The first part of a double bill of new Chinese films at the Glasgow Festival (see comments on Dearest to follow) is Wang Xiaoshuai’s third part of a loose trilogy about the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ‘rightist’ families from the East of China sent to factories in the Western part of the country. The first two parts dealt with life in the Western cities in Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers. The third film focuses on the Deng family in Beijing and it is some time into the film that we realise the connection to the other two films.
Wang is a ‘Sixth Generation’ director who, unlike his peers such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye, has tended to produce films that seem to be more like the social realist art films of the West. Red Amnesia begins as if it is going to be a form of ‘social issue’ film in which the central character is Mrs Deng as a woman in her late 60s who is seen as something of a nuisance by her grown-up sons. She lives in her old apartment in Beijing after the death of her husband and visits both her married son and her gay son, as well as her own mother in a care home. Is the issue the care of the elderly (or merely ‘old’) in a society which for generations has venerated them? Certainly her daughter-in-law, a thoroughly modern, ‘globalised’ woman, doesn’t want her ‘interference’. Soon, however, the film changes genres and we seem to be in thriller mode with mysterious phone calls and other disturbances. At one point I thought that the intention was to enter J-horror territory as Mrs Deng, who regularly converses with her dead husband, seems to be being followed by a teenage boy who doesn’t seem quite real when she invites him to dinner. (I’m thinking here of Nakata Hideo’s films like Dark Water.)
Eventually, we will learn that the boy is a link to Guizhou in South-West China where Wang’s family were placed and he was born. Did the Dengs do something which has prompted retaliation now they are back in Beijing? The Guizhou references reminded me a little bit of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City with its tales of workers being sent to a factory in the South-West for strategic reasons. Only in the later sequences do we realise that the credit sequence at the beginning of the film had actually shown us the abandoned factory in Guizhou.
As Mrs Deng, the theatre actor Lu Zhong is wonderful and the other performances are strong. This well-made film should attract audiences but in the West, as the years go by, I wonder how many of the younger audience will appreciate the points about the Cultural Revolution?
“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is the pithy if not totally inaccurate verdict on the British Army made, in ‘71, by a character who had spent 20 years as an army medic. He is carrying out DIY surgery in the bedroom on Gary Hook, a young British Army private who has been left behind after a raid on a Republican area of West Belfast. Ironically, the life-threatening injuries are inflicted on him not by the initial beating by the crowd in the street but by a bomb accidentally set off in a Loyalist pub given by army intelligence black-ops operatives in order to get the Loyalists to set it off in a Nationalist area. This gives some idea of the twists and turns of the plot in this short but intense film, mostly set over the course of 12 hours in West Belfast in 1971, when the Troubles moved into a new phase.
Hook’s abandonment follows a house-search operation in a Nationalist area by the RUC (Northern Ireland police) who are given back-up by Hook’s squad. The women of the area sound the warning by banging dustbin lids on the pavement and a crowd soon gathers. A riot ensues during which a young boy makes off with a rifle and Hook gives chase but is intercepted by the crowd. He gets beaten up despite the efforts of a couple of the women from the area but he does manage to escape. In a superbly-handled sequence, he runs through a warren of lanes, gardens, abandoned pubs and houses bombed out during the pogroms in the previous year. He hides in a toilet to wait for nightfall and partially disguises himself by taking some civilian clothes from a washing line.
He has to rely for help where he can get it, whether Loyalist or Republican, as he is stalked by a group of armed IRA activists. He comes across a garrulous young Loyalist boy who takes him to the Loyalist pub where Hook (but not the boy) survives the bombing and is seriously injured. A Catholic father (the former British Army medic) and his daughter find him lying on the street. Frightened, both for themselves and Hook, to take him to hospital, they take him home, which is in the famous Divis Flats on the Falls Road, and call on local IRA leader, Boyle, to get him to safety. (Just before this period, the IRA had what was effectively a cease-fire with the Army and Boyle is in contact with the military). However he is in dispute with younger, more trigger-happy elements in the IRA and things don’t go according to plan. From here the plot becomes even more tortuous, with double-crossing taking place among both the British forces and rival Republicans, the Official-Provisional IRA split having taken place a few months before.
Although the film starts off with a familiar trope from war films – rookie soldiers undergoing basic training before being sent into battle – it quickly becomes an urban thriller with a relentless tempo and a constantly tense atmosphere. This is the first feature film directed by Yann Demange, a Frenchman but brought up in Britain, and he has made an impressive debut. It is also the first screenplay by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke who wrote the acclaimed play ‘Black Watch’ (2006), based on interviews with soldiers serving in Iraq, which was highly critical of politicians and officers, a stance evident in the film. The cinematographer is Anthony Radcliffe and much of the camerawork is done with hand-held cameras which help ratchet up the tension. The production design gives an authentic feel of the early 70s Belfast – although the long hair and sideburns of the undercover soldiers are on the edge of caricature. But the aspect of the production that particularly impressed me was atmospheric pounding score written by David Holmes (who also scored Steve McQueen’s 20 film, Hunger). He dispenses with the Celtic folk-ish music which is frequently used in films set during the Troubles and instead uses guitars and synthesisers. [Samples have been made available here:
The acting is also first class. I was familiar with Jack O’Connor who plays Gary Hook from Starred Up where he played a brutalised young convict in a violent prison but in ‘71 he is more not so much brutal as bewildered. Here he doesn’t have much dialogue to work with and has to do a lot with looks and gestures. Other notable performances are those of David Wilmot and Martin McCann, representing old and new Republicans; Richard Dormer as the former Army medic and Charlie Murphy as his daughter Brigid. Sean Harris carries his devious and ruthless persona from his role as Micheletto Corella, the Borgias’ hit man in the Showtimes television series The Borgias and is convincingly evil as Captain Browning, the officer in charge of the army black-ops team. A special word for the young actor Corey McKinley who plays the chirpy Loyalist boy with an assurance beyond his years.
Many films set during the Troubles in Ireland have been criticised for simply using the setting as an easy provider of tension and explosive violence rather than shedding light on the underlying causes of the conflict (I’m thinking in particularly of Fifty Dead Men Walking, directed by Karl Skogland in 2008, Shadow Dancer by James Marsh in 2012, and Harry’s Game, by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1982) and I think that is the case to some extent with ’71. Indeed, apart from some local detail, it could easily be set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Burke’s script doesn’t really lead to any real understanding of what The Troubles were about. Certainly we are shown the brutality of the of RUC police during the house searches but beyond that the film doesn’t probe too deeply into the economic and political origins of the conflict, beyond a simplistic potted history that the soldiers are given on arrival in Belfast. If there is a political position, it is that the conflict is simply due to sectarian rivalry and one side is as bad as the other. When Gary tells Brigid he is from Derby and she says she has family members in Nottingham, he tells her that people from these two counties don’t get on with each other but he doesn’t know why this is. The subtext is therefore that the conflict is due to irrational hatred.
As a thriller, however, this was one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in a long time.
Here is the trailer:
Like Knife in the Water Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s (he directed and co-wrote) Night Train emphasises the claustrophobic setting by utilising the space close to the camera through deep focus cinematography and, much in the same way 3D works, having characters appear in the frame, from the side, closer than you’d expect given the scene’s composition. That, and great black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski, means I’m already likely to enjoy the film. However, Night Train also has a tense Hitchcockian narrative and an unhinged climactic chase through a graveyard (yes, most of the film is set on a train), making it an essential one to watch.
The promise ‘Polish Spring’ of 1956, when Gomulka’s government looked like it might break free of (the recently diseased) Stalin, had evaporated by 1959 and the petty voyeurism, and mob mentality of many passengers, who consist of what I take to be a cross section of Polish society, give the film a cynical edge that might reflect political disappointment.
Night Train is a film that grips immediately with the distinctive angle (see below), used for the credit sequence, which reminds me of Harry Lime’s speech, in The Third Man (UK, 1949), of how people look like ants from high above.
The protagonist, Jerzy, is played Leon Niemczyk who also appeared in Knife in the Water; Niemczyk is a powerful lead whose morally ambiguous character is in keeping with the cynicism of the film. Zbigniew Cybulski, who starred in the Polish classic Ashes and Diamonds (1958), plays, typically, a rebellious young man, Staszek, infatuated with Lucyna Winnicka’s Marta (see below); but she’s more interested in Jerzy.
A couple of times in the film Staszek is warned about jumping onto a moving train; tragically Cybulski was to fall under a train when jumping off eight years later.
Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.
This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.
The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.
I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.
The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.
Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).
The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.
Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.
Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber
John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books