Still not comfortable about returning to cinemas but wanting to see a new/recent release I watched this film streaming on BFI Player. I knew little about the Moomins and even less about their creator Tove Jansson, but I’d heard a couple of good things about this part-biopic. It’s fair to say that I was bowled over by the performance of Alma Pöysti in the title role and I very much enjoyed the story set in the immediate post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Tove Jansson is a woman approaching 30 when the narrative begins, living in Helsinki and sheltering from Russian air raids before the end of the ‘Continuation War’ with the USSR in September 1944. A trained artist who has studied in both Finland and abroad, Tove is still dominated by her father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson who is supported by state and local commissions. She lives at home with her mother Signe, a graphic artist, and her younger brother Lars as well as her father. Her first move is to find a room in a bombed house and renovate it before pursuing her painting and graphics work. The narrative that develops has three strands which are woven together over the next ten years. One is the family drama involving her father on one side and her mother and brother on the other as Tove seeks her independence as a ‘visual artist’. The second strand, focusing on her artistic visions sees the development of her ‘visual storytelling’ which involves the creation of the Moomins, something which actually started several years before the film narrative begins. Finally, there is an intense romance that develops with Vivica Bandler, a wealthy married woman, and in the background an equally strong but less sexually charged relationship with Atos, a married man and socialist editor/publisher. The surprise for audiences may be that these relationships take up more screen time than the artistic practice and the development of the Moomin world. Having said that, all three strands are strongly connected. Tove’s love for Vivica is unrequited but Vivica is a genuine supporter as well as an exciting sexual partner. She spots the ‘special’ qualities of the Moomin drawings and will help promote them by staging a theatrical adaptation. Atos is important as a socialist and a true friend and lover in every way. Tove is, in the language of the period, a true ‘bohemian’ but she still needs friends like Atos.
I realised as the film progressed that I did know something about the Moomins, the ‘soft’ creatures that live in a secluded valley. At one point in the narrative we see and hear Tove speaking English and agreeing to produce a regular comic strip for The Evening News in London. This started in 1954 and continued until 1975. I usually bought the Standard, but I must have seen the Moomins strip in The News, though I didn’t learn about its creator until many years later. It’s not surprising that Tove was able to speak several languages. Her family was part of the Swedish minority in Finland and she had studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But little of Tove’s background is included in the film. It is alluded to only as necessary for the central narrative. The film is being promoted as a lesbian romance and its first UK appearance was in the BFI Flare Festival for LGBTQ+ cinema. I found myself identifying strongly with Tove and I think that it’s important for the narrative that it concludes in the mid-1950s when Tove has just met the woman with whom she’ll spend the rest of her life. The end credits include ‘home movie’ footage of the real Tove dancing al fresco with her new lover.
There have been some criticisms of the film. It is in narrative terms quite conventional and that often provokes a reaction as if films need to be ‘difficult’ to be worthwhile. Perhaps more to the point is the charge that because it only focuses on part of the life, we don’t get the full impact that her early and later experiences have on her development as an artist .Also, this means that we don’t have time to fully explore the creativity in the presentation of the Moomins world. Beyond the fact that her father is obstructive and that both Atos and Vivika are encouraging we learn relatively little about why the Moomins become such an international success. I suspect that is something the fans in the audience might miss. It’s particularly an issue in the UK perhaps where graphic artists/storytellers are still not properly accepted by cultural commentators, though it is better I think than in the 1950s-70s (and I note that Tove Jansson’s paintings were exhibited in the UK in 2016). These kinds of criticism are inevitable with biopics and to include everything is impossible, even if the final film was twice the length (this one is 103 minutes and the Press Kit mentions a 117 minute director’s cut). One of the other criticisms is that the artists’ parties and the alternative lifestyles of the period are too clichéd. I actually enjoyed the parties and they looked realistic/authentic to me. I particularly liked the music (especially Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’) and Tove’s enthusiastic and wild dancing. There is a good selection of songs to complement Matti Bye’s more muted score.
