Parky At the Pictures (4/9/2020)
(Reviews of Coup 53; Ava; Papicha; The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful; The Vigil; and Away)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
Before embarking upon Taghi Amirani's fascinating documentary, Coup 53, seek out The March of Time's `Crisis in Iran' newsreel (1951) and Ralph Keene's travelogue, Persian Story (1952) - which can respectively be found on the BFI Player and in the BP Video Library - as not only does editor Walter Murch make astute use of their monochrome and Technicolor imagery, but they also convey a sense of the Anglo-American attitudes that prompted the CIA and MI6 to join forces in 1953 to remove Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had been named Time Magazine's Man of the Year just two years earlier.
The events surrounding the coup that ousted Mosaddegh on 19 August 1953 and installed General Fazlollah Zahedi as the chief minister of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi are highly complicated. Indeed, they date back to 1909, when Chief Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided to power the British fleet with oil rather than coal and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company came into existence. With its mammoth refinery at Abadan, this corporation (which later became BP) was unique in that 51% of its shares were owned by the British government and its importance to the economy meant that its facilities became a defence priority. Therefore, when Mosaddegh persuaded the Iranian parliament to nationalise the country's oil resources in 1951, Churchill joined forces with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sanction Operation Ajax to remove Mosaddegh (whom Amirani insists was `the closest Iran came to Gandhi') on the pretext he was unstable and in cahoots with the Communist-backed Tudeh Party.
Given that he has access to Mosaddegh's grandson and nephew, as well as Zahedi's son - all of whom were eyewitnesses at close quarters to events in Tehran - it seems odd that Amirani shoud allow himself to be distracted by the production history of Episode 7 of Granada's End of Empire series. While investigating the role that MI6's Norman Darbyshire played in the coup, Amirani came across the transcript of an interview that went unused. He questions researcher Alison Rooper, cameraman Humphry Trevelyan and director Mark Anderson to ascertain whether they had filmed Darbyshire and, because an Observer article on the series by Nigel Hawkes mentions the shadowy operative by name, Amirani leaps to the conclusion that official pressure had been applied to prevent his participation in the programme.
In fact, this seems not to have been the case. But Amirani needs a whiff of conspiracy to justify his own coup in casting Ralph Fiennes as Darbyshire, so that he can speak with insouciant candour in a room at the Savoy Hotel that had been used for other End of Empire interviews. It's a canny conceit and Amirani and Murch make slick use of Darbyshire's testimony and evocative animated reconstructions to piece together a credible account that reflects extremely badly on both Britain and the United States, especially as Churchill, Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, his CIA chief brother, Allen, and Teddy Roosevelt's grandson, Kermit, were all up to their necks in the subterfuge.
The film-makers also fast forward to show how the CIA was so impressed with its $60,000 coup that it employed similar tactics to unseat Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala the following year, as well as a number of other leaders who refused to toe the Washington line. Moreover, they explore the role played in 1953 and beyond by the Shah's secret SAVAK police force before showing how he was toppled during the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. National Security archivist Malcolm Byrne speculates about how different the world might have been if Iran had been allowed to become a bastion of Middle Eastern democracy. But history is strewn with such `if only' scenarios.
The level of detail is impressive, while the presentation is lucid and pugnacious. Some talking heads have more to impart than others, particularly as a number of Iranian contributors seem keen to re-fight old battles. The passage of time necessitates the reliance on recollections from the likes of CIA agent Stephen Meade, Conservative MP Julian Amery, diplomat Sir Sam Falle and Abadan refinery manager Eric Drake having to be culled from End of Empire. But a little more detached analysis might not have gone amiss, as this decade-long enterprise is clearly a deeply personal project for Amirani, who lost his country as a result of the Shah's return. Nevertheless, his determination to expose the involvement that Britain still officially denies is noble and laudable.
In closing, mention should be made of Martin Pick's painterly animation, which brings a sense of hazy immediacy to the various descriptions of the occurrences of 19 August. Having storyboarded the live-action sequences, Pick `smeared' the footage to give it the appearance of wet oil paint and then employed a team of artists to digitally paint each frame in order to give them the texture of a living canvas. It's highly effective in conveying the day's unrecorded chaos and violence and, in evoking the use of animation in Ali Samadi Ahadi's The Green Wave (2010), it adds another dimension to Amirani's energetic, passionate and enthrallingly flawed storytelling.
In her 2007 documentary, Feminin, Masculin, director Sadaf Foroughi profiled Farahnaz Shiri, the first woman bus driver in Tehran. During the course of the short, a number of female passengers complain that the authorities need to start taking women seriously, while one man (who has been forced to sit at the back of the vehicle to maintain gender segregation) claims that such reckless tinkering imperils Islam. At one point, Farahnaz has a furious row with a man on the pavement and confides to the camera that she had eventually slapped him. Yet, her teenage son, who often travels with her, opines that women should stay at home, even though his mother's wages are paying for the education that he hopes will qualify him to become a judge.
Several of the themes that arise in this roughly made, but highly revealing short recur in Foroughi's debut feature, Ava. Now based in Canada, after having studied in Aix-en-Provence and New York, Foroughi returned to her homeland to shoot this rite of passage, which was inspired by her own experiences. Despite viewing events from the perspective of her eponymous protagonist, however, Foroughi is astute enough to recognise the validity of Jean Renoir's old maxim about everyone having their reasons.
With Luigi Boccherini's minuet playing on the car radio, 17 year-old Ava Vali (Mahour Jabbari) gets peevish because her doctor mother, Bahar (Bahar Noohian), insists on dropping her outside school and urges her to go inside rather than hang around on the pavement. Ava is taking violin lessons and keeps it quiet from her parents that her piano accompanist is a boy named Nima (Houman Hoursan). As she has a crush on him, Ava bets friends Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi) and Shirin (Sarah Alimardani) that they can sneak out on a date together.
Having eavesdropped on Bahar and father Vahid (Vahid Aghapoor) squabbling about her musical ambitions, Ava drops in on Melody, who applies mascara and lipstick so her friend can look her best for Nima. They spend a chaste few hours playing with a cat in the park. But they miss the bus home and Bahar is so angry with Melody's single mother for conspiring to deceive her that she accuses her of being incapable of raising her daughter. She is also so ashamed of Ava that she hauls her off for a humiliating gynaecological check-up.
As her father is away working, Ava has to endure a miserable evening at home. The next morning, she has her bag searched by the school principal, Ms Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi), who questions her about Melody's boyfriend. Ava refuses to answer, but is concerned that she can't find her friend and pays little attention when Dehkhoda comes to her room to give the class a lecture on lewd behaviour, unwanted pregnancies and overeating. That night, she calls Melody on the landline while Bahar is in the shower and they make arrangements for her to meet up with Nima.
When Aunt Hayedeh comes to visit her mother, Ava overhears them talking about some old photos and twigs that her parents had been forced to get married because Bahar was pregnant. She's still upset about this bombshell the next day and, when her classmates gossip about a girl getting caught out and not being able to have an abortion, she rams a piece of scissors into the back of her hand. At the hospital, Vahid realises what has happened and follows Bahar to her office, where he gives her hell for being so indiscreet and she responds that he is never around enough to be a good father.
While her hand is still bandaged, Ava plays a piece with Nima for their tutor. However, she remonstrates with them for playing without feeling and declares that there is no point in them having further lessons. Refusing to speak to her parents, Ava takes to her bed. The next day, Dehkhoda summons her from a lesson to inform her that she is on the point of being expelled because her father has criticised the school's methods. Fortunately, the principal has nothing but respect for Bahar and will keep Ava on for now. But she refuses to let the school take the blame for the scissors episode and tries to get Ava to snitch on the classmates who have been conducting an inappropriate relationship. However, as Dehkhoda insists on telling Bahar that Ava has been meeting Nima in an alley near the school, she refuses to co-operate, even though it might have helped her cause.
Cross with Melody for not picking her to play volleyball, Ava punches the ball and bursts her stitches. Her hand is still hurting when she goes for her music lesson and she makes her excuses to leave after watching Nima accompany Yasi (Mona Ghiasi). On getting home, she calls Melody, but she hangs up on her and Ava and Bahar have a fierce argument before school the next morning, with the teenager blaming her mother for alienating her from her friends, shaming her in front of her classmates and driving her father away. When Bahar complains that she has sacrificed her life to bring her up in the right way, Ava snaps back that she blames her for ruining her life and wishes she had never given birth. Goaded, Bahar blurts out that she is tired of being Ava's mother.
After a sleepless night, Ava bunks off school and goes to Nima's house. He tells her that Yasi is going to take her place at the recital and she vows to prove to teacher Sedghi that she's fit to play. Having nearly been caught by Nima's mother and sister, Anahita (Parnian Akhtari), Ava goes to school to find Melody. She tells her that her mother was deeply hurt by Bahar calling them tramps and they hug because they realise they can't see each other any more. Arriving home, Ava gets into more trouble because she missed an exam and Bahar and Vahid argue over who is most to blame for their daughter going astray. Her mother tries to convince Ava that she has only ever had her best interests at heart, but she is sceptical.
Vahid accompanies Ava to school the next day and is surprised to find Dehkhoda writing up a report on her. He swears that she has been going to school as usual and that Bahar picks her up each day. However, the principal informs him that his daughter has a boyfriend and calls Anahita (who is on crutches) to confirm that she saw Ava sneaking out of the family home. As they wait, Ava reaches out to touch her father's hand, but she pulls back. Desperate to protect his child, Vahid urges Anahita not to say anything that would ruin Ava's future. But she insists that she saw Ava with her brother and Dehkhoda expels Ava when she slaps Anahita's face and accuses her of lying to make Yasi like her.
On the stairs, father and daughter bump into Bahar. Vahid bellows at her for hiding Ava's antics and making him look like a fool. He also blames her for failing to control the girl and refuses to listen to any excuses about Bahar making sacrifices so that he could further his career. When he declares that they will both start obeying him in future. Bahar grabs Ava by the hand and drags her off to the examination hall to sit her paper. Ava walks to her desk, but she opts not to stay. Instead, she walks out of the gates and crosses the road, with her blurred figure coming into sharp focus, as she stares intently into the lens before flouncing away.
Evoking memories of the famous freeze frame at the end of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), this closing gesture of defiance leaves the audience with a sense of foreboding, as Ava Vali's future prospects seem much more precarious than that of the young Antoine Doinel. Having burnt her boats at home and at school and possibly driven a wedge between her already detaching parents, the teenager has even managed to alienate her friends and possibly damage irreparably her chances of fulfilling her musical dreams. Outside theocratic Iran, however, her crime of sneaking off to see a boy would be cause much less consternation, let alone confrontation.
Sadaf Foroughi clearly identifies with Ava's plight, but she resists making her a victim by allowing the debuting Mahour Jabbari to play her with plenty of attitude and spirit. She might not change expression very often, but Jabbari's body language speaks volumes for the frustrations she experiences in dealing with her over-protective mother and the demanding principal, who is played with sly comic precision by Leili Rashidi, most notably in the scene in which she chides Ava while removing her white gloves to stir her tea.
Noohian is given less latitude as the highly string doctor who rather takes out her marital difficulties on Ava, who is very much a daddy's girl. Yet, Vahid remains something of an easygoing enigma, as we never get to discover the nature of the `creative' job that keeps him away from home, while it seems unlikely (no matter how much of a chauvinist he might be) that he would storm off for a showdown with Dehkhoda without checking his facts with his wife and daughter.
Foroughi stages this scene impeccably, with the close-up of Ava's hand hesitantly reaching out to her father having the visual purity of a silent film. She also makes extensive use of mirror images to suggest that people tend to see what they want to see and don't always look beneath the surface. Moreover, Foroughi also employs skewed angles and isolates body parts within the frame.
Yet these stylised shots add to the sense of distanciation that dictates the blocking of the action, with Sina Kermanizadeh's camera often stepping back to show how the characters are kept apart by the doors, pillars and partitions in Siamak Karinejad's oppressively hued production design. This can make the odd episode feel overly storyboarded. But this is a studiously made drama that makes its social and political points with controlled intensity and discreet trenchancy, as Ava is treated by other women as a vexatious problem to be solved rather than a vulnerable person in need of a little guidance and compassion.
Drawing on her own experiences of life during Algeria's `black decade', Mounia Meddour's Papicha is one of those debuts that exposes the faultline between someone being an accomplished image maker and a competent storyteller. Poignantly capturing the small moments that make everyday existence bearable during times of crisis, the debuting director's sense of place is as assured as her handling of the young cast. But the screenplay is strewn with didactic dialogue and manipulative contrivances that build to a violent denouement that sits awkwardly with what has gone before, even though it may well be rooted in a certain truth.
Somewhere in the 1990s, university students Nedjma Tamim (Lyna Khoudri) and Wassila Bassi (Shirine Boutella) sneak out of their halls of residence and take a taxi to a nightclub on the other side of Algiers. They change into their glad rags in the cab and sit demurely when the vehicle is stopped and searched at a fundamentalist checkpoint. As soon as they reach the club, however, they head for the washroom, where Nedjma takes orders for the dresses she makes before they hit the dance floor.
When their cabby fails to pick them up, the girls accept a lift from Mehdi (Yasin Houicha) and Karim (Marwan Zeghbib), who seem like nice liberal boys, even though Mehdi and Nedjma get into an argument about her studying French while having no desire to leave her homeland. Having been dropped off close to the campus, the pair chatter about the boys, as Wassila reclines in a wheelbarrow. Before sneaking back through the fence, they pause to deface some posters calling for women to wear the hijab, unaware that they are being watched by Mokhtar the porter (Samir El Hakim), who is nicknamed Popeye and has an arrangement with the girls to turn a blind eye to their comings and goings.
Clambering through the window, they wake conservative roommate Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda) by making her think she's late for morning prayers. She covers her hair and chides Nedjma for drinking with her left hand while standing up and warns her that Satan will punish her. Wassila taunts her for being a good girl, but sympathsises when Samira explains that her husband-to-be has made it clear that he doesn't want her to complete her studies. But she allows herself a moment of rebellion when Nedjma coaxes her into performing her favourite rap and they dissolve into giggles when a neighbour urges them to keep the noise down.
Over breakfast, Kahina (Zahra Manel Doumandji) declares that she is going to spend the day applying for a visa at the Canadian embassy. But the gossipy mood quickly changes when the TV news reports on another bomb blast and a teacher pulls the plug to chivvy her students to their classes. At lunch time, Nedjma and Wassila slip off to see Abdellah (Khaled Benaïssa) in his clothing store. He shows them the latest items from Italy and they haggle over prices. Outside, Nedjma picks a fight with the youth sticking up posters ordering women to wear abayas and hijabs, but she beats a hasty retreat when she notices he has a gun tucked into his waistband.
During a lecture, Nedjma and Wassila are appalled when their elderly male tutor is attacked by female fundamentalists insisting that lessons should be in Arabic and not French. She also gets annoyed when a kid gets on the bus and starts handing out `cover up' flyers along with veiled threats. When no one else speaks up and the atmosphere becomes tense, Nedjma asks to be dropped off and she is grateful that her journalist sister Linda (Meriem Medjkrane) stops to pick her up.
They visit their mother (Aida Ghechoud), who is frying sfenj doughnuts. Delighted to see her daughters, she shows them the various ways to wear a haik and jokes about how she used to smuggle arms under one during the Algerian War. As Nedjma leaves for class, a woman wearing a haik asks for Linda and guns her down on the doorstep. The killer flees, as Linda's mother sinks to her knees beside her child in the blurred background, as the screen fades to black on a close-up of Nedjma reacting to the atrocity that has just occurred.
Nedjma helps her mother prepare Linda's body for her burial shroud and, having run to a tree to scream during the sparsely attended funeral, she scrubs furiously to remove the bloodstain from the haik, which flutters in the sunlight, as it dries on the washing-line. As she touches the fabric with her lilac-nailed fingers, however, Nedjma gets an idea and she folds and sketches in a rush of inspiration before striding into a field to find some beetroots to dye the haik.
Having persuaded Wassila, Kahina and Samira to model for her at a haik fashion show, Nedjma joins her friends in a game of football on a narrow rain-soaked pavement on the campus. Otherwise, she devotes her entire time to her collection. At an impromptu birthday party thrown for the mouthy Amel (Lina Boudraa). Nadjema bumps into Mehdi again, who agrees to build a catwalk for her show. However, not everything is going so smoothly, as Samira announces that she is three months pregnant and is terrified that her brother will kill her because her fiancé is not the father. Moreover, Nadjema falls out with Popeye, who builds a wall in place of the fence through which she used to sneak out.
Worse follows when a group of hijab-wearing fundamentalists burst into the dorm room while Kahina is modelling a haik and Nedjma has her ablution water tipped over her head for defying the intruders' authority. She goes to the bathhouse, where Samira asks if she can name her daughter after Linda and the friends cling together to remain strong in the face of so much deleterious change.
They are in a more buoyant mood when they go to the beach to plan the running order for the show. Samira refuses to model the wedding dress, but joins her friends in frolicking in the sea in their swimsuits. Nedjema and Wassila also spend time with Mehdi and Karim, who still don't know that they are university students because they think they're uppity. But Nedjema gets into an argument with the latter about how women should dress and, having spent the day at the former's family home by the sea, she refuses his marriage proposal, as she doesn't want to live in France as a kept wife when she has ambitions to fulfil in Algeria.
The day ends on a new low, when Popeye tries to rape Nedjma when he opens the night gate for her and she is only saved when another man hears her screams after she bites Popeye on the hand. When Wassila finds Nedjma slashing into a haik with some scissors, she asks what's wrong and is dismayed when she confesses to having told Mehdi that they are both students. Wassila is afraid she'll lose Kerim and Nedjma lambastes her for having become submissive to her man. She retaliates by trashing her designs and, when Nedjma accuses her of being little more than her shadow, Wassila warns her that she's a nobody who will wind up in trouble unless she realises she has to conform like everybody else.
Wandering through the market, Nedjma is dismayed to discover that her favourite fabric shop has been bought out and now only sells hijabs. The owner asks about the fashion show and reminds her that it's a sin for women to congregate on a Friday. But Nedjma is unrepentant and grabs some of the discarded stock for her gala. However, she is shaken when she sees that the local video store has been bombed and gets back to her room to find that all of her creations have been destroyed. Her tutor, Madame Kamissi (Nadia Kaci), apologises and informs her that she can't support the show because things are becoming too dangerous. Blaming Popeye, Nedjma grabs some scissors and rushes to his post to threaten him. She cuts her hand before being restrained by Samira, Kahina and Wassila, who is sporting a black eye after having been beaten by Kerim.
Back in their room, the girls persuade Nedjma to repair the damage and go ahead with the show. She goes to the canteen to ask Kamissi for permission and she agrees because she has just read a newspaper article in which it's revealed that the bromide that is put into foodstuffs and drinks to suppress women's sexual appetites is poisonous. As they make their preparations, the girls sing and ululate to their hearts' content. They show in the canteen is a noisy triumph, with every new design being cheered to the echo.
Just as Nedjma is about to take her bow, however, the lights go off and masked gunmen burst into the room and open fire. Seeing Kahina slain, Nedjma flees and manages to hide on the staircase, where she realises that the ringleader is the owner of the fabric shop. Alone in her room, with Wassila and Samira, Nedjma tears down her drawings in a screaming frenzy before she has flashbacks to happier times, as the women are escorted off the campus. She moves in with her mother and Samira joins them after she is disowned by her family. They agree to open a boutique and the film ends with Nedjma promising the baby kicking in Samira's womb that they shall dress the women of Algeria together.
Inspired by her own recollections as the teenage daughter of intellectual parents, the intentions behind Meddour's melodrama could not be more laudable. The craft contributions of a picture co-produced by director-husband Xavier Gens, are first also rate, as are historical details such as the posters reading, `Sister, your image is precious to us - take care of it, or we will.'
Léo Lefèvre's camerawork is vibrant and tactile, while editor Damien Keyeux reinforces the sense of juvenile joie de vivre with the brisk cutting that suggests Nedjma and her friends are forever in a whirl. Lyna Khoudri, whose journalist father had to flee to France shortly after the 27 year-old was born in Algiers, reinforces the idea that these are young women with ideas and energy who have no intention of allowing anyone to tell them what to do.
But, seen frequently in soft-focus close-up. Nedjma (the `papicha' or trendy girl of the title) is the only fully fledged character, with the remaining women being undeniably likeable mouthpieces for the socio-political points that Maddour wishes to make, while the males are virtually all caricatures. Nedjma's mother and sister are cases in point. Linda is introduced solely to be murdered, as we get to learn nothing about the reporting that supposedly makes her a target for the extremists. Similarly, the sequence with the haik serves only to draw a contrast between the heroic activities of the haik-wearers opposing the French imperialists and those seeking to impose religious restrictions upon their countrywomen.
Maddour tries to bind Linda into the story by having Samira repeatedly tells Nedjma how proud she would be of her stance. But there's no evidence that they knew each other at all, let alone well, and similar patching of loose ends occurs when Madame Kamissi suddenly assumes great significance in the run-up to the fashion show (with exhibits designed by Catherine Cosme) when nothing had previously been mentioned about the university's attitude to either liberal students or intolerant Islamist insurgents.
Yet, while it's possible to overlook such convolutions, the lurching shift into climactic violence is a major miscalculation, which Maddour follows with a flashback sequence whose mawkishness she compounds by tacking on a feel-good finale, in which Nedjma and the pugnacious, if implausibly pregnant Samira vow to keep fighting fundamentalism with fashion. This is a shame, as is the fact that it's not possible to compare Maddour's promising bow with another debut set during the Black Decade, Amin Sidi-Boumediene's Abou Leila (2019).
THE BOLD, THE CORRUPT AND THE BEAUTIFUL.
Arriving in the UK with a clutch of Golden Horse Awards to its name, Yang Ya-Che's The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful is a canny variation on the gangster scenario that marks a significant departure after the coming-of-agers, Orz Boys (2008) and Girlfriend Boyfriend (aka Gf*Bf, 2012). Having cut his teeth in television. while also scripting for such Taiwanese directors as Yee Chih-yen and Wei Te-sheng, Yang is clearly a talent to watch, although this full-throttle melodrama can't be accused of being overly subtle.
In a TV studio behind a bank of newsroom monitors, an eightysomething blind woman (Yang Hsiu-ching) strums a yueqin and sets the scene for the saga of the Mituo Project with her hatted and suited sidekick, who is bowing an erhu. They will keep popping up in various stylised settings to comment on events and provide recaps of off-screen action.
We are transported into the garden of a large house belonging to Tang Yueh-Ying (Kara Wai), the widow of a high-ranking general who uses her antiques business as a front for her more nefarious activities. Hiding behind a tree, 14 year-old Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen) spies on her addict sister, Ning (Ke-Xi Wu), having vigorous sex with Chung Tuan (Chen Wu-kang) on a hammock. As she looks on, Chen-Chen is summoned by her friend, Pien-Pien (Wen Chen-ling), to pay her respects to her parents, county councillor and bank executive Lin Ching-Tan (Yin Chao-te) and his Japanese wife, Seiko (Mariko Okubo), while Madame Tang strives to reassure him about a land deal involving Speaker Wang (Chiang Ting) and his spouse (Chen Sha-li).
Unfortunately, the Buddhist bodhisattva that they have bought to court favour with Lady Wang has a damaged hand and she is unimpressed by both the reassurance than a broken piece brings peace and the fact that her hosts have laid on a buffet at the lantern-lit lakeside reception held in her honour. Cook Wang Ma (Chung Hsiao-hua) saves the day by serving a sit-down supper. But Lady Wang is even more put out when Don Juan (Ying Wei-min) drunkenly barges into the VIP area and Ning has to lead him away.
The Lins are highly protective of Pien-Pien and are determined to keep her away from Marco (Wu Shu-wei), with whom she canoodles while supposedly out riding with Chen-Chen. But the chorus informs us that they are murdered by burglars, while Pien-Pien is left in a coma. The Director General of the National Police Force (Liu Yue-ti) comes to the southern city of Kaohsiung to investigate with Captain Liao (Jun Fu), who has no time for the machinations of the élite. He identifies Marco as the prime suspect after arguing with Seiko, but Chen-Chen is far from convinced.
Having shown her mother Ning's secret drug stash, Chen-Chen accompanies her mother to visit Pien-Pien and reassures her that Marco is safe, as she is providing him with shelter and food. However, Ning suspects something is going on and scrapes a bullet case across the window of the summerhouse in which he's hiding. Meanwhile, Don Juan's body also turns up and the wife (Moon Wang) of the County Mayor (Lin Chin-ju) confides in Madame Tang that she is starting to feel frightened. However, even her sang froid cracks when Don Juan's widow (Shu Huang) calls to plead with her for help because she is certain that her husband would never have committed suicide.
Watching the sobbing woman grovel on the floor, Chen-Chen recalls Ning schmoozing with Don Juan and trying to bribe him with a bodhisattva. But she doesn't understand what she has witnessed. She did know that Marco and Pien-Pien were dating, however, and she still feels guilty about giving them away when her horse bolted while they were together and Seiko saw through her story. Captain Liao also thinks Chen-Chen knows more than she is letting on and questions her about Pien-Pien's diary and why she was at the railway station at the same time as Marco on the night the Lins were killed. But Ning (who had earlier scoffed at her mother's suggestion that she should cosy up to Liao) arrives on her moped to sweep her sister away before she says anything indiscreet.
Chen-Chen distrusts Ning and gives her the slip to warn Marco. But Ning has a stage-whispered conversation with her mother for the benefit of Chen-Chen and Marco, in which she hints that the latter will be framed for the Lin slayings even if he is innocent. Shortly afterwards, Liao finds the tattooed corpse of Chung Tuan. Moreover, the special prosecutor's assistant (Carolyn Chen) arrests the mayor and his wife, along with Madame Tang.
Desperate to help her mother, Ning throws herself on the mercy of Liao by offering him a cup of a drink brewed from the excrement of the civet cats that live on the beans in an Indonesian coffee plantation. She tells him that everyone was unhappy with the Lins for leaking details of a bank loan linked to the Mitou Project. Moreover, she also lets slip that county speaker Hsu Tien-fa (Wang Wei-liu) lost his temper and blamed Don Juan for the indiscretion and leaves Liao to infer that he had something to do with the massacre. But Liao is more puzzled than ever when evidence emerges that several local dignitaries have dummy bank accounts and Ning refuses to further any information.
Having planted the notion that Madame Tang is innocent, Ning and Chen-Chen wait to see what Pien-Pien has to say when she emerges from her coma. The chorus echoes news reports that Speaker Wang's wife is in serious trouble because of the land deals at Xiashan and on Lishui Island. But Ning is suspicious that her mother has been double dealing and has made a killing on Lishui and they fight, with Ning slapping her mother with a bloodied hand she had cut on a glass. But Madame Tang assures her that she has done nothing wrong and only wants what's best for her girls.
Meanwhile, Chen-Chen is having a nightmare about being teased by Pien-Pien and Marco after she shared the fact that she was lonely and they accused her of spying on her mother and sister with their lovers. Shortly afterwards, Pien-Pien dies without giving Liao any information. But Madame Tang shops Marco and Chen-Chen is dismayed. Ning goes to the market to find Granny Ying the fishmonger (Wu Pi-lien) and overhears her telling grandson Kuei (Yen Wu-lin) that she allowed Madame Tang to set up some dummy accounts in her name. When she hears the news, Madame Tang tells Chen-Chen to get ready for a trip to see relatives in Hong Kong.
Ning realises her mother plans to do a runner, but she is unaware that Liao has just been informed that the syndicate had been using Seiko's bank account to launder money abroad and then stash the clean cash in Ning's account. The special assistant thinks she's got Madame Tang bang to rights and has her brought to a karaoke bar downtown. However, she plugs CCTV footage into the lyric machine to show how Don Juan was in cahoots with members of the prosecuting team and Madame Tang sashays away with a sense of preening satisfaction. Moreover, when Ning threatens to take Chen-Chen away from her, Madame Tang reminds Ning that Chen-Chen is her daughter and urges her to keep her safe.
Handcuffed to Chen-Chen, Ning enlists the help of Yi Tuan (Shih Ming-shuai) to take them to Burma. At the last minute, she decides to let her go and implores her to lead a normal life, as Chen-Chen scrambles across the rocks. Above the howl of the wind, she hears an explosion and turns to see the boat on fire. At the same time, a tearful Madame Tang murmurs a prayer for Ning's spirit to find peace away from the traumas of the mortal world.
Back home, Chen-Chen prepares drinks for her grandmother and Lady Wang. who gives her hostess a jade bracelet and reminds her to keep her reputation spotless, as her husband can't afford to be associated with scandal. Shortly afterwards. Chen-Chen attends Marco's posthumous wedding to Pien-Pien and is taken aback when the black-and-white photo of the bride under the white veil seems to come to life and laugh hysterically.
As the TV announces that Speaker Wang has fallen from grace and that
Party Secretary Feng (Liu Shang-chien) has emerged as the new favourite to be Party Chairman, Madame Tang turns to Feng and thanks the stars that they have been able to find romance at their age. Chen-Chen goes to wave Marco off at the train station, but the announcement of the stops en route suddenly makes her realise that he had killed Pien-Pien's family after all because he had grown tired of being her plaything. She jumps on to the train and follows Marco down the corridor and tries to kiss him. But he turns on her and rapes her in the luggage car and she staggers around in distress and seems to run through the rear door on to the track.
Several years later, Chen-Chen (Ko Chia-Yen) has an artificial leg. She is called to the hospital, where Madame Tang is in a critical condition. As she sits at her bedside, an apple rolls across the floor and Chen-Chen sees her adolescent self watch Pien-Pien die without getting her help and being given a half-smile of approval from her grandmother as they pass in the doorway. The adult Chen-Chen looks into the eyes of the elegant Madame Tang before clasping the hand of the old lady in the bed and exhorting her to live to a thousand years and never leave her alone.
Ending with a caption stating that, `The scariest thing in the world is not a punishment in sight, but a loveless future.' this is a sinuous soap opera that takes a good deal of concentration to follow its endless convolutions and contrivances. Despite giving the impression that Yang is making things up as he goes along, the screenplay is actually based on true events and just about holds things together. But it's tricky to keep track of the various peripheral characters who keep popping up and vanishing before the audience has had chance to register them and fathom how they fit into the shifting mosaic.
Clearly, those with a deeper knowledge of Taiwanese history will be better equipped to appreciate the nuanced references to class, etiquette, politics, culture, artifacts and the delicate art of bribery. But it's readily apparent that Madame Tang is a ruthless operator who will sacrifice anyone who stands in her way. The conniving matriarch is played with refined composure by Hong Kong stalwart Kara Wai, who can switch from an affectionate smile to a chilling glare in the blink of an eye. Her Best Actress win is as wholly deserved as newcomer Vicky Chen's Best Supporting triumph for her thoughtful performance as Chen-Chen, who gradually comes to realise the truth about the women in her family and the secrets they share. Wu Ke-Xi also impresses as the damaged Ning, who has every reason to resent Chen-Chen and the mother who drove her to drink and drugs.
On the craft side, Penny Tsai's production design and Wang Chia-hui's costumes are impeccable, while editor Chen Chun-hung brings pace and punch to Chen Ko-chin's rich cinematography, which plunges the viewer into the heart of a decadent milieu in which deceit and depravity are second nature and love and loyalty are signs of weakness. It hardly makes for an edifying spectacle, but it's entertaining nonetheless.
Keith Thomas has made such a positive impression with his debut feature, The Vigil, that he has been hired to direct a tele-remake of Stephen King's Firestarter, which was first filmed by Mark L. Lester in 1984, with Drew Barrymore in the lead. It's quite a leap to this high-concept scenario from the self-contained story told in this follow up to Thomas's 2017 short, Arkane. But he should prove up to the task, as he has made a solid contribution to the Jewish horror sub-genre that was established over a century ago by Paul Weggener and Henrik Galeen's 1915 version of The Golem. Since Weggener teamed with Carl Boese for a more sophisticated take in 1920, the tale has been revisited by Julien Duvier in 1936 and Doron and Yoav Paz in 2018. But students of the form should also check out Michal Waszynski's The Dybbuk (1937) and such recent examples as Ole Bornedal's Sam Raimi-produced The Possession (2012), the Paz brothers's JeruZalem, Marcin Wrona's Demon (both 2015) and Eben McGarr's Hanukkah (2019).
Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) has been living outside the Hasidic in New York's Borough Park district since suffering a breakdown after failing to protect his younger brother, Burech (Ethan Stone), from some bullies. He attends meetings of a support group and exchanges phone numbers with Sarah (Malky Goldman) when she invites him for coffee. On leaving the meeting, Yakov is approached by Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who has been let down by a shomer and offers Yakov the chance to earn $400 for sitting with the body of Reuben Litvak (Ronald Cohen) to ward off evil spirits during the night. Needing cash for his medication, Yakov agrees and is undaunted when the Reb warns him that Mrs Cohen (Lynn Cohen) is showing signs of dementia.
Having agreed to stay in the house until the undertakers arrive at 5am. Yakov turns his back on the shroud-covered corpse, tunes into some music and surfs some online articles about talking to girls. He is disturbed by a banging noise that seems to be coming from upstairs and jumps when a cockroach scuttles across the carpet. Not entirely convinced he's alone as midnight strikes, Yakov finds an old photograph in Cohen's prayer book and this prompts a nightmare about Burech's death when he drops off to sleep.
Waking with a jolt, Yakov gratefully settles into a text conversation with Sarah. But he becomes disconcerted by the flickering of the table lamps and plunges the sitting room into darkness when he attempts to adjust a bulb. At that moment, he receives a video from an unknown caller showing him slumbering in the chair and having his face stroked by what looks like Mrs Cohen's hand. When he checks his phone, the file has vanished and he is scared witless when he sees a black-clad figure breaking a fingernail by clawing the kitchen floor.
Worried he's having another episode, Yakov leaves a voicemail for Dr Kohlberg (Fred Melamed) and has to apologise to Mrs Cohen for breaking a glass when he thinks he's ingested a slithering creature that he had to reach into his throat to remove. She warns him about the threat posed by memories, as she reveals that she had driven her children away to protect. them. As she shuffles out of the room, Yakov hears a video playing in the basement and sees Mr Litvak explaining on camera how he had been preyed upon by a mazzik demon that only looks backwards since leaving Buchenwald. As he watches, Yakov realises that Mrs Litvak is mouthing the words `behind you' and he only just manages to escape as an entity launches itself at him.
Struggling to hold himself together, Yakov is relieved when Dr Kohlberg returns him call. However, this proves to be the mazzik playing mind games and Yakov is shocked when the real Dr Kohlberg calls him to check on how he's doing. When he puts him on hold, he is appalled to hear Burech's voice blaming him for the fact he ran out in front of a car in trying to evade his tormentors. He wants to leave, but Mrs Cohen confides that the demon needs to feed off his pain and won't let him escape. Sure enough, Yakov is driven back from the empty street and wakes with a start after having relived his sibling's demise once more.
Noticing that Litvak's body has gone, he calls Sarah for some facetime, only for the mazzik to possess her and castigate him for being such a bad brother. Suddenly, Burech's corpse materialises under the sheet and Yakov cradles him, as he tries to apologise for letting him down. The shape vanishes and Yakov mounts the stairs to ask Mrs Litvak for advice. She gives him tefillin and describes how it had brought comfort to the grandfather who had been smuggled out of Kiev during a pogrom. Giving him a candle, she wishes him strength, as he ventures into the corridor. In the darkness, he spots a pinprick of light and realises that the demon has acquired his face. Thrusting the candle forward and reciting an incantation, he causes the mazzik to ignite and perish.
As dawn breaks, Yakov comes downstairs and sees Litvak's body convulsing under its shroud. He places his hand on the cloth and sees the young Reuben being forced to shoot his own sister by an SS officer. As he raises the gun, the mazzik's tentacles close across his chest, but Yakov urges him to forgive himself for a deed that wasn't his fault. Mrs Litvak arrives as her husband finds peace and she thanks Yakov for his courage, as Reb Shulem arrives with the undertakers. Unaware of what has occurred, he encourages Yakov to reconsider his decision. But he is more certain than ever that he needs to make a fresh start and sends Sarah a text about coffee as he walks away.
Executive producer Jason Blum has occasionally been compared to 1940s horror maestro Val Lewton and there's a palpable sense here of the ominous, pervasive dread that made his nine classic tales of terror so chilling. Although Thomas does eventually show the mazzik, he spends more time focusing on Yakov's psychological state, as the strange goings on in the Litvak household force him to come to terms with his own demons. Thomas and editor Brett W. Bachman throw in a few jolts. But, mostly, he relies on Zach Kuperstein's camera peering into the shadows shrouding Liz Toonkel's impeccable interiors, while sound designer Matt Davies and composer Michael Yezerski compete to see who can create the most disconcerting audio accompaniment.
Having caught Thomas's eye in Jameson Brooks's Bomb City (2017), Dave Davis makes an admirably harrowed protagonist, although he over-emotes in the odd close-up. By contrast, stage veteran Lynn Cohen is the model of restraint, as she defies the Reb's throwaway diagnosis by proving to be fully compos where Reuben, Yakov and the mazzik are concerned. Shulem, by the way, is played by Menashe Lustig, who was so splendid in Joshua Z. Weinstein's Yiddish indie, Menashe (2017), which was released in the UK a couple of years ago and is available to view on the excellent UK Jewish Film website.
The most remarkable think about Gints Zilbalodis's debut feature, Away, is that it exists at all. After all, how many other feature-length animations have been produced by just one person? He even composed the score. No wonder it took him almost four years. It wasn't exactly a first attempt, as the 25 year-old Latvian had also produced four shorts. But he cut a few corners along the way and admits to having made it up as he went along. If, at times, it shows, this does nothing to detract from a charming and involving adventure that, ultimately, turns out to be an allegory about its own making.
Having awoken dangling from a parachute that is entangled in the branches of a bare tree, a teenage boy sees a shadowy creature approaching him across the barren wilderness (think the Iron Giant with glossily translucent tar-like skin). Unhooking the harness, he evades the entity's enveloping grasp and runs through the desert - with the monster padding steadily, if unthreateningly behind him - until he reaches the verdant uplands of the Forbidden Oasis.
Turning to see that his pursuer has remained at the circular opening in the rocks, the boy flips up the goggles he's wearing and starts to explore. He finds an old motorbike on a ledge overlooking the sea and wanders inland to find the oasis, as well as a tree bearing delicious fruit. As he swims in the cool water, the youth notices a flightless yellow bird, straining to reach the fruit on the branches that are just out of its reach. Befriending the creature, he passes through what resembles a graveyard, with tall plants towering over rows of black slabs with circles in their middle.
Noting that the creature has remained motionless at the entrance to the glade, the boy finds a rucksack hanging from a branch. In addition to such useful items as a telescope, a knife, some matches and a water bottle, the bag also contains a map that seems to reveal the existence of a port on the far side of the island. Clutching a silver key, he fires up the motorbike and feels like a child when he falls off, with the hulking humanoid looking on. He traces an image of his nemesis in the black earth and wonders how he can ever get past.
After a swim and a night under the stars, the boy tries to master the machine. But he is distracted by a flock of white birds flying overhead, which cause the yellow bird to stray too close to the entrance to the enclave. Seeing his friend in trouble, the boy pushes his way into the moiling shape-shifting mass and nurses the bird back to health. As his companion sleeps, the teenager strolls around the oasis and realises he has no option but to make an escape bid when he finds a skeleton in a cave surrounded by dirt drawings of the colossus.
Gathering provisions and placing the yellow bird in a side pocket of his knapsack, the boy revs up his bike and steers past the shape, which does nothing but turn to watch him go. Naturally, they are followed along a winding road that passes through a series of identical rock arches. But, unlike the eagle that swoops down to snatch a rabbit when they stop for a break, the monster keeps its distance (although it does wrap itself around a deer that had been grazing in a flower-filled field).
Having pulled the yellow bird from a ledge after it watched a lookalike white bird fly off into the sky, the boy dismounts to wheel the bike across a wooden bridge that creaks ominously on its impossibly elongated arches. As he rests, however, he sees the monster through his telescope and rushes to the top of an incline to push a boulder that he hopes will smash the bridge.
A white fox appears and eyes up the yellow bird, which tries to hide in the rucksack, as the youth scrambles down the slope to start pushing the rock towards the edge. Despite the efforts of the white bird to distract it, the fox spot its prey. But, with the entity already on the bridge, the boy is too busy to protect it. In trying to run, the bird flaps its wings and makes an unconvincing takeover. Indeed, it seems to be plummeting down into the gorge with the giant when the white bird flies alongside it and they soar upwards, as the music swells. Relieved to see his companion is safe, the teen picks it up and peers over the precipice into the misty depths.
Riding on, they reach Mirror Lake. Three elephants walk across the frozen surface, as hundreds of white birds are reflected in the ice. Realising it can bear his weight, the boy drives across. But the yellow bird pops out of its pocket to revel in the sensation of flight and gazes down on the dot that the boy and the bike have become from its lofty vantage point.
That night, the child dreams of the plane crash that had left him stranded. As he floats down to earth on his parachute, silhouetted figures resembling his pursuer tumble past him and he is powerless to prevent them free falling to their doom. He wakes with a jolt and, through the flames of his campfire, he thinks he sees the colossus beneath one of the arches. But, even though it's an optical illusion and he tries to drift off, he struggles to sleep because he's missing the bird.
Next day, the boy makes good progress, as he passes through a forest of tall trees. He stops when he sees dozens of black cats sitting beside a geyser and follows them down the spiralling white path after it shoots a jet of water into the air. Kneeling, he drinks with the felines, who take it in turns to lap at the pool before purringly falling asleep on the soft grass amidst some ruined temple buildings beside the Dream Well. Wooden chimes clunk gently in the breeze, as the youth settles down for a nap and dreams of the yellow bird gliding through the clouds in the middle of a white flock.
On waking, he sees a large tortoise trudging towards the geyser. The cats follow it, with one hitching a ride on its shell. They all sit to watch the water spout and the boy follows them down the snail-shell path to fill his water bottle. As the cats snooze, he wheels his bike away and speeds on (with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of fuel) to sleep rough near some fluttering prayer flags. In what appears to be a dream, the yellow bird passes over the bridge and sees the giant climbing the framework. It keeps watch, as the creature reaches the geyser and crouches in a black ball before rising up with the water.
Meanwhile, the youth has come across the wreckage of the plane. As he stares into the sheared fuselage, shadow figures with large white eyes lean out from the seats to peer at him. It starts to rain and he shelters inside the cabin and watches the tortoise plod past. He encounters it again on a steep stretch of road and flips the reptile over when it loses its balance and lands on its shell.
The way ahead proves treacherous, however, as a snowstorm whistles around the road through some high peaks. Forced to push the bike up an incline, the boy collapses in the snow, just as the beast catches up with him. It oozes over him and the somnolent child plunges downwards into a swirling black morass. However, the yellow bird has been following and it dives into the fray and hauls the boy up in its beak, as the contents of his rucksack spill out. Seen from the outside, the black ball pulses and spikes before seeming to explode into nothingness, leaving the boy lying in the snow.
As the tortoise is reunited with his wife and child, the lad comes round and hears the bird chirping. He strokes its beak with his finger before hauling himself to his feet. Through the haze, he sees Cloud Harbor on the horizon and fires up the bike for the last leg of his journey. An avalanches rumbles down the slopes and funnels along the road, as the boy strains to stay ahead of it. The white bird joins its yellow counterpart in flying overhead, as he realises that he has reached a dead end and will have to hurtle off the end of a promontory and trust himself to the sea.
Dropping like a stone, the boy sees the motorbike sinking into the depths. But he pushes to the surface and manages to swim (in what doesn't appear to be particularly cold water) to shore. Removing his goggles, he gazes into the distance and, with the yellow bird fluttering over him, he makes out people coming towards him.
Closing with admirable modesty with a credit reading simply, `A Film By Gints Zilbalodis', this is looks set to become a landmark in the history of animation. It looks magnificent, with Zilbalodis's draughtsmanship being matched only by his technical ingenuity with the Maya programme (complete with its own virtual camera) and the breadth of his imagination. The sequence with the cats and the geyser is an absolute delight and will have ailurophiles everywhere in raptures, while the mournfully wide-eyed expressions on the departed souls inside the plane will haunt many a nightmare.
The spirit of Hayao Miyazaki courses through the action, although the influence of Michael Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle (2016) is also readily apparent. Yet there are lengthy stretches that will give some the impression that they have strayed into a video game. Zilbalodis's use of extended zooms and swooping drone shots reinforces this sense, although he is more than entitled to employ them given the modesty of his resources. Budgetary constraint also makes it possible to excuse the absence of fine detail, such as shadows, and the functional texturing of the human, supernatural and animal characters. But, in a film running only 75 minutes, the surfeit of mid-shots range tracking the bike from the side as it passes sometimes bland and repetitive scenery begins to grate. At other times, however, the landscape is spectacular and mysterious. with the Mirror Lake sequence being the standout.
Keeping the unnamed boy's expressions simple also makes it difficult to identify with him, especially as he doesn't speak and has no interior monologue. His friendship with the yellow bird is sweet, but the creature isn't exactly Tweetie Pie or Woodstock from the Peanuts strips. By contrast, the spectre is fascinating and many debates will be had about whether he is a threat to the youth or a guardian, as it never encroaches upon him when he is safe or content. It could also be a figment of a traumatised imagination and represent either the boy's survivor guilt or his fear of death (or both). Then again, it could be something more symbolic or personal to Zilbalodis. It could also be a bogey man to which we can attach our own particular meaning.
Wherever the truth lies, this marks its maker as an exciting talent and it will be intriguing to see whether he remains a one-man band (his electro-score is splendidly atmospheric, as it flits between anxiety and exhilaration) or whether he will bring in collaborators to share the digital spade work and also, perhaps, sharpen his storytelling. While we wait to find out, could someone release Zilbalodis's four shorts, please: Aqua (2012), Followers, Priorities (both 2014) and Inaudible (2015)?