Sunset won the Critics’ Prize at Venice in 2018. László Nemes, the writer-director, won both the Cannes Grand Prix and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film Son of Saul (2015). (He has two co-writers on Sunset.) However, the two films have been received differently by some reviewers and some audiences. I haven’t seen Son of Saul but I know it offers a narrative about the experience of a Jewish-Hungarian man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I suspect that whereas most audiences would at least recognise that story, the world of Sunset must be unknown to many modern audiences. I doubt many mainstream audiences in the UK or US would be able to tell you much about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1913. The elderly couple sat next to us in the cinema, were, I think Hungarian and they would know, but not perhaps one of the reviewers in Britain’s leading film journal Sight and Sound who is completely dismissive of the film. But the culture of pre-1914 Central Europe is very difficult to grasp and Nemes refuses to use conventional approaches to presenting it. This Milan Kundera quote from 1984 is used in the introduction to one book on Central European Cinema:
Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary . . . (quoted in The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed) 2004)
For those of us in the UK and North America, the history and culture of the former ‘Holy Roman Empire’ seems so alien because we haven’t experienced such a shifting sense of identity within territories that experienced occupations and changing borders over decades and over centuries. In 1913 when Sunset is set, the three connected kingdoms/territories of Austria, Hungary and Croatia-Bosnia, the remnants of the former empire after 1867, still constituted a powerful economic and military force and a highly-developed and sophisticated culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, but its citizens did not share an identity, a language or a religious identity. This multinational, multi-ethnic conglomeration would be torn apart after 1918 and the repercussions of the ‘end of empire’ are still being felt in the ‘New Europe’ of today. The original Hungarian title of the film is translated by Google as ‘eventide’ which seems more poetic and perhaps hints at foreboding. The film narrative offers a metaphor for the collapse of empire. This is hinted at in the opening titles but not made explicit. In the Press Pack, Nemes reveals the influence of F. W. Murnau:
This film is my personal testimony to the love of cinema, almost a century after the hopefulness of Sunrise by Murnau – a movie to which we pay homage. I hope that Sunset carries in itself something of the interrogations embodied by Murnau’s film.
What plot there is in Sunset focuses on a woman in her twenties who turns up at the most fashionable milliner’s emporium in Budapest (extravagant hats for women are the ultimate status symbol in the society). She is quickly revealed to be Írisz Leiter, the daughter of the founders of the Leiter brand who set up the shop. We learn that the parents died and that the infant Írisz was sent to Trieste where she eventually became an apprentice milliner. Now she is back, to the consternation of the current owner of the business Oszkár Brill. What does she want? What should he do with her? In the next few days the Leiter brand is celebrating 30 years in business with parties and dancing and visits by royalty and local aristocracy. Brill attempts to send her back to Trieste but Írisz is stubborn and will not be deflected from her mysterious purpose, especially when she discovers that she has a brother who is notorious and lives outside ‘society’ in Budapest. The more Írisz is refused answers or told to keep out of something the more she ploughs on. Is she some kind of angel figure? Or is she a ‘monstrous’ woman – the original meaning of monster being derived from ‘warning’. This extraordinary character, at once beautiful and resolute but also confused, requires a strong performance and Juli Jakab certainly provides it. Her ‘journey’ through the world of Budapest is presented by Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély in long, carefully choreographed tracking shots with the camera often focused on the back of Írisz’s neck and with the city environment blurring through pulled focus (the lack of focus increases towards the narrative climax). This technique, which I understand worked well in Son of Saul, seems to have irritated quite a few commentators this time round.
Budapest is a bustling city and the aesthetic choices that Nemes makes help to give a us a sense of the contradictions. Vlad Ivanov gives an impressive performance as Brill and in one sense he seems to represent a multi-lingual élite who are in confident control of the city. But the empire is vulnerable, it may have modern technologies, arts and music but it also has ‘darkness’ and various dissident groups of socialists, anarchists and nationalists. The blurred backgrounds and different voices and sounds emphasise how disturbing it must be for Írisz. The empire has religious differences, persecuted minorities and traditional ideas. There are hints about the development of psycho-analysis. Írisz steps down from an electric tram but it looks like Nemes was unable to represent the Budapest underground railway, the second oldest in the world after London, opened in 1896.
