Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.
Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.
When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.
The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.
Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.
A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.
Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.
The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.
Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the clip below the trailer (the film is now playing on MUBI you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.
Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to re-view parts of the film.
The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.
What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.
Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)
The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.
I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.
Gideon’s Day is now available in a 4 disc Blu-ray box set entitled ‘Ford at Columbia’. The other three titles are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Last Hurrah (1958). It’s an odd collection but each of the films is of interest and I like Gideon’s Day very much. It was very badly handled by Columbia back in Hollywood but the British arm of the studio made a very good job of the production in the UK, co-producing the film with Ford himself and using the MGM-British studio facilities. The film was beautifully photographed in Technicolor by Freddie Young. Gideon’s Day is a police procedural adapted from the first of a series of crime novels written by the prolific John Creasey under the pseudonym J.J. Maric. Creasey used 28 pseudonyms and wrote over 600 novels according to Wikipedia’s account. The film was initially released in the US under the title Gideon of Scotland Yard on black & white prints. Ford had a percentage of the potential profits so his treatment in the US was insulting. On the other hand, I’m not so surprised that the studio thought it wouldn’t do very well in the US since it is very ‘British’. Written by T.E.B. (‘Tibby’) Clarke, the writer of many Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob (1955), Gideon’s Day is delightful in many ways – even though it includes investigation of some very unpleasant crimes. It’s often described as a ‘comedy melodrama’. The Gideon novels (1955-76) also prompted a UK TV series known as Gideon’s Way (26 episodes of 50 minutes in 1965-6, tx on ITV and made by ITC on 35mm film). Ford appears to have been a fan of these kinds of stories and possibly of Creasey’s procedurals.
(The print broadcast on Talking Pictures TV in the UK uses the American title Gideon of Scotland Yard, but is in Technicolor and not cut.)
A typical Tibby Clarke script begins in the household of DCI Gideon (Jack Hawkins) during a frenetic family breakfast-time and proceeds to follow him through a day in which three different crimes are solved/averted with one involving police corruption, robbery, murder and attempted murder. The working day ends late at night with a repetition of a joke from the morning. Throughout the film Gideon’s bluff, authoritarian stance with an underlying warmth and humanity (a perfect role for Hawkins) is often undermined by comic moments. Tag Gallagher tells us that Ford remarked that Hawkins was the “best dramatic actor I worked with”.
This is a deft directing job by Ford. He moves swiftly through the interrogations and chases and keeps his own predilection for sentimental songs and bar-room brawls in check. Even so there is a genuinely funny pub saloon sequence and an almost slapstick fight. This was a period in British cinema when certain kinds of crime films and dramas were moving towards the greater realism that location shooting (usually in black and white) brought and at the same time films were starting to become ‘grittier’ in their representation of social issues. Gideon’s Day is poised between the Technicolor comedies which were so successful for Rank and the black and white crime dramas and procedurals which constituted the major dramatic genre. Jack Hawkins had already appeared as a Scotland Yard Superintendent in the Ealing film The Long Arm (1956) and as a reluctant would-be migrant to Australia in the Technicolor Ealing comedy Touch and Go (1955). In all three films mentioned here Jack Hawkins has a family and the family melodrama becomes part of the narrative. In Gideon’s Day the DCI’s long suffering wife is played by Anna Lee, one of Ford’s stock company and ‘family’. She had significant roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Fort Apache (1948) as well as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and two small parts in later Ford films. In the late 1940s she was mysteriously blacklisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood and Ford was keen to see her re-instated. Gideon’s daughter is played by Anna Massey, daughter of the Canadian actor Raymond Massey who had appeared for Ford in Hurricane (1937). Ms Massey was certainly lucky with her father’s friends. She must have known Michael Powell through her father and her next role would be in Peeping Tom (1959). The family melodrama is neatly tied into the police work of the day through a young PC played by Andrew Ray who had been a child actor and here adds comic touches to a series of incidents involving father and daughter.
Hawkins’ co-star on the film posters is Dianne Foster, a Canadian in US film and TV who also in 1958 appeared in Ford’s The Last Hurrah. I confess the name meant nothing to me before I looked her up and I assume that Columbia simply wanted a name alongside Hawkins that North American audiences would know. The UK cast is full of well-known supporting players and overall the cast list is extensive since Gideon deals with so many cases during the day as well as struggling with his interactions at home and imposing his authority in his office at the Yard. There are fifty speaking parts.
