Parky At the Pictures (8/9/2023)
Updated: Sep 9
(Reviews of Once Upon a Time in Uganda; A Life on the Farm; No More Bets; and Man on the Run)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN UGANDA.
There have been a number of `Once Upon a Time' films since Sergio Leone started the trend with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Among the other place pictures are China (1991) and its four sequels (1992-95), China and America (1997), India (2001), The Midlands (2002), Mexico (2003), Mumbaai (2010), Anatolia (2011), Brooklyn, Queens (both 2013), Hollywood, Venice (both 2017), and London (2019). Joining the list now is Cathryne Czubek's Once Upon a Time in Uganda, which takes us back to East Africa just a week after Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp's Bobi Wine: The People's President.
Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana is better known to his fans as Nabwana I.G.G., the brains behind such no-budget Ugandan action comedies as Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), which was reportedly made for under $200 and has since had over eight million hits on YouTube. In addition to writing and directing, Isaac also runs Ramon Film Productions in the Wakaliga district of Kampala, which has led to his studio being nicknamed `Wakaliwood'.
Video Joker Emmie welcomes us to the neighbourhood, as we see brief clips from Tebaatusasula (2010), Rescue Team (2011), and Crazy World (2014). Enter New York superfan Alan Hofmanis, who flew to Uganda to find Isaac with the aim of bringing his movies to a wider audience. Following a reconstruction of a market chase with a Ramon DVD seller, we meet Isaac, who shows off his skills as a brickmaker while explaining that he had longed to be a film-maker.
As ideas came into his head while he worked, three men behind him break into a fight and Isaac calls `cut' so he can finish his piece to camera. He recalls his brothers telling him about the action films starring Bud Spencer, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, and Sylvester Stallone and he determined as a young boy to make `action in a comedy way'.Wife Harriet Nakasuja Nabawana is now a key part of the team and we see a green screen being attached to a wall in the shanty and Czubek treats us to a montage of Isaac's favourite SFX shots, including his trademark exploding head.
Alan's arrival coincided with the production of Bad Black (2016), which revolved around a white (or `muzungu') bank robber. Old footage shows Isaac giving Alan a tour of his studio and showing him some of the props used in his ingenious homemade effects. He also explains how narrators known as `video jokers' spice up the action with comments and gags and stresses that unless the audience smiles, even at a horror film, he has failed to do his job.
After taking several jobs in the film business, including festival programming, Alan was 42 and had just had a marriage proposal declined when he decamped to Uganda in the hope that working with Isaac could rejuvenate his passion for film. In making Bad Black, they discovered that audiences liked seeing the muzungu get beaten up and he became part of the unit, with the remit to break into the urban market, which had snubbed Wakaliwood to this point.
Raising funds by filming weddings and making music videos and commercials, Isaac often has to improvise when it comes to equipment and props. Dauda Bisaso delights in showing off the guns he has made from wood and metal for outings like Tiger Mafia (in which he also starred). Harriet is equally excited about Ramon promotion days, when they go into surrounding villages to sell DVDs because their films never reach cinemas.
On arriving, Alan thought it would be easy to market Isaac abroad. But he kept running into qualms about the levels of violence and the negative image that Wakaliwood presented. He explains that he's not ready to make a film about his troubled childhood in the wake of Idi Amin's overthrow, but he does have a couple of kids recreate him fleeing for cover from a circling helicopter with his brother Robert, an effect Czubek achieves with a drone.
As life expectancy in this part of the country is 55, Alan is aware that 44 year-old Isaac is at his creative peak. Consequently, he pushes hard to sell the Wakaliwood story abroad and a montage shows PBS sending a crew to meet Isaac and The Wall Street Journal dubbing him `Africa's Tarantino'. He is thrilled with the coverage, which also features Alan crediting himself as Isaac's partner and insisting that he's happier than he's ever been, in spite of the lack of amenities.
After showing his children how images are stored on a roll of film, Isaac forms Waka Starz to give kids kung fu and acting lessons so that they can also join in the fun and build a juvenile audience. However, Alan is frustrated that nobody has offered to invest in future productions like Eaten Alive in Uganda and he starts planning a trip to the West to spread Isaac's story. First, however, he has to be disemboweled by cannibals and we learn that a goat has been sacrificed for the gory effects.
Isaac and Alan consider themselves brothers. But everything suddenly changes after Robert Kabushenga from the Akulira Vision Group offers Isaac the chance to turn Who Killed Captain Alex? into a TV series. Harriet worries that money will change people and Alan feels excluded by the deal and doesn't speak to Isaac for a week. When they finally meet, Isaac explains that the series will make him famous in Uganda and help improve his reputation abroad. However, Alan worries that he will become so absorbed with the project that he won't have the time to travel to America and take what he feels is the real big step.
After four and a half years in Wakaliwood, Alan feels betrayed and decides to leave. Shrugging at his decision, Isaac ploughs on and scores a hit with his show, although it's noticeable that he is tetchier on set than he had been making Ramon movies. Returning to New York to discover his cat has died, Alan moves in with his elderly mother and she is amused to find him in an article on Wakaliwood in the last nude edition of Playboy.
All is not well in Wakaliga, either, as the TV series didn't generate any profits and Harriet is having to make money baking cakes in order to feed the family. Annoyed that the foreign coverage has convinced people he has money, Isaac has to tell the crew and actors like Bukenya Charles, Kazibwe Ronald, Kizza Manisuru Ssejjenba, and Rita Namutebi who have been working for pittances that the dream might be over. Printing t-shirts with the Ramon chopper logo in his mom's apartment, Alan feels equally sad and laments, `We coulda been The Beatles of exploding heads, man,' in comparing the rift to a band breaking up. But he's kept the faith as the international agent and flies to a screening in Kazakhstan. It's sparsely attended, but the response is positive, as it is in Antwerp, Seoul, Barcelona, and Austin, Texas.
When he lands a spot in the Midnight Madness window at the Toronto International Film Festival, Alan returns to Wakaliga to ask Isaac to attend, as the auditorium holds 1200. They joke about Alan's tummy and chortle over footage from Eaten Alive and vow to finish it. Alan looks on from the audience, as Crazy World premieres at TIFF and Kimmie does live narration before Isaac gets a standing ovation after a humble speech. He hopes in the closing voiceover that he's laid the first brick of the Ugandan film industry and that his children and students will ensure that Wakaliwood will live forever.
As the closing crawl provides updates on Isaac's progress - including the ongoing Eaten Alive shoot and a trip to China to make Bruce U - one can only hope that this dogged dreamer gets keep making movies in his own way. He has a Wikipedia page and several of the titles listed can be found online. They are guaranteed to bring a smile to the faces of young and old.
Cathryne Czubek's documentary is more problematic, as it's impossible to avoid the white saviour narrative that surrounds the contribution of Alan Hofmanis (whose Wakaliwood screen credit includes the name `Ssali'). The pair are clearly aware of the situation and strive to keep the primary focus on Isaac, his self-taught technique, and his hopes for turning a personal obsession into something that can bring about a greater good. Czubek even borrows Isaac's approach in seeking to blur the lines between Alan's muzungu role and his own ambitions to secure recognition for a unique artist. One doesn't spend over four years in a place like Wakaliga unless one's motives are sincere and the brotherly bond between the duo feels genuine (which makes their breach all the more poignant). Yet, even though the emotion Isaac feels on the stage in Toronto is overwhelming, it's still tinged with the realisation that he's only there because of a white guy from Long Island. Which is sad because he put in a lot of effort, affection, and flight time to put his friend in the spotlight.
Editing tautly with co-writer Amanda Hughes, Czubek might have devoted more time to Isaac's life outside film and his role in raising a large family with the indomitable Harriet, who comes across as Wakaliwood's Barbie Kyagulanyi. It might also have been interesting to hear her take on Alan's role in Ramon and the feud, while also showing more of the American's everyday interaction with the locals to make him seem less like a great white hope. But don't let the woke hand-wringing put you off. This is a feel-good story with a less of a happy ending than a hopeful new beginning.
A LIFE ON THE FARM.
Eleven years after he died, Charles Carson won Clip of the Year at the 2019 Found Footage Festival. As his grandfather had lived close to Coombe End Farm in the Somerset village of Huish Champflower, Oscar Harding had been shown the unusual VHS tape that Carson had left behind when he was 10 years old. It clearly left a marked impression, as he's now revisited this unique audiovisual memoir and bolstered its meagre and often macabre footage with some talking-head contributions to produce, A Life on the Farm.
Things don't get off to an auspicious start, as the woefully misjudged preamble makes each guest sound unbearably smug and reduces Charles Carson to a yokel curio. One speaker is even heard comparing him to psychopath Ed Gein. However, things settle down as Oscar Harding's father, Gavin, recalls how parents John and Trish had moved to the village and been entrusted with a copy of Life on the Farm. It had gone missing for a while after the couple passed on, but Harding's aunt rediscovered it and the memories came flooding back.
We are allowed to see a snippet. But, rather than let it play, Harding keeps cutting away to mocking remarks by a gaggle of experts, who come across as smugly superior, even though they'll all eventually claim Carson to be a unique talent. They note his different kinds of chuckles, the frequency with which horses steal his hat, and the amount of calf birth footage he has included. After Sooty delivers twins, Carson shows the placenta in close-up. He explains that his parents, Stan and Millie, had run the farm and dined daily on beef before dying at the respective ages of 89 and 94.
Harding pops up to opine that this quotidian agricultural stuff is all very sweet. But the clip of Carson talking to a dead cat named Pandy beside the kitchen fire takes things in a darker direction, especially when he puts a poppy round its neck prior to taking it into the orchard for burial. He holds the six year-old up to the camera and laments that it scarcely looks dead (when it very much does) before putting some cat meat down on top of the grave so the surviving duo can pay their respects (with one running down his back from the tree shading Pandy's resting place).
The talking-heads can't decide if this is cute, funny, or creepy. So, Harding proffers a photo album of shots showing Carson pushing his dead mother around in a wheelchair so that the animals could bid their farewells. The commentary is accompanied by `There's No One Quite Like Grandma' by the St Winifred's School Choir and Found Footage Festival founders Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher declare the song to be creepy and its use over such images to be Scorsesean.
Harding remembers that his father had turned off the tape at this point when he had first watched it. Rev Chris Marshall recalls giving her a blessing in her kitchen chair in June 1994, while neighbour Wilfred Evans reminisces about seeing them out together and commenting upon how ill Millie looked, only to be told that she was dead. Cousin Charlie Norman divulges that Carson had pushed his mother around the farmyard for three days before letting her go. Neighour John Ridgley admits being surprised to learn he'd passed a corpse in the field, while Harding shows us snapshots of Carson with his dying father that have been supplemented by speech bubbles. Some wiseacres pop up to scoff, but Marshall insists that people have to deal with a bereavement in their own way.
Barely able to suppress his glee at what he's just disclosed, Harding vows to find out more about Carson and his film. An audio clip about Millie buying Coombe End in 1943 is backed up by friend Reg Hendy, who recalls making deliveries with Carson when he was a boy. However, he didn't stay on the farm and Jeremy White remembers teaching alongside him at Kirkley Hall Agricultural College near Newcastle, where he worked from 1955-86. When his parents started to ail, however, he returned to run the farm.
Psychologist Ciaran Mulholland posits that a combination of isolation and pressure might have told on Carson, whose wife and three children didn't accompany him back to Somerset. Neighbour Denise Broom recalls feeling there was something otherworldly about Coombe End and Norman concurs in the case of brother Frank Carson, who had a breakdown and was so bulky that Charles buried him in the garden because they couldn't find a coffin big enough.
A 1925 picture shows Stan in his naval uniform and he cuts quite a dash compared to the frail, cancer-ridden soul in his son's deathbed photos. Neighbours Peter and Valerie Shaw note that Millie taught at the local school and that Charles was a bright man, who shared his mother's gift for playing numerous musical instruments. Davy Rothbart from Found Magazine suggests it must have been hard to adjust to normality after having spent so long trying to make life bearable for suffering loved ones, including his brother.
Poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch can understand why Carson made the pallbearers pause while lowering the coffin so he could get a different angle for his home movie. Broom and Mulholland suggest that Carson's insistence on sitting on the graveside mound to play `All Things Bright and Beautiful' on his harmonica was the first sign of his incipient illness. But Lynch feels he was entitled to deal with grief in his own way and we see Carson singing his own lyrics to the hymn before a roaring fire. No mention is made of his children, however, which raises many questions in itself.
Harding turns to the subject of Carson's wife, Helen, who is shown discussing a Christmas cake in a homely fireside clip. She only visited at weekends and Carson clearly doted on her. However, she died suddenly at the age of 57 and he was left alone in 1995. The shot of him beside her hospital bed and coffin are deeply poignant. But they also have a quirkiness that is clearly Carson's signature style and Mitchell is right to aver that there is something Pythonesque about them.
Rothbart is also spot on in stating that art should not be the preserve of self-proclaimed exponents and he celebrates the surreal elements of his films and photographs. However, Mulholland wonders whether they were a manifestation of the thoughts raging inside his head. Broom recalls that Carson often dropped off new cassettes and asked questions about them to ensure they'd been watched all the way through. He also tailored cuts for his neighbours and Harding speculates that his grandfather kept his copy because it showed Trish in her last week as the district nurse.
Mulholland notes the references to the circle of life in Carson's work and Lynch and Rothbart muse on his reverential attitude towards memorialising the dead. They all agree that his films seek to reassure viewers about the things they will encounter on their journey. But comments from neighbours about his gradually becoming more eccentric and reclusive lead are the cue for some patronising speculations about what Carson might have been going through as he wandered round with his trousers undone and whether he was in his own little world or was filming to impose a modicum of control over a life that was outwardly falling apart.
Broom declares that Carson eventually withdrew to the extent that no one knew he had left the farm (which doesn't say much for the quality of neighbourliness in this corner of the county). A tacky montage suggesting the deterioration of his mental state ensues, cut to an instrumental progression similar to those used in the Beatle track, `A Day in the Life'. It's followed by magic hour shots and a glimpse of Carson's headstone. A clip rounds off the segment of Carson handwriting a sign reading `The End' and dedicating his tape to his much-missed Helen.
The screen goes black. But Harding has another surprise up his sleeve, as Carson's video continues with a taped extract from a TV show called Family Affairs, in which Koo Stark declares him to be the winner of a photography competition. Broom reveals that he was enormously proud of his triumph and of having his pictures exhibited at The Barbican Art Gallery. Stark appears to recall the event, which was staged during the United Nations Year of the Family, and attest to the invitational nature of Carson's pictures and his ability to entertain and educate.
In assessing Carson's legacy, Harding recalls discovering an online version of Life on the Farm that was better than his own. We see clips of animals gallivanting with cardboard skeletons on their backs and Carson falling off his homemade sit-upon lawnmower. Ridgely recalls the cut-outs driving the tractor and smiles at the thought of Carson wearing a policeman's hat in a short story about a man falling off his lawnmower and his skeleton being found beside it.
It's agreed that the in-camera effects and editing of this skit are pretty accomplished for an amateur. But Harding wants to know where the clips had come from and meets Jake Day-Williams and Robert Hull, who had been the deputy editors of Camcorder User Magazine in the late 1990s when Carson had submitted an entry to the British Amateur Video Awards. A clip shows him dancing in a kilt playing a strimmer as though it was an instrument, while another has a skeleton operating a two-man saw to demonstrate a post-Christmas weight loss regime. Shots with his beloved cats and chickens are simply joyous and they became cult viewing for the magazine's staff to the point that catchphrases were coined.
In summation, Harding notes that the videos also have an historical value as a record of a passing way of life. But he swerves off again to cover the brouhaha surrounding Carson's discovery by the found footage community. His work is even compared to the classic Maysles documentary, Grey Gardens (1975), while he's likened to Vincent Van Gogh in being appreciated after his time. The eulogies and ponderings about how Carson might feel about his posthumous fame are well meant, but they strike the wrong note. Day-Williams has it right, when he recognises how his attitude to Life on the Farm has changed as he has grown older. Perhaps that's why Harding's film is so infuriating, as it seems to stumble around before latching on to what's important and doesn't take the trouble to go back and undo the false start.
Harding hamstrings himself by trying to be all head-boyishly dutiful to Carson's friends and family before sneaking off to the back of the class with the naughty kids to poke fun and snigger. It's not a good look and Pickett and Prueher, Canadian comedian Derrick Beckles, the Everything Is Terrible trio of Dimitri Simakis, Lehr Beidelscheis, and Nic Maier, and Karen Kilgariff, the presenter of My Favorite Murder, need to ask themselves just how big and clever it really was to ridicule the outsider efforts of an old man with mental health issues in the opening section.
All row back in the later stages in attempting profound observations about Carson's situation and condition. But the damage has been done and many will regret that a wonderful discovery has been treated in such a cavalier manner. Debunking the `dark but friendly dark' material before it's been seen or contextualised is a grave error and Harding might have been better off opting for a double bill along the lines of Otto Baxter: Not a Fucking Horror Story and The Puppet Asylum.
The final drone shot rising up from Carson's grave to give him one last look at his familiar terrain is touching. But his death details are fudged to obfuscation, which is frustrating given the centrality of good send-offs to his work. Perhaps someone with more directorial experience than two shorts entitled The Zombies (2005) and 28 Daves Later (2009) might have done a more sensitivity job, as there's a truly affecting study of societal change, rural ennui, and one man's long and winding road to be made from what can only be considered a treasure trove. Sorry to be so grumpy, but this could have been really special and it's anything but.
NO MORE BETS.
A Sixth Generation graduate of the famous Beijing Film Academy, Shen Ao had to wait a decade between completing his award-winning short, The Opposite Shore (2009), and making his feature debut with My Dear Liar (2019). He has since teamed with Bao Bei'er and Lu Zhengyu on Our New Life (2020), but the earlier film's theme of online conspiracy has clearly continued to occupy Shan's thoughts, as he widens his scope from a small-time insurance fraud to a major international scamming operation in No More Bets.
Passed over for a big promotion, Sheng Pan (Zhang Yixing) quits his job to work for a Singaporean gaming company called Firefly. On the plane, recruitment agent Cai (Sunny Sun) arranges for the newcomers to party with some pretty girls. But they are press-ganged in a backstreet and bundled into a bus that takes them to compound in the middle of nowhere, where they receive another clubbing before being introduced to boss, Mr Lu Bingkun (Wang Chuan-jun).
He gives them a guided tour of the facility, where floors of workers are devoted to hacking, embezzling, and catfishing, while a casino is filled with glamorous female croupiers whose job is to lure punters into spending beyond their limits. One dealer, Anna Liang (Gina Chen Jin), catches Pan's eye and gives him a sympathetic glance when he is pushed to the floor and threatened at gunpoint by Cai after informing Lu that he wants to leave. Having been shown the rat-infested lock-up dormitory, where mats are crowded together on the floor, Pan vows to escape after being forced with a blade at his eyeball to send a reassuring text to his mother.
Having been coerced into hacking into accounts and procuring information, Pan scribbles down some notes on a piece of card in the hope of dropping it out of a washroom window. But he falls and breaks a urinal and is lying on the tiles when Anna emerges from a stall. She has also had her passport and phone confiscated, but has been told she will be freed when she reaches a target of three trillion. As Pan barricades them in the room, she thinks back to her life as a model before she was lured into this nightmare by Cai and her best friend.
Meanwhile, back in China, student Gu Tianzhi (Darren Wang) becomes hooked on Anna and is duped by an early winning streak at her card table into getting into debt. Girlfriend Song Yu (Zhou Ye) is worried about him, but he reassures her that he knows what he's doing. When he loses a fortune, thugs break into the apartment belonging to his parents (Sheren Tang and Lam Wai) and throw their cat off the balcony in order to intimidate them.
Given money by his father to meet some of the debt, Tian asks Song to place a bet on a football match. He wins big, but she reveals that she didn't send the bet and he resorts to stealing his grandmother's jewellery in order to keep gambling. Desperate to redeem himself, Tian threatens to cut his wrist unless his mother gives him the combination to the family safe. He takes documents to use as collateral and Lu carefully co-ordinates Pan and Anna to reel him in. His efforts to raise cash cause a flutter in banking circles and this profits Firefly to the tune of 60 million.
Realising what he's done, Tian throws himself off a balcony, as Song and his parents watch helplessly. As his body is taken away, Lu leads his minions in a wild celebration that includes food and fireworks and a game to pick up banknotes with a single chopstick. Only Anna and Pan feel any sense of remorse, but they're not allowed to discuss events, as Lu summons Anna to his office. He proposes marriage and tries to force himself upon her, but Pan interrupts to tell Lu about a scheme that could rake in untold sums and he falls for it.
Pan is moved into better quarters and starts tutoring Lu's daughter. Finding a pen, he scribbles a phone number on a banknote, which Anna tries to give as a tip when they the best scammers are taken to town for a treat. When she drops it, Pan picks it up before Lu notices and later hands it to one of the hustlers who has been allowed to leave. On the bus dropping them off, Cai needs money for cigarettes and the shopgirl draws his attention to the writing after he confiscates the note.
Lu has the man beaten and assembles the staff in the card room. He demands to know who the whistleblower is and Pan and Anna own up at the same time. Cai prises off one of her fingernails, while Lu makes one of Pan's friends hit him between the legs with a baseball bat. Having shot the innocent note carrier, Lu orders everyone back to work.
On the bus back to the dorms, Anna jumps out of a window and escapes into the backstreets. She staggers into the wrong police station, as they are in Firefly's pay, and Cai has her tied in a weighted sack and tossed into the dock. Just as she thinks she's doomed, Anna is winched to the surface and finds herself on the deck of a boat. Cai tosses her passport in a plastic bag and waves her goodbye before presenting Lu with phone footage of her `demise', which he shows to a crushed Pan.
Back in China, Zhao bumps into Song and is saddened to hear of Tian's plight. She reassures her that the football bet would never have been paid out, even if she'd placed it and offers her a lift home. Someone puts a card for an online casino in Zhao's window and Song recognises Anna's picture from Tian's phone. The card gang's hideout is raided and Anna's identity established through online images. She's captured while visiting her mother and taken to see Tian in a coma by Song, who pleads with her to help bring the gang to justice.
Acting on Anna's confession, Zhao flies to the Firefly stronghold and conducts a raid. But Lu has flown and Zhao is lucky to escape after her vehicle is attacked in the town by a mob resentful of outside interference. She is about to give in when Pan manages to send a coded message that is picked up by the police. Pan also starts a fire using shuttlecocks from the gymnasium in which Lu is hiding out and the cops follow the tenders. Fearing for himself, Cai stabs Lu with some scissors and flees, leaving Lu to order the smashing of all incriminating laptops before he entrusts his daughter to Pan, who promises to deliver her to her mother.
As Zhao and the local cops burst in, Cai is shot and Pan forces Lu to hand over his phone to prevent him from blocking the backdoor connection to the evidence he has been storing away. Waiting in a van, Anna sees Pan being led away and Zhao promises to go easy with him if he testifies because he has also been a victim. The film ends, as it began, with Zhao giving a lecture extolling the virtues of Chinese security policing. She concludes by bringing Pan and Anna together again and they smile demurely.
A huge hit in China, this paean to the Party's long reach feels like one of those Cecil B. DeMille cautionary tales in which he gleefully depicted sin and debauchery before morally meting out punishment. Shen Ao makes sure everyone knows that the crimes are being committed away from Mainland China and that the victims are ordinary citizens who are being preyed upon by wicked foreigners. He also suggests that the authorities in places like Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia are not as committed to stamping out such scams as their Chinese counterparts.
As with all the best propaganda, the message is left to moil while the audience is focussing on the storyline. They won't be overly concerned by whopping contrivances like Cai just happening to have Anna's passport on his person on the night she impulsively elects to make her escape or the fact that a maths lesson leads to the cracking of Pan's coded texts. But they will note the slickness of He Wenqiang's photography, Mu Lin and Anran Li's production design, and the editing of Xiaolin Zhou, who neatly intercuts shots of the musical score and the instruments playing it to convey Tian's anxiety as he awaits the turn of a card. Shen is clearly fond of the stylised montage both to convey information and suggest atmosphere. He also keeps the action moving by trusting viewers to follow the various flashbacks and parallel cutaways without having to pause and explain them.
Brevity never seems to be an option, but Shen allows Wang Chuan-jun (aka Eric Wang) and Sunny Sun to be more than mere cookie-cutter villains. Moreover, Zhang Yixing and Gina Chen Jin display plenty of pluck and poise as the goodies. Comparisons to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) are wide of the mark. But Shen does enough to suggest he has the makings of a decent film-maker, if he can find his own voice rather than be a mouthpiece.
MAN ON THE RUN.
It's a busy week for Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). In addition to being mentioned by several critics in relation to Shen Ao's No More Bets, it also finds itself in the spotlight in Cassius Michael Kim's Man on the Run. The documentary is primarily concerned with those involved in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, which was described in 2016 as `the largest kleptocracy case to date' by the US Department of Justice. However, it also establishes connections with the Oscar-nominated black comedy that might even make Jordan Belfort blush.
An opening caption identifies the eponymous fugitive as Low Taek Jho, who stole upwards of $5 billion from 1MDB between 2009-18, with the assistance of an international consortium of bankers, lawyers, accountants, politicians, and celebrities. Kim and some excitable talking heads then dive in to divulge that Jho Low liked hanging round with such famous faces as Robert De Niro, Jamie Foxx, Kanyé West, Benecio Del Toro, Michael Phelps, and Bradley Cooper, although we learn that Leonardo DiCaprio, Megan Fox, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian came with a price tag. Britney Spears was even reported to have been paid $1 million to pop out of a birthday cake.
In Penang, we learn about Jho Low's Harrovian education and his love of The Count of Monte Cristo (with someone sniping that he saw the film rather than read the book). Interviewees disagree about his intelligence, but concur that he spotted a gift horse when he got to know Riza Aziz in London and was introduced to his stepfather, Malaysian Defence Minister Dato Sri Najib Razak, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.
As the son of Malaysian's second Prime Minister, Najib was born into privilege (`the Kennedys of Malaysia') and seemed destined for high office. He established 1MDB in 2009 as a sovereign wealth fund to finance investment in his country and alleviate its widespread poverty. Unlike its equivalents in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, however, 1MDB sought to raise funds by acquiring debts. As it operated behind a veil of secrecy, it was impossible to know what it was doing and local media outlets soon became suspicious.
While Najib gave himself senior roles in 1MDB, Jho Low had no official status to limit his sphere of operations. He forged a liaison with Abu Dhabi's Yousef Al Otaiba, who introduced him to deal makers and received a `commission' in return. Aware of the need to tread carefully, investigative reporters like Ryan Grim of The Intercept and Clare Rewcastle Brown of The Sarawak Report became aware of Aziz and Jho Low's involvement with The Wolf of Wall Street. They formed Red Granite with former Paris Hilton insider Joey McFarland and this prompted Rewcastle Brown to ask awkward questions about the origins of the film's funding.
This led to a political uproar, which intensified after Rewcastle Brown flew to Bangkok to meet whistleblower Xavier Justo, a former director of PetroSaudi in London. He tells us that the company had two masterminds, co-founder Tarek Obaid and director of investments, Patrick Mahony. They offered oil concessions in Turkmenistan and Argentina to forge a deal with 1MDB and Rewcastle Brown was eager to introduce Justo to Ho Kay Tat, the publisher of The Edge, who could afford to buy the story.
They met on the day opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed on a trumped-up charge and Justo told them about a $700 million transfer to Good Star Limited, which was a shell company owned by Jho Low. It was at this point that Andrea Vella, the co-head of Goldman Sachs Investment Banking in Asia began to take notice. Former analyst George Jabbour recalls losing his job after warning Vella of a $1.2 billion Libyan deal that went belly up. But Vella remained in post and hooked up with Tim Leissner, the former managing director and chairman of Goldman Sachs in South-East Asia, who claimed a doctorate that turned out to be bogus.
Leissner paired up with Roger Ng in a bid to impress Jho Low. A caption reminds us of the $5.06 billion fine that Goldman had to pay after the 2008 financial crisis for `serious misconduct' in assuring investors that securities it sold were backed by sound mortgages. But no one lost their job and Goldman sought to make inroads into Asia as a new source of income. It issued bonds to the tune of $6.5 billion with 1MDB in order to fund infrastructure projects in Malaysia and took a 10% profit to the tune of $600 million. According to Kim's assembled experts, such a cut would certainly have come to the attention of the bank's hierarchy and this makes the resulting scandal all the more appalling.
Malaysian American Charles O'Neal and fellow FBI legal attaché David Smith became suspicious about the 1MDB transactions. In June 2015, Rewcastle Brown learned that Najib had banked $681 million after the third Goldman bond issue. This was when Wall Street Journal reporter Bradley Hope latched on to the story and it went global, adding fuel to the Bersih protests that were already going on in Kuala Lumpur. When Najib claimed the sum had been a gift from a Saudi prince, open season was declared, with the FBI in full compliance as part of the fraud had taken place on US soil.
Special Malaysian taskforces were set up to investigate and an arrest warrant was issued for Najib. However, when Rewcastle Brown published it, the taskforce offices were raided and The Edge was suspended shortly after the attorney general was fired. A few days later, the ADG who had drawn up the warrant was murdered. In Thailand, Justo was arrested and spent 547 days in jail with threats hanging over his family unless he confessed to stealing the PetroSaudi data, thus making it inadmissible in court. Frightened, he signed the papers and his testimony came to count for nothing.
Kim's focus now turns back to Jho Low and how he had created a myth that he was the secret heir to a billionaire in order to explain his sudden wealth. His playboy lifestyle, however, was becoming a concern to his partners, who advised him to take a lower profile to avoid attracting prying eyes. They were dismayed when their lawyers informed them that the DOJ had the right to investigate 1MDB. Moreover, O'Neal and Smith had refused to buckle after the Night of the Long Knives and kept up a covert investigation that was known to Abu Kassim Mohamed, the commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. However, they had started to feel as though they were running out of road when the DOJ filed a civil complaint against 1MDB on 20 July 2016.
The legal papers included items like Jho Low spending $600,000 on Marlon Brando's lost Oscar as a birthday present for Leonardo DiCaprio and $8 million of pink diamonds as a Valentine gift for Miranda Kerr, who also received a clear-acrylic grand piano (which couldn't be removed from her residence). Another $500 million was spent on Rosmah's diamonds and indulgences, hence former MP Tony Pua calling her on camera, `the most vain, narcissistic, greedy and corrupt wife of a prime minister or sitting ruler of any country around the world'.
As Jho Low possessed a yacht called `The Equanimity' that is capable of ice breaking, it was rumoured that he had retreated to the Arctic Circle, as Najib's Barison Nacional party prepared to brazen it out and fight the 2018 election, as though there was nothing to worry about. However, Syed Saddiq of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance recalled a changed mindset in support of Mahathir bin Mohamad, with former rival Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy. Two months after victory, Najib was arrested in July and found guilty of corruption in June 2020 (although he retained his liberty to appeal by posting bail).
In April 2022, Kim interviewed Najib and he put the blame on Jho Low, insisting that he knew nothing about funding films - although a phone recording of a conversation with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed from 26 July 2016 suggests differently. Najib also denies knowledge of the Goldman fees on the bond issues and continues to claim the $681 million came from the late Saudi king, Abdullah, who admired the way Malaysia was run.
Accusing Jho Low of being manipulative and the system of failing him, Najib portrays himself as a trusting victim. He also wants to know why he alone has been prosecuted and those along the chain have not. Rewcastle Brown deems him shameless. But the wheels were still in motion and Goldman Sachs and its Malaysian subsidiary were ordered to pay $2.9 billion for its role in the affair in October 2020. A recording of Managing Director David Solomon's apology-cum-excuse/justification is played. Only Roger Ng stood trial, as Leissner sang and dropped Ng and Otaiba (by now the UAE Ambassador to the USA) in the mire. Captions note that Jho Low transferred over $200 million from 1MDB and Goldman bond deals into accounts controlled by Leissner, yet he testified that Ng received $80 million as payment for his part in the scheme.
The screen fills with the logos of companies who benefitted from the scam, but were never held accountable. Rewcastle Brown declares this doubly damnable, as not only have the financial institutions proved themselves weak, but the dirty money is now being used to shape policy in Britain, Europe, and America. We hear details of Jho Low's connection to Barack Obama, as we learn how the Malaysian people will ultimately pay for the swindle, as their lives won't improve while they are burdened by an $11 billion debt obligation from the 1MDB episode.
Things were not helped by the collapse of the coalition in October 2020 and the shift in feeling towards Najib. However, he was jailed for 12 years shortly after Kim's interview for abuse of power, money laundering, and criminal breach of trust. Rosmah received 10 years and a $216 million fine for soliciting bribes, although she remains free while her appeal continues. In December 2022, Anwar became prime minister and vowed to give all citizens a stake in the country. But Jho Low remains at large and can't be tried in absentia. He is believed to be in China, but the fight to bring him home and face trial for killing Malaysian democracy goes on.
Closing images reveal that the Hollywood elite refused to respond to requests to appear in the film, while Pras Michel of The Fugees (who isn't mentioned in the film) cancelled before the interview and has since been found guilty of 10 counts of fraud - a caption states. Yet, there's no mention of the fact that DiCaprio handed over the On the Waterfront Oscar, along with Pablo Picasso's `Still Life With Bull's Head', which he had also received as a gift.
Such selectivity doesn't undermine the validity and integrity of this compelling documentary, but it leaves a question hanging. As do the gossipy opening salvos of entertainment journalist Sharon Carpenter and former UK Weekly editor-in-chief Jennifer Peros and the overuse of clumsily grotesque caricatures of the leading players in this sordid drama. The sluggish wrapping up of the story, with O'Neal and Smith wishing good things for Malaysia, also has a whiff of US saviourhood about it.
However, the case needs bringing to wider attention and Kim examines it with cogency and restraint, while also averring that it does not stand in isolation. He is excellently served by editors Jon Connor and Karl Dawson, while cinematographer Joe Simon capably captures the contrasts in Kuala Lumpur that make the 1MDB theft so much more outraging.
In addition to those already mentioned, there are also thoughtful contributions from Woo Lee, the deputy chief of the DOJ Money Laundering & Asset Recovery Section; DOJ trial attorney Kyle Freeny; former US Ambassador John Malott; museum curator A.K. Khoo; Tommy Thomas, the former Attorney General of Malaysia; Patricia Hurtado, federal courts reporter for Bloomberg News; John Fullerton, former managing director of J.P. Morgan; Akbar Ahmed, senior foreign affairs reporter for Huffington Post; and Bill McMurray, a retired special agent from the FBI's International Corruption Squad.