The quality of films coming out of South Korea continues to be very high. When I read the festival’s blurb on this title I did wonder if it was really a good idea to watch it as the last film of three in an evening session. But around ten minutes in I’d forgotten about my reservations. Park Jung-bum is the writer, director and lead actor in a bleak tale about a North Korean defector (from Musan) trying to survive in Seoul. The film is over 2 hours long and it’s his first feature. But Park was previously an assistant on the much acclaimed Poetry and some of that film’s magic has certainly brushed off onto his own début.
Jeon Seung-chul finds himself sharing a small apartment literally on the edge of Seoul (there is a ‘demolished village’ next to the apartment) with a rather more ‘worldly-wise’ defector, Kyoung-chul, who has already settled into the capitalist culture of the South. Seung-chul struggles to earn a living fly-posting but is physically attacked by rivals, whereas Kyoung-chul has developed a lucrative racket in charging other defectors from the North large sums to send money home via his uncle in China. Seung-chul’s attempts to get a better job are thwarted by the giveaway of his North Korean identity which comes from the ‘125’ code in his South Korean ID number. His only relief from the misery of work and the inhospitable apartment is his visits to a church where he develops an interest in an attractive young woman in the choir – who he doggedly follows across the city.
As my brief plot outline reveals, this is essentially a neo-realist idea with the two obvious references being Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The former provides the hopelessness of the struggle for a proper job – often a process of one step forward and one step back. Like the old man in Umberto D, Seung-chul also seeks company from a dog – in this case a very appealing puppy. The neo-realist narrative idea is matched by a strictly functional camera style (shot on HD video). Any danger of sentimentality is avoided by making Seong-chul a very human figure, someone who is sullen and stubborn as well as honest and hardworking. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot development so suffice to say, things go wrong for Kyoung-chul as well as Seung-chul and in the last third of the film there is more action and an important revelation about Seung-chul’s past in the North. Seung-chul eventually meets the woman at the church and for a moment I was worried that he was going to find ‘salvation’ as a church member. (I’ve no animosity towards organised religion as such, but the idea of ‘redemption’ in this scenario threatened to undermine everything that had gone before.) But this doesn’t happen and the woman proves to be as false and self-centred as most of the other characters that Seung-chul meets.
There is a very annoying programme on UK Radio 4 called ‘The Moral Maze’ in which moral questions are explored by a panel of ‘experts’. I’d like to sit them down in front of this film. Its humanism poses very difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. Seung-chul is not a ‘hero’ as such in the narrative. But it’s difficult not to feel for him and then to question yourself about how you might react if you met him. If you do manage to see the film, have a look at the various reviews and they will give you a flavour of what Park Jun-bum has stirred up in his representation of a character and a situation based, I think, on real events.
I hope the film gets a wide international release and I noted that its Korean backer is the same company, Fine Cut, which was involved in co-producing the Argentinian film Carancho. The character behind Fine Cut, Suh Young-joo has a long history in the South Korean industry and the new company is emerging as an interesting player in the international market for smaller independent films.
Trailer for The Journals of Musan:
About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?
From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.
I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?
Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).
The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.
Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).
Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)
Trailer with English subs:
Asghar Farhadi is the second of the featured directors in the festival with his latest film Nader and Simin: A Separation showing in the Main Competition. That film has already been shown in many territories, including the UK where it has been a big hit, not least with the contributors on this blog. I was eager to see the two earlier films by this director showing in the festival. These last three films by Farhadi are clearly all the work of the same extremely talented filmmaker and although they present three distinct stories, there are common themes, a common cultural location – Tehran’s middle classes – and the same sense of a subtle satire. I can almost imagine a DVD box set entitled ‘Marriage Iranian Style‘.
Fireworks Wednesday takes place over the Tuesday and ‘eve’ of the Wednesday of Persian New Year in Iran (thus the Iranian title of the film, referring to a Zoroastrian festival). There appears to be a similar sense of carnival and mayhem in the streets, with the letting off of fireworks and impromptu bonfires, as there is in the UK on November 5th (i.e. Bonfire Night and also the customs of Mischief Night). This then becomes the setting for a narrative about marriage. The narrative agent is Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young woman from the outer suburbs who is just days away from her marriage to a young man she clearly loves. She rides into the city as a pillion passenger on his motorbike and goes straight to the employment agency who send her to the other side of the city for a day as a cleaner. She then finds herself in the middle of a marital ‘situation’ in which Mozdhe is very much on edge in her large apartment. One of the windows is broken, all the furniture is covered in plastic and there is a general air of chaos. Roohi understands that Mozdhe and her husband Morteza are to go on holiday the next day but Mozdhe seems more concerned that Morteza may be having an affair with Simin, the divorcée next door who runs a beauty salon. Roohi is a ‘good girl’ who finds herself confused by both Mozdhe and Simin. She doesn’t know who to believe when Mozdhe asks her to spy on Simin (who gives Roohi some beauty treatment as a wedding gift). She accepts people for who they say they are, but ends up telling white lies to protect Mozdhe and Simin from each other. The complex plotting then leads Roohi to be forced to stay with Mozdhe’s family all day and to be driven home late in the evening through streets full of fireworks by Morteza.
The four central characters in the film are carefully drawn in the script by Farhadi and Mani Haghighi and beautifully acted. These are complicated individuals and there is no easy and quick identification with them. Mozdhe in particular is a woman on the edge who we both feel for and also want to scold. For me what is most interesting is the way that she treats Roohi. At some moments she seems cold and dismissive giving curt instructions but at other moments she is considerate and appears to want to help the younger woman. Is she a good or bad employer in the eyes of her cleaner/maid (Roohi is asked to carry out a very wide range of tasks)? The almost arrogant confidence of the Iranian middle classes, especially the women, is a feature of these three Farhadi films. The women are relatively wealthy and well-educated but also trapped by certain social conventions. I’m not sure the extent to which Farhadi is being satirical by exposing the behaviour of the Tehran middle classes. It certainly outrages one IMDb commentator who damns the film: “Awful, couldn’t be worse. If we have two or three of such movies per year, that will be more than enough for our society to break down.” (‘m-mirehei’ from Iran) This seems like a very conservative view. From a Western perspective the film seems ‘honest’ in its depiction of the characters.
The chador plays an interesting role in the film which I take to be metaphorical. In the opening sequence, when Roohi is on the motorbike, her chador gets caught in the back wheel, throwing her off the bike and jamming the wheel. I found this quite disturbing as in a famous incident in 1927 the dancer Isadora Duncan was killed by her own long scarf when it became tangled in the open spoke wheels of the car in which she was a passenger and her neck was broken. Roohi survives unhurt but the chador is a little torn. Later Mozdhe borrows the chador (without telling Roohi) and wears it in causing a scene outside Morteza’s office. This leaves Roohi ‘exposed’ (though she still has her headscarf) when she has to go and collect Mozdhe’s son from nursery school. I could do with some guidance here but there seems to be a deliberate and provocative reference to the chador and what it means about ‘respectability’ for Iranian women. I won’t ‘spoil’ what happens in these scenes but Mozdhe’s actions both put pressure on Roohi and in some way support her own fight against her husband.
Although the specifics of Iranian society are important to the film’s narrative, there is a strong universal appeal as well and there was a large and appreciative audience for the film in Oslo. There are at least two versions of the film free to view online if you search, one with subtitles and one with German titles taken from German television. But no release yet in the UK! The actors in these films are clearly important stars in Iran – see this fansite for Hedye Tehrani. I confess to having spent a long time in cinemas gazing at beautiful women and I have to say that many of the women featured in Fahradi’s films look just as stunning with their headscarves and long coats as most Hollywood stars in designer outfits. The excellent camerawork by Hossein Jafarian helps of course.
