Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.
This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.
The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.
Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.
Writer-director Anthony Chen from Singapore has been living in London for ten years and he was present to introduce his film and then to offer a Q&A (which I had to leave after around 20 minutes to get to my next screening). Chen’s first film Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013) won the Sutherland Prize for a ‘First Feature’ at LFF in 2013. The director explained that he had been involved in two other productions (as a writer and producer for his jointly-owned company Giraffe Pictures) since 2013, but also he needed a long time to make his own films because he is so concerned with the details of location, casting and production design.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this fascinating film is that the two principal characters are played by two of the leads from the earlier film, even though initially the director had been determined not to cast them. This isn’t such a minor point as will become apparent after a discussion about the plot outline. Yeo Yann Yann, the mother in the first film, now plays another woman in an unhappy marriage, but now she is a teacher in an English-medium high school (where students take a form of the traditional British O levels, still available internationally). This character, ‘Mrs Ling’, is under pressure in three ways. As a wife she has been undergoing intensive IVF procedures but has ‘failed’ after several years to become pregnant. She is also a migrant from Malaysia, married to a Singaporean man, and finally she is a teacher of Mandarin – a subject that is sidelined in a high school which is resolutely focused on English and Maths. Add to this that she has become the main carer of her father-in-law who is severely disabled and requires intensive personal care. A carer is with him during the school-day but it is Ling who must cope at all other times. Ling is determined to secure her place as a Mandarin teacher by improving her students’ grades and she organises a post-school remedial class. It quickly becomes apparent that only one boy, Wei-lun (Koh Jia Ler, the 10 year-old from Ilo Ilo, now a strapping 16 year-old), is prepared to take it seriously. When the other boys drift away, Wei-lun stays, citing his parents’ wish that he learns Mandarin to be able to ‘do business’ in China when he grows up.
As the relationship between Wei-lun and his teacher develops in this ‘after-school’ time, it becomes apparent that they are too lonely people who need each other and that makes them feel validated. (Wei-lun’s parents are away much of the time.) Later Ling will introduce Wei-lun to her father-in-law and the pair will bond over a love of martial arts. I won’t spoil the plot but you will guess where all of this is heading. What I do want to do is to discuss the film as a melodrama. Compared to relatively restrained Ilo Ilo, which I haven’t seen for a few years, this new film feels like a full-blown melodrama. I love melodramas and this was, for me, a successful film, but from the few reviews I’ve seen so far (mostly North American), it will suffer in the West because of melodrama’s poor reputation with contemporary audiences. But not here for me.
The starting point of the film is the winter monsoon season, when rain is torrential. In melodrama, rain is often associated with sexual desire/sexual release. It rains a lot in Singapore and when it rains, it’s heavy rain. Anthony Chen uses rain very effectively but he has other melo possibilities as well and this is where his meticulous attention to detail pays off. I’ll just mention a few instances. One of the key ‘significant objects’ of the narrative is the durian. The durian is a very large and heavy fruit which Ling breaks in two and then she scoops out handfuls of fleshy pulp which she shares with Wei-lun. Durian is native to Borneo and Sumatra and is imported into Singapore from Malaysia. In this sense it is like Ling herself. But the fruit is also divisive. While many love the fruit, many others think it has the most disgusting smell of any fruit. In Singapore there are shops and stalls devoted to the fruit but it is also banned from the transit system and many hotels because the smell is said to linger. The symbolic value of the image of eating durian should be clear (see the image of Ling and Wei-lun eating at the head of this blog post and in the clip below).
A second sequence involves Wei-lun taking part in a wushu contest – a display of a distinct form of martial arts movements. Anthony Chen told us that Koh Jia Ler had been interested in this activity as a young boy but now he trained intensively for several weeks to get to the standard necessary to win a gold medal in a national schools competition. Ling and her father-in-law support his performance. Finally, to emphasise the importance of location, Chen has two key scenes in which we see Ling and her banker husband Andrew each in their ‘natural habitats’. Andrew (Christopher Lee who is ironically Malaysian) is shown in Singapore’s financial district where the tall buildings are linked by green walkways. Ling is shown at one point in her home environment in rural Malaysia – a quieter, calmer and more organic environment. Chen told us the house in Malaysia took him a long time to find. (Yeo Yan Yan was also born in Malaysia.)
