Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express 2Hong Kong

5*
Director:
Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriter:
Wong Kar-wai
Director of Photography:
Christopher Doyle

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: 重慶森林
Transliterated title:
Chung Hing sam lam

Chungking Express has boundless energy, revels in repetition and is quite simply one of the most absorbing films ever made. This may be the only film made by director Wong Kar-wai that I have ever enjoyed (with the possible exception of Fallen Angels, released in 1995), and it is because whatever stylisation takes place always serves to propel the story forward. There is never a dull moment. The repetition is aural, not visual, and although often slightly manipulated, the images are infused with a gritty Hong Kong realism and feature two of the most likeable cops you’re ever likely to see.

These two cops are #223 and #663, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, respectively, and they both suffer from broken hearts. Their tales are told in two separate story lines, with the Midnight Express fast-food stall serving as the only solid connecting thread between the two. 

The film has one of the most exhilarating opening scenes I have seen in my life. The images jump off the screen, and for a while we are blinded, not by the visuals, but by the music. Michael Galasso’s “Baroque” cranks the action forward with rhythms and sounds that immerse you in a world that is audibly — and then, you notice, visibly, too — in motion. Coming after about 1 minute of opening credits (simple white text on a black screen) in complete silence, the score hits a nerve.

The pictures we get are also different from what we’re used to. A step-printed sequence of images (which means the 24 frames per second shot by the camera were altered in post production to unspool at the same speed, but every second frame has been duplicated, and every other frame discarded) makes for dizzying action, captured with a mobile camera that seems to move both more quickly and more slowly than we are used to from the world around us — or, for that matter, the worlds we know on film. The step-printing process is used again at various points in the film, and it continually succeeds in adding another layer of frenzy to a film that positively throbs with adrenaline in the stiflingly humid, concrete jungle that is Hong Kong.

The action in this first scene, and elsewhere in the first story, takes place at Chungking Mansions, a marketplace where everything can be found because every colour and creed on the face of the earth seems to be hawking their wares here.

In the first story, Cop #223 — whose name, He Qiwu, is only mentioned at rare intervals — has just broken up with his girlfriend, May, whom we never see. He hangs out at Midnight Express, a fast-food joint, almost every night, where the manager (played by “Piggy” Chan Kam-Chuen, who was the film’s still photographer) tries to set him up with girls who are waitresses in his employment. But #223 is not interested. He has decided to grieve for one month, until the 1st of May (yes, the name of his ex), when it will also be his birthday, before seriously pursuing any girl again.

The film’s joyous opening scene ends with #223 brushing past a woman in a blonde wig and is accompanied by a voice-over in which the cop tells us he would soon fall in love with her. At the same time as we follow his melancholy-laden trips to grocery stores where he buys canned pineapples set to expire May 1, we also see snippets of this mysterious blonde’s life. She is dealing with a group of  drug smugglers but when she delivers them to the airport and turns around, they’ve suddenly absconded with copious amounts of cocaine.

Honestly, there are parts of this film that do not gel together all that smoothly. The blonde’s working relationship with the owner of a nightclub, who is also deeply involved in the drug business, takes a few viewings to piece together, and even then it’s not entirely clear, because we are asked to infer meaning and function from mere glances. But thanks to the rapid editing that also accelerates the pace at which the stories are told, small jumps are effortlessly papered over, as it were, by the colourful neon.

The first time around, the viewer may be disoriented by the first part, as there are a few very brief shots (lasting no more than a few seconds) with the three main characters from the second part, whom we don’t know yet. But first, a word about the second story.

Cop #663 meets Faye at Midnight Express, where she starts working at the end of the first story, just as #223 disappears from the film (something else that is never explained). He has a sometime girlfriend, an air hostess, but she gives up on their relationship and hands the key with the “Dear John” letter to Faye, who hangs on to the letter for a while, and on to the key to #663’s apartment for much longer. Meanwhile, she becomes fascinated by this man and even starts going to his place (these scenes were shot in DOP Christopher Doyle’s apartment) to clean and reinvigorate his home (some may think of Amélie here). Here, there are questions of credibility, as she replaces certain items, which #663 notices but doesn’t question.

Faye, the air hostess and the cop all make surprise appearances in the first part. First, the air hostess appears outside the airport when the woman with a blonde wig escorts her Indians with their drugs to the departure gate. While the woman in the blonde wig waits outside a toy store, Faye exits with a massive Garfield toy, which we will see again in #663’s flat later on. Moments later, when #223 leaves Midnight Express, there is a short take on #663 looking down from a raised platform, seemingly at #223, but since geography is rarely established in this film, we cannot be certain.

These are very minor points, but they suggest a film that is slightly experimental and strives to make it clear all the buzzing belongs to the same world yet tells its story at full speed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, producing a vibrant combination of narrative, sound and colour that stays with you.

You’ll never hear The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” again without thinking of Tony Leung and Faye Wong. Few other directors — Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick with Badlands and A Thin Red Line, and Oliver Stone with Platoon — have managed to pull off such an exquisite audiovisual melding using music that had been around for a long time.

Oddly enough, the repetition of the music holds the unconventional storytelling together: Not only is the film divided into two parts, and do the characters from the one turn up unannounced in the other, but like the sequence in Citizen Kane that telegraphs the dissolution of a marriage, a quick succession of scenes involving an array of fast food for the girlfriend precedes the actual introduction of the girlfriend — in a flashback, no less! But Wong Kar-wai breezily ignores the convention of narrative linearity, and yet the viewer stays riveted because these are all such wonderful people.

We love the movies we love despite their faults, not because we think they lack any. Chungking Express, with its numerous awkward plot transitions, is as good an example as any of this, but because I trusted the film from the very first moment and let myself be carried along the stream of images of audio and was never let down by the story or its gentle characters, this remains a truly dazzling film.

Olympic Garage (1999)

Argentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Bechis
Screenwriters:
Marco Bechis
Lara Fremder
Director of Photography:
Ramiro Civita

Original title: Garage Olimpo
Running time: 100 minutes

Although this makes it all the more frightening, it is refreshing to see a conflict not based on race or religion, but on ideology. The reason this should inspire fear in viewer and character alike is that this kind of setup makes it much more difficult to distinguish a friend from an enemy.

Olympic Garage is set during Argentina’s Dirty War of the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which many Argentines were rounded up, because they’d been denounced by someone as a traitor to the system or an anarchist or a subversive, and tortured before simply disappearing. The mass disappearances of the country’s citizen led to a commission established after this time of military rule called the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons to look into the vast scope of the government’s actions to silence the general population.

What the film manages to convey better than anything else — and there are many scenes of torture and calculated moments of sudden, cold-blooded violence to demonstrate how power-hungry and callous some of the policemen were who enjoyed this civil war against the people they are meant to protect — is that shocking, government-sanctioned acts can take place in the middle of a city without anyone knowing about it.

A great deal of the film takes place underground, in a parking garage in downtown Buenos Aires, and we regularly see people (often, the same people, going about their daily life) walking lazily past the entrance to this parking garage, ignorant of the abhorrent acts being committed inside. In the same vein, there are multiple shots taken from a helicopter that might signal the constant surveillance of the citizenry, but as the sound is cut completely, all we get is a feeling of cars flowing over highways and people walking on sidewalks, unaware of the things their fellow citizens are suffering.

These scenes in the parking garage focus on Maria Fabiani, a girl whose French mother living in Buenos Aires doesn’t know where her daughter is, only that the police came to take her from their home and that she will be at Police Station 23, but she is nowhere to be found, like so many others. Over the course of the film, Maria slowly loses her mind (who wouldn’t?), but actress Antonella Costa isn’t always convincing.

However, her boyfriend Felix, played by Carlos Echevarría, is a study in how to effectively communicate conflicting emotion and convey complexity with few words. While he is her boyfriend in an on-again off-again kind of way, he never told her that he tortures people for a living in a parking garage (luckily the torture sounds are mostly obscured by a portable radio outside the room whose volume is turned up whenever the pain is about to start), but when she shows up as a suspect he has to fulfil his duty while not alienating or hurting her. It is a delicate balance that Echevarría, in his début feature film, pulls off admirably.

The film has a nice bookend structure involving a man in whose home a bomb is planted right at the beginning of the film, though the woman with the bomb, called Ana — a friend of his daughter’s — is not given any back story nor integrated into the rest of the film, which is a real shame.

There are some nice little details, in particular the relationship (or the beginnings of a relationship) cultivated between Maria and a fellow inmate, a mechanic called Nene, as well as the hints of feelings that Maria inspired in another fellow anti-government activist Francisco, and the observation of how Felix tries to assert power over Maria, but the film is not very strong on story. 

Toward the end, the film becomes very political as the church is implicated in oppressive regime’s horrible deeds and a final title card informs us that many of these people responsible for the disappearance of thousands of innocent civilians today walk the streets freely.

Olympic Garage offers a glimpse of the hardship endured by those fighting for a better life but who were tortured and ultimately ended up dead as a result of their desire to fight, or just resist. The film is not entirely engrossing but it has many points of entry for anyone wanting to know what kinds of things went on underground during Argentina’s Dirty War.

How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate (1997)

Ireland

4*
Director:
Graham Jones
Screenwriters:
Graham Jones
Aislinn O’Loughlin
Tadhg O’Higgins
Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 77 minutes

First things first: This was the début feature of a 22-year-old, and yet neither the usual first-time desire to show off nor the flaws of not knowing how to direct actors are on show here. The film has fast pacing but slows down at very significant points to focus on effecting smooth transitions through credible though very well-written dialogue; it is also great fun.

Shot during the summer of 1996 and showing the last school year (culminating in the middle of 1997) at James Joyce College in Dublin, the film quickly assembles a group of characters who want to beat the system by cheating on the big school-leaving exam called the leaving certificate or just “leaving cert”.

The film exploits the creativity and ingenuity (and, perhaps, blind optimism) of school children to make us believe they can put their heads together and best the security of the establishment, i.e. the Department of Education. But they, and the filmmaker, present the case in almost meticulous fashion to make us believe this can be done, even by complete amateurs.

Now, as the narrator reminds us, “cheating in the exam properly isn’t easy”, and it takes the group of students, almost all of them intelligent in ways that are different to the one tested by the school-leaving exam, a full year to put together a plan that would work.

They have few real obstacles, but while there are one or two tense moments, including a classically staged but very effective sequence of cross-cutting that brings to mind the famous tennis sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the goal of How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate is to be more like a manual than a dramatic tale.

The idea of a manual is supported by delicious, informal but very informative narration provided by Nial O’Driscoll, who sets out all the information one would need to pull off the act of stealing the papers from the Department of Education’s high-security warehouse in the town of central rural Irish town of Athlone successfully.

The narrator also continuously reminds us of how important the exam is, and we often go back to the teachers who try to explain to their students how they should divide up their time to study for this once in a lifetime opportunity to make it big in the world and go to university. “Failure in the leaving certificate means failure for the rest of your lives!” a teacher bellows ominously in the opening scene.

The main actor in all this is Fionn (Garret Baker), a pupil whose friend Cian committed suicide when he was found cheating in his exams. Fionn is a lonely boy but he is committed to make a point by cheating and then coming out afterwards to show that his skill at staging such a heist apparently means nothing because it is not the kind of skill tested by the leaving certificate exam.

The logic is a bit flawed, but his quiet determination to prove to himself and to those around him the Department of Education is not as intelligent as they would like to think is certainly admirable and keeps the viewer glued to the screen.

The generally light-hearted approach of director Graham Jones to his material, especially in the form of the pleasure of listening to the narrator explain in great detail (at one point he even laughs at the naïveté of the characters, immediately endearing himself to us), goes a long way towards gaining our confidence that this is a film to be enjoyed fully.

And yet, with Cian’s suicide in the background and the sad face of Fionn claiming our attention in many scenes, it is also clear that this entertaining film is tinged with sadness that adds unexpected depth to the characters.

It is a great joy to watch this film, which shares the same kind of wit as The History Boys but is far more straightforward in its intentions and its emotions, perhaps unfortunately eschewing the complexity of the latter. The title tells us that everything will be fine, and the moments of dramatic tension because of uncertainty of what is going to happen are very rare. The writing is superior to the film itself, although there is the odd well-chosen visual flourish, and it would have been good to see Graham Jones contribute to more screenplays, which unfortunately has not really been the case since the release of this film.

The Adopted Son (1998)

Kyrgyzstan

3.5*
Director:
Aktan Abdykalykov
Screenwriters:
Aktan Abdykalykov
Avtandil Adikulov
Marat Sarulu
Director of Photography:
Khassan Kydyraliev

Running time: 77 minutes

Original title: Бешкемпир
Transliterated title: Beshkempir

The films of the countries that used to form a part of the Soviet Union are not very well-known, primarily because there are so few of them and the nascent film industries in those countries in general have neither the money nor the experience to make films that can be marketed to a larger audience outside the country. From time to time, filmmakers from elsewhere come to take advantage of these foreign lands and the vistas that viewers around the world might never have seen on film before, and thereby produce small but interesting films, for example the French production Moi Ivan, Toi Abraham, made in 1993 in Belarus; Tengri, made in Kazakhstan by a French production team that used Kyrgyz actors; or notable films out of Tajikistan thanks to director Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov in the 1990s, before he started making films in Russia.

Kyrgyz director Aktan Abdykalykov, who also goes by the name of Aktan Arym Kubat, is a Kyrgyzstan native who worked as a production designer on some of the films made by the former Soviet Union’s local Kirgizfilm, the films almost always — with a few rare exceptions, mostly in the 1980s — in Russian. The country’s independence at the end of 1991 also heralded the coming of the Kyrgyz-language film industry. The films of Abdykalykov (and more recently, of Ernest Abdyjaparov and the young Nurbek Egen, as well) have been some of the lone cinematic voices in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

Like all the other films made in the country since the fall of the Iron Curtain, The Adopted Son is set in rural Kyrgyzstan. The film stars the director’s son, Mirlan, in the role of the young teenage boy Beshkempir, whose life is about to “go berserk”, as his grandmother puts is. But this is not his grandmother: The opening scene, 12 years earlier, shown to us in warm colors, already established that he was adopted at birth, and this fact is about to turn his life upside down.

Cut to the present in black and white, when Beshkempir’s hair is cut and the sound of clippers is suddenly replaced by garden scissors cutting a small branch from a tree. Things obviously do not look good for the boy’s future, and the rest of the film is in black and white, with the exception of some slightly more optimistic shots (rather than scenes) briefly presented to us in colour, almost all of them unfortunately disconnected from the storyline, bringing atmosphere rather than substance.

The other children play with him and he is not socially isolated, but at this age children have started to show their true colours, and we can see them whispering in each other’s ears, clearly spreading a story about him: the story about his origins that, soon enough, he will discover for himself.

The other strong thread in the film has to do with the sexual coming-of-age of the boys, and as Beshkempir sees another boy, who already has a job as a projectionist at the open-air cinema where they screen Indian musicals from the 1960s, picking up a girl on his bicycle, and he wants to eventually do the same with the girl he has his eye on, Aynura.

But in the meantime, he is frustrated, as first a woman the boys make out of dirt, for them to have their way with, is trampled by a heard of bulls, and then when he lies in bed one morning and his hand slips down to his grown, a bird flies into the room (a hoopoe, whose sound permeates the soundtrack of the film).

Beshkempir tries very hard to be poetic, and while there are numerous important incidents that should energise the narrative, they are all presented as fragments with little or no transition between them, and furthermore the addition of colour, often completely unexpectedly, draws more attention to itself than is required for this particular film. So does the racking of focus from Beshkempir and his father, a bitter man whom we don’t get to know or understand, to water dropping from a makeshift tap in the foreground during an altercation.

The dialogue is post-synchronised, but even so, one of the central scenes, in which Beshkempir is most seriously stabbed in the back by one of his best friends, features a boy whose words are, even in Kyrgyz, delivered very poorly, which makes our empathy with Beshkempir and our interest in the events more difficult.

While the film shows some technical creativity, the narrative is more opaque than necessary, as it leaves many questions unanswered and sometime even unasked, though the viewer needs more information to know who these people are (most of the characters are never introduced by name) and why they are behaving the way they do. However, despite its shortcomings, Beshkempir is a more-than-adequate contribution to world cinema.

The War Room (1993)

USA

4*
Directors:
Chris Hegedus
D. A. Pennebaker
Directors of Photography:
Nick Doob
D.A. Pennebaker
Kevin Rafferty

Running time: 96 minutes

D.A. Pennebaker knows how to pick the right candidate – a political candidate who is not the favourite to win but who brings with him a sense that things are about to change big time.  He became the father of political American “Direct Cinema” in 1960 when he filmed John F. Kennedy’s campaign in New Hampshire, which ended in a win, propelling him forward and enabled him to capture the nomination of the Democratic Party. The film was called Primary and it changed the face of the documentary film.

The War Room starts in New Hampshire in January 1992, where William J. Clinton, former governor of Arkansas, is preparing to win the state, but he loses to Paul Tsongas from neighbouring Massachusetts. It is curious to see all of the names of the candidates who participated in this primary back on screen. I was too young at the time to be caught up in the minutiae of the process, but it is wonderful, as we approach another election cycle, to look back at this field and their obstacles and be reminded of the repetition that is nonetheless always exciting because the participants bring new baggage every time.

The film opens with the accusations made by Jennifer Flowers against Governor Clinton, complete with the tape recordings to prove it; she alleged that Clinton had had an affair with her reaching back many years. Of course, we now know today that she should not have been ignored as quickly as she was, and it does appear rather odd that his own campaign never questions their own candidate, but I guess that is normal for presidential candidates’ campaign staff. It is made obvious, and his senior adviser James Carville acknowledges as much, that everybody thinks Bill Clinton is the perfect candidate, the only one they would spend their time and their energy on to promote, and they believe in him so completely that they prefer not to get involved in any negativity about him.

Perhaps he never would have been elected if they had questioned him, and the country would have been worse off as a result.

Besides Carville, who is the main attack dog and chief strategist for the campaign, there is the young George Stephanopoulos, his communications director, who would later act briefly as Clinton’s press secretary in the White House. These two guys have total confidence in Clinton’s abilities and inspire us with their attitude of getting the message out that (George HW) Bush has been a failure as a president, despite his skills as a politician.

The film follows the campaign from New Hampshire through the primary process to the eventual nomination at the Democratic Convention and ultimately ending on November 3 with the general election. A lot of material has to be squeezed into this film and obviously, when the film was released in 1993, many things could be left unsaid. Today, that is a problem because we are left with questions that go unanswered and expectations that are often unfulfilled. We don’t know what the pay-off was, because we are looking at a kind of shorthand that is difficult to decipher after nearly twenty years have passed.

For example, while much is made of the upcoming appearance of his Democratic competitor Jerry Brown at the convention (he was going to make like Ted Kennedy in 1980 and ruffle feathers because he had not collected the most delegates), we never see his speech. We also learn that Perot withdraws from the race only to re-enter a few weeks later, without much fanfare either in the media or in Clinton’s campaign headquarters. Bush is like a barking dog in the background: we are aware of him but we don’t see him all that much. We know he seems hesitant to debate Clinton (citing issues with the format of the debate), but there too the film puts very little information on the screen.

The most important thing to remember while we watch this film is that it is about the “war room”, in other words, it is about Carville and Stephanopoulos and their tactics, and not really about Bill Clinton. It is fascinating to watch Carville come up with a political barnburner on the spot, the product of his passion for the moment, his enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy and his political savvy.

The camera’s mobility is a great advantage for putting us in the “present” with the events – in particular, when we run through the corridors backstage with George Stephanopoulos after the presidential debate, when he has to make his way to the media gaggle as soon as possible to comment on the evening’s proceedings.

For anyone who follows politics, it is also nice to see much younger faces of those who are still very visible on television. People like Paul Begala, Mark Halperin and John King.

Finally, on the election night, the film comes to an end. And while we all know how the story ends, it is the team behind the scenes that make this a story to really appreciate. The emotion of team Carville-Stephanopoulos at the last war room meeting is beautiful and pure and the film should be studied by every political campaign against an incumbent. For the rest of us, it offers a moment of reflection. Are all these fights important? Would it have made a difference? And how is it possible that Roger Ailes still peddles so much influence?

Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991)

Mexico

4.5*
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter: Carlos Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki
Running time: 94 minutes

Original title: Sólo Con Tu Pareja

In 2001, Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, would open with a shot that is almost an exact replica of the first shot in his first feature film: a young man and woman are having sex on a mattress while the camera slowly tracks towards them amidst their passionate shrieks of pleasure. Cuarón has a penchant for mixing comedy with much more serious reflections on human nature, and his first film, though much more broadly comical than any of his other projects, gives the viewer a taste of things to come.

Love in the Time of Hysteria shares a great deal with a 1980s Almodóvar classic such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and at many points the film had me in stitches. If you remember the running joke about the Shi’ite terrorists in Almodóvar’s film, you will love Cuarón’s recurring references to a gringa who put her French poodle in a microwave.

A young playboy called Tomás Tomás works in the advertising industry and has stuck it in so many places he has all but lost count of his conquests. When some white spots appear in his throat, he goes to see his friend, Mateo de Mateos, who is a doctor. Silvia, Mateo’s nurse, falls for Tomás and in the blink of an eye, they have arranged to meet at Tomás’s flat that evening. The only problem is that Tomás’s boss and part-time lover, Gloria, is on her way over to discuss the latest ad campaign. When the two women arrive, Tomás has his hands full to ensure that they are both satisfied without finding out about each other.

Unfortunately, a third woman piques his interest: a young flight attendant named Clarisa, who has just moved in next door. And so, Tomás loses track of time and poor Silvia leaves in a huff the next morning. In fact, she is so beside herself with frustration that she decides to play a trick on Tomás: we have already established that she is a lascivious little sadist, but now she informs him that his HIV test has come back positive.

But while this turn of events in Tomás’s life could potentially have terrible consequences, all of which Tomás seems to consider very seriously, Cuarón’s use of the colour green – as in so many of his other films, most visibly in Great Expectations – hints at the victory of life over death, whatever the red arrows of Cupid (that serve as accents on the green text of the opening credits) might otherwise indicate.

This is a film full of incidents of varying hilarity, staged with a magnificent sense of direction and energy, and while one could easily fault the film for a lack of real substance, it certainly holds the viewer’s attention, because the chaos does not overwhelm the storylines. Also, Cuarón’s use of mostly classical music on the soundtrack (which often consists of Mozart – predictably, the “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” aria from Don Giovanni) gives a slightly heavier, though perhaps only ironically, gloss to the events we witness.

Love in the Time of Hysteria doesn’t take itself too seriously – exhibit one is the opening quotation of the film, from e.e. cummings, which states that “mike likes all the girls […] all the girls except the green ones”, but these quotes ranges from such nonsense to Newton’s Third Law; its characters usually have the same first and last names, and Tomás’s friend Mateo uses cliché Latin sayings in most of his sentences. Nonetheless, the film certainly entertains and while the characters of the two Japanese businessmen have no real place in the story, this film showed the great promise on which Alfonso Cuarón would soon deliver. His cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki, would continue to work with him on most of his subsequent projects, as well as the films of Terrence Malick, while his other cameraman, Rodrigo Prieto, would work with the other great Mexican director of the last decade, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Taiwan

4.5*
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriters:
Ang Lee,
Neil Peng,
James Schamus
Director of Photography:
Jong Lin
Running time: 106 minutes

Original title: 喜宴
Transliterated title: Xǐ yàn

The Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee’s second feature film, was released in 1993, right in the middle of a movement in American filmmaking that would come to be known as New Queer Cinema, consisting of films with gay themes, treated openly, mainly produced by gay filmmakers such as Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki. The Wedding Banquet is quite different from the rest of the films of the time in that it is infinitely more accessible to a mainstream audience and was not made by a gay director. However, as Ang Lee would prove more than a decade later with his elegant adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, he is perfectly attuned to the human complexity of his films’ gay characters and seeks to portray them as ostracised despite their similarity to the average straight viewer, rather than pretending that they are different in any particular way. Another point that is noteworthy, given the film’s release in 1993, is the lack of any reference to AIDS – instead, the filmmakers have decided to make a film about secrets and the unnecessary tension (indeed, chaos) that develops when someone is more ashamed of themselves than they are afraid of their parents’ potential reaction to the news that their son or daughter is gay.

In New York, Wai Tong is a Taiwanese American who’s been with his American boyfriend, Simon, for the past five years. Wai Tong has not told his parents, who are living in Taiwan, that he is gay, but since they want a grandchild, they constantly sign him up for singles’ clubs, and forward the questionnaires, which he dutifully fills out, albeit with criteria that seem impossible to meet.

The film does not concentrate on the issue of sexuality as much as it draws our attention to the ubiquitous – and unnecessary – secrecy, from all sides. Everybody has secrets and yet they all refuse to share these secrets for fear that they will be rejected as a result of their honesty. Naturally, when Wai Tong and his tenant Wei Wei decide to get married – he so that his parents can see their son married, she so that she can get a green card – and his parents turn up for the big day, this secrecy eventually leads to tension between him Simon, who only wants to impress his boyfriend’s parents, even though they have no idea what role he plays in their son’s life.

“It’s kind of stupid – all these lies. But I’m used to it,” admits Wai Tong to Simon, but once his parents arrive the situation quickly spins out of control and he becomes entangled in his own web of lies. Luckily, most of these scenes are in Taiwanese, for actor Winston Chao is very unconvincing in English, having a painful elocution of simple words that have no emotional resonance coming from him. But while the acting might be sub-par, Ang Lee’s direction is flawless, as shown by his masterful handling of giant groups of extras during the scenes at the wedding banquet, as well as his decision to film many important dialogues (between Wai Tong’s mother and Wai Wai; between Wai Tong and his mother; and between Wai Tong’s father and Simon) in single takes.

What makes the film so special is the care it takes with its characters – and not just Wai Tong’s parents. The small gestures that Simon makes, sometimes in the background, barely visible to the camera, are striking when seen within the context of his place in the film. He has been marginalised by his boyfriend, for the sake of pretending that all is well even though the whole narrative that develops – including his presence at his boyfriend’s wedding to a girl – is close to farcical, but he keeps a straight face and always wants to make sure that Wai Tong is feeling as comfortable as possible, that he is taken care of. The interaction is beautiful and the fact that Ang Lee focuses on such details is impressive and enriches the human dimension of a film that could easily have been filled with comical caricatures.

It’s not always easy to empathise with Wai Tong’s self-pity, but Ang Lee’s story is full of twists and turns, and even the smallest scenes have either narrative of physical energy. It is a film that anticipates the director’s subsequent work on the plains of Wyoming and while it might not confront LGBT issues as aggressively as other filmmakers from the early nineties, it makes gay characters seem more human than they do in the films of these other militant filmmakers.

Attack the Gas Station! (1999)

South Korea

4*
Director:
Kim Sang-Jin

Screenwriter:
Park Jeong-woo

Director of Photography:
Jung Woo Choi

Running time: 113 minutes

Original title:
주유소 습격 사건
Transliterated title:
Juyuso seubgyuksageun

This film is a gas! (I know, I know…) With the same kind of adrenaline in its visuals that reminded me of Run, Lola, Run, this  South Korean film is simple-minded but dedicated to its goal of providing sheer riproaring entertainment. In the opening scene, the film’s four main characters, a group of guys fresh out of high school, rob a gas station and proceed to destroy the entire property in a rampage of destruction. In the following scene, which takes place a few days later, the guys are back to rob the same station again, but this time they have spent their money on clothes that make them seem a little more respectable.

The problem is that the manager of the gas station has taken precautions and tells them that his wife has taken the day’s profits with her and now she can’t be reached. The director, however, decides to show us early on that the manager is lying and has hidden the money somewhere in the office. As a result, the four would-be robbers look like even greater buffoons since they fail to search the office. But more on their stupidity later.

The action-packed first scene of Attack the Gas Station! raises the question how the film could possibly sustain its rhythm. Of course, it can’t, but we are provided with some very cool visuals, from upside-down shots and shots taken from very low angles, to shots in which the camera is pointed vertically upward, or tilted, with wide-angle lenses, or taking the place of a character being kicked in the face by a boot heel that comes straight at us. There are also some rather silly uses of the slow motion, but all in all the film has a great time testing out some visual tricks and doesn’t bore us with repetition.

The story is not complicated. The four guys take the manager of the gas station and his three employees hostage, and when anybody pulls up to have gas put in their car, the robbers take the money for themselves, while they are waiting for the manager’s wife to return home and deliver the money to them. Random scenes of chaos erupt when customers are rude or when a local gang comes to collect money from a high school boy who works at the station. But whatever happens, the leader of the four robbers has a very serene quality about him and even though the four of them might not have a clue how to handle the situation, they make it clear that they are in control – and, somehow, they usually are.

The characters they come up against are hardly the rough underworld types, although there is initially much talk about the gang leader, Yongari, but he turns out to be a complete whimp. One of the guys, Bulldozer, keeps watch over the steadily growing group of hostages, but he behaves like a bad imitation of a Toshiro Mifune character, baring his teeth, pulling faces and forcing people to crush their skulls into the floor.

But the film has some wonderful moments, and they usually involve music. Halfway through the film, a big fight scene is accompanied by a techno version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons (Spring)”, and later on, when the hi-fi breaks down, the Yongari gang performs in the background, and this musical number stands as the highlight of the entire film, for it is unexpected, well-executed and highly entertaining.

The film doesn’t quite know how to keep itself busy in the second half, but when all the different factions come together during the climax, and the four main characters’ back stories have been established, we get a wonderful combination of form and content that makes for a very appropriate ending to a film that never takes itself too seriously.

The Fourth Reich (1990)

South Africa

3.5*
Director:
Manie van Rensburg
Screenwriter:
Malcolm Kohll
Director of Photography:
Dewald Aukema

Running time: 183 minutes

South Africa’s most expensive film to date brought together the cream of the country’s film industry to tell the real-life story of Robey Leibbrandt, an Afrikaans boxer turned revolutionary, who was planning to assassinate the country’s pro-British prime minister, General Jan Smuts, shortly after the Second World War broke out.

Originally shot as a television series before being edited down and screened across the country to tepid public interest, the film ultimately wound up, two years later, on the country’s television screens. The Fourth Reich had an estimated budget of R16 million ($6 million at the time, around $10.5 million today, which is an enormous figure for a South African film; by contrast, the 2005 Oscar-winning film, Tsotsi, was made for $3 million). It is evident that a large amount of the budget was spent on set design and costumes, but the film also benefits from being shot on location very often, and the South African countryside, with its wide open spaces and pre-war dirt roads, is well represented in this film.

The film opens in Berlin during the Olympic Games of 1936, where South African boxer Robey Leibbrandt is recruited by the German government when they learn of his affection for the National Socialist Party’s ideology and his admiration of their leader. “The Führer has created a miracle. That’s exactly what we need to happen in South Africa.” He spends the next few years training in Germany, until Germany invades Poland and Britain declares war.

In South Africa, the people’s state of mind at this time must be framed within the context of events at the turn of the century: South Africans had fought and lost against the British in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and even after becoming the Union of South Africa in 1910, a British colony, many South Africans still had little affection for the Crown. Shortly before WWII, the “Ossewabrandwag” (literally, the Ox-wagon sentinel), an ultra-nationalist organisation, was formed to resist cooperation with the British. However, General Jan Smuts, who was the country’s deputy prime minister at the time, opposed Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog (who advocated neutrality towards Germany), stating that, “in war, you are either friend or enemy”.

After Smuts defeated Hertzog in this matter, he was appointed Prime Minister, and became an instant target for the Ossewabrandwag, who disliked the British as much as they idolised the German ideologies of nationalism and anti-Semitism.

The Fourth Reich focuses on Robey Leibbrandt’s preparations for the assassination of Jan Smuts (Louis van Niekerk, made up to look exactly like the General), and on the policeman whose assignment is to track down Leibbrandt before he can carry out his mission: Jan Taillard. In the first hour of the film, these two men’s journeys (and in particular, their gestures) are intercut in a way that binds them together. Ultimately, however, it is a German woman, Erna Dorfman (very often accompanied by the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2), whom they both encounter, who will introduce them to each other and play an important role in the development of the narrative.

Taillard is a very competent but badly mannered policeman; when he is called to Pretoria from his home in Queenstown, his wife kindly advises him: “Try and follow orders this time…” The mission, which he chooses to accept, requires him to locate whoever is planning to assassinate Prime Minister Smuts, without breathing a word to anybody, including his dutiful wife, Romy (played by Elize Cawood, whose voice is both golden and vulnerable). In the meantime, Leibbrandt sneaks into South Africa via South-West Africa (the present-day Namibia) and seeks to incite members of the Ossewabrandwag to join him in overthrowing the government by committing acts of sabotage on power and railway lines. The faithful are asked to swear a blood oath with the following words, by Henri de la Rochejaquelein.

If I advance, follow me
If I retreat, shoot me
If I die, avenge me.

Ironically, de la Rochejaquelein had been a Royalist in eighteenth-century France, allied with the British to fight against the post-Revolutionary republican government with the aim of restoring the monarchy.

Ryno Hattingh’s performance as Robey Leibbrandt is commendable, but he is given too little to do. The man has to be charismatic, and while the character tries to emulate Adolf Hitler’s elocution when he makes important speeches, the result is not very moving; often he is presented as arrogant and the film does not seek to delve much deeper into his character. On the other hand, as Jan Taillard, Marius Weyers brings a quiet self-confidence to a very human character whose secret mission to defend the prime minister destabilises his life and alienates him from his family.

The film was clearly meant for television, as people usually speak in close-up and story lines that should have been left out completely in the theatrical version show up as unsatisfactory snippets, for example Leibbrandt’s arrival in the Sperrgebiet of South-West Africa, of which a single scene survives, with actress Wilma Stockenström, that doesn’t lead anywhere. Another very bad moment comes early in the film, when Frau Dorfman has a passionate encounter with Leibbrandt: while they make out in slow-motion, actress Grethe Fox’s otherwise stone-cold face is contorted and it seems like she is in agony, and yet the foreplay continues.

It is regrettable that director Manie van Rensburg chose to make a film in English, spoken by a cast of mostly Afrikaans players who all have a very recognisably Afrikaans accent. While an anti-British South African identity does not necessarily imply that the speakers be Afrikaans, it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief when English is used as the lingua franca between members of a very Afrikaans movement such as the Ossewabrandwag.

In the closing credits, the filmmaker seems to acknowledge that the film was made to rehabilitate the reputation of Jan Taillard, whose hard work to protect General Smuts was disregarded by the post-war Nationalist government. The film itself is a very good depiction of life in South Africa in the early 1940s, including the influence of Nazi politics on South Africa during this time, and it is always a pleasure to see individuals such as Smuts brought to life on-screen. The Fourth Reich was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a South African director in his own country and while the film struggles to overcome its television origins, it is a marvellous reminder of the beauty of the South African landscape and the narrative possibilities that the country’s history offers to filmmakers.

A Reasonable Man (1999)

South Africa

4*
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Director of Photography:
Buster Reynolds

Running time: 101 minutes

The South African A Reasonable Man is a carefully executed investigation into the importance of tribal or traditional beliefs in a country that sees itself as Western-oriented. The screenplay takes great care to handle the material sensibly, demonstrating the significance of the past in the present, and highlighting the fact that non-Western beliefs should not be dismissed out of hand, for they too have a role to play, however “unreasonable” their basis might be in the eyes of the law.

The film opens in Angola in 1988, during the final years of the South African Border War. South African soldiers arrive in a tiny village where they find nothing but abandoned houses. The squad separates and a young Sean Raine goes to hide in one of these houses. When a closet door creaks, the tense Raine unloads his gun on the flimsy plywood door. What tumbles out of the closet will haunt him for a long time.

Ten years later, having recently returned to South Africa after spending a decade abroad with his wife, Raine meets a young cowherd named Sipho in a village in the Eastern part of the country known as Kwazulu-Natal. Sipho is found with a bloody hatchet in his hands, while a woman clutches a one-year-old baby in her arms, its head split open. Sipho swears that he was only trying to kill the “Tikoloshe” (or “Tokoloshe”, as I know it), an evil spirit, and not the baby. Luckily, Raine is a lawyer, and because of his experience in Angola he decides to give the boy a chance and chooses to represent him in court.

But “Tikoloshe” is not a word that anybody takes kindly to – except Sipho and a witch doctor (or “sangoma”) who would help rid Sean Raine of his demons from the past – and it seems unlikely that the boy, who admits to having swung the hatchet, would be judged innocent. Hearing this case is Judge Wendon, whose initial surprise at Raine’s refusal to let his client plead insanity defence slowly morphs into a more accommodating view of the young lawyer. Starring as Judge Wendon is Nigel Hawthorne, who brings a very welcome combination of compassion, wit and judicial solemnity to the role.

At the centre of the film, however, is director Gavin Hood himself, who is cast as Sean Raine, a man whose big clean-shaven face is innocent yet shimmers with conviction and perseverance. The film is as much about Raine’s personal story as the criminal proceeding, for he feels that he would finally be freed from this “snake deep inside” if he manages to assure Sipho’s acquittal.

Now, it is made clear that Sipho took a hatchet and struck a baby in such a way that the baby was killed. Sipho believed that it was the Tikoloshe, but the steadfastness of one’s beliefs has nothing to do with the law, as Judge Wendon makes very clear in his comparison of Sipho’s beliefs with those of mass murderers and historical figures such as Hitler and Stalin.

Hood’s screenplay flows very well, although its desire not only to meet the audience more than halfway but to spell everything out in overly informative sentences sometimes seems quite contrived. Sipho’s character has to be a bit of an enigma in order for the film to exist, but the lack of interaction between him and Raine, as well as the complete absence of the mother of the murdered baby, left me wondering whether Hood was not too interested in his own character.

The film makes an interesting analogy between Christian and tribal beliefs, including the ever-popular metaphor of Christ’s blood and body, and in this regard Hood is successful in introducing his audience to customs that might be foreign to them. Hood’s choice to make the state prosecutor a black advocate and himself, a white man, the representative for the defence of tribal beliefs, is very interesting and provides this film with a much richer texture than it would have had otherwise.

The implications of an imbalance, in the eyes of the law, between Western and non-Western morality is hammered home a bit too forcefully, but in the end the film survives its examination of social and religious customs and certainly provides ample material for discussion afterwards. The courthouse is in Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, a town whose licence plate designation is NP. Perhaps this is a coincidence. But, considering the film’s attention to detail, perhaps it isn’t.