I saw Aballay immediately after the Malaysian film The Year Without a Summer. It’s a very different kind of film. It was also introduced in Norwegian – and in English – by someone I took to be Argentinian, who explained that it was a ‘gaucho film’, a kind of Argentinian Western set in Tucumán province. The introduction suggested that this was a film pitched somewhere between a ‘festival film’ and a commercial genre picture and went on to claim that the gaucho represents a potent Argentinian rebel or outsider figure (so Diego Maradonna could be a kind of gaucho). Finally it was suggested that the film conjured up Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. That last point was quickly confirmed in an opening that could easily have been Leone and indeed the inciting incident that begins the narrative is a raid on a stagecoach with armed escort as it races through the arroyos (or the Argentinian version of these dried up river beds) of a mountain region. This ends with all the troops and the passengers killed save a frightened boy who stares into the eyes of the gang’s leader, Aballay. This is the stare that haunts Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, given substance by Charles Bronson as the boy becomes a man. In Aballay the story moves on ten years and the boy is now a man in his early twenties with, as Variety‘s reviewer points out, a rather ludicrous stuck-on moustache. This is Julián, making his way towards the town of ‘La Malaria’! – a setting that would fit nicely into The Wild Bunch and I was almost surprised that Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine didn’t appear in the cantina.
Aballay looks wonderful. The landscapes are spectacular and cinematographer Claudio Beiza has an eye for arresting framings. But director Fernando Spiner’s narrative is elliptical, driven almost entirely by notions of revenge and family honour. This is where the film departs from the American-Italian conceptions of the ‘West’ as a frontier about to be incorporated into a capitalist state. There is no historical background or contextualising of gaucho culture in Aballay that I could discern. (Of course, this is only relevant for a global audience – the local audience probably doesn’t need such knowledge to be spelt out. I have read that the original story by Antonio Di Benedetto was written when he was a journalist imprisoned under the junta and that it is seen as an intensely ‘Argentinian’ story which no doubt carries symbolic meaning.) The screening introduction suggested that the setting was “early 20th century” but who were the soldiers, who was Julián’s father, where was the gold heading? None of this seems to matter. Instead, the narrative moves into a more folkloric/mystical mode. A flashback reveals how Aballay (Pablo Cedrón) gave up leadership of the gang after his soulful meeting with Julián as a boy and turned to the teachings of Simon Stylites, the hermetic saint who perched on top of a column for 37 years to expiate his sins. Aballay refuses to get off his horse and retreats to the mountains where he becomes known as the ‘saint of the poor’ – only coming down to La Malaria when his former second in command, El Muerto (‘The Dead One’), terrorises the town, steals the beautiful Juana as his bride and stakes out Julián for the vultures when he attempts to save the girl.
Aballay is the Argentinian entry for foreign language film at the Oscars. I can’t imagine what the Academy voters will make of it. One of the issues will be the brutality of the violence and the treatment of the single female character who is beaten and abused, even branded. The sense of strength in the character comes from the performance by Mariana Anghileri but I think that you could argue that the film is exploitative in the way it uses her body. These aspects certainly troubled me (and I’m a fan of Peckinpah and Leone) but I am interested in these kinds of Latin American ‘Western’ and I suspect that there is a market for this internationally – though it is a long time since the popularity of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Simon Stylites also refers to Buñuel’s Mexican production of Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, Mexico 1965). The full title of Aballay translates as ‘the man without fear’ and to return to the rebel gaucho, it isn’t difficult to see that opaque though the actions of these men may be to non-Argentinians, they can carry such symbolic weight for local audiences. This is a film to watch out for if it gets a wider release.
YouTube trailer (no English subs – but they aren’t really needed):
I enjoyed this film very much – just the right antidote to miserable weather on a Sunday. As one of the blurbs reads, you wouldn’t expect a story that begins with a character suffering a form of depression to end up as light and entertaining – but this does. Julia is an English Literature Professor in Rio de Janeiro. The film begins with some chaotic video clips of her tour of the UK, only to then reveal that her partner Antonia has left her. Julia is finding it hard to function at work but is rescued by Hugo whose civil partner Pedro has died. Hugo is an irrepressible character who proposes to buy a new house by the sea and invites Julia and another friend, Lisa (also separated from a partner) to share it. As you might expect, several visitors to the house provide diversions from too much introspection and, in particular, Helena challenges Julia to re-engage with the world.
