On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.
Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.
I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?
The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.
Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen:
This is the latest film I’ve caught on BFI’s Flipside DVD and Blu-ray series investigating 1960s ‘under the radar’ films and it is really interesting. As ‘interesting’ suggests it’s the film’s position in history that makes it worth seeing rather than its intrinsic merits. The date on the print is 1963 but it was two years before it was released, because of problems with the BBFC, and then it was hacked so much that the director and producers had their name taken off the credits. The BFI have restored the original and although some scenes are pretty scratched it generally looks good; some of the cinematography, by Larry Pizer, is striking. Of course the rating has changed: from the original adults-only X to 12. I wonder if it had been submitted for certification a few years later whether it would have encountered the same problems as the nudity is all indirect, unlike in say Blow-Up (UK-US-Italy 1967). Probably, like the banned until 1968 The Wild One (US, 1954), the lack of moral condemnation of the ‘beatniks’, at the end of the film, worked against it. Apparently the version that was released does have a change of focus at the end. That said, there’s no doubt the film is condemning the youngsters, just not enough for the moral arbiters who probably believed ‘weak’ minded young people would want to be like the nihilistic wastrels.
The film features Oliver Reed, who unsurprisingly out-charismas most in the film, as Moise the conflicted ‘beatnik’ and was directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make Goldfinger (1964) and three other Bond movies.
It’s not just the changes in censorship that makes the film interesting. The representation of young people (the ‘beatniks’) at a time when London hadn’t quite yet started swinging is fascinating. It’s clear that screenwriter Marc Behm (b. 1925) absolutely hates them as they are shown to be a particularly unpleasant bunch of hedonists; the conclusion of the film urges them to ‘grow up’. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), often thought of as the precursor to the Swinging Sixties films, hadn’t been released (Behm scripted the later Beatles film, Help!, 1965) but it’s clear that the bohemian lifestyle that became emblematic of the ’60s was already annoying fogies, such as the 38 year old Behm. By the time the film was released it would be hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist of British cinema that was. in its youth pics at least, celebrating young people; though often in a reactionary way – see Here We Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).
Apart from its fogeyness, the other disappointing aspect of the film is the narrative structure of the script. It has a quite good conceit, involving retelling of an event, that could have been at the centre of the film. But the meandering opening fails to gain the narrative drive that would help the audience to care about what happened. My overall impression, however, is the middle aged resentment at young people supposedly enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle that had not been available to them in their youth.
Two of the best films I saw last year at the London Film Festival had to wait six more than six months for a UK release. Phoenix was one of those films and Girlhood is the other. The title ‘Girlhood’ refers both to that period of a young woman’s life and to the concept of girls controlling their ‘hood – moving in on a genre previously seen as male. The English title, unusually, is better than the French – Bande de filles which suggests ‘Gang Girls’ or ‘Girl Gangs’. Girlhood is set in les banlieues – or les cités, those giant housing estates on the outskirts of Paris made famous in global cinema by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (France 1995). Director Céline Sciamma (known for Water Lillies 2007 and Tomboy 2011) states quite clearly in the Press Pack that she is aiming for something different than La haine. She argues that CinemaScope is the best screen ratio to show gangs and although she shoots on the estates, all the interiors are shot on studio sets so that she can control the colours/décor etc.
“We used static shots with a very deliberate perspective as opposed to the Steadicam’s predictable energy. We relied on travelling shots and often used sequence shots. It’s an episodic narrative, with dramatic accelerations.” (Sciamma in the Press Pack)
The writer-director goes on to suggest that this is a new kind of narrative, a ‘fictional manifesto’ for a group of girls discovered through public casting sessions. It certainly does have a new kind of energy and it challenges representations of young women and in particular young African-Caribbean French women. Unlike many of the films set in les cités, this film is not dominated by North African French characters. The narrative seeks credibility rather than the ‘authenticity’ of social realism. Even so the resolution of the narrative is ‘open’ but not triumphant. This is a start – there is a long way to go before these girls achieve complete social freedom.
The central character is Marieme who we first meet as she comes back to le cité with a group of young women. The opening scene suggests that all the young women have been playing for a team in a game of ‘American Football’. I wondered if this might be a fantasy sequence (it seems an expensive sport to play because of all the equipment) but I would be grateful for any confirmation that such things happen in Paris. Perhaps it signifies an aspiration towards American culture among French African-Caribbeans that mirrors earlier French interest in American popular culture? Marieme has a difficult home life. Her father is absent and her mother is a cleaner in a hotel, working long hours. Marieme looks out for her two younger sisters – and tries to avoid her big brother Djibril, a dangerous character who abuses his sisters in taking control of the household and attempting to restrict their social behaviour.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening section of the narrative is when a dejected Marieme, learning that her only future after the summer is to go to vocational school (which she doesn’t want to do), meets a trio of seemingly tough ‘gang girls’. The leader of the trio sees something in Marieme and eventually invites her to join the group. Marieme changes her hair, her taste in clothes and her name. She gets out of the summer job her mother has organised in a hotel. Now she is ‘Vic’ (for victoire/victory), named by the gang leader, ‘Lady’. Collectively the girls have fun – even if it involves petty crime and fights and shows of bravado – before Marieme/Vic is forced to make decisions. These inevitably involve young men – the boy she has a relationship with, her controlling older brother and the local ‘boss’ for whom she works and who affords her ‘protection’ once she has become ‘known’ in the male world. The film has an open ending. We don’t know what will happen to Vic, but we have learned a great deal about the life that she and her sisters face in les cités.
I found the whole film captivating and in particular Marieme/Vic as played by Karidja Touré. Seemingly without prior experience, Touré is a strong presence, moving from being quiet and withdrawn to fierce and commanding as required. When she smiles, her personality fills the screen. The other three young women are equally striking in different ways. ‘Lady’ is a clear leader, Adiatou is street-smart and Fily is the quiet one, sometimes the butt of jokes but a strong physical presence.
There isn’t much ‘plot’ in the film. The narrative structure is in some ways unusual and I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the pleasure of an unfolding story. Watching it a second time I realised that I had been so taken with my first viewing that I hadn’t really noticed how the narrative divides into sections and that the final section – when Vic moves to another estate – is longer than I thought. In fact this is quite a long film for the genre. The power of the film resides in the relationships of Vic with the other three girls, with the boy she is attracted to and in perhaps the most moving scenes of all, with her younger sister who appears to be following, quite literally, in her footsteps.
Girlhood has been successful and I was pleased to see reports that in France it has been shown in multiplexes in les banlieues, reaching the audience who are represented in it. In the UK it has been generally very well received but their have been gainsayers, in particular on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. I found the discussion about the film on this show both annoying and disturbing. It was annoying because of the obvious contradiction. We were told that films like Girlhood were very unusual because there are very few other representations of young Black women in French cinema (certainly that is true of the French cinema that makes it to the UK). But at the same time the young women in Girlhood were ‘stereotypical’ and their behaviour/representation was ‘clichéd’. How can they be stereotypes if we haven’t seen them on screen before? This is sloppy thinking – it suggests that the audience is reading these young women as if they were in a British or American film. In fact, they are shown in quite distinctive ways that sometimes demonstrate connections to American culture and sometimes seem unique (an entertaining game of Crazy Golf or a dance contest in a city centre square). On the Saturday Review panel was Bim Adewunmi, a Guardian columnist and herself a young woman of West African heritage. She complained that for her this was a film utilising a ‘white gaze’ on young Black women. Obviously I can’t argue against this but also I can’t see it in the film. Céline Sciamma in interviews has said (see the Jonathan Romney interview below) that she herself grew up (as a middle-class white girl) in or close to one of the new estates outside Paris. Much has been made of the fact that only one of the four leads is actually from an estate like the ones in the film (the other three were non-professionals from other parts of Paris). But is this really important? As the young women themselves pointed out, seeing themselves as four young Black female faces on posters all over Paris was an exciting new experience. A girlhood that was invisible in mainstream media in France has been give exposure.
For more background on the film and the young actors see the very useful Jonathan Romney piece in the Observer. This one of many pieces in the Guardian/Observer and the film seems to have made a significant impact on the ‘liberal left’ in the UK. I’m hoping it will be possible to use Girlhood extensively in UK film education. I’ve watched it twice but I think it will need several more viewings before I discover all its riches. I need to explore both its cinematography and the music soundtrack by Para One – also responsible for Sciamma’s earlier two films.
The UK trailer:
Keith was not very impressed with this film and some of his observations in the previous post seem justified. Overall though I think he’s being a bit harsh on the young Iranian-American writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour (who was born in Margate, going to the US as a small child). I was going to just add a comment but I think that there is quite a lot to say.
First, this isn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film – in many ways it is almost the definitive American ‘indie’ film, developed from an earlier short (that was shown in Iran, I think). Second, I have to disagree with Keith about the location. If I understand him correctly, he says the setting could be like downtown Detroit (tying in with a reference to Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)). I agree on Jarmusch (but with reference to his early black and white features) but the setting of Amirpour’s film is very distinctive. The fictional location is ‘Bad City’ in Iran but it was shot in the small town of Taft in the Californian oilfields. Amirpour went to school in the nearest large town of Bakersfield. There are two specific ways in which the location contributes to the meaning of the filmic narrative space. The ‘nodding donkeys’ or ‘pumpjacks’ that litter the oilfield appear several times and are perhaps an ironic reference to Iranian oil. The ‘cowboy’ mystique is visually signified by a woman dancing and wearing a classic cowboy shirt, but it is also signified by some of the music (three or four tracks by Federale) which in turn refers to spaghetti Westerns and is ‘Tarantinoesque’. (Country music fans will also know that the ‘Bakersfield sound’ of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard represented an alternative to Nashville in the 1960s and 1970s, replacing syrupy strings with twangin’ guitars.)
I’m probably pushing this too much but I’d also connect the James Dean look of the lead male character with his 1957 convertible to Dean’s appearance in a film like Giant (1956) (i.e in the oilfields), though his white tee-shirt and leather jacket suggest Rebel Without a Cause. Keith’s right of course that the whole film is more about style than narrative drive. I felt compelled by the style to think of other films – A Touch of Evil (1957) for instance, or, in the closing scenes with the headlights on the road, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Keith mentions Persepolis (France/US 2007) which makes sense as the Ana Lily Amirpour orginally wrote the story as a graphic novel. Sin City (US 2005) would be another possible reference point as a noirish graphic novel adaptation.
What there is of narrative development seems to take a great deal from Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) or, as Mark Kermode suggests, from Near Dark (US 1987). In terms of building a story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night doesn’t use these influences particularly well, but in its slow, mesmeric way it creates relationships and images which certainly resonated with me long after the film was over. I thought that Sheila Vand who plays the title role was particularly good and the concept of a vampire clad in a chador skateboarding down the road is sheer genius. In her room the girl plays 1980s music. In various YouTube clips the director explains that the posters in her room were ‘modified’ images of Madonna and the Bee Gees because the budget wouldn’t run to rights for the real posters. This is very much a ‘personal film’ and I recommend the YouTube collection of videos as an interesting set of source materials (check out the various songs as well – the soundtrack of music and effects is one of the strengths of the film and includes Iranian/Middle Eastern rock). Maybe the film is 5-10 minutes too long but the pacing worked for me and I’d recommend giving it a go.
(The entire film is delivered in Farsi – which the director has said she can only write phonetically, making constructing the script difficult. Farsi speakers may find it odd for this reason, but the English subs work well!)
An HD trailer: