Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan | 2hr 37min

Through a nocturnal Turkish countryside of rolling hills and open fields, three cars wind their way around barren slopes in single file, piercing the darkness with their bright headlights. The harsh glare invades the beautiful natural scenery with a penetrating observation, as if trying to expose some grim, hidden secret. Inside these cars is a group of professionals – police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor, some grave diggers, and armed forces, all being guided by two suspects who have murdered and buried a man somewhere in the rural regions of Central Anatolia.

The identity of the victim and the killers’ motivations remain elusive for much of the film, as do the personal trials of the prosecutor and doctor who speak of their own lives in oblique ways. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is in no rush to deliver the answers we seek in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the pay offs are often subtle, but sure enough, this quietly languid narrative eventually pulls each story together in a meditation on sin, regret, and the passing of one’s transgressions onto the next generation.

In the gorgeous long shots of cars following twisted roads and disappearing behind curved hillsides, one is particularly reminded of a similar visual conceit used in Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, another barebones piece of minimalist cinema in which a man drives through the Iranian countryside searching for a stranger to assist him in his suicide. A series of discussions inside a car similarly provide the philosophical framework through which both director-writers contemplate death, all the while teasing the possibility of an actual corpse making an appearance on the other end.

For all its intelligent scripting though, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does not possess the same succinctness or efficiency as Kiarostami’s film. In its first half, it deliberately meanders from one site to the next as one of the suspects, Kenan, leads the men on a trail of guesses as to where he buried the body. The painstaking precision of the investigation can be trying, dwelling on details that carry little to no emotional weight, and yet every now and then Ceylan breaks through the monotony of these conversations with a delicate flourish of style and symbolism. As one character shakes a tree branch, an apple falls onto the hillside, rolls into a stream, and drifts away. It is the first major break from the film’s main narrative, and as it gets stuck at a dam where several other apples are rotting away, it calls to mind both the forbidden fruit of original sin, and the journey of every living thing arriving at the same inevitable location where so many others have terminated before.

In this manner, Ceylan imbues his film with a sense of mysticism that hangs in the air. Later when the men stop over at the mayor’s house to eat, the power goes out, but not long after this happens his daughter enters the room carrying a tray of tea and an oil lamp that lights up her face like a holy angel. Her quiet, graceful presence moves each of them deeply, but none more so than Kenan who begins to cry. As discussions around children being punished for their parents’ sins develop, she stands for an untainted image of purity over whom they mourn, wracked with sorrow for what she may have to suffer. Earlier in the film one police officer remarks with a hint of sarcasm that this night might be looked back on like a fairy tale, and although there is little whimsy to be found here, Ceylan’s collection of archetypal characters and symbols certainly lends itself to a fable-like reading of his existential narrative.

Just as the unearthing of a human body exposes the relevance of such questions to the killer’s life, so too does the exhumation of other secrets via adjacent allegories and off-hand conversations reveal the scope of generational sin through the rest of the ensemble. Kenan’s feud with another man over the true paternity of a 12-year-old boy is revealed to be the motivation for his drunken murder, yet in the act he also ostracises and traumatises his son. The police chief answers a call from his furious wife who is caring for their sick child, though he ignores her pleas and keeps on working. A tale that the prosecutor narrates about a woman who predicted the exact date of her death is revealed to possess hidden depths relating to his own infidelity, ultimately destroying his daughter’s chance at a normal family life. As he tells his new confidant:

“It’s the kids who suffer in the end, doctor. Everyone pays for the things they do. But kids pay for the sins of adults.”

With this in mind, the divorced, childless doctor who is so dedicated to the objectivity of science cannot help twisting a small piece of evidence in the autopsy room to save the victim’s son from the traumatic knowledge of his father’s true fate. As he gazes out his window at the wife and boy, we also notice a small bloodstain on his cheek. Perhaps there is a little piece of himself that identifies with that lifeless cadaver lying on the operating table, with no partner or child. It is remarkable that even in spite of these characters’ melancholy journeys towards existential enlightenment, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is still so elegant in its formal progression, bringing together an ensemble of flawed, shame-filled men over twelve life-changing hours.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is currently streaming on Mubi and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.


A Dangerous Method (2011)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 39min

The field of psychoanalysis has come a long way since the days of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but there may not be so many specialists in the decades since who would make for as compelling drama as that which David Cronenberg plays out in A Dangerous Method. It comes at a stage in the director’s career when he is finding other expressions for his cerebral fascinations in humanity’s most primal fears and desires beyond his renowned displays of shocking body horror. Here, he opts for a quieter, thoughtfully staged interrogation of similar questions around instinct, sexuality, and repression – or at least, of respected historical men professionally and personally involved in such studies.

Joining Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender to round out the trifecta of founding psychoanalysts in A Dangerous Method is Keira Knightley, playing Jung’s patient-turned-colleague, Sabina Spielren. When she first arrives at his research hospital in Zürich, she is mentally broken and suffering from hysteria. There is a lot being asked of Knightley in this role, and in her erratic tics, outbursts, and overdone Russian accent, she doesn’t quite pull it all together. In his remarkable restraint, Fassbender more than compensates for his co-star’s weaknesses though, taking centre stage in a wrestle between refined judgement and primal impulse, or what Freud might call the superego and id.

In treating Spielren, Jung resorts to Freudian treatments of dream interpretation and word association, setting up an educational connection between himself and the founding father of psychoanalysis early on. Theirs is a tumultuous relationship that Fassbender and Mortensen relish every second of in lengthy discussions and disagreements, though in his marvellous depth of field and blocking Cronenberg never lets these dialogue-heavy scenes become so inert as to grow turgid. Split diopter lenses frequent the first half of A Dangerous Method, dividing the foregrounds and backgrounds in therapy sessions that reveal a disconnection between Jung and his patients. In telling his patients to keep their back to him as they speak, he avoids letting his presence inhibit upon their natural state, though in setting up a physical distance between them he also saves himself from engaging too closely.

Split diopter lenses dividing frames right down the centre. A fitting choice to isolate these haughty psychoanalysts from their patients and each other.
Cronenberg’s deep focus cinematography allowing us these crisp, delicate compositions, bringing together wonderful blocking and gorgeous period decor.

It is when Jung and Freud first meet that such barriers begin to break down. The two lose track of time in their very first conversation together, picking each other’s brains for 13 hours straight, though there are irreconcilable differences between their methods. To Freud, sexuality is at the core of the human subconscious, hidden beneath layers of restrained inhibition. To Jung, the unconscious consists of broader, perhaps even mystical elements, and is not at odds with any individual’s conscious ego, but rather supplements it. The aesthetic distinction between both methodologies is evident in Cronenberg’s period decor – Freud’s office is an intricate clutter of books, modern art, cabinets, and statuettes from a diverse range of ancient cultures, crowding out the mise-en-scène with a chaotic sort of intelligence. The neat minimalism of Jung’s workspaces is its inverse, and might even by described by Freud as an image of repression.

The clutter and detail in Freud’s office is marvellous – a strong sense of character through production design.

What ensues from this clash of psychoanalysts is a complex web of transference, particularly as Jung and Spielren submit to the sexual desires brought about by Freud’s dangerous therapeutic method – the talking cure. In meeting an acolyte of Freud who unashamedly began a sexual relationship with a patient and submits to all his most hedonistic impulses, Jung is pushed over the line. Later, another brand of transference emerges in the paternal relationship between Freud and Jung, pertinent to their discussions around father complexes whereby one generation of men is killed by their younger counterparts.

It is a layered screenplay that Cronenberg constructs here, and one that draws a fascinatingly direct line between such reserved historical figures and their observations of emotionally charged human nature. There is no body horror to be found here, and yet Cronenberg reveals that his work is defined less by a disturbing visual style, and more by an ability to draw out a raw vulnerability from within his characters. Then again, perhaps all it took was a filmmaker with an eye for visceral carnal transgressions to find that perverse side to Freud and Jung.

Neatly curated production design all throughout. Cronenberg isn’t know for his exquisitely beautiful visuals, but he shows it off as just another tool in his filmmaker’s arsenal here.

A Dangerous Method is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

The Souvenir (2019)

Joanna Hogg | 1hr 48min

Any clear-minded person can see that Julie and Anthony don’t make sense as a couple. One is an insecure though ambitious film student, trying to figure out what she can contribute to society beyond her own privileged background. The other is a haughty intellectual, slightly more experienced, but thinly concealing an innate brokenness. Through the casual conversations, dinner parties, student film shoots, and interviews of The Souvenir, Hogg studies both characters with a keen eye. It is a testament to her thoughtful screenplay and Tom Burke’s restrained performance that we are still holding onto a shred of pity for Anthony by the end, but given the autobiographical angle from which she is approaching this story, it is also clear that Julie is the one whom she looks upon with the greatest empathy and affection. Though Julie is a woman not yet fully sure of the space she inhabits in the world, Hogg quietly reassures us – she’s getting there, even despite her many blunders and setbacks.

Wide shots are Hogg’s go-to, setting us back from the drama at right angles.

Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, slips into the role of Julie with a modest grace, and much like her mother she carries a cool composure about her, without being so refined as to be inaccessible. Quite fittingly, Tilda plays the mother of Julie as well, Rosalind, and in her few scenes we see a woman with years of wisdom behind her painfully recognising her child’s mistakes, though unable to fully protect her from the consequences. When Julie stays up late for Anthony to arrive one night, Rosalind is there to take over and let her daughter sleep peacefully. The gentle sorrow she projects when Julie wakes is heartbreaking. Bad news has arrived, and she wilfully takes on the responsibility of being the one to ease her child into it.

For Julie, her relationship with Anthony is a process of discovering unsavoury behaviours hidden beneath a veneer of ostentatious respectability. At a dinner featuring a cameo from a gleefully alternative Richard Ayoade, the secret of Anthony’s heroin addiction comes to light. After he stages a break-in at their hotel room in Venice and is caught out, he refuses to admit he did anything wrong, even going so far as to gaslight her into believing she is overreacting.

“You’re inviting me to torture you.”

Thoughtful use of interiors to split Julie and Anthony across either side of the frame.

The fact that he is so much more articulate than Julie is frustrating, and yet it is also one of his most attractive qualities. Where she anxiously stumbles trying to justify why she wants to make a film about downtrodden lives so distant from her own experiences, he confidently asserts the value of cinema that separates itself from reality. Where she gets flustered on film shoots and awkwardly bumps into equipment, he carries an air of self-assured stability.

The frequent symmetry of Hogg’s compositions is integral to the framing of this tempestuous relationship, particularly as she shoots her actors through corridors and doorways that open into small, isolated frames. Traces of Yasujiro Ozu are evident in her decision to set her camera back in static wide shots and perpendicular to the actors, as if presenting them like creatures in their natural habitats, but at times it also powerfully diminishes her characters within their surroundings. In a cavernous Venetian room painted with elaborate murals from floor to ceiling, Julie’s breakdown plays out in a mirror on its far side, barely making a mark on the entire image. This fracturing effect is even more potent in the recurring use of a wall-length mirror back at Julie’s apartment, bringing visual layers to compositions that face her away from her guests, or alternatively split the frame down the middle with symmetrical reflections.

Julie’s breakdown in Venice relegated to a small portion of the composition – subtle visual work from Hogg in crafting a story around these characters.
The huge mirror in Julie’s apartment used over and over to form magnificently meaningful compositions, isolating her and fracturing her relationships.

It is a compellingly character-centric aesthetic which Hogg crafts here, so it is somewhat ironic that one of the most affecting shots of The Souvenir is a landscape notable for its lack of any human figures. It returns three times over throughout the film, each time paired with voiceovers of Anthony’s poetic letters, though perhaps most curious aspect is Hogg’s framing of the horizon so far down in the shot that all we can glimpse is the canopy of trees reaching up towards a cloudy sky nearing sunset.

A formal use of this unusual landscape, returning to it over voiceovers of Anthony’s letters.

It is a romanticised vision of a relationship that can only exist when Anthony is absent, though perhaps this is the way he prefers it as well. With one of his letters, he also sends a postcard depicting Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir, from which the film gets its namesake. Within it, a young woman in a pink dress is carving initials into a tree, and we can presume from the letter at her feet that they belong to her lover. Julie thinks she looks sad. Anthony is sure she looks determined. The parallels to their relationship are evident either way, as he continues to live on in those spaces even where he is not physically present. When Hogg finally opens one giant door to the outside world in the magnificent closing shot of the film though, there is a sense of Julie decisively moving on with her life, embracing a world beyond her first love – even if the scars and lessons he left behind never quite fade.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, The Souvenir, used as an effective running motif.
A stunner of a final shot, packed with layers of meaning as Julie enters a new world without Anthony.

The Souvenir is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Richard Linklater | 1hr 56min

The pretension and faux-philosophising of Richard Linklater’s untroubled Generation X characters is much more a distinguished feature rather than flaw of his wandering, nostalgia-ridden screenplays. The times we spend within these worlds are often defined within microcosmic bubbles, and yet his unhurried narratives unfold with the sense that they could go on forever, treading the line between hedonism and enlightenment with an air of self-assurance. That Everybody Wants Some!! acts is a spiritual sequel to his 1993 coming-of-age movie Dazed and Confused rather than a direct continuation is an important distinction to make – high school freshman Mitch Kramer will forever be 14-years-old as far as we are concerned, just as his older counterpart in this film, Jake Bradford, will eternally be 18, permanently existing within those three, carefree days leading into the official start date of the 1980 college semester.

As usual, plot is the least of Linklater’s concerns. Everybody Wants Some!! is richly character-driven, and while each member of this college baseball team is defined early on by their quirks and relationships, it isn’t until after the accumulation of time they spend together that we, along with Jake, begin to sink into the cool dynamic between them. This isn’t to say that they are all chilled-out pleasure seekers, especially given the egos running high among that always seem to have something to prove in the inanest competitions. These young men make each other’s knuckles bleed in feats of endurance, defiantly offer “triple or nothing” bets in games they are already losing, and the tempers in some run particularly short, leading to bar fights. But the stakes remain extraordinarily low all through this film, and it is through those scenes where their strengths, flaws, and idiosyncrasies emerge organically with little external pressure that we begin to accept them as they are. Beauter will always be unusually protective over his real name, just like Niles will always be a little highly-strung and Finn will always be a smart-ass. Even if they fail to identify it in themselves, there is real significance to their petty struggles, reflecting the trials of a young generation as equally disillusioned as they are idealistic.

An incredibly rich ensemble of characters. Even the minor characters have their own idiosyncrasies.
A mural reminiscent of Dazed and Confused, used more than once as a backdrop to the character drama.

This chasm between their surface behaviours and the philosophy Linklater thoughtfully considers beneath the veneer of masculinity only ever closes on rare occasions. It certainly doesn’t happen in those scenes where Willoughby rambles on about finding who you are in “the tangents within the framework” of a Pink Floyd song before taking a massive bong hit, though Linklater doesn’t cast heavy aspersions on his aloof, ostentatious behaviour. As it is revealed later, he is a 30-year-old who fraudulently adopts different names to keep returning to college, unable to let of the past much like Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused. This man is living with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance that no amount of drugged-out meditating will solve.

Wyatt Russell takes the Matthew McConaughey character in Everybody Wants Some!!, playing a much older man hanging out with college students to relive his college days.

It is rather in a quiet, tender moment between Jake and another girl on campus, Beverly, where a touch of innocent self-awareness emerges. As they enjoy the last few hours of joyful freedom before classes begin, they disappear from campus and savour their time together in a nearby lake, sharing their loves for baseball and theatre. After spending the past three days quietly observing and learning the ways of college life, he finally opens up with his own personal interpretation regarding the Greek myth of Sisyphus. To him, the endless task of pushing the same boulder up a hill every day is a blessing, not a curse, creating meaning in the absence of any broader purpose, and through that both he and Beverly begin to understand each other’s passions a little more.

“Things only mean as much as the meaningfulness we allow them to have.”

An unusually beautiful sequence for a Linklater film, as the college baseball players drop in on an Alice in Wonderland themed house party run by theatre majors.

This isn’t necessarily profoundly deep to anyone who has considered philosophy before, but Linklater fully recognises the beauty in these young people happening across such ideas for the first time. Save for a few gracefully languid camera movements that let us lazily drift between characters and colourful murals splashed up against walls as backdrops, Linklater does not imprint an overly interesting cinematic style on his film. It is rather his commitment to the subtle form of the piece that Everybody Wants Some!! gradually evolves into a compelling, unhurried study of young adulthood at the point that one is truly free from their parents for the first time. In the bottom right corner of the frame, Linklater will often reveal time stamps counting down until class begins, when some sort of routine and structure will be brought back into the lives of Jake and his friends. But in those three days set out from the start where the only rules given to them can easily be broken without consequence, time seems to stretch on in eternal excitement for whatever comes next.

Solid form to this loose, plotless narrative, counting down the days and hours until these young men and women compromise a little bit of their freedom.

Everybody Wants Some!! is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Céline Sciamma | 2hr 1min

The perspective that Céline Sciamma offers us in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not just that of a spectator viewing a gallery of beautifully delicate paintings, but rather that of the painter themselves, translating every curve and angle of their subject’s visage into its artistic equivalent. That interpretation can only come after an intense study of these details – the contour of the cartilage on an ear, or the way they don’t blink when they are annoyed, as is the case in Marianne’s observation of Héloïse. It is a connection more akin to lovers than a contractor and client, and it is through this lens that such a relationship forms between both women on the distant French island of Brittany.

When Marianne arrives in Héloïse’s life, the young woman of the gentry has already proven herself difficult to capture a likeness of in her refusal to sit still, though her mother is determined for a painting to be completed so that the Milanese nobleman she is betrothed to knows what she looks like. Beyond this island of seaside cliffs and large French manors, it is a world of men that dictates the rules of romance, art, and politics with heavy hands and enormous egos. Besides the glimpses we get of those men who ferry women to and from the isle, this is not the world that Sciamma is interested in depicting. In their absence, a fresh new dynamic begins to form around Marianne and Héloïse, bound not by the oppressive gazes and laws of men, but rather by the slowly expanding limits of their own curiosity.

Seaside cliffs and beaches making for exquisite settings to this blossoming romance, these lovers’ faces and bodies staged beautifully within them.

Not every frame here is seeping with the picturesque imagery its title might express, but as this story gracefully flows along, Sciamma intermittently lands us with the sorts of visual compositions that leap out in their still, expressive beauty. Marianne and Héloïse’s deep red and green dresses imprint against pale blue skies, waves, and interiors, lending their rounded shapes to the elegant poses of both actresses who always seem to be aware of their roles as models for Sciamma’s camera. Where expansive oceans and grassy landscapes open entire worlds to them in exteriors, it is inside the neatly curated mansion that she arranges décor like still-life subjects, offering the women a quiet, pensive retreat.

The blocking and arrangement of bodies with set dressing, evoking the elegance of 18th century European art.
Inventive uses of mirrors, emphasising the artist’s gaze.

One night as the women of this island gather around a bonfire to sing a wildly polyrhythmic chant, Marianne and Héloïse wander over to join them. Though the scene carries visual connotations of a coven gathering to share in something not understood by worldly men, there is not the usual uneasiness often attached to such depictions. In this moment, both our leading women begin to consider the possibility that the freedoms and desires they have experienced aren’t so unique to their own circumstances. The patriarchal view of female relationships as being pagan or demonic does not exist here, and as such these rituals of bonding are able to develop naturally without the typical vilification.

Sciamma’s fascination in the mythologising of gender, love, and art continues to reach out into ancient Greek legends, most significantly touching on the fateful relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice. Together, Marianne, Héloïse, and the housemaid, Sophie, read this story, pondering the tragic decision made by Orpheus towards the end while he is leading his deceased lover out of the underworld, being allowed to take her home as long as he does not turn to look back at her. Though Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not a direct adaptation of this story, it does carefully consider its parallels. Just as a simple gaze can bring an artist and their muse together in a powerfully binding love, so too may it divide them forever.

Artistic interpretations of Orpheus and Eurydice all over this film, including Marianne’s painting that captures the pivotal moment of his turning and loss.

Perhaps then it all comes down the purpose of that gaze. A lover might choose to keep their back turned and preserve this tangible connection, though as Marianne notes, Orpheus “doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Humans may die, but the impression they leave behind in the imagination of an artist lives on in many forms, and it is with this in mind that Sciamma evokes ghostly visions of Héloïse through Marianne’s eyes, as if in anticipation of their eventual separation. Within the conventional heterosexual myth, that choice to be either a lover or a poet is integral to Orpheus’ fate, though as the patriarchal influence of the outside world begins to creep in on Sciamma’s paradise, it is evident that there is no such thing as the lover’s choice for Marianne – as society would have it she must be a poet, forever staring in from the outside, or looking back from the future.

The spectre of Héloïse hanging over this film, an eternal image of her in that moment before Marianne parts from her forever.

As progressive a story as Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be, such skilful layering of narrative archetypes lends classical definitions to its characters, intertwining their passions with the nature of humanity as it has been represented narratively throughout history. All throughout, it comes back to the gazes of lovers and artists, both of which are especially tied together in Sciamma’s magnificent final shot that spends two and a half minutes zooming in on Héloïse’s profile at a live orchestra performance. While we engage with every tear and smile that breaks across her face, the camera remains unbroken and unwavering, offering a gaze which ties two people closely in a single moment in time with a burning passion, and yet which will only go on to survive as a lonely, singular, and eternally youthful impression.

A superb final shot paired with a remarkable performance – an entire story unfolds on Adèle Hanael’s face over two and a half minutes.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

The Grandmaster (2013)

Wong Kar-wai | 2hr 10min

The kung-fu of The Grandmaster is more than just a kinetic explosion of violence aimed at bringing an opponent to their knees. For Wong Kar-wai, it is about the precise impact of every tiny motion. A punch landing on a concrete pillar, shaking the snow off like a mini earthquake. Raindrops bouncing up off dark puddles. The swift draw of a blade to land exactly where it is intended. In one conflict between rivals Gong Er and Ip Man, the contest comes down to who is the first to break a piece of furniture, the latter eventually losing when he accidentally splits a staircase. Wong has rarely indulged so much in the fast pacing and fierceness of action cinema, and yet the delicate attention to detail in his slow-motion cinematography, extreme close-ups, and elegant choreography also ties The Grandmaster to the brooding, lyrical style that he has spent decades honing with such meticulousness.

Wong is more in tune with his Akira Kurosawa influence than ever in The Grandmaster. His use of weather to bring extra layers of movement and atmosphere to his action scenes is gorgeous. So much of this film is just drenched in rain, bouncing off pavement, bodies, and architecture.

The rise of Chinese martial artist Ip Man to the position of Grandmaster is the subject of Wong’s fascination here, and his regular collaborator Tony Leung draws on an entirely new skillset in taking on the role of the Wing Chun expert. His composure exudes authority, and when he wears that wide-brimmed fedora in dimly lit scenes of rain and smoke, he even strikes the figure of a film noir hero, finding a balance between the light and dark that resides within him. In his pairing with Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er, there emerges something subtly mystical that transcends the traditional biopic format – across decades of their lives, neither seem to age.

Though there is a mutual affection and trust that is revealed between them over years of war and political turmoil, the two move in very different directions, with Ip Man starting a family and Gong Er choosing to seek vengeance on her father’s back-stabbing student, Ma San. Perhaps these experiences are the foundation for their attitudes towards elitism in martial arts, with him hoping to teach younger generations the techniques of Wing Chun, while she refuses to divulge her father’s secrets of the Baguazhang to anyone else.

The scope of this narrative is huge, and Wong proves he is more than capable of imbuing each setting with its own texture, from the rainy alleyways to the grand manors and snowy landscapes.

In stretching his narrative across the 1930s to 50s, Wong gradually expands its scope to epic historical levels, and the visual splendour of Wong’s snowy landscapes, dark alleyways, and sumptuously designed manors more than matches its grandeur. Just as significant as his gorgeously staged wide shots though are those close-ups that tune into the sizzle of a cigarette or the graceful swish of a foot through a puddle, bringing a visceral impact to every single movement and strike amid scenes of otherwise fast-moving combat.

Close-ups of fights and ordinary actions caught in slow-motion. The impact is visceral and key to the texture of this film, heightening every tiny impact and sound effect.

It is especially in the train station scene where Gong Er finally take her vengeance upon Ma San that we see Wong at the height of his stylistic powers, diffusing dim, golden light through the smoke and snowflakes that gently blow across the platform. His camera dances with the opponents in dazzling whip pans and slow, deliberate motions, while right next to them a train picks up its speed, its moving lights, ringing bells, and clacking sounds underscoring their conflict with its own dynamic, accelerating rhythm.

A highlight of the film and of Wong’s entire filmography. This train station combat is kinetic, with the movement of the snow, smoke, and train heightening the choreography, all within this perfectly lit golden space. Easily one of the best fight scenes of the decade.

Even without his regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle beside him, Wong proves that he not only has the eye to capture jaw-dropping imagery, but the editing skills as well to bring us deep into the art of combat. Ip Man himself would go on to teach Bruce Lee among other skilled martial artists, though it is through the struggles and remarkable feats of combat captured in such delicate detail in The Grandmaster that Wong delivers a beautifully artistic impression of the man beyond the lessons he left behind.

The action scenes may move fast, but Wong still takes the time to indulge in his soft lighting and ornate architecture.

The Grandmaster is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 6min

Having spent much of his career progressively inching further away from his neorealist roots, Mountains May Depart marks Jia Zhangke’s most significant withdrawal from that distinctive, authentic style, and is slightly more disappointing for it. The emotions are bigger and broader here, as he plays more into the conventional melodrama of his characters’ relationships than the quiet beats of disaffection, which he has always wielded such brilliant control over. Rather than sitting back at a distance where we can appreciate the sensitive ambiguity of their exchanges, Jia’s camera narrows further in on their faces than it ever has before, taking a certain edge off his otherwise remarkable use of traditional and modern architecture to define their connections and identities.
Still, this is not bad drama by any means, and it isn’t like he is abandoning all visual style entirely. Jia finds the time now and again to return to a long shot of a beautiful, towering pagoda, rising up in the background behind the characters, reminding us of the history that continues to hang over their lives. And when it comes to narrative structure, the framing of Mountains May Depart across three separate time periods may not carry the heavy, epic weight of his earlier film, Platform, but it at least efficiently illustrates the accelerating speed with which Chinese culture is evolving.

Great use of location shooting, as well as shifting aspect ratios to denote different time periods.

On the eve of the new millennium in 1999, we meet Tao, a young shopkeeper caught in a love-triangle that sees her wind up with her more attractive but arrogant suitor. Later, she gives birth to a baby boy, Daole, and divorces her husband. In 2014, she reaches out to her estranged 7-year-old son, and even at this early point in his life she poignantly recognises the cultural distance between their generations. In the final act, set in 2026, we begin to follow Daole as a young man who has moved to Australia and adopted the moniker “Dollar”, effectively cementing his identity within a westernised culture. The only links back to his heritage are through his troubled relationship with his father, who he doesn’t even share a common language with, and his Chinese language teacher. The promise of globalisation to bring the people together is exposed as a lie, as this small family which once held so much hope for the future has been fractured in every sense. Dollar has not seen his mother since he was a childhood, but Jia sparks some hope for their relationship in the final moments, as the young immigrant finally considers reconnecting with her.

As much as this final act works to tie off Jia’s point about China’s modernist progress isolating its own citizens, it is also here where he loses sight of the film’s formal strength. With Tao almost completely dropping out of the narrative, and a jarringly inauthentic vision of a futuristic society, the last forty minutes of the film feels oddly out of place with the rest of the film.

A story spanning generations and underscoring the gaps between them. There is real tenderness at its heart even if the film falters in the final act.

That is, until the largely silent epilogue, when Jia returns to a lonely, middle-aged Tao, back in China. We watch as she walks outside her home into the thick snow laying over the village, pauses, and begins to dance. As suggested by the musical bookends of The Pet Shop Boys’ song “Go West”, the westernised culture that her nation has adopted still isn’t going anywhere. But at the same time, neither is that gorgeous, monumental pagoda, rising up out of the landscape like a shrine to China’s past.

Gorgeous formal ambition in the use of the Chinese pagoda, a towering symbol of Chinese tradition even as time wears on.

Mountains May Depart is not currently available to stream in Australia.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Lynne Ramsay | 1hr 35min

The prisons which Lynne Ramsay’s characters trap themselves inside are not made of material, but of time and memories, reverberating with echoes of past traumas and in the case of Joe, teasing him with visions of potential futures. As he lumbers through everyday life caring for his elderly mother, he disappears into himself as a hulking mass of emptiness, and then when he sets himself to work he transforms into a force of pain and justice. His targets? Human traffickers, specifically those who kidnap and profit off young girls. For a man who lives in persistent agony and possesses the talent to exact that suffering upon others, the cause towards which he channels it is surprisingly noble, though given how closely he identifies with the corrupt world around him, these missions to restore its lost innocence touchingly point towards a shred of hope for his own salvation.

Saving young victims of trafficking is only one path out of his mental prison though. The other is far blunter, and much easier. Just as Joe is plagued by visions of Nina, one specific girl he has been tasked with rescuing, so too does he indulge in fantasies of his own suicide, imagining the sort of release that would come with letting it all go. Equally as immediate as his own prospective futures is his tragic past, punctuating the narrative in bursts of flashbacks that reveal glimpses of an abusive childhood he continues to re-enact in the present, wrapping himself up and suffocating in plastic just as his father used to do to him, all the while Ramsay reveals the direct parallels between these timelines in graphic match cuts.

Ramsay continues to prove her credentials as one of the great editors working today, give us these short, sharp bursts of traumatic flashbacks that also work as match cuts.

Like all of her films before, You Were Never Really Here is far less concerned with crafting a plot and dialogue than it is creating an impressionistic sense of a lonely, disorientated mind out of montages, leaping across time in non-linear structures that destabilise any notion of objective reality. With such a minimalist screenplay, Ramsay frees herself up to follow in the steps of such experimental silent filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein by building hypnotic rhythms and powerful visual juxtapositions in the editing room, drawing us into a bitter nightmare of hallucinations and flashbacks quietly spinning out of control.

Arresting images such as these becoming part of Ramsay’s ethereal, dreamy atmosphere.

