Masquerade: a historical drama inspired by a bizarre episode in a Korean king’s reign becomes an inquiry into good government and social class

Choo Chang-min “Gwanghae: Wang-i Doen NamjaMasquerade” (2012)

Korean actor Lee Byung-hun may be better known for his gunslinger roles in flicks like “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and the not-so magnificent 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” but he may have reached his career peak in playing two roles in Choo Chang-min’s historical drama epic “Masquerade”. Inspired by an episode in the reign of early 17th-century King Gwanghae, during which in the year 1616 a 15-day period was deliberately not recorded in the archives of the king’s Joseon Dynasty, the film proposes that during this fortnight King Gwanghae went into hiding after being drugged by his palace enemies and allowed an imposter to take his place while he recovered his health.

The action starts very quickly: temperamental tyrant Gwanghae (Lee) orders his defence secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to find him a double to stand in for him in case he, the king, is ever poisoned or drugged in an assassination plot. Heo just as speedily finds an acrobat and jester, Ha-seon (Lee again), who of course resembles the king and who has been satirising him in bawdy live performances in Seoul’s red light districts. Ha-seon gets a quick crash course in imitating Gwanghae’s voice and style of kingship, which is just as well since the king is indeed poisoned and he lapses into a coma. Loyal courtiers quickly cart the monarch away to a secret rural location while Heo and the loyal Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) try to hammer their lowly protege into presentable kingly material sufficient to fool queen consort (Han Hyo-joo), personal bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In-kwon) and the various assorted politicians and courtiers, few of whom can be trusted and nearly of whom would throw a knife into Gwanghae’s back if they could.

After about half an hour of Ha-seon adjusting to his new role, he discovers that Gwanghae has been running something less than an upright administration that holds the welfare and needs of its Korean subjects utmost in mind and he sets about carrying out land and taxation reforms that Heo already had drafted but which Gwanghae had been stalling on. This of course upsets Gwanghae’s courtly enemies even further and they start their own investigations into the king’s recent sudden changes in conduct and behaviour. The queen, the concubines and the women of the court and kitchen are equally perturbed by the king’s sudden studiousness and interest in State matters and avoidance of the harem, and his new-found compassion and care for the kitchen servants, in particular the teenage Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) whose family fell on hard times, selling her and her mother into bondage; Sa-wol ends up working for the palace but does not know where her mother has gone.

Choo’s direction emphasises technical and historical accuracy and detail, and the result is a lavish recreation of both the intrigues and the commonplace affairs that occupied King Gwanghae’s reign and made it so eventful if rather short (the fellow lasted 15 years before being deposed and forced into exile). As contemporary Korean audiences may not be very familiar with this period of their history, the action follows a fairly strict chronological order and the style of direction is straightforward. This allows several themes to come into play: that high birth doesn’t determine one’s place in history whereas conduct and behaviour do; that rulers, even kings, are ultimately servants of the people and must govern fairly and compassionately on their behalf; and there is the danger of identity slippage as at times Ha-seon seems to be dangerously close to regarding himself as the real king. The result is that as Gwanghae’s enemies gradually discover the deceit played on them by the king himself and begin to encroach on and threaten Ha-seon’s life, Ha-seon’s real enemy may be the king himself as he regains his health and prepares to take charge again.

Lee’s bravura acting, from grim tyrant to a lowly bawdy comic who rises to his sudden and unexpected destiny and finds in himself talents and abilities he never thought he had, holds the film together and the supporting cast is no less outstanding. Through Ha-seon, the royal court rediscovers what true kingship is. The plot includes and unites elements of comedy, drama, action and tragedy in a seamless manner. The pace is fairly brisk but I never felt it was hurried and it leaves plenty of room for Ha-seon and Heo to deal with courtly machinations against them and the day-to-day business of governing. The film unites the grand and the epic with the humble and the lowly, and this unity is what gives “Masquerade” its depth and range. In its own way, “Masquerade” interrogates the role of social class in Korean society and finds it wanting.

Neruda: an exploration of how stories are created and shaped by those who exercise political power

Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” (2016)

Very loosely based on an episode in Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda’s life, when he and his wife Delia were forced to go on the run from police authorities on account of their Chilean Communist Party membership and leftist sympathies, “Neruda” explores the grey boundaries between realism and fiction, and within that zone becomes one man’s quest to find purpose and meaning in his life, in the process becoming a real human and not just a one-dimensional cog in an authoritarian machine society. The film folds in elements of noir, thriller, comedy, tragedy and Borges-style magic realism as the cat-and-mouse chase becomes a duel between what is real and what is unreal, what is imagined and what is outside imagination.

At the film’s opening, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a Senator,  having denounced Chilean President Gabriel González Videla for his brutal anti-Communist attacks against ordinary people over the past couple of years since his election in 1946. (Incidentally Videla was elected President by the Chilean parliament, not in a general election.) Neruda is threatened with arrest and is forced to go into hiding, and then to find refuge in different parts of the country as the police pursue him. Prominent in the pursuit is Chief Inspector of the Investigations Police of Chile Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dour figure as blank as blank can be, who has never known his father and therefore is cut off from his origins and history.

Peluchonneau serves as narrator of the film as well as antagonist – or is it protagonist? – and through him, and his determination to be the lead character in this particular story, battling Neruda to be the hero figuratively as well as arresting him and achieving “heroism” (from his point of view) in the more mundane sense, the film explores how history – and Latin American history in particular – is made and shaped by those who have political power and therefore the power to direct the path of a nation’s historical narrative. At one point in the film, when Peluchonneau catches up with Delia, she suggests to him that he is a figment in Neruda’s imagination; Peluchonneau resists Delia’s suggestion and from this point on, his pursuit of Neruda becomes an absolute obsession to the point where the poet is forced to flee over the Andes mountains and the police inspector himself makes one mistake after another in pursuing the poet across snowy country.

While the film provides a good introduction into the poetry of Neruda and how it galvanised Chileans across different layers of society into supporting Neruda and the values he stood for, Larraín does not shrink from portraying the poet with all his contradictions and the ambivalent relationships he often had with his wife and close supporters. Chilean society in the 1940s is shown to quite good effect, as much as can be done in a film under 2 hours in length: the historical details look fairly accurate, and the rural landscapes and natural countryside of Chile, from the fjords to the high country of Araucanian pines, are stunningly filmed. As Neruda flees farther away from Santiago, Peluchonneau’s authority – and by implication, government control – weakens and becomes laughably incompetent.

The acting is not bad but it’s not great either. Bernal does a good job portraying Peluchonneau as a cypher but cannot flesh out the character with the result that Peluchonneau always seems less than human even when his quest and sacrifice endow him with the purpose and humanity he has always sought. The best acting actually comes from two minor characters: the drag queen who tells Peluchonneau of his brief connection to Neruda that the inspector will never experience, and the waitress who challenges Neruda on his political beliefs and whether she will ever be his political and economic equal once Chile is rid of tyranny and dictatorship.

As long as viewers realise that “Neruda” is intended as a fantastic retelling of what might have been in a period of Neruda’s life, the film is an entertaining light thriller; but beyond light entertainment, it can do no more.

Dark Horse: a bleak and surreal comedy satire on dysfunctional middle class suburban families

Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” (2011)

A bleak comedy expressing despair over the human condition, “Dark Horse” revolves around life’s losers, those who for various reasons are unable to achieve their dreams, fulfill their potential and live up to their own (and others’) expectations, and end up alienated, frustrated and forgotten. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is in his mid-30s, living at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and working for his father’s real estate company; his main joys in life are the obsessions of his teenage years, namely sci-fi toys he buys at the toy store in the shopping mall. He meets a young woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), at a wedding and becomes besotted with her. From this moment on, Abe pursues Miranda, and they come close to marrying, but Abe’s own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, combined with resentment at his parents and older brother’s treatment of him, threaten to derail the two’s future happiness.

The film is notable for its character study of a no-hoper pampered adult-child character with many unlikeable qualities and a feeling of self-entitlement, and of the dysfunctional family in which he grew up and which either indulges him or treats him dismissively. Jordan Gelber actually succeeds in making the unpleasant and self-centred Abe strangely sympathetic and touching. Blair’s character Miranda doesn’t appear all that convincing as an apathetic and depressed young woman, over-medicated and despairing that she will never achieve the literary career she had hoped for; her irrational behaviour in accepting Abe’s marriage proposal (and thus sending him onto a trajectory that means his days are fast running out) in spite of her inability to truly love him may bewilder viewers. Walken and Farrow offer solid if restrained support as the disappointed father and indulgent mother and Justin Bartha’s contribution as the successful older brother whose good fortune sends Abe into constant rages is equally matter-of-fact and all the more devastating. Probably the outstanding performance though comes from Donna Murphy as the real estate company secretary who of all the characters may genuinely care for Abe … though the film offers many alternative suggestions about the nature of her feelings towards him and becomes distinctly surreal and open-ended at its conclusion.

As a satire on American family life in a society where success and conformity to social mores count for more than individual eccentricity and striving for one’s hopes and dreams, the film never quite succeeds, perhaps because Abe, his parents and the people around them are too self-absorbed and self-pitying to realise that their lives are collapsing around them as a result of their considerable character flaws. The tragedy is that Abe never gets the opportunity to get to grips with his situation due to Miranda’s odd and selfish behaviour. The plot is very disjointed and becomes more fragmented as it continues, and one is not too sure from whose point of view the story is being told.

Elvis & Nixon: amusing and light-hearted comedy of the meeting between rock star legend and the most powerful politician in the world

Liza Johnson, “Elvis & Nixon” (2016)

Based on an actual incident in which the famous rock singer Elvis Presley turned up unannounced at the White House some time in 1970, wanting to meet the then US President Richard Nixon to discuss the state of America’s youth and the dire direction the country was supposedly heading in, what with the civil rights movement in full throttle, the ascent of the hippie culture and the associated psychedelic drug scene, and the fear that godless Communists were infiltrating society through the music popular with young people … “Elvis & Nixon” turns out to be a light and fluffy comedy affair, albeit with subterranean currents that provide plenty of food for thought. Through its careful character studies of both Presley and Nixon, the film has a great deal to say about the cult of fame and celebrity and how it affects individuals like Presley, the self-interest and cynicism prevalent in both politics and the entertainment world and the extent to which Presley and Nixon try to use each other for their own benefit, and the pathos behind Presley’s quest to be heard out by the world’s most powerful politician and his attempt to be something of significance and not just an entertainer.

On the surface, one couldn’t imagine two people more unlike each other than a famous rock’n’roll singer and a very conservative politician not at all interested in American youth to have much in common. The film spends a considerable amount of time building up the two men, revealing Presley (Michael Shannon) as a lonely, isolated individual, engrossed in conspiracy theories and sometimes bizarre hobbies, at once knowing and also touchingly naive; and Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as self-centred, grasping and concerned with his own self image. When the two men eventually meet – after their aides have gone to enormous lengths to set up the meeting that involve a fair amount of duplicity and manipulation – the rock star and the politician discover they have had many similar experiences arising from their fame and the isolation it imposes, and the two men readily bond together.

Shannon and Spacey turn in stunning performances though Shannon gets far more screen time and his character becomes both sympathetic and pathetic in his obsession with obtaining a Federal police badge and becoming an undercover agent at large using his rock star fame as cover to spy on other rock music artists. The moment during which Presley rehearses what he will say to Nixon and mentions his long-dead twin brother Jesse reveals a personality starved for real connection and wanting to be loved as a human being, not as a stereotype cultivated by music industry advertising, is very moving and reveals something of Presley’s vulnerability, loneliness and desire for authentic connection beneath the bravado. Nixon is persuaded by his aides, who have an eye on the President’s popularity rating with the public, to meet Presley: initially Nixon refuses but his aides secretly meet with Presley’s bodyguards and the foursome concoct a plan (almost verging on conspiracy and which can be seen as a forerunner to the corruption that became the Watergate scandal) that involves Nixon’s young adult daughters.

The movie does not belong just to its main characters: considerable time is given over delineating the characters of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Presley’s confidant who wants to be with his girlfriend, and of Nixon’s White House official Krogh (Colin Hanks) who is perhaps a little too good at conniving and manipulating – in real life, Krogh was to be caught up in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon from the Presidency and as a result the aide spent several years in prison. Schilling does not do much with his character but Hanks nearly steals the show in most scenes with spot-on timing and hilarious facial expressions.

It’s a pity that the film does not do more with its characters and plot than to have them meet to talk about something that afterwards they will quickly discard: Presley gets his badge but apparently decides not to be an undercover agent (so was the whole idea a ruse just to meet Nixon?) after all and Nixon resumes bombing Vietnam, taking America off the gold standard and plotting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as to which unfortunate Third World country is next on the hit list for invasion and having its government overthrown. The irony that the film misses is that Presley was to die seven years after the meeting from being addicted to and ingesting too many pharmaceutical substances. Of all the people needing firm guidance to stay away from addictive drugs, it was Presley himself who needed this message. The film probably could have continued for some time after the meeting, with Tricky Dicky Nixon and his bureaucrats well on the road to personal ruin and Presley retreating into his Graceland cocoon, unable to overcome the layers of fame and convince his audiences that he is more than just a rock singer and bad actor.

As it is, “Elvis & Nixon” is a light-hearted way to spend an hour and twenty-five minutes. The meeting between the two men perhaps deserves to be treated more seriously as a documentary.

Galaxy Quest: affectionate homage and spoof maintains the values of altruism, quest for knowledge and defending the underdog

Dean Parisot, “Galaxy Quest” (1999)

Conceived as a homage to and spoof of the famous science fiction TV series “Star Trek” and of the obsessive fan following it collected, this comedy movie has gained cult status in its own right and won the affection of “Star Trek” fans themselves thanks to a clever plot that packs in most of the cliches and eccentricities of the television show and spoofs a great many movie stereotypes with wit and warmth. The ensemble cast rises to the challenge and most actors, minor as well as major, are outstanding in their roles, narrow though some of these are. Above all, the values that inform the original “Star Trek” series as conceived by its creator Gene Roddenberry are even more on display than in the TV series: sympathy for the underdog and the downtrodden, altruism and bravery in the face of severe danger, and different groups working together to bring about peace and an end to violence and terror.

The film begins and ends with the actors of a former TV sci-fi show “Galaxy Quest” attending a fan convention dedicated to the show even though more than a decade has passed since the series was axed. At the beginning the actors are so closely identified with the series by their fans and others that since the show’s axing, they have all had problems getting other acting work and they have become embittered. Except for Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) who has come to identify with his GQ character Commander Peter Taggart (a spoof of William Shatner’s James Kirk character on “Star Trek”) and who acts accordingly: as a sometimes zoned-out fat-head twat. The ex-cast quarrel among themselves and come to blows, nearly ruining their appearance at the fan convention.

However their fortunes change when a group of aliens, who have received radio transmissions of the old GQ episodes and believe them to be actual historical events, arrive on Earth and implore the cast to help save their race and planet from annihilation by their enemies. The actors have little choice but to go along with the illusion: this involves driving the GQ spaceship that the aliens have faithfully recreated from what they have seen from the episodes, retrieving a beryllium rock from a desert planet to replace one damaged in the ship’s power drive during an enemy attack, and thwarting the plans of the evil Sarris (Robin Sachs) to conquer the universe.

What is powerful in this film is the way the out-of-work actors rediscover the wonder of the show they all worked on, grow into their old roles and discover their own depths and potential they had not known before. Nesmith really does find he makes a good leader and a brave one as well. The actors playing the GQ cast all give their best with spot-on timing and make these characters their own. Sigourney Weaver sends up her Ellen Ripley character from the “Alien” films by playing ditzy blonde sex bomb Tawny Madison and Alan Rickman, playing a Shakespearean actor who is best remembered by most people for playing an alien advisor on GQ (a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock character on “Star Trek”) with all the frustrations, disillusionment and hang-ups that go with actors in that situation, conveys his character’s mixed feelings and growth into the role of Dr Lazarus beautifully. Daryl Mitchell (playing a former child pilot), Tony Shalhoub (as the stoned engineer) and Sam Rockwell (as an extra who believes he’ll always be killed off) steal the show whenever they appear. For many viewers though, Tim Allen may well steal the spotlight in impersonating William Shat … er, playing the role of Nesmith playing Taggart in what may well be the defining role of his career: at once playing a comic actor, and a hero as well.

The film moves at a very brisk pace with the laughs coming thick and fast. The funniest moments of the film come when Nesmith calls on a teenage GQ fan on Earth to help him and Madison navigate the labyrinth duct systems on the GQ ship so they can reach the power core and stop the ship from self-destructing; the kid successfully directs them through his PC, even guiding them through a treacherous passage where the ship’s pistons could pound them into schnitzels! An enjoyable sub-plot that takes place during the search for the new beryllium core is notable for its cute Teletubby aliens who turn out to have a savage brutal nature.

You don’t have to know “Star Trek” to enjoy the film and its many gags, and to appreciate the ultimate gag of a group of aliens sophisticated enough to build spaceships that travel light years from one end of the universe to the other yet are unable to tell the difference between reality and pretence. The difference can be a fine one as the GQ cast members really do become a genuine spaceship crew by the end of the film. Knowing the difference certainly does not help Sarris either. This probably says something quite profound, maybe even creepy and troubling, about the nature of fandom and how fiction and reality bleed into one another and become confused to the point where fiction dominates, with perhaps dire consequences in post-truth world.

Hero: a smug film that twists Chinese history and delivers a deplorable message

Zhang Yimou, “Hero” (2002)

If one needs proof that a visually gorgeous film with a good cast can ultimately be undone and wasted by a demoralising and ugly plot and theme, Chinese director Zhang’s “Hero” is it. That the film was tailor-made for Western audiences featuring a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong actors is even more of an insult to both the Chinese (for distorting the history on which the film is based) and Westerners who might assume that Chinese people passively prefer stability and corruption over change and good government. What’s really puzzling is why someone of Zhang’s stature as a director saw fit to make this film.

The film’s story takes place during a period in China’s history well over 2,000 years ago when the King of the Qin state has been brutally conquering and uniting competing neighbouring kingdoms and is on the verge of becoming China’s first emperor. The King has recently – and only just – survived being assassinated by three sword-fighters known as Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. A prefect known as Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s court and claims to have fought and killed these assassins. His tale is told in flashback. The King (Chen Daoming) counters Nameless’s story by proffering his version in which Nameless had staged his fights with the three assassins who volunteer to die so that Nameless can bring the swords of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) to the monarch as “proof” of their deaths. This forces Nameless to admit the truth, that he has a special ability to inflict apparent death without touching vital organs and used this to “kill” Snow in front of the Qin army. Before leaving for the capital for his meeting with the King with the two assassins’ swords, Nameless is shown two characters written by Broken Sword in the sand which together explain why Sword, when he had the opportunity, decided not to kill the King.

The film proceeds at a good clip until it divides into its three sub-plots – each differentiated by a dominant colour (red, blue, green) – whereupon it bogs down in soapie weepiness as the lovers Sword and Snow dispute over which of them should fight Nameless and “die”, and whether vengeance on the King for having despoiled their own country of Zhao is the right thing to do. Sword’s decision not to kill the King on the basis that a peaceful, unified state is better than constantly warring ones and that, for all his brutality, ruthlessness and paranoia, the King of Qin must be the best man to achieve that peace, has an effect on Nameless when his moment comes to attack the King.

The morality of the decisions Sword and Nameless make is very dubious to say the least. Is the unification of China, and with it the achievement of peace and stability, really worth the severe suppression of difference and dissent? Should genocide of an entire nation and its culture, language and history be the necessary sacrifice to achieve unity and peace? Is there no other alternative to passive resignation and allowing a brutal ruler to run roughshod over vassal states as he sees fit? If the film is serious about its theme, then it leaves a very sour taste in this viewer’s mouth. The political implications of such a theme for Chinese and Westerners alike are immense: can a utilitarian approach to politics, achieving what most people desire only at the cost of the lives of a minority, be acceptable?

The film’s insinuation that the King of Qin is pressured by his court and army to execute Nameless is even worse propaganda, suggesting that Chinese people essentially are bloodthirsty thugs who do not know mercy and compassion, and that the King wouldn’t have been the tyrant and despot he was if he’d not been subjected to so much pressure by vengeful mobs.

Apart from the smug and inhumane message, the film suffers from weak character development and an over-emphasis on computer-enhanced martial arts ballet. An excellent acting cast is wasted as are also the cinematography and slick special effects.

Sans Soleil: a pretentious and confusing film that plays a stupid joke on its audience at its end

Chris Marker, “Sans Soleil” (1983)

Picture yourself receiving a letter from a long-time friend who has been living and travelling for many years in Japan, Iceland and Guinea-Bissau (a small country in western Africa). Everything he writes about in the letter – and it’s a very long letter too – revolves around the transience and fragility of memory, the malleability of history, what people across the world yearn for and dream of, and the quest for meaning in life wherever it is. He wants to capture everything he sees and hears, whether in writing or in filming it (he’s a film buff and knows Alfred Hitchcock’s work, especially the classic “Vertigo”) and he’s trying to find a story-line or narrative that can encompass all he experiences of contemporary Japanese culture with all its contradictions and complexities, its startling ultra-modern technology co-existing with ancient temple ceremonies, social rituals and superstitions; and what he knows of Guinea-Bissau’s history and politics. (You know your friend is sympathetic towards leftist politics but is not heavily concerned with socialist ideology.) No matter how he tries, the concept seems to be too overwhelming so he hits you with everything that makes a deep impression on him, all the things that made him cry for joy or weep in despair; but out of all this melange, he hopes to inspire you, to break all barriers of time, space, cultures and all our mental constructs to reach out to you and to connect with you.

