Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them may have visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Investigating trauma and how a society deals with uncomfortable truths in “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate”

Anthony DiMieri, “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate” (The Grayzone Project, May 2019)

For two years from the time Donald Trump won the US Presidency, the United States has been gripped in a collective hysteria over his campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russian government to capture the nation’s leadership from his rival Hillary Clinton. It was only in April 2019 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after conducting an investigation from May 2017 onwards, finally submitted his report to US Attorney General William Barr (and published it in redacted form in April) in which he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with collusion or coordination with the Kremlin. The curious thing about Russiagate is not that this hysteria and obsession with Russian wrongdoing or interference in US politics existed at all but that it lasted as long as it did across the political spectrum, to the extent that nearly the entire nation believed in a rumour that, when exposed to light, had no legs; and moreover, when the rumour was exposed, so many people erupted in anger and disbelief and refused to believe that they had been deceived. Despite Russia’s protestations that it had never interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, the lie continues; if anything, it has become a permanent part of the nation’s cultural belief set that Russia is continuing to undermine American politics, even when evidence can be found that other nations are trying to influence US politics and policy.

To this end, Grayzone journalist Aaron Maté sat down with his father Gabor Maté, a physician and expert on mental health and the effect that childhood traumas can have on future adult life, to discuss the Russiagate phenomenon and how the election of Donald Trump as US President was received by thousands if not millions of Americans as a traumatic and emotionally scarring event. The half-hour conversation between the two ranges across various cultural and social psychological phenomena that have shaped American thinking over decades, perhaps even the past two centuries, that have come together not only to predispose Americans into believing that a foreign enemy they have long been taught to fear is attacking them using underhanded methods but to invest considerable effort into maintaining that belief even when it has been shot down. Psychological projection of one’s own sins onto another, scapegoating, the cult of victimhood and that peculiarly American custom of reducing and personalising complex politics and history into one person and making that person the epitome of Evil, with the result that US foreign policy ends up focusing on taking that person out, leaving chaos behind once that person is gone and having either a vague plan or no plan at all for reconstruction and rebuilding a defeated rival country: these are topics discussed in a fairly cursory manner, with no examination of how such American characteristics might have arisen in the past, and what contexts and institutions helped to birth those characteristics.

Gabor Maté comes close to choosing Hollywood as a major source of the various narratives that encourage Americans to adopt quite infantile views of how the world operates, focusing on individuals with particular psychologies and powers rather than on the long-term sociological processes that shape individuals’ mentalities and careers and which push them in certain directions. In such narratives, people and nations are either Good or Evil, America is always on the side of Good and those who oppose America are always Evil, and Good always vanquishes Evil. For many Americans, Donald Trump is clearly Evil and so it is natural that he and that other personification of Evil, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have put their heads together and plotted to make Trump President. (Of course there are also many Americans who regard Trump as Good.) It is a pity that father and son Maté do not trace this thinking back to the days of the Pilgrims and other early settlers who compared themselves to God’s Chosen People sent to America to tame it (and exterminate the indigenous people who owned the land) and claim it for their own. The journalist and his physician Dad unfortunately do not examine the role of Hollywood, mainstream news media and education in constantly repeating the idea of America as God’s Chosen and Exceptional Nation, to whom all other nations bow down and regard as their spiritual and moral better.

The interview also ranges across the reality of America meddling in other nations’ affairs to the extent of choosing those nations’ leaders, forcing them to sack leaders America does not like or even carrying out regime-change activities that include violence, invasion and warfare. Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Democrat claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, comes in for examination as a saviour supposed to deliver America from the clutches of Evil by finding incriminating evidence that will suffice for an impeachment of Trump. People clearly had unrealistic expectations of what Mueller was supposed to achieve and the actual result would have been traumatic for them.

I would like to be able to say that the conversation between the two men was bright and scintillating but while some of the issues they brought up were interesting and thought-provoking, their actual conversation droned quite considerably and keeping up with their monotone without feeling drowsy was hard. Fortunately a transcript of the interview is available at The Grayzone Project website.

At the end Gabor Maté says that being disillusioned and facing the truth is much better than continuing to believe in illusions and risk being traumatised when the illusions do not work out the way they are expected to; but beyond seeing the truth, he does not say how people should come to terms with the truth and the trauma it causes, and how they should act on the truth and become more open-minded and less inclined to follow fantasy illusions promoted by Hollywood, governments, academia and the news media.