Yeo Yan Yan wore a wig for the part of Mrs Ling and Chen dresses her in what seemed to me to be fairly dowdy outfits with rather shapeless skirts and clumpy shoes for her teacher role. She comes across as an attractive woman who has lost interest in her appearance, which perhaps helps the idea that the confused Wei-lun sees her as both a teenage boy’s idea of an ‘older woman’ and a maternal figure. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing basis for a student-teacher relationship. My impression is that as the narrative progresses her costumes become slightly less dowdy. As a melodrama with a woman at its centre, the other notable feature is that Ling doesn’t seem to have a close female friend but then the more I think about the film as a melodrama, the more interesting it gets. I need to see it again. At the moment, I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal in place. It is scheduled for release in Singapore in November and I think it may do well in Asia generally. The two leads are very good and the UK DoP Sam Care does a great job with director Chen’s careful selection of locations.
Talking About Trees is a wonderful film that manages to tell a sad story but to imbue it with the energy and the warm human feeling of its remarkable central characters. A ‘first feature’ documentary by Suhaib Gasmelbari, it won a prize at Berlin this year and has been acquired for UK distribution by New Wave Films. Do try and get to see it if it comes your way. You are unlikely to be disappointed.
There are two narratives woven together here. The main ‘driver’ is the attempt by the ‘Sudan Film Group’ to revive a cinema culture in Sudan where cinema-going was effectively banished by the regime which came to power after the military coup of 1989. The film group comprises four of the Sudanese filmmakers who were trained abroad in the 1970s and who returned to produce the first Sudanese films. Now in their late 60s they travel to villages around Khartoum offering ‘pop-up’ film shows using a laptop and a small digital projector. But their aim is to rent one of the large and virtually abandoned cinemas in Omdurman and show contemporary films to mass audiences. But to do this they must navigate the bureaucracies which remain reluctant to see cinema return (the film was made before Omar al-Bashir was deposed earlier this year.). While they work on trying to organise a large scale screening, the old friends also begin to excavate the history of Sudanese cinema, finding scratchy old copies of their own films and VHS tapes that were part of their collections of global cinema. One of the four is also engaged in making a film with his smartphone about his experience of being imprisoned and interrogated at the time of the coup. The history of what actually happened around 1989 is told in subtle ways, so we see the filmmakers being interviewed for a radio programme in which the interviewer is gently corrected about the demise of cinema in Sudan. It didn’t die of natural causes, it was shot.
What the film also usefully reveals is that Sudan experienced what happened across much of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in francophone countries. Talented young filmmakers (mostly young men) were able to travel to film schools abroad, often to Paris but also to the Soviet Union. Sudan had been under British control before 1956 but hadn’t been fully part of the British approach to documentary which was the legacy in Ghana or Kenya for example. (This website account suggests that there was a British colonial film legacy even if limited.) Instead in the 1970s the Sudanese went to the USSR or Germany or France. There they learned how to make the kinds of politically charged ‘Third Cinema’ films which won prizes and sometimes gained a form of international distribution as well as attracting local audiences. In one scene we see a filmmaker now in his late sixties phoning a Russian film archive to see if they have a copy of the film he made as a young man. To place this in perspective we also see a phone call to a European company that sells cinema screens – we learn just how much it might cost to re-equip one of the Sudan’s big (outdoor) cinemas. Across Africa traditional cinemas have closed over the last 25 years, mostly because people now watch films on satellite TV or forms of digital video and cinemas have been bought by churches and wedding entrepreneurs. In Sudan it is the government and a fundamentalist form of Islam that helped to close them.
The film was produced with various European partners and also with support from the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. One of the films shown by the group to a village audience is Waiting for Happiness (2002) by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako and this suggests the solidarity of African filmmakers. These two directors represent the last link to the generation that travelled abroad to study film, Sissako also in Moscow in the early 1980s. Sissako too has been involved in re-opening a cinema in Mali. We do get to see some clips from the films made by the four Sudanese filmmakers back in the 1970s and 1980s and the documentary’s title refers to one of these.
We’ll have the chance to see Talking About Trees again in West Yorkshire at the Leeds International Film Festival in November. I hope it proves popular. I do worry that its one weakness is that it takes a little time to get going for audiences not already au fait with the history of cinema in Africa. Some of the later scenes in which the old filmmakers talk to young footballers and spectators about what they want to see in a re-opened cinema are very lively and engaging. What the young people (and older people) want to see are contemporary films from America or India, something which leads the Sudan Film Group to consider showing Tarantino’s Django Unchained (US 2012). There are, I think, at least two commercial cinemas operating in Khartoum which have internet listings. I assume that these attract a middle-class wealthy patrons but it would be good to hear from anyone who knows the cinema scene in Khartoum. If you want to know more about how Africa Cinema developed in the 1970s, try to find a copy of Caméra d’Afrique directed by Férid Boughedir in 1983.
