Portrait of a major 20th-century literary icon and his impact on Western culture in “William Burroughs: Man Within”

Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)

An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.

The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.

The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.

Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.

The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.

Onibaba: a psychological horror study with an anti-war theme

Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba” (1964)

An old Japanese Buddhist tale of a woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter from visiting a temple becomes in Kaneto Shindo’s hands a psychological study of a post-apocalyptic society in which people crushed by warfare and poverty exist as best as they can but are undone by the stresses of day-to-day living and the repressed emotions and tensions generated which can explode in unexpected ways. The film is set in mediaeval Japan during a period of civil war and widespread destruction; the capital Kyoto has been set ablaze and two rival Emperors are vying for power and control. Peasants have been recruited by daimyo to fight for either Emperor or the Ashikaga shogun family. Two women, the mother (Nobuko Otawa) of one such peasant and his young wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have fled into swampy countryside where, hidden by tall seas of grass, they eke out a living killing and robbing lone samurai and selling their armour and swords to a merchant who pays them in bags of millet.

One day, a soldier peasant, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the wars: the mother immediately plies him with questions about her son Kichi and Hachi replies that he is dead. Hachi sets up his hut not far from where the mother and daughter-in-law live and eventually he seduces the daughter-in-law and invites her to live with him. The mother, dependent on her daughter-in-law to help in killing samurai, offers herself to Hachi once she realises what is going on but Hachi is not interested. The mother tries to prevent the younger woman from visiting Hachi every night but her efforts exhaust her.

One night while the daughter-in-law is out with Hachi, the mother meets a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) who wears a demon mask. The samurai tells the mother the mask is necessary as he has a beautiful face that is not for peasants to see. The samurai forces the mother on pain of death to lead him out of the swamps but she tricks him into falling down a large hole where the women usually lure their victims. Once she is sure that he is dead, the mother descends into the hole to retrieve his armour and swords, and with effort takes the mask off his face. She sees that the samurai is severely disfigured.

The demon mask gives the mother an idea of how to control her wayward daughter-in-law and for the first few times she succeeds in stopping the girl from visiting Hachi by putting the fear of demons into her. Unfortunately an unexpected rainstorm enables the girl to escape and creates another problem for the mother with the mask …

The film may be very slow for some viewers but the pace helps to build up unbearable tension, especially unbearable sexual tension, gradually and relentlessly. The main actors do a fine job in expressing their fears of isolation and loneliness, and their need for connection and love, through their expressions, actions and dialogue, minimal though these are. The mother’s sexual frustrations and jealousy lead her to deny her daughter-in-law the chance of fulfillment with Hachi, even though he is a drunk and a sleaze, and these emotions transform the older woman into the demon hag of the film’s title. The film’s swampland setting, dominated by restless waving forests of susuki grass, and with its lone tree and the vagina-like hole that promises death to high-born samurai but gives life to the peasant women, reflects the sexual frustrations of its main characters and becomes a significant character in its own right. The music soundtrack which ranges from improvised jazz bebop to ritual drumming adds to the feeling of unease and tension.

Some audiences may be perturbed by the macabre grand-guignol climax which turns the film into uncomfortable comedy, completely at odds with its otherwise realist themes. The film’s conclusion comes quickly and is deliberately left open-ended. The one thing we can be sure of is that chaos will follow: the vagina-like hole, which had received male victims of wealth and status, might now receive an impoverished female victim and what cosmic disruption might now be caused by a new imbalance in nature can only be guessed at.

The film derives its impact and horror from the characters’ psychology, the stresses, inner conflicts and tensions they experience and the actions that result with their devastating consequences. Stunning black-and-white cinematography, an arch music soundtrack and a minimal style that throws emphasis on character development help turn a bare-bones story into an unforgettable work of art. Few other films showing how a debased society at war and the pressures of poverty and uncertainty it creates can lead to people treating one another in the most dreadful ways can match “Onibaba” for drama and impact.

