This year’s ¡Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American Cinema at HOME in Manchester has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and HOME has closed. We’ve been privileged to have reported on many previous ¡Viva! festivals and we were all set to visit the second week of the festival. Fortunately, thanks to the festival organisers, we are able to bring you at least a few reports on the films screened.
A Thief’s Daughter was the opening film of the festival. It’s the début feature of Catalan writer-director Belén Funes and the festival brochure namechecks both Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as reference points. Certainly this is a social realist narrative and its central character is Sara a young woman in her early twenties in a working-class district of Barcelona. It has that mixture of family melodrama and an exploration of ‘precarity’ that is familiar from the two recent Ken Loach-Paul Laverty films, but I think other aspects of the film are different. Funes appears to belong to the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of storytellers. It therefore takes some time to work out all the relationships in the film and the problems that Sara faces.
We first meet Sara working as a cleaner, but we see that she is attempting to find other work. She has an infant son Joel who seems to be left each day with either Sara’ room-mate with or with Flora, an older woman who runs a bar (where Sara sometimes works). Dani is the young man who we assume may be Joel’s father but though he does look after Joel on occasions he doesn’t appear to want to be with Sara – something she regrets. But as the film’s title implies, the narrative conflict is generated by the return of Sara’s father from prison. Father and daughter have been apart for some time and Sara is in two minds as to whether she misses him, needs his support or wants him out of her life completely. The current cause of the rift is Sara’s young brother, Martín, a 7 year-old with an injured foot who appears to be living in some form of children’s home. (The family details are actually quite complicated with hints dropped here and there but not fully spelt out.)
Sara herself is also in some form of public housing facility and it is time limited, presumably on the basis that she needs support until she has settled employment and Joel’s care is sorted out. This lack of detail about welfare services is one of the main differences between this film and Loachian social realism. Funes does not generate a critique of Spanish welfare services, or of employers. Sara is generally treated with efficiency and courtesy. She has several different jobs that we either see or hear about and eventually finds a good job in a school/college catering team. At this point a couple of clues emerge that suggest that her education was interrupted. During a formal interview she struggles to articulate answers to standard questions even though her work displays her intelligence and diligence. Sara has a hearing aid and again there is no explanation for this. Does she have a congenital condition or was her hearing damaged in an accident? There are some suggestions that perhaps her father was violent towards her some years earlier. All of these questions come together in the final scenes when Sara attends a family court hearing in which she applies to become her brother’s guardian and therefore to recreate a family in which her father loses control over Martín. There is no easy resolution to the narrative and I found the final scenes very moving and quite shocking. Again the court officials and the two advocates are not presented as uncaring, but we do get to appreciate how ill-prepared poor Sara is.
A Thief’s Daughter is a form of anti-melodrama. This is certainly a drama of family relationships but it is presented without any obvious forms of ‘excess’. Although there are moments of diegetic music, there is no music score as such (or perhaps I didn’t notice a score?). Mainly the drama is played out with only direct sound. The mise en scène is primarily functional, showing the action and again I didn’t notice much in the way of expressionist camerawork or editing. This is not to say that the film is dull to watch and Neus Ollé as cinematographer and Bernat Aragonés as editor are experienced filmmakers who serve the narrative well. The performances are very good. Sara and her father are played by the real life father-daughter pairing of Greta and Eduard Fernández. They have played together before and Eduard is a very experienced actor. I have seen him before in previous ¡Viva! films including Marsella (2014) and Truman (2015). On this occasion, Greta has taken centre stage and she shared the acting prize at San Sebastian with Nina Hoss. Overall, there is no heightened dramatic drive to the narrative. Instead we are invited to get to know Sara and to care for her, following her on various journeys and worrying about all the tasks she has to complete. Somehow the lack of any narrative devices to increase the tension and despair of the character (something the Loach-Laverty Sorry We Missed You tends to over-use?) means that the final scenes are more powerful.