The third cinema film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour is a return to the successful mix of elements in her first feature, Wadjda in 2012. (She also directed a Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy, in 2018.) This new film returns her to a narrative about a woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia (KSA) following the difficult development process of her second feature Mary Shelley in 2018. I found this new film engaging and enjoyable but it raises several questions (as did Wadjda). A number of cultural/social changes have taken place in the KSA in the last few years and the film enters into a discourse about what women might be able to achieve in various ways. I was surprised by some of the narrative developments and I did wonder to what extent the events were fantasy/wish fulfilment. As I left at the end of the screening a young woman ran past me and several others shouting at the top of her voice and accusing the audience of laughing at the central character, saying it wasn’t funny and that the character would have been stoned to death in the real world. Each of us on the stairs were stunned by this and puzzled. None of us thought the film was necessarily a comedy, but certainly there are moments of humour in what is a rich and detailed script. However, this rather violent reaction does point to a genuine scepticism about how we should read the film. I have also seen reviews that describe the film as a comedy.
The narrative involves a family. The father, a distinguished musician and singer is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and is perhaps less concerned about what his three daughters are getting up to than other Saudi patriarchs. I presume that the youngest daughter, Sara, is still at school or college. Her two older sisters have different ideas and different jobs. Selma is an organiser of weddings – a big deal for wealthy families in KSA – and Maryam has trained as a doctor and is now working in a small local hospital on the edge of the town outside Riyadh. Maryam is ambitious for her own career but events will push her in unexpected directions as she becomes the central focus of the narrative. It’s worth noting, however, that her father has his own narrative which involves getting his band of traditional popular musicians back on the road. Such music has been repressed by the authorities for many years but now a new ‘National Band’ is to be set up by the state. Through a complicated series of events Maryam almost accidentally becomes a candidate for the local council and she then targets the need to build a proper road to her hospital as the basis for her campaign.
My first thought about the film was that it drew on similar events to those in films like Rana’s Wedding (Palestine-Neth-UAE 2002), At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003) and Permission (Iran 2018). In each of these films, a young woman is attempting to achieve something important but is blocked at crucial moments by a system that forces her to get permission, usually from a male authority figure, or to go through bureaucratic processes that are more difficult for women, especially when they are veiled. This new film presents us with a political candidate completely covered by a burqa as in At Five in the Afternoon. Each of these films also eventually involves the woman in personal dramas which are used to critique more general social issues. My second point thought has been that Haifaa Al Mansour finds herself in a similar situation to Gurinder Chadha in the UK in that she is approaching issues about her own culture through forms of popular entertainment that may involve familiar ‘feelgood’ elements. It’s significant that both women have American partners (who are also co-writers) and have made films in the US. They have both then faced quite polarised responses by critics and by social commentators and general cinema audiences. The Perfect Candidate was reviewed after its Venice appearance by Jay Weissberg of Variety as a totally formulaic film in which plot points are signalled well in advance and which the characters themselves carry the plotline because the film is otherwise visually bland. Other reviews praise the film for its message of female empowerment. It is worth noting, however, that the film is sanctioned by the Saudi Film Council and that it is officially the Saudi entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition. So it is clearly not seen as ‘radical’ – or at least not ‘dangerously’ so. But these kinds of judgements can backfire. Without spoiling the narrative I can note that our female protagonist both ‘loses’ and ‘wins’. Audiences take what they want from films. If young women in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) get to see the film and are inspired to attempt some form of social rebellion, no matter how small-scale and limited, the film will have had an effect.
The plot may be formulaic and the narrative an over optimistic fantasy but the script manages to tie the father’s narrative to that of his daughter. Again this made me think of Gurinder Chadha’s films in which in similar communities of strong women in patriarchal societies, it is the father’s support which confirms the possibility of change. The performances in the film are generally very good including Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam and Khalid Abdulraheem as her father. As in Wadjda, the director is relying on established TV actors with little opportunity to play in films. Selma, the videographer is played by a well-known Saudi ‘social media influencer’ Dhay (Dae Al Hilali). The film also features a female wedding singer played by Khadeeja Mua’th, a major star in Saudi Arabia who made me think of an African-American soul singer. There are 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt and elsewhere in Asia. I don’t think this population was represented in the film, though there are characters who might be of African origin. When I told a friend I’d seen a film made in Saudi Arabia he said he thought it was a disgusting regime and he wouldn’t watch a Saudi film. I can understand this reaction but I think films always tell us something about the societies they depict and The Perfect Candidate has prompted me to research the country a little more. At the moment, I don’t think the film has been picked up for UK distribution. Here’s the international trailer.