I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first feature by writer-director Kim Bora. Like the other recent South Korean film by a woman, The House of Us by Yoon Ga-eun, which I saw at the London Film Festival, House of Hummingbird is a potential family melodrama that evolves more into the story of a young teenage girl. Nick saw the film at the London Fest and was a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised.
Eun-hee, the central character is an eight grader in middle school which makes her around 14 in the Korean system I think (and therefore three years older than the girl in House of Us). She isn’t enjoying school and her slightly older siblings, both still at school, are not very friendly towards her. Her father runs a food shop specialising in rice products and works long hours and her mother seems rather distracted when not preparing food for the family. The year is 1994 and Eun-hee ignores the first two major events of the year – the Northern leader Kim Il-sung dies and South Korea play in the World Cup in the US. This is in contrast to the third major event which affects her very badly – but more of that later.
The film is slow-paced and perhaps over-long (138 minutes) for a narrative with relatively little narrative incident. But this does mean that we get to know Eun-hee in some depth. During the two semesters of her school year she has her first boyfriend, two separate relationships with girls in her class/year and a medical issue. As in most ‘real lives’ none of these three interactions come to much but Eun-hee does learn something about each of them and about herself. Certainly she gets more from meeting her friends than she gets from the members of her family. The context of a rapidly industrialising Korean society, now over the politically fraught times of the 1980s, is sketched in carefully. The building boom leads to a protest near her home by residents who refuse to move for re-development. At school the pressure for education attainment is being ratcheted up. Eun-hee’s terrifying teacher has the class chanting about going to university and not visiting karaoke bars. It reminded me of the worst excesses of our local girls’ school which forbade girls going out in the evening. Ironically, it is one of the elements of this new high pressure educational culture that offers Eun-hee hope of something more fulfilling.
Eun-hee attends an after school Chinese ‘cramming class’ with her friend. One day the usual teacher is replaced by a woman in her early thirties, a mature student at the university. This is Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok) who seems both approachable and laid-back – calm and almost zen-like. Eun-hee is smitten. Yong-ji provides support when it is needed, making tea and offering advice. Eun-hee brightens considerably and in that way that perspectives change so quickly at 14, she sees herself becoming a cartoonist (or rather a graphic artist). Yong-ji is an attractive character but she also carries a sense of fragility and I was worried immediately that something might happen to her – and that’s where the third news incident comes in.
Reading through various reviews, the film receives praise for its clear-eyed view of life for a young girl in Seoul in 1994. But the descriptions vary. For some Eun-hee’s life is bleak and the family is dysfunctional. There are indeed some family tragedies and two incidents that suggest that Eun-hee is not being cared for or supported as she should be. There is domestic violence and the medical condition she develops is handled badly by the family. But I’m not sure how we are meant to read these incidents. Are they a critique of 1990s Korean society? Father appears to be over-worked and the few occasions when the family help out in the shop seem like genuine moments of co-operation. Perhaps the narrative is simply giving us Eun-hee’s perspective on what happens to her in 1994? If the film had been half an hour shorter and more tightly edited, I wonder if this would be seen as European-style ‘social realism’? The Korean audience seems to have found the film interesting as it earned nearly $1 million from its 154 screen opening in the country to go alongside its journey through many overseas film festivals. The film is described by critics (and the director) as a ‘coming of age’ film. But it certainly isn’t a genre film. Coming of age is not a useful term. Some of us don’t ‘come of age’ until we are in our 20s. Instead it is a growing up film about a particular year.
In the interview below from the Busan festival, the director explains why she chose the title (it makes total sense to me now and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t work it out before). If this gets a release in the UK I would recommend it.
During the British New Wave of the late-fifties and early-sixties, ‘it’s grim up north’ was something of a trope; three recent fiction films suggest tough lives are now in the countryside. The Levelling follows God’s Own Country and Dark River (both UK, 2017) in representing traumatic lives on farms. The latter two are set ‘up north’, in Yorkshire; whilst the film under discussion is on the Somerset ‘levels’. I enjoyed the three films all of which deal with repression of some kind: sexuality, sexual abuse and male stoicism. It is the latter in The Levelling.