The Great Pretender: a shallow picture of a famous rock music icon

Rhys Thomas, “The Great Pretender” (2012)

The public fascination with the shy Parsi Indian boy born in a British colonial backwater in Zanzibar in 1946, who later became a golden-voiced rock star legend much beloved throughout the world before AIDS took him in 1991, knows no bounds; a feature film dramatisation of his life, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been raking in the hundreds of millions in revenue throughout the world and there is no shortage of documentaries on the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Probably the best known of these is “The Great Pretender”, made by Queen fan Rhys Thomas, which focuses on Mercury’s life from 1976 onwards to 1991 and a little beyond. In particular there is a heavy emphasis on Mercury’s solo work that produced the album “Mr Bad Guy” and his collaboration with the Catalan / Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

The narrative is driven by interviews of people who associated with Mercury from 1976 onwards and archival footage of Mercury himself and his later lover Jim Hutton (who died in 2010); what they say about Mercury is that, far from his flamboyant and confident public persona, he was shy, even self-tortured at times, restless and eager for new experiences and ways of doing things, and maybe not a little shallow at times. During the late 1970s / early 80s, Mercury comes across as arrogant, self-absorbed and selfish; towards the end of his life he has grown tired of his hedonistic lifestyle and matured quite considerably. He is no longer interested in competing with other, younger rock / pop singers in showiness and wants to compose more serious and complex music. At this point, he is advised by his doctors that he has AIDS and the disease is progressing rapidly to the point where he has very little time left in the world to do the things he wants to do.

For all its emphasis on Mercury’s solo work, the film shows no songs or pieces of music from “Mr Bad Guy” or “Barcelona” in their entirety and viewers have to accept the film’s opinion that “Mr Bad Guy” failed (in terms of album sales) because Queen fans refused to accept the idea of Mercury performing without Queen. (I have heard the album myself and can say that the relatively simple nature of the songs and the choice of instrumentation were abysmal for someone who years before wrote complex songs like “Liar” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Viewers are left with a fairly shallow picture of a man who lived a double life as the flamboyant Freddie Mercury in public and the shy, modest and retiring Farrokh Bulsara in private. How he could have managed all that while composing, recording and performing (with three other people) a considerable body of songs over 15 albums is a question most people want to know: this documentary comes nowhere close to giving a satisfactory answer.

Peterloo: an immersive dramatic re-enactment of a significant event in British political history

Mike Leigh, “Peterloo” (2018)

Made just before the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819, when British cavalry troops and foot soldiers charged a peaceful demonstration of some 60,000 to 100,000 workers and their families protesting at high food prices and unemployment that were leading to hunger and suffering, and at their lack of political representation in Parliament, this film is a fictional re-enactment of the historical political and social background and the events leading to the mass protest at St Peter’s Field. The detail that director Mike Leigh invests in recreating the hierarchical British society of the time, the huge social inequalities that existed and the attitudes expressed by people of different social layers, from the monarchy and aristocracy down through the technocracy, the labouring classes to the very poor is incredible. The film takes care to create and build up carefully a credible society, using different points of view of various characters, and the result is highly immersive and filled with a distinct flavour of early 19th-century life in Britain.

The film is structured around the experiences of a young soldier, Joseph (David Moorst), who stumbles home from the Battle of Waterloo (in 1815) suffering from PTSD and falls into the care of his close-knit labouring family in Manchester. He tries in vain to find work but the economic conditions are hard and none is available. People complain about the high prices of corn due to the Corn Laws which among other things forbid the import of cheap foreign corn. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) is concerned about worker unrest in the northern counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire and areas around Liverpool and Manchester. Government spies, infiltrators and provocateurs are put to work and intercept mail sent between radical reformist preachers and their flocks. Two Manchester reformists, Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and Dr Joseph Healey (Ian Mercer), go to London to hear reformist leader Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) speak; they try to invite him for a friendly drink but he rudely spurns them.

Much of the film then follows the reformists’ plan to hold a mass demonstration in Manchester at which Hunt will speak. Hunt insists on having no weapons at the protest despite Bamford’s warning that armed yeomanry will be present. Organisers of the protest include the staff who write for and print The Manchester Observer newspaper and a brief scene in the film shows how the newspaper was printed by hand.

Steadily the film builds through the viewpoints of Joseph and his family, especially his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), Hunt and the family who hosts him in Manchester, Bamford, The Manchester Observer reporters, and the representatives of the aristocracy and their enforcers in Parliament and the legal system and courts who fear the reformist movement and who will do anything to crush the workers and deny their political rights, to the climax when the local magistrate sets the yeomanry like dogs onto the crowds. Especially sinister are the informers and the constable who spy on the reformist meetings and report back to the authorities.

The film’s general tone tends to be matter-of-fact and sober; even scenes of carnage are treated in a dispassionate way. Joseph’s nightmare of the scenes of Waterloo revisits him, to his ultimate cost. At this point the film’s denouement is rather hurried, untidy and surreal, featuring a bizarre meeting between the fawning Lord Sidmouth and the grotesque Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) and his wife, and this is the weakest part of the narrative. Nothing is said about the forced closure of The Manchester Observer and its replacement by The Manchester Guardian, founded by people antagonistic towards the aims of the reformist movement. We learn nothing of the fate of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford or other significant reformist characters featured in the film: there are no brief end titles that could inform viewers of these people’s futures.

While the film can be long for most Western audiences, with very little apparent plot, I did not find it at all boring; if anything, I felt it was not long enough and could have covered more detail. The music soundtrack, featuring popular melodies that later were incorporated into church hymns during the later 19th century, is a highlight of the film. There are some slight historical errors – a woman is sentenced by a cruel magistrate to transportation “to Australia” (actually the colony of New South Wales at the time – but perhaps young viewers in Britain and Australia these days are not so well educated as those of my generation) – but on the whole, the film and the actors especially convey the lively flavour of society at all levels of Regency Britain.

Aspects of the film’s narrative may strike a chord with modern British viewers, as Britain currently limps through a dark historical period in which the vast majority of people are suffering from austerity policies imposed by a corrupt and remote government, the politicians of which from the Prime Minister down are incompetent, vicious and hell-bent on squeezing as much as they can out of the public for their own selfish interests and those of their secret masters in the City of London, the military and abroad.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1): Western insistence on stereotyping a country ruins a striking travelogue

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1)” (2018)

At least two years in the making, this 2-part travel documentary follows comedian / world traveller Michael Palin during a two-week trip exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / North Korea, marvelling at its visual and audio sights, and trying to engage as much as possible with the people he meets. The trip took place at a time when North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea under President Moon Jae-in were starting to warm to each other more and were seriously considering the possibility of reunification. In his first week in North Korea, Palin was taken by his guides through Pyongyang, and what he sees and experiences in the nation’s capital is the focus of Part 1 of the documentary.

The sights alone are worthwhile watching – Pyongyang is a clean city with wide spaces, some very eccentric and colourful architecture, and (for a city of its 3-million-strong size) not a great deal of car traffic. Fretting over the lack of Internet, the absence of a phone signal and the North Korean authorities’ insistence on holding his and the film crew’s passports once over the Chinese border from Dandong, Palin gradually settles into the life and pace of Pyongyang. He marvels at the government’s early morning broadcasts of songs aiming at motivating and inspiring people to look forward to a new day working for and benefiting North Korea. He visits an extravagantly built underground train station and takes a ride on the Metro. He gets a head massage by a woman in a barbershop – in North Korea, women run barbershops and hairdressing salons apparently – and visits a class of junior high school students. Their teacher looks a bit nonplussed at the strange Englishman blowing up a balloon depicting the globe and tossing it among the kids. When prompted as to what they’d like to do after leaving school, the youngsters say they want to be scientists, teachers and doctors, and to serve North Korea. One girl, declaring that she will be a famous writer, recites her poem about Mount Paektu (the birthplace of Kim Jong-il). Palin concludes from this little episode that, erm, the students aren’t taught critical thinking.

Among other visits, Palin meets a government-employed artist who creates visual propaganda and explains the symbolism behind what he does. He goes to a sports centre where teenagers are training in table tennis. The final day of his stay in Pyongyang is the May Day public holiday and Palin goes to a public park where people are picnicking with their families, drinking, dancing and generally having a great time. One drunken man crowns Palin with a tiara of leaves before being pulled away by his wife.

Palin obviously wants to accept everything at face value and believe that the happy and contented people he meets are genuine in their opinions, feelings and behaviour. Years of his own indoctrination by relentless Western media propaganda about North Korea – not to mention the agenda behind his visit – keep intruding on his thoughts, leaving him troubled and perplexed. The apparent poverty he sees around him – most notably depicted in shots of both Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea on opposing sides of the Yalu River, as the train carries Palin across the bridge – is attributed to North Korean paranoia in sealing the nation off from foreign influence. Nearly 70 years of US sanctions (which target nations that dare to trade with North Korea as much as they do North Korea itself) against the country could just as likely have contributed to the nation’s poverty and its emphasis on cultivating every hectare of available land with rice and other important staple foods.

The constant insistence on portraying North Korea as a repressive police state by Palin and the film-makers is insidious and is sure to colour and shape Western viewers’ abilities and opinions in watching the program. There are moments where Palin comes close to showing a gross lack of respect for his hosts and his two guides especially. One might suspect he is being pushed by the film-makers and the film producers to ask questions he might find offensive. That the North Korean government stresses hard work, being part of a big family and working together, meeting communal and national goals, and generally having a positive attitude seems to be lost on Palin and the film crew, who brush all this effort away as propaganda.

The irony in making a film exploring North Korea and its people, that serves mainly to reinforce Western stereotypes about it being a repressive police state producing robotic traffic police and people unable to think for themselves, for Western audiences living in countries which themselves are increasingly repressive and obsessed with brainwashing people with identity politics propaganda and depriving them of the skills to think for themselves and evaluate differing opinions using reason, may not be lost on Western viewers.

Forward, Comrades! – an animated short on the downfall of the Soviet Union

Wang Liyin, “Forward, Comrades!” (2013)

This animated Chinese short, made by a student at the Beijing Film Academy, focuses on the twilight days of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a young girl. She lives with her parents in a shabby wooden bungalow and spends her days playing with toy construction bricks and talking to her pets while her schoolteacher mother is at work. The pets are a cat called Comrade Vladimir (as in Vladimir Lenin), a chicken called Comrade Felix (as in Felix Dzerzhinsky) and a duck called Comrade Beriya (as in Lavrenty Beria). The animals aren’t always well behaved: one day Comrade Beriya is naughty and the unnamed girl punishes him for “crimes” against socialism, while giving the instructions for a final knock-out blow against capitalist enemies to Comrade Felix.

One day a Russian-language TV broadcast informs viewers of a coup carried out by reactionary forces against the Soviet Union and from then on, things change dramatically for the girl and her pets. Comrades Vladimir and Felix die, Comrade Beriya is despatched by the girl’s mother to a restaurant, and the toy construction bricks and other belongings of the girl are also sold off. The family moves into an apartment block in a grey city, and the girl is given new American toys – various dolls and Disney character soft toys – to play with. On overhearing her mother discussing fashions and cosmetics with other adults, the child decides to run away back to her old home. At that very moment, there is a nuclear explosion in the sky and the girl is transported back to a world where her pets are very much alive and have formed a tank regiment.

The animation is quite crude and the story is very selective in its history. An entire episode of Soviet history, in which the Soviet Union transforms itself into an industrial power twice over (in the 1930s and then after the Second World War) under Joseph Stalin, followed by a long period of stagnation and corrupt rule under a series of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-allied politicians from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, is skipped over in the cartoon’s portrayal of the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. The girl’s decision to break away from her parents represents China’s decision to strike out on its own socialist path – though in reality, this involved zigzagging through the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and later leader Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of economic flexibility combining elements of capitalism and socialism, to the current situation in which China is now wealthy enough to bring economic development to its more impoverished regions and to Third World countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

There are some interesting ideas about how capitalism can influence people to conform to labels and categories. On the whole though, the film shows a very sketchy and poor understanding of Soviet and Chinese history. It’s mainly of interest to people curious about the current state of Chinese animated film.

Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria: where the mundane becomes exotic in a real country not supposed to exist

“Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria” (Bald and Bankrupt, 2019)

During his travels in Moldova in early 2019, the English vlogger known as Bald and Bankrupt (Arthur Chichester to his bank manager) is intrigued that apparent breakaway state Transnistria (known as Pridnestrovie to its people) boasts its own government, armed forces and national emblems, yet is unrecognised by the United Nations and the European Union. BB drives off to Tiraspol and Bendery where he finds both cities rather dowdy and a bit quaint and eccentric in appearance and presentation, but certainly nowhere near as decrepit and dejected as Kishinev. He steps into various shops, cafes and restaurants to chat to people and finds that not only are they happy to talk about their lives, they also take pride in being part of a nation that everyone else in the world politely ignores. Moreover, they revel in their Soviet heritage even though they know that that part of their history will never return.

In his quest to imagine the Soviet past, BB goes out of his way to visit a forlorn and derelict fairground where he goes for a pendulum-type ride on one of the aged and rusty fairground rides. Simulating the machines on which Soviet cosmonauts trained for trips into space, the contraption spins him round and round on an axle that also turns upright, spinning BB on a vertical plane. Good thing BB is bald or his hair would have transformed into a brilliant shock of white! After the ride, our host is all smarmy “it didn’t scare me” and thanks the elderly woman who sent him on the wildest ride of his life.

For quieter stimulation, BB goes into a worker’s cafe that has barely changed over the last half-century or so and eats a homely lunch of borsch, salad and fruit juice. Feeling well nourished, he trots off to a bookshop where he is amazed to see the lady in charge use an abacus instead of a cash register or a calculator to work out his change.

Armed with his selfie stick and mobile phone, filming as he goes, BB’s film, like his other films on Moldova that I have seen so far, immerses the viewer in ordinary everyday incidents that together make up an exotic adventure in the places where he travels. The mundane becomes unique and coming across ordinary babushkas shopping for groceries to prepare paskha cakes for Easter with wonky carriers turns into an opportunity to broaden and educate one’s mind on foreign culture and customs. Every time BB takes a step somewhere, a new adventure seems to beckon. Along the way, BB treats his hosts with dignity and respect and they readily warm to him and open up with personal stories, information and recommendations on where to go next.

The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.

Ana by Day: exploring identity and the limits of freedom and pursuing one’s dreams

Andrea Jaurrieta, “Ana by Day / Ana de Dia” (2017)

You feel vaguely dissatisfied with and trapped by your life as a lawyer studying for a doctorate and engaged to a rather colourless though very nice and polite man of your own upper middle class set. You secretly wish you had followed your childhood dream and become a dancer. One day you call home and are shocked to discover that a stranger with a voice exactly like your own and who answers to your name, Ana, picks up the phone. You call home, then the place where you work, and are horrified to find that someone is impersonating you and doing all the work you should be doing. What do you do next? Do you confront the imposter? Do you call the police and tell them someone has stolen your identity?

In this film, the directing debut of Andrea Jaurrieta, you as Ana (played by Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson) seize the unexpected freedom from family, relationship and work ties and demands, and fly away from Barcelona to Madrid where, calling yourself Nina, you board with an eccentric family and find a job as a dancer at a rather seedy cabaret club called the Radio City Music Hall. Your work colleagues are people who have seen better days as entertainers and singers, and who (like you) are running away from past entanglements or even the law. You strike up a relationship with Marcelo (Alvaro Ogalla), a man with a shadowy background who doesn’t want you to know where he’s from, where he’s going to and what sort of work he does that allows him to live in expensive digs and take you out to high-class restaurants and meet socialite friends. (Scars on his back might suggest he’s a gangster or a professional hit-man.) Eventually though, your new family in the boarding-house discover that you had a past life and start pressing you to give up the late nights, the excessive drinking and drug-taking, and the shady boyfriend; your boyfriend discovers you blurted out his secret and now tells you he must leave town; and your newfound reputation as a dancer of note attracts an audience whom you’d rather didn’t follow you.

The film investigates, in quite original ways, issues of alienation, the limits and consequences of freedom, the loss and recovery of identity, the fulfillment of lost dreams, and the tension arising from accepting one’s place and obligations and having security versus striking out on one’s own to discover one’s real self and fulfill personal dreams and ambitions but experiencing loneliness, disillusionment and frustration along the way. Ana / Nina finds she can’t completely escape from her past: the irony is that becoming the lead dancer at the club is bringing into its audience people from Barcelona who know her.

With shots in confined spaces, and an emphasis on night-time scenes or scenes in shadow or under coloured lighting, close-ups and people going in and out of Ana / Nina’s room and rummaging through her belongings, the film highlights the fragility and changeable nature of identity and takes on a distinct look that suggests suspense and danger are never far away and any minute Ana / Nina will be exposed or her life is put at risk. We never completely know who the real woman behind Ana / Nina is. Perhaps the only time when Ana / Nina is truly herself is when she is on stage dancing and miming to an old Hollywood or Broadway number from decades ago.

While the acting is very good – Garcia-Jonsson is the stand-out here in playing two character types who gradually become very different women as a result of the decisions they make, the people they interact with and the environments they live and work in – and the issue Jaurrieta puts to the audience about how much of one’s personality and character comes from one’s inner nature or the social setting is dealt with in a bold and intriguing way, the resolution of this and other philosophical problems about identity and freedom that arise may not be satisfactory to most viewers. Initially bold in taking up a new way of living to live out her dream, Ana / Nina discovers that she ends up living another lie and ends up fleeing her new family and friends. Her romance with Marcelo ultimately goes nowhere. The paradox that arises is that, in following her dream, Ana / Nina ends up as lost as she was when her doppelganger first took over her old life. As a result, as the film progresses, it seems to lose focus and direction and becomes a bit confused about what it really wants. An easy resolution and tying off all loose ends are definitely not what the film wants or needs, because that would defeat the aim of what the film is pursuing: that breaking away from one’s old life to follow a new life also means that certain opportunities and choices that you could have enjoyed if you had stayed as you are, will be lost forever to you.

Suppose you confront your unwanted twin and discover that your twin has changed your old life in ways you hadn’t anticipated and which mean you can no longer return to it: what are you going to do then?