Inhabiting the vessel of trauma that Ramsay’s restless style whirls around is Joaquin Phoenix, whose aptitude for psychologically broken characters takes on entirely different dimensions here than we have seen before. His face is covered in shaggy, grey hair, serving the same purpose as his baggy clothing and low-profile cap in concealing the shape and identity of the man who lies beneath. Neither fat nor muscular seem like proper descriptions here, but he is heavy, laying his whole body into physical confrontations and choosing the blunt force of a hammer over other more practical weapons. Few of Joe’s opponents pose any real challenge to his raw physical power, and we come to accept this to the point that Ramsay eventually excludes his fights altogether as he infiltrates a mansion where Nina is being held captive. Instead, we simply cut between the black-and-white surveillance footage of his determined trudge through the halls and the quiet aftermath of each encounter along the way, his enemies silently lying in pools of their own blood.

Ramsay’s use of negative space in framing Joaquin Phoenix superbly underscores Joe’s own emptiness.

Aside from one ambush that takes him unaware, it is evident that taking out these corrupt men poses little challenge to Joe, leaving the film open to a more internal conflict that pitches him against his own self-destructive psyche. Inside it, a haunting sound design of panicked whispers and Jonny Greenwood’s score of uneven, percussive beats melds with such perfect unease into Ramsay’s fragmented editing style, while in her mise-en-scène she continues to frame Joe in all sorts of mirrors that seem to reflect broken or incomplete visions of himself back at him. At times it is all too easy to sink into the ambient sea of bloody violence and death that she crafts here, but just as our troubled protagonist cannot escape those unexpected, sharp flashes of trauma, we too never fully acclimate to his ongoing pain. It is that possibility of just one more young life being saved which pulls us along, raising us up to the surface when the depression takes hold, and which offers a revitalised sense of purpose for even the most hopelessly imprisoned minds.

Fragmented mirrors and distorted reflections a recurring motif throughout Ramsay’s mise-en-scène. A truly internal character study of trauma and self-punishment.

You Were Never Really Here is currently streaming on Kanopy, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

A Touch of Sin (2013)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 10min

Four vignettes of modern-day China, each inspired by real national news stories, and all culminating in an act of desperate violence – this is the formally bold artistic statement which Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke puts forth with A Touch of Sin, pushing the boundaries of his usual neo-realistic style until they overlap with more traditional crime thriller conventions. China’s soulless, exploitative economy remains the source of much disaffection here, but where many of his previous characters let their disillusionment linger in a state of ambivalent inaction, here it is transformed into a fixated bitterness, with each of his four leads being brought to forceful, parallel conclusions about how to tip the scales of inequality.
Frustrated by the wealth gap between its labourers and managers, a worker representative at a coal mine in Shanxi goes on a crusade of justice against his superiors. An estranged husband returns home to his family for Chinese New Year Celebrations in Chongqing with a mysterious accumulation of money, which he has gained through morally reprehensible means. A receptionist at a spa in Hunan grows tired of her affluent clients’ misogynistic attitudes, snapping in a moment of cathartic brutality. And in Guangdong, a factory worker who is constantly being shifted between jobs that place little value on his wellbeing, is eventually driven to an act of self-destruction.

No doubt Jia’s bloodiest film to date, edging neorealism over into crime thriller conventions.

Jia’s formal exercise in comparing these four diverse, self-contained tableaus makes for perhaps his most confrontational attack yet on China’s move towards a dehumanising, capitalistic economy. Still Life implied violence in the deconstruction and demolishment of towering structures, but this is the first time he has chosen to represent this cultural decline so viscerally, through the depiction of actual bodily harm. Whether it is a premediated string of murders or a spur-of-the-moment action, each perpetrator in A Touch of Sin is driven by an overwhelming sense of nihilism, realising they are left with no options except that which they would have never considered before.

Jia’s use of architecture is always notable, particular here as he harkens back to more traditional, historical structures and then taints them with scenes of violence.

Though Jia’s use of architecture as character is evident, the sheer variety of geographical locations prevents A Touch of Sin from developing a consistent aesthetic. An ancient temple sets a holy backdrop to a callous assassination, smoke stacks and factories appear in a montage evoking Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, and the bright red Wushan Yangtze River Bridge from Still Life arches over a canal like a welcoming entrance, but should Jia have followed through on any of these stylistic choices a little more, he might have been able to find greater form in the connection between each vignette.

Some nice Ozu-style pillow shots are used here, though may have been more impactful if it was built into the structure throughout.
Returning to this location from Still Life, rightfully one of Jia’s favourite pieces of scenery that he always knows how to use to great effect.

The Roberto Rossellini influence that Jia exhibited in his earlier films with his use of dilapidated buildings does make a return here, but there is an even more notable narrative inspiration from the Italian neorealist’s 1948 film Germany Year Zero. In the final vignette which follows the alienated factory worker, Xiaohui, the young man steadily accumulates one misfortune after another, and this persistent bleakness builds towards his devastating, climactic suicide. While every other act of violence implies an external connection between the aggressor and their victims, Xiaohui’s isolation keeps his destructive fury contained to his own mind and body, capping off A Touch of Sin not with a ferocious attack on authority, but rather a moving plea for empathy

A Touch of Sin is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Son of Saul (2015)

László Nemes | 1hr 47min

In creating a cinematic interpretation of the Holocaust, the temptation to play into its widespread, visceral horror is right there, and certainly many films have taken that approach before. But what if a film were to take a far more subjective, personal aesthetic than any others before, and reject any notion of confronting its chilling, traumatic imagery head-on? What if we weren’t just limited to a single perspective for the entire run time, but rather confined to a wilfully incomplete picture of one small corner of history? László Nemes fully recognises the challenge he is posing himself in taking this approach throughout Son of Saul, and yet it is exactly this dogmatic dedication to a single point-of-view through unending close-ups which offers such tragic nuance to his story, keeping us firmly in the mind of one Jewish-Hungarian concentration camp prisoner.

A brilliantly effective setup for Nemes’ insistence on close-ups in this first shot, as Saul walks straight up into the focus of the camera.

Saul Ausländer’s role in the Sonderkommando unit of Auschwitz sees him put to work in salvaging valuables from the dead bodies of those who perished in gas chambers, and although the length of time he has spent fulfilling this job remains unclear, it has at least been long enough for him to grow numb to his surroundings. The opening shot of a blurry natural environment does little to clue us in on the setting, though when Saul approaches the camera from the background and finally arrives in close-up in razor-sharp focus, we latch right onto him as our primary vessel through which we can understand this world.

From this point on, Nemes’ long tracking shots rarely deviate from keeping Saul’s face and head as our centre of attention as he traverses the camp’s chambers, courtyards, and forests, always keeping this world of gut-wrenching horror and devastation just barely out of sight, whether through the camera’s shallow focus or crowded obstructions within the frame. Though it carries a similar subjective lens as a first-person perspective film like Enter the Void, the emphasis on Saul’s face accomplishes almost the exact opposite in directing our attention inwards on the eye of the hurricane that is his fragile psychological state.

Whenever the camera lets it focus extend into the background, the frame will always be restricted in some way, whether it is through the blocking of bodies or the claustrophobic mise-en-scène.

The thin barrier which Saul builds between reality and perception may be enough to block out the naked corpses and brutal murders that surround him, but the haunting whispers, guttural screams, retching, crying, and clanging of machinery continue to fill the air in a grotesquely detailed sound design, threatening to shatter that bubble of ignorance. Nemes’ decision to paint only a partial picture of this space is even more terrifying than a full-bodied rendering, as through this aural ambience he instead feeds our senses just enough information for us to fill in the gaps with our own notions of unlimited, unknown horror.

As for the pieces of this environment that we are allowed to lay eyes upon, we find nothing less than some of the most powerfully composed close-up shots of the decade, often with faces gathered together in this tight aspect ratio and lit with soft, dim natural light. With such an emphasis on facial expressions, there is much that rests on the subtleties of Géza Röhrig’s largely internal performance, which often conceals incredible anguish, terror, and frustration beneath a veneer of superficial control. On his back is an X designating him as a Sonderkommando worker, though it also marks him as target within his own narrative, unable to escape these cramped, enclosed quarters or his pending doom.

We often hang right behind Saul, the red X on his back standing out in this otherwise dreary brown environment.
The lighting and blocking of these faces is masterful.

Nevertheless, there is a fighting spirit inside him that he hangs onto in desperation, and which motivates his actions along two minimalistic plot threads running parallel to each other over the day and a half that this narrative unfolds over. Within such a contained span of time, Nemes maintains a rigid focus on the urgency of Saul’s immediate goals from scene-to-scene, particularly as they pertain to his hope of reclaiming some shred of dignity in the face of complete subservience to the SS-guards.

Along one strand we follow his cooperation with a group of rebellious prisoners planning an uprising, and the part he plays in smuggling resources between units as an act of defiance. While this covert, subversive effort feeds his desire for justice, his attempts at nourishing his suffering faith drives a more personal storyline regarding the burial of a young boy. He clings to the child’s body as if it were his last chance at salvation, and although he claims it is his own son, we learn from other men that this is not the case. It is in this self-deception that he scrounges for remnants of his Jewish culture and religion that have been decimated by the Nazi regime, and through which he strives to deliver a proper send-off with all the proper religious rites. In trying to attach his own identity to that of this boy’s he is almost pre-empting his own demise, and attempting to fulfil one final wish to put his own life and legacy to rest in accordance with his own religious faith.

Once again, the horrors of the camp are peeking through the obstructions of bodies and set dressing. We never get a good enough look to see what’s going on, but the terror is evident.

The place where Son of Saul ends up strikes a resounding note of tragic loss, and yet in suddenly breaking from its form with a sudden shift of perspective there is a lingering note of hope, as if a small piece of Saul’s spirit has continued to live on. Of course, the fact that this step into a world beyond his immediate point-of-view hits with such force is all down to Nemes’ rigid, consistent application of his own principled style up to this point, as he effectively narrows the scope of his story to a single, harrowing experience of an otherwise monumental blight on human history, and in doing so delivers one of the most traumatic depictions of war committed to film.

The first time we see Saul smile, a piece of his soul going out into the world with this child.

Son of Saul is available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.