Supervenus: a 3-minute critique on Western standards of female pulchritude and the damage they cause

Frédéric Doazan, “Supervenus” (2013)

This 3-minute debut effort for writer / director Frédéric Doazan is a devastatingly critical comment on modern standards of female beauty as they have changed over time. Using Photoshop, a home-made green screen to film his hands and Adobe After Effects, Doazan cuts out a picture of a woman from an old anatomy textbook and changes her appearance from ordinary and generic to a more glamorous creature by puffing out her cheeks and lips, replacing her brown eyes with blue (by ripping out her eyeballs), giving her lustrous dark hair, augmenting her breasts, digging out a pair of ribs and performing other kinds of cosmetic surgery in fairly gruesome and bloody ways. The result is varnished with a burst of sunlamp ray and the newly tanned lady looks quite attractive if rather bland. Doazan proceeds to the next step of transformation of his model by pumping up her cheeks and lips even more with Botox, zapping her brain with drugs, denying her her unborn child, thinning and extending her limbs, and stuffing more silicon into her already stuffed breasts. He subjects his victim to yet more sunlamp rays and the end result is … more sizzled than sizzling.

The silent animation – there are sound effects of slicing and dicing, but that’s all – is entertaining to watch as comedy horror satire. Doazan makes a good point about how much female physical appearance is forced to conform to a highly artificial standard determined by external forces (represented by gloved hands) and how much individuality and the natural functions of the female body are sacrificed in following such a standard. Most disturbing of course is the moulding of the brain (and the woman’s own sense of identity) and the harm the various procedures cause to the woman’s body until it can’t stand the tortures any more and literally falls apart.

Doazan might have made a stronger point about how corporations profit from establishing standards of beauty that compel women to undergo often quite dangerous and life-threatening procedures, and about how cosmetic surgery turns women and their bodies into passive vessels on which men may inscribe their desires and expectations. The very minimal style of animation certainly allows viewers to make up their own minds about what Doazan is saying about cosmetic surgery and its place in the way physical beauty is defined in Western society, and the harm and damage such narrow aesthetic standards can create.

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

The Red Turtle: a pretty and glossy package with a conservative and banal message

Michaël Dudok de Wiet, “The Red Turtle” (2016)

God save us all from pretty packages with lots of high gloss finish and finicky attention to detail that ultimately reveal very little of substance to sustain for a long time. The latest such trinket is Michaël Dudok de Wiet’s animated film “The Red Turtle” which he wrote and directed with the support of Studio Ghibli and French-German distributor Wild Bunch. The film wears its influences openly: the background animation reflects the high level of technical care and attention that Studio Ghibli gives to the appearance of its films while the film’s characters show a French influence in their simple features that emphasise their generic nature.

The plot is simple and vague enough as to form a parable of sorts. A man is lost at sea during a storm and washes up on a remote island somewhere in a vast ocean. He attempts to leave the island by building a raft out of bamboo trees he finds on the island at least three times and each time he is thwarted by a force that smashes the raft’s logs from below once out at sea. This strange force turns out to be a red turtle which incurs the castaway’s wrath. The turtle climbs out of the water onto the island beach, at which point the angry castaway overturns the animal onto its back, leaving it helpless and exposed to dehydrating heat. The creature dies and the castaway, overcome with remorse, covers it in bamboo branches and leaves.

The dead animal transforms into a woman and from then on the pair find love and play happy family, bringing up a son to adulthood. The trio appear to encounter very few problems during the long years they have together, the biggest being a giant tsunami that engulfs the island and leaves it completely devastated.

Problems abound with the film’s paper-sliver thin narrative and the message it is trying to tell. Everything is so generic – even the island is generic (we can’t even tell if the island is a tropical one or one in a more temperate climate zone) – that audiences will have a hard time identifying with the characters and their issues. The island itself could have been a significant character in testing the castaway’s resilience, moral and spiritual as well as physical, and in helping him to learn something about himself. Unfortunately the island setting and its inhabitants remain passive players in the entire movie. The turtle woman is hardly more active than the island: she merely plays a stereotypical good wife to the castaway. If she teaches him anything about how to accept his fate and how to live in harmony and peace with nature and to find his niche in the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, none of this is made obvious to viewers who have to infer all these notions for themselves.