In a nutshell, that’s “Sans Soleil”, French director Chris Marker’s attempt to combine in one very long and overwhelming visual work his meditations on the nature of time, space and history, and their circular nature which climax in his overwrought discussion on the treatment of memory in the movie “Vertigo”. While the images presented are often very beautiful, thanks to various special effects and filming techniques that renders some very hallucinatory and abstract, others can be extremely disturbing and still others seem quite pointless.

The film suffers from its own ambition and Marker’s own arrogance: the narration covers far too much ground in such a superficial way that much of the film where it covers Guinea-Bissau and aspects of Japanese culture (that is to say, the bulk of the film) almost seems racist. In particular the film’s broad sweep across Japanese culture and the attention it devotes to social fads that blow away Japanese people from time to time suggest not so much a deep love and understanding of the nature of Japanese people and society, and why they are the way they are, but instead a kind of creepy voyeurism that exoticises and makes fun of its subjects. There is nothing in the film that hints that Marker makes any attempt to know and try to understand the strains that Japanese society might be under, why the country was (even in the 1980s) heading for a demographic crash and to connect with Japanese people themselves, even if that connection is with one or two individuals.

The narration is dull and repetitive and the music soundtrack with its bleached acid-psychedelic sounds and effects is so badly dated that it gives the impression of the film being ten years older than it actually is. Although the version of the film that I saw was digitally remastered, some images are very blurry and substandard in their appearance and the soundtrack desperately needs remastering and cleaning up.

A confused and confusing film that ends up saying the worst about its director, that presents his superficial observations about aspects of foreign cultures (removing them from their proper historical contexts); and moreover contains a cheap twist about the real nature of your friend – so the “narrative” itself includes you as the antagonist, not as a narrator removed from the action, and everything in the film could have been imagined by a political prisoner or an asylum inmate (and now you know why the film is called “Sans Soleil” meaning “without sun” in English)- can only be considered a buffoonish and pretentious fantasy. The notion then that memory is fragile and history is circular becomes a tool that could be used to serve a sinister agenda and exploit people – as Scotty discovers (in “Vertigo”) that he and the woman he thought was Madeleine are used and exploited by the real Madeleine’s husband to cover up the murder of his wife.

That Obscure Object of Desire: a tale of sexual obsession in a society falling apart through its hypocrisy and violence

Luis Buñuel, “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)

Between two full buckets of cold water that the main characters dump on each other unfolds (for the entertainment of a small group of breathless train passengers) a tale of sexual obsession taken to extremes, to the point where the outside world becomes irrelevant until it rudely and violently intrudes on the characters’ lives, and of the clash between the old world and the new, the aged and the young, and the hypocritical, corrupt upper class and the lower class on the make as represented by the protagonist Matthieu (Fernando Rey) and antagonist Conchita (Carole Bouquet / Angela Molina). The film’s plot takes place in a world of increasing insecurity and chaos, and this chaos is mirrored in the romance between Matthieu and Conchita who find they can’t live without each other yet also find they can’t live with each other either.

The film will work best for viewers if they consider it as a character study into sexual lust and obsession; male attempts to control women and their sexuality; the nature of women’s sexuality as inaccessible and uncontrollable; and the influence of religion, especially conservative Roman Catholic religion, on people’s sexual behaviour and the games and power plays of titillation and frustration this gives rise to. Fernando Rey portrays Matthieu in all his sordid glory as both an urbane (and possibly ethically compromised) upper class career professional with connections in high places and an easily led cuckold undone by his sexual lust. One can feel equal amounts of pity and disgust with him, and repulsion as well when he hits Conchita repeatedly in one scene. Bouquet and Molina are rather more limited and stereotyped in the way they play Conchita: Bouquet is a cool, angelic and frigid Conchita while Molina plays a more earthy and sensual Conchita. The way in which the two actresses alternate is unpredictable and seems to respond to whatever mood or feeling is required of the character though Buñuel had not originally planned the role to be acted the way it seems to be done. The end result though is that Conchita, far from being a victim of the much older Matthieu’s attempts to control and own her, ends up controlling him with her eroticism and street cunning, and she is as much repugnant and sadistic as he is.

