Parky At the Pictures (22/5/2020)
(Reviews of RKO on the BBC; The County; The Orphanage; The Shed; The Final Wish; Romantic Comedy; Orlando von Einsiedel - Five Shorts; and HRWFF: I Am Not Alone; In My Blood It Runs; and Leftover Women)
Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
RKO ON THE BBC.
This week sees a couple of notable special announcements that are worth bringing to your attention. MUBI has placed its extensive library online for the foreseeable future to sit alongside its astutely selected exclusives and revivals. We'll return to this glorious opportunity to catch up on classics and curios alike at another time. But not everyone will be able to afford MUBI (not that it's overly expensive in comparison with Netflix and Amazon Prime) and this is what makes the BBC's decision to place a batch of RKO gems on the iPlayer even more exciting, as it means anyone with a TV licence can enjoy 23 titles from the golden age of Hollywood. They've even tagged on a bonus trio from the master of understated horror, Val Lewton, who served as producer on Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Robert Wise's The Curse of the Cat People (1944).
It's like a free crash course in cinema that can be enjoyed by the whole family, as there really is something for everyone. Leading the way is the grand-daddy of the special effects blockbuster, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933), which is joined on the escapism slate by a couple of colourful swashbucklers: Frank Borzage's The Spanish Main (1945) and Raoul Walsh's Blackbeard the Pirate (1952). Staying with the great outdoors, why not head out West with John Ford for Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1959) and Wagon Master (1950)?
If it's darker deed you're after, look no further than the twin pairing of Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons on the brooding noirs, Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1953) and Lloyd Bacon's Beautiful But Dangerous (1954). Cary Grant's not to be trusted, either, in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), which earned Joan Fontaine the Academy Award for Best Actress. However, Grant's on much more affable form in the comic triptych comprising Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), Garson Kanin's My Favourite Wife (1940) and HC Potter's Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
Grant also starred in Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember (1957), which was memorably remake by Nora Ephron as Sleepless in Seattle (1993). However, the film that started it all, McCarey's Love Affair (1939), is part of the RKO selection, along with Jack Gage's noirish melodrama, The Velvet Touch, and Irving Pichel's The Miracle of the Bells (both 1948), which features a young Frank Sinatra as a priest.
Also included are Orson Welles's first two features, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The former is often rightly billed as the finest feature ever made, while the follow-up adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel might have surpassed it had studio suits not got cold feet and cut it to shreds while Welles was on assignment in South America. What remains suggests what might have been.
Rounding off this lockdown treat are six pictures starring either Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers or both. Rogers took time off from the fabled dance partnership to team with James Stewart in George Stevens's Vivacious Lady (1938), while she snagged the Oscar for Best Actress for her title performance in Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle (1940). We also get a chance to see Astaire going solo in Edward H. Griffith's The Sky's the Limit (1943), which includes his famous routine to `One For My Baby'.
But, even 80 years after they last danced at RKO, Fred and Ginger belong together and we defy anyone to not feel better about the world after watching the Mark Sandrich trio of The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Carefree (1938). Just a parting hint to the Beeb programmers, however. They might want to re-run the seven-part documentary, The RKO Story: Tales From Hollywood (1987), to put these sublime pictures in context.
One scene into Grímur Hákonarson's The County and the memories come flooding back of the travails of Swedish sisters Britt and Ingrid Georgsson in Peter Gerdehag and Tell Aulin's ScandiDoc, Women With Cows (2010). Before long, it becomes impossible to resist comparisons with Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir's heroic acts of defiance in Benedikt Erlingsson's Woman At War (2018). After a while, however, this wittily astute treatise on community and corruption in the Icelandic countryside starts to feel like a companion piece to Hákonarson's Rams (2015) and, almost inevitably, many will begin longing for an enterprising distributor to delve into the archive and stream his little-seen debut, Summerland (2010).
Ingibjörg (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) and Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) run the Dalsmynni dairy farm in a windswept, snow-dusted part of Iceland. While Inga delivers a calf, Reynir makes a few extra crowns by tipping off Erpsfjöðrur Co-Operative henchman Leifur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) about neighbours buying cheaper goods from outside suppliers. He feels uncomfortable betraying pals and best buddy Friðgeir (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson) urges him to make a clean break. But the Co-op is helping Reynir manage the debts incurred by buying the automated milking machine that makes Inga's life easier.
Although they are fond of each other, the couple are often too tired for anything other than bedtime work talk and Inga is acutely aware that they haven't had a holiday in three years. But her world falls apart when Reynir crashes his truck on the way back from a showdown meeting with Co-op boss Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Inga is stunned to learn from the police that the indications suggest that her husband committed suicide.
Friðgeir's wife, Kolbrún (Edda Björg Eyjólfsdóttir), rallies round. But he decides not to say anything about Reynir's treachery. However, it soon becomes clear just how beholden Inga is to an organisation that has been threatening to foreclose on the farm that Reynir had inherited from his parents. She has to accept help from casual workers supplied by Eyjólfur to keep the business going, but she comes to realise that struggling on alone would be almost impossible. When she confides in Friðgeir that she is considering declaring bankruptcy and moving south, however, he breaks the news about Reynir's skullduggery and Inga is so appalled that she resolves to keep hold of Dalsmynni at all costs and expose Eyjólfur and the Co-op for the racketeers they are.
Tired of cowering beneath the duvet on her half of the marital bed, she posts an article on Facebook about the Co-op Mafia and Inga is nettled when milk tanker driver Kristján (Steinn Ármann Magnússon) implies she doesn't know what she's talking about. Consequently, she agrees to do an interview with Katla (Hafdís Helga Helgadóttir) from Icelandic National Broadcasting and accuses the Co-op of being a monopoly that penalises farmers who try to buy and sell on more competitive terms. Eyjólfur tells Leifur to keep his powder dry, but one neighbour comes to Dalsmynni in the middle of the night and tries to intimidate Inga by smashing her patio furniture. However, she refuses to buckle even when the Association of Dairy Farmers fails to back her and Friðgeir warns her that she is going to regret taking on a body on which everyone depends.
When she buys fertiliser from a supplier in Reykjavik in order to save 300,000 crowns, Leifur rolls up in his expensive car to put the frighteners on her. But Inga responds by dumping a spadeful of foul-smelling gunk on his windscreen. Eyjólfur tries a different approach by riding up on his horse and sitting down in the kitchen in a fairisle jumper for a coffee. He explains that the Co-op strives to protect the county from external forces that would crush individual farmers and, when she avers that people in a changing world are entitled to make their own choices, he reminds her that he prevented Dalsmynni from going bankrupt and that she should show the same loyalty as Reynir had done.
Inga feels anything but obligated, however, and, when Kristján taunts her when collecting her milk, she disconnects the pipe and sends him packing. Moreover, she fills her fertiliser tank with milk and sprays the facade of the Co-op's headquarters and emerges from a night in the cells to tell a waiting Katla about her refusal to bow down. Her courage inspires Friðgeir and a couple of pals to suggest breaking ranks and forming their own co-op and they agree to put the proposal to the Association at its forthcoming general meeting.
They doorstep neighbours to canvass support and are pleased with the groundswell. But they know that Eyjólfur isn't going to step aside meekly and the gloves are soon off when he takes to the podium to trash Inga's speech and warn delegates that they would be voting for their own extinction if they weakened the Co-op's bargaining position. He thinks he's done enough to defeat her, but she gets to her feet again and delivers a whispered tribute to a husband whose love of the land prompted him to make a pact with the devil. She reminds the assembled that Reynir was a decent man who stood for the founding 1893 principles of the Co-op and not the self-serving ones that Eyjólfur has installed in their place.
Cannily, the camera remains on a close-up of Inga as the show of hands takes place and she breaks into a teary smile when she carries the day. She returns to the farm to feed the calves, but is disturbed by Finnbogi (Ævar Þór Benediktsson) from the County Commissioner's office, who serves her with bankruptcy papers issued by the Co-op. Without any resources to fight the claim, Inga packs her belongings into a trailer and sings along with a jaunty pop song about making the most of life, as she drives into an uncertain future.
Anyone who has seen their union hijacked or lost their job while a back-watching time-server connived to keep theirs will empathise with Ingibjörg Halldórsdóttir at the end of this quietly damning indictment of exploitative capitalism and the misleading mythology that has grown up around e-commerce. The proficiency with which she delivers the calf in the opening sequence demonstrates what the county will be losing by allowing the Co-op to lash out like a vengeful playground bully. But Eyjólfur will no doubt bolster his position by ensuring that her farm goes to someone firmly in his back pocket. Yet this is the way of our world, which is so governed by the Matthew Effect that it's a wonder anyone still bothers trying to fight back.
Had this laudable drama been directed by Frank Capra, Inga's fate would have been decidedly different. But Hákonarson is shrewd enough to devise an alternative form of happy ending that dispenses with a sunset and any sense of certainty. In truth, it's something of a last-minute save, as Inga winning the day at Association AGM feels like the kind of punch-the-air moment that Paul Laverty would concoct for Ken Loach. The milk spraying also feels a touch derivative, as a bank was pebble-dashed with slurry in Dan Hartley's Lad: A Yorkshire Story (2013).
But the way in which the calculatingly chauvinist Eyjólfur draws on his Co-operative College education to punish her for daring to lead an insurrection feels wholly authentic, as does the mess into which Reynir gets himself and the method he chooses to extricate himself. Indeed, thanks to Bjarni Massi Sigurbjornsson's production design and Hákonarson's Estonian FAMU classmate Mart Taniel's views of the ruggedly beautiful terrain, this manages to ring true even when it risks over-egging its more clichéd aspects.
Shedding cares and years as she warms to her task, stage and television veteran Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir excels in her first big-screen lead as the middle-aged everywoman coming to realise she's in a no lose situation, as she gets to keep her husband's family farm if she succeeds and gets to leave behind a place that has increasingly become synonymous with struggle and tragedy if the Co-op plays dirty. Of course, she knows it will and the satisfaction she feels on winning the vote is rooted more in the damage she will have inflicted upon the splendidly insidious Sigurður Sigurjónsson than in any hope that she has conclusively saved her own bacon. It would be fascinating to see how she gets on in her new milieu, but this simply isn't the kind of film that usually spawns a sequel.
Having made such an impressive debut with Wolf and Sheep (2016). Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat moves on to the second part of a planned quintet based on the unpublished diary of her friend, Anwar Hashimi. Also starring Qodratollah Qadiri as the now 15 year-old Qodrat, The Orphanage makes affecting use of Bollywood masala reveries to counterpoint the grim realities of life in Kabul towards the end of the Soviet occupation. François Truffaut never resorted to musical interludes to chronicle the misadventures of Antoine Doinel, but there's a growing sense that Qadiri is emerging as the Afghan Jean-Pierre Léaud and one can only hope that circumstances in a much-changed world will allow Sadat to complete her laudably ambitious project.
It's 1989 and 15 year-old Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri) sleeps in the back of an abandoned car and makes a living selling keyrings outside a cinema in Kabul. He adores Bollywood movies like Tinnu Anand's Shahenshah (1988) and, while sitting in the male-only audience, he clearly gets as much of a kick out of watching Meenakshi Sheshadri's musical numbers as he does Amitabh Bachchan's fight sequences. However, when he is caught selling cheap tickets for a profit, Qodrat is sent to an orphanage, where he pals up with Fayaz (Ahmad Fayaz Osmani), a redheaded lad who is bullied mercilessly by dormitory leader Ehsan (Ehsanullah Kharoti) and his weasely sidekick Asad (Asadullah Kabiri).
At school, Qodrat's handwriting is criticised by Mr Director (Yama Yakmanesh) and Mrs Deputy Director (Nahid Yakmanesh), who put him in a class with fellow orphanage friends Hasib (Hasibullah Rasooli) and Karan Jeet (Karan Jeet Singh). Wearing a Diego Maradona Argentina shirt, the former is forever trying to convince the latter to become a Muslim and is fascinated by the way he ties his long hair in a rishi knot and covers it with a patka and offers him World Cup trading cards in an attempt to secure his conversion. As Russian teacher Sima Petrovna (Daria Gaiduk) attempts to introduce him to the Cyrillic alphabet, however, Qodrat catches sight of classmate Sediqa (Sediqa Rasuli) and drifts off into a charming pastiche of a romantic filmi, complete with settings in an aquarium, on a beach and in a forest.
While Fayaz pockets a nude playing card from a deck he finds under a mattress in his dormitory. Ehsan and Asad spy on the girls in the playground. The latter jokes about how he wishes they wore dresses with wider collars so he could get a better peek at their bodies and Ehsan suggests that he should open a brothel when they finally manage to get out of Afghanistan and establish themselves in a free country. They are tipped off by one of their snitches that Wares (Waris Muradi) has been given two bags of goodies by a visitor and Qodrat looks on silently as Ehsan steals a Rambo t-shirt from the scared kid, while Asad takes his water boiler and admonishes him for trying to hide something that could cause a fire.
While out swimming in the river, Qodrat. Hasib, Fayaz and Masih (Masihullah Feraji) see a Russian tank crash and watch as the bodies of the crew are stretchered away by their comrades. The boys loot the vehicle for souvenirs and Qodrat explains how he could make keyrings from the bullets and sell them for 100 rupees. His friends are sceptical, but he insists he is a man of the world and knows what he is doing. Hasib steals a bicycle and takes Qodrat apple scrumping in an orchard between the orphanage and the asylum where his mute cousin lives. Back in the dorm that night, the boys discuss which teachers they fancy and Fayaz is sufficiently stirred to climb out of the window after everyone dozes off to watch Mrs Deputy Director sleep.
Qodrat's class is chosen to attend a Young Pioneer camp outside Moscow and they are taken from the airport by coach to the country location. They applaud when the camp director (Vyacheslav Kaluzhski) addresses them and they try to be on their best behaviour when visiting Lenin's mausoleum. Clearly, this pilgrimage means little to them, but there is genuine excitement when Masih beats a computer at the chess club and he is the guest of honour at the campfire dance, where Qodrat plays the wallflower and looks on as Sediqa dances with a Russian boy.
Masih is greeted like a conquering hero when they return to the orphanage. But he is not allowed to enjoy his triumph for long, as he is informed by Anwar the supervisor (Anwar Hashimi) that Fayaz (who is his nephew, even though he is younger than him) has been taken to the asylum because of his increasingly eccentric antics. Qodrat accompanies Masih through the ward full of blue-uniformed patients and they are appalled to find Fayaz heavily sedated and chained to the bed. The shock causes Masih to fall sick and he misses Sima Petrovna's last day at the school because Russian lessons have been cancelled.
There's no avoiding a chess challenge from Ehsan, however, who is in a foul mood after being caught by Anwar while trying to extort money from younger boys. Everyone crowds into the dormitory for the big match and Asad mocks Masih when he makes a risky move. Ehsan warns him that the kind of trickery he used against the Soviet computer won't save him on Afghan soil. But Masih wins and, when Anwar has to break up the resulting brawl, he expels Ehsan, who shuffles into a taxi with only Asad to say goodbye.
Hasib is delighted to see him go and invites Feraldoon (Fridoon Muradi) to play football with the gang because he has a new World Cup ball. That night, Hasib tries to make a pendant from one of the large bullets they had found in the tank, but it explodes when he tries to pierce it with a nail and Qodrat joins the crowd ushered into the yard by Anwar as the ambulance comes to take away his body. In order to cope with his loss, Qodrat imagines himself riding in a motorbike and sidecar with Hasib in a jolly filmi paean to enduring friendship that sees them riding though the countryside past a picturesque windmill.
Shortly afterwards, in April 1992, the government of Mohammad Najibullah is toppled and the Mujahideen takes control of Kabul. Mr Director addresses the boys at supper and urges them to forget anything to do with the Soviet era and Anwar supervises the building of a bonfire to destroy any books, documents or images that will link the orphanage with the infidel invader. When Qodrat next visits the school office, the women are all wearing niqabs. But he doesn't quite fathom the full import of what he is witnessing until a Mujahideen unit comes to the orphanage.
Anwar tries to usher the boys inside, but they gather around to watch as the supervisor walks towards the commander (Arthur Köstler) to let him know that the kids are harmless. He has only gone a few paces before he is gunned down and he dies with his head on Qodrat's lap, as his mind drifts into a final musical segment. As he sings a lament to his dying friend, Qodrat (wearing a t-shirt with the word `Lucky' emblazoned on it) pictures himself karate-kicking the Mujahideen in the same way that Amitabh had disposed of the villains in Shahenshah. The song ends and the film closes on a freeze frame of Qodrat's expression of confused defiance, as he cannot understand why supposedly religious warriors would murder a good man in cold blood.
It will be interesting to see what other extraneous influences Sadat will bring to bear on the final parts of her pentalogy, as she will have to go some to improve upon the Bollywood cutaways used to explore Qodrat's emotions when he first sees the prettiest girl in the class and loses the two people who have watched his back since he arrived at the orphanage. The visual pastiches may lack slickness, but they are being imagined by a 15 year-old boy with a limited knowledge of cinema and precious little experience of the wider world. That said, a good deal happens to him and his country in the three years encompassed by the storyline and Sadat deftly presents the Soviet and Mujahideen aspects from Qodrat's uncomprehending perspective.
Rarely allowing his expression to betray what he's thinking, Quodratollah Qadiri is touchingly naive as the teenager who has none of the street smarts or sexual maturity of bad lads Ehsanullah Kharoti and Asadullah Kabiri. The former winds up paying for his bullying, but the latter manages to distance himself and his escape from punishment mirrors the merging into the crowd of so many fellow travellers with the Soviet regime. This deft contrast between events inside the institution and the plight of the nation at large enables Sadat to weave a steely linking thread between the episodes, which often appear to be deceptively lighthearted, such as Masihullah Feraji's victory over a Soviet chess computer and his defeat of the tyrannising Kharoti.
For the most part, Belgian Virginie Surdej keeps her camera at the heart of the action, which was filmed in Tajikistan. Tight framing inside the cramped dorms contrasts with the freer movements outside the compound. However, the static medium shot fixing the bemused Afghan kids in their white shirts and red neckerchiefs in the upper arc of the glass of Lenin's sarcophagus is brilliantly witty. In fact, Qodrat, his pals and their female classmates thrive under Soviet tutelage and there's a grim irony in the manner of Hasib's death. which seems to signal the ending of one oppressive era and herald the coming of an even more prescriptive socio-cultural norm.
Frank Sabatella has contented himself with directing shorts since making his feature bow with Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet (2009). He returns to teen horror with The Shed, which has nothing to do with Drew Cullingham's Shed of the Dead (2019) and more in common with such vampire familiar flicks as Jon Cunningham's Demon Under Glass (2002), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon's The Insatiable (2006) and Harv Glazer's Bitten (2008). Let's not pretend this Junior Renfield offering is on a par with Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985) or Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008), or even Matt Reeves's remake, Let Me In (2010). But this is a cannily made gore fest, which recognises that its limits are also its strengths.
As dawn approaches, Joe Bane (Frank Whaley) is bitten by a vampire (Damian Norfleet) who promptly crumbles into dust on being exposed to sunlight. Harry manages to hide in the shed on the property belonging to Ellis (Timothy Bottoms), the abusive war veteran grandfather of Stan (Jay Jay Warren), who took him in after his father, Robert (Sal Rendino), shot himself after beating his wife, Kathleen (Caroline Duncan). Following another confrontation with Ellis and a brush with Sheriff Dorney (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) and her gung-ho deputy, Hauser (Mu-Shaka Benson), Stan notices nothing unusual about the outhouse and is grateful just to get to school in one piece.
However, he has to intervene when best buddy Dommer (Cody Costro) gets into a locker altecation with Marble (Chris Petrovski), the maverick with a cool car who lured Roxy (Sofia Happonen) away from Stan's orbit. Mr Deere (Drew Moore) acts as peacemaker, but Stan gets angry with Dommer for harping on about the reasons why Roxy dumped him. He's still in a bad mood when he gets home to walk grandpa's Alsatian, Ike. The dog senses something nasty in the woodshed, but Stan goes in anyway and is lucky to escape when Joe lurches out of the shadows.
Sending in Ike to maul the intruder results only in the dog being decapitated and Ellis follows in quick order when he ventures inside with a cudgel to teach the hound-slayer a lesson. Realising he will be sent to juvenile hall if it's discovered he's living alone, Stan contents himself with barring, chaining and nailing shut the shed door and hoping that no one notices that grandpa isn't around much any more. He tries to tell Roxy the truth during a rare chat at school and has to force Dommer into keeping his secret after he brings him home to help him nail a piece of corrugated iron over a gaping hole in the shed door made when Joe tried to grab Stan when he strayed too close.
Watching a late-night TV screening of Roger Corman's The Terror (1963), Stan learns the three ways to kill a vampire. But he has a nightmare about Roxy coming down from a Satanic Sorority Sluts poster on his bedroom wall and biting him mid-seduction. Moreover, while still in the same dream, he also gets a post-waking shock while searching under the bed for a lost baseball boot.
Deciding to put an end to Joe once and for all, Stan drills holes in the shed door and roof to let in some sunlight. But he's disturbed by the sheriff calling to ask if he has seen Joe Bane, who has been missing for several days. She recalls a feud between Joe and Ellis and gets suspicious when she sees the old man's blood-covered walking stick lying on the living-room floor. However, she takes Stan's word that nothing untoward is going on and even gives him a lift to school.
In fsct. she is just making sure that he's out of the way so she can fetch Ellis to talk about his grandson's increasingly erratic behaviour. Fresh from pulping Marble in the corridor for insulting Roxy, Stan rushes home to prevent Dorney from entering the shed. But she refuses to heed his warning and has an arm severed in a ferocious attack that causes her to drop her gun. It's picked up by Dommer, who has had enough of being beaten on a daily basis by Marble and his sidekcks, Ozzy (Uly Schlesinger) and Pitt (Francisco Burgos). So, when he comes across Marble dishing out a reprisal thumping to Stan, he uses the weapon to steer him into the shed in order to meet his doom.
Dommer also employs the gun to knock Stan cold and he comes round when Roxy finds him in the dust. Noticing that the shed door is wide open, he creeps inside to find that Dommer has allowed Jim to bite him so that he can become a vampire and get his own back on a cruel world. However, Stan stakes him with a pointed stick and Dommer dies after stumbling out into the burning sunlight.
Determined to defend themselves against Jim, Stan and Roxy barricade themselves inside the house. However, Pitt and Ozzy come looking for Marble and the former is reduced to begging for sanctuary when his buddy is yanked up on to the roof and slaughtered. Realising they have forgotten to seal the entrance to the attic, the trio head upstairs. They agree to search a room each and Pitt is quickly dispatched by Ozzy, while Jim grabs Roxy, as she sits on Stan's bed gazing soulfully at photos of them together in happier times.
Fortunately, Stan finds a shotgun and is able to blow Pitt's head off. He also picks up the axe that Pitt had dropped and fancies his chances of offing Jim. But it's Roxy who delivers the coup de grâce, in spite of the fact that Stan had managed to wing her shoulder with a carelessly thrown knife. Having torched the gathered corpses and stray body parts in a dawn conflagration, the lovebirds feel safe as they snuggle in Marble's flashy car. But they had forgotten to lock the boot and Ozzy slowly starts to nudge it open as the credits roll.
With the final twist completing the checklist of inevitable tropes. Sabatella can sit back and take pride in a job well done. He may not have redefined generic conventions or even generated many genuine jolts. But he has slotted the pieces into place with aplomb and coaxed amiable performances out of Jay Jay Warren and Sofia Happonen as his principal boy and girl. Chris Petrovski also impresses as the bully who just happens to carry a knuckle duster in his jeans. But the show is roundly stolen by Cody Kostro, who, in playing a character whose surname rhymes with that of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, evokes memories of Stephen Geoffreys's stellar turn as Evil Ed in Fright Night. Sam Ritter would be proud.
Working from a story by Jason Rice, Sabatella creates worthwhile cameos for fine actors like Timothy Bottoms and Siobhan Fallon Hogan, although his dialogue rarely rises above the profanely perfunctory. His direction is more accomplished, however, as he and cinematographer Matthias Schubert make stealthy use of the shed and its environs. Editor Mike Mendez and composer Sam Ewing also merit mention. That said, virtually all of the violence occurs off screen and, despite the best efforts of the make-up team, there's nothing particularly scary about either the original assailant or the vampirised Frank Whaley. What is refreshing, however, is that no one uses a mobile phone or a computer in the entire picture.
THE FINAL WISH.
Have you ever noticed that people on screen rarely seem to have seen any movies pertaining to their situation? Even the most casual viewer would surely have watched enough to know what when it comes to making wishes, you have to choose your words carefully and take into consideration the potential consequences of your heartfelt desires.
Sadly, the protagonist in Timothy Woodward, Jr.'s The Final Wish is distinctly clueless when it comes to handling his change in fortune. Admittedly, he can point to the after-effects of bereavement. But how much easier his life would have been if he'd taken the trouble to sit down and heed either the comic errors made by Bob Hope in David Butler's Road to Morocco (1942), Dudley Moore in Stanley Donen's Bedazzled (1967) and Tom Hanks in Penny Marshall's Big (1988) or the horrific happenstances that befall the luckless victims in Norman Lee's The Monkey's Paw (1948), Lynn Carlin in Bob Clark's Deathdream (1974), Michael Weston in Richard Wenk's Wishcraft (2002) and Joey King in John R. Leonetti's Wish Upon (2017).
`Life has a way of getting in the way of life,' Kate Hammond (Lin Shaye) tells son Aaron (Michael Welch) when he returns to Jackson, Ohio for his father Chester's funeral. As he has hardly been home while pursuing his foundering dream to become a lawyer in Chicago, Aaron has to put up with barbed remarks from both Kate and old flame, Lisa (Melissa Bolona), who has helped bring the stock from the family's antique shop back to the remote house on the edge of town.
She is now dating the high school bully-turned-sheriff, Derek (Kaiwi Lyman), and has no time for Aaron's old pals, Tyrone (Jean Elie) and Jeremy (Jonathan Daniel Brown). The latter shows up with a bag of weed at the end of a day in which Kate had rollicked Aaron for holding a yard sale in a bid to get rid of some of his father's bric-a-brac. One of the items, an Oriental urn, spooks Jeremy as they smoke and they decide to go to a bar for a beer.
They run into Derek, who appears to have been knocking Lisa around and he warns Aaron that he'll make his life a misery if he outstays his welcome. However, Aaron plans to leave for the city as soon as possible when he wins $5000 on a scratch card and can pay the back rent that caused him to be locked out of his apartment on the night he heard his father had died. But Kate pleads with him to stick around while she comes to terms with being alone.
While picking up groceries, Aaron and Lisa get into an argument about Derek and she drives off without him. Cursing his malformed upper lip, Aaron walks into the road and is knocked flying by Tyrone. He requires emergency surgery that heals his lip and Kate is so overjoyed that her beautiful son is finally perfect that she makes him dance around the parlour to Bobby Darin's `Dream Lover'. Following another row with Derek, Lisa also takes notice of Aaron's changed appearance and they kiss while sipping wine on an idyllic picnic under a tree.
Aaron is puzzled by his sudden good fortune, but Jeremy is convinced the urn has magical powers. He asks to purchase it, but Aaron is distracted by noise from the barn, where he finds Kate dancing with a resurrected Chester (Larry Poole), who snarls at his son for intruding. When he tries to warn his mother that she is meddling with evil, she sends Aaron to his room. Instead, he goes to find Jeremy and learns from his distressed mother (Michelle Burke) that he died the previous year in a car accident.
Rushing to the cemetery, Aaron has a close encounter with Jeremy and decides to confide in Lisa. She introduces him to Colin (Tony Todd), who used to work with Chester and is now based at the local library. He recognises the urn and reveals that it had been found in Iraq by archaeologist Andrew Williams (Timothy Oman), who had gone mad shortly after his return to the United States and had cut out his tongue after murdering his wife with a sword (which explains the pre-credits sequence). His daughter, Lynette (Spencer Locke), survived the attack and Colin gives Aaron her address and warns him that the urn was used in Ancient Mesopotamia to contain jinn or `unclean spirits'.
When grumpy neighbour Yates (Christopher Murray) is killed by a piercing branch in a sudden storm, Aaron seeks out Lynette, who knows all about the evil power of the urn. She takes him and Lisa to the asylum where Williams lives and he ascertains that Aaron has made five wishes. He scrawls in a notebook that he will lose his soul if he makes a seventh wish and the other inmates cackle manically. Returning home, Aaron finds his mother hanging in the barn and the jinn appears in the form of Jeremy, Lisa and Kate in an effort to bait him into making another wish. He orders the jinn to show itself and it emerges from the shadows and bellows loudly.
At this point, a storyline that had been holding steady in a covoluted kind of way, jumps the rails and skids through risibility. Derek comes to the house to ward Aaron off Lisa, but he makes a wish that the lawman can never touch her again. Seizing its chance, the jinn disguises itself as Lisa and tells Tyrone that Derek is going to revoke his bail and send him back to prison. Naturally, Tyrone breaks into Derek's house to demand the evidence he plans to use to incriminate him and grabs his gun to pump several bullets into him when he turns nasty. At that moment, Aaron bursts in and confesses to Lisa that he has made another wish. But it proves to be the last thing she hears, as Tyrone accidentally kills her before shooting himself in the head.
Realising that everything is his fault, Aaron tries to put things right by wishing that he had been killed by Tyrone's car so that the wishes can be revoked. The jinn appears at his side and howls in his ear and we cut away to see Tyrone jumping out of his vehicle to see Aaron dead in the road. When he wakes the next morning, Aaron thinks it's all been a dream. But, while he can see his reflection in the mirror, he's not actually sat on the bed and he starts to scream in torment.
A coda shows Kate and Lisa saying their goodbyes before respectively leaving for Santa Fe and Chicago. All that's left at the end of a yard sale is the urn, which Kate gives to Lisa with a wish it brings her luck. But, despite this throwaway allusion to the careless way in which certain words and phrases get bandied around, any hopes that Woodward and writers Jeffrey Reddick, William Halfon and Jonathan Doyle might have harboured about following Lisa into a sequel are surely set to be dashed, as once is more than sufficient in the case of a premise that felt hackneyed when WW Jacobs first wrote about monkey paws in 1902.
Give the cast their due, they play it with admirable straightness during the plausible set-up and even commit to the preposterous ending. But Michael Welch struggles to elicit much sympathy as the self-centred anti-hero, while the remaining characters are essentially generic cut-outs. The exception is Lin Shaye's unhinged matriarch, although her scenes are eccentrically scripted and cut to give the impression that she is delivering each line of dialogue in isolation and in a completely different register. It's quirkily effective, as is the equally iconic Tony Todd's fleeting cameo in which he gets to savour an ominous sermon about life and death being inevitable companions.
In the current circumstances, glum home truths of this sort will probably strike many as de trop. Moreover, only a handful will feel compelled to go in search of any of the other 15 features that the laudably prolific Woodward has churned out since 2013 - frequently featuring Vinnie Jones, the likes of Beyond Justice (2014), SWAT: 24 Hours, Heist, The Good, the Bad and the Dead (all 2015), Assassination (2016), Hickok, American Violence and Gangster Land (all 2017) are all available to rent on disc from the wonderful Cinema Paradiso. But while Woodward's direction is mostly as capable as Pablo Díez's photography and just occasionally as blatant as Samuel Joseph Smythe's button-pushing score, credit has to be given to Markos Keyto for the evocative shadow-draped production design, which generates as much unease as the rest of the picture put together.
There's no doubting the ambition and editorial dexterity of Elizabeth Sankey's debut documentary, Romantic Comedy. Having produced the score for Charlie Lyne's similar cut`n'paste overview of teenpix, Beyond Clueless (2014), Sankey decided to take a closer look at the genre that had fascinated her since she was a girl. But, while she cogently explores some of the facets that have disappointed her since reappraising the romcom after getting married, Sankey offers few new insights and often struggles to convey a sense of enthusiasm for these films hailing from `the Disneyland of the heart'.
It doesn't help that she and contributors Jessica Barden, Cameron Cook, Anne T. Donahue, Simran Hans, Brodie Lancaster, Charlie Lyne, Eleanor McDowall and Laura Snapes remain off-screen throughout and pass their unattributed remarks over an endless tide of clips that reinforce the nagging impression that more is less. Few of the extracts last for more than a couple of seconds (presumably to keep the budget down by making fair usage of snippets) and, as a result, the majority are left unidentified until the closing crawl. This adds a guessing game element to the experience, which cineastes might enjoy. But it makes it difficult for the casual movie lover to keep up in trying to gauge how a particular clip illustrates the point being made by the invisible experts.
Drawing on two cited texts, Celestino Deleyto's The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy and Leger Grindon's The Hollywood Romantic Comedy (both 2011), Sankey rightly avers that the romcom has become the preserve of white, hetero-normative middle-class couples who are destined for a happy ending from the moment of their meet cute. She is also spot on in denouncing the genre for belittling successful career women and allowing aggressively possessive men to get away with manipulative behaviour that often borders on the sociopathic. Judged on these terms, Jon Turtletau's While You Were Sleeping (1995), Sharon Maguire's Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), Donald Petrie's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) and Tom Dey's Failure to Launch (2006) don't have a leg to stand on.
It wasn't always this way, as the screwball comedies of the 1930s showed independent women being treated as equals in scenarios that often boasted more com than rom. Given her background as half of the indie band Summer Camp (with Jeremy Warmsley, whose songs decorate the soundtrack), it's surprising that Sankey doesn't also mention the Hollywood musical, as the storylines that kept Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers apart until the final dance are classic examples of the romcom form. Indeed, the decline of the genre following the rise of rock`n'roll coincided with a shift away from the Marilyn Monroe brand of romcom to that of Doris Day, whose chaste careerism epitomised conservative conceptions of American womanhood during the Eisenhower era.
In spite of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the concurrent campaigns for racial, gender and gay rights, these constraints have largely remained the guiding principles of the Hollywood romcom. Betraying a lack of cinematic curiosity, Sankey admits that she stuck with the mainstream and knew little about the romcoms that were being aimed at BAME and LGBTQ+ audiences. She namechecks the odd item, like Greg Berlanti's The Broken Hearts Club (2000), Alice Wu's Saving Face (2004) and Terence Nance's An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012), but opts not to pause and investigate why such films remained in the margins.
A few titles are given the case study treatment, including Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Ruby Sparks (2012) and Francis Lee's God's Own Country (2017). But Sankey's observations are pretty superficial, as is the case with such buddy pictures as John Hamburg's I Love You, Man (2009) and Paul Feig's The Heat (2013), which she correctly asserts have become the new romcoms in the absence of genuine classics like Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally... (1989). She also cannily deduces that films like David O.Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Michael Showalter's The Big Sick (2017) have taken to disguising their romcomedicness to fool smug male critics who dismiss the genre frivolous into appraising them seriously. Yet she doesn't bother to look outside her narrow Anglo-American perspective and, thus, ignores everything that the rest of the world has to offer with the kitschily predictable exception of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie (2001).
Despite the inclusion of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice (2005) to cast a little historical perspective on proceedings, the primary focus on pictures from the last three decades further limits the scope. Nevertheless, Sankey deserves credit for packing in over 160 titles into just 79 minutes and the slickness of the package is its greatest asset. But no amount of nimble linkage can atone for the overall shallowness of thought and this illustrated media studies essay - which often feels akin to one of those Channel 4 shows in which critics, commentators and comedians tut disapprovingly about the unPC gaucheness that yesteryear programme makers and audiences exhibited before they arrived to set the world to rights - falls a long way behind the kind of scrutiny presented in Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema: The Rom-Com (2018) and Mark Cousins's forthcoming Women Make Film (2019).
ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL - FIVE SHORTS.
British documentarist Orlando von Einsiedel has had quite a career since making the switch from professional snowboarding. Having co-directed We Ride: The Story of Snowboarding (2013) with John Drever, he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Feature Documentary for Virunga (2014), which centred on the efforts of caretaker André Bauma, wardens Emmanuel de Merode and Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo and French journalist Mélanie Gouby to ensure the safety of the gorillas in the largest national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Von Einsiedel went one better with The White Helmets (2016), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for its tribute to the work being done in cities like Aleppo by such Syrian Civil Defence volunteeers as Khalid Farah, Mohammed Farah and Abu Omar. This account of a unit's training regimen in Turkey prompted George Clooney to announce that he was seeking to make a feature about the White Helmets. But Von Einsiedel's next project grabbed far fewer headlines, as Evelyn (2018) accompanied the directot and his siblings, Gwennie and Robin, as well as their parents Andreas and Beta, in commemorating the schizophrenic brother who had committed suicide some 13 years earlier by attempting some of his favourite hikes.
The three solo outings are all available to view on Netflix. But the National Geographic Channel has curated a lockdown treat for Von Einsiedel's many admirers that showcases five shorts that have been inspired by recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the award in 1997 and Into the Fire examines the work of its affliate, the Mines Advisory Group, which has cleared 27,000 mines since 2016. In particular, the focus falls on Hana Khider, who leads a team of Yazidi women dedicated to demining the areas of Nineveh Province in Northern Iraq that had been booby-trapped by ISIS. The mother of three reveals how brutally women were treated by the insurgents and she has nothing but contempt for the way in which they mined large parts of towns like Sinjar so that the population would continue to suffer long after they had gone.
When not on duty, Hana tries to educate children about the dangers of straying into forbidden zones. A sequence cross-cuttng between a woman getting a reading on her metal detector and some lads playing football on a patch of wasteland is unnecessarily rigged for suspense. But, otherwise, this makes an affecting companion to Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal's feature-length profile of Fakhir Berwari, The Deminer (2017).
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has been presented with the Nobel Peace Prize on two occasions, in 1954 and 1981. In recognition of its achievements, Lost and Found travels to Kutupalong, the world's largest refugee camp on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, to highlight the plight of the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who have been driven from their homes by the military regime that was defended at the International Court of Justice in 2019 by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been named the Nobel laureate in 1991.
A drone shot shows the size of the camp and it's no wonder that three year-old Dokana becomes separated from her widowed mother. Luckily, Kamal Hussein, who has lived in Kutupalong for 27 years is able to find her and broker a late-night reunion. He fled Myanmar after being beaten by soldiers while on his way to school at the age of seven and knows how children feel to be separated from their parents. In all, Kamal has restored 784 kids to their families and this hopeful short is full of smiles and grateful hugs. But a father searching for a daughter who fell from a capsized boat and an 11 year-old boy who watched troops shooting at his parents might not be so fortunate.
As the camera peers down once more on the teeming warren of tiny huts, one is left to wonder how on earth do you social distance in such a crowded space? It's hard not to despair at the wickedness in the world and wish that Kamal's loudhailer could echo into every corner of the planet and declare, `enough is enough!'
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was recognised by the Nobel panel in 2007. In seeking to pay tribute to their work, Von Einsiedel has made The Lost Forest, which accompanies an expedition by Welsh conservation scientist Dr Julian Bayliss to the area of previously unexplored old-grown rainforest that sits atop Mount Lico, an inselberg in the Alto Molocue District of Zambezia Province in northern Mozambique.
The Oxford Brookes alumnus had identified the spot through Google Earth and, in February 2017, Von Einsiedel was invited to join the 28-person team chosen to scale the 410ft rock wall that had always confounded the indigenous population. As no one had ever set foot there before (or so they thought), Bayliss and cohorts like Simon Willcock, Gabriela Bittencourt, Hermenegildo Matimele and Ara Monadjem were able explore what was essentially an ecological time capsule and, in finding new species of small mammal, fish, chameleon, butterfly, gecko and crab, attempt to determine the extent to which it had been forced to evolve by climate change.
Bayliss makes an enthusiastic guide and his insights into the risks humanity is taking with the planet are tinged with a quiet fury. And who wouldn't be stitred by the prospect of 40% of all biodiversity on Earth being potentially wiped out if the temperature heats by another 4% over the next 80 years?
No organisation has won the Nobel Peace Prize more often than the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was cited for its humanitarian work in 1917, 1944 and 1963. Makur Madol Diet works at the ICRC's centre at Rumbek in South Sudan and he is the subject of Still Human. Over a decade earlier, his leg had been shattered by machine-gun fire during a cattle raid on his village. Feeling himself to be a burden on his family, he had contemplated suicide before being persuaded to be fitted for a prosthetic leg. Now, Makur makes his own limbs and tours the surrounding villages by bicycle and encourages amputees like Martha Atet to follow in his footsteps.
She lost a leg after being bitten by a snake and is eager to feel human again and be able to look after her toddler son, as well as do her chores around the house. Arriving at the centre, she is apprehensive and doesn't feel comfortable being measured for her harness. But she commits to working hard in the gym to master her new limb and her beaming smile gives Makur the encouragement he needs to reach everyone in need in his region. A closing caption reveals that the ICRC has 146 rehabilitation centres around the world and, over the last 40 years, they have helped over 800,000 people walk again.
This simple, touching vignette is followed by An Unfinished Symphony. which takes Von Einsiedel to South Africa to meet the members of the Miagi Orchestra, whose mission to heal the wounds caused by decades of division, prejudice and violence was inspired by the example of Nelson Mandela, who received the Peace Prize in 1993. Cellist Tsepo Pooe grew up in the township of Soweto and witnessed poverty and brutality at first hand. He visits his parents and the grandmother who had been prevented from opening a jazz club because of the strictures imposed by the apartheid regime in Pretoria.
The daughter of a pianist, violinist Lize Schaap was raised in the capital's affluent Boer community. She plays at her local church and joined the orchestra because she hoped to travel to Europe. But getting to know musicians from different backgrounds has taught her the value of integration and the need for every voice to be heard equally. Over archival footage, as well as aerial shots revealing how poverty and privilege live cheek by jowl in this mosr unequal of countries, Tsepo and Lize call for the energy of the 1994 election to channelled into bringing about lasting change.
As the audience applauds and the gifted pair hope that the Miagi can build bridges, one is reminded of Paul Smaczny's Knowledge Is the Beginning (2005), which focused on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that created from Israeli and Palestinian musicians by Daniel Barenboim and which recenly inspired Dror Zahavi's fictional feature, Crescendo (2019). Other films in the same vein are Enrique Sánchez Lansch's The Promise of Music (2008), which profiles Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and Martin Baer and Claus Wischmann's Kinshasa Symphony (2010),which explores how music is being used to heal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
With the focus turned so much in on ourselves at the moment, it's good to be reminded that the pandemic is just one of the problems facing people in various parts of the planet - albeit a deadly one. Each of these films invites us to explore further and embrace our common humanity with those living very different lives to our own. They also highlight the value of the Nobel Peace Prize and its bid to hold governments to account by celebrating the efforts of those striving to make the world a better place. It sometimes seems like an impossible struggle. But it's one we can never afford to give up.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL.
The spring is usually a busy time for film festivals, but this is no ordinary spring. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival was due to take place in London back in March. But three of its titles will be available on Curzon Home Cinema between 22 May and 5 June.
Drawing on first-hand and archival footage, as well as citizen journalism, the `eyewitness to history' documentary has provided audiences with insider insights into some of the most momentous events of recent times. The Iranian Revolution and the Arab Spring formed the focus of Ali Samadi Ahadi's The Green Wave (2010) and Jehane Noujaim The Square (2013), while Ukraine's fight for freedom has informed Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan (2014) and Evgeny Afineevsky's Winter on Fire (2015). The Velvet Revolution in Armenia didn't make quite as many headlines, but its origins are charted with immediacy and acuity by Garin Hovannisian in I Am Not Alone.
In 2008, Serzh Sargsyan was elected president of Armenia amidst accusations of vote rigging. When crowds gathered to protest on 1 March, troops opened fire and 10 protesters were killed. As he had been a vocal critic of the regime, journalist Nikol Pashinyan was forced to flee, but returned from exile after 18 months, only to be arrested and jailed for three years. On his release, Pashinyan was elected to parliament, where he and his Civil Contract Party continued to challenge Sargsyan and his increasingly autocratic style of rule.
So, when Sargsyan announced in April 2018 that the Republican Party wanted him to become prime minister under new president Armen Sarkissian, Pashinyan decided to use the 18 days before parliament was called to ratify the appointment to march through Armenia and alert the people to the gravity of the constitutional crime that was about to be committed. Embedding himself within the entourage, Hovannisian had a close-up view to gauge Pashinyan's impact on his compatriots and how the `Im Kayl' or `Take a Step' trek to Yerevan caught the public's imagination after a stray dog called Chalo became its mascot.
Much to his frustration, Pashinyan was not greeted in the capital by the cheering crowds he had hoped would stop MPs entering the National Assembly. But Sargsyan's decision to have him arrested on 22 April backfired spectacularly and his empire crumbled like a house of cards overnight. However, a good deal of horse trading was required before Pashinyan was voted in as prime minister on 8 May.
In something of a coup, Hovannisian includes interviews with Sargsyan, Sarkissian and their chief of police, Valeriy Osipyan, to provide a rounded account of this remarkable exercise in people power. Pashinyan and journalist wife Anna Hakobyan are also very much to the fore. But what makes this so compelling and revealing is the fact that Hovannisian and cameraman Vahe Terteryan are at the heart of events that are often chaotic and confusing. The documentary, however, is anything but.
In a slight change of direction after studying the children of single-sex parents in Gayby Baby (2015), Australian documentarist Maya Newell profiles a 10 year-old Aboriginal boy of Arrernte and Garrwa decent residing in the Hidden Valley Town Camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs (or Mparntwe, as it's known in the local dialect) in In My Blood It Runs. In fact, Newell makes Dujuan Hoosan her co-director and, as anyone who read about his September 2019 speech to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva will know, he is a bright boy with a keen sense of himself and his heritage.
According to his white teachers, however, Dujuan is a troublemaker whose refusal to accept Captain James Cook as a hero makes him a prime candidate for academic failure and juvenile delinquency. Just as Indigenous traditions like Dreaming mean nothing to his callously dismissive tutor, so the colonial history of Australia doesn't interest Dujuan. He would rather learn his Arrernte language and train to be a faith healer or Angangkere. As his aunt warns him, however, his reluctance to tow the line means that he is `only going to end up in two places: a jail cell or a coffin'.
In filming over three years, Newell entered into a true creative partnership with Dujuan and his family. He shares the cinematography credit, while parents Megan Hoosan and James Mawson, and grandparents Carol Turner, Margaret Hoosan and Jimmy Mawson are billed as `collaborating directors'. The resulting footage, therefore, has a candid intimacy that makes it all the more instructive and impactful. Dujuan made history by becoming the youngest person ever to address the UN, yet his school report card is one long tut of disapproval on the part of teachers who don't give a toss what happens to him or anyone else from his community.
Such indifference sounds like the stuff of crass melodrama that has been designed to manipulate audience sympathies. But Newell merely records Northern Territory reality, as the family endures power and food shortages, while avoiding the domestic abuse and child removal that blights other households. Dujuan emerges as a bright spark and it's fitting that an early sequence shows him holding a firework, as he represents a beacon of hope that he can overcome the odds stacked against him and make a difference for his family and his community.
At the UN, Dujuan said: `The Australian government is not listening so we came here to speak with you. Adults never listen to kids like me, but we have important things to say. I want my school to be run by Aboriginal people. I want adults to stop cruelling Aboriginal kids in jail. I want my future to be on land with strong language and culture.' It beggars belief that a 12 year-old capable of speaking truth to power with such frankness and cogency is not regarded as a national treasure.
With memories of Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang's One Child Nation (2018) still fresh, Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia's Leftover Women reinforces the impression that China still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. Following on from their 2013 duo of Dancing in Jaffa and Web Junkie, Shlam and Medalia turn their attention to the status of China's `sheng nu' and acknowledge the debt they owe to two factual tomes on the subject, Leta Hong Fincher's Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014) and Roseann Lake's Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World's Next Superpower (2018). Not everyone will have read these resources, however, and the three case studies under scrutiny would undoubtedly benefit from a little more contextual grounding.
The imposition of the infamous one-child policy saw a rise in sex-selective abortions, as women strove to please their families by giving birth to sons. As a consequence, there are now 30 million more men than women in China and the authorities have taken to encouraging women to marry young and raise children rather than pursue their careers. Indeed, such is the emphasis on finding a partner that single women have come to be regarded with disdain for not doing their bit for the Party and the People's Republic.
Shlam and Medalia meet three women being pressurised by their families into sparing them further social humiliation by finding a worthy spouse. Having been raised on poverty in Shandong, 34 year-old Qiu Hua Mei has worked hard to become a successful lawyer in Beijing. She is told in no uncertain terms by a matchmaker that she is too old and plain to make demands about a future mate being well educated, respectful of women and willing to do his share around the home. A fertility specialist is just as blunt when she asks about freezing her eggs. But the harshest home truths come from Hua Mei's own relations, as her illiterate father questions the sacrifices he made to ensure she completed her education and her married sister explains that she will never know true happiness until she gets a ring on her finger.
Despite being left in no doubt about the shame she has brought on her kinfolk, Hua Mei reaches the conclusion that shoehorning her into a marriage would be as counterproductive as binding her large feet. Consequently, she elects to go to France to study for a masters degree and it's only as she's about to leave that her father admits to being proud of her achievements and her decisions.
Two years older than Hua Mei, university professor Gai Qi has buckled under the pressure and accepted a proposal. Her folks are less than thrilled, however, as the groom is not only younger than Qi, but also from a lower social stratum. Dependent on her well-heeled parents for financial handouts, 28 year-old radio presenter Xu Min finds it equally difficult to keep everyone satisfied. She has no trouble finding boyfriends, but her mother finds fault with them all and Min begins to despair of even finding a Mr Okay, let aone a soulmate.
By observing rather than inquisiting, Shlam and Medalia leave far too much floating between the lines for non-Sino-specialist viewers to appreciate. Their fixation with nuptials also means that they struggle to gauge any revealing input on the acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Receiving much less screen time than Qiu Hua Mei, Xu Min and Gai Qi rather come across as makeweights, which is a shame as they are clearly sensitive souls. Min's embarrassment at having to sell herself at a dating fair and then pouring out her pain to a therapist make for discomfiting viewing, while it's very sad to see Qi admit to her students at a new university that marriage and motherhood have been anything but fulfilling.
But the lingering image is that of Hua Mei daubing herself with war paint before flying solo in a Beijing nightclub. She clearly isn't proud of herself and is only putting herself through the ordeal to spare her parents in their backwater village the shame of having an old maid for a daughter. If only Shlam and Medalia could have breached their self-imposed rules of stringent detachment and just asked her how she was feeling.