Ellie Kendrick plays Clover, a trainee vet, who returns home after the suicide of her brother. Her blustering dad, Aubrey (David Troughton, above), matter-of-factly tries to deal with what’s happening whilst ‘in denial’. Slowly, Clover’s doggedness uncovers the events that led to her brother’s death. Both actors are superb.
The film is writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature and superbly done it is. She cites the Dardennes brothers as an influence and early on the handheld camera follows Clover through the farm; my heart sank at this, my least favourite shot, though one the Dardennes have used effectively, but it doesn’t overstay its ‘welcome’. Leach captures the grimness, and the lack of sentimentality, of life on an economically challenged farm well. Dark River highlighted more the difficulties of making farming pay other than through ‘industrialisation’. However, all three films are melodramas so any politics is worked through the personal rather than looking at the macro issues of society. That said, God’s Own Country does include a scene in a local pub emphasising the hostility of some toward migrants.
Another recent film also dealing with the countryside, though in documentary form, was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (UK, 2017). Wright used ‘found footage’ to create a poetic montage of the changing attitudes towards nature in Britain. There’s some striking footage: a single black child in a school; a ’60s vox pop where the speaker claims he doesn’t care if birds disappear; a trippy hippy who says he loves ‘everyone’. As is the way of the form, it’s difficult to isolate the film’s ‘preferred reading’ (what it’s trying to say) but the impression I got was the countryside is a place where urban inhibitions can be shed (that’s probably a townie’s reading).
God’s Own Country achieved respectable box office in the UK for a low budget film, but most of the film-watching population will not have seen any of the four. Hence although all four films interrogate our relationship with nature they are unlikely to affect the zeitgeist. With global warming, looming Brexit and increasing urbanisation, it is important we (specifically in the UK but everywhere is affected) understand the natural world in 2019, so congratulations to all the filmmakers for speaking about our place and time. The Levelling is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 26 days.
Pain and Glory strikes me as an ironic title for what I loved as the most tender Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen. It sometimes seems that Almodóvar oscillates between films about men (some of which are directly autobiographical) and films about women (and therefore about characters that remind him of the female stars that he adored as a child). But it’s also the case that many of the films are about Pedro’s mother and the other ‘real’ women of his childhood and adolescence. Pain and Glory is in some ways reminiscent of Bad Education (2004) in that it focuses on the childhood experiences of a man who grows up to be a film director and his relationships with other men. But whereas in that earlier film, there is much anger and even violence, in this new film there seems to be acceptance, friendship and love as the filmmaker ages. I think anyone ‘of an age’ like Almodóvar – approaching 70 – will have an understanding of some of the emotions of the central character played by Antonio Banderas.
The outline plot of the film is relatively straightforward (no spoilers here). Salvador Mallo, the Banderas character is a 60 something man with various physical ailments who has lost his creative energy but who lives well in a beautiful apartment (beautifully designed with paintings, fabrics and bold colours) with a maid (an indigenous woman from Latin America?) and his former production assistant/manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) both regularly visiting him. One day he learns from an actor (played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) that one of his early films has been restored and that several cinemas want to screen it. Salvador is invited to join in a Q&A following a screening. The only drawback is that the cinema would like to invite both Salvador and the star of the film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) – and the two men have not spoken since the film was completed more than thirty years ago. Salvador decides he must meet Alberto privately before any public meeting. Having decided to resurrect something from the past, Salvador also finds a way to re-visit his own memories so that we can experience moments of his childhood in which his mother Jacinta is played by Penélope Cruz. In the present, Jacinta is played by another stalwart from Almodóvar’s earlier films, Julieta Serrano.
Almodovar’s handling of the narrative drive is so accomplished that even though the pacing is sometimes quite slow, I was always completely engaged by the ‘action’ and never worrying or wondering what might happen next. I suspect that if it was possible to tear myself away from the screen all the events of the narrative would become predictable and many would turn out to have appeared in his films before. So there are priests (bad, as in Bad Education), a village scene with the women working (as in Volver), a beautiful young man to lust after, doctor’s waiting rooms, a cinema audience, films on TV etc. But none of this matters because the mise en scène is glorious, the performances are sublime, the music (by Alberto Iglesias) is great and the cinematography is by José Luis Alcaine. And most of all, I believe in what Salvador feels and what he does.
There are excellent pieces in Sight and Sound (September 2019) by Paul Julian Smith and Maria Delgado, both reliable and acute commentators on Spanish cinema. They have spotted things I couldn’t see on a single viewing and they are able to connect scenes in the film with contemporary political and social issues in Spain. I recommend them highly. For my part, I’m simply glad that Pedro Almodóvar is still making films and most of all that the films seem to get better each time. Whatever ‘blocks’ Salvador experiences as a director, they don’t seem to visit Pedro. I’ve seen friends’ enthusiasm for Almodóvar wax and wane over the years, but for me he has never failed. He is, as Paul Julian Smith, observed on the release of the film in Spain, the only filmmaker guaranteed to bring in audiences of all kinds in Spain with virtually no promotion. Penélope Cruz grows more beautiful with every film. If she and Banderas continue to be as good as this, I hope Almodóvar will be encouraged to keep going.
Pain and Glory opens in North America on October 4th. I hope it is a big hit there too:
This first fiction feature by Kore-eda Hirokazu is currently on re-release in selected UK cinemas following the great success of Shoplifters in 2018. The BFI ran a full retrospective of Kore-eda’s fiction output during April and May and there is a Blu-ray release planned for this title in a package with After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking due for release in July. HOME in Manchester is offering a mini-season of the first five Kore-eda films in the second half of June entitled ‘Of Flesh and Blood’. Maboroshi is playing at HOME on the 16th June.
Maboroshi no hikari, to give the full Japanese title, is an adaptation by Ogita Yoshihisa of a novella/short story by Miyamoto Teru. For his later films, Kore-eda has often chosen news events or has been stimulated by his own life experience. In this case, though the source for the narrative seems ‘external’, it also seems in line with Kore-eda’s interests. The title translates roughly as ‘phantom light’, ‘shimmering light’ or perhaps ‘a trick of the light’ and it refers directly to the details of an anecdote told at the end of the film. We first meet Yumiko as a girl living with her parents and younger brother in a dismal building in Osaka. She is helpless to prevent her aged grandmother leaving the house and never being seen again – she has told the young girl that she is returning to Shikoku to die. Yumiko sleeps badly after this and her childhood friend Ikuo seems to offer her only distraction. When we meet Yumiko a few years later she is played by Esumi Makiko as a tall and graceful mother of a little boy (Yuichi), still living in Osaka and now married to Ikuo (now played by Asano Tadanobu before he became very well-known in Japanese films). Yumiko still dreams about her grandmother’s disappearance. The couple seem happy together but one night Ikuo is killed while walking home along the railway track. Yumiko is devastated and puzzled. Why do people think it was suicide? (This isn’t a spoiler – the only information on the BBFC certificate shown before the titles simply states ‘suicide theme’.) Eventually, a good neighbour acts as a traditional matchmaker and introduces Yumiko to a widower with a daughter a few years older than Yuichi and mother and son travel across Central Japan to a small fishing village on the West Coast near Wajima. How will this second marriage work out? Will Yumiko emerge from her long period of mourning?
I will avoid too many spoilers from this point on. I want to comment mainly on the visual style of this first fiction feature (after the director’s work in television documentary) and also on the ways in which it presents ideas to which Kore-eda may return in later films. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is more of a sense of the documentarist’s ‘observing’ eye in Maborosi, both in the street scenes, but also in the use of long shots and long takes. Towards the end of the film the long shots are expanded even further so we get to see a small ‘action’ within a long shot of the entire coastal village (from the heights above the settlement). Against these expansive shots, Kore-eda offers us interiors which all seem underlit and in which events often seem to play out very slowly indeed.
Since he began making fiction films, Kore-eda has been subject to various suggestions by Western critics and scholars about his influences and particularly the possibility that he has been strongly influenced by Ozu Yasujiro. Kore-eda has responded by agreeing that he has studied Ozu but that he still isn’t sure what he makes of the films. Naruse Mikio has been the one of the 1950s ‘masters’ who Kore-eda himself has acknowledged. Kore-eda has also stated quite clearly that Hou Hsiao-hsien (an Ozu fan) and Ken Loach (as a filmmaker concerned with ‘social issues’) are two of his main influences. The social issue in Maborisi is the long-term impact of bereavement on the widow and her son. Yumiko cannot get past her memories of her grandmother and of Ikuo and this prevents her from helping Yuichi in his attempts to feel part of his new family. Fortunately he now has a step-sister a few years older and his new father seems a patient and loving man. He also has a new grandfather. The next door neighbour, a fisherman, is helpful too and in the village there is Tomeno, an older woman who still goes out to sea to catch crabs for her market stall. She is an important figure for Yumiko’s new family, but does she remind Yumiko of her grandmother? She is perhaps the first of the older women who populate some of Kore-eda’s later films.