The view of woman as being at one with nature, represented by the ease with which the turtle woman emerges from her carapace in human form and returns to her original form decades later, is a tired stereotype that should have been consigned to the dust-bin decades ago. It is a dangerous and demeaning stereotype that denies women their intelligence, qualities and distinctiveness as individuals, and puts men in opposition to nature from the moment of their birth: a deterministic and narrow view of humans that takes gender for granted instead of treating it as a cultural construct. At the end of the film, all that the castaway has learned from his island experiences is that his role in life is to find a wife, raise a family and let his son go out into the world to repeat the same banal cycle.

Ultimately the film carries a very conservative and depressing message about humans and their connections to the natural world and their place in the cycle of life. Nature is mysterious and unknowable, and humans can do no more than accept this idea and submit without complaint to the natural world’s whims, as represented by the suddenness of the tsunami that smashes into the island. (Er, shouldn’t the turtle woman with her deep knowledge of the natural world have received sufficient advance warning from earth tremors to warn her men to build a raft and put out to sea before the tsunami arrived?) The possibility of humans being partners with Nature and maintaining a balance between their interests and the restrictions of the natural world does not even occur. Those viewers anticipating that the film might address philosophical issues of existence and life’s purpose will be astonished that the plot has no time for such questions.

I don’t like to say that a film has been a waste of time to watch but with “The Red Turtle”, I’ve lost 80 minutes of time that could have been better spent doing something else. The film itself could have been condensed into much less time than it took to tell its story.

RoboGeisha: a quirky and outrageous sci-fi film with a message of love, connection and reconciliation

Noboru Iguchi, “RoboGeisha” (2009)

For a film about two sisters and their love-hate relationship, “RoboGeisha” offers more than just the usual floods of tears, emotional declamations of undying loyalty and a climactic reconciliation in which the siblings united save the world from being wiped out by a nuclear bomb. Anyone keen on an army of bikini-clad cyborg bimbo ninja soldiers who shoot burning-hot milk from their nipples and shurikens from their bums at enemies? Who’s dead set on watching a geisha transform herself into a racing hot-rod or a flying mini-jet chasing a giant pagoda castle robot intent on chucking a nuclear bomb down Mount Fuji? “RoboGeisha” has all this, and much more.

Well yeah, the story is very thin and hardly makes much sense so let’s get it out of the way quickly. Maiko (trainee geisha) Kikuyakko and her younger sister Yoshie (Aya Kiguchi), also a maiko, meet a mysterious client Hikaru who is the son of the founder and head of Kagero Steel, a giant zaibatsu-like corporation. Needing new blood for his army of geisha girl soldiers, Hikaru spots fighting potential in Yoshie, an otherwise shy and unassertive girl constantly bullied by Kikuyakko. Through extreme training and body modifications, Kikuyakko and Yoshie become fearsome fighting machines. They are sent out on various missions to kill enemies of Kagero Steel … until Yoshie is given the job of obliterating a group of elderly people. She learns that the pensioners have all lost their daughters and grand-daughters to Kagero Steel and that Kagero Steel is planning to destroy Tokyo – and maybe all of Japan – by dumping a nuclear bomb into Fujiyama and causing that dormant volcano to become active again.

The geisha cyborg gimmick wears out very quickly after the first scene in a geisha house and so Iguchi and his screenwriters throw in every outrageous joke and cliché they can think of. The female body as a metaphor for what men fear about women’s body fluids is, er, milked for all it’s worth. Just when you think the film-makers have exhausted every wacky device and avenue to hold viewers’ attention, they deliver a tour de force of a giant walking castle that wades into Tokyo and karate-chops down office buildings which (inexplicably) gush human blood while frightened crowds mill about and run for their lives. Where is Godzilla when you need him?

The acting is as embarrassing as having your face filled with those bum shurikens though Kiguchi manages to acquit herself as the cyborg geisha who still loves her sister in spite of everything the older girl has done to her and who transforms herself into a hot-rod racer and flying machine without falling over laughing. Good use of spinning cinematography compensates for the failed acting but the film also relies too much on cheap CGI which gives it more of a cartoony look than it should have for a campy B-grade film that at its core has a message about the importance of love and connection.

What makes the film work in spite of all the cheese is its hidden plea for families and siblings to stick together thick and thin, and for adults to care more for their children. If children are deprived of parental love and left to their own devices, they may end up joining a bad crowd or become hateful and jealous people. Self-sacrifice for one’s family and nation and working and striving together as a team – both very Japanese values – are also key themes. The film has a wide-eyed innocent naivety that makes the comedy work. Even crude and apparently sexist jokes come across more as absurd rather than knowing and derogatory.

On a certain level, the film celebrates and sends up Japanese institutions and values, and mocks itself as well, and this aspect is likely to ensure it continued cult status as a sort of quirky social commentary.

Wadjda: a heart-warming film about a girl’s desire for freedom and how she thwarts social and political restrictions to achieve it

Haifaa al Mansour, “Wadjda” (2012)

A heart-warming film on one girl’s desire for freedom, especially the freedom to be true to herself, “Wadjda” is remarkable for being the first Saudi film to be made by a female Saudi director. Shot mostly from the point of view of its young protagonist Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the film demonstrates how persistence, hard work, hope and being true to oneself can reap rewards greater than money or winning the approval of one’s elders. The film also looks at how middle-class Saudi women cope with the restrictions placed on them by government, to the extent that they cannot drive and must rely on male chauffeurs to ferry them about, and that they cannot allow themselves to be seen in public by strange men.

When we first meet the 10-year-old Wadjda, she’s already a rebellious kid who loves Western pop and rock, wears sneakers to school and never has her headscarf secured properly to cover her hair. She is an entrepreneurial go-getter who makes pocket money by making plaits for football clubs and selling them to the girls at school. She befriends a boy of her age, Abdullah (Abdurrahman al Golani) who has a bicycle. Wadjda wants one as well and coaxes a local shopkeeper into keeping a recently imported bike for her. The bike costs 1,000 riyals so to raise the money Wadjda enters her school’s Koran-reciting competition which offers a first prize of … 1,000 riyals.

Wadjda’s teachers at the hardline conservative girls’ school are surprised at the girl’s sudden turnabout from secular slouch to devoted religious convert but do not suspect what she wants the money for. The girl keeps busy doing normal lessons and then learning and reciting various Koranic surahs off by heart, and in her spare time secretly learning to ride Abdullah’s bike under the boy’s tutelage.

Meanwhile Wadjda’s mum (Reem Abdullah), a teacher, is at loggerheads with Wadjda’s dad because Dad desires a son but Mum cannot give him one. He is in negotiations with a family to acquire a second wife. As a result Dad comes and goes quite often, and is away for long periods leaving his unhappy wife and rebellious child on their own. The film does a good job limning the mother’s frustrations at her restricted life: arguing with her driver Iqbal (because as a woman she is forbidden from driving her own car) and going shopping for glamorous showy dresses which she knows she cannot wear away from home. One comes to understand how Wadjda might have become a rebel, seeing her parents unhappy with each other and both yearning for what they cannot have. Mother and daughter come to develop a close relationship which is often strained but turns out to be rock solid when Dad finally abandons them.

In its own deceptive simple and minimal style, “Wadjda” has a great deal to say about the nature of religious oppression and the stifling of normal human social intercourse this creates. In a society that denies women freedom of movement, Wadjda’s mother and teachers are horrified that the girl wants a bicycle, and do all they can to prevent her from having one. It is significant that women are the ones who zealously police girls’ behaviour and ensure they do not offend any men. With the exception of young Abdullah, the male characters are passive bystanders who do not affect the direction of the plot in any way; even the father simply disappears with the likelihood that he will continue supporting his wife and daughter financially at least.

The restrictions on women’s movements certainly affect the female characters in major ways but there is an insinuation that the male characters also suffer from those restrictions indirectly. One gets the impression that the men are rather infantile, not fully adult, and the women a strange and unpleasant mix of grim and unyielding strictness, hysterical superstition and amoral childishness. It seems to me that societies where fundamentalist religion rules absolutely not only turn out to be police state societies moulding people’s thinking and outlook but also breed people lacking internal moral compasses with the result that hypocrisy and corruption go hand in hand deeply and across society along with the repression.

The acting is minimal and matter-of-fact with Waad Mohammed holding this viewer quite spellbound with her character’s cheek and cleverness. People in the film either admire her or fear her chutzpah. The character of the mother is perhaps the most complicated and puzzling: like Wadjda, she yearns for freedom but is very much a submissive creature of the society she grew up in. The Riyadh setting gives the film a sunny and bright look, which is rather ironic given the nature of the repressive society portrayed and its poisonous effects on both women and men alike. Wadjda’s family home is surprisingly opulent, redolent of great family wealth; it would have been interesting to see where Abdullah’s family lives and what the house and its furnishings look like.

The film’s ending is an incredible surprise and speaks of hope in overcoming barriers both physical, mental and psychological in a context of despair and sadness.

2046: glossy soap opera with little profound to say about love and loneliness

Wong Kar Wai “2046” (2004)

If ever a film could be considered typical “art house” with an emphasis on visual candy, music substituting for emotion and colour for mood, and a story-line that appears to promise much but ends up saying very little, then Wong Kar Wai’s “2046” would be that film. It looks stunning and the camera lavishes a great deal of attention on period detail to evoke nostalgia for a (mostly romanticised) past. The actual events of the period in question – most of the movie is set in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore during a significant period in the history of the Chinese-speaking people in the mid to late 1960s (hey everyone, look, the Cultural Revolution was taking place in China) – take a distant backseat to the concerns of the film’s main character, an unemployed journalist and writer of seedy pulp fiction Chow Mowan (Tony Leung), who spends most of his time on screen chasing women of dubious virtue. An unhappy affair with a lady called Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung in a tiny role) sets our man Chow adrift searching for love and comfort with a series of lovely ladies beginning with high-class call girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), his landlord’s daughter and aspiring writer Jingwen (Faye Wong) and a professional gambler (Gong Li) who also happens to be called Su Lizhen. Already I think we can see where this film is going. The only problem is Chow is unwilling to commit himself fully to any of these women, stunning beauties though they are, and the result is heartbreak, lots of brooding and unhappy expressions all around. At the end of the day, Chow is as lonely as ever with only his memories to keep him company and his various loves go their separate ways.

Chow’s love affairs provide much material for a science fiction novel he is writing in which a fantastic train carries its main character (Takuya Kimura) on a never-ending journey to reclaim his memories, so that he can go forward into a new life, and during which journey he meets android stewardesses who are Chow’s women projected into the train-riding future to find true love. The only problem is that having given their hearts to Chow, the androids are unable to love. The story of the novel is intertwined with the episodes of Chow’s most significant romances, those with Bai Ling, the landlord’s daughter and the second Su Lizhen, though the film hints at other romances Chow has had which have turned out to be just as desultory and futile.

The plot is very flimsy and the characters are weakly developed, with only Zhang and Wong’s characters deserving of much sympathy from the audience as the two women try to find emotional fulfillment. Zhang gives the impression of working hard in her role while the rest of the cast sleepwalk their way through their respective parts. If the film works it is mainly because the stories are more or less threaded together along with the sci-fi subplot so that there is a constant transition between the subplot and the stories as a group. Indeed the subplot is the sole element that holds the entire narrative although the psychological outlet it provides for Chow to dump his problems is a dead end.

Though the film has been much lauded (by Western film critics) as a languid and exotic Oriental piece with gorgeous images and faces, a distinct style and haunting ambience, it really is not much more than a very glossy soap opera with nothing much to say about the nature of love and loneliness. The most viewers come away with is a platitude about finding true love at the right time and the right place but this is about as profound as the message gets. There is nothing about true love being something people might have to work at if it is to be recognised. The main character learns no real lessons from his experiences or from the novel he writes and publishes, and at the end of the film, all that can be said for him is that he will continue drifting along in life collecting more unsatisfactory affairs.

“2046” took up two hours of my time that I’ll never be able to claim back.

Snowden: a riveting character study of personal transformation and commitment to personal ideals

Oliver Stone, “Snowden” (2016)

Surprisingly even though I’m familiar with the story of National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden through Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour”, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Snowden’s life from 2004 to 2013, documenting his transformation from all-American patriot believing in his nation’s “exceptionalism” to political activist / whistle-blower aghast at the Big Brother surveillance being carried out by his government, turns out to be riveting in its own low-key way. That may be due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s precise if minimalist portrayal of Snowden throughout the film, so much so that he rivals Meryl Streep as an impersonator rather than an actor. Gordon-Levitt is ably supported by a committed cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto.

The film opens with Snowden bailed up in a Hong Kong hotel being met by then-Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and documentary film-maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), later to be joined by Greenwald’s fellow Guardian scribbler Ewan MacAskill (Wilkinson). In his room, Snowden explains to the trio the extent of NSA spying on the American public through Internet, mobile phone and social media conversations and interactions. Not only does the NSA spy on the US public but also on the conversations that take place in other countries, in Germany, Japan, Brazil and, well, the rest of the world. At this point, the film zips over to Snowden’s early days training for the US Army reserve during which time the young man is a strong “my country, right or wrong” believer, convinced that the US is and has always been a force for democracy and freedom. After injuries cut short his military career, Snowden applies to join the US Central Intelligence Agency where he meets his instructor and mentor Corbyn O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) who posts him to Geneva, Tokyo and Hawaii.

In the course of his work, Snowden discovers how cynical the CIA and later the NSA are (through O’Brien and various work colleagues) in their regard for the rule of law where it conflicts with the US government’s desire to know what everyone is thinking and doing, so as to pinpoint vulnerabilities in people’s lives that could be used to manipulate and blackmail them for its own advantage, and to influence and direct people’s conversations towards positions it favours. Information and knowledge are commodities to be used for commercial and military gain, and secrecy is the security wrapped around the commodities. Confronted by what he experiences as a CIA employee and later as a contractor working for the NSA and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden makes plans to reveal what he knows of NSA surveillance.

Threaded through the narrative of how Snowden changes and matures over the years is his romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) which perhaps gets too much screen time for a plot device aiming to humanise Snowden and show how much he gives up or loses in his quest to be true to himself and his ideals. Even so, the romance is interesting in how it highlights Snowden’s growing paranoia at his own life being the topic of NSA scrutiny and issues of privacy invasion, where the limit between revealing one’s own life on social media ends and where others’ invasion of that life begins. As a photographer and acrobatic performer posting intimate images (including semi-nude images) of herself on Facebook and other social media, Mills is an example of this dilemma surrounding privacy.

The film is done very well with excellent cinematography, smooth transitions and steady pacing, and the cast shows commitment, with Gordon-Levitt giving the performance of his life. Where the film is limited is in its narrow focus on Snowden’s life and point of view, to the extent that viewers may get an incorrect impression that all the CIA and NSA surveillance began with the events of 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center twin towers and a US Department of Defense building were hit by three hijacked passenger jets and a fourth passenger jet crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers on that plane apparently fought with hijackers. The reality is that the US has always jealously tried to preserve its status as the world’s leading political, economic and military power since 1945. The nation’s “exceptionalism” stems from propaganda it has spread through its corporate media and entertainment industries and Edward Snowden is not the only victim who fell for that propaganda hook, line and sinker. How and why the surveillance state began and developed into the all-encompassing Panopticon it is, is far beyond the film’s grasp. Another problem is the relative upbeat ending in which Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance are made public without any apparent hindrance; the reality is that after the events portrayed in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian and The Guardian itself under a new chief editor deteriorated into stenographer journalism.

Nevertheless, if “Snowden” can encourage viewers to think about the extent of government surveillance in their own lives, how it influences their thinking and behaviour, and the direction of society, and to investigate how it began (so that they can begin to fight it), it will have fulfilled its aim of raising social awareness.