So Hard to Forget is witty, beautifully acted and nicely presented with a pleasing eye for visual details by director Malu de Martino from a book by Miriam Campello. Despite having several collaborators the script seems to work fine. As Julia, Ana Paula Arósio has the intensity and presence of an actor like Rachel Weisz, who I think she resembles in some ways. Known mostly for her television work in Brazil, she handles this lead role well, portraying a woman who is brilliant but harsh with other people.
The film is currently in the UK on a limited release by Peccadillo Pictures, the LGBT specialists who will give it a UK DVD release in 2012, but it should be on general release as I’m sure it appeals to gay and straight audiences alike. With its references to both Emily Bronte and Virginia Wolf (either of whom might have influenced Julia’s coiffure) and then Sarah Waters and k.d. lang, I’m not sure what this says about Brazilian society, except that one part of it embraces globalised Anglo culture.
In the Peccadillo Pictures Press Notes Malu de Martino has this to say about her choice of subject matter:
“In recent years, Brazilian movies have increasingly dealt with social issues as a vehicle to gain a better understanding of our reality. Films dealing with personal dramas, on the other hand, have been relegated to an inferior category due to the distressful social conditions which countries like Brazil experience.”
I think that this is a good point. It had occurred to me that the film didn’t look ‘Brazilian’ – in fact it looked and felt more like some of the independent films I’d seen from Argentina. That’s probably my ignorance, but de Martino has certainly made a useful challenge to any preconceptions about Brazilian films seen overseas.
Trailer (with English subs):
My second set of evening screenings was something of a disappointment after the excellent Afghanistan forum featuring Finding Ali. The Year Without a Summer (Malaysia 2010) is one of those festival films that require patience and perfect viewing conditions. I think I made the wrong choice at the time. The film was screened in a small auditorium, clearly a product of a conversion from an old large single screen cinema (as most of Oslo’s city centre cinemas seem to be). The image wasn’t masked and the film was projected from DigiBeta. Unfortunately the first half of the film was mainly nighttime scenes with only minimal lighting and little movement. It was hard to stay awake and concentrate. There was an introduction in Norwegian but that didn’t help me.
I’d chosen the film since it was an independent production by a Malaysian woman. I’d only seen commercial Malaysian films before and this offered something different. The story is simple. Two boys grow up in a small fishing community on Malaysia’s east coast (actually the director’s home region). Azam agitates to leave home and try to make it in Kuala Lumpur (or ‘KL’). Ali wants to stay home. After several years away, Azam suddenly reappears and with Ali and his wife Minah takes a night-time fishing trip to an island where the two men reminisce – but the trip ends badly. The non-linear narrative means that we learn more about the two boys’ childhood in the second half of the film. Without a great deal of narrative excitement as such, the main pleasures of the film are the beautiful locations, the insight into local customs and practices and how this informs our sense of the sadness caught in the unusual title (see below). The writer-director Tan Chui Mui does attempt to introduce more symbolic elements and moments of surrealism (e.g. there is discussion of various myths about mermaids) but I failed to decipher these.
A little research reveals that Ms Tan is an important figure in the Malaysian independent film scene (with her own company Da Huang Pictures) who has produced and directed several short films that brought her recognition at festivals including Rotterdam and Busan – this film was made possible partly by funding from the Hubert Bals Fund (associated with Rotterdam) and another fund via Busan as well as further support from Switzerland and France. I found this comment on the company website:
“I found the title The Year Without A Summer from Wikipedia, which I am addicted to. It was 1816, and there was no summer in that year. In some places in America and China, there were even snowfalls during summer. I can imagine the climate abnormalities must have stirred a sense of doom day at that time. The crops died, the sky was often orange tinted, famines and war broke out everywhere . . .
Many years later, scientists believe that the climate abnormalities was mainly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years.
My story is not about volcano eruption, nor climate abnormalities. My story is about how people often live, without knowing much about what happened to them. In a way, my film is about history of sadness.”
My research suggests that I should have got much more out of the film than I did. Perhaps it’s just a function of moving between films with such different institutional and artistic contexts in the same day and perhaps you do need to know a little more about what to expect. For once, approaching a film without any kind of preparation didn’t work for me. I think if I watched this film a second time I’d get a lot more from it.