As in several of Buñuel’s late period comedies of the bourgeoisie, organised religion gets hammered for its hypocrisy. Conchita’s mother prays at church every day but is prepared to sell her daughter as a prostitute. The veneer of propriety and the smugness of the middle class are borne out by the behaviour of the train passengers who eagerly listen to Matthieu’s recounting of his sorry experiences with Conchita; the midget psychology professor in particular makes presumptuous pronouncements on aspects of the tale that reveal his arrogance. The corruption of the upper class is evident in the fly that appears in Matthieu’s glass of water at a high class restaurant and the mouse caught in the mouse-trap in his apartment.

The terrorist violence that appears throughout the film and which possibly claims the lives of Matthieu and Conchita reflects the growing corruption of middle class society and the chaos and disasters that society leaves in its wake, in much the same way that Matthieu and Conchita’s encounters leave behind a trail of broken vases and furniture, bloodied cushions and disgruntled employers unwilling to give Conchita any references for future jobs. There is a suggestion in the film that Conchita herself may belong to a terrorist group and that she takes up with Matthieu deliberately to divest him of money that should be redistributed among the poor.

While the film is very well done and quite droll in its own way, I feel it’s not a match for earlier Buñuel classics like “Belle du jour” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, even though the plots of all three films are very funny and improbable and feature plenty of social and political commentary. One feels that Matthieu and Conchita are locked into a destructive relationship in which they are condemned by their material desires and frustrations to play their respective roles of tormenter and victim, and that nothing can be done for these self-destructive individuals – hence the need for the director and his fellow co-writer to resort to a deus ex machina device to finish off the film.

The Lost Thing: a multi-layered children’s story that critiques industrial society

Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan, “The Lost Thing”

Adapted from co-director Shaun Tan’s picture book written for children, the beguiling “The Lost Thing” seems a very simple story yet it is one that invites many interpretations. The film’s visual style adds yet another layer of meaning to a story that would otherwise have a much narrower focus. A boy (unnamed) obsessed with collecting bottle tops at the beach comes across a giant creature, an octopus / lobster / iron furnace hybrid, looking lost and lonely. The boy befriends the stranger and decides to help it look for a home. The boy goes to a friend of his who sets about trying to classify the strange creature by measuring it and noting down its unique characteristics but in the end both boys are defeated and are no closer to determining the creature’s nature and habitat than they were initially. The boy takes the creature home but his parents are disapproving and the creature is shut away in the back shed overnight. In the morning, the boy seeks help from government authorities and is given a business card with an arrowhead sign. The boy must try to locate a place within his home city – a vast and dreary urban landscape – that carries this sign.

Apart from the obvious theme of friendship, connection with isolated others and being helpful, the film also makes references to Australia’s uneasy relationship with immigration and immigrants, the Western need to categorise and stereotype people and objects, and the alienation of individuals within a bureaucratised industrial society. While the story is very simple and does not stand up to treatment longer than 15 minutes, viewers should remember it is told from a child’s point of view and so the film’s emphasis is on creating a visually rich universe where the bizarre and the unexpected co-exist with the familiar and the bleak.

In itself the film’s CGI animation is not anything special: it is the juxtaposition of a bleak post-industrial Melbourne (as suggested by the network of trams), nostalgic beachside scenes and the quirkiness of a giant monster-like creature (which turns out to be friendly and gentle, and needs spoon-feeding) that makes the film stand out visually. The very eccentricity of such a combination along with the fear of immigrants and the government bureaucracy makes the film very … well, very Melburnian.

The film’s conclusion is melancholy and one considers that the boy is more lost than the creature itself, in trying to regain what the oddity represented: an opening to a wider world of rich experiences and new friends. There is a suggestion that (spoiler alert) having done what he set out to do, the boy realises that returning to normality has cost him something precious and the opportunity to step into a new world is forever … lost.

Ugetsu: a parable of two men in pursuit of fame and glory, with social justice themes

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)

Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.

The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.

Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.

The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.

The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.

The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.