Regulation: character study of how a police state controls citizens through small decisions and actions

Ryan Patch, “Regulation” (2019)

Set in the not-too distant future, in perhaps a post-industrial / hyper-cybernetic age, this short film character study is an intimate and perhaps horrifying snapshot of a controlling police state as manifested in the mundane actions of a low-level functionary. A social worker, Mia (Sunita Mani) drives out into the country with the task of ensuring that all children in the district have received their scheduled medication, dispensed through a skin patch, that controls their emotions and moods. She stops at a farm where she knows (through information on her iPad) that a child, Kayleigh (Audrey Bennett), lives there; moreover, the girl is behind in her medical schedule and does not have this patch. The girl’s mother (Tessa Drake) tells Mia that Kayleigh refuses to wear the patch and she herself is in no mind to force the child into wearing what they both refer to as “the happy patch”.

Mia seeks out Kayleigh who turns out to be highly precocious and imaginative, drawing the social worker into her game featuring an invisible leopard and fighting a fleet of space pirates. Mia attempts to convince Kayleigh into agreeing to accept the happy patch but the child is not persuaded even when Mia tells her about her own younger brother who committed suicide from depression. Finally fobbed off by the girl, Mia has to decide what to do next.

Good cinematography featuring close-ups of plants and caterpillars, and of the social worker and the girl’s faces as they play the game and then talk afterwards, establishes an intimacy between the two and emphasises the dilemma Mia faces in whether she should leave the girl and allow her through her play activities to regulate her own emotions (and risk punishment) or report the girl and her mother. What Mia decides next will either push back the encroachment of the State on people’s personal lives or allow it, through one child at a time, to dominate people’s physical and mental states completely – at the cost of their individuality. The acting and the rapport between the actors playing Mia and Kayleigh are well done, and one can see the strain of the decision Mia has to make at the end of the film.

Many viewers may see in this film an argument against compulsory vaccination and other forms of State compulsion upon families. “Regulation” is also very much a film about how even individual bottom-dwelling inhabitants of a large and oppressive system can either advance it or resist it (perhaps at the cost of their own lives) through seemingly insignificant decisions and actions they may take.

The Good Liar: a story of identity, reinvention and revenge shafted by a superficial script

Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” (2019)

Getting two giants of British stage and film proved to be the least of director Bill Condon’s problems; the biggest turned out to be finding a script that was worthy of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren’s talents. Although the two actors put in very good performances, “The Good Liar” turns out to be a pedestrian work. Serial grifter Roy Courtnay (McKellen) manipulates people into handing over their finances through various deceptive schemes, usually by employing false identities. One ruse is to go on dating websites to find and scam vulnerable widows: his latest victim is one Betty McLeish (Mirren), a sweet old lady who recently lost her husband Adrian and has inherited a cool three million pounds. Thereupon the two embark on the usual round of meeting for lunch or dinner at smart restaurants, going to the cinema to see third-rate Hollywood war films or walking in the park hand in hand. When not occupied with McLeish – and to his surprise, the widow insists that he stay in her house to recuperate from a gammy knee – Courtnay teams with fellow con-man Vincent (Jim Carter) to fleece another victim, Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones), of his money in an elaborate fake offshore financial scam. When Bryn realises he has been robbed, he secretly follows Courtnay but Courtnay tricks him into following him (Courtnay) into Charing Cross tube station where the experienced grifter brutally attacks his victim and sends him into the path of an oncoming train.

From then on, Betty McLeish and Roy Courtnay become ever closer to the extent of agreeing to combine their bank accounts with Vincent’s help, to the chagrin of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). Betty insists on taking Roy to visit Berlin where Steven is doing research on World War II history. There, Roy is unexpectedly confronted with his past as a soldier working with a German-English translator Hans Taub, seeking a Nazi war criminal …

At this point the film becomes less credible, as not only Roy but other people he thought he knew turn out to have false identities; and on learning those people’s true identities, he is forced to accept the consequences of past heinous actions which impact on his life and transform it forever. He is literally left a broken man. We do not learn however if he learns a lesson from his past crimes, and this is one aspect of the film that detracts from it overall. We also do not learn whether Betty regrets what she believes she has had to do – or even whether she had any legal authority to do what she does – to avenge the suffering that was done to her parents and siblings more than 60 years ago (at the time the film is set) in a distant country and period. Is she afraid that what was done to her then might happen to her grandchildren? Does she even consider that what she has done in the film might come back to bite her, just as what Roy did in the past came back to bite him? Again, the film is silent on this question, and this silence diminishes the film further: there is no suggestion that Betty’s vengeance, even in the context of a society that no longer cares about the suffering of victims of past wars (unless they are favoured victims of a particular historical narrative), might not be the moral thing to do.

