Films of 2018

Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I saw roughly 406 films for the first time in 2018.

I say ‘roughly’ because this figure is not entirely accurate, since there are a couple of films that I went to watch only to realise that I had seen them before, or at the very least to suspect that I had seen them before (In Praise of Nothing being a case in point).

What is more, there are some films that I saw at the Strange Days exhibition at London’s 180 Strand, but which are not listed here (Pipilotti Rist’s 4th Floor to Mildness functions as a stand-in for all of the ones that I did see).

On that topic, there are two gallery/installation films that I enjoyed a lot, but which I did not get to see in full, those being Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Tate Modern and Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow at the Strange Days exhibition. Of the former, I managed to see from 10:02 through to about 18:00 – although there is one final all-night session in January 2019 that may allow me to see the film in its entirety provided that I go and that I stay awake for it. And of the latter, I only managed about half an hour, but it was hypnotising and I would like to see more (it is available on YouTube, but I have not had a chance to see it).

Beyond that, I saw 220 films at the cinema this year, making it the most common venue for my film viewing. This was followed by 144 films that I saw online, 22 films that I saw on DVD, VHS or from a file, 11 films that I saw on an aeroplane, 7 listed here that I saw at galleries, and two that I saw on television.

This includes various short(er) films.

The distinction between cinema and online continues to be eroded, in that many films are readily available online at the same time that they are in theatres. I would say that when I see a film like Bird Box, and I can see the image blur as the internet connection wavers, or when I see a film like Mudbound and I can see streaks of grey (as well as my own reflection) in the black of a nocturnal scene as my laptop cannot handle the tonality of darkness… then I feel that the theatre is still the best venue for watching films.

I fell asleep during a relatively large number of films this year, but I did not keep a record. That said, I did sense that I was beginning to fall asleep on occasion during mainstream films, which previously was only a very rare occurrence. Perhaps I need more sleep, or to change my lifestyle in numerous ways (drink less, stop smoking, do more exercise, watch fewer films, not work so hard, learn to be an adult, and so on). All the same, though, maybe blockbusters are having less of an effect on grabbing my attention than they used to.

I also noted that I would check and answer messages on my phone more regularly during film screenings. I am not sure how to stop the endless tide of messages or the insistent compulsion to answer them. In part this may be because watching films can sometimes still feel like skiving.

There are a few filmmakers by whom I saw several films this year, and these include Ingmar Bergman (as part of the retrospective of his work at the British Film Institute), Alia Syed and Kamran Shirdel (as part of events organised through the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image), and then Philippe Garrel, Krzysztof Zanussi, Mark Cousins, Angela Schanelec, Rick Alverson, Kevin Jerome Everson, Barbara Hammer, Annemarie Jacir, John Torres, Lou Ye, Gérard Courant, John Carpenter, Douglas Sirk, James Marsh and Christoph Schlingensief. These latter are mainly as a result of retrospectives on MUBI, although some are also a result of me wanting to catch various of their films out of a sense of failure at not having seen them already (Carpenter), or simply because they seem to have been productive (Mark Cousins and James Marsh, who, via The Mercy and King of Thieves, seemed this year to begin a trend of Brit-film mediocrity that I hope does not last too long).

Of these, the work of Jacir and Everson was in particular a pleasant discovery, while my engagement with Torres was more a case of finally reaching a destination that I had been meaning to visit for a few years. I enjoy but continue not to be blown away by Garrel, while Schlingensief is (or rather was) perhaps one of the most interesting and subversive European filmmakers of the contemporary era. Indeed, without wishing to sound too much like an arrogant c-unit, Schlingensief and Torres would in particular make excellent case studies of what I term ‘non-cinema,’ and about which I published a book this year.

On this note, I also saw a handful of South African films this year (Love The One You LoveThe Wound, We Are Thankful, Revenge, Girl from Nowhere, as well as a couple of experimental shorts not listed below by Jyoti Mistry and Nobunye Levin), some that I preferred more than others… but of which Love The One You Love and We Are Thankful struck me as really strong low-budget pieces of work (and which thus might qualify as what I term ‘non-cinema’). In particular I’d in the future look out for work by Jenna Bass, the director of the former, as well as further work by Mistry and Levin.

Other films that I saw (but which might not necessarily be new), and which might qualify as good examples of ‘non-cinema’ (and which for me were memorable viewing experiences) include Joséphine Ndagnou’s Paris à tout prix, Eric Eason’s Manito, Li Ning’s Tape, Khoa Do’s The Finished People and Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal.

What was also interesting for me was to think about my conceptualisation of non-cinema in relation to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson mentioned above. Briefly put, non-cinema is a way of thinking about low-budget, anti-hegemonic filmmaking (read, work that critiques or offers alternatives to white, heteronormative patriarchy), and which at times is wilfully (but not necessarily) anti-commercial. In particular the argument tries to work productively with the idea that the digital is in some senses not cinema anymore in terms of production (celluloid) and distribution (theatres). And so if for various reasons it is ‘not cinema,’ then maybe we can positively say that it is ‘non-cinema.’

Should anyone ever read the book, one of the issues that they might have with it is that I want or insist that filmmakers who do not belong to white, heteronormative patriarchy somehow should or must produce ‘non-cinema,’ meaning that the wonders of cinema remain the preserve of the powerful.

This is not the intention behind my argument at all and I do try in the book to make clear that ‘non-cinema’ is still (or at least can still be) ‘cinematic’ (whatever that means), while also (perhaps without articulating it in so many words) wishing to encourage film viewers to consider that various of the things that they might consider to be ‘bad’ or ‘not even’ cinema are not necessarily a result of inferior filmmaking abilities (which is to create hierarchies of power), but that they might be positive choices, expressions of difference, perhaps especially expressions of a lack of access to power (especially money-as-power since many filmmakers simply cannot afford to make films that are as pristine as a Hollywood production), and thus aesthetically innovative should we have the eyes and ears to think about them in that way.

In other words, non-cinema is a tool to try to level the playing field of film aesthetics, which in turn might help to level the playing field of our political world, not least because aesthetics play such a central role in our political thinking (the political message is perhaps not as important as how it is presented, i.e. its aesthetic dimension; in cinema, he who makes the most noise and who has the flashiest colour palette is often/in many popular quarters considered to be the winner).

From this, it hopefully would be clear that one can make ‘cinema’ and still be anti-hegemonic (nothing necessarily precludes this, although the closer one gets to cinema there may well yet be a tendency to have to make films that try to make money simply because of how much it costs to make a film). Indeed, to make cinema can still be subversive, and this to me is the power of Everson’s films.

For, by regularly using polyester film stock to portray the everyday lives of working African Americans, Everson surely does ask viewers to consider his subjects to be equally as cinematic/as worthy of cinema as the figures that we see in mainstream, commercial cinema. This gesture is profound and powerful, and I would hope that it works in tandem with filmmakers who embrace non-cinema (low budget digital filmmaking) in order equally to level the playing field. Both are, I hope, working towards creating a more just and democratic world.

Perhaps it does not merit mention in the year after Get Out that African American filmmaking appears to be especially strong, with Black Panther being a necessary film to mention given its status as the first ‘black’ superhero movie (even if I personally had some issues with the film, as I have issues with superhero fantasies more generally, and even if I feel that the Saturday Night Live episode of ‘Black Jeopardy’ with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa was not only one of the most enjoyable audiovisual experiences that I had in 2018, but also politically one of the most astute and powerful).

Nonetheless, one thing that struck me about the films that I saw in 2018 concerning the African American experience (if I can put it that way) is the legacy of Spike Lee. This is not to disregard other figures in the rich history of African American filmmaking, nor is it to disregard Boots Riley’s criticism of Lee concerning the latter’s BlacKkKlansman. But films like Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting seem to carry strong traces of Lee’s influence, with Lee’s work itself remaining relevant and which, when considered as a whole, is relentlessly brave, even if personally I can sometimes find it derivative and testing. One thing is for sure: he continues to experiment and to push himself as a filmmaker, and in this respect he is nothing less than admirable (if that is not too condescending a thing to say).

Lee’s influence can also be seen in films like Justin Chon’s Gook, which tells the tale of American Korean Angelinos, and the turn to which also helps us to consider how currently there is equally a growing visibility of Asian Americans in contemporary cinema – with John Cho being a central figure in this growth as he begins to hold together films as varied as internet rescue film Searching and architecture essay-film Columbus.

(Can one summarise 2018 without mentioning Crazy Rich Asians…? Maybe this single mention is enough.)

I did also see two films by Steven Spielberg in 2018, those being The Post and Ready Player One, the latter of which was my first 4DX experience, and which ideologically annoyed me quite a lot – but so be it. I was also mildly disappointed by some of the Netflix films that did not get (much in the way of) theatrical releases in the UK, including Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox.

But rather than linger on disappointments, perhaps one might instead celebrate achievements, and in this sense 2018 saw a fair amount of what I would consider to be strong American films coming out. Among these I might include I, Tonya (a hangover from 2017), the afore-mentioned BlindspottingBlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You, ColumbusLeave No TraceAmerican AnimalsMid90s, TullyLuckyThe Old Man and the GunRalph Breaks the Internet and Assassination Nation (which nearly sustained its headfuck aesthetic until the end).

Indeed, while I shall list below my ‘proper’ favourites of the year (these ones that I am discussing currently being points of interest and ever-so-nearly my favourites), I was worried that American filmmaking might run away with it this year, not least because a whole bunch of films by big-name world auteurs (including by non-Americans) were fine, but did not quite do it for me in the way that some of their earlier work has done. By this I mean that while I saw films by the likes of Jia Zhangke (Ash is Purest White), Lars von Trier (The House that Jack Built), Kore-eda Hirokazu (The Third Murder and Shoplifters), Pawel Pawlikowsi (Cold War), Steve McQueen (Widows), Fatih Akin (In the Fade), Corneliu Porumboiu (Infinite Football), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), Ruben Östlund (The Square), Jafar Panahi (3 Faces), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), these did not quite do it for me (even though I liked a good number of these films a lot).

A list of films that really came quite close to doing it for me include Jacir’s Wajib, Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, Naomi Kawase’s Radiance, Robin Campillo’s 120BPM, Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. I liked Paul King’s Paddington 2. Both Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite are great films that really have at their core magnificent performances by female leads (respectively Yalitza Aparicio and Olivia Colman, although Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz from the latter are worth mentioning, too – with Weisz having also shone alongside Rachel McAdams and the under-rated Alessandro Nivola in Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience).

I might also say that The Favourite made me think that Peter Greenaway’s legacy remains strong, as well as leading me to believe that the film is perhaps the best Grexit-Brexit comment to have been made in the recent past – not least in the face of much ongoing and conservative British cinema (although Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is also a beautiful investigation into Anglo-European relations up in Yorkshire).

In a year that also saw The Greatest Showman and Mary Poppins Returns saturate our big screens, the legacy of Baz Luhrmann also seemed to loom large, making me wonder what he is up to and why he seems not have any projects along the lines of his best work (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + JulietMoulin Rouge!) on the go. Hopefully these would be more enjoyable than the two musicals mentioned above – even if my niece insisted on dancing repeatedly to ‘A Million Dreams’ and ‘Never Enough’ from the former throughout the Christmas period.

Returning to the UK in the era of Brexit, William English’s It’s My Own Invention, which I caught randomly at the Close-Up Centre one night early in 2018, has really stuck with me as a kind of bizarre insight into insanity as it charts the life of Hugh de la Cruz, who claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine. It perhaps chastened me with regard to my own propensity for insanity.

Although a couple of years old, I might mention Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road as one of the best essay-films that I saw for the first time in 2018, with Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson’s The Green Fog being a beautiful and very funny video-essay on San Francisco as depicted in cinema (and which thus shares a lot of ground with my forthcoming video-essay on the Golden Gate Bridge).

Finally, out of retrospective films that I saw at the cinema in 2018, I might make mention of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 film The Land, which was beautifully restored and screened at the Ciné Lumière as part of the SAFAR Film Festival 2018.

And so now we can come to my personal favourites of 2018, which number 9 in total and which appear below in no particular order:-

Between Fences by Avi Mograbi, a film (actually from 2016 and which I saw online, but what the heck) about acting workshops with African refugees in a camp in the Negev desert. This made me want to make films like it, while also leading me to read Augusto Boal, who is an influence on theatre director Chen Alon, who with Mograbi ran the workshops.

The Nothing Factory by Pedro Pinho, which is a weird micro-budget musical about workers on strike at a lift factory in Lisbon.

You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay, which has at its core a towering performance by Joaquin Phoenix, an incredible score by Jonny Greenwood and some of the most taut directing from Lynne Ramsay at the absolute peak of her powers.

A Deal with the Universe by Jason Barker. This no-budget diary film is about a man transitioning from being a woman, but who delays said transition in order to have a child. Tender and beautiful.

First Reformed by Paul Schrader. After The Canyons (which I secretly admire but do not particularly like), this came from nowhere – and is about as impassioned a film about environmental disaster as one can hope to see.

Summer 1993 by Carla Simón. A heartbreaking film about an orphan girl taken in by her aunt and uncle and which left me sobbing.

The Rider by Chloé Zhao, which uses non-professional actors from the world of rodeo to tell the story of the decline of the American west – and which also left me devastated and hiding in the cinema until the credits had finished so that I could have a good cry and time to dry my eyes unseen.

The Flower by Mariano Llinás. A kind of compendium of six separate feature films in one and all starring the same cast, this 14-and-a-half-hour long film becomes completely hypnotic and is a wonderful example of infinite storytelling, of the sort that Llinás’s fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges would endorse, and which keeps alive the Scheherazadean tradition of storytelling as life (it also made me love Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights even more for doing something similar).

The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which is for me his strongest film. Ceylan continues to edit across different takes in such a way that one gets a sense of not a single story world, but parallel universes that all talk to each other. This film features perhaps the most beautiful scene of love that I can remember, as ne’er-do-well Sinan talks to his old crush Hatice by a tree. Furthermore, I felt chastised by the film for sharing many of Sinan’s faults, such that I really want to change my life and endeavour to be a better person… even if now in the fog outside of the cinema, I continue to feel lost and unsure of what it is that I am supposed to do with existence.

Although the next film is not really among my favourites, this talk of changing my life does lead me to my final thoughts, various of which concern Weeks in the West End, a no-budget independent feature made by Ian Mantgani and which I saw as a result of an invitation from a friend (Hind Mezaina) at the Prince Charles Cinema on the eve of the London Film Festival.

It is a personal story about the filmmaker’s relationship with cinema and the way in which the London Film Festival annually brings about a strange set of rituals as one endures long days of film-viewing and long nights of partying and film discussion.

It is also in some senses a kind of love letter to the filmmaker’s then-partner, as well as an account of the disintegration of their relationship.

What is curious about the film is that I once asked out the filmmaker’s partner for a drink (at around the time that they got together if my understanding of their timeline is correct). However, the filmmaker’s ex turned me down, and so Weeks in the West End became this odd experience of feeling slightly sorry for myself (a sense of inferiority at not being as attractive as the filmmaker, at least in the eyes of his ex; a wonder at how my life could have turned out so differently).

But more than this, the film also became an exercise in seeing how the filmmaker’s obsession with cinema perhaps got in the way of his relationship, maybe even ending it.

Weeks in the West End might work as a piece of non-cinema in many respects, not least because so low budget, even if shot in a wilfully quirky fashion on film. However, the movie is also beholden to cinema, especially as it goes off on numerous tangents that aim to showcase Mantgani’s beautiful turns of phrase as he reviews films that he has seen at the festival.

Two thoughts.

Firstly, we do not see those films that are described, but just the title and what is written about them in the London Film Festival catalogue from 2017. Weeks in the West End seems desperately somehow to want to be cinema, and this desire to be cinema seems ultimately to be destructive of human relationships. Perhaps we should never love cinema more than we love people. Perhaps I also watch too many films, even if I try to hate and in some senses to destroy cinema in my filmmaking and in my writing about film and coming up with notions like ‘non-cinema,’ which various of my friends would tell me are worthy of Pseuds’ Corner. I must learn to be a better human being and to value others ahead of my stupid fantasies, which I must also try to shed in order to see other humans for themselves and not filtered through my idiocy (I must stop being an idle romantic dreaming of other worlds rather than helping to improve this one).

Secondly, Mantgani is a beautiful writer. The Wild Pear Tree is a contemplation of literature, while The Flower also feels very literary/novelistic in terms of how it is constructed and how long it takes to get through it (the same applies to An Elephant Sitting Still, which is based on Hu Bo’s own novel, to name but one more among various others mentioned above and below).

One of the most important conversations I had this year was about how many of the great filmmakers are also great readers – and about the ongoing and perhaps necessary relationship between literature and cinema (or between text and film more generally).

If indeed we are drifting into a world where people do not have the time or the patience for novels (especially ‘difficult’ novels), then this also will lead to the impoverishment of cinema (and perhaps by extension to the impoverishment of human relationships).

Let us continue to read and write in order to make and to understand films as best as we can.

Some people hate him, but Jean-Luc Godard perhaps still has it and is on point with his latest film, The Image Book, which in some ways is a consideration of the relationship between cinema and language/literature/text, between images and books, and which is also a proxime accessit film for me this year: I loved it, but only as much as other work of his and not as if I had seen something anew (hence not in my favourite favourite list).

But most of all this: if we love cinema and/or literature, then let us also see if we can learn to love each other.

Appendix
(featuring all of the films I saw in 2018)

[Blank = cinema; * = online; ^ = DVD/VHS/file; > = gallery/installation; // = television]

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan)
Menashe (Joshua Z. Weinstein)
Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
Youth (Feng Xiaogang)
Brad’s Status (Mike White)
Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Marius (Marcel Pagnol)
Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mondruczó)
Rey (Niles Attalah)
Glory (Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)
Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin)
Field Niggas (Khalik Allah)
Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonough)
Tempestad (Tatiana Huezo)
Swan (Alia Syed)
Unfolding (Alia Syed)
Syntax (Martha Haslanger)
Light Reading (Lis Rhodes)
Fatima’s Letter (Alia Syed)
Three Paces (Alia Syed)
Red Shift (Gunvor Nelson)
The Post (Steven Spielberg)
Attraction (Fyodor Bondarchuk)
Hex (George Popov and Jonathan Russell)
The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey)
Barbara (Mathieu Amalric)
A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof)
Radiance (Naomi Kawase)
Hannah (Andrea Pallaoro)
120 battements par minute (Robin Campillo)
A Fábrica de Nada (Pedro Pinho)
Downsizing (Alexander Payne)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Room for Let (Yuzo Kawashima)
The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman)
Makala (Emmanuel Gras)
Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
Loveless (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
The Mercy (James Marsh)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
It’s My Own Invention (William English)
It Rains on Our Love (Ingmar Bergman)
The Song of Cotton (Yuancheng Zhu)
The Worldly Cave (Zhou Tao)
From the Life of the Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman)
I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Dark River (Clio Barnard)
The Devil’s Eye (Ingmar Bergman)
La vendedora de fósforos (Alejo Moguillansky)
Vers la mer (Annik Leroy)
Rewind and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman)
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence)
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Gringo (Nash Edgerton)
Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
The Nile Hilton Incident (Tarik Saleh)
Women’s Prison (Kamran Shirdel)
Tehran is the Capital of Iran (Kamran Shirdel)
Women’s Quarter (Kamran Shirdel)
The Night It Rained, Or The Epic of a Gorgan Village Boy (Kamran Shirdel)
Gook (Justin Chon)
Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)
Tomorrow Never Knows (Adam Sekuler)
Luz Obscura (Susana de Sousa Dias)
Gholam (Mitra Tabrizian)
A Deal with the Universe (Jason Barker)
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian)
The Third Murder (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
The Square (Ruben Östlund)
Peter Rabbit (Will Gluck)
Martyr (Mazen Khaled)
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee)
Ready Player One 4DX (Steven Spielberg)
Journeyman (Paddy Considine)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson)
The Camera: Je, or La Caméra: I (Babette Mangolte)
Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight)
The Finished People (Khoa Do)
The Sun Island (Thomas Elsaesser)
Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown)
Un beau soleil intérieur (Claire Denis)
The Wound (John Trengove)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
Beast (Michael Pearce)
Journey to the South (Jill Daniels)
Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)
Tully (Jason Reitman)
Shadow World (Johan Grimonprez)
Funny Cow (Adrian Shergold)
Le redoubtable (Michel Hazanavicius)
Deadpool 2 (David Leitch)
Jeune femme (Léonor Serraille)
Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard)
Entebbe (José Padilha)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
L’amant double (François Ozon)
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Frontières (Apolline Traoré)
Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Christophe Honoré)
Una questione privata (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)
Absolute Rest (Abdolreza Kahani)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (JA Bayona)
Veere di Wedding (Shashanka Ghosh)
Mobile Homes (Vladimir de Fontenay)
A Ciambra (Jonas Carpignano)
In The Fade (Fatih Akin)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Stefano Sollima)
The Women Weavers of Assam (Aparna Sharma)
Clem (William Brown)
Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross)
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Bao (Domee Shi)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Pin Cushion (Deborah Haywood)
Estiú 1993 (Carla Simón)
The Receptionist (Jenny Lu)
Generation Wealth (Lauren Greenfield)
Extinction (Salomé Lamas)
Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo)
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
Mogambo (John Ford)
El Mar La Mar (Joshua Bonnetta and JP Sniadecki)
Cocote (Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
The Escape (Dominic Savage)
Las herederas (Marcelo Martinessi)
No Date, No Signature (Vahid Jalilvand)
The Eyes of Orson Welles (Mark Cousins)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)
The King (Eugene Jarecki)
Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson)
Searching (Aneesh Chaganty)
Robot Jox (Stuart Gordon)
Yardie (Idris Elba)
Baronesa (Juliana Antunes)
Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
The End of Fear (Barbara Visser)
American Animals (Bart Layton)
Home of the Resistance (Ivan Ramljak)
Uppland (Edward Lawrenson)
(In Praise of Nothing (Boris Mitić))
(Island (Steven Eastwood))
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan)
The Predator (Shane Black)
The Search (Hossam El Din Moustafa)
Stories of Passers Through (Koutaiba Al-Janabi)
Poisonous Roses (Ahmed Fawzi Saleh)
Scheherazade’s Diary (Zeina Daccache)
The Film of Kyiv (Oleksiy Radynski)
Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)
Diamond Island (Davy Chou)
We Don’t Care About Democracy. This Is What We Want: Love, Hope and Its Many Faces (John Torres)
I Have Sinned a Rapturous Sin (Maryam Tafakory)
The Land (Youssef Chahine)
Wajib (Annemarie Jacir)
Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno)
Marvin (Anne Fontaine)
The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
People Power Bombshell (John Torres)
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge)
Climax (Gaspar Noé)
El reino (Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Venom (Ruben Fleischer)
Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
Weeks in the West End (Ian Mantgani)
Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle)
Wild Relatives (Jumana Manna)
Columbus (Kogonada)
aKasha (hajooj kuka)
Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
Kusama – Infinity (Heather Lenz)
The Wife (Björn Runge)
Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard)
La flor parte 1 (Mariano Llinás)
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (Mark Cousins)
La flor parte 2 (Mariano Llinás)
La flor parte 3 (Mariano Llinás)
Halloween (David Gordon Green)
Fahrenheit 11/9 (Michael Moore)
Dogman (Mateo Garrone)
First Man (Damien Chazelle)
The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery)
Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Groeningen)
The Man with the Iron Fists (RZA)
Mid90s (Jonah Hill)
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)
Wildlife (Paul Dano)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez)
Widows (Steve McQueen)
Nae Pasarán (Felipe Bustos Sierra)
Assassination Nation (Sam Levinson)
Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer)
The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio)
Le livre d’image (Jean-Luc Godard)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)
The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)
Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall)
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Aquaman (James Wan)
The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore and Phil Johnston)
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg)*
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg)*
Daphne (Peter Mackie Burns)*
I am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni)*
Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda)*
Monsters: Dark Continent (Tom Green)*
Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis)*
On the Road (Michael Winterbottom)*
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)*
Mega-Shark versus Giant Octopus (Ace Hannah)*
The Protagonists (Luca Guadagnino)*
Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood)*
A Spectre Is Haunting Europe? (Julian Radlmaier)*
Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer)*
The Dunwich Horror (Daniel Haller)*
It Came From Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon)*
The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)*
Superdyke Meets Madame X (Barbara Hammer)*
Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)*
The Structure of Crystal (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
(20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer)*)
It Came From Outer Space (Jack Arnold)*
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)*
Hokusai Manga (Kaneto Shindo)*
L’amant d’un jour (Philippe Garrel)*
Untitled (Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi)*
The Constant Factor (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Las Plantas (Roberto Doveris)*
Mirror World (Abigail Child)*
Life is a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Wùlu (Daouda Coulibaly)*
Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier)*
The Gorgon (Terence Fisher)*
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Chris Columbus)*
On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi)*
In The Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter)*
Annihilation (Alex Garland)*
The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah)*
The Bridge (Eric Steel)*
Paris à tout prix (Joséphine Ndagnou)*
The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan)*
Spotswood (Mark Joffe)*
La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel)*
L’ombre des femmes (Philippe Garrel)*
Why Him? (John Hamburg)*
Kékszakállú (Gastón Solnicki)*
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (Thom Andersen)*
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman)*
Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)*
Shanty Tramp (José Prieto)*
Afternoon (Angela Schanelec)*
Audition (Milos Forman)*
Orly (Angela Schanelec)*
There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk)*
Night Tide (Curtis Harrington)*
No intenso agora (João Moreira Salles)*
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec)*
The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)*
Allende mi abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti)*
Ma Loute (Bruno Dumont)*
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Nagisa Oshima)*
(La petite vendeuse de soleil (Djibril Diop Mambéty)*)
Refugiado (Diego Lerman)*
New Jerusalem (R. Alverson)*
The Comedy (Rick Alverson)*
Lek and the Dogs (Andrew Kötting)*
The Tingler (William Castle)*
Matinee (Joe Dante)*
Casa Roshell (Camila José Donoso)*
Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Ben Safdie)*
Polytechnique (Denis Villeneuve)*
Human Desire (Fritz Lang)*
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky)*
Agilem (Ilkka Levä)*
Manito (Eric Eason)*
Separado! (Dylan Goch and Gruff Rhys)*
Adiós entusiasmo (Vladimir Durán)*
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan)*
Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (Fabrizio Terranova)*
Central Intelligence (Rawson Marshall Thurber)*
Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant)*
Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember (Khavn de la Cruz)*
Aditya (Gérard Courant)*
4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara)*
Rubber (Quentin Dupieux)*
Je meurs de soif, j’étouffe, je ne puis crier… (Gérard Courant)*
They Live (John Carpenter)*
Inkheart (Iain Softley)*
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies)*
Evolution (Ivan Reitman)*
Jesús (Fernando Guzzoni)*
Fausto (Andrea Bussmann)*
Gamer (Oleg Sentsov)*
Mr Kaplan (Álvaro Brechner)*
We Are Thankful (Joshua Magor)*
Revenge (Coenie Dippenaar)*
Meteors (Gürcan Keltek)*
Temporada (André Novais Oliveira)*
Between Fences (Avi Mograbi)*
Djon África (Filipa Reis and João Guerra Miller)*
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)*
El apóstata (Federico Veiroj)*
Todo Todo Teros (John Torres)*
The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)*
Spring Fever (Lou Ye)*
Blind Massage (Lou Ye)*
The Supplement (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Bonsái (Alex Andonie)*
The Last of Us (Ala Eddine Slim)*
120 Days of Bottrop (Christoph Schlingensief)*
When I Saw You (Annemarie Jacir)*
Terror 2000 (Christoph Schlingensief)*
All You Can Eat Bouddha (Ian Lagarde)*
100 Years of Adolf Hitler (Christoph Schlingensief)*
Tonsler Park (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Quality Control (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Teatro de Guerra (Lola Arías)*
Cinnamon (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
1428 (Du Haibin)*
Three Quarters (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda)*
Wild Plants (Nicolas Humbert)*
A morir a los desiertos (Marta Ferrer)*
Giuseppe Makes a Movie (Adam Rifkin)*
Tape (Li Ning)*
Years When I Was a Child Outside (John Torres)*
‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing)*
Trees Down Here (Ben Rivers)*
Spice Bush (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
L’Apparition (Xavier Giannoli)*
Season of the Devil (Lav Diaz)*
Girl from Nowhere (Mark Jackson)*
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan and Joel Coen)*
L’année des méduses (Christopher Frank)*
Alba (Ana Cristina Barragán)*
Mañana a esta hora (Lina Rodríguez)*
L’affaire des divisions Morituri (FJ Ossang)*
Female Human Animal (Josh Appignanesi)*
Bird Box (Susanne Bier)*
Li Shuangshuang (Lu Ren)*
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach)*
A Star is Born (William A Wellman)*
Mudbound (Dee Rees)*
Mon Souffle (Jihane Chouaib)*
Octopussy (John Glen)^
Cathy Come Home (Kenneth Loach)^
Les amours de la pieuvre (Jean Painlevé)^
A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)^
Waiting Women (Ingmar Bergman)^
Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley)^
Io Sono Li (Andrea Segre)^
The Royal Road (Jenni Olson)^
Freakstars 3000 (Christoph Schlingensief)^
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas)^
By Night With Torch and Spear (Joseph Cornell)^
Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold)^
Disorient Express (Ken Jacobs)^
The Trail of the Octopus (Duke Worne)^
I Love You (Marco Ferreri)^
Love The One You Love (Jenna Bass)^
Cefalópodo (Rubén Imaz)^
The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway)^
L’uomo in più (Paolo Sorrentino)^
Cabaret (Bob Fosse)^
Web Junkie (Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam)^
Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram)^
Live By Night (Ben Affleck)+
Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy)+
Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis)+
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)+
Epic (Chris Wedge)+
Alpha (Albert Hughes)+
Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M Chu)+
King of Thieves (James Marsh)+
Isoken (Jadesola Osiberu)+
Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley)+
The Meg (Jon Turteltaub)+
4th Floor to Mildness (Pipilotti Rist)>
Purple (John Akomfrah)>
Joan Jonas (Joan Jonas)>
Despair (Alex Prager)>
La Petite Mort (Alex Prager)>
Face in the Crowd (Alex Prager)>
La Grande Sortie (Alex Prager)>
About A Boy (Paul and Chris Weitz)//
Bros: After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman and David Soutar)//

 

Beg Steal Borrow’s William Brown is proud to curate Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016), a showcase of short films made by participants in William’s Guerrilla Filmmaking class, which he has been teaching at the University of Roehampton, London, since 2011.

The class involves students making a series of short films that involve both a technical and a thematic constraint – akin in some respects to Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions (2003), which is the first film that participants watch as part of the class.

The class also invites participants to draw on a history of guerrilla filmmaking from around the world, reading important texts and manifestos by filmmakers like Julio García Espinosa, Fernando E. Solanas and Octavio Getino, Glauber Rocha, Jia Zhangke and Wu Wenguang. Participants also watch and gain inspiration from work by zero- to micro-budget filmmakers like Giuseppe Andrews, Ai Weiwei, Khavn de la Cruz, Mike Ott and Harmony Korine.

Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016) features 39 short films by 31 different filmmakers, and which respond to eight different challenges set to participants on the course. The films, chosen from among 100s made during the first five years of the Guerrilla Filmmaking course, are all packed in to a 127-minute running time!

Short on time, with no technical support, and forced to make films about topics and using techniques that are not of their choosing, the Roehampton Guerrillas prove the following:-

  • You don’t need money to make a film.
  • You don’t even need a camera.
  • You only need an idea.
  • Limitations do not hinder creativity. They drive it.

Among the filmmakers whose work is showcased are various who have worked with Beg Steal Borrow in different capacities, including Aleksander Krawec and Millad Khonsorkh, who both perform as actors in The New Hope, and Angela Faillace, who has designed the posters for The New Hope and Circle/Line.

Viewers may want to watch the films out of order. As a result, below is a list of films included in Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016) with timings so that viewers can browse the selection at their leisure.

Challenge #1
Make a film using only still images and which answers the question: what is Great Britain?

00m46s-04m37s – ‘This is Britain’ by Pablo Saura
04m37s-07m23s – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ by William Guy
07m23s-09m58s – ‘#1’ by Josh Fenwich-Wilson
09m58s-11m08s – ‘Bricks’ by Lola Lextrait

Challenge #2
Make a film using only still images and which answers the question: what is Europe?

11m18s-15m02s – ‘Postcards from Europe’ by Marc Moyce
15m02s-16m48s – ‘Europe’ by Charli Adamson and Alex Crowe
16m48s-19m58s – ‘EuropA’ by Aleksander Krawec
19m58s-24m10s – ‘The Foreigner’ by Lino Negri

Challenge #3
Make an experimental, animated or found footage film that deals with a personal issue.

24m19s-29m17s – ‘Gainsbourg For Eve(r)’ by Eve Dautremant-Tomas
29m17s-30m43s – ‘Ambition’ by Joshua Bessell
30m43s-33m55s – ‘#3’ by Audrey Jean
33m55s-35m12s – ‘Your Future Depends on Women’ by Zainab Nassir
35m12s-39m32s – ‘Early Onset Alzheimer’s’ by Taylor Matsunaga
39m32s-40m28s – ‘Memory’ by William Guy
40m28s-43m18s – ‘#3’ by Josh Fenwick-Wilson
43m18s-46m10s – ‘Open Your Eyes’ by Benita Paplauskaite
46m10s-48m49s – ‘Mind Glitch’ by Pablo Saura
48m49s-50m16s – ‘Monday Morning’ by Marina Oftedal
50m16s-52m41s – ‘Vote Romney’ by Millad Khonsorkh
52m41s-56m39s – ‘From An Outsider’ by Oz Courtney

Challenge #4
Make a film about a political issue that does not feature any synchronisation between image and sound.

56m48s-60m56s – ‘Aylesbury Estate’ by Maya Djurdjevic
60m56s-67m21s – ‘Free Tibet (Bless Dale Cooper)’ by Millad Khonsorkh
67m21s-69m58s – ‘Eat My Fear’ by Lino Negri
69m58s-72m52s – ‘Access’ by Marc Moyce

Challenge #5
Make a film about a human rights issue that does not feature any synchronization of image and sound.

73m01s-76m45s – ‘Surveillance’ by Mary Burnett
76m45s-81m56s – ‘Peri’ by Eve Dautremant-Tomas
81m65s-84m03s – ‘The Imperfect Human’ by Gabrielle Littlewood
84m03s-89m15s – ‘The Perfect Human’ by Louise Benedetto and Samuel Taylor

Challenge #6
Make a film about a political issue that consists of only a single take.

89m23s-92m12s – ‘Patriarchy in Porn’ by Zainab Nassir
92m12s-95m50s – ‘Alien’ by Sian Williams
95m50s-99m15s – ‘Toaster’ by Ewelina Lipska

Challenge #7
Make a film about multiculturalism using a smartphone, or which is silent and consists of only a single take.

99m23s-102m28s – ‘Girl Before a Mirror’ by Wajod Alkhamis and Pablo Saura
102m28s-109m20s – ‘Underground’ by Samuel Taylor
109m20s-111m20s – ‘Watts’ by Dasha Sevcenko
111m20s-113m52s – ‘Dilution’ by Myles Bevan

Challenge #8
Make a film that is a letter to a loved one and which consists either of found footage or which is an animation.

113m59s-116m54s – ‘Google Heart’ by Lola Lextrait
116m54s-119m59s – ‘Letter to a Loved One’ by Valerie Gonzalez
119m59s-122m26s – ‘The Façade’ by Tom Heffernan
122m26s-126m23s – ‘Dawn of the Third Challenge’ by Angela Faillace

Beg Steal Borrow News, Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016), Uncategorized

Tian zhu ding/A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film reviews

It has been a couple of months since I saw A Touch of Sin at a cinema in Paris (La Clef on rue Daubenton), and so my memory of the film is not necessarily fully accurate.

However, I wanted to get down some thoughts on the film ahead of the fantastic-looking Chinese Visual Festival that runs from 8-18 May in London, and which features a visit from director Jia Zhangke to discuss both his early short films and A Touch of Sin.

For, my plan is not to send out spoilers ahead of the film’s screening. Rather, it is to encourage people to attend the screening(s) – since A Touch of Sin is a remarkable film by an important director. And I wish to delineate the film’s importance, as well, perhaps, as its contradictions, in this post.

(I cannot, alas, make the screening – in fact I can only make one film during the whole Festival. Should any readers care to know, I shall be away to give a talk at the Cinemateket in Stockholm, Sweden, for the first part and on holiday/at a wedding in Spain, for the second part of the festival. Even though I have these treats in store, I am still envious of anyone who gets to hear Jia in conversation.)

So…

A Touch of Sin tells four stories, each based on true events, about contemporary China. It opens with a man on a motorbike, Zhousan (Baoqiang Wang), who is held up by a gang of young highwaymen. He kills them with a gun and then rides off – past Dahai (Jiang Wu), who sits astride his own bike next to an overturned tomato truck (it could be red apples).

We then stay with Dahai as he tries to arouse anger in his village against corrupt businessmen, especially an old friend who has become very rich (owning a private jet) while others continue to be poor. So angry does he become that he decides to take getting revenge into his own, soon-to-be-bloody hands…

The film then returns to Zhousan, who has come home for New Year to see his wife and child. He claims to be doing successful work during his migrations, but in fact leads a life of crime (as his early murder of the highwaymen makes clear – more murders follow).

A third section of the film sees a pretty receptionist at a sauna, Xiaoyu (Jia regular Zhao Tao), who is beaten up by the wife and friends of her lover (Jiayi Zhang), before being abused by two rich businessmen (one of whom is also played by Jia regular Hongwei Wang) who mistake her for a prostitute. This insult leads Xiaoyu to exact her revenge on the businessmen.

And, finally, a young factory worker named Xiaohui (Lanshan Luo) quits a job in a clothing factory after an accident sees him needing to pay compensation to one of his co-workers. He joins a friend at a factory in a different town, is found and beaten up by his former colleague who suffered the accident, and commits suicide.

The description of the film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is as follows: ‘Four people, four different provinces. A reflection on contemporary China: that of an economic giant slowly being eroded by violence.’

While this description is in some senses accurate, I wonder that it is also a bit misleading. It suggests that violence is eroding China as an economic giant, when in fact the film is really about how in becoming an economic giant, China is becoming an increasingly violent place.

And although the violence that we see in this film is both startling and based on a set of true stories, the film also functions at an allegorical level: the major violence perpetrated in this film is by those Chinese citizens who have embraced the get-rich-quick ethos of what we in the West might term neo-liberal capitalism, and who, in adopting this ethos, concomitantly adopt an ethos whereby the rest of the world can go hang. Whereby violence, in the form of exploitation, is enacted on the rest of the world. Humans are deprived of their very humanity and instead are seen as commodities, as economic opportunities, and objects to be disposed of as one sees fit.

A Touch of Sin is vastly more violent than any of Jia’s films to date, even if those other films also chart the disenfranchisement of various members of Chinese society – right from first feature Xiao wu/Pick Pocket (Hong Kong/China, 1997) through to Er shi si cheng ji/24 City (China/Hong Kong/Japan, 2008), Jia’s last fiction feature.

I find this violence interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have written an essay – to be published in a book provisionally entitled Marxism and Film Activism, edited by Ewa Mazierska and Lars Kristensen – on the films Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil, 2007) and Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, France/Belgium/Chad, 2010).

In that essay, I argue that we are entering an era of renewed activism, one that in particular features violence as a response to the injustices of the world – and one in which standing by and observing is no longer justified.

For those who care to note the technical aspect of my essay, I make this argument using the language of Gilles Deleuze and his writings on cinema.

Deleuze argued that his concept of ‘time-image’ cinema featured ‘seers’ – characters who can only watch in the face of the world, and who do not decide to be agential heroes that do violence to the world, something we might characterise as the typical mythos of the American western.

I argue that while the ‘time-image’ might have been revolutionary in its time, perhaps a new ‘movement-image’ cinema of action is being adopted now as a means of resistance against the inequities of global, neo-liberal capitalism – as per the (admittedly problematic) violence of Elite Squad, and as per the critique of passivity in A Screaming Man.

I then use Marx to argue that we should not put time-image and movement-image cinema into a hierarchy; the time-image is often interpreted, in the modern context, as superior to the movement-image, which, in broad terms, we can equate as being the superiority – aesthetically if not commercially – of art house cinema to mainstream cinema (cinema that uses the fast-paced aesthetics of what David Bordwell would term ‘intensified continuity editing’).

To return to A Touch of Sin, I see the film’s violence as being Jia’s own expression of how we have perhaps gone through the time of/for passivity as a response to the intensified spread of neo-liberal capital, perhaps especially in mainland China. So maddening is the onslaught that accompanies it that we are looking at what the Invisible Committee would term a Coming Insurrection; an outbreak of violence so severe that it might bring neoliberal capital to its knees.

Perhaps it is worth noting that the move on Jia’s part is premeditated and deliberate. The film’s title is of course a reference to King Hu’s classic martial arts film, A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971), which tells the story of an artist caught up in a struggle against Imperial conspiracy and domination. That film uses martial arts as a means of resistance against hegemony, with the martial being/becoming an art – with art always being a tool for resistance against domination (art is always political, and art for art’s sake is a bourgeois concept intended to nullify the political power of art). Perhaps Jia considers violence in a similar, contemporary fashion here.

But Jia’s film involves not just a reference to King Hu. Among its rich forebears must surely be included not the western, but the spaghetti western, especially the works of Sergio Leone, and/or a film like Django (Sergio Corbucci, Italy/Spain, 1966). As David Martin-Jones has cogently argued, these films also use violence as a means to express the disempowerment of Europe’s impoverished south, and as a means to try to empower themselves, but not by positing a wholly new, artistic cinema (as happened further north in Europe, for example), but by taking the tropes of a very Western genre, the western, and reworking them for their own ends (perhaps we can argue that the giallo does something similar with horror).

In this way, A Touch of Sin also is part of a tradition that takes tropes of the western in order to give expression to dissatisfaction with the ongoing drive towards global capitalist domination, a domination that historically was itself espoused in the Indian-destroying, nature-taming genre of the western itself.

(I argue in this book that Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012) might also be trying to do something similar – as might the overwhelming emphasis on revenge in contemporary cinema, with the recent Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland/UK, 2014), and in some senses, ahem, my own film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), being (Christian-influenced?) considerations of how allowing that vengeful violence, of how standing up saying ‘perhaps it is right that you should attack me’ might in turn be a/the bourgeois-but-understanding response.)

The question then becomes, though: does Jia (do all of these films) express a solution to the problem, or only a means of perpetuating it? If (the spectacle of) violence is at the very soul of capitalism, then to give in to violence – even if in ‘only’ a film, albeit one based on a true story – might simply perpetuate the status quo rather than in fact challenging it…

I quote:

as Antonio Negri puts it, “antagonism is the motor of development of the system, the foundation of a continuous resurgence of antagonism each time that the project, the history of capital, progresses,” then perhaps it is only in an inventory of the failed efforts and strategies of human liberation that the forces of oppression can be identified and fought effectively.

This is from Jonathan Beller, quoting, as is clear, Antonio Negri.

Perhaps, then, the antagonism of A Touch of Sin only adds to the progress of capital. Vicious, thought-provoking and heartfelt as A Touch of Sin is, one wonders if Jia has succumbed to a (too-human?) desire for violence in order to endeavour properly to get out of the paradoxes and contradictions of capital – only to fail because antagonism is what capital wants. Indeed, it is not as if the cinema has not commodified violence since soon after its inception – as an early film like The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, USA, 1903) makes clear.

Notes from the LFF: Hello! Shu Xian Sheng/Mr Tree (Han Jie, China, 2011)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

It is opportune that I saw Mr Tree in the same week that I taught about Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke in two separate classes.

For, Jia acts as producer of Mr Tree, and Han Jie’s film, while by no means a Jia Zhangke ‘rip-off,’ definitely contains themes that are also of close concern to Jia, especially the effects of modernisation on rural life.

I shall deal more with Mr Tree below. But I’d like to reflect a little bit on teaching Jia Zhangke, not so that I can write about Jia specifically, but so that I can deal with the reception of Chinese cinema – and art house cinema more generally – in the West, and also to illustrate to those who might be interested what studying cinema at university can involve.

This week I used two different Jia films for two different modules that I am teaching this term. The first film is Shijie/The World (China/Japan/France, 2004) for a module that I am teaching on Digital Cinema. The reason behind this choice was to explore the ways in which digital cameras have reinvigorated the possibility for filmmakers to create ambitious projects on relatively low budgets, and which offer up an alternative view of the world to that which seems increasingly to be replicated not just in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but across all mainstreams worldwide. In other words, The World serves as a means to explore how/whether digital technology enables independent and artistic world cinema.

And the second film is Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu/Pickpocket (Hong Kong/China, 1998) for a module that I am teaching called Guerrilla Filmmaking. The aim of this module is, in the spirit of De fem benspænd/The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France, 2003), to set my students regular and short film projects on certain topics and involving certain formal constraints. As well as making the films, the students are invited to reflect critically on their projects – explaining what they have learnt, from the practical to the political to the philosophical. The students are also invited to talk about how they get their films seen once they are in existence.

The reason for showing Xiao Wu was/is not because this is a film made on a micro-budget, as per other films that I show my students as part of the module, including my colleague’s activist film, Chronicle of Protest (Michael Chanan, UK, 2011), as well as my own two features, En Attendant Godard (UK, 2009) and Afterimages (UK, 2010).

The reason for choosing the film is because Xiao Wu was made without a permit. Jia just went into the streets and filmed – and this is noticeable from the variable sound quality, from the inconsistent lighting, and especially from the way in which ‘extras’ – in fact just people in the street – often turn and look directly at the camera, while the actors – all non-professionals – carry on regardless. In other words, Xiao Wu serves as a means to explore the possibility of simply going out into the street and filming, guerrilla-style.

A phrase that seems to get repeated a lot at the moment is ‘go big or go home.’ In some senses, my Guerrilla Filmmaking module is precisely not about going big – but about working out how to use the means at one’s disposal to say what one wants to say. Not to make a film for the purpose solely of trying to please others. But about using film as an expressive (and supremely malleable) medium to convey one’s own thoughts and ideas. The module is intended to encourage students precisely to think and to have ideas, then, and to endeavour to put these into audiovisual form.

Anyway, with regard to my classes, I introduced Jia, the director of both films, as belonging to the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers – the previous five generations taking Chinese cinema from its early origins to the 1930s (first), through to China’s 1940s cinematic heyday (second), Chinese cinema under Communism (third), the (lack of) cinema of the Cultural Revolution (fourth), and the rise of the fifth generation in the 1980s and 1990s, the fifth generation including filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

Obviously, the latter two are still making films, as anyone who has seen Ying xiong/Hero (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002), Shi mian mai fu/House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2004) and Wu ji/The Promise (Chen Kaige, China/USA/South Korea, 2005) will know.

Now, while Chen and Zhang have both moved into blockbuster filmmaking, as the above examples demonstrate, they still plough the same thematic fields that they explored in their early, career-making films. That is, they make historical films, often featuring strong heroines, exploring China’s past to reflect – often critically – on the present, in particular the myth of nation-building and unification (even if their films can be read in a reactionary way, as Hero perhaps most clearly exemplifies in its decision to have a rebellious asssassin not kill a tyrannical leader because the latter’s work in unifying China, even if achieved by the sword, is finally understood by the assassin to be a ‘good thing’).

By contrast, the sixth generation, with Jia as one of its figureheads, concentrates more upon the contemporary, taking in issues of forced migration within China – particularly for the purposes of modernisation, urbanisation, and the alienating side-effects of globalisation.

Many sixth generation films were made without permits – such as Xiao Wu (The World, by contrast, was Jia’s first film to be made with a permit; more on the film can be read here). As such, they are often defined as ‘underground’ films, although this title can be misleading in that ‘underground’ can function as much as a brand as it does a qualification for unauthorised – and therefore supposedly ‘authentic’ – portraits of the nation’s contemporaneity.

Now, Jia’s films are ‘slow’ – consisting of ponderous long takes in which minimal action takes place; the emphasis often seems to be less on characters and more on the spaces and places in which the ‘action’ (or lack thereof) takes place.

For this reason it perhaps came as no surprise that my students – all bar one – said of The World that it is ‘boring’ – and, more controversially, that the filmmaker has a ‘duty’ (I can’t recall if this was the exact term used) to make ‘interesting’ and ‘entertaining’ films.

This prompted a diatribe from their lecturer (me) about the attention economy in which we live, and the foundations of which are built upon computers (i.e. digital technology) in their various guises (including iPhones, iPods, iPads, and the like – cheers, Steve Jobs). That is, that boredom is intolerable in the contemporary age, and that everything must happen at the accelerated pace of the entertainment industries, with what David Bordwell has defined as ‘intensified continuity‘ and which Steven Shaviro more recently has called a ‘post-continuity‘ culture at its core.

In contrast to this, there are – on a general level – filmmakers who feel the need to represent the fact that for all of the attention(-deficient) economy that bombards the bourgeoisie, and for all of the ease of movement that the global rich enjoy – both actual and virtual, there are many people who are left behind. Whose lives are slow. Who cannot and/or who do not want, perhaps, to lead their life at the speed of light.

Do these kinds of lives, I put to my students, not merit depiction? Who decides what is ‘cinematic’ and what is not? And would making an ‘exciting’ (i.e. ‘fast’) film about lives that many people might deem ‘unexciting’ (and ‘slow’) not be an inappropriate if one were trying to remain faithful to one’s subject matter and/or one’s own ideas thereupon?

Without wishing to overlook the specifically Chinese provenance of Jia’s films, or indeed the very constructed nature of his fictions (we cannot read them as entirely accurate representations of Chinese reality, even if he uses devices that typically we associate with that ethos), my argument in class also proposed that there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘entertaining’ with regard to film – and that perhaps there should not be such a consensus, otherwise all films would look and feel the same.

Now, I am not sure how convincing my diatribe was. One of my students – the most vocal critic of The World (Xiao Wu was ‘better’ because it had something of a plot – and, perhaps crucially, is 50 minutes shorter) – has blogged in spite of my defence of Jia that he (and I paraphrase) should not make this kind of film, since alienating audiences (there is no specification of what kind of audience is being considered here, the assumption being that all audiences are the same) is one of the worst sins of filmmaking.

I would link to the student’s blog – because I do not want to deprive them of their input in the dialogue I am creating. Alas, the blog is on a site closed to all outside of my university (and even then you need to be registered on the software, Mahara, that hosts it). So, apologies for those who wish to but cannot read the blog – perhaps especially to those who would agree with the student’s outlook on filmmaking in general and this film in particular.

Now, I want to try to avoid coming across as high-minded and condescending to my student(s) – for they are entitled to their thoughts, even if I also find it mildly frustrating to make a case for art cinema that is duly and adamantly cast aside for the sake of imposing a pre-existing set of criteria regarding what constitutes ‘good’ cinema (i.e. I probably am both high-minded and condescending at the last).

I also am wary about ‘picking on’ one or any of my students, not least because this one is certainly engaged and a keen participant in my classes. That is, I greatly appreciate what this person contributes to my classes, even if I do not agree with them, and even if I feel the need to encourage in them a more critical perspective.

(Interestingly, when it was established prior to showing it that Xiao Wu is, in the words of another student, ‘what we would call a “festival film,”‘ this also brought about a greater level of (perceived) engagement – as if one cannot watch films ‘properly’ without being given the correct prompt/lens through which to view them.)

This blogospheric excursion into teaching the cinema of Jia Zhangke may have exposed my limitations as a teacher, in that I failed to convince my students about the validity of The World, and to a lesser extent that of Xiao Wu, the ‘boringness’ of which – apparently – outweighed any interest in what Jia was trying to do; i.e. I could not get my students to consider what The World is, since they preferred instead to talk about what the film is not.

Furthermore, this excursion into teaching Jia Zhangke might also have exposed the limitations of top-down teaching as a whole; others involved in education, at any level, may share my sadness when I see value judgements made repeatedly in spite of insistent attempts to foster not simple judgement but critical engagement.

However, I mention all this as a preface to discussing Mr Tree, which, as mentioned, was produced by Jia and which shares with his films a similar set of concerns, because the issue of pace and boredom lies at the heart of what in different ways I have elsewhere defined as the war of/for our cinema screens and the political, perhaps even ethical, dilemmas facing filmmakers when making films about certain subjects.

Han Jie’s film is, like Jia’s films more generally, contemplative. Shu (whose name means ‘tree’ and who is played by Baoqiang Wang) is a drifter-type, who is a little bit crazy, a little bit weird.

He has a job as a car mechanic that he soon loses after inflicting upon himself an accident: he uses a blowtorch without the face mask and temporarily blinds himself, prompting his boss to let him go. He falls in love with a local deaf mute, Xiaomei (Zhuo Tan), and endeavours to woo her without much success – at least initially.

The local kids kind of ridicule Shu, although he seems well connected, hanging out with the local businessmen (who are trying to oust his mother from their family home for the sake of developing the land for business purposes; there is a coal mine in the area). He drinks, has the odd fight, wanders around his town, goes to the big city in Jilin, the northern province where he lives, and spends a bit of team cleaning up the school that a friend from his hometown runs, and he finally gets married to Xiaomei.

Except that on his wedding day, Shu is miserable. This is mainly because he has begun to see the ghost of his dead brother – a brother who apparently was hanged by his father from the tree in which Shu sometimes hides – and who is thoroughly ‘modern’ in his corduroys, hipster haircut, cool girlfriend and jacket.

Xiaomei makes love to him, but then leaves Shu, because he does not care for her. Shu then predicts accurately that the local mining industry – which has also already claimed the life of one his other local friends – will cause the water in the area to stop flowing.

Something of a prophet, it would seem, Shu then seemingly becomes rich by advising the mining company how correctly to bring to an end the malpractice that thus far has characterised it.

However, Shu’s ostensible success is revealed latterly as a fantasy, as is his reunion with a pregnant Xiaomei. In other words, Shu becomes mad, not least because his life is marked by the death of his brother and his friend. His descent into incoherence, however, seems to reflect the insistent modernisation that the village/town is undergoing through the mining company and other forces: people are moved out of their homes, and the ‘traditional’ ways seem to be disappearing as people are offered TVs and other mod cons to accept the questionable business plans for the area.

Even though Shu seemingly goes mad, he is still a character that seems to be able to see. As mentioned, he is temporarily blinded at the start of the film, but there is a strong emphasis on vision and visuality in the film, more often than not associated with Shu. He may be a living anachronism, incapable or unwilling to go along with the times, while his former friends get increasingly rich, but perhaps that is because he realises more than anyone else the confusion and chaos that is descending upon Jilin and the industrialisation of one of China’s most beautiful provinces (it is one of the ‘four major natural wonders of China’ – along with the Three Gorges Valley, the Rimmed Trees that also are in Jilin, and the Stone Forest of Yunnan).

Indeed, Shu seems to have these changes inscribed physically on his body: he moves in a twisted and awkward fashion (a great performance from Baoqiang), and often bears cuts, bruises and scars.

Furthermore, not only through his name, but also physically do we see Shu in connected with nature: as mentioned, he hides up a tree, but he also walks and runs most places – and he certainly does not have easy access to the good cars that his local friends seem to have. Even Shu’s brother drives a taxi, suggesting that he is moving along with the times, rather than being left behind as Shu is.

As such, Mr Tree is an interesting film that implicitly critiques what can be interpreted as the modernisation of China, which in turn leads to the disappearance of traditional ways of life – embodied here by Shu.

The film’s eventual descent into fantasy makes of Mr Tree a film that is only questionably realistic (although this critique – bizarrely – never seems to be made against, say, Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951), a core film of the influential Italian neorealist movement, from which both this and Jia’s films seem to take inspiration, and which itself has an entire fantasy ending featuring, as implied by the title, a miracle made only more bitter by the fact that it is fantastic and impossible).

Nonetheless, as per much sixth generation filmmaking (if the term still applies – how long can a generation last before becoming a new one?), the film is a politicised glimpse into contemporary Chinese life.

It is only fitting that the film adopts the ‘slow’ pace that it does, filming predominantly in long shot to ground Shu and the other characters in the space/place that they inhabit rather than to have us view the film as simply a character portrait.

Again, this is not to overlook the complex roots of the film in Chinese culture – my reading might seem to ground the film uniquely in a genealogy of films and style of filmmaking – but it is to suggest that aesthetic strategies (how one shapes the look, feel, pace, and intensity of a film) are strongly tied to the political.

Hero this film neither is nor could be, interesting though Zhang’s most accessible work is in and of itself. For my part, then, I can only continue to reiterate, perhaps narcissistically (if I can never convince anyone who thinks otherwise), that judging films according to criteria of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (with good being fast and exciting, bad being slow and ‘boring’) is pointless. It is better, rather, for us to think about what the film seems to be saying.

Not just to watch the film as entertainment, but to read, or to think about the film – perhaps even to find about the cinematic, industrial, and cultural contexts – among others – in which the film was made.

This is what I try to do as a lecturer in film. Sometimes I feel very strongly about it; the attention economy has us in its grips, and we will overlook many important – nay, vital – things if we do not pay enough respect to that which surrounds us. Some films try to do this by being deliberately slow. This is not bad; it is a strategy for trying to induce thought and thoughtfulness.

While I personally think that there are ‘problems’ with this ‘strategy’ (it is too teleological, it perhaps stratifies film into entertainment vs art house modes that rarely meet, and whose audiences rarely meet, and I am certain that one can think critically about Hollywood or any other mainstream style of cinema), it remains an important one.

If my choice of films and my teaching style run the risk of boring my students, a ‘problem’ that I might be called into account for when I have to proactively to address the feedback that my students eventually will give me for my teaching methods and choices, then this is just an issue that I/they will have to face together.

While I like fast films, too, I want to emphasise here how I am in praise of slow films – and why. I hope that this blog might help to convince someone – anyone – that slow films (all films?!) are important and not to be overlooked…