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?

The Curse of La Llorona: cursed by cheap thrills and Hollywood horror film cliches

Michael Chaves , “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019)

As his full-length movie directorial debut, this horror flick perhaps shows all the faults as well as the potential that Michael Chaves has for a career in Hollywood. Chaves does a good job with the cinematography to create a sinister and dark atmosphere and instill a strong sense of dread in viewers as the film rockets along to an inevitable showdown between the protagonist mother Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her nemesis who would claim her children as her own … forever. Chaves laps up all the familiar Hollywood horror film cliches, devices and stereotypes – the ones from “The Exorcist” stand out especially – and sprays them liberally throughout the film. At the same time, a weak and unoriginal script, full of plot holes, ensures that the film remains in hokey haunted-house territory with interesting ideas that stay frustratingly undeveloped.

We have the obligatory header which gives a quick potted history of how the Mexican folklore demon La Llorona came to be: way back, 300 years ago, a noble woman in colonial Mexico discovers her husband has a mistress and she takes her revenge on him by drowning the two young sons she and hubby had together. Overcome with remorse at her sin, she kills herself … Now let’s run 300 years later to Los Angeles in 1973, the year that “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, and Anna Garcia is trying to run her two pre-teen kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) to school, go to work at the welfare agency where she is a social worker, and keep her household together in the aftermath of her police officer husband’s death. Anna is a case officer for a woman, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), who fails to send her two small boys to school. Anna forces Patricia to yield her two sons, hidden in a cupboard, to welfare authorities. Not long after, the two children are found drowned in a river and Patricia is arrested on suspicion of murder. Patricia knows Anna has two children of her own (that’s why Anna is her case officer) and curses the family. Still traumatised after the death of a husband and father, Anna’s family is soon plagued by the demon La Llorona and Anna herself comes under suspicion by her employers of abusing Chris and Sam.

From then on, viewers are subjected to typical haunted-house scenarios where La Llorona creeps up on and scares the bejesus out of Anna and the children repeatedly, until they consult a former Roman Catholic priest (Raymond Cruz) who now works as a curandero. Scares and chases abound, Patricia turns up for no reason other than to cause more trouble, and one character cops a bullet in the chest.

Somewhere along the way, interesting subplots about how innocent families can fall afoul of over-zealous social welfare workers and end up being torn apart, with dire consequences for everyone, or how people can learn to balance skepticism and rationality with faith and courage as opposed to fear and superstition arise but are thrown over for cheap thrills. Mexican beliefs about the dead and how to protect the living from chaos and evil are nothing more than a commodity to be mined for more profit and made to look laughable and cartoonish. Though the actors work hard to make their roles credible, their efforts, and Cardellini’s work in particular, can come across as over-acting. At least Cruz has the right idea about how to play his character … not too seriously.

If Chaves can get hold of an original script that does not lean on past horror films or horror film franchises for inspiration, he might become a director of note specialising in moodily atmospheric films with arresting visuals.

Abandoned Europe | Road To Ratus: even searching for past Soviet-era reality ends in disappointment

“Abandoned Europe / Road to Ratus” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

“Could be awesome, could be shit” … well, going to Ratus couldn’t be any worse than what we saw in Kishinev, so our hero Bald and Bankrupt (we’ll call him BB for convenience) sets off in his little sedan for the village of Ratush in Teleneshty district, central Moldova. Driving down the road, BB sees a couple of guys travelling with a horse and cart so he goes for a ride with them. They advise him to drive to the town of Teleneshty which he does. He finds Soviet-era buildings, many abandoned during mid-construction and left to moulder along the side of the road in the middle of vast rural landscapes where villages and hamlets are emptying as young people migrate elsewhere in search of work. He sits at a derelict bus stop, where seats have been ripped out and only the framework remains, and imagines what life must have been like when Moldova had been under Soviet rule.

While travelling to Ratush, BB comes across two local men driving a 30-year-old Lada that has seen better days. His interest piqued, BB wants a ride in the car and the elderly driver obliges. The windscreen may be cracked and a couple of clothes-pegs are hanging off the driver’s mirror in case something in the car needs to be clipped together – but golly, the car still works! After the joy-ride, the driver offers BB a look at the engine – not only is it in good nick but BB spies the year the engine was made: it was made in 1987!

Finally arriving in Ratush, BB discovers the streets are very quiet and the only real activity is in the town’s Orthodox church (well-maintained) where a choir is rehearsing. Though the streets are little more than muddy dirt tracks, they are clean and BB talks to a couple of labourers are clearing rubbish with their tractor (of Belarusian-Chinese manufacture, BB discovers) . Though BB does not refer to the houses in the village, viewers can see many of them are in fairly good condition. Finding little action in the village, BB decides not to hang about for long and off he goes in his sedan, singing along loudly with songs blaring from a local Moldovan radio station, to another destination.

While the local Moldovan people are polite and obliging – perhaps even humouring BB, seeing that he is a stranger with a camera – what is most obvious to this viewer is what BB does not appear to notice: there are no children running or riding bikes in the empty streets, nearly everyone seems to be middle-aged or older and Ratush lacks facilities for children and families like playgrounds, schools, a medical centre or community centre. There are not even any Soviet-era war memorials dedicated to local World War II heroes where BB can imagine Victory Day parades taking place in the town and schoolchildren solemnly placing garlands at the memorial and singing patriotic songs. Ratush could be any abandoned post-industrial town in post-Communist eastern Europe whose usefulness to the West is only as a giant military buffer / NATO base against Russia and a treasure-chest of oil, natural gas and mineral resources to be raided by Western corporations.

Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why: a UK tourist finds out why in the ruin and decay of Kishinev

“Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

Bald and Bankrupt is the nom de plume of an English traveller who makes short videos of his travels to little-known and neglected parts of the world for his Youtube channel of the same name. The fellow certainly is bald but bankrupt in generosity and conviviality he most certainly is not. This video which he filmed himself on his mobile phone was taken during a trip to Chishinau (I prefer using the old Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in southeastern Europe bordering the Balkan region. Initially Bald and Bankrupt – we’ll call him BB for the sake of convenience – visited Moldova on a jokey trip as he had heard that the country was the least visited place in Europe and that fewer people visit Moldova in a year than visit his local Tesco store every day!

In the space of just over 16 minutes of edited footage taken on his mobile phone, BB reveals the alarming extent of the neglect of public facilities in Kishinev: stairs leading from the street into the graffiti-covered tunnels to the subway are broken and dangerous to use, the wheelchair access is unusable; a large hotel is derelict and its fountain is empty save for rubbish; an observatory is falling into ruin. BB talks to pensioners in the streets and all independently agree that life under the Soviet Union before 1991 was better and cheaper.

Walking around city neighbourhoods, BB sees some election posters and reels off the names of various politicians and describes them as thieves or embezzlers. He sees pensioners selling personal possessions on the street and is shocked to see an advertisement from someone willing to buy people’s hair: a sure sign that people are desperate and will sell anything of theirs to supplement meagre incomes and buy food. BB mentions that pensioners are paid 40 euros every month.

At the end of his video, BB tells viewers something of what Moldova was like when it was part of the USSR: it was a holiday destination for Soviet tourists, it offered a good life for its citizens. Since independence, the country has been ruled by corrupt oligarch politicians who have looted the national wealth and impoverished the citizenry, even though it is supposedly moving closer to the European Union which is dangling the prospect of EU membership and a surefire path to the sort of prosperity that countries like Latvia and Lithuania are currently enjoying … not.

BB is a likeable narrator, very knowledgeable about Moldova’s politics and history, who resembles fellow Brit, the journalist Graham Phillips who himself fearlessly sallies into countries that mainstream Western news media would rather not know about, in appearance and open manner. His video on Kishinev is the first of a number of videos on life in Moldova.

Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens: focusing on the fashions and image rather than the music and the subculture

Sarah Vianney, “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” (2018)

Despite the title, the heavy metal queens of Botswana  featured in this Deutsche Welle documentary aren’t musicians and there’s not much actual heavy metal music either, not even in the sparse music soundtrack. “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” is more an account revolving around individual persons than a sociological survey of a particular aspect of a subculture that has taken root in a southern African country. The film focuses on the lives of three young women – Gloria, Ludo and Flora – going about their daily activities and how their obsession with metal gives meaning, identity and structure to their lives. Gloria is a single mother who organises regular garbage pick-ups in her community in Maun (a rural town in northern Botswana) with other female metal fans like herself,  all in their cowboy-leather glory. Ludo does carpentry at home making babies’ cradles. Flora is a secretary at a construction company.

The film’s narrative revolves around the three women’s efforts to get together and travel by car with a bunch of male fans to a metal festival in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where the country’s leading metal band Skinflint is headlining. The women make their own leather clothes and take care to get the appropriate accessories. Ludo and her male pals arrive in Flora’s village, strutting down the street, engaging in hilarious greeting rituals and head-banging to their favourite bands. Taking Flora with them, the fans detour to celebrate a fellow fan’s wedding where they are the cynosure of all eyes. After paying their respects, the fans continue on to Gaborone and arrive just in time to catch Skinflint’s performance at the bar where the festival is being held. The documentary ends with Gloria, Ludo, Flora and their friends moshing together right in front of the band.

The documentary takes in vast expanses of the dry semi-arid country where the women live and work. The conditions of the villages where they live are poor but not squalid; everyone looks happy and healthy, and children can be seen playing in the streets or gazing curiously at the strange adults in their black leather get-ups. While the film is very well done and even beautiful in parts, viewers don’t learn much about how metal came to have a foothold in the most rural parts of Botswana, nor why metalheads here have adopted a cowboy-leather aesthetic. The film makes much about how metal represents a release for Gloria, Ludo and Flora from the more mundane aspects of their lives and the social and cultural pressures they endure as women. For these women, metal helps them express their individuality and desire not to have to conform to social expectations. The music provides them with a social network of their own choosing and this social network in turn allows them to experience life beyond their own communities in a safe way. At the same time, metal runs the gauntlet among conservative Christian churches in their communities who accuse metalheads of being devil worshippers and Satanists; Gloria counters the accusations by performing good deeds in public in full metal gear. However the views of older people in her community and Ludo and Flora’s communities will be hard for the women to change.

An opportunity to learn something about society in Botswana, and how a particular subculture based around a genre of music imported from abroad helps young people learn about the West and incorporate aspects of Western culture into their own lives and cultures, was missed. A somewhat patronising attitude towards metal, with the focus on the clothing that metalheads in northern Botswana wear, is present in the film. While the women genuinely enjoy the music and the opportunity to experience a different life and social network outside their rural communities, documentary director Vianney appears not to have gauged how devoted to the metal subculture these women are and how much of the music they know, apart from their dress. The interest in the heavy metal queens – as opposed to a more general interest in the presence of metal in rural Botswana – seems quite prurient. What male metalheads think of the music and of the women’s interest in it is never asked; it is as if, when the men follow the music, it’s a case of boys just being boys, but when women follow the music, there must be something deeper going on – and sure enough, the film-makers dig up themes of identity, individuality and nonconformity and the modern stereotype of African women “empowering” themselves.

The Happy Prince: a character study of Oscar Wilde in exile and artistic decline

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” (2018)

A labour of love, of much research over the years on the life and work of Irish-British writer Oscar Wilde, is this character study by Rupert Everett who not only directs the film but wrote the script and plays Wilde as well. The plot is skeletal to the point of non-existence and follows Wilde’s last years after his release from prison in 1897 for engaging in homosexual activities with younger, lower-class men: he goes into self-exile in France and reunites with Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie (Colin Morgan) despite the latter and his father the Marquess of Queensberry having been a cause of Wilde’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. Against the objections of his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), Wilde flees to Naples with Bosie where they spend lavishly on “gentlemen’s parties” but are forced to separate when their respective families cut off their allowances for continuing to see each other. Wilde returns to Paris where, depressed and alone, spurned by polite society, he finds solace in absinthe and in befriending two young brothers, the older of whom becomes his rent-boy. To both brothers, especially the younger, Wilde tells them the story of the Happy Prince. From then on, the narrative trajectory is on a downward slide, as Wilde writes very little and his health declines from a combination of meningitis and an old prison injury to his head flaring up again.

Wilde’s tumultuous and colourful three years in exile contrast with the restricted life his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their two young sons are forced to lead, to avoid public scrutiny and scorn. After Constance’s death, her relatives make sure the children never see their father again and this causes Wilde anguish. Another sub-plot that stays mostly undeveloped is the rivalry between Bosie and Ross for Wilde’s affections which continues even at Wilde’s funeral.

Everett’s portrayal of Wilde with all his flamboyance, his wit and selfish appetites is a passionate and heartfelt tour-de-force that anchors the entire film and carries it all the way to the end. While his punishment was severe and undeserved, and his health was affected by imprisonment to the extent that his life expectancy was severely reduced, Wilde is determined to live his life to the full in the way he wants, even if this means losing access to his children and possibly ending up in a poorhouse. He does become very religious but even there his newfound Catholicism must take second place to his pursuit of hedonism and aestheticism. At the same time he is persecuted by the very people who used to laud his plays and other writings, and his ability to live how he wants depends very much on his in-laws who control his and Constance’s purse-strings. By the way he lives his life, Wilde calls attention to the hypocrisy of the society that alternately flatters and spurns him, and ultimately destroys him. It is not difficult to see why Wilde is drawn to Catholicism: he sees in the suffering and martyrdom of Jesus Christ his own persecution, and from that obtains comfort and learns to accept his suffering as part of his destiny.

The other actors know when the spotlight is on them and when they should get out of Everett’s way. Watson is a pleasure to watch even if most of her roles these days barely challenge her abilities and are of the motherly support stereotype. Firth underplays his role as Turner and Tom Wilkinson all but steals every scene he appears in as the priest who baptises Wilde.

The film emphasises Wilde’s acceptance of the humiliations that come with his celebrity and subsequent notoriety, and his determination to live his life as he sees fit, however shallow and self-centred his decisions might be. He learns to find beauty and radiance in even the most squalid and impoverished situations. The only issue I have with the film is that Victorian society which condemns Wilde and casts him off for being true to his nature and living his life to the full, but treats him in such a way that his health is ruined and his life cut short, does not come in for very much criticism.

The Hole: an ultimately unsatisfying film about isolation, alienation and yearning for connection

Tsai Ming-liang, “The Hole / Dong” (1998)

Its theme of yearning for connection and hope in a dystopian urban environment of the near future, where an extraordinary social crisis has led to extreme government action that isolates and alienates individuals, is rather too obvious so “The Hole” opts for an idiosyncratic presentation combining elements of moody post-apocalyptic science fiction, nostalgic musical fantasy that pays homage to 1950s Hong Kong singer Grace Chang and a minimalist plot relying heavily on the talents of its two main actors Yang Kuei-mei (as the Woman) and Lee Kang-sheng (as the Man) to supply the action, the dancing, the skimpy dialogue, the emotion and the comedy. While the slow plot may disappoint viewers and skirts quite close to boredom, its very minimalism may provoke a lot of discussion as to whether “The Hole” can be regarded as a depressive dystopian picture, a satire on modern society where everyone at once wants to be alone yet secretly yearns for connection or a bizarre musical comedy escapade.

Around the year 2000, Taiwan is hit by a mystery viral plague spread by cockroaches that apparently causes people to behave like cockroaches and eventually drives them insane and kills them. The government evacuates healthy people to quarantine camps but some choose to stay in the city and are corralled into apartment blocks. In one such apartment block live two unnamed people, the Man who occupies one flat and the Woman who lives in the flat below his. Constant pouring rain causes problems in the block: a plumber enters the Man’s flat to find the cause of a leak and digs out a hole in the Man’s living room floor. He leaves the hole there without apparently making a future date to return to fix it. The Woman, trying to cope with water leaking from various points throughout her flat, is unimpressed with the hole appearing in her ceiling. The hole becomes the catalyst for the characters to make contact with each other by assuming various roles: initially it is the avenue by which they become aware of each other, leading to fantasies of connection and possible romance (as demonstrated in the musical numbers); it is also the source of their frustration with each other, as the plumber fails to return to finish his job and the noises that the Man makes upstairs annoy the Woman; the hole becomes the means by which the Man becomes aware of the Woman being potentially infected by the virus; and in its last manifestation it is a beacon of hope and optimism.

The pace is slow with little happening until the last few moments so much viewer attention is directed to the isolating and isolated dank and dark concrete-jungle environment in which the characters live. The Man runs a food store that receives incredibly few customers save for an elderly gent whose favourite brands no longer exist and the Woman spends all her time mopping her floor, ripping wet wallpaper off her walls and eating instant noodles: how totally atomised their lives must be when all they can look forward to each day is emptiness and silence! The cinematography relies on long take after long take that emphasises the characters’ total isolation and alienation. Even the bright and colourful musical numbers, fantasy though they are, with agile male dancers in tuxedoes and a trio of back-up doo-wop girl singers, take place in the apartment block’s elevator, stairways and gangways, and in one flat, as though to suggest that, no matter how dreary people’s lives may be, they can still take refuge in their imaginations and that refuge may be closer to reality than they realise.

While there’s much to commend the film, its central characters remain flat due to the slow and sparse narrative, which permits little character development. The resolution to the characters’ problems seems overburdened with visual allusion (even though viewers can see it coming from a mile away) and ends in a sentimental music number. This is the kind of slightly experimental art film that you see once but no more than that. The film’s examination of the human condition comes across as rather superficial, a bit stereotyped and ultimately unsatisfying. Passively accepting a government restriction that forces the film’s characters to endure isolated lives without meaning or hope of change, renewal or freedom, and to retreat instead into an endlessly repeating fantasy world, seems to be the film’s main message; if rebellion occurs, it is only by accidental chance.

Altimir: a village representing in microcosm the impact of neoliberal capitalism on post-Communist nations

Kay Hannahan, “Altimir” (2016)

Since 1989 when they left the sphere of Soviet political / economic / cultural influence, and particularly since 2004 when they joined the European Union, the post-Communist / post-Soviet nations of central and eastern Europe have seen their economies shrink and die for lack of investment (public or private, local or foreign) in industry and agriculture. Correspondingly jobs have also been disappearing, unemployment is rising and more people need social welfare at a time when taxation revenue is shrinking and governments (some of which are dominated by diaspora politicians connected to the US government directly or indirectly through marriage and the US State Department) refuse to increase public spending because … public spending is socialist! The result in many of these nations, from Bulgaria in southeast Europe to Latvia and Lithuania in the northern Baltic Sea region, is the phenomenon of young people voting with their feet to wealthier parts of the European Union to find work, never to return.

In this documentary, Kay Hannahan travels to Altimir, a tiny village in northwest Bulgaria near the Danube River border with Romania, where she stays with an elderly couple, Yordan and Malinka, their daughter Iva and granddaughter Ioana. The family makes do with the few possessions it has in its ramshackle house where clothes are put out to dry on a dryer next to the heater in the tiny kitchen. Yordan takes Kay on a bicycle trip around the village, showing her various deserted buildings including a church whose grounds are now overrun with foraging chickens, a derelict schoolhouse and several factory buildings where (during Communist rule) upwards of 20 or 50 people used to be busy working at machines and equipment that have since disappeared or degenerated into scrap. They pass by the town hall and the village government building and Yordan tells Kay to film away (the implication is that under Communist rule when the building was in use, people were forbidden to film or take photos of it). While pay cheques were not great, workers were still able to take holidays in mountain areas or go down to the beaches on the Bulgarian coast. Yordan remarks that under capitalism, pay is better but pay cheques fewer and nearly all young people have left the village in search of work and money.

They visit some friends of Yordan’s, Gosho and his wife, and the three of them reminisce about the old Communist-era times when Gosho could visit Cuba and bring back gifts, and when people could make their own brandy at home. In present-day Bulgaria, people can no longer make brandy or other wines at home due to European Union restrictions. Despite their poverty, Gosho and his wife are generous hosts, making enough brandy to feed a football team, along with lunch made from whatever they can afford from their small fridge.

Everywhere they travel in the village, Kay and Yordan come across quiet and empty streets, overgrown parks, abandoned buildings in various states of decay, and few signs of life. Kay’s skilful use of cinematography, relying heavily on static or slowly moving hand camera, portrays the stillness of an emptying village. The villagers talk about their lives and the life of Altimir under Communism, how there was plenty of factory work to support a population of some 3,500 people, and how things have now changed dramatically under the EU and capitalism. There is no sense of despair or hopelessness however; the elderly folk shrug their shoulders, talk of things as they used to be under Communism, complain about the EU strictures and get on with business as usual. Where the money comes from to buy food for themselves and their animals – Kay’s hosts keep pigs and some cows – is not said in the documentary, but it’s likely that Yordan and Malinka get meagre pension cheques from the Bulgarian government, and their children working in the cities or overseas may send regular remittances as well.

In spite of the village’s dereliction, Kay’s hosts and their neighbours are proud representatives of Altimir, detailing the life that used to exist and showing off its history and war-time monuments. It seems a great tragedy that eventually when the elderly go, the entire village will become a ghost town ripe for the wrecking ball and a politician’s ambition to build a superhighway or a mine for foreign corporations to exploit.

The sense of the villagers’ attachment to Altimir and its past history and identity is strong and the villagers’ hospitality to a stranger whose intentions and background they do not know is very touching. Viewers are left with the sour feeling that life under Communism, while restricted and lacking in freedom, was better for the villagers than what they now have under the EU and neoliberal capitalism.