In one sense the narrative seems to split in two with the interior world of Yumiko and the external world of the village in which Yuichi and his step-sister can play quite safely, protected by the other villagers. While Yumiko’s narrative is very dark, Yuichi’s looks forward to similar scenes by the sea in Our Little Sister (2015). Esumi Makiko as Yumiko made her first film appearance in Maborosi at 28. She had been a volleyball player and a model. She appears mainly in sombre clothes throughout the film with long, narrow skirts and long tops. She doesn’t say a great deal and mostly she wears her hair down. In the final sequence, Kore-eda seems to be playing with ideas about the traditional Japanese female ghost figure (though the figure of Sadako in Ringu was still a few years away from making such figures very familiar in the West). Watch out for Yumiko sitting in a bus shelter – you’ll need to look carefully!
I can’t get too far away from the Ozu comments, especially since there are some shots in the film that remind us of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, especially those which are ’empty’ of human figures. But there are also static shots that tend to have a more symbolic or metaphorical function. For instance, there is a repeated static long shot of a figure walking away from the camera, either through a tunnel or under a bridge or arch. The figures are mainly silhouettes, moving from the dark into the light. There is an obvious connotation of a ‘portal’ to another world, but the third such shot shows Yuichi and his step-sister enjoying exploring the world of his new home village. Nakabori Masao is a cinematographer who seems to have worked over several years with the same director, Jissôji Akio, on a series of genre pictures before Maborosi. I haven’t seen any of these films but they don’t immediately suggest why he might be chosen by Kore-eda. I’m assuming that the director expressed his requirements very carefully and the results are astonishing. I’ve already hinted at the tone of the horror/ghost story film and there is a general sense of mystery surrounding the dominant feeling of loss, but also the strengths of family. Chen Ming-chang, who I assume to be a Taiwanese film music composer, is responsible for the film’s haunting score (apologies for the inevitable pun). He had previously composed scores for two Hou Hsiao-hsien films. Again, the score is unusual and seems to have generated a great deal of interest as a soundtrack album.
I think I’ve spent more time going over scenes from this film than any other I’ve seen for some time. I have the original UK DVD which in the early 2000s, before my immersion in Kore-eda’s later work, I found difficult to watch. Having now seen it on a cinema screen and researched the film’s background and reception I’ve come to the conclusion that this was an astounding fiction feature début. It’s now plain that Kore-eda’s interest in ‘family’ stories is introduced here, but there is also a focus on memory which will feature in the next two films (a documentary, Without Memory (1996) and After Life in 1999). I now realise too that the documentary August Without Him (1994) about the first Japanese man to announce he had AIDS was an important experience for Kore-eda, pushing him towards fiction as a form to allow him to explore his interest in humanist narratives. Kore-eda’s narrative control in Maborosi and the way in which sound and image are used is extraordinary. Although he didn’t write the script, Kore-eda appears to have embraced it as his own. His original aim was to become a writer before he switched his interest to visual arts. After this film he became both the scriptwriter and the editor of all of his films.
Maborosi is essential viewing as Kore-eda’s first fiction feature and as a standalone film narrative that demonstrates the director’s commitment to his work. In one of the most perceptive contemporary reviews, Mark Sinker in Sight and Sound, July 1996 suggests that Kore-eda presents a film with all the trappings of a severe art film – the long static shots, the use of only natural light, the very careful framings etc. – but sometimes shifts to the delights of the details of daily life for the family and the occasional glimpses of the comic possibilities of the presentation. In the later films, it seems to me that the visual signifiers become less pronounced and our empathy with the characters begins to develop more through the writing and the performances. With each film, it seems that Kore-eda hones his skills as one of modern cinema’s finest humanist directors.
The BFI’s new trailer for the film: