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Limi girl: part 4

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Canto: In the next scene, Heigo returns home to find Shugio helping his mother with some chores, and accuses her of sucking up. She cheerfully acknowledges the fact, and mocks his sense of outrage. Heigo tells her he hates her, Shugio says she likes him. When Heigo’s mother sees them disputing, Shugio makes light of it. Next, we see Xiumei selling her collected fleece-flower and gentian, while Heigo dolefully watches her.

Jacinta: We might say ‘stalking’, but it seems a mite unfair in the context. She’s travelling through the rugged neighbourhood with her laden donkey, he’s following at a distance. Then, while fording a stream, she drops her bag in the water. Heigo to the rescue! They both chase the bag downstream, but Heigo gets to it first. Xiumei has no option but to be grateful, and she lets him accompany her…

Canto: It doesn’t really look like a reconciliation. They arrive at a kind of trading post, with young women exchanging goods for money. I think Shugio’s one of them. Abuse and admonitions rain down on Xiumei and ‘Shugio’s Heigo’ for being shamefully together. Xiumei is tearfully mad… She arrives home in a fury, having apparently shaken off her wannabe lover.

Jacinta: Her parents, sitting together husking corn, see something’s up. Her mother goes to her, and Xiumei just bawls in her arms. But soon after, she’s back at work, sorting out her baskets of herbs and roots, while her father watches from behind, at a loss as to how to help his daughter.

Canto: And in the next scene the father is visiting a school. We find that he’s asked her former teacher to come and talk to Xiumei. So the teacher comes to her home, expresses sorrow that things haven’t worked out for her, and offers her work as a substitute teacher. But she declines, she wants to pass the exam and leave her village once more. ‘It’s not easy for you or your father,’ he says, but she’s determined, though apologetic, even fearful.

Jacinta: So our brave heroine is next seen on the hills, dancing with young Gaidi, finding reasons to be cheerful, but of course Heigo is lurking. He approaches them, and Xiumei tells him the good news that her old teacher has promised to help her with a student loan if she passes her exam. Heigo looks none too happy about this, but Gaidi invites him to dance.

Canto: And surprise surprise, there they are innocently dancing when who should happen along but Shugio…

Jacinta: Some cinematic conventions are inevitable. Ahhh, but it turns out not to be Shugio… these village girls look much the same in their native costume. It’s another village girl who then hurries back to tell Shugio that ‘her’ Heigo is dancing and hugging with Xiumei – something of an exaggeration. Shugio jumps on her motorbike…

Canto: So it’s her motorbike after all. At least we’ve sorted one thing out…

Jacinta: But it won’t start. So she heads off on foot. She finds the three of them dancing together, and tries to separate them, talking of shamelessness, which naturally riles Xiumei. ‘Who do you think you are?’ yells Heigo. ‘I’m your fiancée,’ is Shugio’s tearful reply, (so goes the translation, though I suspect the romantic French word doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe betrothed?). Heigo looks put-upon and unimpressed, Xiumei, doesn’t want to know, and Shugio just runs off. It’s becoming tragic.

Canto: Not to mention claustrophobic. In the next scene we see Xiumei’s father, feeding the donkey, and Shugio turns up – presumably straight from the dancing altercation, saying ‘Uncle’. So they’re all a bit close for comfort. He invites her to come inside, and that’s where the scene ends. We can imagine… And so in the next scene Heigo is sitting having a drink with a friend, in the dark, under a full moon. ‘Wumulong is so beautiful’, says the friend, and I think he’s talking about their village. Heigo says, everyone wants to leave, and then they come back, then they want to leave again… He’s talking about the younger gen, no doubt. His friend (or is it his cousin), though, gives him no comfort, saying it’s natural for people to miss their homes. Heigo goes on, speaking about why people leave, but his friend keeps bringing him back home, to the right place, to belonging.

Jacinta: Outside of this dark circle of conversation is a young child, and, presumably, a wife, his friend’s wife. The woman, barely seen, is saying ‘go back to sleep’, but the child says no, no, no, no, louder and louder, and the defiant sound rings in Heigo’s defiant ears. It’s a nicely-caught moment from the director. I like this director.

Canto: The talk turns to Xiumei and Shugio, and again Heigo’s advised, in spite of his feelings, to stick with Shugio as ‘your daily necessity. You’ll understand in the future’. The whole scene emphasises Heigo’s isolation.

Jacinta: We next find Heigo arriving at Xiumei’s place – it’s quite confusing who lives where in this film, and their actual kin relations! Xiumei has locked herself in, and her mother is trying to interest her in some dinner. Heigo addresses Xiumei’s mother as ‘aunty’, and she tells Heigo that, after Shugio’s visit in which she told ‘everything’!?, Xiumei’s father scolded her (Xiumei). Heigo tries to communicate with Xiumei, but gets nowhere, and then her father asks to talk to him. Clearly this isn’t going to turn out well for poor Heigo.

Canto: Yes so Heigo has to endure the expected. Family reputation is the most important thing for Limi people, the elder says, and one day Xiumei, too, will marry (assuming of course that Heigo must marry Shugio). So, the elder says, if you really feel for Xiumei, you must simply help her towards a bright future.

Jacinta: Though what about Heigo’s future, forced to marry someone he doesn’t love? But Heigo, who is generally respectful to his elders – apart maybe from his mother – says that he understands, and the conversation ends. Has he really given up on Xiumei? As for that ‘family reputation’ thing, it makes me think of honour killings and the like. But this is how marriage was in other times, and is in other places…

Canto: And the elder’s statement that Xiumei too will marry, as if it’s the family’s decision, not hers, that’s kind of chilling to a western viewer. In the next scene, the wedding is being arranged by the adults, with Shugio present. The snare is tightening. And we learn in this conversation that Heigo’s father died when he was young – this explains his obstinacy, his mother apologises.

Jacinta: Next we find Xiumei visiting houses with her donkey, wanting to buy medicinal herbs for some reason. And then we switch to Gaidi in another part of the neighbourhood, being teased by some children as a ‘Szichuan girl’, but then Heigo arrives saying he’s bought a new ‘car’, though it’s actually a motorbike, and he offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. The point of this scene, I now realise, is that Heigo has asserted his independence from Shugio by buying his own bike rather than riding hers. Switch back to Xiumei, who encounters another young woman on the mountain trail. It’s someone who was her classmate in elementary school, though Xiumei doesn’t recognise her at first. It’s been ten years. They walk the trail chatting, talking about Xiumei’s studies and the problems of working and studying, and the gossip about Heigo. It’s Xiumei’s classmate who does most of the talking. After a while, Xiumei tells her she should go, back to her husband. Her old friend complies, and then she turns back, and says, ‘Xiumei, you must go back to college, don’t end up having a life like mine!’ I’ve seen this film a few times now, and my eyes well up  every time I watch this scene. The music comes on to heighten the significance of the moment, and it’s painfully effective, damn it.

Canto: Yes it’s a key moment, Xiumei watches her friend’s retreating back, no doubt feeling she’s carrying more than her own hopes into the future. So Xiumei wends her way home, to find Gaidi waiting for her. Uncle is sick, she says, and he’s been taken to the hospital.

Jacinta: That must be Xiumei’s dad? She rushes off to the hospital, and we see her confusion as she negotiates the wards. She finds Heigo and her mother. The doctor says he needs an operation, and asks for payment. Xiumei rushes off again to make the payment… is this money she has saved?

Canto: But we don’t see her make the payment, all we get is that it costs 1600 RMB, and next we find her visiting Shugio, in a desperate bid for money. Shugio is drying herbs and tries to ignore her, but when Xiumei kneels before her, Shugio quickly relents, and pays her 500 RMB for a few herbs. She has to force Xiumei to take all the money, and then turns her back when Xiumei tries to thank her.

Jacinta: Though of course she’s concerned. So back at the hospital, Xiumei is feeding and tending to her father. Devotion and tenderness, with all the underlying tensions…

Canto: So here ends part 4 of our near-endless review, or walk-through, of this very interesting movie. We will wrap it up in part 5.


Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2017 at 8:52 am

Limi girl – part 3

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Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.

Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.

Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.

Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.

Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. She might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.

Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. I think I hear the name Shifang. Heigo turns away, looking slightly perturbed.

Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.

Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers,  all female, working in the ‘fields’ (actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.

Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:

Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].

All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…

Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.

Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.

Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.

Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.

Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.

Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.

Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.

Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.

Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.


Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2016 at 9:58 am

Limi Girl – part 2

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Jacinta: So, Heigo takes up the washerwomen’s sad song on the lakeside, and we see the hard, basic work of the villagers, and the beauty of the mountainous countryside. A reality view juxtaposed with a touristy view.

Canto: Right, we’re back with Limi Girl – a long review, or more like one of those chats through the movie that you get on DVD extras.

Jacinta: Or used to get. And it’s by outsiders rather than insiders, so not so interesting…

Canto: But more critical, in a good way. So in the next scene the camera slowly drifts across Xiumei’s bedroom-study, where she’s writing and contemplating and looking melancholy. Above her head is a portrait of a dancer, which she stares at…

Jacinta: My guess is she’s confused, and not at all confident about becoming a dancer, or returning successfully to college.

Canto: So she goes to her father to talk. She explains to him that when she dropped out she decided that she would study hard and re-enrol in a ‘normal college’…

Jacinta: That’s an interesting piece of exposition. What kind of college was she enrolled in before?

Canto: Yes it’s confusing – either she went to the city to enrol in a dance college or she dropped out because she wants to go to dancing school…

Jacinta: It must be the first option. So now she feels like a failure and a disappointment about the dance thing.

Canto: She tells her father it will be cheaper and she might get a ‘national student loan’, but he says this is impossible.

Jacinta: In other words he forbids it.

Canto: She doesn’t respond for a moment, then finally says she has decided….

Jacinta: It’s a lovely scene, in the silence her breathing becomes heavy as if his words have winded her. But then there’s defiance.

Canto: So now there’s an argument, she’s in no position to decide, he told her the dancing would never amount to anything and now they’re in debt. She vows to pay it all back, tearfully saying she wants more than a good village life.

Jacinta: She’s distraught more than angry. Note that after the first day back she’s reverted to traditional garb. She’s caught between two worlds.

Canto: So Xiumei walks off into the night, and a woman comes in and says ‘Xiumei’s father, you shouldn’t treat her that way’. He looks gloomy.

Jacinta: Who is she? Doesn’t sound like Xiumei’s mum. A neighbour?

Canto: Not sure. Next Xiumei is out on the mountainous slopes collecting roots and herbs, working hard. She reaches a high point and looks out over the beautiful wooded mountains and valleys of her homeland. She’s in turmoil. She trudges back home with her donkey and her load of herbs.

Jacinta: Here it might be apposite to speak of the music, which I found very effective in its understated way. Evocative, wistful.

Canto: Heigo walks through the countryside with his mother.

Jacinta: The one who’s supposed to be in hospital.

Canto: He’s complaining about how she set him up with Shugio, while she says that it’s his duty as an adult to marry – he’ll be laughed at otherwise. He mocks the suggestion, and starts to sing another song, but his mother insists he go to see Shugio’s family to make up for his poor behaviour.

Jacinta: So next we have Heigo sitting beside his mother, or maybe Shugio’s mother, discussing the wedding with Shugio’s family over cups of tea. They’ve been engaged for 20 years, she says, and should’ve been married long ago.

Canto: And the others agree, talking over Heigo’s head, as people do in court.

Jacinta: Heigo himself looks barely 20 years old, poor thing. Finally he gets up and asks Shugio to step outside so they can ‘nurture their feelings.’

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Canto: He’s not happy, and Shugio follows him out, trying to keep up with him. He rounds on her, accusing her of luring him back from Guangdong for this ‘trivial matter’ of marriage. And of course Shugio is shocked and annoyed at this reaction. Heigo, it seems, wants to give the impression that all this ‘arranged marriage’ stuff is beneath him, and that Shugio, too, is beneath him. ‘You don’t understand me at all’, he says.

Jacinta: This is one of many moments in the film where so much is revealed in a few words. Here we’re both slightly repelled by Heigo’s arrogant dismissiveness and sympathetic to his unfocussed but intense aspirations.

Canto: Shugio responds well, after consideration. She may not know him entirely, but she has tended and nurtured him, and dreamed of their future life together. But yes, she says, ‘you’ve broadened your horizon and now you are bored’. Heigo seems sympathetic, but insists – this was a match created by their parents, now they’re grown up and free to choose for themselves…

Jacinta: He ignores the fact that she has already chosen him.

Canto: He declares his choice – he doesn’t know how to live with someone who doesn’t know him.

Jacinta: But who ever knows another, or himself?

Canto: Upon saying this he flounces off, and she responds, most heart-rendingly, ‘I don’t know how to live with someone else either’.

Jacinta: They’re both exaggerating their inabilities.

Canto: Next, Gaidi meets up with ‘sister’ Xiumei, still collecting herbs on the mountainside. She has a pair of shoes for her, from cousin Heigo. Xiumei wants them sent back, but softens when she sees Gaidi’s disappointment. So they trudge together along mountain paths, with the gift, and a trailing donkey.

Jacinta: The camera again lingers here on the lush beauty of this landscape. In the previous scene we heard a cock crowing as the betrothed couple disputed under the trees. This play between the physical beauty of place and the nurturing atmosphere of domesticity – where everyone’s a sister or a cousin – and the sense of constraint and even suffocation for these young aspirants, this is so beautifully handled I think.

Canto: In a clearing, Xiumei dons the new red dancing shoes from her cousin, and dances, while Gaidi watches entranced. For a while they dance together, a slow swaying dance, arms akimbo. Then Gaidi takes her turn for a solo, as the sun begins to set.

Jacinta: Note that Xiumei turns contemplative, watching Gaidi. Thinking about dance, the fantasy, the reality…

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Canto: And looks a little melancholic, I’d say. In the next scene Gaidi sheepishly approaches ‘sister Xiumei’, who’s emptying her basket, perhaps as food for some farm animals. Gaidi’s cattle, or the family’s cattle she’s been tending, have run off, and damaged a neighbouring wheat crop. So now she’s afraid to return to her aunt, where she’ll likely get a beating. Xiumei offers to return with her, to protect her, so they head off together. Her aunt is already angry, and tries to get at Gaidi with a broom. She’s angry about the loss of money, as they’ll have to compensate the neighbour. Xiumei steps between them, saying ‘don’t hit her any more’, so this is perhaps a common occurrence, ‘she’s just a kid’. So the argument continues, with Gaidi’s aunt, who’s also Heigo’s mother, asserting her right to beat her whenever she likes, since she feeds and clothes her..

Jacinta: A useful device for bringing Heigo and Xiumei together again, and here’s where we get some more useful exposition.

Canto: Yes, because Heigo appears, tries to calm his mother and tells Xiumei not to interfere, but the headstrong Xiumei won’t have any of that. ‘You wouldn’t let her go to school, and yet you beat her like this’. Not surprisingly, the older woman responds by mocking Xiumei’s school failure – ‘you must’ve done something shameful while you were away.’ Xiumei is stung, can’t think of a retort, and flounces off.

Jacinta: And naturally Heigo seizes his chance to get her alone.

Canto: Yes but before that, we focus briefly on Gaidi and her aunt. With Xiumei gone, and Heigo off after her, Gaidi is ordered inside. Her aunt follows her, picking up the broom, but then she tosses it aside before entering the house.

Jacinta: So Xiumei is having her positive influence. It’s neatly observed.

Canto: So Heigo begins by apologising for his mother, but Xiumei shrugs it off, ‘I’m used to it.’ Then she tells him she will return the shoes tomorrow.

Jacinta: They sure know how to hurt each other.

Canto: Of course Heigo objects. He bought them for her off his first pay in Guangzhou, has been keeping them for her ever since.

Jacinta: They sure know how to make each other feel guilty.

Canto: So Xiumei gives him a speech with obvious similarities to the one he gave Shugio. Things have changed, they’re not kids anymore, it’s water under the bridge, she doesn’t want this kind of life.. But Heigo wonders, understandably, about the change. It’s only been a year – he’s been working, she’s been to college. She can only say, much as Heigo said to Shugio, ‘you don’t understand me’.

Jacinta: It’s the old story of unequal feelings. Shugio loves Heigo, but Heigo can’t return the love, partly because she represents the past to him. Heigo loves Xiumei and she in return wants to transcend the past that he represents to her. There’s a fearful symmetry here. But there’s also in this dialogue, especially from Xiumei, another fearfulness, or a great uncertainty, about how to live, the difficulties of going Outside, to the City, the Great World.

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Written by stewart henderson

July 16, 2016 at 11:52 am

movie review: Limi Girl – part one

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Jacinta: Hurray we’re going to do a movie review.

Canto: Yes and it’s a beautiful, quiet and powerful Chinese movie, co-written and directed by Roy Cheung made in 2014 and set among the Limi people, an apparently rather impoverished tribal group in Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. The Limi people have their own language, part of the Tibetan group, but the film is in Mandarin, not surprisingly, as Limi is spoken by only around 30,000 people.

Jacinta: It’s certainly an affecting movie about the trials and tensions of a very basic rural life, the generational changes, the lure of the city, the yearning for something more, the pull of home and safety… it’s a universal story of tradition versus change, and the heartache of those torn between.

Canto: So the film, which is available on youtube, starts as the central character, Xiumei (Shi Yan), returns to her home village from studying in the town of Shifang, in neighbouring Szichuan Province, much to the delight of her little ‘sister’ Gaidi. But Xiumei hasn’t returned in triumph, she’s ‘dropped out’, and the village women have gathered to taunt her about her failure. Her humiliated father is forced to apologise and promises to pay back the money he’s borrowed for his daughter’s education.

Jacinta: And when we first see Xiumei she’s in city clothes, unlike the village women and girls, who all wear the same outlandish pillowy head-dresses and navy blue robes. The village huts are of rickety logs and thatch, set in a landscape of rock-strewn hills and streams. Physically beautiful, it’s clearly a tough environment for eking out a living.

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Canto: Xiumei comes to her doorway and confronts her critics. From the conversation we learn that she has given up college because she wants to be a dancer, though it’s confusing – she promises to repay the money, she promises to return to college, she’s defiant and angry. She retreats inside, and Gaidi comes in to comfort her, and to ask if she’s heard any news from Szichuan about her (Gaidi’s) parents.

Jacinta: So Gaidi isn’t actually Xiumei’s sister, but possibly a cousin, who’s in the care of Xiumei’s parents – another burden for this poor couple.

Canto: Xiumei hasn’t any news and can only show the girl a postcard of Shifang, which she stares at sadly. In the next scene, in a beautiful mountain shrine, Xiumei is back in traditional dress, burning incense to the Buddha along with Gaidi and the village women. She asks to be blessed to go to college again, while Gaidi prays to be reunited with her parents in Szichuan. Then we follow a bus rolling along a mountain road. Inside the bus, a young man, Heigo, is returning to the village. His mother is in the local hospital and he’s returning from Guangdong to check on her… or so it seems.

Jacinta: And in these scenes we see again the rugged beauty of the landscape, a contrast to the unhappy yearnings of the humans. Guangdong by the way is a coastal province bordering Hong Kong and Macau, well to the east of Yunnan.

Canto: So we find out about Heigo through another passenger who greets him, and tells him laughingly that his mother has tricked him – she’s just luring him home to marry his ‘childhood sweetheart’, Shugio – as has always been intended. Heigo looks annoyed and asks after Xiumei – he’s heard she’s back. His friend, though only wants to talk of Heigo’s coming wedding to Shugio, and how lucky he is.

Jacinta: So this is how it’s shaping up, an inter-generational contest. The main characters in the film are the young – Xiumei and Heigo, and Shugio, Heigo’s intended, and little Gaidi. Heigo has been tricked into returning, and Xiumei is under pressure…

Canto: Heigo gets off the bus before it reaches the village. He’s clearly thoroughly peed off, but while he sits muttering by a brook, Shugio arrives on a motorbike. A strange sight, in her traditional costume. She’s annoyed that she had to come all this way to meet him, having heard from his friend that he got off the bus early. And Heigo is annoyed too and reluctantly goes back with her to the village.

Jacinta: Yes, he sees Shugio as part of the family group colluding to entrap him. The motorbike, I think, is an interesting symbol. It testifies to the rough terrain, more easily negotiated on a motorbike, but it’s also the only motorised object, the most advanced piece of technology in the movie.

Canto: Along the road to the village, with Heigo driving, they encounter Gaidi, with Xiumei carrying a heavy basket. Gaidi hails Heigo, her ‘cousin’. He greets her happily, but is particularly keen to chat with Xiumei. He follows her up the hill, while impatient Shugio calls him back. Xiumei’s response to him is cool but friendly enough, and she allows him to accompany her, while irritated Shugio drives off with Gaidi as pillion.

Jacinta: He clearly fancies her.

Canto: Yes but her views aren’t so clear. So Shugio and Gaidi arrive at Shugio’s mother’s house – she’s weaving, a bridal costume perhaps – but she’s disappointed to find Gaidi arriving instead of Heigo.

Jacinta: This is a confusing scene. She asks Gaidi, ‘where’s your cousin’, meaning Heigo, and Gaidi says, according to the subtitles, ‘cousin is taking sister Xiumei away on a motorbike’, which is either untrue or nonsensical.

Canto: Yes, there’s only one motorbike in the movie, and Shugio was riding it. If Gaidi is lying, it’s not to keep Xiumei out of trouble. It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Shugio’s mother scolds Gaidi and tells her she’s not to see Xiumei again.

Jacinta: From this scene we realise that Gaidi lives with Shugio and her mother.

Canto: In the next scene, Heigo is punting Xiumei along in a boat on the river.

Jacinta: Being very helpful – he was last seen carrying her basket for her.

Canto: Their conversation here is revealing. Heigo asks why she didn’t answer his many letters. She says she didn’t want to distract him from his work, and he responds that his work, as a supervisor, is utterly boring. She changes the subject, asking him about his ‘wife’, Shugio, and of course he responds that she isn’t his wife – yet.

Jacinta: Yes and there’s nothing apparently coquettish about this reference. She seems to be reminding him about his commitment.

Canto: Which seems a bit harsh. We don’t know if he’s ever made a commitment, it all seems to be about family assumptions. Anyway, Xiumei next praises Shugio’s cleverness and hard work. Certainly not encouraging his attentions. The scene ends strangely, as Heigo takes up a sorrowful song, cheerfully sung by washerwomen on the bank. It’s a song of lovesickness, and Heigo howls…

Jacinta: So ends the first part. It looks like it’s going to be a long review.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 16.04.49

Heigo joins in the song


Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.


*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.


– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.


Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport



Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

movie review – shadowless sword

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Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.

Gustave Flaubert


The altogether too irreproachable So-Ha











I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.

The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!

At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….

In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.

She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).

A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.

Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.

Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.

In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.

Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.

They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.

In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.


women warriors


So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.

Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).

Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….

So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

film review: the photograph

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the photographer, the girl and the railway line

The 2007 Indonesian film the photograph definitely has some power in spite of certain manipulations and conventions which I’ll get to later. It boils down to a very simple story, a two-hander essentially, about a relationship between an old and infirm photographer, and a young, struggling single mother, Sita (Shanty), teetering on the abyss. Sita sings in a karaoke bar and is clearly being forced into pleasing the customers in other ways by a hectoring standover figure. She’s separated from her young son Yani who she rings whenever she can, as well as sending money home (she also has an ailing grandmother).

But let’s begin at the beginning. The film opens as we enter the photographer’s dilapidated studio, with old pictures on the wall in old gilt frames. The old man shuffles among these images, regularly contemplates a trunk of photographic and other memorabilia, and spends some of his time burning offerings to his ancestors, or whatever gods he believes in, on an abandoned rail line just outside of town.

The beautiful Sita, having been forced to leave her living quarters, asks the old man if she can rent the room above his studio. The photographer’s responses are always non-committal if not grudging, and he seems to be lost in another world. Sita takes advantage of this to simply move in.

That’s when we turn to Sita’s life as a karaoke singer and spruiker for clients. Her ‘pimp’, if that’s what he is, is presented rather one-dimensionally as a whining, bullying little packet of evil who bangs on the door of the phone booth while she speaks to her son, and cajoles her into a room where three thugs rape and abuse her. He appears also to take all her earnings because she apologizes to the photographer for not being able to pay for her room and begs him to let her stay on. Having been beaten up, she’s unable to work, and so she makes herself useful to him by cleaning his studio and helping with the occasional customers he photographs against painted backdrops of the countryside.

The film dwells on this awkward relationship, contrasting the spent, secretive old photographer with his face toward the past, and the struggling young woman with a mixture of pragmatic hopes and idealistic dreams for her and her son’s future. The old man is looking to groom a successor, but he needs someone who can carry on the spirit of his ancestors. Sita is half-interested herself in taking on the role, but realises that the tradition-bound old man, in spite of his growing kindness toward her, would find her unsuitable, just as a woman.

Sita hasn’t told the pimp her new address but he soon finds her and starts haranguing her, but is beaten away by the neighbours. Later he returns, and in one of the film’s most unconvincing scenes, chases her out of the town along a railway track, where, conveniently, the old man turns up and somehow the pimp manages to get himself run over by a train, though the impact is not presented and the likelihood of this young man, who’s clearly been living by his wits for years, allowing himself to be hit by a train in this way is just about zero.

Anyway, being freed of this man, she’s able to look more clearly towards the future – she’d love to become a chanteuse on a cruise ship. Meanwhile the photographer is getting more tottery, and while he’s on what might be his deathbed she explores the place further, including a trunk that he’s strictly forbidden her to open. It contains, inter alia, some tattered photos of the mutilated victim or victims of a train accident. The old man, suddenly recovered, catches her snooping, and we get a flashback to his youth, when he was on a train which hit someone on the line. He took photos of various parts of the victim’s body, the photos Sita found in the trunk, and he’s been haunted by the event ever since.

The old man returns to his dying, and he may already be dead when a last photograph is taken, with him propped in a chair and Sita by his side. This is the photo of the film’s title, and it eventually comes into the possession of Yani, Sita’s son, who narrates the final moments of the film, uniting past and future through the power of photography among other things. A pleasant and sometimes moving film, a little marred by some unlikely plot elements, and by a slightly unreal spareness of scene, with little of the bustle you would surely find in urban Indonesia. Film-makers, of course, create their own reality in a film, which is never the ‘real’ reality. At the same time a degree of verisimilitude is essential to evoke the sorts of responses you want to evoke in viewers. This is one of the essential balancing acts in any film, and the hardest thing to manage (and that’s what makes James Bond films such abject failures in my view). The photograph, unfortunately, doesn’t quite succeed in this regard, but the characters, especially Sita, are interesting enough to compensate.

Written by stewart henderson

February 22, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Posted in film, film review, Indonesia

why is l’Annulaire so charming, enfin?

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Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle, voulez-vous regarder mes specimens?

Here, for a change, is a film review. Though I’m a wannabe science nerd, I can’t help now and then returning to my roots, as an uberkool arts dude. Fact is, though I’m a regular listener to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts, I can’t even pretend to be interested in their sci-fi movie and tv-series passions and references (pace Doctor Who), with rarely a mention of classical or even modern literature or cool art-house movies.  C’est pitoyable!

So I’m going to treat myself here to something that comes much more easily to me than science writing.

I first saw the so-Frenchy-so-chic film l’Annulaire (The Ring Finger) a few years ago, and was gripped, though I must admit I was barely able to see past the absorbingly delightful presence and performance of Olga Kurylenko. Not that I’m beating myself up over this – Kurylenko’s beauty and aloneness and vulnerable little glances and smiles and moments of languor would provide plentiful fuel for any sensualist’s fire, be she male, female or otherwise. She’s perfection in this role.

But seeing the film for the second time the other day, and via SBS on demand, so that I could treat it as I would treat a good book, rereading certain passages, going over things I didn’t quite catch, luxuriating in the best moments and effects, I gained a richer experience, while also noting a few flaws. In fact some of the clunkier elements of the film only serve to enhance the authenticity of Kurylenko’s performance.

Kurylenko plays twenty-one year-old Iris, about whom we know nothing except that she’s working in a lemonade bottling factory in the beginning of the film, where she has an accident, badly cutting her ring finger. We next find her wandering though a port city, nursing her bandaged finger, looking for work. And also looking for love or sex or some kind of romantic adventure. For example, while wandering along the docks, she sees a ferry filling up with people and decides impulsively to board it. On the trip across the water she finds herself watching a young man who finds himself watching her. She looks away awkwardly but when the ferry arrives at its destination – an island or maybe just the other side of the harbour, it’s all a bit vague – she follows the young man, in a sort of irresolute stalking manoeuvre, into a park or garden, where she loses track of him at a set of forking paths. She’s about to retreat completely, but finally takes one of the paths which leads her to an austere old building. On the door is a note advertising a job as a clerk to help with specimens – no experience required, apparently. She decides to apply. Ans so the real fantasy begins.

Now the film’s opening scene, before the credits roll, takes place inside this ‘lab’, with the white-coated ‘doctor’ discussing the preservation of a specimen of fungus – mushrooms in fact – with a serious-looking young woman. It doesn’t make much sense, but this is the weird world the solitary Iris is about to enter. She’s already rented accommodation in the port town, time-sharing a motel room with a sailor who works on the docks. She wanders about the room, staring at the docks and the water, wondering about the man’s clothing in the wardrobe and on a hanger by the glass doors facing the sea. Features are emerging – water, solitude, longing. And also, the heat – or, to use the much more evocative French word, chaleur. Iris drips with sweat in the hospital where her finger is treated, and half-faints with the heat in the reception area of the hostel where she applies for a room. The heat promotes a languor, a slowing of pace, a slightly hallucinatory, unreal effect.

So Iris is invited into this ‘lab’ by the ‘doctor’. He’s a walking cliché, you might say, but a very deliberate one. He’s never without his white coat, he’s quite a bit older than Iris, he’s silent, austere, masterful, and apparently entirely focused on his thoroughly enigmatic vocation. After a brief interview, she becomes his employee, his dependent, even more unsure of her role and her tasks after his explanation of them than before. But she enters into the arrangement willingly enough, in keeping with her driftily adventurous spirit.

So after securing this employment she removes the bandage from her ring finger, as if it has gained strength, or the security it symbolizes has been reinforced. Before starting work the next day, she drifts through the port’s red light district, and ponders in the room she shares with the sailor, with its twin beds – brief, elliptical sexual signs.  At work, her boss, who seems the sole occupant of the old building, is at turns forbidding and benevolent, unpredictable, a bit like that Judeo-Christian god, keeping her alert and a little on edge. Mostly, though, he’s friendly and reassuring, so she’s happy to stay with the adventure. On her second day, she sleeps in and has to rush, but not before noting and fondling the sailor’s coat hanging in the wardrobe. She has left one of her dresses on the hanger, billowing beside the open glass door, for him to contemplate in her absence.

Iris’s nameless boss shows her the mushroom specimen he’s prepared in a test tube, and they contemplate it together, in a moment of low-key, tentative intimacy – with more than a touch of the predatory on his part. It’s a bit of a Q and A session, with the doc explaining the meaning and significance of the specimens. They’re symbols of loss – the mushrooms grew on the property of someone – the girl – whose house burned down. The specimens aren’t given to the clients, they’re kept at the lab. Clients can come to see them, but usually don’t. They’re simply symbols of closure, not for nostalgia but for preservation and separation of the past. It’s an odd and not entirely convincing conceit, but it has a certain romantic asceticism to it. At the end of this session Iris brings to mind her ring finger, which she sucks, lost to emotion. The faces here are in extreme close-up, and Iris/Olga is becoming painfully irresistible.

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

Back at her rented digs, Iris passes the sailor in the hall, and learns that this is the young man she time-shares with, and her curiosity is clearly piqued, as is his. All without a word. At work, while noting that the ‘doc’ sometimes disappears through an apparently forbidden door, she meets a new client who wants a piece of music preserved. Not the sheet music but the notes themselves. Written for her by an ex-beau. The woman, of middle age, is plainly still in love and suffering. Iris is kind and slightly overwhelmed. After the client’s departure, she hums the notes of the music to herself. In one of the old building’s interminable corridors, she’s pulled out of reverie by a little boy’s musical tapping, and the response of a woman further down the hall, who almost supernaturally disappear as suddenly as they appear. So there are other residents, occupants, denizens of this place…. Iris smiles deliciously.

The doc makes one of his sudden appearances, and silently peruses the musical manuscript, comments on the intense heat, promises air-conditioning…. then he invites her for a word, down to his inner sanctum, behind the forbidden door. It appears to be an old municipal baths, a cool retreat from the chaleur. They’ve now become more intimate, closer. Intensity is captured in close up, and In Iris’s shifting expressions, the playful smile, the flicker of fear, the innocent uncertainty. The doctor announces that her shoes are of too poor quality for her role and her person. He has bought her a beautiful new pair, blood red. She unwraps them with astonishment, with wonder, with pleasure, with some concern. ‘How did you know my size?’ she asks, the laughter dying on her face. She doesn’t know what to make of this man, who has saved her, after a fashion, and given her some adventure, after a fashion. She half-heartedly refuses the shoes but he insists, and he puts them on her himself. Foot fetishists will love this scene, and Iris/Olga’s expressions here are priceless. She near faints away when her foot slips into the shoe. The doctor explains that he knows her shoe size just by looking at her. He’s a naturalist after all. He gets her to walk before him with the new shoes, telling her she must wear them at all times, whether he can see her or not. Another god-type demand, and she don’t look too happy about it. Nevertheless, and inevitably, we next see her wearing her new shoes around the docks.

In her motel room, she finds a vase of little purple flowers – a gift from her young room-mate? She’s delighted, and she investigates a book he appears to be reading, and his passport…

One day she arrives at work soaked from the rain. The doctor, as always, distant, controlling, but benevolent, makes her a hot toddy, and helps her out of her wet clothes, in the underground baths. All perfectly normal behaviour from a caring employer. She submits like a slave, and yet she always shows spirit, her eyes widen in wonder as he explains that he’ll take her wet things to be dried and ironed ‘by the woman in room 233’. ‘Is she the one who plays the piano?’ she asks. ‘No, that’s the woman in 209’, he replies, providing, like a rare morsel of food, some information about these ageing lingerers in the old building.

The doc doesn’t take advantage of Iris’s near nakedness, but leaves, with her garments, while she awaits him, wrapped in a towel and an air of confusion. Clearly, another barrier has been breached. And next we follow Iris, fully clothed again, as she trots behind her master to visit the piano lady, to ask her (and in fact demand of her, with the doc’s usual cordial firmness) to play and so preserve the musical ‘specimen’. While in the lady’s room, Iris sees a photo of a lot of young women standing in front of the ‘laboratory’, which was then, perhaps, a nursing school, or maybe a home for fallen women, we don’t know. To one side stands our doctor, white-coated of course, and apparently ageless, as if he’s struck some Faustian or Dorian Gray-style deal. On examining this photograph, Iris exchanges a meaning gaze with the doctor, who remains as inscrutable as ever. It’s actually a key scene – the doc has also invited the other lady, the ‘clothing lady’ we might call her, into this room to hear the music, perhaps as a witness to the ‘specimen’, and glances are exchanged also between Iris and the clothing lady, who smiles knowingly, and between the clothing lady and the doc, who smile to each other in apparent collusion. The mind leaps to the idea, or the knowledge, that this woman is one of the young lasses in the photo, and that some kind of strange, sexual, harem-like happenings are being referred to, in the most civilized, tea-and-scones kind of way. The clothing lady also shows an unwonted, but silent, interest in Iris’s shoes, as if she’s well aware of what’s what in regard to them, much to Iris’s embarrassment. But as we see in another lingering scene on the docks, Iris is fascinated, almost obsessed, with these shoes of hers.

The next scene is also key. Iris receives a new client, a softly-spoken, impoverished-looking elderly black man, who wants a specimen made of the bones of a sparrow who’d been sharing his flat for years, before dying of old age. While they discuss this, the man comments admiringly on her beautiful shoes. Turns out he’s been a shoe-shiner at La Gare Centrale (another vague designation) for the past 50 years. He points out how perfectly the shoes fit. ‘Let me give you advice. Even if they’re very comfortable, don’t wear them too often. Or, young lady, you’ll risk losing your feet. Can’t you see there’s hardly any room between your feet and the shoes? That proves the shoes are taking possession of your feet?’ ‘Possession?’ asks Iris. ‘Exactly,’ says the man (it all sounds so much more intime in French). He offers to shine her shoes if she will visit him at his work station.

The film continues with inexplicable moments and incidents – she hears piano music, and tries to investigate, then the phone rings, someone wants a specimen of a shadow, she thinks not, but as she responds, the clothing woman creeps about in the corridor behind her bearing flowers…  She works late, pondering over the sparrow bones, and is discovered by the doc, who makes small talk about her new hairstyle.

Back in her motel room she massages her feet thoughtfully, dreamily… Then, back on the ferry, on her way to work, she sees the young sailor, on a bridge, watching. She stands up, faces him and smiles, youth and hope, sensuality at a safe distance. Then he’s in the motel room, sniffing at one of her dresses – as you do – and hanging it up to blow in the sea breeze.

Meanwhile, the chaleur oppresses. Iris, at work, opens up her blouse for relief, without realizing that the doc has made one of his sudden appearances at her door. He complains of the heat driving away the clients. She has buttoned up and is discomfited by his presence, especially when he asks after her shoes…  He asks that she help him put his specimens in order during this quiet period, and so she follows him, but they end up in the basement, in the cool spaciousness of the old baths… And here the doc becomes an old charmer, after his fashion. He reminisces about the young women showering there, the running water, the soap and froth and chatter, and all that nakedness. Iris asks about those women, and the women from rooms 223 and 209. Yes, he says, they were there, and just about your age, then. But now, all is dry. No water, no soap… Those women have now aged, there’s only you and me (or ‘I’m not ageist, but…’)

So now the moment of seduction has arrived. He leads her to the centre of the baths, undresses her slowly, and we hear her breath and see her desire. She lies on the floor, naked, and he, still in his lab coat of course, enters her, at once brutal and slightly ridiculous. He pulls her on top of him, and urgently asks, as you do at such moments, ‘Is there anything you’d like preserved? We all need specimens.’ ‘Me too? Even you?’ she wonders. ‘Yes. Think, there must be something you’d like as a specimen. Let’s look at it from a different angle. What’s your most painful memory? Something awful.’ ‘I lost the tip of my ring finger.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘I lost it, in lemonade, in the factory. I fainted.’ ‘So your ring finger will never be the same?’

Back in the motel room, Iris is contemplative but happy. She swings gaily from an old tyre in the docklands, watched, unbeknown, by the young sailor. Then back at work she falls asleep on the job, dreaming of the shower and the young girls, watched by their white-coated doc, and meanwhile the young sailor is in the motel, apparently dreaming of Iris.

When she arrives back at the motel she finds a note. The sailor, Costa, is leaving and would like to meet her. He asks for a rendezvous at a local bar. As it turns out, the bar’s pretty wild – sailors, girls, every port and all. Iris turns up to see Costa being accosted by a likely lady. She takes flight and Costa pursues her – in the languid and tentative manner that’s the signature of this film. He stares up at the motel room; she emerges, stares briefly at him, then retreats, shuts the door, extinguishes the light. Hope’s deferred, making the heart sick.

She showers in sensual water. At work, the doc asks her for help with his specimens again. She’s uncertain – what about the clients? They won’t come in this uncertain weather, he assures her. He offers her an apron, as if to say, ‘this time, no hanky-panky’.  Among the burgeoning specimens, she asks him where they might be put, as they accumulate.  ‘Perhaps we may have to use the baths’, he suggests. This alarms her. ‘When the bathroom is turned into a preservation room, what will we do then?’ she asks, with delicious innocence.

That’s enough for the doc, and we’re back in the underground baths, and this time the sex is uninhibited, symbolized by the horrifying fact that the doc has taken off his lab coat. But who is Iris thinking of, the doc or the sailor?

Afterwards, she returns to the motel. Costa has left her what appears to be a box of chocolates. She lies on his rumpled bed…

Back at work, the young woman of the mushrooms, who has a burn on her cheek, returns. She asks Iris if she can have another specimen. She, too, is beautiful. The doctor is called for, assures her he can help, and leads her off to the lab. Iris is  upset, jealous, and tries to raise questions, but the doc, authoritarian as ever, orders her to get on with preparing the paperwork. So – power, authority, invested in maleness. Iris feels insecure, humiliated. Through the day she serves other clients, but is ever-watchful for her ‘rival’. She goes to the door of the lab and tries to open it, to no avail. She wanders the docks again, thinking, dreaming of the red shoes, his hands on her feet, her legs… Back in the motel room, a storm rages, and she’s alone. At work again, she searches desperately for traces of the girl, and her specimen. She’s beside herself. She encounters one of the elderly ladies, who talks to her about her work. ‘Most of those who’ve worked here didn’t last long. They would just vanish.’ ‘What about the previous girl?’ ‘Yes, she was about your age. I remember particularly the sound of her shoes. Neat, regular. I’m very sensitive to sound. No I don’t remember the colour of her shoes.. Where did she go? Who knows? I hope you don’t leave so suddenly…’ Discomfited by the older woman’s slightly mocking tone, Iris cuts short the conversation, and continues in search of her rival’s specimen. She finds a photo of a girl, of her age, wearing striking shoes. As she stares at it, it begins to fade, disappear. Will Iris disappear so suddenly? She hurries off, disturbed, harried. Covered in sweat, she’s drying herself off when she encounters a new client, a silent Chinese man, who leaves in her possession a mahjong set. While she’s examining it, the doc makes another of his sudden appearances… He asks her to put it on a shelf, but the set opens as she picks it up, and all the pieces scatter over the floor.

The masterful doctor tells her that every piece must be put back where it belongs, if it takes all night. So, watched over by the master, she languidly, interspersed with periods of sleep or catatonia, picks up each far-flung piece and puts it back in its place. Heavy symbolism no doubt lost on me. When she finishes, the master takes her in his arms. ‘We’ve seen the morning in together,’ she says, as though this is a sign of love rather than power. ‘Take me to the lab,’ she adds. ‘I’m the only one who can go there’, he says. ‘But what about the girl with the burn?’  ‘That was about a specimen. They have priority.’ ‘So I’ll be able to go there if I ask for a specimen I can keep forever?’ He doesn’t respond, but sucks her ring finger tenderly. She seems content…

She visits the shoe-shining man, who is very pleased to see her. She assures him about his specimen, and he applies his special cream to her shoes. ‘Were the shoes given to you by someone?’ he asks. ‘Are you in love with him?’ ‘I sometimes wonder,’ she says. ‘I don’t know, but I can’t easily leave him.’ ‘It’s because of your shoes. If you don’t take them off, you’ll never get away. Get a specimen, so that your feet will be free.’ ‘I don’t want that.’ ‘Do you want to go back there?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Well, I will say goodbye then’, says the shoeshine man. ‘I won’t see you again.’ She looks at her finger, and makes her return, via a long tunnel. I don’t pretend to know what all this means.

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

Back at work, Iris writes a specimen label or ticket – ‘Iris, ring finger.’ She takes this ticket down to the lab. Outside the door, she takes off her shoes. With her shoes in one hand, her ticket in the other, she knocks on the door. It opens, and all we see is bright light. She drops the shoes, and disappears into the light.

Make of this what you will, it’s a beautiful film exploring love, desire, security, connection, power and vulnerability – and not just that of Iris – all in a deceptively simple, unadorned package. Clearly I’ve been self-indulgent in my descriptions here, using them as an excuse to linger over the film’s most memorable scenes, which for me aren’t the overtly sexual scenes but the covertly sexual ones – characters in isolation, loving and longing, hungering and recalling.

I’ve mentioned clunkiness – the occasional continuity error, and scenes and characters that added little, apart from more mystery. For example, a little boy often appears in the scenes at the lab – an impish spirit who watches over Iris. Is he the product of one of the doc’s dalliances with his employees? Is he a prisoner or a free spirit? I suspect he’s a more integrated character in the book on which this film was based – a ‘cult erotic novel’, so the blurb goes, by Yoko Ogawa, and the director, Diane Bertrand, didn’t quite know what to do with him. Some of the clients, too, seemed superfluous to requirements, though I’m quite prepared to accept that I may have missed a few nuances.

But in spite of this the film succeeds, not least because of the central actor’s performance. Olga Kurylenko is now quite a big name, but I suspect I’ll always associate her, first and foremost, with this very demanding, make or break role. In writing this piece, I very willingly researched the captivating Kurylenko, and frankly it moved me beyond bearing to uncover this delightful interview, apparently set up in her own home, maybe in about 2010, in which among other things she talked of The Ring Finger, her movie debut, as one of those rare experiences in which she fell in love with the character… Olga, in this rough-as-guts video, as far from media hype as you can get, reveals herself to be as delightful, warm and genuine as Iris, a woman who recognises her good fortune, but who has genuine talent, and an emotional depth that shines though on and off screen. I feel strangely proud of her after having learned so much about her, as if she were a close relative who has realised her dream. I cannot recommend this film, and its star, highly enough.

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm


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Going to the Palace-Nova cinemas late on a Monday night in the middle of winter has proved a surprising experience. I expected to be confronted by a desert of dark carpet with a half-asleep attendant womanning the ticket booth cum choc-top fridge, but instead it was wall to wall people and a long, glacial queue. It gradually dawned on me that this must be the cheapie night, and it seemed I was the only one in town who didn’t know it. The bumper crowd may also have been due to some newly-released ‘blockbusters’ such as ‘The Dark Knight, sequel 2’ or What You Will.

I get weekly emails from Palace-Nova, and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully of late, to see a film a week. The email links me to currently showing flicks, with synopses and trailers, so that I can pick out the most appealing-looking feature, taking into account viewing times. I generally prefer to go in the quiet afternoon, usually mid-week, Wednesday being a free day. However, last Monday I felt the urge all of a sudden, and though the film I chose, ‘Margaret’, didn’t start till after 9pm and ran for nearly three hours, I was up for it.

The crowd certainly wasn’t there for poor old Margaret. There were only about five people in the cinema with me. This was good of course; I got to spread out and make myself at home and to feel enlightened and superior to all those lemmings in Cinema Batman nearby. But enough; the movie.

Margaret, the movie, has a story almost as troubled as that of its principal character, Lisa [Anna Paquin]. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it was filmed in 2005-6, and was due for release in 2007, but was held up in post-production for over four years, while the various stakeholders wrangled about editing and the final cut, with consequent lawsuits and attendant dramas. Lonergan preferred a three-hour version while others insisted on a limit of 150 minutes. Eventually Lonergan approved a 150-minute version, with editing assistance from Martin Scorsese among others, but the producer refused to accept it, etc etc. It really is a case of life imitating art, considering the highly disputatious and volatile natures of many of the film’s characters.

It’s a coming-of-age tale, of sorts. Lisa Cohen is a teenager whose irritating qualities are only just made bearable for us by the flawed and variably irritating natures of all the other people she interacts with. She has fierce fights with her long-suffering single mum, her fellow students, and various authority figures; she flirts carelessly, takes advantage and behaves with all the casual cruelty and insensitivity of the worst of adolescents. She runs hot and cold with a sensitive schoolmate who’s clearly attracted to her [one has to wonder why], then impulsively offers up her virginity to a casual older acquaintance who’s been introducing her to the drug scene. She’s far too self-absorbed to feel much in the way of empathy for her mother’s tentative steps towards a new romance, or to really understand in any depth, or to feel, the lives of others – teachers, relatives, possible or passing sexual partners, or those caught up with her in the central event of the film and its consequences.

The event is a bus accident which causes the death of a middle-aged female pedestrian. In the moments leading up to the accident, the impulsive heroine was rapping on the door of the bus and distracting the driver because she was interested in the sombrero-style hat he was wearing. The driver, clearly too easily distracted for his professional position, missed a red light and ran the woman over. She passes away in Lisa’s arms in a bizarre and slightly unreal death scene. It’s a life-altering moment for Lisa, and the events she subsequently sets in motion have unintended consequences that lead to further frustrations and crises.

Arguably one of the weaknesses of the film is the overall, on-balance sense of the intransigence and insensitivity of humans in general. It depends on whether you agree with the writer/director about that, and it’s hardly a black-and-white presentation, but there are plenty of characters in the film that you just feel like shaking some sense into. The film also has much to say about the complexities of adult life, and the strange unintended consequences of impulsive or thoughtless acts, threads that too few people in the film are willing or able to follow. In many ways this is what the film is about, individuals preoccupied with their own worlds and their attempts to balance self-gratification and social life. For example, it’s difficult for an outsider to see why Ramon [Jean Reno], who works in computers, ‘falls in love’ with Lisa’s mother Joan [J Smith-Cameron], and fatally regards her as the one woman who could make him happy, when they appear to have so little in common. Yet we know this kind of thing happens often enough in real life. It’s as if people are living out narratives in their lives, narratives which can come crashing around them as they clash with the narratives of others, as happens with Ramon, and with Lisa on several occasions but most painfully when she clashes with Emily [Jeannie Berlin], the best friend of the deceased accident victim, over their memories and their ‘ownership’ of the person who brought them together. It’s a world of knocks and shocks, frustrations and resentment, and the coming together of mother and daughter at the end of the movie is far from being a moment of resolution, it’s more a ‘shelter from the storm’ moment, a brief burying of one’s pain and incomprehension in the arms of another sufferer, who, being family, has at least some glimmer of understanding, and much in the way of empathy.

It was a long movie, but I certainly didn’t find it over-long, being quite absorbed in its true horrendousness. Lisa’s teenage antics and indiscretions and neediness will be familiar to us, as will be, for example, the frustrations of the school English teacher [Matthew Broderick] when confronted with an intransigent teenager’s take on King Lear, another nicely observed example of worlds colliding. Hell is other people, yet we cannot help but be drawn to them, like moths to a flame. I try to keep my distance, generally.

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2012 at 9:59 am

film review: snow white and the huntsman

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would you entrust your queendom to this woman?

Time was that I often wrote film reviews, and now I’ve decided to revive that habit in a small degree, with quickie reviews of about 500 words or so, as I’ve taken up going to the cinema regularly for the first time in a long time.

Before starting the review I should say that I’ve been going to the Palace Cinemas in the city [Adelaide], and I’ve already caught about five films, all quite enjoyable, with the best of the bunch being Take This Waltz, an indie Canadian film written and directed by Sarah Polley. It’s a three-hander or love triangle with the perhaps unlikely pairing of Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan as a married couple whose bland rather than rocky relationship is disrupted by a handsome and vaguely eccentric neighbour [Luke Kirby]. I’m itching to review it but I don’t trust myself as its details are fast receding… Anyway, though I have some reservations about the Michelle Williams character, it’s highly original in its narrative style, and Williams and Rogan are excellent in their delivery of the film’s often painful complexities.

So now to the review proper. I was wavering between viewing this and another more ‘modest’ film about tensions between Moslems and Christians in a Lebanese village, and I’m not sure that I made the right decision. I’m no special effects junky, and though I have a sort of atavistic fondness for knights and monsters and and wilde woods, from early readings of a child’s version of Spencer’s Faerie Queene [in which there was also a fair maiden who donned ‘male’ and slew with the best of them – a first childhood love], I’ve largely outgrown the black-and-whiteness of the genre. Also, large scale battle scenes bore me witless – not that there was too much of that here, but even a little is more than enough. Much better, and so much cheaper, to just have a messenger arrive from the battle-field hacked up and gory, stutter his message of disaster or triumph, then belch blood and drop at his lord’s feet. Or imaginative variations thereof.

The story-line here is traditional, dark and silly. The evil Ravenna [Charlize Theron] has, through beauty and guile, usurped the kingdom, turning it bleak and blizzardy with her miasmic charm. She murdered the goodly king by her own hand after insinuating herself into his bed, but for no good reason she left his popular and supposedly beautiful daughter, Snow White [Kristen Stewart], alive and languishing in a topmost tower. Time passes and Ravenna, obsessed with the nexus of beauty and power, somehow maintains her looks by draining ‘essence of youth’ out of comely victims with a squeeze of the throat. She also regularly does the mirror, mirror thing and all’s well until Snow White comes of age. Bad news, so Ravenna sends her faithfully serving brother to murder the damsel at last. But lo! she escapes the murderer and flees the castle into the wilde wood, full of dark magick, where she encounters a huntsman [Chris Hemsworth], sent to ‘bring her in’. She also meets seven dwarvish folk, a stag with show-offy antlers, and a monster or two. I have to admit I vagued out during the mid-section for want of anything credible to grab onto, but in the end Snow White, having clapped on her male and learned horsemanship, swordsmanship and leadership, comes storming back to the dark castle with her huntsman, her dwarves and her army. Another tedious battle scene, and in the thick of it, a rampant Snow White spies Ravenna looking down on the scene. She bounds up the stone stairs, flashing sword in hand, to do battle. A sense of déjà vu… Ah yes, I suddenly saw Errol Flynn’s Robin bounding up those same steps to give it good and proper to Basil Rathbone’s Sherrif. Plus ça change

In the end Snow White is crowned queen [but I can’t really imagine her as a ruler], and the still-lurking huntsman leads us to the obvious inference. Somehow I didn’t feel as uplifted as I should. Kristen Stewart, whom I’ve never seen before in anything, seemed at first an odd choice for Snow White, ‘fairest in the land’, because she’s not a classic beauty, but that worked to her advantage, for me anyway. I was quite taken by her guilelessness and determination – it seemed to exude naturally from her. In short, reader, she won my heart. Not that it was a demanding role, apart from the physical aspects. It was all grimacing, gasping and grunting, and occasionally being her sweet self, as in the dance with a smitten dwarf. Charlize Theron, a generally more multi-faceted actor, tried to milk the most out of her character, to bring complexity to an obsessive and heartless archetype, but there’s only so much you can do, apart from shouting very very loud.

So, a pleasant enough piece of hokum, with some nice special effects, occasionally overdone, but a thin, clichéd storyline. Hardly a must-see.

Written by stewart henderson

July 1, 2012 at 11:07 am