For me Gideon’s Day was a welcome surprise. I’d seen it many years ago but not fully appreciated Ford’s skill. He handles the shifts between humour and drama skilfully – the poster at the head of this blog entry represents the comedy tone very well. The London locations are used well without being too ‘touristy’. The narrative is exaggerated with Gideon ‘solving’ the three major crimes on the same day, though there is significant ‘collateral damage’ in each case. It’s almost as if several episodes of the later TV series had been compressed into a single narrative of 90 minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly there are some similarities to another Hollywood film made (partly) in London around the same time with Hitchcock’s re-working of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) for Paramount. I think Ford actually makes a better job of representing London by remaining faithful to the script and trusting his British cast. Dianne Foster is on screen only briefly (though it is a significant role) and the film is carried by the British leads.
The only significant error in the film from my point of view was the use of a copy of the Manchester Guardian as a ‘giveaway’ clue that leads to an arrest. The Manchester Guardian was indeed based in Manchester before it became the present day London-based Guardian in the 1960s, but it was also available in London as a leading ‘quality’ national newspaper. It could be used in the film to suggest the suspect was an intellectual criminal but as a clue a local Manchester paper was more likely to signify that the suspect had travelled down from Manchester. I suspect that the London-based crew didn’t read the Guardian and didn’t explain to Ford what the paper signified.
Tag Gallagher suggests that the lack of any Irish issues in the script meant that Ford could reign back his usual anti-Britishness and instead just enjoy presenting the wide range of characters with care. (However, the film was produced by Ford’s Irish pal Michael Killanin and there are several Irish actors in small parts.) It is possible to see Jack Hawkins as Gideon presenting a familiar Fordian hero with a loving family who are perhaps neglected because of the importance of his job, but just like the cavalry families that support John Wayne in Ford’s military pictures, the family still loves the heroic father figure. Ford completed the film efficiently and under budget (there is at least one continuity error which Ford didn’t re-shoot, following his usual practice). Both Gallagher and Joseph McBride recognise the merits of Gideon’s Day, but Lindsay Anderson gets in a bit of a tangle in About John Ford, his collection of interviews and critical pieces about Ford. At one point Anderson seems to be dismissing the film as old-fashioned and with no real artistry, writing at the moment in 1957 when he interviewed Ford during the shoot and took him to the NFT. Yet later in the collection he suggests that though 1957 was a critical low point for Ford, Gideon’s Day is actually “an engaging entertainment, an almost absurdist pastiche of its middle-class English genre”. He doesn’t seem to realise he had been down on the film earlier in the collection. Still, he redeems himself a little whereas Andrew Sarris is all at sea in The John Ford Movie Mystery. Sarris sees the film as “one of Ford’s most peculiar projects” and sees the film as a comedy about the bumbling English and their “tepid tea and beastly buns”. I don’t mind being insulted in a good cause but I think Sarris just misunderstands the film completely. On the other hand the inclusion of snatches of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ in the score by Douglas Gamley does underline the comic tone of many scenes. I heartily recommend the film as good entertainment and an example of what a great film artist can produce handling a simple genre film for a Hollywood studio.
Queen of Hearts is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK, but is also available on Sky and Apple TV/iTunes. It appears to have been released by Thunderbird in the UK in February of this year so presumably it got lost somehow during the first UK lockdown? The BFI’s digital Sight & Sound archive has a very iffy search engine and I couldn’t find an entry for Queen of Hearts. This is very odd since the film won many festival prizes around the world and has received very good reviews. If you get the chance to see it, do take the plunge. It’s a compelling watch.
This film is hard to analyse in detail while avoiding major spoilers, although I can see an argument that spoilers don’t really matter since the power of the film is in the performance of the central player and the presentation of the fictional world. Danish cinema is one of my favourite institutions, mainly because it offers some terrific melodramas. MUBI promotes this film through an invocation of Douglas Sirk and the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller. That’s a strong call but the film is up to it. I did wonder if it’s one of those films that provides plenty of talking points but then might begin to disintegrate under too much analysis. But however it might fare under deep analysis, it is certainly gripping the first time round.
I won’t spoil the narrative apart from mentioning the one central act I can’t avoid. The central character is Anne played by Trine Dyrholm. Most recently on UK screens in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), she had an early role in Vinterberg’s Festen (Denmark 1998), in my view the best of the ‘Dogme’ films and a film that has some tenuous links to Queen of Hearts. Anne is a partner in a law firm she started with an older man (perhaps her teacher or mentor?) and she specialises in cases concerning young people and abuse. She’s married to Peter (Magnus Krepper) a doctor of some kind. We learn little about Peter’s job – Anne is our prime focus. The couple have twin seven-year old girls and they live in a spacious modern house with access to a river and woods and no visible neighbours. We assume that the house is somewhere in the Greater Copenhagen area. They are clearly wealthy but there is a coolness between them. Their girls seem bright and are enjoying their lifestyle. The narrative begins after an unusual credits sequence which eventually reveals Anne walking with her dog in the woods. Quickly the narrative will produce two parallel ‘disruptive’ events. Peter is unhappy that Anne brings a client home – something she has promised not to do. He is about to go and collect Gustav, his 17 year-old son from his previous marriage. Gustav has been expelled from his school in Sweden where his mother lives.
Gustav doesn’t settle well in his new home at first, but gradually Anne brings him round and he becomes a friend to the two girls. But something about Gustav attracts Anne in a different way, especially when he brings a girlfriend back one night. Gradually Anne is drawn towards him in a dangerous way and as she becomes more distanced from Peter, desire for Gustav becomes too much – with all the tragic outcomes that you may imagine.
Queen of Hearts is written by May el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehne. May el-Toukhy directs, supported by striking CinemaScope photography by Jasper Spanning and music by the Swedish film composer Jon Ekstrand. They all deserve congratulations. One review I’ve seen suggests that the presentation of the house and its grounds is reminiscent of the similar use of the house at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (South Korea 2019). The two films are very different but the point about the house and grounds makes sense. This one is approached by descending a narrow walled driveway. Queen of Hearts is a family melodrama and much of the narrative is set in the house and its grounds, by the river and the woods. Both Anne and Peter are very busy but there are some family celebrations at the house. Anne’s closest friend is her sister Lina. The photography and score convey an atmosphere of encroaching danger, much of it focused on images of the woods and one specific tree as seen from the house. As well as the score there are several instances of diegetic music in the film. Melodrama needs music, but I know some contemporary audiences struggle with heavy, symbolic choices. Queen of Hearts announces its intentions when in the middle of a drinks party on the terrace with Peter’s friends, Anne gets up and plays ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell rather loudly and dances around the table.
The BBFC gave Queen of Hearts an ’18’ Certificate for the UK. In Denmark it is only a 15 but Danish cinema has a long history of tolerance for sexual display. In the US the film is ‘Not Rated’. The sex scenes are carefully shot to deflect suggestions of pornography but they are much ‘stronger’ than is common in mainstream Anglo-American cinema. Trine Dyrholm is a fearless performer. I note that my review of The Commune I wrote “She gives her all” and that is similarly the case here. There are some strange comments in the reviews I’ve read (in one Anne is described as a woman at “a drab stage in her life – the transition from middle age to elderhood”). Anne is in her late 40s! From what I’ve read about the Danish ‘age of consent’ legal framework, a relationship between and adult and a 17 year-old would not be an offence were it not that Anne is Gustav’s step-mother. What makes it worse is Anne’s other position as a counsellor of young people in precisely this situation. The narrative does offer us a moment when Anne wonders whether she is a monster. The power of the film for me is that Anne can come across as a woman to be admired and also as a despicable human being. Discovering the second doesn’t invalidate the first, though it is shocking (and not because of her desire). At one point she admits that the best things that happen are also the the things that should never happen. The only thing that annoyed me in the film were the throwaway lines of dialogue that imply that Anne came from a poorer background and that something bad happened in her childhood. We do know that her father died when she was only 11, but I’m not sure about the inference that she was abused. My other thought is that the film, like other Danish melodramas, does seem to critique the coldness and sterility of upper middle-class life. This increases my feeling that Anne has herself been ‘fractured’ so that her humanity can be so easily and tragically taken away from her. Can I bear to watch the film again?
Here’s a trailer. It does reveal a little more about the events.
This is a difficult film to categorise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that the film has attracted some very positive reviews but also some dismissals. It’s a film which requires a viewer to have some idea about the context of filmmaking in China over the last twenty or thirty years. Writer-director Wei Shejun saw his début short film selected for Cannes competition in 2018, winning a ‘Special Distinction’ Award and both that film and this his début feature have featured at festivals around the world. Striding into the Wind is inspired by his own experiences as a film student. He has also clearly learned how to use festival interviews. A Variety interview and his LFF interview see him name-checking various influences and at one point arguing that currently China has no ‘global directors’. He knows how to play the game and there are sections in this film that demonstrates he can make interesting cinema as well. What it all adds up to is something that needs working through.
At the start of the film I thought that I was in for a ‘slacker comedy’ which isn’t really my kind of thing. Zhou Kun with a kind of mullet-cum-ponytail is a student at a film school repeating a year, which means he has plenty of time to spare to help his classmate Tong Shao-jie learn how to become an audio technician. Kun has a job as sound man on a student (or alumni?) film and Tong tags along trying to learn. Kun has enough industry knowledge to be able to correct his tutor who doesn’t seem to have worked since he left the Film Academy. The digs about the Fifth Generation directors being out of touch now and the Sixth Generation making the same kinds of films all the time (comments by Wei in the Q&A) are seemingly drawn from the director’s own experience in film school. Kun and Tong go on to try to develop various other scams to make money and as well as the possible Hollywood genre connections, I thought that at this point that I might have seen similar films from the new Indian Independent Cinema or perhaps from South Korea. After a while though, the buddy movie at the centre of the narrative begins to be displaced by a genuine romance with the appearance of A Zhi as Kun’s girlfriend. She is much more sussed than the two students and is making money as a model/cheerleader/’eye candy’ for promotional events. It’s a waste of her degree in Chinese Literature but she has a plan. She also seems to have a genuine personality and possibly to care for Kun – but will he have the sense to see this? To be fair to Kun, Zhi is prepared to conform and he isn’t. I have to agree with the BFI interviewer (whose name I didn’t catch, there were access problems in trying to view the Q&A a second time) when she suggested that A Zhi (Zheng Yin Chen) has a real presence which makes the romance narrative possible. But will Kun have the nouse to make it work?
The two young men and one woman trio and one or two other elements in the plot made me think of the early Jia Zhangke film Unknown Pleasures (2002). Jia is, I would argue, the leading Chinese auteur in the global art film market. His wasn’t a name that Wei Shejun checked (Hou Hsiao-hsien was mentioned twice). The Jia references increased for me in the closing section of Striding Into the Wind when Kun and Tong Shao-jie travel to Inner Mongolia to complete the shoot of the film they have been working on since the director wants some ‘authentic ‘ atmosphere for his film. This means a shift to the road movie and a series of reflections on the romance of the region (the wind in the grass, the horses etc.) and also the artificiality of ‘tourist’ versions of Mongolian culture. This trip is tied in to Kun’s relationship with the venerable Jeep Cherokee that he buys cheap at the beginning of the film. Kun has always dreamed about visiting Inner Mongolia so the car is central to how he will understand (or not) his own fantasies and sort out what he wants to do with his life.
China has grown so fast as an economy in the last twenty years and it has been difficult for societal changes to keep pace. It’s hardly surprising that young men born in the late 1990s have issues if they try to do anything else other than knuckle down and conform. Kun has problems with his mother a teacher, his father a police officer and A Zhi’s dad, an accountant as well as his tutor. Tong Shao-jie seems almost completely detached from family in the performance by Tong Lin Kai who was discovered as a non-professional by the director and certainly has a presence in the film. I’d like to show this film in tandem with a film like Beijing Bicycle (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, China-Taiwan-France 2001) which less than twenty years ago shows a similar trio of young(er) people in Beijing trying to cope with a very different city.
Striding Into the Wind is a hybrid comedy/romance/road trip with an element of family melodrama. The narrative is probably too loose and could be tightened, but the players are engaging and there does seem to be a kind of commentary both on contemporary China and on filmmaking. I look forward to seeing what Wei Shejun does next. The film is produced by the Chinese internet giant Alibaba and is showing in North America on festival screens. Unfortunately the promotion doesn’t seem to be using many images or videos so apologies for the lack of illustrative material here.