‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’ is the major season at HOME in Manchester starting on Saturday November 4th and running through to Tuesday 12th December. The season has been planned to coincide with the national British Film Institute THRILLER tour organised with the ICO (Independent Cinema Office. The HOME season comprises eighteen selected titles, eleven of which are also available to screen at other venues. (See the information on the HOME website.)
The HOME Season is curated by Andy Willis, Reader in Film at Salford University, with Rachel Hayward (Programme Manager, Film) and Jessie Gibbs (Film Festivals co-ordinator). An enormous amount of effort has gone into finding the best possible viewing prints for films of this vintage and also acquiring screening rights. Given all the difficulties of finding prints, there is an amazing array of film titles in the season. One or two titles are showing twice and many of the screenings are supported by introductions, post-screening discussions and other events.
So, why this season at this point? I guess we’ll all have to wait for Andy’s ‘One-hour Intro’ on 8th November for a full explanation, but I suspect that he’s going to focus on two points. The first recognises the political turmoil that existed across Europe in the 1970s. Radical groups prepared to literally fight the authorities on the street emerged in Italy (The Red Brigade) and West Germany (The Baader-Meinhof Gang). These were taken to be ‘leftist’ groups and their violence was matched by attacks from the right in Spain and elsewhere. (The two Spanish films in the season were screened earlier this year as part of HOME’s Viva! Festival.) Though Italy and Germany provide many of the narratives, others are set in France, Spain, UK, Greece, Sweden and East Germany. The second point is that popular genres can often be the vehicle for quite complex investigations into politics and public policy.
I’m offering two ‘events’ in the programme. One is a ‘One Hour Intro’ before the screening of Bo Widerberg’s Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976). For this I’m attempting to read all ten of the original Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The ten novels comprise a single extended essay on the failures of Swedish democracy entitled ‘The Story of a Crime’. Committed Marxists, the authors set out to expose the contradictions of the welfare state and Swedish public policy. That’s one kind of ‘political thriller’ and another is the classic Day of the Jackal (France-UK 1973) about the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle in 1963. I watched this again recently and it’s another riveting procedural drama that I’m looking forward to discussing in the context of the season after the screening.
I’m hoping to get to several more of the films on offer and reports will feature on this blog. Several titles are also screening during the Leeds International Film Festival which opens on November 1st and at other venues over the next couple of months. The season offers a great chance to discover some of the best films of the 1970s and amidst all the nonsense of Brexit it’s great to be focusing on European cinema.
HOME is an arts venue that now combines cinema with theatre, art and a range of performance events including music. HOME ‘seasons’ can be weekenders, single days or months or longer periods and often they attempt to bring together all the art form possibilities. The Brazilian Weekender discussed here over the last week actually comprised five film screenings – I was unable to attend the opening screening of Boi Neon (Neon Bull, 2015) showing second house on the Thursday evening. I’m sorry I missed it as it sounds as if it would make an interesting contrast and complement to the mainly female-focused films over the weekend. The film programme also included a ‘Portuguese Language Taster Event’ – matching the Spanish language conversation sessions offered during the ¡Viva! Film Festivals at HOME.
The Weekender was also linked to a major new Art Exhibition, ‘Behind the Sun’ which opened on the Saturday. This was launched with a celebration on the Friday evening with music from Manchester band Riot Jazz and DJs plus an outdoor barbecue (presumably on the artificial turf outside). On the Saturday 20th August there will be a free 1 hour theatre performance by Tiago Cadet taking the audience on “an exploration of representations of the human body throughout history, looking at the construction and invention of Brazil and what it is to be Brazilian”.
The film programme times meant that I did have an opportunity to look at the new exhibition. There were previously galleries in the former Cornerhouse building but for cinemagoers it was easy to forget that they were there on the upper floors. At HOME, the new galleries are easily accessible (more so than the cinemas and theatres) being situated just off the main foyer of the building. There are five light and airy gallery spaces, two of which were darkened for video installations for ‘Behind the Sun’. The exhibition comprises the work of five artists selected from an original 600 and a shortlist of 30 representing the different regions of Brazil. This Manchester exhibition is a partnership with Manchester School of Art, in conjunction with Instituto Plano Cultural, Brazil. It represents work for the Marcantônio Vilaça Award. The exhibition is curated by Marcus de Lontra Costa.
What can I say about the exhibition? I couldn’t join the informal tour led by someone from HOME’s Visual Arts team as it ran earlier in the day when a film was showing. There is another tour on Saturday 3rd September. I think I would have benefited from an introduction. HOME provides a short print guide but I didn’t find that enough to help me to get to grips with the exhibition. I like some aspects of contemporary art but much of it leaves me cold. I inevitably retreat to the video installations, but even then I don’t feel comfortable. The most accessible material here is perhaps the video work of Berna Reale who comes from Belém, the city that acts as the ‘gateway’ to the Amazon. Reale tends towards socio-political statements articulated through specific characters (herself or ‘willing participants’) presented as alien or ‘out of context’ in her otherwise documentary photographs and video pieces. Images from her piece Cantando na Chuva (Singing in the Rain) 2014 (see image above) are used to illustrate the whole exhibition. Reale’s aim is to use these dramatic juxtapositions to underline the disparities in Brazilian economic and social life. Or at least that’s how I saw them. I didn’t get the statements in the exhibition guide which refer to a “defeated humanity” and a “pathetic look at the wreckage of a civilisation”. All the same I did find these short films to be provocative and stimulating.
