I wanted to see this because it is one of the films identified as part of the raft of new Scottish films that appeared in 2013 when it was first shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Two central questions are whether it is indeed a ‘Scottish’ film and, if it is, what it suggests about Scottish cultural identity. Both questions are pertinent during the run-up to the Scottish independence vote in September.
Not many people have seen For Those in Peril which didn’t receive a significant release in the UK (though it has been seen at several overseas festivals). I was able to watch it projected from a DVD in a community cinema operation. The film includes a mix of video and Super 8 as well as higher resolution material and the DVD projection wasn’t ideal. Unfortunately, there is no Blu-ray as far as I am aware. This début film from writer-director Paul Wright is set in a Scottish fishing village (and filmed mainly in Gourdon in Aberdeenshire). The relatively simple narrative follows the psychological breakdown of Aaron (George MacKay), the only survivor of a fishing tragedy which sees four men drowned, including Aaron’s brother Michael. The people of the village appear to blame Aaron in some way for what happened and he can’t remember anything about the accident. Only his mother (Kate Dickie) and his brother’s girlfriend Jean (Nichola Burley) offer him any support. Gradually Aaron loses contact with reality and begins to pursue a memory of his mother’s stories about the ‘monster of the deep’ which she told him as a child. He becomes convinced that the monster has taken Michael and that he must bring him back from the sea.
Wright initially plays the film as a quasi-documentary story, including faux documentary footage with voiceovers and home movie clips. Then he moves into social realism and finally into a fantasy sequence (which may also offer the subjective experience of someone suffering from schizophrenia or something similar). In visual terms, the film is quite disturbing with a camera style that features hand-held shooting with big close-ups and shallow focus. Occasionally the film moves into long shot, framing the protagonist in the landscape – much the better option for me. The performances are generally very good. Kate Dickie and Nichola Burley are solid performers and George MacKay has a real screen presence. I don’t know if his acne was real or painted on, but he appears the real lump of a 19 year-old that the script requires.
I wish I had seen this on a DCP or film projection. I still wouldn’t have ‘enjoyed’ the aesthetic, but I might have been able to make a more balanced judgement. When we left the cinema, Nick said that it didn’t work but the interesting question was what went wrong. I tend to agree but also to be a bit more forgiving. The reactions by reviewers generally seem to have been more extreme, both in praising the film and condemning it.
To return to the initial questions, the film is Scottish only to the extent that the writer-director is Scottish and it’s located on the Aberdeenshire coast. The main producers are Warp X films from Sheffield working with funding from Film 4’s ‘Low Budget Film Production’ scheme. Some further funding came from Creative Scotland and Screen Yorkshire. I’m not sure how the latter organisation justified funding. Apart from supporting local producers, Nichola Burley is from Leeds. Otherwise I wonder if any of the post-production took place in Sheffield? BFI supported the release of the film for export with £19,000 going to sales agent Protagonist Pictures. It’s not really a great promo for the Aberdeenshire coast however! Soda Pictures released the film in the UK but only on 3 prints for three weeks as far as I can see.
In the end, I’m not sure that the film represents Scottish culture directly. The village could be in Ireland as easily as in Scotland – or indeed anywhere with fishing boats and a fish-processing industry. The fact that this is a low-budget film makes it much more like a typical Scottish production (since there are no established studio facilities to make Scottish films in Scotland). Of the three lead actors only Kate Dickie is Scots and she’s from the Central Belt not the North East. Still. it shows that there is Scottish talent and as a drama this is much more interesting than most of the films that come out of London. It does in some ways share a mixture of realism and fantasy in a Scottish setting with Under the Skin. I’ll return to discussing contemporary Scottish cinema soon.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .
So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.) She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.
Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 2oth century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.
Production and reception
Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.
The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.
Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.
Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.
Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:
Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?
Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.
The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)
In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.
Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.
Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.
I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.
I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.
Useful web reviews:
Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:
The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.