotterdam in 2019 and has had a wider presentation internationally. It appears to me to be both an exploration of narrative form and possibly an analysis of a familiar triangular relationship, which in this case has resonance in a number of familiar Japanese narratives. The narrative opens with a simple set up. A woman in her late twenties, ‘Aki’, is seated at a table in a room without other furnishing. Across the table is a young man who reads to her a statement, in effect a confession, detailing how she murdered the 3 year-old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka. The young man who may be a police officer or a court official wishes Aki to confirm her statement formally as she is now being ‘brought to justice’. Aki is confused and at one point she starts to sing a “gloomy Japanese folksong ‘Moon over Ruined Castle'” (as identified by Hayley Scanlon on her blog ‘Windows on Worlds’). The relevance of the song will become clear later, but what does this opening scene represent? Many reviews suggest that this is the climax of the story and that the whole story will appear in a long flashback. I’m not sure about that.

The third actor, joins in the reading

In the second scene, the same actor playing Aki (Shibuya Asami) is joined by a second actor (Kasajima Tomo) and after a while we realise that they are reading a script dealing with the events that Aki has related in her confession. Immediately we have a problem. Is ‘Aki’ a character in a fictional drama and are we still in the same fiction? Or is this a formal deconstruction of the narrative in which Kasajima reads the lines belonging to Aki’s friend Nodoka, but isn’t actually going to play the character in the fictional narrative? (I think I saw a comment that this film has something in common with Kore-eda’s After Life (Japan 1998) and there might be something in that.) The two actors read and re-read lines and there is a camera and a clapperboard to confuse us. We are in a rehearsal room. Why are these dialogue scenes being filmed, sometimes with ten takes? We do notice that the readings become more animated and soon a third actor appears. Adachi Tomomitsu reads the dialogue of Nodoka’s husband Naota and the same process of re-readings carries on. Eventually we do leave the rehearsal room to make brief journeys by foot and by car visiting various important locations. The basic story doesn’t change but gradually the elements of the story accrete more details and insights. But this doesn’t sound much for 150 minutes does it? I should emphasise that the pacing is very slow and there are several moments when a fade to black or a static composition is held so long that I wondered whether the streaming had frozen.

Aki has been given a present, a knitted hat by Nodoka

I can see that the formal operation here does reveal something about how theatrical and cinematic narratives work and how actors engage with and develop scripts. The slow pacing and the repetition is arguably necessary to illustrate these processes. We also get time to think about the other aspect of Kusano’s film – the story of the three characters.

Aki and Nodoka went to a girls’ school together in this small community and then to the local university where they met Naota. Aki then left to work in Tokyo, an hour’s journey away and only returned to visit her friend after four years. Aki is currently on some form of sick leave, having suffered a minor breakdown at her job in the production division of a publishing house. Naoto has a job as an art teacher in a middle school and Nodoka has been at home with her daughter Honoka (who is now 3 and will soon go to kindergarten). When Aki arrives at Nodoka’s house for the first time, she notices the temperature and humidity, but also that Nodoka has changed and that she appears repressed in some way. It is then that we realise the importance of the song about castles and the film’s title ‘Domains’. Naoto the teacher is governed by ‘logic’ and by language, the importance of words. This is his ‘domain’. Aki and Nodoka as children had their own ‘domain’ – ‘castles’ built by stretching fabric over chairs and climbing inside. Aki sees this as a domain of feelings. The clash with Naota feels inevitable.

The drive to a different fabric shop . . .

All of this seems to me to be familiar from aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese cinema. I’ll just offer two observations on this. First Kusano also offers us a number of static shots. Some are shots of significant story elements such as images of trees in the wind (the murder takes place during a specific moment in the ‘eye’ of a typhoon in the Kanto region). Others may be symbolic, but also reminded me of Ozu’s classic ‘pillow shots’ – an outside shot of a house or an empty room, often with a sense of graphic design, that serves to punctuate the flow of images and to subtly change our expectation of the next shot. But some of these seemed to be held too long to play the same kind of role as in Ozu’s family dramas. Secondly, the discourse about male and female power/status is here explored in a situation where the social position of Nodoka is determined solely by her maternal role. All three characters have the same background and the same education. For Naota to retain control, he must oppose Aki. She is a threat to family and to his ‘logic’.

Does this shot symbolise the missing child?

Domains is an interesting film. It is also, for me, frustrating. I’m interested in the story and in the presentation of the narrative. But I really do think it could be accomplished in less than 150 minutes and that if the audience was more continuously engaged they would get more from it. I note that the film was written by Takahashi Tomoyuki, who was one of three writers on Happy Hour (2015) a five hour marathon about the lives of four 30 something women and reviewed by Nick Lacey, which also streamed on MUBI. Nick tells us that: “Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours”. He watched it in two parts. The subject matter sounds similar but the presentation sounds more conventional. I’m interested that this male screen writer should be writing women’s stories for a woman to direct (he also wrote Kusano’s first film Antonym). I suspect that for the moment Kusano Natsuka might find her work confined to festivals, although this was actually a MUBI release in the UK – disrupted by the pandemic. I will be interested to see what she produces next.

¡Viva! 26 #3: Los Sonámbulos (The Sleepwalkers, Argentina-Uruguay 2019)

Luisa and Ana

This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.

The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.

The family are called to dinner . . .

There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.

Luisa shows consternation at something Emilio (in the foreground out of focus) is saying

This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.

Memé and Luisa at odds

The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.

Amanda (France 2018)

David (Vincent Lacoste) and Amanda (Isaure Multrier)

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

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

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

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

Stacy Martin as Léna

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

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

Doesn’t need a caption?

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIFF 2019 #1: One Last Deal (Tuntematon mestari, Finland 2018)

Olavi has a visitor . . .

It’s time for the Leeds International Film Festival again and this Finnish film is a solid if low-key drama that doesn’t fall too far into simple feelgood territory. There was something about the production package which seemed vaguely familiar but as I hadn’t researched the film before the screening I didn’t realise that this comes from the same team that made the Finnish-Estonian film The Fencer in 2015 with director Klaus Härö, writer Anna Heinämaa and cinematographer Tuomo Hutri.

One Last Deal is based on a familar dramatic scenario with a central character study. Olavi (Heikki Nousiainen) is an art dealer hanging on, beyond retirement age, to his rented shop premises in central Helsinki. Like many people in their 70s reflecting on what they have achieved over a long life, he hankers after ‘one last deal’ that might justify his long struggle in the art world. He’s a widower and he hasn’t kept up with technological change, allowing himself to become a curmudgeonly old man with only one real friend, a younger dealer facing similar problems but doing slightly better in his shop in the face of online competition.

Olavi and Otto on the art trail

Around the same time that Olavi comes across an item in an auction sale that seems to be undervalued, he gets a call from his daughter Lea (Pirjo Lonka), now divorced and with a teenage son Otto (Amos Brotherus). She wants her father to take her son on work experience. Can the curmudgeon cope with the idea of a bright teenager careering about his gallery? It’s clear that there will be two narrative lines which will come together – the deal and the family tensions.

I enjoyed the film and especially the central performance. Helsinki, from the street of galleries and the auction house to the high rise modern luxury hotel and the outskirts where Otto and Lea live, is attractively presented and the search for provenance of the painting that Olavi identifies as a potential ‘last deal’ is intriguing, especially in emphasising the Finnish experience of the influence of Russian culture. It occurs to me now that the narrative is similar to Formentera Lady (Spain 2018) with the grandfather-daughter-grandson triangle and to others I can’t remember the titles of. There is also something similar in terms of family and a work/personal interest tension in The Puzzle (US 2018). All of these family narratives are potential melodramas that are either muted by or enhanced by the other narrative about work/personal interest according to taste. As the various festival reviews suggest this modest but nicely judged 95 minute film could well appeal to audiences. Personally, I think the film might have taken either the family melodrama or the chase for a ‘final deal’ a bit further but Klaus Härö clearly knows how to pitch a film for local and international markets and One Last Deal should satisfy many audiences.

LFF 2019 #2: Fête de famille (Happy Birthday, France 2019)

Lunch al fresco

I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.

The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).

Watching the play by the younger family members

It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?

I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel  or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.

LFF 2019 #1: The House of Us (South Korea 2019)

The three girls who create a ‘House of Us’

This charming and enjoyable film is difficult to categorise. It is a potential family melodrama that evolves into a story about its central character Hana, a girl of 11 or 12. Hana’s story has elements of comedy and drama and also perhaps a gentle critique of our expectations of family life. With its bright colours and music it also made me think of anime and manga and I think that it offers something distinctively Korean or Japanese.

As the narrative begins, Hana is being elected as the ‘Best Classmate’ at the end of Summer Term. She rushes home full of energy and enthusiasm but is soon deflated by her parents’ squabbles and her older brother’s indifference. Strangely, the ‘Best Classmate’ seems to have no friends in her home district – or perhaps they are away for the summer? But one day she finds a younger girl, 7 year-old Yoo-jin, who appears to be lost in a supermarket. Searching for the girl’s parents, Hana finds instead Yoo-mi, the girl’s 9 year-old sister. Gradually Hana will be drawn into the sister’s world as they are mostly alone in a flat while their parents are working on a summer job several miles away. It’s the perfect opportunity for Hana to practice all the nurturing skills she isn’t allowed to carry out at home. The ‘House of Us’ turns out to be a house made by the three girls out of cardboard waste as just one of several craft-based activities. Hana becomes more like a mother than an older sister, revelling in the chance to cook.

The girls undertake an adventure

Hana’s solution for her own disjointed family is for the four of them to go on a ‘family trip’. But is this likely to happen? An adventure with the two younger girls sounds more like a possibility. The film is in effect narrated by Hana. It’s a child’s perspective on a world she doesn’t totally understand and isn’t yet able to come to terms with. This means that writer-director Yoon Ga-eun’s film shifts between a child’s adventure and an adult family drama, as we learn more about both Hana and her ‘two families’. The film is the second feature by the director to look at the emotional lives of young girls, the first being The World of Us in 2016. The database of the Korean Film Council reveals that the film was released on 147 screens in South Korea, drawing 52,000 admissions and $353,000 to date at the box office.

There are five Korean films in the festival and I think it’s good that we get to see films like this. South Korea is a developed film culture which enables intelligent and enjoyable films like this to get a wide-ish release. I think a similar film would struggle to get such a release in the UK. But I think quite a few parents would like to share a film like this with their children. The film ultimately stands or falls on the performance of Kim Na-yeon as Hana and I think she does an excellent job. My only concern was the Korean diet on display. Hana has to produce a cookbook as a school holiday project and her only recipes seem to include meat, kimchi and far too many eggs and ketchup!