Another criticism of the film is that it is too long at 142 minutes. I found it a riveting watch and it didn’t seem a minute too long, though because of the unusual approach to narrative, I sometimes did wonder whether a resolution would be signalled and when finally it came I was relieved to find it that it made sense and confirmed what I though the film had been ‘about’. That doesn’t mean that I understood everything. Far from it, but at least I felt I had a purchase on it, however tenuous. Reading the detailed director’s statement in the Press Pack has been very helpful. I should re-watch Murnau’s Sunrise and think about the other films that popped into my head during the screening. The film’s aesthetics require more study too. My viewing companion pointed out the fantastic sound design which I’d noticed but not thought about as there was so much going on with the camerawork, set design (physical sets built in Budapest), music and performances. We watched the film in one of HOME Manchester’s smaller auditoria (but with a big screen and excellent sound) and you should seek out the biggest cinema screen you can find. This won’t be easy in the UK since this is a Curzon release and it looks like it isn’t playing at Picturehouse venues which sometimes have larger screens because of the dispute over closing distribution ‘windows’. This does mean it is also available on Curzon’s VOD service, but you’ll need a quality home cinema system to do it justice. The film did tour various independent venues in May with both 35mm screenings and a Q&A with the director. It is showing at The Hyde Park in Leeds today and again on July 14. It is also showing at the Showroom in Sheffield and still on at HOME. Don’t miss it. The trailer doesn’t give away spoilers but it shows some of the sumptuous camerawork.
I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction:
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.
In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.
Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.
Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.
The Spanish Civil War
The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.
Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:
Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)
Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again.
Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.
Wrath of Silence is a remarkable film from the relatively young (he was born in 1984) writer-director Xin Yukun. This is his third film and I’m now eager to see his earlier work. Accompanied by two equally youthful producers from Bingchi Pictures, Xin spoke about his ambitions to make new kinds of Chinese films in the Q&A following the screening. Wrath of Silence offers a recognisable action thriller genre narrative which develops a fantasy strand in the final section and also delivers a powerful statement about some of contemporary China’s most important social issues. The casting of Jiang Wu as the villain of the narrative recalls his role in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013) and his presence suggests perhaps that the film might be edging towards arthouse territory. But this idea is undermined somewhat by the enthusiastic presentation of the first of several violent action sequences featuring the film’s hero Baomin (Song Yang).
The story suggests a universal action scenario which for most western audiences will be familiar from spaghetti Westerns. The landscape is an important element and perhaps the touchstone here is the kind of action thriller from Korean cinema such as the Good, The Bad and the Weird (South Korea 2008). The mix of personal drama/action and crime/corruption also makes it similar to a film like Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003). Baomin is a stubborn farmer in the mountains of Northern China, close to the Mongolian border in 2004. Needing money he’s had to seek work in a mine some distance away and he returns to his sick wife to discover that his son, who was tending the family’s few sheep, has disappeared. Baomin is mute, having bitten off his own tongue in a fight and his temper hasn’t improved since, though his martial arts moves have! In his search for his son he will eventually come face to face with Jiang Wu’s villain Chang who operates a corrupt mining business whose illegal activities are carried out with the backing of a gang of thugs. Chang is portrayed as a man with a passion for meat and a hobby involving simulated hunting with his own indoor shooting range. The narrative is provided with a third strand which involves Chang’s lawyer – a young father whose daughter will also go missing. Xin is able to mix genre tropes and issues which bring together familiar Chinese stories – missing children, the rape of the environment, the rise of entrepreneurs and the new urban educated class – with genre elements such as action and fantasy.
The London Film Festival screening I attended was in fact the film’s international première following its appearance in the new Chinese festival earlier in the year. The film is handled by Fortissimo Films, the former Dutch-Hong Kong sales house that is now Chinese-owned. In the interesting and useful interview with Xin and his producer on the Eastern Kicks website, Xin asserts that they are able to deal with the Chinese censors even with a potentially difficult film like Wrath of Silence. Yet it now appears that the film’s Chinese release scheduled for 13th October has been postponed indefinitely. It isn’t difficult to see why the Chinese authorities might be wary of the critique of corrupt business power and its impact on local communities. The film deals in metaphors for China’s recent rapid economic development and the problems it poses.