Details of the plot, such as the ages of the protagonist and antagonist – if they were teenagers during World War II, then they’d have to be well over 80 years of age when they meet in the film’s present – and the way in which the revenge plot is resolved, with two characters from earlier in the film unexpectedly turning up at the climax, are simply not plausible. The punishment meted out to Roy is excessive, even for someone (spoiler alert) as psychopathic as he turns out to be.

The film could have delivered a profound message on identity and reinvention of oneself, to escape a troubled past (which ends up intruding on one’s present in unexpected and unpleasant ways), and on the nature of revenge, and how it might or might not resolve suffering, but the opportunity was frittered on a simple and superficial story. As former Shakespearean actors, McKellen and Mirren are far better than this and deserve better scripts.

Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

The Kid: minimalist proof-of-concept short that raises intriguing questions about its themes and issues

Nicholas Wenger, “The Kid” (2018)

“The Kid” is a six-minute proof-of-concept film made to demonstrate the potential of certain themes and issues that a longer and more specific screenplay, currently being written at the time of this review, will address. The main characters, Shelby (Ellen Wroe) and Asa (Evan Alex), are on the run from the authorities in downtown Los Angeles. They turn down an alley in a slum neighbourhood and discover they have hit a dead end. The men chasing them look like a gang of thugs but could also be plainclothes police officers or security officers working for a private company in disguise. The men all on Shelby but the woman bravely fights back with a strength far beyond what her slim slight figure is capable of and with martial arts skills that would require several lifetimes to achieve. After flooring two men, she is shot in the forehead at point blank range by the group’s leader and she slumps dead to the ground. The men beckon Asa to come with them; he will do but only after he pays his respects to Shelby first by holding her hand. One of the surviving men holds Asa’s other hand to take him but then discovers that a strange force is taking over him and sucking the life out of him …

The action is fast paced with very minimal dialogue and viewers can have a lot of fun guessing at how and why Shelby and Asa came to be together and why they are being pursued. Is the superhuman power Asa demonstrates in the short film the only one he has or does he have other strange and incredible powers as well? Can his power/s be used for committing evil acts as well as good ones? Are there others like Asa who literally have the power of transferring and bestowing life on some people by denying it to others? What might some of the consequences of such a power be? It seems that Shelby has been a fortunate recipient of others’ life-force: how might receiving others’ life energy affect her in the long run? Will she suffer any life-threatening side effects? And who are the people who want what Asa has?

Wroe and Alex do good work in establishing their characters’ loyalty to one another and the interdependence that exists between them. He relies on her to protect him and she relies on him as well. Apart from this, the film looks very workman-like with the level of cinematography and minimal characterisation expected for an action thriller sci-fi short.

Official Secrets: a modest fictional dramatisation of a whistleblower’s ordeal

Gavin Hood, “Official Secrets” (2019)

As fictional dramatisations of real events go, “Official Secrets” passes muster in its narrative of a translator working for the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) who follows her conscience and becomes a whistleblower to try to stop an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands if not millions of people will die. Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), working as a Chinese-to-English translator in early 2003, is sent an email memo from a senior official at the United States National Security Agency asking for GCHQ support in its attempts to spy on United Nations Security Council members Angola, Bulgaria, Chile,Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan so as to obtain information that could be used to blackmail these countries into voting for resolutions favouring the US and its goals and objectives. At the time, the US government was preparing to invade Iraq to depose its leader, President Saddam Hussein, on the basis that his government still possessed illegal chemical weapons. Believing that making the memo public would expose the underhanded tactics being used by the US and the UK governments to pressure the UN into approving an invasion and war, Gun leaks the memo to a friend who is acquainted with Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a journalist with The Observer newspaper.

After verifying that the memo, written by Frank Koza, is genuine, Bright and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), an American news correspondent, convince the newspaper editor to publish their report which makes front-page news a month after Gun had given the memo to her friend. GCHQ then goes on the warpath to find out who leaked the memo; after the staff go through a round of questioning and then are forced to go through another round, Gun gives herself up. She and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish national on a temporary visa, are subjected to continuous hounding by the authorities which include Yasar being held by police for deportation.

The US invasion of Iraq goes ahead regardless of the UN Security Council’s decision not to approve it and Gun is released. She contacts human rights organisation Liberty whose lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) agrees to defend her if the British government charges her with treason under the Offical Secrets Act. Sure enough, several months later charges are brought against Gun and she and Emmerson agree that she will plead on a defence of necessity, that breaching the Act of necessary to stop an illegal war from going ahead.

The narrative suffers from breaks in continuity and points of view but otherwise it rockets along at a fairly fast pace which maintains the tension and keeps viewer attention riveted to the screen and Gun’s fate. The actors do good work with the script and give convincing performances, though some of Knightley’s lines do seem more like sloganeering advocacy than deeply felt opinion. Fiennes and Smith tend to steal their scenes from other actors though Knightley holds up well in the brief scenes she shares with both actors. In later parts of the film, characters suddenly seem to change their tune for no reason other than to hurry the narrative along. The climax may be a letdown for viewers. Apart from these minor technical faults, the film is worth viewing as an example of why people may turn whistleblower and the harassment and bullying they suffer as a result. The film might have been more realistic if it had shown Bright and Emmerson also suffering harassment but then the straightforward narrative might have become unnecessarily complicated and bogged down in detail.

The film is fairly modest in line with its subject matter – ultimately what Gun did had little effect on the US decision to go to war – but its themes and the issues raised about personal integrity versus loyalty to one’s employer, be it a spy agency or a newspaper eager to court favours from the government, or loyalty to loved ones who just want to keep their heads down and avoid the spotlight, are always important and relevant no matter what the historical context is.

Seam: an action thriller SF allegory of societies under siege from government and global oppression

Elan Dassani, Rajeev Dassani, “Seam” (2017)

An excellent little film that could serve as a pilot for a television series, “Seam” posits that in the near future, after a global war between cyborgs and humans, cyborgs will be living and working separately from regular humans in the cities, towns and the countryside, and the two groups will be allowed to interact only in militarised border zones known as “seams”. Human societies by then will have become de facto panopticon police states in which activity is monitored by authorities using drones to spy on people and, if necessary, destroy them. The major aspect of this film is that there are cyborgs still living among humans, even partnering with them and having children with them; moreover, these cyborgs are suicide sleeper agents working for a secret resistance organisation which itself monitors government oppression of human beings.

The film divides into two parts, one a minor part that takes place in a Chinese city and the second major part set in a town somewhere in the Middle East. The major link between these two parts is the effect on human relationships that the rival politics between oppressive government and resistance forces exerts with devastating results. In the Chinese part, a family is left without a father (Stephen Au), and in the Middle Eastern part, Ayana (Rakeen Saad) and her soldier husband (Khaled al Ghwairi) must part forever because one of them is the sleeper agent carrying information to the resistance organisation, located in a remote desert, which the authorities, represented by the Commander (Oded Fehr) and the Controller (Ulka Simone Mohanty) are determined to thwart.

The entire cast does a great job in the breathless cat-and-mouse action thriller game that takes place, and this viewer quickly started cheering Ayana and husband Yusef on against great odds. The cinematography is so good that the desert environment becomes a major actor character in its own right as the historical mythical source of the Semitic-speaking peoples and as a continuing inspiration to them. The special effects, emphasising holograms, are well done, and the actors’ interaction with them is also spot-on natural and casual.

The film can be interpreted as an allegory of the reality in far too many parts of the world today: people angered at oppression, losing hope and ready to sacrifice future love and happiness, may give in to their fury to join extremist organisations and become suicide bombers and terrorists. Whoever controls them may draw on their history and culture to manipulate their charges and set them on destructive paths. Oppressors in their turn become more extremist in their own ideologies and behaviours and actions towards those they themselves rule and control. At the centre of the film though is the question that science fiction has posed since its origin as a distinct cultural phenomenon: what is a human and what makes someone a human?