The American Friend: an investigation into the nature of individual and collective identity

Wim Wenders, “Der Amerikanische Freund / The American Friend” (1977)

Based on the novel “Ripley’s Game” by Patricia Highsmith, “The American Friend” is at once a psychological thriller imbued with European art-house sensibilities, a character study of two men in a strange and uneasy friendship and a homage to American film noir. Art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is introduced to con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction; Jonathan already knows of Ripley’s reputation as a dealer in forged art and snubs him by refusing to shake his hand. Miffed at such treatment, Ripley avenges himself by using news about Jonathan’s incurable blood disease to draw the unsuspecting victim into a scheme concocted together with French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) in which Jonathan has to kill another gangster for money. Jonathan is repelled by the idea but he needs the money to pass on to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and their two sons in the event of his death. He is persuaded by Ripley and Minot to visit a medical specialist in Paris for a second opinion and the results (intercepted and falsified by Ripley) convince Jonathan that he really is dying and must ensure his family is financially secure. In this way Jonathan falls deeper under Ripley’s control and the two men form a close if bizarre friendship.

Meanwhile Marianne is suspicious about Jonathan’s absences and believes he is in over his head in a dangerous project with Ripley. She discovers through her own investigations that the Paris medical test results have been faked. Will she be able though to reach her husband in time to persuade him not to go any further in a life of crime and to get him out of Ripley’s clutches for his sake and that of their family?

As character studies go, the film does a good job following a man whose life spins out of control and whose decisions and actions endanger him and his family, all as a result of not shaking someone’s hand. Duped into thinking his disease is killing him, desperate to provide well for his family, Jonathan ends up spiralling into committing one crime after another. His new life brings its own strains: his physical health starts to suffer under a guilty conscience and he becomes estranged from his wife due to all the lies he tells her. Ripley is not treated simply as a catalyst for Jonathan’s downfall; as Jonathan goes farther on his road to hell, he and Ripley become close friends and collaborators. Through Jonathan, Ripley gains entry into German society that he would never have been able to achieve on his own. However the film’s events end up thwarting Ripley’s further penetration into polite pan-European circles and the American is left stranded and alone once more.

Both Ganz as the rather pathetic Jonathan, driven to distraction between competing needs, and Hopper in his particular lanky cowboy Yankee way play their characters well; Hopper’s laidback and easy-going style belies a ruthless and thuggish aspect in Ripley’s personality. The support cast more or less play stereotypes of their roles – Kreuzer is effective as a German hausfrau but goes no further to stamping her own individuality on her role.

The film features some beautiful cinematography in keeping with its art-house aesthetics but at the same time follows the demands of psychological thriller quite faithfully, if with unexpected results. It can be slow for a thriller and most of the action is bunched up in the film’s second half. The music is an important actor in the film in setting a mood and priming it audiences to anticipate an unexpected and violent move on Jonathan’s part. Just what is it really in Jonathan’s nature that drives him to distrust his family doctor, reject his wife and follow a man who initially struck him as insincere and possibly dangerous? Being terminally ill and needing better life insurance cannot wholly explain Jonathan’s motivations. Could Jonathan have secretly envied Ripley’s apparent freedom in defining himself and being his own man? Through Jonathan, viewers are challenged as to the nature of one’s identity, how a person’s public identity can be at variance with his or her real character and desires, and how one’s circumstances and history can conspire to throw him/her into a trajectory that changes the public identity but might fulfill secret desires. Jonathan’s ultimate fate though should give us pause as to how far we might be able to go in breaking out of our public personas and achieving an illusory freedom. Ripley himself appears to escape the consequences of what he has done to the Zimmermanns and to others, but he cannot escape his own internal prison.

Aside from its existential questioning, the film could also be read as an inquiry into the nature of how Germany is becoming more Americanised and the intent behind American makeover of German society, thinking and behaviour. Is there an agenda behind the gradual change in German culture towards thinking and acting like Americans? Will the outcome benefit Germans or, as the film suggests, will it result in suffering and death for those seduced by American culture?