I hope I’ve suggested many reasons why Tove is well worth watching. That central performance is really something. I think I was particularly drawn towards Alma Pöysti by what I perceived to be her ‘naturalness’ or authenticity. I liked her best without make-up and hair styling when she is working as a ‘free spirit’. I understand that she is a theatre actor and that she has done voicework on Moomin animations. Part of her freshness is that she is not presented as a film star. Krista Kosonen as Vivica and Swedish actor Shanti Roney are both experienced film and TV actors and very good second leads, but it’s Alma Pöysti’s film. This is director Zaida Bergroth’s fifth feature and she leads a production crew with several women in significant production roles including Linda Wassberg as cinematographer and Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth as production designer. The script is by Eeva Putro who is also an accomplished actor and plays one of Tove’s friends. Andrea Reuter shares the production credit with Aleksi Bardy. The film’s budget of €3.6 million makes it one of the most expensive Finnish films. Shooting on 16mm film is argued to give the images the right texture for a presentation of the period. It’s difficult to confirm that on a computer screen but the film looked good to me. This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
One final note. The film has been given a 12 rating in the UK. At last we now seem able to tolerate a few glimpses of naked body parts without everyone worrying about frightening younger teenagers. I do wonder though, with teenage smoking increasing what the impact of such heavy smoking characters might be. You can watch Tove on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.
This unusual documentary played at HOME in Manchester with a Q&A featuring the director Angie Chen. It was part of a mini-season of Ms Chen’s work and another contribution to HOME’s year-long programme presenting women working in global cinema. Angie Chen, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trained in the US and returned to work in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1980s as part of the Hong Kong New Wave.
I’ve Got the Blues is a very entertaining and thought-provoking work that ‘presents’ the artist Wong Yan-kwai, popularly known as ‘Yank’, and in doing so explores questions about how we might approach documentary films and film narratives more generally. What it doesn’t do is try to ‘explain’ or analyse Yank’s work as a painter. Partly that’s because he expressly forbids anyone filming him painting and also because he refuses to discuss what his paintings ‘mean’ or what they ‘represent’. He’s the one who says he simply ‘presents’ his work. The other aspect of his story which struck me forcibly is that he is clearly a very accomplished musician, photographer and writer with a deeply felt sense what it means to be an ‘artist’ (though he refuses that title!).
Yank went to Paris to study to be a painter and lived there for some time before returning to Hong Kong. He and Angie Chen have known each other since the 1990s. Angie said that although she knew Yank, she didn’t actually know that much about his life. She set out to make a documentary without knowing exactly what kind of film it might turn out to be. In turn Yank clearly didn’t want to be in a conventional film and he persistently thwarted the filmmaker. As well as refusing to be filmed during his work as a painter, he also challenged the filmmaker saying that she had an agenda and he would not go along with it. Angie Chen’s solution to this was quite neat. She organised a shoot of a meeting she had with Yank during which they both seemed to get angry, shouting at each other about what they would and wouldn’t do. She uses this scene close to the beginning of the film and close to its ending. She also persuaded Yank to film himself at work.
Once ‘in’ the film, Angie goes on to appear in it regularly, joining Yank for a trip to a Macau exhibition, joining a musical evening in which she sings the blues of the title with Yank on guitar and meeting his two grown-up daughters (at separate times). Yank is cantankerous but also playful and witty. Most of his interactions with friends are accompanied by what I can only describe as ‘heroic smoking and drinking’. Angie told us that sometimes shoots at his home or a local bar might go on until the early hours.
Reflecting with Rona on the experience of watching the film and enjoying the lively Q&A chaired by Prof. Sarah Perks (who met Angie Chen many years ago on one of her regular trips to HK), we agreed on a couple of points. First, this is a fascinating film about documentary practice. I was surprised that Angie Chen suggested it was an unusual strategy for a documentary filmmaker to appear in her film. Perhaps I misunderstood what she said, but it is now quite a common practice to use what Stella Bruzzi calls the ‘performative’ mode of documentary (in New Documentary, Routledge 2006). Angie Chen is certainly a ‘player’ in her film, often acting as a form of provocateur – causing Yank to react in different ways. Second, although the doc. is well-structured and entertaining, there is a distinct tension between the playfulness of the Angie-Yank relationship and two narrative questions which are not resolved or ‘explained’. The first of these refers to Yank’s relationship with his daughters, seemingly with different mothers, both with French backgrounds. The mothers seem to be completely marginalised in the narrative without any comment whatsoever. The second intriguing question is about Yank’s politics, a topic explored very interestingly in a couple of scenes but then somehow left dangling. I would need another viewing to be clear about what was actually said. There is a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong and there may be others available (that question came up in the Q&A).
I realise that I haven’t said anything about Wong Yan-kwai’s paintings but then that’s not really what the film is about. I do want to know more about his time in Paris and about his relationships and his politics. I also want to see more of the films by Angie Chen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to Manchester to see the other films Angie had brought with her from Hong Kong. I want to thank Angie Chen for bringing her film and entertaining us in the Q&A, Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis for organising the mini-season and Sarah Perks for chairing the Q&A. And I must not forget the cat, who tolerates Yank and often appears on screen with him.
Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s a good trailer that gives a sense of the film and intrigues the viewer:
(This posting has been edited to correct details of the event.)