I realise that I’m not equipped to discuss the exhibitions at HOME. Perhaps making an attempt is a good way of addressing any complacency I have about my familiar cinema experiences. I confess that I would rather have seen Berna Reale’s work on a big screen in a cinema – and projected at a higher resolution. It isn’t the same experience sitting on a bench in a darkened gallery with an open door through which others may come and go as the short films run on a continuous loop. The exhibition demands time and I’ll have to return and try to make more sense of what I see. The HOME website does offer more insights here, including access to the printed guide above.
The Weekender was staged at this time for two reasons I think. The timing is obviously important to tie in with the Rio Olympics, but it is also useful in exploring the potential for a more regular Brazilian strand within future ¡Viva! Festivals. ¡Viva! is a festival of Spanish and Latin American Film. Brazilian cinema is both distinctive, partly because of language, and also part of wider Latin American trends. I’d certainly like to see Brazilian films in their broader context. Logically, it would also be useful to include Portuguese films in¡Viva!. Lusophone cinema also offers the possibility of new films coming from Mozambique and perhaps Angola.
What did I learn about Brazilian cinema and culture? The four films I saw were selected, as far as I can see, using three loose criteria. They were all in a sense ‘small’ stories as distinct from the ‘exotic’, violent and sensational stories of successful Brazilian films that have reached the West via commercial distribution. Three out of the four were directed by women and all four featured women’s lives prominently. Finally, all four promoted interest in the lives of people who have in some ways been helped by the reforms put in place by the Workers Party and who might now suffer with the swing to the right in Brazil. I enjoyed all four films and these seemed like good criteria for selection. I certainly learned things about Brazilian music history from Yorimatã but the other three films tended to mainly re-inforce things I’ve learned from other Brazilian films or from Hispanic Latin American films seen in festivals (not least ¡Viva!). In terms of population Brazil is closest to Mexico but has smaller cinema audiences despite a larger population. It makes more films than Mexico – but not as many as Argentina and they don’t get as much exposure internationally – possibly because of the language issue. A Variety report from Cannes 2016 suggests that this is changing, partly through major government incentives leading to over 100 productions per year – but will this survive the current political crisis? In terms of cultural diversity Brazil might be more like its Northern neighbours Venezuela and Colombia. The big plus in Brazil is the strength of local TV production and the global profile of companies like Grupo Globo and other producers of telenovelas. I think there was significant TV investment in the four films of the weekender. Another Variety report suggests that Brazil’s admissions reached 170 million in 2015 compared to Mexican totals of 286 million. But while Mexico managed only a 6.5% domestic share, Brazil managed 11.8% (second to Argentina). Nearly all the top domestic titles tend to be comedies, so if Brazilian films do feature in ¡Viva! we should see some popular comedies I think.
I hope we do see Brazilian films in ¡Viva! after this enjoyable taster of a Weekender.
This screening in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season at HOME featured a Q&A with director Felix Chong chaired by season curator Andy Willis. The director’s responses made for an entertaining post-screening discussion but it was the film itself that made the most impression. Interest in the screening meant that we were in HOME’s biggest cinema auditorium and the film was projected from a 35mm print in good condition for its UK première appearance.
Once a Gangster is a comedy crime film with the same mix of slapstick and violence as The Pilferer’s Progress earlier in the season, but it is much more concerned with what used to be term ‘intertextuality’ in the high period of postmodernism. In other words, many of the laughs in the film are based on recognition of the comic targets drawn from other films. The basic premise of the narrative mirrors that of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) (showing later in the season at HOME). The election of a new triad chairman is being organised and three candidates are being promoted by their supporters, two of them very reluctantly. The film’s climax will involve a search for the authentic Dragon Bone – the symbol of the chair’s authority (here neatly stamped with the legend ‘Made in Hong Kong’). The innovation here is a prologue set several years earlier in which we see a young chef joining the triad in order to be successful in the restaurant business. This is ‘Roast Pork’ who will become one of the contenders for Chairman in the main narrative. Meanwhile ‘Swallow’ (or ‘Sparrow’) has been in prison and is nominated by his mother as another candidate. The joke here for HK crime film fans is that these two contenders are played by Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, stars of the 1990s series Young and Dangerous.
Felix Chong takes a pot-shot at his own work as well. He was one of the main scriptwriters on the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the early 2000s and here he introduces an undercover cop played by Wilfred Lau as a ‘look-alike’ Tony Leung. This hapless character is the personal assistant of the third contender for Triad Chairman, the equally gormless ‘Scissors’ (Conroy Chan). There are probably several more references like this but they escaped me during the screening. I did react to the music which from the opening credits announced the nature of the fictional world about to be presented to us. I recognised the reference to Italian popular films and later Felix Chong confirmed that he had chosen “spaghetti western music” simply because he thought it was funny. The film also delivers several very funny sight gags, some with an almost cartoonish quality (including a nod to the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’).
The film overall has a strange ‘out of time’ feel. A series of flashbacks are presented in grainy, scratched and colour degraded stock but the prologue and the ‘present’ both feel like they could be the 1980s. ‘Swallow’ emerges from prison proclaiming the ‘wise words’ of Milton Friedman, the economist responsible for the spread of monetarism in the 1980s. Friedman did visit Hong Kong and promoted its economy as a good example of the ‘free market’. I guess his ideas do fit a gangster’s conception of the world but I thought the appearance of Friedman’s book was the most terrifying thing in the film. The book appears in a scene featuring a bookshop and several audience members responded to this with recognition of the current censorship by the mainland government and the ‘disappearance’ of booksellers. There may well be references to the 2010 political situation in the film, but I didn’t notice them.
In the Q&A Felix Chong admitted that the film had not been a big hit. He told us the budget was small and that he had only 20 days to shoot the film so in the circumstances he did rather well! Most interesting, he told us that when he screened the film, both police officers and gangsters asked him how he knew so much about what happened in these kinds of situations. We take this with a sackful of salt perhaps but I take much more notice of his comments that the ‘godfathers’ of crime are now sending their sons (and daughters?) to university to get MBAs. In the film, Swallow is a reluctant contender for triad chair because he wants to go to Hong Kong University to study economics (again a trope recognisable from Election in 2005).
Felix Chong also wrote and co-directed three Overheard films (2009/11/14). Two of these have already been screened in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season and the third is tonight with Felix Chong again present for a Q&A. I wish I could be there – I’m sure it will be another treat.
This was one of the more unusual screenings in CRIME: Hong Kong Style at HOME, Manchester. Fraser Elliott from the University of Manchester introduced the film and gave us some interesting context. This was the fifth film from John Woo and a box office smash in Hong Kong. At this point Woo was working for Golden Harvest the local company taking over from Shaw Brothers as the leader of the HK industry. For those (most of us?) who only know John Woo from his ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ period and his later flirtation with Hollywood before the return to China, this broad Cantonese comedy might be something of a shock.
The simple plot sees conman, ‘Dragon’ in an uneasy alliance with would-be body-guard ‘Poison’, played by local stars Richard Ng and Ricky Hui, brought together in adversity and forced into a game of punch and counter-punch with a wealthy but crooked businessman ‘Rich Chan’. Chan has stolen some diamonds and our two heroes end up trying to get them back on behalf of the film’s romantic interest, ‘Mary’, whose uncle is the real owner. Our two heroes also hope to make some money on the side.
Fraser argued that the film appeared at a time when Hong Kong’s economy was in turmoil and many workers in traditional industries had lost their jobs. Stories about making money were popular – and the new wealthy types were unpopular. In terms of the film industry there was a move away from the Mandarin language wuxia and melodramas and the rise of Cantonese cinema and kung fu. The Pilferer’s Progress can be seen as a then new form of hybrid genre. Clearly modelled on the ‘buddy movie’ (John Woo seems to have been a fan of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid amongst other films) popular in 1970s Hollywood, there are plenty of other filmic references as well as direct imports from the Bruce Lee films of the early 1970s also from Golden Harvest. As well as martial arts sequences there are traditional slapstick routines, references to spy movies (Dragon is a gadget freak with a new gadget for each task) and an hommage to Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), later to appear in Mission Impossible (see the still above) and thus referencing the ‘caper’ movie.
Omar Ahmed’s post on the screening draws parallels between Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and what was happening in popular Hindi cinema (not yet generally known as ‘Bollywood’, more often as masala films) in the same period. Omar suggests that it was a one-way traffic between the two with India importing martial arts display from Hong Kong, but both cinemas were also absorbing popular traits from international hits. Dragon’s use of technology perhaps refers to The Conversation from 1974. At the same time, both Cantonese and Hindi films drew on long-standing comic types in offering fun to popular audiences and The Pilferer’s Progress refers to local cultural figures – such as “the Golden Shaolin Warriors” as one IMDB user calls them. I think this is a reference to the final fight sequence in which the bad guy gets dipped in paint.
The ‘comic business’ in the film was familiar to me from slightly more recent New Year films and I confess that at the start of the film I did wonder whether I could cope with this for 90 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sheer athleticism of the performers and their comic timing won me over and I laughed/groaned out loud on several occasions. It was good to see some gags that had survived since the 1920s or even earlier. Before CGI performers really did have to ‘perform’ in these kinds of films.
From what I could glean from the credits, the print came via Star TV and carried a 1993 logo. The programme notes suggested that we were watching a DigiBeta copy of the film on HOME’s second largest screen. The ‘Scope print did indeed show it’s age and was in places distorted and degraded but again it’s to the credit of Woo and his team that the entertainment level was maintained. It’s great that the HOME programmers and their sponsors could get a print at all but it does show the dire state of archiving from the period – a problem that goes way beyond Hong Kong and in the new digital age will continue to grow without more international co-operation.