The film is in Spanish with some Catalan. The film was co-written with producer Marçal Cebrian and she and Belén Funes had already made a short film with the same characters in 2014. Reading other festival reviews, I get the impression that the established Catalan filmmaker Isobel Coixet helped A Thief’s Daughter get into production. If so, I’m glad she did. This was a strong opening to the festival. Here’s a Spanish trailer, the English subbed one appears to have no sound.
Most of my film choices at GFF20 attracted virtually full houses and I wondered whether I had made a mistake with this film when I had two rows at the front of the cinema to myself. The first few scenes suggested a familiar, almost neo-realist style, small scale Iranian drama. These are usually well worthwhile to watch, but it was the end of a long tiring day and I wondered if I would have the energy necessary to see it through. In the event, I found the narrative gripping with a real cutting edge. At the end I noted that it was scripted by Mohammad Rasoulof who won the Berlin Golden Bear a week ago for his feature There is No Evil. Son-Mother was in fact one of the best films I saw during my festival visit. The film was directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi, like Rasoulof a human rights activist as well as a filmmaker subject to arrest and harassment by Iranian authorities. I’ve been unable to marry up the contrasting accounts of Mohammadi’s career offered by IMdB, Wikipedia and other websites. What seems clear is that she has made several short and feature-length documentaries and that she has been arrested and gaoled at least once for her stance on rights, especially for women in Iran. This appears to be her first fiction feature and it is a terrific film.
As the title implies, the film is in two parts which if I remember correctly are oddly titled in the negative, so the first part ‘Son’ is actually the mother’s story and the second, ‘Mother’ is the son’s. I think this is because the central character in each is driven by thoughts about the other. In the first part we meet Leila (Raha Khodayari) a widow with two children who works in a factory. She is struggling to pay for her youngest child at a daily play group, pay rent, feed her 12 year-old son Amir and pay for his education expenses. She has been late for work several times and risks losing her job. The reasons for her lateness are soon revealed. Instead of catching the factory-provided workers’ bus she has tried to get to work by herself. Why doesn’t she take the bus? The bus driver is a widower who has proposed marriage to her, but in marrying him she would have to abandon her son for at least three years as tradition demands that a stepson can’t be in the same house as his new sister (who is roughly Amir’s age). Leila knows that the other workers are starting to talk about her and the bus driver. When economic recession hits the factory and workers strike, Leila finds herself in a perilous position, almost certain to lose her job. She is encouraged to go ahead with the marriage to Kazem (who is a self-employed contractor, not a factory employee) by Bibi, an older woman and neighbour who says that she can help by finding a way to look after Amir. Leila is in an impossible position and finally agrees to go ahead with Bibi’s scheme.
In the hope that you might eventually be able to see this film, I won’t outline what happens in Amir’s story. Suffice to say that Bibi is not quite what she seems and Amir finds himself in an unusual and at times quite frightening situation. He is not only an intelligent and resourceful lad but he loves his mother and he eventually understands what has happened. Nevertheless, his story is, in many ways, heartbreaking, but, we learn, not unusual in Iran. Amir is played by Mahan Nasiri with great skill. One of the important points about the film is its deep humanism. None of the three adults is a ‘bad person’. All have to survive and all are trapped by the social conservatism and traditional orthodoxies of Iranian society and especially its working class. Son-Mother is a social realist melodrama. In some ways the film resembles earlier Ken Loach films from the UK which might have got a screening at Cannes and international distribution. Son-Mother is being sold internationally by Beta Cinema, the German film company with a strong track record so there is some hope it will get released in several territories after its festival tour. I do hope we get to see it in the UK.
I wanted see one of GFF’s ‘local/national’ films but soon after Run started I began to feel that this might prove difficult. I could only understand about one word in five of the dialogue in Run. When Run appeared in New York’s Tribeca festival it was subtitled but that would be asking too much in Glasgow. The film was shot in Fraserburgh and Peterhead and the predominantly young cast speak in slang anyway, on top of the local accent and use of dialect. Given that many actors these days go for minimal grunts or yelps, I found that I had to clarify plot details later using other reviews.
Fortunately, Run, written and directed by Scott Graham, is a visual film and the acting is intense, so I did enjoy it. I should also point out that as an old person I often turn on subtitles on TV so no criticism of actors or director is implied here. The central character is Finnie (Mark Stanley). He is an experienced fish processor and though only in his thirties he has a son working in the same factory. But the young man (known as ‘Kid’ and played by Anders Hayward’) is not settling in and is in the process of being fired. Finnie’s wife Katie (Amy Manson) works in a hairdresser’s and there is a younger boy still at school.
It soon becomes clear that Finnie is frustrated by his situation and it is affecting his relationships with his partner and children. He and Katie both have tattoos name-checking Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ and this in turn symbolises that whole world of the small town where working-class kids try everything to escape but often end up simply driving out to the local diner in a souped up old car. Finnie’s car won’t start so he takes Kid’s and heads off for the leisure centre/bowling alley where the local racers gather. Kid’s car is fast enough to challenge the local racers and from this point on Finnie simply shows he hasn’t forgotten how to race. I’m not much of a fan of car races but these are certainly filmed with some panache by Simon Tindall and edited sharply by David Arthur. The novelty here is a race around the fish dock with the danger of a large wave breaking over the sea wall and overwhelming the car’s windscreen wipers.
The only other plot development of note is that Finnie meets his son’s girlfriend, Kelly (Marli Sui) and she accompanies him driving around the town. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I think I’ve made clear what kind of film this is and how it uses conventions such as choice of music to delineate the different positions of the characters, all of whom face the same questions about staying or leaving. Kid being sacked because he can’t settle to the factory work is an ‘inciting moment’ which leads to Finnie’s story. It’s a well-known narrative ploy to have the parent thrown by the idea that a son or daughter might repeat the same possible ‘mistakes’ as their parents. But Finnie’s return to racing and ‘cruising’ is a different generic narrative. I thought of American Graffiti (US 1973) and how from my limited experience of Scottish culture, I’ve got the impression that American working-class culture means something different and has more impact than in some other parts of the UK. I’ve never been to Peterhead or Fraserburgh but I know enough about small towns to think that the Aberdonian director has represented something authentic.
Scott Graham is known for two previous films, Shell (2012) and Iona (2015) that received critical attention and some awards nominations. At a brisk 78 minutes the film makes its points succinctly and effectively and I was impressed by all four main performers.. IMdB suggests a budget of £1.7 million which seems quite generous for the narrative. Perhaps the stunt driving took a fair chunk of the money? The public funders include BBC Films and BFI with independent producers from both Scotland and England. The film is released by Verve in the UK on March 13th.
So Long, My Son was one of the ‘must see’ films of 2019 and I’m so glad I was able to catch it before it disappeared from cinemas. The last section of the film broke me completely as the long and complex melodrama narrative moved into its final resolution. This is a narrative of 185 minutes that at times moves at a stately pace but it gripped me throughout. At a time when the ‘long-form narrative’ is lauded on TV and streaming it’s important to state that this kind of experience is only possible on a big screen. I was lucky to see it at the Duke’s Cinema in Lancaster.
The current cinema ecology in China is such that though domestic titles have thrashed Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, the numbers of high profile Chinese specialised films – those likely to succeed on the international arthouse circuit – appear to have been squeezed. So Long, My Son is an exception, winning acting prizes for its leads at Berlin and recognised at many other festivals. Director and co-writer Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the so-called Sixth Generation directors, born in 1966 and graduating from Beijing Film Academy in 1989. He grew up in South West China during the Cultural Revolution and his best known and most successful films have been inspired by his own experience and those of similar families in which the parents’ lives were disrupted in the 1960s and 1970s. After his breakthrough feature Beijing Bicycle (China-Taiwan-France 2001), he made a loose trilogy of films exploring the consequences of sending Eastern families to the South West: Shanghai Dreams (2004), 11 Flowers (China-France 2011) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I feel lucky to have seen all four titles in the UK, although only the first two got a general release. It’s important to stress Wang’s background in placing So Long, My Son into context. This new title is said to be the first of a new trilogy of ‘Homeland’ films in which Wang explores what happened to families in the period following the end of the Cultural Revolution from 1978 through the ‘Four Modernisations’ under Deng Xiaoping and onwards through the huge changes in Chinese social history up to the current period of ‘consumer-led communism’ (or however you may wish to describe it). With the focus on families it isn’t surprising that the one child per family policy is central to the narrative.
(This description does contain a spoiler. It’s really impossible to offer a synopsis without it.)
This is the story of two closely connected families who live ‘cheek by jowl’ in a factory housing block on the outskirts of Beijing in the 1980s. Yaojun is a skilled fitter and his wife Liyun is a factory inspector of various processes. Their neighbours are Yingming who works in accounts and his wife Haiyan, the factory’s leader on family planning and the implementation of the one-child policy. Yingming’s younger sister Moli at one point becomes Yaojun’s apprentice fitter but later moves into much better paid jobs. There is also another couple, Xinjian and Meiyu – but I couldn’t work out if they were related in any way to the two central families. The intertwined relationships and what happens to them over nearly 40 years pivot around an incident in the 1980s. Xingxing and Hao, the schoolboy sons of the two central families are playing by the local reservoir on their way home from school. Xingxing, the son of Yaojun and Liyun is drowned. The parents are devastated and eventually they move south to the coast of Fujian Province where they are isolated as Mandarin speakers with their neighbours using other Chinese dialects. (Others from the factory move to Hainan, further south). They try to adopt a child. They have limited contact with their old workmates but in the final section of the narrative they return to Beijing and various issues are resolved, some in perhaps surprising ways (but conventionally for a family melodrama?).
What might be a relatively straightforward linear narrative is presented through a series of flashbacks. Movement backwards and forwards through the history of the families is not signalled by captions giving places and times. The only time when the year, ‘1986’, is mentioned is when a factory announcement is made. The film begins with the boys at the reservoir arguing about whether they should play in the water – but this isn’t the beginning of the story and the consequences of their decision are not shown until later. The storytelling is challenging. Apart from the ageing of the adult actors, the timeline of events is difficult to follow and I wonder how younger audiences with little knowledge of Chinese society and politics in the 1980s will piece the events together. You do need to understand the ‘one-child policy’ which was instituted in 1979 and not officially ended until 2015. The policy was rigorously enforced via contraception and abortion and fines or rewards for sticking to the policy. It is said that up to 400 million births were prevented but the social cost was very high. The other major policy shift was towards a consumer-led economy and the forced redundancy and movement of displaced workers and their families.
The script was co-written by Wang and Ah Mei (best known for working on Zhang Yimou’s Under The Hawthorn Tree, 2010) and it won the script prize at the Chinese Golden Rooster Awards. The cinematography by Kim Hyunseok from South Korea is terrific, beautifully-composed shots with great depth are hand-held and the effect is mesmerising especially in the opening shot of the reservoir with the boys in the foreground. I must also mention the use of songs, both recorded and sung by the factory workers. Decadent Western pop music (Boney M!) plus his hairstyle and flares are enough to see Xinjian arrested for immoral behaviour. A Chinese song using the tune of Auld Lang Syne is repeated at various points in community celebrations. The Chinese title of the film seems to refer to the song’s lyrics – ‘Dijiutianchang’ translates roughly as ‘enduring, eternal (of friendship or hate)’ which is actually a better title for the film. Equally important, the song reminds Yaojun and Liyun of the time when they were first together in the late 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was ending.
Perhaps because the narrative events needed time to be sorted out and meanings digested, I was never bothered by the slow pace, in fact I was riveted to the screen. My only distraction was provided by my tears in the final section. We tend to think about China in terms of state initiatives and mass movements but the best Chinese films tell their stories through the lives of ordinary people. The film is still around in some cinemas. In West Yorkshire it is showing at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on January 12. Don’t miss it if you have the chance to go.