The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

Claire Darling: slow film about memory, heritage and past pain leading to a big bang

Julie Bertuccelli, “Claire Darling / La derniere folie de Claire Darling” (2018)

On the first day of summer in a small village somewhere in France, an elderly woman, Claire (Catherine Deneuve) – heir to a mining fortune – wakes up and is convinced that this day is the last day of her life. She arranges for local men to cart all her furniture and possessions into the front courtyard – including all the objects, dolls, knick-knacks and objets d’art she has collected over the years – where they are to be sold in a giant garage sale to the entire village community. Everyone rocks up to gawp at the objects on sale and the amazingly low prices offered. A local woman Martine (Laure Calamy) who happens to be an old school-friend of Claire’s daughter Marie, contacts the daughter and informs her of what her mother is doing. Marie (Chiara Mastroianni) immediately races over to try to stop the garage sale from going ahead but not before several major objects and prized pieces of furniture have gone.

This premise serves as an opportunity to explore dementia in elderly people, the effect of ageing on people’s memories and how memory serves to establish and maintain people’s identities and relationships with others past and present. The garage sale and the various objects that it emphasises – most of all, an elaborate elephant clock and a reproduction of Monet’s “Water Lilies” painting – hint at various past episodes in Claire Darling’s life (in which a younger Claire is played by Alice Taglioni), in particular how her son and husband died before their time and the lies that led to the rift between Claire and her daughter. Not a few sub-plots arise – in particular a sub-plot that hints at Claire and the local village priest becoming attracted to each other, and one that hints at Marie renewing a friendship (and finding romance) with local gendarme Amir (Samir Guesmi) – of which even fewer come to resolution or completion. The objects being sold themselves hold memories and guard secrets – most of all, the secret of where Claire’s lost ring has gone – and the garage sale itself becomes symbolic not only of Claire’s possible dementia but of her own life since the unhappy break-up of her family decades ago.

An alternate view of the garage sale might be that, since Claire is convinced that her life is to end that day, the sale of the objects is her way of preparing to die by divesting herself of all that has burdened her, psychologically and physically, throughout life. Although we never find out why Claire has always needed to collect ornaments, books, artwork and furniture, or why she hides precious dolls and toys in a garden niche, we can surmise that this hoarding gives her the security that she needed throughout her life but has never had. Over the years though, the security has become a burden that eventually compels her to live as a recluse surrounded by all her hoarding.

The film unfolds slowly with flashbacks to the past deliberately mixed into the present to demonstrate how past memories continually intrude into and influence present-day events. As a result, while the immersion into the French countryside can be very appealing (if rather deliberate and kitsch – there are few signs of poverty and no Gilets Jaunes protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity politics slowly killing French society), the action is drawn out and most characters do little more than run around in circles. An opportunity to present French village life as it might have been in the past and contrast it with the present – with the soulless efficiency of the city encroaching on and destroying what individuality and quirkiness remain – is missed.

The film’s climax, when it comes, when Claire expects her premonition to be fulfilled, arrives unexpectedly and suddenly, with most of the recluse’s secrets and issues still not fully resolved with Marie – or the rest of the village community for that matter. The Big Bang ending is surreal, akin to the famous conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film “Zabriskie Point”, in which everything flows back into the river of life. Far from preparing for death, Claire was preparing to live again.

The Heiresses: a slow-burning character study of self-transformation

Marcelo Martinessi, “The Heiresses / Las Herederas” (2018)

A slow-burning, low-key character study that, among other things, examines loss and self-transformation and interrogates social hierarchy and the relations within it, “The Heiresses” is a rare creature: its main characters are a middle-aged lesbian couple who have lived together for 30 years in one woman’s old family home, sheltered by wealth and privilege, in Asuncion, in Paraguay. Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) are busy selling off old heirlooms belonging to both their families to raise money to pay off Chiquita’s debts and to survive. However the money the two raise isn’t enough to stop Chiquita from going to jail for fraud, which she cheerfully accepts. Initially the shy Chela is hugely embarrassed by their situation and withdraws into their prison-like house. Gradually though she is drawn out of that shell, and her own psychological shell, by neighbour Pituca, a rich elderly woman who needs Chela to drive her to weekly bridge games with her girlfriends – even though Chela hasn’t driven the ageing Bentley for yonks. Pituca and her pals start using Chela as their own private Uber taxi driver and before long, Chela is also driving for a younger woman, Angy (Ana Ivanova), and her mother who needs to go to Itaugua each week for medical appointments. Through her driving and through Angy, to whom she becomes attracted due to the younger woman’s zest for life and sensuality, Chela rediscovers an independence and a hope for freedom she long ago had given up.

Brun’s performance as Chela is the film’s major asset: though she does not speak much and is an essentially passive character, the changes and increased confidence she experiences as a chauffeur become obvious from one day to the next. The film is a textbook example of the maxim “Show, don’t tell”: Chela gradually improves her appearance and adopts a more sprightly posture and a happier face. Her transformation occasionally hits some obstacles and challenges – the most challenging being when Chiquita returns home and decides to sell off the Bentley – but in her own unassuming way Chela eventually finds a solution and manages to thwart those who would stand in the way. Where Chela does not speak, her eyes, the expression on her face, her posture and her body language do all the talking. Incredibly, “The Heiresses” marks Brun’s debut as a film actor, all her previous work having been done on stage. The rest of the cast puts up a strong showing, in particular Ivanova as the flirtatious, sensual potential lover Angy and Maria Martins as the talkative Pituca.

The film portrays Paraguayan society as one where wealth, class and race coincide quite strongly: white Europeans make up the wealthy class while people of mixed ancestry make up the poor. Chela and Chiquita hire a new maid who speaks little Spanish and who is clearly beneath them socially yet becomes something of a mother figure to Chela when Chela is at her most despondent. Part of Chela’s transformation from a lonely isolated figure to a fully aware human being involves having to communicate with and ask for help from someone from a different class who does not look European. The transformation occurs in parallel with the gradual loss of furniture and other family possessions; Chela does not seem too bothered about giving up furniture and heirlooms that must surely hold many memories and much family history.

Where Chela goes next after Chiquita’s return, the film does not say but her absence at the end of the film speaks more powerfully than an entire cast of thousands could say and shout. It is this kind of direction and filming, using a scene, a prop or the absence of something to express its opposite, that mark Martinessi a director to watch in the future. Chela’s transformation may be taken as a symbol of Paraguay’s gradual transformation from a political and cultural backwater in the middle of South America, with the divided and hierarchical society one might expect to find, to a modern nation where old socioeconomic categories have broken down to allow all citizens to fulfill their potential as human beings.

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.

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?

Capharnaum: a film of hope in search of identity and a place to call home

Nadine Labaki, “Capharnaum” (2018)

I’m sure plenty of children around the world are serving time in juvenile centres for serious criminal acts including stabbing a man and crippling him for life as a result but not too many of those kids get the opportunity to phone a television current affairs show to announce that they’re going to sue their parents for bringing them into a rotten corrupt world that condemns them and their siblings to bleak, hopeless poverty and robs them of happiness and opportunities to play, go to school and learn to be decent human beings. That one 12-year-old boy called Zain (Zain al Rafeea) does so is a springboard into a documentary-styled drama focused on the twilight world inhabited by refugees, illegal migrant workers and homeless children, the relentless pressures on them to find their next meal and some shelter over their heads, and the extraordinary (and ingenious) risks they take to survive. The bulk of Zain’s story is told in flashback as he and his attorney (director Labaki herself) on one side of a courtroom face his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) on the other side while the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired judge) presides over the proceedings.

Zain lives with his parents and an apparent horde of siblings in a tiny Beirut apartment rented to them by a landlord whose son Assaad is infatuated with Zain’s 13-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Almost as soon as Sahar has her first period, the parents marry her off to Assaad and Zain rebels against the marriage and stomps off. He travels to another part of the city where he meets a transvestite called Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) who leads him to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian migrant working various odd jobs and hiding her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), knowing that his discovery by the authorities will lead to her deportation and the baby being sent to an orphanage. For several months, Zain babysits Yonas – at least until Rahil is arrested and jailed. From then on, Zain does his best to look after Yonas while trying to find work to get enough money to buy food and feed them both.

Eventually Zain reaches the end of his tether when he cannot get any work and leaves the baby with Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who promises to place Yonas with a foster family – in reality, Aspro works in trafficking desperate Syrian refugees to Sweden – so he can go home to find his papers so he too can leave Beirut. Once home, he discovers the dreadful fate that befell Sahar soon after she married Assaad and the boy vows vengeance on the landlord’s son …

Through Zain’s point of view, the precarious and unstable existence of an underclass with no papers that would prove their existence and identity is portrayed with a raw grimness occasionally lightened by humour (even if it’s on the black side) and the innocence of children like Yonas. In spite of the incredible, grinding poverty, the violence and abuse he suffers at home, and the pain he sees around him and experiences, Zain is still capable of compassion, love and care for those less able than he to defend themselves, like Sahar and Yonas. Zain al Rafeea, himself a refugee from Syria, delivers an incredible performance as a child struggling to survive yet yearning to know his true path and direction in life, and wanting nothing more than to know he is known and needed by society. Apart from Labaki herself, all the actors in the film are non-professionals and several of them actually were refugees or undocumented workers. In bringing their experiences to their roles, the actors helped give the film a raw and harsh quality.

No less than the cast itself, the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut, weighed down by floods of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, its bureaucracy and institutions unable to cope with them and illegal migrants from other countries, are a dramatic, often severe background in which the modern-day Oliver Twist tale plays out. Parts of the script do stretch credibility – is it really possible that the authorities manage to find Yonas among the crammed warehouses of people hoping to find asylum in Sweden? – and the ending can come across as unbelievably optimistic. Little attention is given over to how Zain’s parents came to be in their appalling predicament in the first place, how others exploit and manipulate them, and how and why they have given up hope for themselves and their children. The system which they and their son fall into cannot offer them hope and one presumes that after Zain serves his allotted jail-time that he will return to his family and possibly fall into trouble again.

The film offers hope that, for all the pain and horror he has experienced, Zain’s natural resilience, compassion and ingenuity that have served him and Yonas well will not only help him to survive but to thrive as well. The deliberate identification of Zain with the city he inhabits by “Capharnaum” make the boy a metaphor for the fortunes of Beirut and by implication, Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Levant.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Formulaic coming-of-age heroic fantasy blends with Thai Buddhist beliefs in “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra”

Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, Nat Yoswatananont, “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra” (2018)

Not known for its animation industry, Thailand nevertheless seems to be pinning its hopes on this film, recently released in Australia and New Zealand, to garner some attention (and maybe lots of money!) for the industry’s further development. The plot is standard Hollywood formula: the principality of Ramthep is conquered by a demon race called the Yaksas and an old blind sage prophesies that a hero will save Ramthep and restore its rightful Prince, and destroy Yaksa leader Dehayaksa into the bargain. A general in the Ramthep army escapes the Yaksas carrying the kingdom’s most sacred weapon, the Ninth Satra, and a peasant baby called Ott. The general is gravely paralysed by the Yaksas while escaping but finds refuge on the remote island of Nok Ann. There, Ott grows up and is trained in the Thai martial art of muay thai as part of the general’s mission to return the Ninth Satra to its Prince so Ramthep may be restored. The Yaksas find and destroy Nok Ann village but not before Ott escapes with the Ninth Satra. With his adoptive father the general dead and all of Nok Ann village gone, Ott has to find his way to a homeland he barely knows. With luck, he is picked up by two friends, Red Asura, a yaksa who is friendly towards humans, and Va-ta, a monkey king, and later by a pirate ship captained by Chinese pirate queen Xiaolan. Together the foursome lead the pirate fleet to Ramthep on a journey fraught with several dangers including being harassed by Dehayaksa’s scout Black Jagger and having to navigate the pirate ship through a treacherously narrow passage.

The film rockets along at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, though the fight scenes are too quick and flashy to show off the style and movements of muay thai at its best.  Still, for a film that cost US$7 million to make, the computer animation is well done with characters that move smoothly and naturally, and background scenes, especially those that showcase Thai Buddhist architecture and the country’s islands, are gorgeous in their colour and detail. The aerial chase and fight scenes are spectacular to watch and are perhaps the major highlight of the film. (Of course there is the overblown Saturday morning children’s cartoon showdown between Ott and Dehayaksa and as may be expected it’s full of fire and fury and not a great deal else.) The animators pay considerable attention to character development, especially the characters of Ott, Red Asura and Xiaolan, with the result that viewers come to care a great deal about these particular figures as they battle their inner demons as well as the greater demon in Dehayaksa and his forces.

What really distinguishes this film though is the way in which the plot blends a formulaic coming-of-age fantasy epic with elements of Thai myth and Thai Buddhism. For Ott to be able to deploy the Ninth Satra weapon effectively, he must demonstrate the nine virtues associated with it, virtues such as courage, steadfastness, moral integrity and faith; he’s actually not tested on these virtues but viewers have to assume he’s in full possession of them all when he meets Dehayaksa. Ultimately the film’s message that a lowly village boy can become a saviour of his people by freeing them from enslavement by the demonic Yaksas, if he is of good moral character and trusts in his religious faith, will make an impression on its target audience of teenagers and primary school-age children and their families.

Movie fans will be able to spot obvious influences from Hollywood and Japanese anime films, and guess that the inclusion of a group of sky-riding pirates and a monkey prince is a sop to Chinese and Indian movie audiences. Still, the stitching together of the various influences and elements from other movies is done smoothly and the quality and energy of the animation are exuberant enough that viewers will readily overlook the derivative quality of the film’s plot, its characters and some visual pieces. While the film could have drawn on Thai culture and artistic media (traditional and modern) more than it does here, it’s still a very good-looking and energetic work.