Reading the reviews of its LFF screenings it seems that, while praising the films vitality and the director’s creativity, most reviews suggest the film is too long. Personally, I did find the level of violence and the length of the action scenes to be excessive. I’m sure they would work in a more tightly focused action film but here they need to gell with the more measured dramatic sequences. The narration is presented in a complex way with flashbacks to explain plot and motivation and the final chase is followed by an extraordinary scene which like other elements of the story, is based on experiences of the director as a boy growing up in the same region (as is the use of meat, especially lamb/mutton as a major part of the local diet). The film’s title might be interpreted as both the anger of the mute miner, but also the anger of the ‘silent majority’ of oppressed peasants, or even perhaps the anger of the hills themselves suffering from ‘rape’ by the mining companies. This is an ambitious film and I’m prepared to forgive the uneasiness of the mix – perhaps it is even a strength? The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but the images present the story effectively.
Clash was in the Official Competition at LFF and the good news is that it has been picked up for UK distribution by Arrow Films. If it comes your way, don’t miss it. Director Mohamed Diab is a scriptwriter whose first feature as a director was 678 in 2010. That film caused quite a storm in Egypt, dealing with the whole issue of sexual abuse of passengers on public transport (the title refers to a bus route). Three different women decide that they can no longer put up with the groping and touching they experience daily. Diab takes the brave approach of aiming for a popular audience by casting well-known Egyptian performers and including comedy and action in his dramas. I’d only seen extracts from 678 (which wasn’t released in the UK to my knowledge) so I was looking forward to Clash. I wasn’t disappointed.
The film begins with titles that quickly set the scene in Cairo following the ‘Arab Spring’ moment, the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and his subsequent fall when the Army take over. Now it is 2013 and we are inside a police truck – what in the UK would be a ‘Black Maria’ and in the US a ‘paddy wagon’. In this case the wagon is a steel box with high barred windows that is mounted on a standard truck chassis. This ‘cell on wheels’ has no facilities and is likely to get extremely uncomfortable in Cairo during the heat of the day. It’s important to sketch out these details since the whole film narrative is seen from within this cell. First we see two journalist thrown into the cell in the midst of a police action to clear crowds from the street. Soon the truck is attacked by demonstrators who believe the journalists are Muslim Brotherhood supporters and several of these protestors are then bundled into the cell. The truck moves on and is in turn caught up with Brotherhood supporters, some of whom are arrested and join the occupants of the cell. At this point we realise that Diab (or rather his brother, who had the original idea) has latched on to the idea of exploring a complex situation via a drama involving people of different backgrounds trapped in a confined space. Here he has not just pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood supporters but also a wide range of other ‘differences’ to explore such as old and young, men and women, affluent and poor, Christians and Muslims. One of the journalists has dual Egyptian-American nationality. A police officer is also forced into the cell. Within the separate groups there are individual conflicts.
The power of the film lies in the two types of constraint. The camera can only look out of the windows – or occasionally out through the back door. One reviewer likens the film to Lebanon (Israel 2009) in which we see action through the viewfinder of a tank. There are certainly similarities, but the constraint of the trapped mix of people is just as important – as in films like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (US 1944). I was reminded of The Waiting List (Cuba 2000) in which a group of people are marooned in a country bus station, unable to get home or to Havana. They represent a society looking for a way forward. Clash is a similar film in which the group acts as a metaphor for Egyptian society – fragmented, antagonistic towards each other – but also potentially capable of finding their humanity and the things they have in common.
At just under 100 minutes, Clash is a riveting watch. The script is inventive and no avenue is unexplored in ratcheting up the tension and finding new ways to discomfort the unfortunate people trapped inside the truck. Once again, Diab uses faces well-known to Egyptian audiences, led by Nelly Karim (also a lead in 678). He manages to juggle the use of character types and genre conventions and the portrayal of ’rounded characters’ more associated with social realist dramas. There are comic vignettes and personal tragedies. Diab treads carefully in not obviously supporting one group over another. He has been and will be criticised inside Egypt, but he manages to place himself in between the escapism of mainstream popular cinema and the kind of art cinema that struggles to find an audience. I hope that the film finds audiences around the Arab world as well as in the international marketplace.
In this interview, Mohamed Diab talks about his film in English (but the interview questions are in French):