Custom Order: a thin plot and equally thin characters in a story on commodifying identity

Will Lowell, “Custom Order” (2017)

Looks like I hit a dud sci-fi short for once on the DUST channel with Will Lowell’s “Custom Order”. For a film lasting some 13 minutes, the plot is very bare-bones thin and its characters are unremarkable and stereotyped. Aaron (Matt McGorry) has just broken up with Chelsea (Maya Erskine) who, despairing of Aaron’s inability to commit himself and open up his feelings for her, has left his house in a huff with just a note on his answering machine telling him she’ll come back to get her hair-dryer and a few other items left behind. Aaron promptly orders a robot sex doll to be delivered to his place. He puts her various parts together and powers up her battery and, voila! – Nicole (Sophie Kargman) is born. Aaron promptly puts her through her paces and she passes the sex test with flying colours. The pair quickly establish a daily routine, Nicole always being available for sex and also able to keep the house in order. One day, Aaron gets a sudden visit from Chelsea, returning for the hair-dryer, who also is a bit curious as to who has been keeping the house tidy …

It is astonishing that the whole time during the film, there is very little character development in any of the characters and Nicole shows no sign of independently acquiring any self-awareness and the knowledge that she is a sex slave. Aaron comes off as a socially inept and rather grubby character. Chelsea may be or may not be having second thoughts about leaving Aaron, and the viewer is left to try to second-guess what Chelsea is going to do, at least until she discovers Aaron’s secret, at which point the film ends on a cliff-hanger.

The film might have worked much better if the same actress had played both Chelsea and Nicole, so that issues of identity and the extent to which a person can regard his/her appearance as an important part of his/her identity, a part that presumably cannot and should not be replicated, can be explored, even if superficially. This would say something about what Aaron sees in Chelsea that he continues to yearn for. Nicole for her part could have developed her own personality, one perhaps more sensitive and sympathetic to whatever needs Aaron has that he has yet to acknowledge than Chelsea has ever been. Chelsea’s reaction on seeing Nicole needs a better mix of horror, fear and upset.

Disappointingly, one doesn’t really gain much insight about how robots in future will be used to pander to their owners’ whims and how they will represent a commodification of the physical and psychological features and quirks that make a person a supposedly unique individual. What questions might arise when a person discovers his/her doppelganger being used as a sex toy and domestic slave are barely touched upon.

Judy: a character study of a Hollywood legend destroyed by an exploitative industry manipulating people’s dreams and hopes

Rupert Goold, “Judy” (2019)

Adapted from Peter Quilter’s musical stage drama “End of the Rainbow”, this bio-pic covers the last twelve months of Hollywood film legend Judy Garland’s life, during which she ( RenĂ©e Zellweger) attempts to reinvent herself as a contemporary popular music singer and performer. The film presents as a character study and a snapshot of Garland’s life while she embarked on a disastrous five-week concert engagement in London. From the moment the film starts, Garland’s life is in debt and disarray as she and her two youngest children Lorna and Joey Luft are turned away from their hotel, due to non-payment of their bill, after a concert in which the children had to perform as well and are forced to seek help from her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), the children’s father. (In the film, Lorna and Joey Luft are quite young though in real life they would both have been in their mid-teens.) In dire straits, and unable to find work in the US because of her reputation for being difficult and unreliable, Garland is forced to accept a contract to perform in London, though this means being separated from her children. She is flown to the UK where she meets the impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) who organised the contract, and Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) who has been assigned to her as her personal assistant.

The concert engagement meets with numerous problems, most of which are Garland’s own making: she has substance abuse issues, is unable to sleep without taking sleeping tablets, she is late for her concerts because of anxiety attacks and low self-confidence, and most of the time on stage she appears drunk. During this period, a new friend and nightclub owner Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), whom she had previously met at a party thrown by her elder daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), turns up and keeps her company; he and Garland eventually become close and marry. In one scene, two gay men who are Garland fans ask her for autographs and the three end up going to the men’s apartment for a meal and drinks, followed by a knees-up at the piano and then the men’s emotional discussion with Judy about how her music and films have comforted them and helped sustain them and their relationship over the years before 1967 when homosexuality had been a crime under British law.

The film has no real plot as such and relies heavily on Renee Zellweger to pull off a bravura performance as Garland, which she does completely, disappearing entirely into her character with all her faults and the self-destructive behaviour that alienates the people who love and care for her, and which instead propels her to unscrupulous and powerful men who exploit her talent, determination and hard work. Flashbacks to Garland’s teenage years while working on the film “The Wizard of Oz” – here Garland is played by Darci Shaw – reveal Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’s control and manipulation of Garland, in particular control of her physical appearance and weight. Studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) and his executives force Garland onto a diet of pills to delay puberty, suppress her appetite, keep her as petite and slim as possible, and to wake her up or put her to sleep. In these flashbacks, we see something of Garland’s rebelliousness that led to her being difficult to deal with and her lack of punctuality and inability to stick to a schedule, as well as the source of her dependence on various prescription drugs, her inability to sleep and her eating problems. The character’s self-destructive behaviour, her low self-esteem, her vulnerability and reliance on other people (especially men) and her mercurial temper become understandable when her background becomes known. (Though it’s more than likely that the film plays fast and loose in cherry-picking aspects of Garland’s early film career to push its point about the effects of MGM’s exploitation of the actress.) The other actors are walking wallpaper around Zellweger, in large part because of the roles they have to play and often the limited time they are allocated to play them. Their overall performance tends to be solid and consistent if dull.

While the film obviously condemns Hollywood’s early exploitation of child actors such as Garland, it says nothing about the studio system in which actors, adult as well as child actors, were tied to particular studios in long-term contracts lasting several years in which they had to submit to being groomed and were required to perform in X number of films. “Judy” also has very little to say about how Hollywood exploited people’s hopes and dreams during the Great Depression (the period in which “The Wizard of Oz” takes place) and how Garland’s early girl-next-door reputation with its associations of wishing and hoping for a better life was forged in this context – and how the real Garland herself ended up sacrificed to this reputation.

Probably the closest the film comes to exploring Garland’s relationship with her fans, and the burden of expectations and hope that they place on her, as an extension of Hollywood’s exploitation of her, is in her relationship with Mickey Deans and her meeting with the starstruck gay couple, but these relationships are dealt with quite superficially: in particular, Mickey Deans disappears from the film after the couple have their first tiff. Garland’s encounter with the gay couple highlights the special relationship the singer / actress long had with the gay community but while the film emphasises how Garland had inspired the community to hope and dream for acceptance, it also insinuates (unintentionally, I suppose) that the gay community did not do much for Judy herself.

Ultimately, as an examination, however superficial or deep, of the way in which Western capitalist society manipulates people’s escape into fantasy from oppression and their hopes and dreams by placing responsibility for them on the shoulders of vulnerable role models like Garland – who was expected to perform like a trained monkey but was shunned when she ended up acting like a normal human being put under the same oppressive system for far too long, either by rebelling and being “difficult” or breaking down physically and mentally – “Judy” is silent on this irony.

The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers: sugar and spice that are not too nice in a rich and lavish film

Bill Tytla, “Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers” (1950)

Part of a series of cartoons about a cute kindergarten-aged girl called … well, what else? … Little Audrey, this little short film packs in puns and jokes a-plenty amid some sumptuous artwork and (of course) visual gags. Our heroine takes instructions on baking gingerbread cookies from a radio cooking program: the interplay between the instructor (who can’t possibly see what the child is doing) and Little Audrey as she throws a hundred million ingredients into a mixing bowl and beats the mixture faster than Superman can punch up Darkseid with Krypton speed has its amusing moments. Once Little Audrey has her dough sitting in the oven, the cooking program ends and she drifts off to sleep with the timer set to go off in half an hour …

… and when it does, Little Audrey is astonished to see a live gingerbread man jump out and announce he’s off to a place called Cakeland to see his date. Little Audrey follows him all the way where he introduces her to his fiancee Miss Angel Cake and announces their marriage. Little Audrey assists Miss Angel Cake with her wedding preparations and follows the two into the chapel where the priest will marry Gingerbread Man and Miss Angel Cake. Next thing you know, the villainous Devil’s Food Cake fellow, complete with forehead horns, twirly moustache and goatee beard, turns up and kidnaps Miss Angel Cake. Gingerbread Man and Little Audrey (the latter calling on the cop cakes) must try to rescue Miss Angel Cake before she is whisked off to Devil’s Food Cake Island through Strawberry Short Cut. Well, that’s the kind of cheesecake punning we must put up with in this cartoon.

The short treads a good balance between an excess of cream and cake on the screen and actual saccharine sweetness: there’s very little on the screen that makes viewers feel nauseous, the jokes can be clever and the film rockets along at a cracking pace so there’s no time to linger on anything. Cakeland and its dancing citizens, along with the fantastic cake, cream and pastry architecture, have a dream-like quality and the colours used in the film are lush and vibrant. An interesting twist comes at the end of the cartoon when Little Audrey realises she has been dreaming and takes the dough mixture out of the oven; the reaction she has when she sees what’s in the pan is priceless. Did she really dream or was her little adventure for real?

While the animation of the characters isn’t very good and the plot is basic (the cartoon is aimed at a very young audience), the overall look of the cartoon is rich, even lavish. Pastries dance the can-can and perform Hollywood-style musical numbers to celebrate the wedding. Young viewers will learn something about being helpful to others without expecting any rewards, and being grateful for help offered selflessly.