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A Serious Man (2009)
Laughter in the dark
I've never been a big fan of the Coens. This weekend, terrestrial TV featured 'A Serious Man' & 'The Big Lebowski'. After watching the latter, I couldn't understand why 'The Big Lebowski' has become such a cult classic (unlike, say, 'Withnail & I'). Like many of their films, it featured a convoluted plot, an array of bizarre characters/ situations & genre-bending. Their films are intellectually smart but emotionally cold.
I struggled with 'A Serious Man' on a first viewing, but something resonated with me. I decided to persist with it and watch it a second time, especially after reading some of the comments here on IMDb.
And I have to say I enjoyed this modern take on 'The Book of Job', which remains accessible but contains many subtle layers.
A prologue, set in 19th century Europe, sets the tone for a film about uncertainty: is what we see real or not? A mystery that is never solved.
Larry Gopnik, a Physics lecturer, suddenly finds his life falling apart, personally & professionally, and all for no reason. He tries to make sense of it all. What does it all mean? And so begins his existential/philosophical search for the truth as signalled at the film's opening by the imaginative use of the 'Jefferson Airplane's' track 'Somebody to Love', a song about alienation and despair.
As Larry is a scientist, there are also allusions to various theories (The Uncertainty Theory). Larry tells his troublesome student, Clive, that even he doesn't quite understand them, that they are 'fables'. His brother Arthur has a curious probability theory on the universe, which appears a curious amalgam of Hebrew (the classroom lesson, Old Testament texts) and scientific formulas & diagrams.
That Larry is a scientist is no accident in the film. For he is someone who believes the world conforms to logic/reason, but has to learn that the ineffable does not conform to logic and that some things remain a mystery. Ironically, Larry's lecture on 'uncertainty' occurs in a dream, where he perhaps finally grasps the true nature of things at a subconscious level.
The film appears to follow no logic, interspersed by random events but loosely structured around Larry's visits to three rabbis. Thus the theme of the film, the uncertainty of things, the unpredictability of life, is reflected in the film's own structure.
Scenes, though, are carefully calibrated. When Larry argues with Clive's father over a supposed bribe & a charge of defamation (another simultaneous paradox, vis Schrodinger's cat, is it alive or dead?), the father denies knowledge, uttering gnomically, "Accept the mystery." And this is what Larry learns through his search.
The meetings with a junior rabbi & rabbi Nachtner are witty, but serious. One tells Larry that he needs to change how he views the world if he can't see God everywhere even in a the car park. Nachtner tells a story about a bizarre sign found in someone's teeth, essentially a shaggy dog story about reading the meaning in things which have no answers, so why bother to drive yourself crazy. Just live instead. But Larry's neuroses leave him unsatisfied. Why does God give us the ability to ask questions, but deny us an answer. And so his futile search continues. For instance, Larry is about to find the answer to a neighbourhood dispute when the attorney drops dead. Again, another answer is withheld from him.
And, ironically, Larry is ultimately frustrated in his efforts to see Marshak as he proves too busy to see him he is 'thinking, though I like to think, though it's not made clear, that he was listening to Danny's confiscated transistor radio/cassette.
Instead, the Jefferson Airplane track is used as a framing device. I did like Danny's meeting with Marshak and Marshak's wise, slow profound utterance, which then turns out to be simply the lyrics from 'Somebody To Love'. He simply tells Danny to simply 'be a good boy'. No pious homily, but a simple admonition. He can only be responsible for himself & his actions in this uncertain world, and, in a sense, Larry already knows this when he counsels his less successful brother, Arthur.
But just as Larry's life seems to settle back into some kind of normality, he receives a phone call from the doctor at the beginning (a metaphor perhaps for a spiritual examination). And once again, the uncertainty begins.
And what of the whirlwind that ends the film to the soundtrack of 'Somebody to Love?' Other helpful reviewers have commented that this is the answer in an uncertain world: 'You better find somebody to love'. Love as an affirmation against uncertainty and a creation in the void (and, towards the end of the film, Larry's brother points out with bitterness, that Larry does have a wife & kids. He does indeed have somebody to love).
Elefante blanco (2012)
The Church in the 21st century
'White Elephant' begins with a prologue about how Julian brings a younger priest Nicolas back to Buenos Aires. It also begins with Julian undergoing a scan, reminiscent of Kurosawa's 'Ikiru', a film about one man trying to make a small difference in the face of death. Both priests begin the film suffering in different ways. One physically from a terminal illness, only known to us the viewer (dramatic irony), and perhaps brought on by overwork/stress; the other, spiritually, from a guilt-ridden conscience after surviving a massacre which left his congregation dead.
Two priests with different approaches: Julian is a latter-day St Francis of Assisi, a man who has given up his wealthy background to work in the slums and who tries to make a difference by battling political bureaucracy (inefficiency & indifference) & the hierarchy of his own church authorities, who appear more interested in 'talk' than action. Nicolas works on the front line, mediating between warring gangsters & working alongside his secular counterpart, a social worker, Luciana, with a mutual attraction developing between them.
The 'White Elephant' of the film's title is a huge unfinished hospital, now occupied by drug addicts, and which acts as a metaphor for the stunted development of the slum as a whole- and the failure of a new smaller development (the workers go on strike after not being paid) emphasises the continued failure by the next generation of politicians to address these issues. As one reviewer put it well, it is as if the slum has also been 'forgotten' by God, too. And the people of the slum finally reach breaking point after yet more bureaucratic inefficiency leads them to taking matters into their own hands (to finish the development for themselves) and a confrontation with the authorities.
The film adopts a visceral approach, more an edgy, fast-paced social drama than an examination of faith in, say, the poetic manner of Bresson. It contains a number of plots, such as the relationship between the two priests fighting crime, poverty and despair (including their own), a love story, the attempt to help a young delinquent as well as a social critique. Perhaps this is one of the flaws of the film. It contains too many plots and tries to cover so many issues, making it feel disjointed.
For a film about priests, it didn't have many moments of 'transcendence', but it seemed, to me, to be more about what a priest/church should be in the 21st century & a damaged world.
Instead, the film-maker, Trapero, imaginatively uses imagery to make biblical allusions. Candles/lights shining in darkness/at night, recall John 1:5 (The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it); Nicolas' journey into a gangster's compound is literally 'a walk into the valley of the shadow of death'; and the young addict/delinquent, Monito, is 'a prodigal son'/lost sheep, sent to the church's 'farm' in an effort to lure him away from bad influences. The figure of Mary, Mother of Grace, to whom the priests pray for succour, has a dark counterpoint in a woman who is in charge of a rival neighbourhood gang.
I actually think the film shows what the Catholic Church must do if it is remain relevant in the 21st century. That it must socially engage with those most in need & reminded me of a recent BBC4 programme on 'The Salvation Army', where pastoral work was described as 'the church outside four walls'. The Church cannot survive in seclusion (Nicolas is banished to a monastery at the end of the film), but must take sides (of the poor) and be socially engaged if it is to remain relevant. And, after all, did Christ not consort with the poor & the marginalised?
Regarding the background to the film, it's interesting that the Catholic Church has since elected its first Latin American, and specifically Argentine, Pope who has a reputation for supporting the poor.
The emphasis is less on 'sin', but on 'faith', as Nicolas utters during a service in the church, a faith based less on judging people and more on maintaining one's faith & hope in the darkness. This contrasts with the more cynical, bitter Cruz, a support worker who despairs at the pointlessness of it all (a plot twist reveals the truth about his 'exit').
This is encapsulated in the behaviour of Nicolas himself. Who/what is a good man in a flawed world? Is a priest who swears, drinks, smokes & has sexual desires, a good man? Then, the answer is an overwhelming 'Yes'. The film does not judge its protagonist but rather shows Nicolas as a man who tries to do good, presenting a modern take on Christian (Catholic) values such as the issue of celibate priests. His relationship with Luciana is not purely sexual, but about a mutually supportive relationship based on love (a marriage in all but name).
Gradually, Nicolas realises why Julian brought him to Buenos Aires. He experiences faith & doubt. Can he live up to the faith shown in him and live up to his responsibilities? As Luciana says: 'Leave? It's easier.'
The ending was perhaps melodramatic as Julian tries to help Monito escape from the police, though Julian becomes a very modern martyr, reminiscent of the real-life figure of Fr Carlos Mugica, who worked in the slum and whose murder has never been solved.
The film featured strong performances from all of the lead characters, Ricardo Darin as Julian, Martina Gusman as Luciana and it was interesting to see Jeremie Renier (The Child/Dardenne brothers), mature as an actor. I didn't recognise him from that earlier film.
The law of self-preservation
I watched Zvyagintsev's first film 'The Return', but have to admit I much preferred this, his third film, finding it more accessible but still a subtle piece of work.
I viewed the film as a comment on contemporary Russia, a character study/ portrait of a morganatic marriage as well as a wider comment on society, & the dark side of both the working/upper (moneyed) classes.
At the beginning of the film, Elena has already made an accommodation and personal sacrifice in her marriage/relationship with an older richer man, Vladimir, where she is nothing more than a glorified drudge. She appears a docile, a dutiful wife and mother, her caring nature exploited by a feckless son and then subject to the caprices of her husband who calls the (economic) shots, but as the film unfolds, she becomes far a more complex figure and we view her & her acts with ambivalence, and more with an element of sympathy than horror.
This is a film where lines reverberate or provide an ironic comment on the story. For instance, feckless Sergei gets distracted playing a computer game with his son, Sasha, as he tries to help him 'get to the next level', a comment, you feel, more about how to get on in Russian society (and perhaps not just Russia but beyond, too). The contrasts are slowly built up scene by scene: the luxurious, spacious flat with a giant modern flat screen TV in contrast to the cramped flat lying on the fringes in the shadow of a disused power station (a metaphor for the powerless underclass left behind by post-communist Russia); Elena has to travel by foot & public transport whilst Vladimir travels to his exclusive gym in a luxurious car; and the contrast between the 'dowdy' Elena and stylish Katya.
The entry of Vladimir's daughter, Katya, changes the dynamic of the film and provides a fascinating counter-point to Elena. It is almost as if two different Russias, one modern, cold & cynical meets its older, more traditional counter-part with the younger & older woman barely lacking anything in common. Or so we think on first impression. Katya is a spoilt hedonist, existential in attitudes such as a lack in interest in motherhood and continuing 'the disease'. She connects intellectually with her father in a way that he never does with his social inferior,Elena, and this is because, as one perceptive reviewer pointed out, both share a similar sense of detachment and lack of feeling for others. Again, Katya utters a line which acquires significance as the film unfolds. During a moment of reconciliation with her father, a man she doesn't give a damn for, Katya remembers the childhood games that 'taught her the harsh realities about being an adult'.
But it is Elena who must learn the dark lesson about what she must do to survive the game ('the last will be first') , the law of self-preservation, and how good people are sometimes forced to do bad things to survive & damn themselves - contrast the scene in the church lighting a candle with the flaming basket, spouting hellfire, as Elena burns her husband's draft will - in order to protect their loved ones in an unequal society.
I'm not sure about viewing the film as a condemnation of the Russian male & the lack of a good male role model. What about Putin? isn't he an alpha male who rules the country in a 21st century manner but a continuation of a one thousand years of authoritarian rule albeit now in the media age of TV shows providing in-depth reviews on sausages (contrast with the sale of reading matter on the train, the Russians are known as a nation of voracious readers). And Katerina, in her own way, is just as feckless as her male working class parallel, Sergei. Both drink, are indifferent towards their parents & selfish. No, I see the film as about how Russia has lost its moral compass (with Ukraine now in the role as Elena with Vladimir/Putin supplying cash & oil if the Ukraine obliges for an occasional bit of rumpy pumpy).
If the people at the top are corrupt, and Vladimir 'uses' Elena sexually, so then must those at the bottom if they are to survive. A bleak message but an honest one. What was that old Marx said about religion being 'the opium of the people'? It's misquoted because Marx did not disapprove of the religious impulse, because he saw it as 'the sigh of the oppressed creature in a heartless world.' And that's what Elena has to become, heartless, to survive, because you have to live on this earth.
La tête en friche (2010)
A relatively short comedy drama but one containing a number of themes (illiteracy, old age, parents & children, psychological damage in childhood) as well as being an unusual love story.
I did feel the growth of the relationship between Germain & Magueritte was somewhat forced and former international aid worker, Margueritte, an almost saintly figure, angelic, in contrast to Germain's bully of a mother, though I did like the twist at the end, which makes the audience reassess a woman whose youthful exuberance was blighted by an accidental pregnancy, resulting in a deepening resentment taken out on her son.
Certain things seemed telegraphed such as Germain's increased confidence with words surprising his friends though Germain's clumsiness remains in the quite funny scenes with Francine the bar-owner.
I thought the flashbacks were well integrated and added to the film rather than interrupting its pace and the resolution, though sentimental, made sense.
But I decided to give this film seven as I preferred the depiction of old age in 'Mid August Lunch' because I felt it possessed more of a ring of truth to it (loneliness, vulnerability, but how the old ladies all retain their individuality). 'My Afternoon with Magueritte' is an unashamedly feel-good movie. I'm not familiar with Becker's other work but I have been led to believe that he believes in the best of human nature. As a cynic and pessimist, I don't like to always cast gloom, but I do like a hint of bitter chocolate with my saccharine.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982)
I enjoyed this 1982 BBC version, part of the BBC series of adaptations of the entire Shakespearean canon, a prototype for the modern farce. I think if you just take the play on face value, a hastily written work (prose rather than verse), its intention to entertain, displacing Falstaff from the History plays to a comic setting, then I found it watchable. There's no substitute for seeing the plays performed which is what this version does, bringing out the word play and comedy (puns,like when Brooks arrives, offering free booze to Falstaff, who quips, 'Such Brooks are welcome to me, that o'erflows with liquor').
I actually found Ben Kingsley's performance entertaining, Ford's jealous rage is supposed to be comically over the top as both he & Falstaff become the butt of the wives' comic mischief, but for different reasons. I didn't think it detracted from the play (You want OTT from Ben Kingsley? See him as the villain in 'Sexy Beast)'. The portrayal of Falstaff is problematic but that is not Richard Griffiths' fault. This is because we have seen a flawed human being in the Henry IV plays, the cause of wit and of wit in others, the father figure, who Hal seeks in flight from his own father & responsibilities, the braggart soldier yet a man who is also self-aware, the bad man we all know and love. Here in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', he is caricatured as a lecherous old fool, who tends to use words in an exhibitionist manner.
I enjoyed all the performances, Alan Bennett a delight as Shallow, the playful wives, Judy Davis conveying the dignity and depth of Mrs Ford, the wife whose husband is consumed with jealousy & I liked the late Elizabeth Spriggs as Mistress Quickly, as well as Ron Cook as 'Simple. It was also interesting to find out that the house, its interior, was based on that of Shakespeare's own son-in-law.
It was amusing watching Shakespeare send up 'comedy accents', such as Dr Caius and Sir Hugh Evans, but I find it strange that Dr Caius's performance is the one many reviewers think stands out. Yes, it's very good, the Dr's mannerisms, the duel, his irascibility but it is comedy rooted in a stereotype,like the English RAF officer masquerading as the badly spoken French policeman in 'Allo, allo'. I think I find the relationship between Frank Ford & his long-suffering wife more interesting.
I gave this a 7 star rating (7.5 would be fairer) as I watched it with a 20 minute break but that's how one would watch a theatrical production with an interval. I thought it didn't pall at three hours.
*Fans of 'Withnail & I': Richard Griffiths went on to play Uncle Monty, but Ralph Brown, who played Danny, the drug dealer, has a minor role in 'The Merry Wives...' as one of the servants assigned to carry Falstaff away in the laundry basket.
Revolutionary cinema, with a non-traditional narrative that can test the patience
A film that rewards with repeated viewings, I appreciated the review by 'debblyst' which gives a close reading of a film & historical background that can test the patience on its first viewing. It's also clear how this film influenced film-makers like Leone.
I loved the setting of the austere desert, almost biblical landscape, harsh, cruel and devoid of water (spirituality, humanity). The film doesn't possess a traditional narrative, but it is basically two lengthy sequences where the lead protagonist, Manuel, and his wife, Rosa, come under the influence of a false prophet and then a psychopathic revolutionary before heading into an uncertain future where a man must listen to his own voice.
A film dominated by striking images such as the path up to Monte Santo, the massacre of the Monte Santo innocents & subversive images such as the shadow of Rosa's knife & das Mortes' gun crossing on the wall in an ironic reversal of the Communist symbol.
The film is filled with many memorable characters such as the prophet Sebastian & his followers (Bergmanesque hysteria), the vengeful Corisco, the bounty-hunter, das Mortes, & Manoel & his wife Rosa - and the blind minstrel Julio. I also enjoyed the sung musical narration .
The most memorable scene for me occurred early in the film: Manoel's vision of Sebastian and his followers. The rest of the film becomes a fable about disillusion, both spiritual & revolutionary. In the film, Manoel becomes entranced first by the mystic, revolutionary fervour of Sebastian, bordering on the hysteric, and then a willing accomplice in Corisco's crimes. Both Sebastian & Corisco manipulate Manuel into committing violent acts: the ritual murder of a child and the brutal emasculation of a young man. Disoriented by his experiences, Manuel can only exclaim: "Is the only way to get justice by shedding blood?"
The film is about faith, fanaticism & extremes. In a world where the government & traditional Church suppress the poor, faith and revolutionaries offer hope, but, in turn, descend into extreme behaviour. Antonio das Mortes, the agent of conservative forces, also undertakes a journey of doubt, parallels Manuel.
The story reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' where the revolutionaries turn out to be as violent as the repressive government forces they fight against. 'Black God, White Devil' is probably best regarded as 'heightened cinema' akin to the 'magical realism' of Latin American literature.
Katalin Varga (2009)
The Law of Unintended Consequences
I enjoyed this film and the lead actress (Hilda Peter) gives a memorable, strong performance as a wronged woman seeking vengeance. The rural setting of Eastern Europe seemed appropriate where patriarchal societies still exist and blood-feuds common.
The use of landscape, the story of vengeance gave the film the tone of a folk-myth and the end of the film, with Katalin confronting her rapist in a boat with his innocent, loving wife, was highly dramatic, the boat turning around the river in circles, reflecting the maelstrom of emotions.
I thought the film well-structured, a basic revenge plot, but also more subtle than that: about husbands & wives and secrets, sin & guilt as well as a haunting, atmospheric soundtrack. But also how Katalin's revenge does not quite go as planned and her assailant is not a two-dimensional villain.
I had difficulties reconciling some of the characterisation, especially Antal, the assailant. Perhaps his act, that of a normally good quiet man, is indicative that we can be all prone to evil, but Antal's characterisation jarred with the brutal act he had committed in the past. I think it would have been more plausible if his accomplice had been the rapist and Antal the bystander who had done nothing.
Katalin's revenge does not go as anticipated, claiming the innocent as well as the guilty.
I feel some of the problems in the film are perhaps due to its limited budget rather than ambition/intent. The ending was bleak, with the cycle of revenge continuing. I did think Antal would redeem himself, but the film perhaps ends on a darker, truthful note.
Not worth missing the Football League highlights for.
I remember reading reviews, some quite negative, about Chris Waitt's film and I think a few might not have got the conceit; the film is more of a mockumentary, with the audience laughing with and at Waitt; it is the comedy of embarrassment rather than a genuine examination of romantic relationships.
First of all, I'd like to put on record that Waitt comes across as a fundamentally good-natured, if lazy, shambling shaggy-dog of a man (shaggy dog story), essentially quite lovable. Compared to the way some men treat women, Waitt is not that bad a person: his main faults appear to be laziness and a lack of commitment.
As the film progressed, it became obvious that a lot of the scenes had been set-up (his exasperated producers, a blind-date) and too many of the people inhabit Waitt's media world making you doubt its veracity (one ex is an actress, he ends up finding love with a journalist). It is a piece of guerilla/gonzo film making with the film-maker's mother becoming a character, exasperated at her son's feckless behaviour, with her pithy comments.
The first girlfriend, it is eventually revealed, was from Waitt's childhood (eleven), so completely undercutting the adult conversation and our expectations. I don't doubt many of Waitt's former girlfriends refused to appear, but maybe that was more to do with appearing on film than with Waitt himself. The scene with the girlfriend hidden in a hotel room and then giving her scathing comments via a machine obscuring her voice came across as comedic as did the encounter with an ex- in the Indian restaurant; it emerges that since Waitt, she has only gone out with Asian men. It then becomes obvious that the film is sending up both Waitt and romance as he pushes things to the extreme.
Halfway through the film, I began to lose interest and decided to catch up the highlights of the Football League Show on another channel before catching the end of the film. It isn't serious enough to deserve full attention.
The film does end on a more serious, optimistic note. At the beginning of the film, one ex-girlfriend from his teenage years is asked what she learnt from the end of their relationship and she replies about learning to do things differently and,in a sense, this is the lesson Waitt learns as well as appreciating a former girlfriend and the love she felt for him.
The film is faintly reminiscent of John Cusack's role in Nick Hornby's 'High Fidelity', (a more conventionally structured and narrative driven account) also punctuated with moments of embarrassing comedy (the ex-girlfriend traumatised from the break-up).
Fish Tank (2009)
Much more than a stereotypical kitchen sink drama
Like Arnold's first long feature 'Red Road', 'Fish Tank' is a much more emotionally complex film than its apparent setting a council estate in Essex- and subject matter initially suggests. Both films contain an element of mystery and a revelation which makes us reassess the characters and their motives.
Instead, 'Fish Tank' confers nobility, like the mangy horse chained to a rock,upon a stereotype, one much mocked by the likes of the comedienne Catherine Tate. Just because Mia appears not 'bovvered', does not mean this vulnerable outsider possesses real human depth.
Mia's tragedy is that she is isolated, a girl who acts tough but has a clear need for human connection and warmth of any sorts (hence her compassion for the chained horse) which her self-absorbed mother cannot offer. Her isolation increases after she falls out with a girlfriend, a betrayal which perhaps prefigures a later one in the film, that leaves her emotionally bereft.
Into her life, steps Connor, warm, attractive & sexy. He cradles her when she is asleep and their connection develops on a visit to the countryside, a pastoral interlude. Like the fish they catch, Mia suffocates in her loveless environment (like Bresson's Mouchette though that film is shot through a religious prism).
Mia places her trust in Connor, as in her shy visit to his workplace, and naively associates sex with intimacy after witnessing her mother & Connor sleeping together. She does form an emotional bond with a local Gypsy lad, but appears confused. (Towelhead, the new film by Alan Ball, covers a similar theme though from the view of a young Arab-American girl brought up in a restricted environment)
The erotic tension generated by Mia & Connor's relationship is palpable as well as a growing sense of menace and of things slowly unraveling. However, I think when Connor & Mia finally sleep with each other, the feeling one gets is that the emotional bond which exists between them has been transgressed. The film is an ironic reversal of 'Red Road', where Jackie & Clyde's relationship changed after they slept together, which led to an emotional resolution. Here, Mia & Connor's encounter leads to a rupture.
In the final Act, the film does become melodramatic, possessing the unpredictable tension & energy of a Dardenne film (The Child), but, by then, Arnold has convinced you with her characters and the depiction of their world.
From then on, the film becomes a rites of passage, where Mia learns bitter disappointment but also forgiveness (the final dance with her mother to a rap song 'Life's A Bitch').
Arnold's cinematographic approach is to 'find a distinctive image' from which the story unfolds. As in 'Red Road', the use of lighting is original, for instance how street lights illuminate Mia in her bedroom or the fateful night when she dances in front of Connor, whose weakness sees him exploit her.
I do agree that the final image of the floating balloon was weak, a bit of a let-down like the canary flying around the living room in 'Red Road', but, like Edith in 'Ghost World', the only way for Mia to survive or outgrow her surroundings is to leave the estate. (Like Mia, Edith's close friendship with the mature Seymour takes an inappropriate turn when they sleep together, another bond transgressed by the wrong step).
I look forward to seeing Arnold's next film. The dilemma facing her is whether to take a radical departure and do something completely different or continue filming stories in a similar milieu. Although 'Red Road' & 'Fish Tank' share a similar setting, both are distinctive and original films. 'Red Road' is probably the more accessible in terms of plot & emotion as 'Fish Tank' covers emotions that are extremely complex and ambiguous: Why does Connor feel suddenly so possessive when Mia asks him for money for her & her Gypsy friend at his workplace? In fact, why does Mia bring her Gypsy friend to his workplace in the first place? Did she do it to taunt/provoke Connor? The implied sexual rivalry between mother & daughter (The incident where Joanne orders a half naked Mia to get dressed whilst Connor sits watching). It is a film shrouded in ambiguity which eventually leads to its fateful encounter and final revelation.
Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)
Viscereal journey through the pain & suffering of real events
Sometimes I wonder if such subjects as the brutal occupation of Nanking are fit to be depicted on screen in a dramatic fashion due to the sheer horror of the events depicted. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable thinking that perhaps the true (and only) medium for such events are factual documentaries with first person contributions from survivors/perpetrators (In the UK, Laurence Rees' BBC work on the Nazis).
The film begins with the first Act/sequence on the last remnants of Chinese resistance to the Japanese, the Chinese soldiers betrayed by their own officers/commander fleeing, leaving them to be crushed in their desperation to flee. Chinese POWs are then shown no mercy as they are executed in various horrific ways.
The second Act moves on to more personal dramas involving Kadokawa, the Japanese soldier with a conscience and Church education; the Tang family including Mr Tang, long-term factotum to John Rabe, the Nazi representative in Nanking, his wife and her sister; Miss Jiang, a school-teacher. Here, the Japanese soldiers begin to brutalise women and the International Zone proves to offer little protection as the women are raped and then forced to become 'comfort women'. As Piers Brendon says in the Dark Valley, the Japanese military sanctioned systematic abuse of women through prostitution: the most chilling scene for me in the film was that of Japanese soldiers wheeling a barrow full of female corpses, murdered by constant abuse, whilst their comrades stand around joking with each other.
I thought Mr Tang, a fascinating character(if controversial), in how he is forced to collaborate with the Japanese in an effort to save his family but that this proves to have tragic consequences. His attempts to learn Japanese words such as 'friend' prove pathetic as he is indeed forced to become their 'friend' as he informs on injured Chinese soldiers in the InternationalZone to buy himself time, but Tang makes a terrible error in thinking that he can reason/bargain with the devil.
Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher, raised similar questions about moral complexity/compromise. Do we judge Tang as a weak man? How can we judge him when we, ourselves, have never faced such a terrible situation?
The third sequence concerns the Tangs and their escape, as Tang finds a sense of redemption and personal defiance against his nemesis, the brutal,unpredictable junior officer, Ida; and Kadokawa & his 'act of mercy' towards Miss Jiang.
The title of the film itself is often alluded to. Death is often preferably to life when a situation is abhorrent (rape, the loss of one's mind). A Japanese soldier cynically tells Mr Tang that 'life is good' as he deliberates upon his chance of escape with Rabe & his wife. At the end, Kadokawa allows a Chinese boy soldier and his adult companion to escape and to live.
Although it was a touching moment allowing a brutal film to end on a note of hope, I felt it sanitised, from a modern 21st perspective, the indefensible, and the truth of the events surrounding Nanking. Similarly, criticism has been mounted at 'Downfall', about the last days of Hitler in his bunker, and the portrayal of Albert Speer, as a heroic figure saving Germany's infrastructure despite the Nero Order. Again, the film hides the truth and how Speer used a vast slave army to keep the German war machine going.
Films depict, rarely do they scrutinise.