Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So – a Thai slang term for ‘high society’ – presents an alluring glimpse of Thailand from the intimate perspectives of quietly privileged twenty-somethings. By focusing simply on three characters’ outlooks, Hi-So constructs a pleasant portrait of modern-day Thailand and facilitates an exploration of the effects of globalisation on a human scale.
We track Ananda (Ananda Everingham) filming his first starring role in Thailand, fresh from a stint studying abroad in the US. He lives a charmed life, unburdened by financial responsibilities and able to freely drift between Thai and Western cultures; his only difficulty is managing companionship in this rarefied, liminal space. When his American girlfriend Zoe (Cerise Leang) comes to visit him, their old dynamic does not fit into their new surroundings, and she exits his life. Then when filming wraps, Ananda’s attentions turn to May (Sajee Apiwong), a Thai film PR. They easily live together in Ananda’s family’s apartment building in Bangkok, but as time goes on, they discover limits to their relationship. While the camera’s gaze drifts from one character’s story to another, the constant is each person’s struggle to bridge culture- and/or class-based gaps.
Full disclosure: I’m Filipino-American, studied abroad in Europe and have traveled widely. So this film resonates with me personally, since it’s preoccupied with cultural clashes that result from living/traveling abroad while depicting a Southeast Asian country from a non-touristy perspective. (Interesting fact: Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country to never be colonised.) I often get frustrated with narratives that romanticise the locals and the landscapes with naive detachment, so for me, Hi-So provides a welcome viewpoint in a way that’s accessible to both Westerners and Thai people.
Thailand is depicted in a realistic, objective way – the views of palm trees and beach resorts are idyllic but have no hazy golden glow, lit only by natural white light. The effects of the 2004 tsunami still linger, debris haunting once-posh buildings. We actually hear the sounds of tropical animals and wind instead of romantic scoring. The humidity has a subtly languorous effect on everyone and everything. The circumstances of the locals are given voice; class differences and mobility across borders – money to travel, access to visas or study abroad opportunities – aren’t taken for granted in this film. It’s a blessedly far cry from the stylised depiction of Thailand in The Hangover: Part 2, which was chock full of offensive stereotypes and exotification.
Hi-So most notably portrays language barriers and the isolation you experience when encountering them, when you can hear what’s being said but can’t understand; the film perfectly captures how trust and power balances shift when translation is involved. Ananda is the only one with access to both worlds, while all the other characters onscreen, particularly Zoe and May, aren’t as fortunate as us in the audience, who have subtitles. For me, it was also particularly validating to see onscreen how female foreigners with limited voices are easily objectified. Photo-taking is much more intrusive when there are cultural gaps, whether you’re the tourist or the local.
The charm of Hi-So is its candid, un-glorified depiction of young adults in a place often simplified to be paradise. The film meanders without being judgemental, much like the ambivalent, mildly curious youth that it features. A benign sense of ennui pervades the film, occasionally too aimlessly; the result is an un-formulaic mood piece that sometimes lags, but is always thoughtful and honest in its exploration of modern Thailand’s character. It’s my hope that those who see this film, whether they care about these characters or not, at least become more sensitive travellers and perhaps develop better insight into life in worlds beyond the West.
Hi-So is in cinemas 1 March via Day For Night
Writer-director So Young Kim’s slow-paced indie film For Ellen centres around a struggling rock musician, Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), and his relationship (or more accurately, his lack thereof) with his daughter Ellen. The film’s title is a bit misleading in that way – actually, Joby hardly knows his daughter Ellen, and knows even less about what he’d do for her.
We first encounter him fecklessly driving through the snow to a remote town, taking a break from his rock career to finalise legal issues with his ex. The lawyers expect him to sign a settlement without much fuss; everyone except him seems to know the score. He’s been absent and his ex wants it all finished – she’ll only speak to him through her lawyer. Joby expected half of everything – the house and joint custody – but the settlement is for half the house and no rights to his daughter. We watch him caught out as he drags his feet, trying to understand what he’s signing away.
Joby’s visage, tightly framed, dominates the screen throughout the film, but Dano’s baby face is associated with very different characters from the one he plays here. His roles playing thoughtful, sometimes broken men in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Meek’s Cutoff perfectly suited his serious intensity and otherworldly look. In contrast, Joby is a mere shell of a man, a quietly passive, stammering and undemonstrative figure, meant to be a kind of deadbeat-dad-everyman.
Though Dano’s not a natural-looking gritty rocker – he’s got emo stamped all over him – he deserves credit for a committed performance out of his comfort zone. His unfocused moping, awkward sullenness, chipped nail polish, penchant for checking his hair all create a recognisable character – just not a terribly entertaining or relatable one that evokes much pathos. The best scenes show Joby struggling to connect with his young daughter, which are realistic and charming, but all too brief.
In order to be gripped by the story, we’d have to care about Joby on his own, and that’s not made easy. Kim’s script provides few details about Joby’s backstory and his relationship with his ex – no flashbacks, just a few broad references – which doesn’t help Dano. It’s clear that Joby is limited and not particularly deep by design, but unfortunately, the film feels just as confined and shallow as its main character.
In addition to featuring muted characters and sparse dialogue, even the film’s locations are barren and character-less. There’s no local colour to enliven the scenes – in fact, there’s no clear sense of time or place. The Coen Brothers utilised the snowy wasteland setting brilliantly in Fargo, imbuing the landscape with significance and even humour. But in For Ellen, the snow just seems to signify blankness. Again, perhaps this is meant to bolster Joby’s own emptiness, or make his story more universal, to represent all deadbeat dads – but the result is monotony. If the film had a stronger style, either in the rhythms of the dialogue or visually, that could have filled in some of the blanks; but Joby’s story is mostly shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with little scope for narrative expansion.
A relative bright spot is Joby’s lawyer, played by Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame, also against type; though he’s a deadpan character, he still has more vibrancy than anyone else in the film, save for Ellen herself (Shaylena Mandingo) during her more carefree moments. Those two provide the only injections of energy and purpose in an otherwise painfully quiet, sluggish film. For Ellen presents a minimalist, mundane sketch of Joby rather than a finished, evocative portrait – it leaves you feeling like you were owed more for your time.
For Ellen is released in cinemas on Friday 15 February.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film I Wish (Kiseki, literally ‘miracle’) is an endearing portrait of two young brothers and their friends and family, and the desires that drive them all.
Twelve-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mother and her parents in suburban Kagoshima, while his younger brother Ryunosuke (Oshiro Maeda) lives with their father, a struggling rock musician, several hours away in urban Fukuoka. Koichi is a serious young man who worries about reuniting his family, while his younger brother Ryunosuke is a freer spirit who devotes his energy towards making the best of his new situation rather than trying to restore things.
When Koichi hears a rumour that the new bullet train connecting their two towns can make miracles happen when two of them pass each other at a certain point, he is convinced that this mystical energy is exactly what he needs to put his family back together. With the help of their close friends, both brothers prepare to reunite for an adventure. I Wish captures the tenderness of the brothers’ daily lives as they and their friends innocently reach out for help with confronting the changes the world throws at them.
I Wish is a delight to watch because it showcases superb acting by its ensemble cast – all of the characters onscreen seem so natural and immensely relatable. It’s easy to see what makes each character tick, which is rare to see onscreen in adults, let alone pre-pubescent children. I’d bet that few of us remember the unique mix of naiveté and reflection, curiosity and criticism that we had once, not to mention the boundless, restless energy; in the film, the kids seem to be running all the time! It’s enchanting to be reminded of that time of our lives when our curiosities and passions thrived, unsullied by cynicism and practical limitations, the world seemed big but not scary and our friends were everything.
The cast is led by two real-life brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda, a comedy duo that goes by the name MaedaMaeda. The director re-wrote the script after meeting the Maeda brothers, blown away by their confidence, their comfort with improvising and their sense of fun. The other children who play their friends had mostly not acted before, but were cast for their unique personalities. All seven children are engaging because they are just starting to form their adult personalities, but are at slightly different stages of early maturity. Megumi (Kayara Uchida) is serious about becoming an actress; Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi) wants to be a baseball player and loves his dog Marble; Tasuku (Ryoga Hayashi) fancies the school librarian; Kanna (Kanna Hashimoto) likes drawing; and poor Rento (Rento Isobe) loves her food but wants to be better at running.
The children were not given any scripts, and their performances are successfully unforced. The director’s tactic was to tell them their lines on the day of filming, as he did when working with children for Nobody Knows in 2004. Koki was the elder statesmen of the children, aware of what was needed and guided the others. Oshiro’s guileless charm has a feminine appeal, so it suits his character to be close to three girls while his older brother hangs out with two other boys. The brothers’ contrasting personalities – one solemn, the other lighthearted – provides enough dramatic tension to propel the story forward.
While the narrative perspective of I Wish is slanted heavily towards the children, this is not a Japanese Beasts of the Southern Wild - there’s no precocious voiceovers and their world is real and un-magical. The parents, grandparents, teachers and even strangers who watch over the kids in this communal society are sensitively portrayed; all have their own backstories, their own flaws and preoccupations, and support the kids from the sidelines, not as dictators. We see the brothers’ dad hanging out with his band, their mom meeting up with old classmates for karaoke, their granddad conferring with his buddies to try and revive his old career making sweets.
By allowing screen time to show these small details, the film gives us fellow grown-ups the means to fully understand the world these kids inhabit. Kore-eda says of the adult characters in his film: “All the adults that appear in I Wish are all adults I want to be. I want to be an adult that casually waits for his children to come back from their adventures.” It could be argued that the adults in the film trust the kids to an extent that could seem unrealistic and impractical; but it is easy to justify and sympathise with their benign faith in them as a natural extension of the kids’ infectious exuberance and optimism.
It’s a truly great film about pre-teen life: honest and unsentimental, but also gently humorous. I first saw I Wish at the 2011 London Film Festival and felt grateful to have caught it because I doubted whether it would get UK distribution – but now it has! So go see it, and reacquaint yourself with your inner child.
I Wish opens in selected UK cinemas on 8 February.
You may have never seen ballroom dancing in person, but you’ve probably seen Strictly Come Dancing (or Dancing with the Stars, if you’re in the US) and noticed that it’s actually really difficult. In addition to remembering all the steps, you’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to make it look meaningful, and you’ve got to trust your dancing partner. Ballroom Dancer is a documentary about a professional duo, Slavik Kryklyvyy (go on, say it) and Anna Melnikova, struggling with all the aforementioned things, under enormous pressure – they’ve just gotten romantically involved with each other, and this is Slavik’s last chance at a comeback after ten years out of contention.
Slavik reminds me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish footballer – yes, they’re both of Eastern European descent and happen to wear their long dark hair slicked back into a knot, but they both have an intense, virtuosic charisma about them, possibly informed by their martial arts training. Slavik lives and breathes dance, an exacting perfectionist about his craft; but at 34, he’s intent on proving that he’s not past his prime. Anna is younger and certainly in her prime, as the current amateur Latin champion; she’s formidable yet vulnerable, and struggles to cope with Slavik’s anxieties and dominance of their relationship.
Their romantic and professional partnership is the centre of the film, slanted towards the perspective of Slavik. We often see the two in their hotel room hanging out in addition to seeing them during rehearsals and competitions, so we can observe their chemistry and communication candidly, on and off the dance floor. We come to know their individual personalities through observing their separate physical and mental preparations for competitions; Slavik pushes himself to breaking point, while Anna seems to be more circumspect. Their egos clash constantly, and we see them striving to negotiate between their individual needs and the needs of their partnership. Anna exasperatingly comments during one argument that if you don’t want to deal with partners or emotion, ballet rather than Latin would be a better fit.
The film is an intimate portrait of the couple, going far beyond the usual fly-on-the-wall perspective of documentaries to construct a character-driven narrative. We’ve got Big Brother-like access to their lives, augmented by the candid reflections shared with their coaches and trainers (so there’s no need for anyone to speak directly to camera). The Danish directors, Andreas Koefoed and Christian Bonke, say the film was ‘shot as cinema verite but [was] edited like fiction’ and indeed, while watching Ballroom Dancer, it’s almost surreal to think that there was no script, that these are real people and this actually happened between them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re both attractive and emotive, like hired actors, but it’s the authenticity of their story that’s so compelling – this isn’t light, Dirty Dancing-like fare. Ballroom Dancer’s brutally honest depiction of a couple’s struggles is refreshing to see onscreen, whether you like ballroom dancing or not.
Ballroom Dancer is out in selected cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson specialise in shooting non-verbal epics – Baraka (1992 – now being re-released in cinemas) and its successor Samsara (2012) are ambitiously global, visually lush 65mm documentaries that utilise film language only. There’s no spoken dialogue, no titles or subtitles; just moving images with minimal diegetic sound edited with an ambient instrumental score. It’s an uniquely immersive cinematic experience; you just sit back and let the vast hi-res images and surround sound wash over you to transport you all over the world.
Their films grant you extraordinary access to things you’d be lucky to see at some point in your lifetime, if at all, in just an hour and half. It’s like experiencing science and anthropology in situ instead of in museums or surrounded by other tourists – there are no placards or guides to explain what or why (or even where), and you’re left to serenely mull it over on your own.
‘Baraka’ is an ancient Sufi word that means blessing or the essence of life. (Yes, this is the origin of Obama’s first name.) While Samsara (Sankrit for ‘continuous flow’) places more of an accent on urban society’s connectedness, Baraka focuses more on Earth’s origins and spirituality. We start the journey by visiting our evolutionary ancestors, monkeys, bathing in a hot spring. From them, we move on to a wide range of peoples’ ancient ritual practices, from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City to indigenous peoples such as the aborigines and the Masai.
The camera gives us unfettered access to these people and places, and in that way watching this is nothing like the experience of a tourist. There’s no arduous journey, no panic about feeling foreign and being unable to communicate, no struggle to take things in without being bothered by other tourists or locals hawking wares. On top of that other-worldliness, we get gorgeous time-lapse sequences that enable us to see beyond our limitations. In this way, the film presents a God’s eye view of the world, transcending time and space. We flit around the world, guided by themes instead of regions; this intentional juxtaposition of diverse peoples and places through editing and sound bridges draws attention to their similarities rather than differences.
In addition to allowing us access to remote locations, Baraka also gives us awe-inspiring glimpses of natural phenomena, taking us to the mouth of a live volcano, showing us a sea of clouds cascading over mountains like ethereal water. You may not know where the film has taken you, but that’s part of Fricke’s and Magidson’s design; names and geography are secondary to something’s substance. The film’s not all pretty and peaceful though – the dark underbelly of civilisation is prominently displayed as well. We see the effects of globalisation and over-population: poverty, sweatshop factory working conditions, burning oil fields, ghostly remnants at mass-killing sites. In the end, you do feel like you’ve gone through a guided mediation on the essence of life.
Throughout the film, you’re overwhelmed by the immensity and richness of the images. Fricke and Magidson took 30 thoughtful, pain-staking months to shoot this, including 14 months on location, and invested in 65mm film stock and their own specially-developed rigging, fully committed to their vision. The duo has only done these two feature-length films, and you can’t tell that two decades passed between their releases. They take the long view, which film rarely does; the images they have captured have a timeless quality, resonant regardless of whatever contemporary issues we’re facing.
Baraka so bold in its vision, blazing a path for gems like the BBC’s Planet Earth series, ahead of its time when you think that it was made before Google or YouTube existed. When it was first released, free-association narratives were much more rare; but now, we regularly watch a succession of short, tangentially related videos online. In 1992, you’d have to check encyclopaedias or libraries to know more about what’s in the film, but now, we can just take out our smartphones once leaving the cinema to do research. While it’s tempting to get quick answers and plug back into our information-overloaded existences after watching the film, I’d advise you to wait a while. When you leave the theatre, you ought to feel an afterglow from floating around the world without language barriers… so just take some time to enjoy it.
Baraka is on limited release now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, is billed as an offbeat romantic-comedy – but its vision is much richer than that, giving us a humane glimpse into struggles with mental health.
The story centres around Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who spent eight months in a mental institution after catching his wife with a lover and nearly beating him to death. He’s bipolar, undiagnosed until the incident, and we meet him while he’s struggling to rebuild his life. He moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in a suburb of Philadelphia, fixated on reuniting with his wife Nikki (this is the ‘silver lining’ of the title); but that’s made difficult by her restraining order against him. Pat strikes up an unconventional friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his friend’s sister-in-law, who is struggling with the untimely death of her husband.
Pat and Tiffany are both outcasts whose brains process their pain in antisocial ways; Pat’s manifests in intense aggression, while Tiffany’s comes out in angry promiscuity. They are unable to mask their suffering while under scrutiny, their past errors are still raw in everyone’s memories. We’re drawn into the narrative, curious about how these two might regain their dignity, earn back the trust of their families, and adjust to their lives after their personal traumas; the romance angle, in truth, is totally secondary to that.
The film is genuinely absorbing because it crafts a credible world for these characters to inhabit. The local details are just right, from the Eagles fandom (the Philly NFL team, not the band) to the neighbourhood diner. Pat’s parents’ house looks lived-in and unglamourous, and you get a real sense of the community Pat belongs to as he jogs through it. The film captures how Pat and Tiffany don’t struggle in isolation; their pain affects their families, friends and neighbours. This is supported by the unintrusive camerawork, stylised just enough to expressionistically reflect the mental states of Pat and Tiffany when required.
But don’t worry – watching Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t feel heavy going. It focuses on the humanity of the characters, not the issues they inevitably represent. It’s enjoyable because it has a keen sense of humour and moves at a fast pace, propelled by the candour of its central duo. While Pat doesn’t have a filter and Tiffany has a penchant for provoking people, luckily, both Cooper and Lawrence manage to keep their outbursts rooted in their characters’ pain, exuding pathos. Many may know Cooper best as the morally corrupt friend in The Hangover or the intense suitor of Rachel McAdams in The Wedding Crashers – he’s fortunate that his manic energy and fratboy appeal finally find a sympathetic home in the character of Pat. It probably doesn’t hurt that Cooper himself grew up in a suburb of Philly. And Lawrence certainly matches his intensity, acting with impressive maturity and gravitas well beyond her 22 years.
The human frailty of Pat and Tiffany is bolstered by Russell’s ensemble cast, who ensure that we put the meanings of ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ into context. John Ortiz is endearingly amusing as Pat’s friend Ronnie who’s struggling under the pressures of family life. And Chris Tucker, who I last saw in Rush Hour, is surprisingly sweet and quirky as Pat’s friend Danny from the institution. De Niro – in his first role in ages that requires him to be more than a caricature – is a welcome scene-stealer as Pat’s dad who is obsessed with the Eagles and their ‘juju’.
The film doesn’t demonise mental illness or lionise those who endure it – it’s made clear that everyone, on medication or not, has issues and their own preferred form of therapy to deal with them, be it running, dancing, working out, or watching football. The most gratifying thing about Silver Linings Playbook is that it thoughtfully engages with the grey areas of life’s difficulties and trusts the audience to make its own judgements. It’s actually a very appropriate film to see this holiday season, because it ought to pique your empathy levels… provided you’re not a Scrooge.
Silver Linings Playbook is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
Rather than review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master, I’m much more interested in taking a closer look at its critical reception; because I’m an English teacher and not a film critic, I find the discourse more fascinating than the film’s actual merits and flaws. The film has garnered lavish praise from an overwhelming consensus of film critics, and that could very well affect your reaction to (or even viewing of) the film.
At the time of writing (Fri 2 Nov), collative site Rotten Tomatoes says that The Master has an 85% approval rating from critics, but 60% from non-critics – that’s a 25% discrepancy. Metacritic, which exercises a bit more quality control, calculates an 86% critic approval contrasted with a dismal 43% approval rating among non-critics; that’s a 43% difference.
Are critics really so different from thoughtful movie-watchers who bother to actually sign up and contribute to Metacritic? You actually have to defend your rating on Metacritic; it’s not a matter of casually clicking on a number. And Metacritic users can obviously see what the critics have said. Granted, there are some films that are perfect for critics but not audiences, and I’d love to hear of some comparable examples in the comments. But even so, this is notable because it’s a massive discrepancy on a substantial scale. What on earth is going on? Let’s look at a cross-section of quotes and see if we can make sense of this.
Numerous critics from highly-esteemed publications stumble over each other to be the most ardent disciple of cinematic master PTA. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone stridently opens his review with: “I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson… [he] refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences… Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers.”
Is he seriously saying that if we don’t positively rate this film, then we’re lazy cinema-goers who don’t properly love movies? It’s telling that Travers proclaims that he is a follower of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult while burying this admission with adulatory adjectives and bludgeoning us with his self-righteousness. A.O. Scott of The New York Times at least hints at the divisive nature of the film before professing his faith in PTA: “This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief… It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.”
The majority of positive critics’ reviews sound like some form of cult worship. And granted, Paul Thomas Anderson is a darling of film buffs, who understandably gravitate towards auteurs; think of how films by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers garner support before the trailers are even cut. Perhaps film critics, whose occupational hazard is to take their opinions very seriously, are somehow compelled to continue praising the work of these auteurs, since they’ve written glowing reviews of their previous films. Oddly, Peter Bradshaw refutes this idea in the opening of his review in The Guardian: “Nothing makes critics more nervous than a director who makes two exceptional films in a row. Reviewers get a bit self-conscious about dishing out the top prize again, scared of looking like fanboys and pushovers. They feel the need to change the mood, to validate the uniqueness of their former praise.” To me, it sounds suspiciously like Bradshaw is trying to put some spin on the fact that he’s jumped on the bandwagon along with the other critics… like it’s so brave of him to be a film critic and a fan of Anderson’s work.
In the Metacritic tally, there are scant examples of critics who don’t prostrate themselves before The Master (though some more even-handed, non-listed responses have begun to emerge: check out Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound). One well-defended response comes from famed thumbs-user Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times, whose opening sentence is: “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” While this isn’t a review per se, I can’t pretend to be totally objective – I agree with Ebert. There are plenty of laudable aspects of the film: the extremely committed performances, its striking visuals, the resonance of the post-WWII time period with cult formation, Jonny Greenwood’s impressionistic score. But all to what end? For me, watching the film was challenging, but not in the intellectual sense; it challenged me in an existential sense. I wondered why I was sitting there, watching the film. Why it exists. What its purpose is. How it got there. The film, to me, is frustratingly far less than the sum of its parts.
Another independent review is from and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, who engages with the contention of many critics that Anderson is a visionary ahead of the curve, mentioning that the filmmaker is “apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature.” I’m no traditionalist, but established principles of good storytelling just aren’t redefined by this purposefully oblique film. Anderson may be a model of devotion to film and The Master does reflect this – but is it a well-told story? Cinephiles who have decided that it is cannot avoid proselytizing this cinematic master they badly want to believe in – and that is so beautifully ironic.
Look, I am an unashamed fan of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and I appreciated There Will Be Blood. Plus it’s an achievement in itself that The Master can provoke such powerful reactions from its audience. But this feels like that old fable about the Emperor and his new clothes. A purportedly masterful man creates what people choose to believe is fantastic yet invisible to nonbelievers, and in the end, a child has to point to the Emperor and yell, “but he’s not wearing any clothes!” So this is me being that child, trying to break the spell of groupthink. Though by all means, go and see The Master for yourself, and form your own opinions regardless of what everyone else says.
When a bunch of teenagers board the bus or train you’re on, what do you feel? Dread? Disgust? I usually try to reassure myself that when I have kids, they won’t be so un-self-aware. But the thing is, when people are in groups – teenagers or not – we tend to have a certain blindness of others outside our group. And when we were teenagers, it was even worse; remember being painfully aware of your peers while egocentrically preoccupied by your own drama-filled thoughts? (I hope that wasn’t just me.) Michel Gondry’s The We and the I brilliantly captures our struggle against groupthink to be individuals in a condensed form by limiting the camera’s gaze to a bus ride home on the last day of school. It’s refreshing and fun to catch a glimpse of Gondry’s view of the world – realistically flawed, humorous and vulnerable moments combined with a bit of visual whimsy.
The film begins by contrasting the relative quiet of the South Bronx neighbourhood with the frenetic chaos that the end of the school day unleashes. Students pile onto the public bus and compete for seats; it quickly becomes clear who is confident and who is not. As a high school teacher myself, parents sometimes ask me for advice about teenagers; one of my first questions to them is where their kid sits on the bus. The kids who think they’re cool, often bullies, sit way in the back. The independent-minded ones don’t mind taking the seats in front. Most end up in between, but still leaning towards one side or the other. The We and the I gets this just right, presenting a good mix of teenage archetypes without it seeming too forced: up front, some snooty clever kids; some couples, both straight and gay; some sensitive musician boys; an artist; an awkward outcast; an aloof outsider who stoically keeps his headphones in; and of course, the cocky bullies in the back. Thinking back, a bit of you probably belonged in each group… but you had to choose an affiliation, unless you were one of the rare ‘floaters’.
The cramped setting of The We and the I mirrors the sometimes suffocating social world of teenagers; it’s a real technical achievement that Gondry manages to be a fly-on-the-wall in such small spaces. The camera seamlessly flits around the bus, dipping in and out of each hormone-fuelled micro-drama while still capturing the dynamics between groups. The kids’ cell phone use is included to admirable effect, from my teacher’s point of view – most teens today feel compelled to be plugged in at all times, which also leaves them more vulnerable to social missteps. As the bus gradually empties, the We does become the I; the teens have to choose their own individual paths.
Having taught just outside NYC, the kids in The We and the I are much more familiar to me than the casts of past teen films – much more recognisable than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which just represents a very different part of America. There’s no guitar rock on this soundtrack – it’s mostly Young MC and old-school hip hop. It’s also such a relief to see teenagers onscreen actually talking like teenagers – swearing left and right, voices emphatic, vocabulary normal (not what an adult wishes they’d say). It’s heartening to see teens represented so honestly by these non-professional actors. When the credits roll, you see that all the character names are the kids’ actual names – Gondry workshopped the film with these kids at The Point, a community youth centre. The result of their collaboration is a uniquely candid document of the lives of urban youth that makes me very glad that someone like Gondry keeps making films.
The promising debut film of independent filmmaker Jonathan Cenzual Burley, El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies), is a low-key magical realist meditation in buddy-film form. The two protagonists, Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), are brothers meeting for the first time after decades, summoned to their absent father’s funeral by posthumous letters. They meet at a train station that happens to be abandoned – presumably by their deceased dad’s design – and are forced to come to terms with each other as they meander through the grain fields in Salamanca (western Spain) towards the funeral. If you appreciate Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but wish it were a bit more accessible and less tragic, this would be right up your alley.
Crucially for the film’s dramatic trajectory, Nero and Miguel provide effective foil for one another; Nero is an ebullient optimist while Miguel is a brooding cynic. Their dynamic drives the film forward and gives the film a sense of purpose. Because there are few close-ups on either – the film is dominated by medium and long shots of the pair against the landscape – their clothing choices are key for convincingly defining their characters. It’s fitting that Nero looks comfortable in the countryside, wearing earth-tones and a humble flat cap, while Miguel looks incongruous in a slick black-and-white suit.
The film has a third protagonist: the countryside. Given voice by a rustic, rhythmic soundtrack, it’s a strong character of the film as well. The expanses of dry grain fields are described by the narrator as containing a “labyrinth of memories”, a silent witness of the life their father lived. The countryside looks great on film; Burley’s minimalist aesthetic utilises striking, saturated colours and naturalistic light so it looks painterly and timeless.
The writer/director said in a recent interview that he shot this film in three weeks with a tiny cast and crew and a very limited budget, so it’s really intended as a calling card. Burley’s message is: ‘This is what I can do with no money; now give me some.’ And the results are encouraging. While El Alma de las Moscas is understated and minimalist, it has a clear vision and thoughtfully uses film language. For example, when the two brothers are wandering around, their journey moves right to left across the screen, enhancing that their journey is not about forward movement. When they finally start traveling the right way towards the funeral, their path is tracked left to right so a conclusion feels inevitable.
El Alma de las Moscas seems to be billed as a comedy, but that’s a bit misleading, as it doesn’t quite fit into that box. Two strangers wander around the countryside, meeting some quirky characters along the way, and ruminate about the nature of family, loneliness, fate and mortality. This film isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, but it does deal with deep subject matter in a light-hearted way. So if you’re in the mood for that, check it out.
The Soul of Flies is out now on DVD, released by Matchbox Films (RRP. £15.99) | Buy the film at amazon.co.uk.
Choosing which films to see out of the hundreds at the BFI London Film Festival is never an easy task, but one key bit of information definitely helps me prioritise – whether the film’s already got a UK distributor or not. I always pick at least one foreign film or documentary that I may never get another chance to see, usually from Asia, often from Japan. They’re safe bets to me, considering the country’s rich cinematic history, and they provide refreshing breaks from Eurocentric perspectives. My personal opinion is that many modern Japanese cultural products, from anime to music to cinema, thoughtfully mix Western influences and Eastern values so that the experience is both enticingly unique and broadly accessible.
This year I chose director-screenwriter Kenji Uchida’s entertaining tragicomedy Key of Life, a Japanese-style riff on Trading Places in which Sakurai (Masato Sakai), a down-and-out actor, opportunistically steals an amnesaic’s identity. Sakurai’s life is in shambles – he owes everyone money and the ex-girlfriend he still loves is engaged. Likably pathetic, he even fails at committing suicide. When Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) slips and hits his head in a bathhouse, a shortcut for restarting Sakurai’s life literally falls at his feet. It’s extra-lucky that Kondo happens to be quite wealthy. Kondo-as-Sakurai chances upon a bit of luck too in befriending Kanae, a nerdy magazine editor, at the hospital. She is on an endearing-yet-vaguely-pitiable mission to get married before her ill father dies, and discovers that it’s convenient to get to know someone while he is trying to rediscover himself. It’s all fun and games until the real Sakurai stumbles across the source of Kondo’s wealth – it turns out that he’s an assassin for the mob, and his last job wasn’t quite finished… thus the fates of these three previously isolated figures are suddenly tied together, and they’re left testing when their collective luck will finally run out.
The world the film portrays is wacky, yet recognisably modern and cynical; apart from the main trio, everyone makes selfish decisions that destroy relationships and are largely driven by pride and materialism. That backdrop is vital, as it facilitates us rooting for these naive principal characters while they earnestly fumble through these unusual circumstances. We trust them enough to go along for the ride, happy to be surprised at the twists and turns.
But most importantly, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the two men play with their new identities. Most of the credit goes to Kagawa’s bravura performance as Kondo, deftly switching between the cold, professional assassin to the vulnerable amnesic; Sakai seems outclassed, too much of a ham, but in fairness, his character is supposed to be a failed actor. Key of Life orchestrates its many tonal shifts skilfully, evoking an enjoyable range of emotions. Uchida’s well-crafted, well-executed comedy is well-worth a watch. And next time you’re perusing a film festival programme, keep an eye out for good foreign films without distribution deals.