Cine Books on the King of the B-Movie, British Horror Oddities and American Independents

cine-lit
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie
By Chris Nashawaty
Abrams
247pp. £19.99

X-Cert

X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film
By John Hamilton
Hemlock Books
244pp. £17.95

Directory of World Cinema American Independent 2

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra
Ed. Intellect
320pp. £16

Christmas came early for me this year. I received a copy of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses, which is one of those fantastic coffee-table books that can only be described as ‘lush’. The book is not only beautifully and lovingly put together, but is one of the best and most pleasurable overviews of the formidable Roger Corman’s film career in print. The last few years, especially since Hollywood finally deigned to give Corman an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, have seen his critical star rise and rise. But film fans already realised long before academics did that Roger Corman is a figure of brilliance and wonder in the firmament of American cinema. Without his initial support and chance-taking on novice directors and actors – and the skinflint budgets of Arkoff & Nicholson of American International Pictures (A.I.P) – we may never have had the future pleasure of the company of Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Monte Hellman, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Haskell Wexler, Jonathon Demme and dozens of other directors, writers and actors from the ‘Corman School’. There are substantial interviews and commentaries from these directors, who uniformly speak in praiseworthy, sardonic and anecdotally apt terms of their mentor. When first-timer Ron Howard complained – as many directors had before and after – about the impossible shooting schedule, the small crew and the desperate need for a bit of cash for some extras to shoot a crowd scene, Howard recounts that Corman put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to get you more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’

Abrams have produced a book that is a cornucopia of visuals – poster art, stills and on-set photographs – and unusual for most coffee-table books, includes many pages of informative observation. I am a bit smitten with Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses and consider it my book of the year in the category of film-publishing delectables. Stephen King has called it ‘Fantastic – a treasure trove’ and who am I to disagree? On an interesting note, it has recently been announced that ‘ex-student’ Joe Dante is to make a biopic about Roger Corman, who is now in his mid-80s, and the great man is going to take a cameo role.

In my last column I waxed lyrical about the book Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. And now with the publication of X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film comes a volume that can stand proudly beside it as another informed enthusiast, and inveterate viewer, of films from the ‘wrong side’ of the British cinema-tracks takes us on a journey there. This time the book concerns the other world (and other-worldly) domain of lesser known and barely remembered British horror films. And these films are not ‘independent’ in the American indie sense, but independent in terms of vision (very blurry in the case of some), finance, studio backing and producers. John Hamilton has obviously done his homework here – not in theoretical but in historic and cultural terms – with lively notes on each film’s anatomy, plot and reception. At the end of each entry is a clever segue into the next, which serves as a great aid to continuity and chronology. Not to be missed for fans of the genre or those interested in films that critics like C.A. Lejeune of The Observer and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times denigrated and dismissed from their imagined ‘quality British cinema’ agenda. But now the cinematic undead rise from their celluloid tombs, and are being heard because John Hamilton has given them voice. Recommended.

The Intellect imprint continues to push out its titles thick and fast, with recent additions to two of its ongoing series, World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema. The former focusses on the role of particular international cities and their place visually, culturally and sometimes psychogeographically within the cinematic forum, while the latter concentrates on national cinemas and has provided a much-needed publishing niche for overviews of both well and less well-known world cinemas. Latin America and Turkey are two such recent additions to the series, while American Independent 2 bucks the thematic trend somewhat by focussing on American indie cinema (a typology of production type) rather than following the usual strict, national cinema format.

For more information on all recent additions to Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series visit the Intellect website.

Of course, the whole issue of ‘independent’, given the continuing practice of corporate Hollywood taking control of many ‘independent’ films in terms of distribution (and finance), is a convoluted one, as editor John Berra touches upon in his introductory overview. I have come to trust Berra’s opinions and observations (he is a recurring name at Intellect as editor and contributor) and this particular title is insightful and will prove to be referentially useful for students of film. Just as Turkey and Latin America will likewise prove to be as introductory texts to various national cinemas which we often do not hear enough about. The series usually starts off with an essay on the ‘film of the year’, which seems a curious strategy, given that by the time the book is published it is already dated, because the film festival circuit has usually already presented the one of the following year. Far better, I feel, to subsume the key film within the body of the text and not chance perceived obsolescence. As for the series on film locations, I suggest that any cinephile or traveller who wants to get a handle on their chosen destination in terms of the cinematic – and hence cultural, social, historical and political – background gets hold of a copy about the place in question before leaving home. This could well change your whole itinerary.

James B. Evans

GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
In keeping with the above theme of Roger Corman and A.I.P, this edition of Cine Lit’s object of note is the enjoyable romp that is the memoir of Samuel Arkoff, who along with lawyer James Nicholson founded A.I.P., the company that launched – well, sustained! – a thousand drive-in screens across North America. While bunking off for an afternoon from the Toronto Film Festival to haunt the second-hand bookstores, I found a hardcover copy of the memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press, 1992), for the very reasonable price of $4.99. This tongue-in-cheek look back at Arkoff’s misadventures in the ‘picture business’ (the subtitle is The Man Who Brought You I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF & MUSCLE BEACH PARTY ) is an important historical document of the period, as well as an insightful look at ‘the business’. Arkoff was one of the last cigar-chompin’ independent showmen whose verve, swagger and chutzpah drove him to produce over 375 films, about which he writes: ‘AIP’s pictures have always just taken audiences out of their everyday world and transported them somewhere else. Today’s movies use their big budgets as selling points and they still don’t hit an audience half as hard as ours always have.’ Those who got their first chance with A.I.P collectively gave us such gems as: The Wild Angels, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Bloody Mama, House of Usher, The Thing With Two Heads, Blacula, Cannibal Girls, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Trip and the unforgettable The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy. ‘Nuff said… SAVE THIS BOOK. JE

Ripley’s Game: The Cinematic Identities of Patricia Highsmith’s Seductive Sociopath

Plein Soleil
Plein Soleil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 August 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal / ICO

Director: René Clément

Writers: René Clément, Paul Gégauff

Based on the novel: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Cast: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Lafor&#234t

France, Italy 1960

113 mins

The iconic poster art for René Clément’s Plein Soleil (1960) depicts Alain Delon, the quintessential romantic leading man of French cinema, clutching the wheel of a sailing boat, stripped to the waist, sweating under the blazing heat of the Mediterranean sun. It is a glamorous image of wealth and toned masculinity, yet there is a steely determination in Delon’s eyes that hints at something dark and devious beneath the attractive surface. This is because Plein Soleil finds Delon portraying Tom Ripley, the coldly charismatic anti-hero of five existential literary thrillers by Patricia Highsmith, and a man whose amoral actions are committed entirely free of conscience.

The character of Ripley, a conman whose desire to live vicariously through others often entails manipulative mind games and murder, has appealed to filmmakers as diverse as Clément, Wim Wenders and Anthony Minghella because of his ability to continuously reinvent himself, adopting new guises and absorbing the traits and nuances of others into his own ever evolving persona. Much as directors jump between genres, experimenting with alternative stylistic sensibilities as a means of avoiding being pigeonholed by critics and second-guessed by audiences, Ripley is always reinventing himself, leading cinematic interpretations to vary from Dennis Hopper’s aggressive alpha male in cowboy gear in Wenders’s The American Friend (1977) to Barry Pepper’s flamboyant drama student in Roger Spottiswoode’s sadly little seen Ripley Under Ground (2005). The fact that Ripley not only emerges unscathed, but also advances economically from each adventure, only makes him a more alluring prospect for directors seeking a suitable vehicle with which to explore moral ambiguity within the framework of the contemporary thriller. Highsmith’s novels may be written in the third person, but they offer a speculative insight into the psyche of the sociopath, and the urgency with which the author outlines Ripley’s thought process serves to emphasise the extent of his criminal cunning. Highsmith once stated that she had the feeling that Ripley himself was actually writing, and that she was merely typing; Plein Soleil captures the unique quality of her prose by keeping Delon’s scheming sociopath centre stage, with every detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, being incorporated into his master plan, with everything slowly but surely conforming to his self-involved world view.

Following its theatrical run, the new uncut, digitally remastered version of Plein Soleil will be released in the UK by Studiocanal on Blu-ray and DVD, on 16 September 2013.

Plein Soleil is adapted from Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first entry in her ‘Ripliad’, which would later be filmed under its original title by Minghella. Ripley has left a life of poverty in San Francisco to relocate to Italy to reside with Philippe Greenleaf, the heir to a fortune who has absconded to Europe with his girlfriend Marge, an aspiring writer, to enjoy a life of leisure at the expense of his industrialist father. Having been mistaken for a former childhood friend of Philippe’s, Ripley has been sent to Italy by the playboy’s father to convince the wayward son to return to the United States, only for Ripley to be entirely open with Philippe about his assignment, and accepted into a clique of young and affluent expatriates. Philippe has no recollection of their earlier ‘friendship’, but does not perceive Ripley to be dangerous, instead dismissing him as a fantasist and finding amusement in his abilities with mimicry and forgery. During a yachting trip, Ripley causes a rift in the rocky relationship between Philippe and his girlfriend, which results in Marge departing the vessel, leaving Ripley to stab Philippe to death and dump his body into the water. After returning to port, Ripley travels to Rome and assumes Philippe’s identity, perfecting his signature, affecting his mannerisms, and becoming comfortable in his clothes, whilst also evading the attentions of the local police. Ripley immerses himself in his victim’s life to such an extent that, rather than simply impersonating Philippe, he actually becomes him.

Clément’s adaptation succeeds as an emotionally detached study of a sociopath in action, and his immersion into an alternative identity. Clément dispenses with the first act of the novel, which was set in the United States and detailed how Ripley came to be employed as an emissary by the Greenleaf family, instead plunging into Philippe’s opulent lifestyle, with Ripley already established as part of his social circle. Highsmith’s novels are acute social satires of the American class system, but Clément is less interested in the complacency of the idle offspring of the nouveaux riches than he is in the manner in which Ripley takes on Philippe’s life. Ripley is too in control to have a multiple personality disorder, but exhibits the ability to shift from one identity to another at a moment’s notice, even within the confines of his own persona. Therefore, the naïve, innocent ‘Tom Ripley’ who plays the fool with a blind man’s cane for Philippe’s amusement, comforts the deeply distressed Marge, and is interviewed about Philippe’s disappearance by an Italian police detective, is an entirely different psychological construct from the Tom Ripley who has committed cold-blooded murder, and is able to persuasively insist that he has been touring the Swiss Alps in his car, in the absence of a more substantial alibi. In the novel, Ripley adopts the rigorous techniques of a method actor, actually spending a night in a car in order to authentically capture the feeling of the experience so that his alibi will sound more convincing when he uses it. An early scene in Plein Soleil, which is all the more chilling for the relaxed manner in which it is performed, shows Ripley testing his impersonation of Philippe in front of a mirror, changing his clothes, then his hair, then his voice, as he puts together an alternate identity, layer by layer.

In the final pages of Highsmith’s novel, Ripley is travelling to Greece, having unjustly inherited part of the Greenleaf fortune, but is contemplating how to best manage his new-found wealth in order to avoid suspicion, still anxious that the police may be waiting for him in Athens with a warrant for his arrest, and unable to enjoy his freedom. It is Clément’s ability to encapsulate this self-contained tension that makes Plein Soleil so suspenseful; Ripley is constantly planning, yet adapting, working every scenario to his advantage and going to elaborate lengths to keep Philippe ‘alive’ for as long as he needs him to be, checking into a hotel under his identity, writing letters with his typewriter, contacting Marge by phone whilst ‘in character’, faking a trip back to Mongibello, and making it appear to everyone, with the exception of the suspicious Freddie, that he is Philippe’s trusted friend and the only one who is still in contact with the ‘missing’ playboy. By trading his previously gauche manner for Philippe’s more assertive attitude – perhaps the true triumph of his transformation – he is able to seduce Marge, although it is not entirely clear whether Ripley actually desires Marge, or simply sees her as an another aspect of Philippe’s life that he needs to assimilate.

The same story would form the basis for Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), a handsomely mounted melodrama, which cast Matt Damon in the title role and was positioned between a prestige period picture and the first instalment in a possible franchise. In Plein Soleil, Ripley is already comfortable with his criminal instincts, calmly explaining to Philippe how he intends to steal his money before murdering him, but Minghella seeks to explain and, to an extent, justify the actions of Highsmith’s anti-hero by delving into his background. In both Plein Soleil and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the central character is portrayed by a young leading man on the verge of major stardom; Alain Delon had only appeared in five films prior to Plein Soleil, while Matt Damon was looking to capitalise on his Oscar-nominated performance as a troubled maths genius in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997). However, there are distinct differences beneath the superficial similarities.

With his bland all-American good looks and well-mannered demeanour, Damon fits Highsmith’s description of Ripley as a ‘vaguely handsome young man who has at the same time the most ordinary, forgettable face in the world’ (quoted by Andrew Wilson in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith), and his performance suggests that Ripley’s actions stem from social marginalisation, and from his sexual attraction to Dickie (Jude Law), as Philippe was originally named. Minghella’s emphasis on Ripley’s sexuality, which is a subtext in the novel, adds to the character’s awkwardness, exemplified by a scene in which he attempts to make advances towards Dickie while the latter is taking a bath. Although Delon does play Ripley as being inexperienced and insecure, this is mostly a façade, and it is simply Philippe’s life which he desires, not the playboy himself. Murder is a last resort for Damon’s Ripley, who attacks Dickie when his true feelings are rebuffed, and kills out of self-defence when the object of his desire fights back; Delon’s Ripley views such acts as means to an end, and actually has an appetite for murder, as suggested when he takes a bite out of an apple following his murder of Philippe, and devours a roast chicken after another killing.

Later Ripley novels, and Liliana Cavani’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game (2002), would find the character living comfortably on his French estate, cultivating civilised interests, sufficiently settled in his own skin that he could pursue twisted pleasure by playing with the lives of others rather than actually adopting them. Plein Soleil, with its gorgeous cinematography by Henri Deca&#235 almost allowing its thrillingly cynical narrative to masquerade as a sun-drenched travelogue, explores a criminal so audacious in his ambition that he successfully steals that which should be intangible: personal identity.

This article was first published in the summer 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

John Berra

Watcher the trailer for Plein Soleil:

9th China Independent Film Festival

9th China Independent Film Festival – Cancelled

16-22 November, 2012, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

Most film festival reports follow a fairly established formula: a brief history of the event, followed by a run-through of the highlights of that year, with some concluding thoughts on its position in festival culture and consideration of how it might develop in the future. However, this report of the 9th China Independent Film Festival breaks from critical formula by being a report of a festival that did not happen, and may not happen again due to official intervention. As such, this is perhaps less of a report than an obituary, but one which will try to celebrate the significant achievements of CIFF while bemoaning its sudden demise.

CIFF was founded in 2003 with the intention of providing a platform for Chinese filmmakers whose work was unlikely to receive a mainstream release in their home territory due to strict media censorship. It soon became a vital event for anyone with a genuine interest in features or documentaries that combined formal innovation with unflinching social observation. Although most of the organisation team was based in Beijing, the hub of China’s independent film scene, CIFF was held in Nanjing, the South-East former capital, away from the watchful eye of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). As with most events of this type, the audience for CIFF was comprised of academics, cineastes, critics, distributors, programmers from other festivals, and students, with attendance gradually increasing to the point that many were standing throughout last year’s screenings in the allocated classrooms at the Communication School of Nanjing University.

To say that 2012 has been a difficult year for festival organisers in mainland China would be an understatement, as the government has reacted decisively upon realising the cultural capital that such events have gradually built up by keeping their activities under the popular radar. In August, the Beijing Independent Film Festival was interrupted when the power was cut mid-way through the opening screening, prompting organisers to implement their back-up plan and relocate to the less public venue of Songzhuang Art District on the outskirts of the city. Considering the tense political climate in a year of government leadership change, the programme planned for CIFF was certainly ambitious. In addition to the usual 10 narrative features and 10 documentaries, the 2012 Asian Experimental Film and Video Festival would have run alongside the main event, with more than 30 films scheduled in conjunction with talks from leading academics in the field. This correspondent was concerned that CIFF would struggle to go ahead around the same time as the 18th National Communist Party Congress. Internet reports stated that handles to open the windows of Beijing taxis had been removed to prevent demonstrators from spreading anti-Party propaganda on the streets of the capital, while the cancellations of the Yixian International Photo Festival and Bishan Harvestival suggested a severe clamp-down on all arts-related activities. CIFF had defied the odds before, running relatively smoothly in 2011 despite the cancellation of several Beijing events a few months earlier, so I remained hopeful and cleared my schedule for a week of screenings.

Sadly, the day before CIFF was due to start, I received a phone call informing me of the festival’s cancellation, then watched a television report on the appointment of China’s new cabinet while waiting on a subway platform. With the planned venues and back-up options falling through due to political pressure, CIFF was unable to go underground. Organisers, filmmakers, and attendees who had already made the journey to Nanjing prior to the cancellation announcement were left to socialise for a few days around the university district, with festival founder Zhang Xianmin of Beijing Film Academy proving to be a truly gracious and good-humoured host under difficult circumstances by arranging these activities. The ‘opening up’ of China is often discussed in relation to its national cinema, with Jia Zhangke’s state-approved productions The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and I Wish I Knew (2010) cited as examples of SARFT’s gradual acceptance of art-house cinema with social ideologies that do not exactly toe the party line. However, the situation is actually more complicated, with the degree of official tolerance shifting annually, meaning that windows of opportunity for provocative filmmakers can open when the state sees the benefits of cooperation with the independent sector, only to be slammed shut again if the political climate becomes too sensitive. CIFF succeeded admirably in providing a forum for the kind of filmmakers who do not want to wait for script approval, and will hopefully rise again, probably under a new banner and in a different city, but with the same unwavering sense of purpose.

John Berra

After Life and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cinema of Memory

After Life

Memory is a recurrent element in the cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda. In some of his films, it provides the perspective or structure. In others, it is the central theme, or a supressed undercurrent of anxiety that permeates the surface of a contemporary Japan where people rarely discuss their problems. In his first feature Maborosi (1995), the central character of Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is haunted by the deaths of her grandmother, for which she still feels responsible, and her husband, who has committed suicide for no apparent reason. Relocating with her daughter from Osaka to a quiet fishing community, she tries not to dwell on the past. Nobody Knows (2004), based on the tragic true story of four young children who were abandoned by their mother in a small Tokyo apartment, presents a recollection of childhood that is steeped in trauma with its focus on confined space, inanimate objects, and psychological signifiers. Still Walking (2008) observes a strained family gathering, as unemployed art restorer Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) spends a few days at his parents’ house, bringing along his new wife and stepson. The events of the film are ultimately framed as memory in a closing scene that has Ryota visiting his parents’ graves and reflecting on the final visit that he made to their home, several years ago. If these protagonists are defined by their memories, the heroine of Air Doll (2009) is characterised by a lack of personal reference. After magically coming to life, sex toy Nozomi (Bae Doona) searches for experience, whether pleasurable or painful, in order to make sense of the world. However, the director’s most direct rumination on the individual significance and selective nature of memory is After Life, a reflective fantasy that filters its premise through the quasi-documentary aesthetic that Kore-eda has practised throughout his fascinating career to date.

After Life imagines a space between Earth and Heaven, where the recently deceased are taken once natural causes or physical misfortune have brought an end to their mortal existence. On arrival, they find themselves in a ramshackle office building where they receive guidance from case workers who are tasked with helping them go to the next stage. Each person must select the happiest memory from their life so that it can be recreated on film. Once the scene is complete, the deceased watch it in a screening room, and vanish, able to relive this moment for eternity. While the film begins with the deceased and their reactions to their respective deaths, the focus gradually shifts to the case workers, who must deal with the variable attitudes of these individuals: some believe that their lives yielded no memories of great significance, others struggle to decide from so many options, and one simply refuses to choose on the grounds that a single recollection cannot completely represent his mortal years.

The first half of After Life involves the detailed interviews that case workers must conduct in order to decide which memories to recreate, suggesting that such recollections constitute a stockpile of personal information that must be systematically sorted and considered in relation to suitability. Many of the memories, although eventually scripted, were actually researched, with 500 people being interviewed. Kore-eda cast the film during this process, balancing non-actors with professionals, and recruiting the documentary cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki to achieve an otherworldly realism. The second half examines the tentative romantic relationship between two case workers, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda) that cannot develop due to the emotional power of memory: Takashi is unable to reciprocate Shiori’s feelings as he still yearns for the fiancée that he left behind after being killed in World War II.

The process of recreating memory that these case workers facilitate serves to show how such recollections can be erroneous, or subject to embellishment. Indecision or inconsistency on the part of some of the deceased indicates that the memories that are chosen as their passport to eternal happiness are possibly falsely remembered, or partially fictionalised, although Kore-eda does not see this as a problem in the grand scheme of things, providing that sufficient personal resonance is evoked. After Life proposes that memories are ever-shifting, with certain details dependent on the situation in which past circumstances are recalled, or to whom they are being imparted. In the press notes for the film, Kore-eda states: ‘Our memories are not fixed or static. They are dynamic, reflecting selves that are constantly changing. So the act of remembering, of looking back at the past, is by no means redundant or negative. Rather, it challenges us to evolve and mature.’ While most of the deceased ultimately force themselves to examine their personal history, sifting through lives of disappointment and strife to find a positive moment that will take them forward, it transpires that the case workers have been trained for their positions due to being unable to choose a memory. This steadfast refusal, or emotional inability, to explore their past has resulted in a weekly office routine, presented in a pared-down fashion to reflect the salaried existence of many Japanese professionals. However, through assisting the elderly Ichiro (Taketoshi Naito), Takashi discovers that their lives are linked and is finally able to make a choice due to the recollection that is prompted by a realisation of interconnectedness. It is Takashi’s contented expression as his scene plays out that best summarises Kore-eda’s beautiful illustration of the role played by memory in belatedly finding meaning in life’s special, if sometimes fleeting, moments.

John Berra

The 8th China Independent Film Festival

No. 89 Shimen Roa

8th China Independent Film Festival

28 October – 1 November, 2011, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

As with last year’s event, the 8th China Independent Film Festival was an exercise in under-promotion: a schedule that was only available in advance if you had the right email address, screenings in lecture rooms at the downtown campus of Nanjing University, and an opening ceremony at a moderately sized venue that provided sufficient seating for those in the know, but left curious latecomers standing in the aisles. This is not a method of organisation that is exclusive to CIFF, as any independent film festival operating in mainland China has to take such measures due to the inclusion of features that have not been approved by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television). 2011 has been a particularly difficult year for such festivals, with the organisers of the Documentary Film Festival China being pressured to cancel the Beijing-based event (which would also have been in its eighth year) due to a tense political climate that coincided with the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and increased mainland internet restrictions. The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival went ahead in October, although not without disruption, as the venue had to be changed twice and police presence was reported at the launch event. Representatives of SARFT were in attendance at CIFF, but did not intervene at either screenings or workshop sessions, meaning that the festival ran smoothly compared to its equivalent in the capital. With political conflicts effectively sidestepped, CIFF was able to offer another interesting selection of features, documentaries and experimental shorts, with filmmakers present for post-screening discussions of their work. It could be said that the ‘real’ festival took place at the local branch of Sculpting in Time (a Chinese version of Starbucks that serves alcoholic beverages in addition to over-priced coffee), where the network of directors, distributors, academics and journalists was further expanded.

While the features emerging from China’s independent sector are undoubtedly political, they often avoid sweeping state-of-the-nation surveys in favour of social microcosms to show the effect of national shifts on the family unit or the individual. Zhang Ciyu’s haunting Pear (2010) is a chamber piece concerning a young married couple who are struggling to complete the construction of their new house on a mountain slope; the wife ends up working in a brothel in town to earn the necessary funds and the husband is left to hang around the waiting room of the establishment while she services her clients. Regardless of how much money she makes, the couple can never keep up with the rate of economic acceleration and the pears of the title – the wife’s favourite fruit, which are brought to her in a basket by her husband – are left to rot, much like their dreams of a prosperous future. The eponymous heroine of Song Chuan’s insightful and quietly heart-breaking Huan Huan (2010) is a young village woman who becomes the mistress of the local doctor; she struggles to find her place in the world despite, or because of, a near-constant bombardment of social messages (birth control regulations, labour force drives, state-controlled television news). The turbulent political landscape of the late 1980s is filtered through a nostalgic lens in Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (2010), although reference to Tiananmen ensures that this engaging drama will not receive a mainland release. High school student Xiaoli lives with his strict but understanding grandfather in Shanghai following his mother’s relocation to the United States, and becomes romantically involved with two girls who represent opposing social ideologies; next-door neighbour Lanmi becomes an escort for easy money while classmate Lili is more politically motivated. Shu resorts to some coming-of-age clichés, but this is still an evocative snapshot of youthful uncertainty at a time of social instability.

If the nicely crafted No. 89 Shimen Road represents a middle-of-the-road approach to Chinese independent cinema – a universal narrative placed within a wider political context – then Pema Tseden’s Old Dog (2011) and Jin Rui’s The Cockfighters (2010) exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Old Dog is a poetic portrait of Tibetan life in which the unauthorised sale of the titular animal by the owner’s son leads his father to retrieve the dog on the grounds that using an animal as a commodity is taboo in traditional Tibetan culture. It’s a thoughtful contemplation on the changing values of Tibet under state reform, with striking long shots of farmland divided by barbed wire and town streets that show slow but steady signs of economic progress. By contrast, The Cockfighters is aggressively commercial, a punchy rural thriller that follows the feud that develops between a youth from a wealthy family and a grassroots family man when the former loses his first cockfighting match to the latter. The narrative device of a destructive game of one-upmanship owes much to the genre cinema of South Korea, right down to the obligatory shaving scene before the climactic showdown, and The Cockfighters certainly makes a gripping bid for international box office viability. Developing links between China’s independent sector and alternative production in other Asian territories were adequately illustrated by Zhao Ye’s altogether gentler Last Chestnuts (2010), which was filmed in Nara, Japan, at the invitation of Naomi Kawase, director of The Mourning Forest (2007). A terminally ill Tokyo woman (Kaori Momoi) wanders the area, searching for her missing son, with only a couple of digital photos as clues to his whereabouts, and is assisted by helpful locals; Zhao conveys the time-sensitive desperation of the mother’s search, although the emotional impact is lessened by unnecessary meta-references to Kawase’s work in the same region.

The documentary line-up also offered a range of approaches to independent filmmaking, from studies of creative culture to self-portraits and undercover reports. Wang Hao’s Seven Days in a Year (2011) documents the responsibilities of an internet-monitoring department in Chongqing, revealing how such restrictions are implemented by low-level state servants who spend the day browsing bulletin boards for negative comments and brainstorming SMS advertising strategies to encourage patriotic feeling. Beijing’s art scene was examined by Zeng Guo in two documentaries, 798 Station (2010) and The Cold Winter (2011). The former provides an account of how a thriving art zone comprised of galleries and studios has evolved from factory space, while the latter follows the unsuccessful efforts of artists to stop the demolition of the art districts that surround the central hub of 798 Station. The Cold Winter shows both the strengths and weaknesses of China’s artistic communities, with everyone committed to a certain ideal, but the movement compromised by a lack of agreement on how to practically realise it. However, as with the features, the most interesting documentaries were those that focused on the individual, exploring past and present Chinese society through daily routine or recounted memory. Wei Xiaobo’s The Days (2010) is a candid first-person account of the director’s cash-strapped lifestyle with his live-in girlfriend Xei Fang; they fight, make love and Wei undertakes various freelance assignments to pay the rent. Xu Tong’s Shattered (2011) follows Tang Caifeng, a woman with a chequered past (involvement in illegal mining and prostitution) who returns to her north-east home town to reunite with her father, a retired engineer who was educated under Japanese rule; Old Man Tang has kept many artefacts of the occupation, but his ‘living history’ is of greater value than the portraits of Lenin and Mao Zedong that clutter the home.

Due to the political implications of making films outside the system in China, not to mention the problem of securing exhibition and distribution for productions that lack the ‘dragon seal’ from SARFT, it is still appropriate to group such efforts under the ‘independent’ banner. Yet it should be noted that some films in this year’s CIFF line-up, such as No. 89 Shimen Road and The Cockfighters, find Chinese independent cinema moving towards an American independent model by locating their social concerns within recognisable commercial genres, not to mention boasting production values that contrast with the ‘hand-made’ qualities of Huan Huan or Pear. This is not necessarily a problem, as coming-of-age dramas or revenge thrillers with a certain level of social-political context appeal to the international art-house crowd, who regularly watch films that exist on the fringes of the mainstream but still adhere to genre parameters. However, it is hoped that such potential crossover successes will not overshadow more marginal works like Yang Heng’s Sun Spots (2009), a minimalist romance between a bored young woman and a violent gangster that is told in just 31 long takes with no close-ups. Sun Spots polarised audience opinion – some found it to be a patience-tester, others were hypnotised by its deliberate rhythm – but nonetheless generated much discussion due to its formal qualities. On the basis of this year’s CIFF selection, the Chinese independent sector appears to have achieved a balance between artistic exploration and commercial aspirations; these potentially conflicting versions of ‘independent production’ are able to comfortably co-exist, mutually supporting one another due to the difficult circumstances under which both are brought to fruition by their directors. CIFF has also encountered difficulties in terms of accommodating the growing interests of directors and viewers within a limited space and schedule, but like the filmmakers that it supports, the festival has managed to find a measure of freedom within a world of restriction.

John Berra

Survival Instincts: Shôhei Imamura’s 1960s heroines

Pigs and Battleships

In a 1994 interview with the Japanese filmmaker Toichi Nakata, the nuberu bagu figurehead Shôhei Imamura explained that his interest in lower-class women stemmed from his post-war black market experiences: ‘They weren’t educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings. I grew to admire them enormously.’ It was a difficult period for Japan as the nation tried to rebuild both economy and morale, with lower-class citizens forced to undertake whatever work they could find in order to make it through the week. Imamura came from a relatively privileged background and studied Western history at Waseda University, but was less interested in attending classes than he was in associating with opportunistic racketeers and fallen women. Such encounters made a significant impression on Imamura, who felt sympathetic towards the hostesses, prostitutes and other women in demeaning jobs, and acknowledged the strength that made them more multi-faceted than mere victims of circumstances. Life is hard for the female protagonists of Imamura’s 1960s output, whose characters struggle with a host of obstacles (abuse, ostracism, poverty), yet usually manage to get on with things despite such setbacks. If such depictions of daily drudgery served to make wider points about Japan as a nation in the 1960s, the director never lost sight of the personal struggles. Imamura was very much an anthropologist, stating in a 1985 interview with Audie Bock, ‘My heroines are true to life – just look around you at Japanese women’.

Such themes would not emerge in Imamura’s work until he achieved a degree of independence from the demands of studio production line. As with many Japanese filmmakers, Imamura started his career as a contract player, initially employed at Shochiku Studios, where he worked as an assistant to Yasujirô Ozu on Early Summer (1951), The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953). Disliking the manner in which the quiet master would portray the Japanese society of the period, and desiring a better salary, Imamura departed Shochiku in 1954 to work at rival studio Nikkatsu, where he also served as an apprentice, assisting Yuzo Kawashima, and was elevated to co-screenwriter status with Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (1957). Having paid his dues on the factory floor, Imamura was offered the opportunity to direct with Stolen Desire (1958), a tale of travelling actors. His following films, Nishi Ginza Station (1958), Endless Desire (1958) and My Second Brother (1959), were pure pop, lightweight entertainments aimed at the youth market, but things changed when Imamura secured a larger budget to shoot Pigs and Battleships (1961). The director’s fifth feature is a scathing satire of post-war Japanese society that filtered its social-economic critique through the story of small-time crook Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who works as a waitress in a bar adjacent to a brothel. Haruko is the prototype for Imamura’s 1960s heroines in that she is horribly mistreated but remains resolutely practical and progressive.

Throughout the film, Haruko encourages Kinta to leave Yokosuka, a seedy port town where corruption is not so much under the table as out on the street, in favour of a new life in Nagasaki where Kinta could undertake a factory position. However, the young thug believes that he has what it takes to scale the underworld ladder, which turns out to be the kind of misguided self-confidence that fatally undermines life expectancy. Even before Kinta embarks on an ill-fated scheme involving pig-farming, Haruko is considering taking a walk, such is her level-headed nature. As this is an Imamura film, she will have to suffer a little more before she can make her escape from the slums of Yokosuka: reduced to prostitution, Haruko is gang-raped by three American sailors, then tries to rip them off in what could be an act of revenge or just a desperate need for relocation money, leading to a chase through Yokosuka’s red light district. In the closing scene, Haruko strides purposefully towards the train that will take her to Nagasaki, heading in the opposite direction to the large group of American sailors who have just arrived in Yokosuka; this signifies Haruko’s rejection of Japanese society as represented by local crime and the influence of the occupying foreign power, but her future remains uncertain and Nagasaki may just be the first of many temporary stops. While the story of Haruko is told in parallel to that of Kinta, Imamura’s subsequent films would move their heroines to centre stage.

The Insect Woman (1963) famously begins with Imamura making the potentially unflattering comparison between rural peasant Tomie (Sachiko Hidari) and an insect that repeatedly attempts to climb a mound of dirt, only to slide back and try again. Tomie goes through similar struggles in her efforts to gain a footing in Japanese society: born into the incestuous village community of Tohoku in 1918, she leaves her mentally retarded stepfather and unfaithful mother to work in a city factory, only to be summoned home where she is raped and impregnated by a local whose father owns her family’s land. She decides to keep the child and leaves her daughter Nobuko in the care of her stepfather to return to the city, promising to send money home. The episodes that follow show Tomie’s evolution from self-sufficient worker to self-interested operator: jobs as a labour organiser and a nanny are followed by a dalliance with religion, before she seemingly descends into prostitution, only to demonstrate some street-smart business skills when she reports her madam to the police so that she can take over the brothel. As with Haruko in Pigs and Battleships, Tomie has understood the unwritten rules of a Japanese society that is undergoing rapid reconstruction following World War II. But unlike Haruko, she embraces these changes, thereby evolving from abused peasant girl to ruthless entrepreneur. Imamura is unflinching in his observation of Tomie’s questionable choices, but certainly not judgmental, and provides a direct link to his previous film by casting Pigs and Battleships leading lady Yoshimura as Nobuko.

The attempts made by Tomie to advance her standing in Japanese society, economically if not socially, can be contrasted with the efforts made by Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), the heroine of Intentions of Murder (1964), to simply hold on to what she already has. The basis for Intentions of Murder was a sociological study that Imamura had conducted of a woman living in Northern Japan: Sadako is a common-law wife and mother who, at a young age, settled for a life controlled by a librarian husband who cheats on her and a mother-in-law who does not respect her. Although she dutifully performs household tasks and balances the family budget – an emphasis on the appliances in their home serves to note how such things can easily be taken away – Sadako is mistreated by Riichi, who is reluctant to officially register her as his wife because of her ’embarrassing’ peasant background. While the husband is away, struggling musician Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) breaks into the home and threatens Sadako with a knife in order to extort some money, his act of aggression extending to rape. Afraid of being ostracised from the family and local community if her violation becomes common knowledge, she does not report the rape, and Hiraoko actually becomes her lover as she seeks the sexual gratification that she does not receive from her husband Riichi (Kô Nishimura), who is having an affair. Hitting a low point, Sadako considers suicide, but comes back from the brink to reaffirm her familial status.

The heroines of Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder demonstrate remarkable survival instincts; resilient and surprisingly resourceful, they refuse to give up in the face of adversity and manage, in some small way, to improve or stabilise their respective situations, even if happiness remains elusive. Each has a moment that signifies their admirable stubbornness: Haruko refuses to marry an American suitor even though it would bring her family a much-needed $400 per month, the elderly Tomie keeps moving when her wooden sandal breaks, and Sadako firmly denies having an affair despite photographic evidence. Imamura seemed to consider Intentions of Murder to bring closure to this unofficial trilogy of strong-willed women and subsequently directed The Pornographers (1966), which revolves around the activities of adult filmmaker Subuyan (Shoichi Ozawa). There are interesting female characters in Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), the widowed landlady who sleeps with Subuyan, and her daughter Keiko (Keiko Sagawa), whom the filmmaker desires, but both are gone by the conclusion, which finds Subuyan living in a secluded area with a sex doll for company. To return to the 1994 Imamura interview, when Nakata suggested to Imamura that his heroines ‘all counter the Western stereotype of the submissive Asian woman’, the director matter-of-factly replied, ‘Japanese women generally are like that’. This exchange serves to underline Imamura’s point about Haruko, Tomie and Sadako: these women are as remarkable as they are ordinary, a contradiction that places them among the most fascinating heroines in the history of Japanese cinema.

Pigs and Battleships is available on Blu-ray + DVD from Eureka Entertainment.

John Berra

Scream Queen: Amber Heard and Contemporary Horror Stardom

And Soon the Darkness

Surviving the trappings of the horror film – both on screen and off – is an industrial rite of passage that most actresses must brave in order to establish themselves within the Hollywood mainstream, with some leading ladies successfully breaking out of the genre after a few appearances, while others remain associated with roles that require them to run around in a state of distress. Although the term ‘scream queen’ now exists in tandem with the ‘slasher’ sub-genre that was independently instigated by the surprise success of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978) and industrially validated by the saturation release of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), it actually refers to roles that have been regularly undertaken by actresses over the course of a century of commercial cinema. Gloria Stewart in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964) are three classic examples of actresses who have exhibited an independent streak while shrieking their way to stardom through genre films.

Of course, the combination of the enduring popularity of the horror genre and the increase in production due to the evolution of ancillary markets (VHS, DVD, VOD) has caused a proliferation of scream queens as actresses can make their claims for the title by starring in films that have been made at varying industrial levels and may even have bypassed the big screen altogether. The current crop of contenders for the scream queen crown includes Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris of the ‘reimagined’ Halloween (2007), but despite the benefits that come with the brand value of an established franchise, they have been unable to compete with Amber Heard of Jonathon Levine’s comparatively little-seen All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006). Heard is truly a star of the internet age in that she has achieved a considerable level of fame despite the fact that none of the films in which she has starred have made much of an impression at the box office.

As the success that Heard has achieved within the horror genre has led to comparisons with Jamie Lee Curtis, it can be argued that scream queen status is no longer entirely linked to ticket sales; Halloween was a box office phenomenon with a gross of $47 million, or $124 million when adjusted for ticket price inflation, while All the Boys Love Mandy Lane achieved more traffic on internet forums than at theatrical venues due to distribution difficulties. After being shown at such notable festivals as London FrightFest and South by Southwest, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company, who planned to release the film through their genre division Dimension in 2007. An unusual teen slasher with an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and a smart final reel twist, it looked set for a profitable run. Unfortunately, a string of commercial misfires that included the expensive exploitation homage Grindhouse (2007) and the Stephen King adaptation The Mist (2007) led the Weinstein Company to postpone the release of Levine’s film, then to sell the rights to fledgling distributor Senator as a means of swiftly recovering recent losses. Ironically, the financial failure of another Senator acquisition featuring Heard – Gregor Jordan’s poorly received Brett Easton Ellis adaptation The Informers (2008) – forced the company to file for bankruptcy, leaving All the Boys Love Mandy Lane on the shelf indefinitely. The film received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom through Optimum and was sent straight to DVD in other territories, but remains unseen beyond the festival circuit in the all-important North American market, with Levine’s second feature – the dark teen comedy The Wackness (2008) – entering general release while his directorial debut was in distribution limbo. With a worldwide gross of $1.7 million against a production cost of $750,000, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane has been a modest money-spinner within the realms of low-budget horror, but its lack of distribution in the United States has led it to be assigned the status of ‘buried treasure’ among American genre aficionados. Heard has since landed ‘final girl’ parts in And Soon the Darkness (2010) and The Ward (2010), while taking on proactive girlfriend duties in The Stepfather (2009) and turning up as a less-than-final girl in Zombieland (2009).

The four genre films in which Heard has appeared since All the Boys Love Mandy Lane serve to show that subtle diversity is perhaps more beneficial to the long-term career prospects of the contemporary scream queen than a box-office juggernaut. Curtis followed Halloween with such similar independent productions as Terror Train (1980) and Prom Night (1980), while 1990s scream queens Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt became stranded in the sub-standard sequel zone after their respective success with Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Heard’s biggest hit within the genre is the knowingly comedic studio production Zombieland, which grossed $75 million, although her contribution is essentially a glorified cameo (albeit a most memorable one) as the infected neighbour of reluctant zombie slayer Jesse Eisenberg. She has more screen time in The Stepfather, which is the kind of product that is typical of studio sub-division Screen Gems in that it is a remake of the 1987 thriller of the same name that tones down the subversive suburban satire of the original in favour of teen-friendly thrills.

And Soon the Darkness is another remake, although this one was independently financed, with the source material stemming from the pre-VHS era: it updates a 1970 thriller by Robert Fuest about an abduction that occurs during a cycling holiday. The more adult tone of And Soon the Darkness is maintained by The Ward, which finds Heard working with a genuine genre auteur in John Carpenter for a psychological thriller that takes place in a mental institution. The Stepfather, And Soon the Darkness and The Ward all cast Heard as a strong-willed young woman in a perilous situation, but each film exists at a different industrial level and appeals to a different aspect of the horror market, from teen audience to a more adult market and to ardent fans of an acknowledged genre master. Heard will next take a trip into action-adventure territory as an assertive waitress alongside Nicolas Cage’s vengeance-seeking motorist in Drive Angry 3D (2011), which should further expand her audience. It remains to be seen if Heard can achieve dramatic legitimacy beyond genre circles but it is evident that, despite the stifled release, Heard’s performance in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was anything but a silent scream.

And Soon the Darkness is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 7 by Optimum Home Entertainment.

John Berra

Innocence Lost: Street of Shame

Street of Shame

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 January 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Writer: Masashige Narusawa

Original title: Asaken Chitai

Cast: Ayako Wakao, Michiyo Kogure, Hiroka Machida, Aiko Mimasu, Machiko Kyo

Japan 1956

85 mins

Part of the Late Mizoguchi – Eight Films 1951-1956 DVD box-set

As the rather sordid title suggests, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame exists somewhere between melodrama and social polemic, with the director’s final film taking place in Tokyo’s 300-year-old Yoshiwara district. The Japanese title – Akasen Chitai – literally translates as the more matter-of-fact Red Light District, but Mizoguchi was as much a dramatist as he was a documentarian, and Street of Shame is an emotional experience that grounds its narrative within the context of the 1950s debate regarding the anti-prostitution bill. This was not the only occasion that Mizoguchi would focus on the lives of women forced to sell themselves for economic survival; Osaka Elegy (1936) tells the story of a telephone operator who becomes a mistress to her employer in order to settle family debts, while both Sisters of the Gion (1936) and A Geisha (1953) take place in brothels and observe the interactions between the women that work in such establishments. Although the director was particularly concerned about the plight of women in Japanese society, any material that dealt with the sex trade had additional personal significance for him; economic circumstances forced Mizoguchi’s parents to put his sister up for adoption, and she was subsequently sold as a geisha, explaining the director’s regular return to such subject matter. Street of Shame takes place almost entirely within the confines of the Floating World (licensed places for middle-class pleasure-seeking, such as brothels, tea house and theatres), tackling the issue of prostitution at a time when political parties were using their stance on the matter as a means of influencing electoral power.

The episodic narrative of Street of Shame devotes an equal amount of attention to each of the five women who work at a brothel called Dreamland. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is always the top earner, not only saving her money but lending it to her co-workers on the condition that it is paid back with interest, earning the nickname ‘Lady Shylock’ while also stringing along a local businessman who has made her a marriage proposal. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) is struggling to support her family, which consists of a baby and a tuberculosis-ridden husband who is prone to suicidal impulses; they are constantly being threatened with eviction and, as the pressure of such familial responsibility becomes physically apparent, Hanae becomes less appealing to customers who prefer to spend time with younger courtesans. Yorie (Hiroka Machida) manages to marry a man who makes clogs for a living and is thrown a leaving party by her co-workers; however, she soon returns to Dreamland in a state of distress because her husband has simply expected her to be his servant. The older Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is a ‘country bumpkin’ who moved to Tokyo years ago to provide for her son, but has recently discovered that he has also relocated to the big city; meeting him outside the toy factory where he has found work, Yumeko is rejected by her son who is ashamed of her profession. The youngest of the five is Mickey (Machiko Kyo), who has walked away from a relatively wealthy background due to a strained relationship with her father; she is always in debt, and borrows money from both Yasumi and Dreamland proprietor Mr Taya in order to make it through the month.

Mizoguchi was shooting Street of Shame while members of government councils were meeting to discuss passing an anti-prostitution bill, and the employees of Dreamland listen to summaries of these talks on the radio. There is a sense that Mizoguchi is documenting the beginning of the end in this area of the sex industry, not only in terms of its status as a legal enterprise, but also with regards to its rapidly declining professional standards. Looking back on the role of the geisha – perhaps through rose-tinted glasses – the maid comments, ‘In the old days, a high-ranked courtesan would be skilled in Japanese poetry, the way of tea, flower arrangement and even calligraphy’. However, the women who work at Dreamland do not seem to have cultivated any of these abilities, and often resort to desperately dragging their customers in from the streets. There is little professional code among these women of the night, with ‘you can steal anything you want except another girl’s customer’ being the only house rule that is mentioned, although even this one is broken when a regular patron of Dreamland decides to try a different girl. The younger generation of geisha is represented by the gum-chewing Mickey, an arrogant example of Westernisation who racks up debt around the district and moans about having to get up early. The slightly older and financially sensible Yasumi seems to be a more traditional geisha in both attitude and appearance, but is eventually revealed to be a master manipulator; her father has been jailed for extortion and she leads another man down the path that placed him behind bars in order to raise the bail money.

By mixing melodrama with social concern, Mizoguchi is able to follow five story strands while maintaining a world view that is consistently critical regardless of the individual outcomes. Yasumi actually has more progressive business sense than her employers as she eventually leaves Dreamland to take over the bedding and quilting shop that sells directly to the brothel; she has sold her body as a relatively swift solution to a family problem, but her newfound prosperity is certainly tinged with resentment. While the prudent Yasumi has an escape plan, and the spendthrift Mickey is happy to whittle away her earnings and self-respect, Hanea, Yorie and Yumeko want to leave the profession but do not have the means to do so. Although there are distinct differences between these women, they are united in their bitterness towards the individual circumstances that led them to Dreamland. Yasumu and Mickey blame a lack of parental responsibility in the respective areas of finance and marital faithfulness, while Hanae is frustrated that she and her husband could never earn enough money to live on despite being hard-working and Yorie’s illusions about marriage turn out to be just that, leaving her with little to live for. However, it is Yumeko who truly pays the price for her choice of profession; although she dislikes her work as much as the other women, she has willingly made the sacrifice in order to support her son and only wants to see him succeed, but his vehement refusal to allow her to be part of his life shatters Yumeko’s fragile sense of self, swiftly resulting in mental breakdown.

While discussing the anti-prostitution bill with the Mamasan (Sadako Sawamura), a policeman observes, ‘the government has to deal with public opinion’; this is what happened in Japan in 1956 as the anti-prostitution bill was finally passed, a legislative event that was partially attributed to audience response to Street of Shame. Mizugochi is typically sympathetic towards the women of Dreamland, but finds their profession unpleasant and considers their employers to be little more than exploitation merchants. Mr Taya may insist, ‘We are the ones who really care about you. We built this club so you can do business. That’s how you can make a living. We are compensating for work that the government overlooks. We’re social workers!’ but does so on several occasions in a pre-rehearsed manner, suggesting that this is less of a heartfelt social statement than it is a means of motivating his workforce. Yoshiwara is presented as a maze of squalid streets with customers and workers struggling to find their way out, while Toshirô Mayuzumi’s luridly off-kilter score adds a surreal element to the proceedings, emphasising that everyone in this district is on a downward spiral. The loss of Yasumi and Yumeko prompts the proprietor of Dreamland to take on a new worker, the virginal Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami), and Street of Shame ends with her induction as the Mamasan ensures that make-up is properly applied before sending her out to learn the trade. Based on the five lives that Mizugochi has explored, Shizuko has three options: save and buy her way out, live with no regard for tomorrow, or become shackled to the profession with dreams of normality remaining just that. Whichever path she chooses, Mizugochi makes it clear that the bitterness that is caused by such a loss of innocence is cruelly inevitable.

John Berra

The Big Chill

Affliction

The winter season provides American independent cinema with the ideal backdrop for explorations of characters that catch a chill no matter how many layers they wear to wrap up warm. As the languid summers of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and Jonathon Levine’s The Wackness (2008) are replaced by the biting winters of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing (2005) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008), the underlying tone of American independent cinema conforms to the chilly climate suggested by the consistently snow-covered aesthetic; whether these films concern the fractured families of Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) and Green’s Snow Angels (2007) or the self-destructive police officer of Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1998), they all feature characters who are, to some extent, frozen in terms of their emotional stance towards the people and the world around them. When the seasonal shift is filtered through the lens of American independent cinema, affluent suburbs, small towns and trailer parks prove to be icy environments inhabited by individuals who are prone to a severe case of the winter blues for a variety of reasons; however, all attempts at hibernation prove futile, especially when confronted with familial dysfunction, personal obsession or economic desperation.

American families have frequently found themselves in the cinematic deep freeze. The Ice Storm takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban sanctuary circa 1973; two neighbouring families – the Carvers and the Hoods – struggle to reconcile the tumultuous social-political climate of the period with their comparatively comfortable existence. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) has embarked on an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while their children are engaging in alcohol-fuelled sexual experimentation. Ben’s daughter Wendy is less interested in improving her relationship with her father than she is in sowing the seeds of punk, ‘thanking’ the Lord for ‘letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed’ when saying grace at Thanksgiving dinner. While the Hoods and the Carvers seem to be heading for a nuclear meltdown, their fundamental failings are instead crystalised by the titular ice storm that assists with their suburb’s natural progression from emotional stagnation to still life. After encountering tragedy, Ben weeps uncontrollably, but the Hood family has grown apart to such an extent that this outpouring is clearly just the beginning of a long thaw.

The holiday season also serves to emphasise the deeply rooted differences of the dysfunctional family of The Myth of Fingerprints; Hal and Lena (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner) live in an old house in New England; their four children visit for the obligatory Thanksgiving celebrations, but bring a lot of emotional baggage. Mia (Julianne Moore) is a gallery receptionist with artistic ambitions who is prone to making cynical statements due to professional frustration and sibling rivalry with her tomboyish sister Leigh (Laurel Holloman), while Warren (Noah Wyle) is brooding over a lost love and Jake (Michael Vartan) arrives with his overly passionate girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). Although a family secret is revealed and a few long-standing resentments are discussed over the dinner table, relationships within the household remain as frosty as the surface of the nearby lake.

If the detached manner of Ben Hood or Hal makes them less than ideal father figures, the tough-love attitude of Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) in Affliction is as harsh as the New Hampshire winter during which the film takes place. Affliction focuses on Glen’s son Wade (Nick Nolte), a policeman whose increasingly obsessive investigation of an apparent hunting accident is influenced by his relationship with his violent, alcoholic father, his difficult dealings with his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and daughter, and the recent death of his mother from hypothermia. While the stonily silent Hal is defined by his relative absence, Glen is notable for his sheer presence, which reaches its peak in volcanic fits of anger. Recognising his own potential for such rage, Wade keeps his true feelings towards his father, ex-wife and fellow police officers on ice, until the combination of the professional fallout from his botched murder investigation and a particularly nasty case of toothache provoke his inner demons.

The father-daughter dynamic of Winter Passing is equally chilly, if ultimately less combustible; Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a depressed actress living in New York City, is approached by a publishing agent who offers her $100,000 if she can provide a series of letters written by her father and late mother, both famous writers. Returning home as the autumn leaves are falling, Reese discovers that her father Don (Ed Harris) has taken in two houseguests – Christian musician Corbit (Will Ferrell) and literature student Shelly (Amelia Warner) – and moved into the garage. Don, Corbit and Shelly have formed a makeshift family unit as a means of collectively dealing with individual pain, but Reese initially refuses to respect their fragile yet functional arrangement; she behaves coolly towards Shelly and responds to Corbit’s rejection of her sexual advances in a condescending manner, although she warms up a little after reading the letters exchanged between her mother and father. Winter Passing frames grief as a season that will eventually change, with the characters seeking solace in artistic pursuits, heavy sweaters and warm food.

While the families of The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints and Winter Passing are able to deal with their differences amid environments of material comfort, the protagonists of Snow Angels and Frozen River exist at the other end of the social-economic spectrum. Indeed, the cold, grey skies of both films feel perpetual rather than seasonal as the wintery landscapes lend a fatalistic pall to their respective proceedings. The nondescript small town community depicted in Snow Angels is as close-knit as it is uncommunicative, with events revolving around the estranged couple of Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie works as waitress and is having an affair with the husband of one of her co-workers, while Glenn is an alcoholic who is aiming to stay on the wagon with the assistance of religion. Glenn is trying to prove to Annie that he has achieved sufficient balance in order to see more of their daughter Tara, but an accident that echoes the tragedy in The Ice Storm sends him on a misguided path for ‘redemption’.

Frozen River is more thriller than drama but, as with Affliction, it deals with someone who keeps emotion in check as a means of getting through the day; Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is struggling to raise two sons when she discovers that her compulsive gambler husband has disappeared with the funds she had saved to purchase a mobile home. To make the payment, Ray begins trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States with the assistance of Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlour employee. Ray’s crossing of the frozen St Lawrence River serves as both a suspenseful narrative device and a metaphor for the impenetrable exterior she develops to deal with her financial difficulties, but she is unable to maintain the façade of a tough trafficker; after smuggling across a Pakistani couple, Ray and Lila backtrack to rescue a discarded duffle-bag when they realise that it contains a baby rather than bombs, and Ray ultimately surrenders to the police to prevent Lila from being excommunicated by the Indian community.

Of course, the frozen emotions of American independent cinema are not exclusive to films that take place at the time of year when the days are short and the nights are long; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) all deal with characters who struggle to relate to one another and bypass emotional engagement in favour of passive-aggressive exchanges or intellectual reference points, displaying a calculated coldness regardless of whether the temperature has them wandering around in a T-shirt or an overcoat. However, the aesthetic potential of the winter season has enabled certain filmmakers to fully embrace the poetic potential of their material by placing protagonists in physical landscapes that are every bit as glacial as their personalities; the climax of The Ice Storm shows a Connecticut suburban that is completely frozen over due to a sudden burst of bad weather, a truly cinematic sequence that speaks volumes about the vacuum that its characters are inhabiting without resorting to vehement verbal sparring. The best examples of this sporadic sub-genre – The Ice Storm, Affliction and Snow Angels – are as visually beautiful as they are thematically bleak, painterly portraits of people whose emotional moods are so in synch with the season that they may actually resent the arrival spring.

John Berra

7th China Independent Film Festival

Perfect Life (Image provided by CIFF)

7th China Independent Film Festival

21-25 October 2010, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

Compared to the film festivals that are held regularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the annual China Independent Film Festival is a relatively low-key affair. Largely organised by volunteer staff, screenings take place at the two main campuses of Nanjing University, the Gulou campus in the downtown area of the city, and the more recently developed Xinlin campus located on its outskirts, with related gatherings at nearby art galleries and eateries. As not every film in the line-up has received the stamp of approval from the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), this celebration of Chinese cinema occurs under the political radar, and the lack of the promotion means that many students of Nanjing University are not aware that an important film festival is taking place on their campus until a few banners appear in the days leading up to the event. However, the festival organisers somehow manage to make this ‘invisible’ festival sufficiently noticeable and 2010 screenings were well-attended, leading to a series of productive Q&A sessions with the filmmakers in attendance and valuable networking events.

Although the festival programme split the selected titles into the two distinct strands of feature films and documentaries, three films almost defied such categorisation. Emily Tang’s spellbinding Perfect Life (2008) juxtaposes the fictional narrative of a woman working in a somewhat seedy business hotel in Shenyang with documentary footage of a Hong Kong resident who is undergoing a messy divorce and struggling to support herself as a dancer-for-hire in a tacky club. Jia Zhangke served as the executive producer of Perfect Life, and the fusion of fact and fiction recalls his masterpieces Platform (2000) and 24 City (2008), but Tang steps out of the shadow of her financial benefactor by imbuing proceedings with an element of magical realism as the real and the imagined eventually come to co-exist. Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (2010) features Dian Qiu, a real-life prison guard and ‘trash poet’ who insists that prisoners read his verses aloud as a means of raising their spirits, but does so within the context of a fiction narrative. This recreation of the artistically inclined prison guard’s routine serves to bookend an entirely fictional mid-section about a small-time scam artist who runs a fake employment agency and seeks meaning through the opera routine that he performs on his rooftop. The behaviour of the inhabitants of the crowded city slum in which The High Life is located is as morally questionable as it is economically desperate, but Zhao also finds evidence of the human spirit amid the urban squalor. Li Luo’s Rivers and My Father (2010) is beautifully shot in black and white and echoes the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the director weaves together a series of family recollections of childhood. The final third of this meditative experience consists of comments and criticism that Li’s father made about the film after seeing an early cut, a lovely touch that emphasises the manner in which memory is altered when filtered through the medium of cinema.

The other features were more clearly defined in terms of narrative, but were no less innovative or insightful. Liu Jian’s edgy animation Piercing (2009) takes place in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and follows the misfortune of a young man who loses his factory job and is then beaten up by supermarket guards after being mistaken for a thief. Although overly bleak at times, Piercing creates a credible world where bribery, poverty and police brutality work in tandem, and no good deed goes unpunished. Some much-needed humour was provided by Hao Jie’s hilarious Single Man (2010), which episodically explores the sexual activities of the bachelors of a small village. Hao works wonders with amateur actors and a scene in which the villagers gang up on a pair of tight-fisted watermelon buyers serves as both a comedic set-piece and a commentary on village mentality in situations of conflict. The only disappointment in the feature strand was Liu Yonghong’s Tangle (2009), a drab drama about a small-town traffic cop dealing with familial responsibilities. Yongshong served as cameraman on Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003), arguably one of the best films from mainland China in the past decade, but Tangle was less aesthetically and thematically sure-footed.

The documentary strand found filmmakers adopting a variety of perspectives – communal, environmental, individual and institutional – to examine modern China. Zhou Hao’s Cop Shop (2010) was at once remarkable and mundane; the filmmaker had managed to secure permission to shoot for 15 days in a police station in Guangzhou Railway Station, but the audience becomes as hardened to the daily grind as the officers that Zhou is documenting as they deal with petty disputes and repeatedly explain that they cannot help to secure train tickets. Chen Xinzhong’s deeply moving Red White (2009) chronicles the efforts of the survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to overcome personal grief and rebuild their community; Chen picks up on personal approaches to dealing with tragedy (a Taoist worshipper tries to prevent another earthquake by comforting the spirits of the dead, an elderly man cuts hair in a makeshift salon to avoid dwelling on the loss of his grandson) but also considers how the town has been failed by the state in terms of preparing for such a disaster. Yang Yishu’s On the Road (2010) was filmed during the snowstorm that swept through Southern China in early 2009 and follows two truck drivers as they set off from Nantong to make a delivery in Guizhou, only to find that one road after another is closed due to treacherous weather conditions. A compelling study of how friendship is tested under pressure, On the Road captures the alternately dangerous and tedious nature of the drivers’ predicament as they navigate an increasingly risky route or take refuge from the storm in cheap motels. While each of these documentaries dealt with a microcosm of contemporary Chinese society, Guo Xiaolu’s superbly realised Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) is a comparatively sweeping state-of-the-nation study; 12 vignettes, including an old peasant who has lost his land, a weapon factory worker who wishes that Mao was still in charge, and a disillusioned flower-arranger in a high-class hotel, form a mosaic of modern China that considers the impact of economic reform on the individual.

The 7th China Independent Film Festival served to emphasise that alternative production in China is very much in a state of transition, moving from an ideologically charged ‘underground’ movement to a self-sustained ‘independent’ sector. Although still politicised, the sector is not only showing signs of the formation of its own industrial networks but an awareness of how to work around the state, rather than to stubbornly work against it. This is evident in the manner in which a wider political context was absent from many of the films and documentaries in the festival, although this presumptive measure to side-step the restrictions of SARFT is also a political statement in itself. Some of the films at CIFF had already secured DVD and VOD distribution in the United States, while Single Man was reportedly warmly received at San Sebastian in September and could be a contender for crossover success, but other titles are less likely to find screen time beyond the festival circuit. As such, it may seem perfectly reasonable to wish that this particular festival was able to enjoy more exposure, but in order to maintain the quality of the 2010 event, to continue to hide in plain sight seems like the more suitable strategy.

John Berra

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews