Watership Down: exploring political freedom in the form of a foundation myth

Martin Rosen, John Hubley, “Watership Down” (1978)

A vivid and beautifully presented tale, this British film portrays what might be a foundation myth of an imaginary community of rabbits living in Watership Down in southern England. The community is founded by a small group of bunnies that break away from a warren in Sandleford when one of their number, Fiver (who has the gift of foresight), foresees a terrible disaster that could wipe out their people. Fiver (Richard Briers) and his older brother Hazel (John Hurt) beg their leader to take them all to safety but the leader refuses to listen to them and orders his lieutenant, Captain Holly (John Bennett), to arrest them. Fiver, Hazel and their friend Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) lead a small breakaway group and flee through the woods to escape Captain Holly’s forces, on the way passing a sign (which they would not have been able to read, less understand) that a residential development by humans is being constructed in their area.

The group survives many ordeals but unfortunately the only doe among them is taken by a hawk. The young rabbits take shelter with another community of rabbits but Fiver learns that these rabbits are being fattened for food by humans. Leaving these other rabbits, the group continues its journey until the rabbits sight the hill known as Watership Down in the distance and Fiver recognises it as the place of salvation in his earlier visions. (In the meantime their original community at Sandleford has been destroyed by humans and only Captain Holly has been able to escape and reach them to tell the sorry story.) They all reach Watership Down where they meet an injured seagull, Kehaar (Zero Mostel), who agrees to help them find does so they can found a new community.

The rest of the film follows the new Watership Down community in finding young does: after one failed attempt to free some does from a farm, the rabbits are led by Kehaar to another warren community ruled by oppressive tyrant General Woundwort. Bigwig infiltrates the community and is made an officer by Woundwort; in this capacity, Bigwig persuades several does and a few bucks to join him and move to Watership Down. The escapees manage to flee to Watership Down with Kehaar’s help but Woundwort and his forces manage to track them down and besiege the Watership Down community. While Bigwig manages to hold Woundwort at bay, Hazel and a couple of escapees entice a dog from the farm where they had previously tried to free some does to follow them back to Watership Down to confront Woundwort (Harry Andrews).

The film moves briskly with some gaps in the narrative, including one at the very climax of the film from which one has to deduce that things work out well for Watership Down – especially as the film jumps a few years into the future to reveal Hazel in his old age. The leaps in plot are unfortunate as much information that could reveal something of the personalities of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig and Kehaar is lost and viewers have to make quite major assumptions to make sense of the film. The plot is otherwise highly absorbing and intense with many layers of meaning, and young children who watch the film will learn quite a few lessons about loyalty and camaraderie, courage under tremendous stress and pressure, resilience and self-sacrifice. Creatures that are the very symbols of vulnerability and fragility demonstrate enormous bravery when they are most afraid, and lay down their lives and freedom not only to help their own but to help and heal outsiders like Kehaar and to rescue other animals suffering from enslavement.

In its presentation as a foundation myth, following a creation story explaining how rabbits came to be and why they have so many enemies, and concluding with the death of Hazel and his entry into the afterlife to join the Rabbit Creator God, “Watership Down” can be viewed as a survey of religion and society, and of how societies use stories and legends to create and sustain their own identities and pass on significant values and morals to their young. The film’s visuals are rich with detailed English rural backgrounds painted in watercolour though the main characters are rather roughly drawn and lack much individuality. The cast voicing the animals are perhaps rather too mature and younger 20-something actors would have been more appropriate.

Despite the film having originally received a rating from British censors suggesting that it is suitable for young viewers, it is perhaps better seen by older children and teenagers as it is actually a complex and layered film about politics and in particular about choosing between political freedom and material security.

Vampires in Greek Myth: an introduction to a universal cultural phenomenon through the Ancient Greek worldview

Dr Garrett Ryan, “Vampires in Greek Myth” (Told In Stone, 30 October 2021)

Casting our fears regarding death and women who might be less than ideal mothers or loving wives and partners by personifying them as bloodthirsty monsters – in other words, vampires or vampire equivalents – seems to be a universal practice across all human cultures. Post-Classical Greek culture certainly believed in vampire-like beings but may have borrowed the concept from Slavs who migrated into the Balkans during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Did the Greeks of Classical times also believe in vampires? Dr Ryan’s short film tutorial shows the ancient Greeks certainly did believe in bloodthirsty female demons or ghosts that preyed upon susceptible young men with the intent to drain them of their blood and vitality. Structured around two entertaining tales – one taken from Philostratus’s biography “Life of Apollonius of Tyana” in which Apollonius warns his student Menippus that the younger man’s new girlfriend is something of a manhunter, the other being The Bride of Corinth – the film discusses the lamia, the stryx and the empousa. All three are described in their lurid monstrosity: the lamia appears to humans as a beautiful woman in its upper body but its lower body having the form of a snake; the strix is a foul-smelling nocturnal bat monster with a human head and a penchant for attacking sleeping children through open windows; and the empousa is a shapeshifting ghost who goes after young men.

While the film is certainly entertaining and the artwork featured is rich and gorgeous, there isn’t much information about the place of these monsters in Greek mythology: how they came to be, what their relation might have been to the Olympians, the Titans or other beings that populated the ancient Greek imagination, and what importance they held for the people who feared them. What remedies did ordinary people believe in to ward off these creatures and what important cultural values or morals were emphasised in the stories people told and passed on to others about these creatures? The lessons one could take from the tale of Apollonius and Menippus, and the story of the Bride of Corinth might include warnings that romantic love or lust is not a good basis for a long-lasting relationship and that marriage is much more than a union of two people.

The film is best viewed as an introduction to the ways in which ancient Greeks coped with and expressed the universal human fear and fascination with death, blood, menstruation and women’s ability to give birth, the connections among all of these – and how in both imagination and reality these connections can be explored by being turned into their polar opposites in the form of vampiric monsters.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Sidney Lumet): a pedestrian treatment of a murder mystery

Sidney Lumet, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)

Initially beginning as a lavish drama set in an exotic 1930s Istanbul, Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” turns out to be a pedestrian treatment of the Agatha Christie novel. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), urged by his superiors to return to London straight away after having solved a case for the British Army in Transjordan, manages to secure a last-minute place on the famed Orient Express long-distance train with the help of his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the company that owns the railway line on which the train runs. Aside from Poirot, Bianchi and a Greek doctor (George Coulouris), thirteen other passengers have also boarded the train and these include Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American businessman who, on hearing that Poirot is aboard, tries to secure the detective’s services as a bodyguard as he, Ratchett, has been receiving death threats. Poirot senses something distasteful about Ratchett and turns down the American’s offer of $15,000 for his services. Later in the day, Poirot and Bianchi exchange compartments and Poirot ends up sleeping not far from Ratchett’s cabin. The train is trapped in a snowdrift while travelling through Yugoslavia and during the night Poirot is awakened a number of times by noises in the corridor. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from numerous stab wounds. Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case before the train is freed from the snowdrift which might allow the murderer to escape before his/her identity is discovered.

From here on, Poirot interviews the passengers and discovers the connections they all have with one another and the murder victim. Ratchett is really Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who, five years ago, kidnapped and murdered the infant daughter Daisy of British Army colonel Hamish Armstrong and his pregnant American wife Sonia. On learning of Daisy’s death despite handing over the ransom money, Sonia miscarried her second child and died giving birth, and her grieving widower husband committed suicide. Their maid Paulette was suspected of working with Cassetti in kidnapping Daisy; to avoid being arrested and charged, Paulette killed herself. The train passengers turn out to be either relatives, personal friends or former domestic employees of the Armstrongs or related to Paulette. Having figured out all the passengers’ connections to the Armstrongs and Paulette, Poirot describes two possible solutions to Ratchett / Cassetti’s murder: the first solution can simply be that an unknown passenger on the train killed the gangster and managed to escape; the second solution is to link all thirteen passengers in the coach to the murder. Bianchi, now knowing how depraved Cassetti was, has to choose which solution the Yugoslavian police would prefer.

The plot runs smoothly and surely to its climax (though there are significant gaps within, forcing viewers to guess what happens during those gaps) with Finney’s strident and shouty Poirot coming close to hammed-up parody with an accent hard to understand and gesticulations conforming to the worst stereotypes about excitable French-speaking people. The cast of actors, all of whom were either film legends or popular actors at the time the film was made, perform barely adequately in the tiny amounts of time they are given to shine. The stand-out performances come from Anthony Perkins as Ratchett / Cassetti’s secretary Hector McQueen and Martin Balsam as Bianchi who is given the unenviable task of playing God in a climax that side-steps away from Poirot’s existential unease at burying the truth in order for vigilante justice to be served on an evil man who ruined so many lives and left others in psychological limbo. Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a tiny role, Lauren Bacall is all brass as Harriett Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman lays on a thick Swedish accent while camping up as mousy missionary Anna Ohlsson. Sean Connery is perhaps rather too charismatic in his role as Colonel Armstrong’s friend and John Gielgud, for all his reputation as a formidable stage actor, struggles with small details (like holding the murder weapon correctly as he stabs Ratchett / Cassetti) as Edward Beddoes, butler to the odious gangster.

The film finishes up rather too tidily and there is nothing of the unease that Poirot feels at his universe being less than orderly and logical: a universe where people act according to the law and refrain from impulsive acts of retribution no matter how repulsive or evil the target victim is. The result is that viewers may end up not having much sympathy for Poirot at all, given that his character is more likely to irritate and alienate people than to gain their support. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged by Bianchi’s decision, viewers are likely to think Bianchi did the right thing even though in a sense justice has not really been served and the sweet taste of revenge and closure may be all too brief and sour consequences take place.

There is little sense of the film’s action taking place in a confined space, with all the tension and claustrophobia that could have been generated. What we end up with is a peek into what the world might have looked like for a privileged layer of American and European society between World Wars I and II: a world of luxury and decadence that would soon be swept away forever. But this peek reveals nothing of the arrogance and decay that would be responsible for the short-lived nature of this world.

The Destruction of Laos: casting light on a shameful aspect of the Vietnam War

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of Laos” (Tales of the American Empire, 15 October 2021)

Many people know that the Vietnam War dragged Cambodia into its horrors – or rather, US State Secretary Henry Kissinger saw fit to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War – but I confess to being unaware that Laos had also been dragged into the Vietnam War even though the fact that Cambodia was an unwilling participant made so by the US should have suggested to me that the US would treat Laos similarly. Here comes Carlton Meyer with his latest TofAE episode to cast light on a relatively little-known front of the Vietnam War: the US bombing of Laos. As Meyer notes, Laos in the early 1970s was a small country of some 3million yet the US saw fit to drop over 2 million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing raids over 9 years from 1964 to 1973: that works out to one planeload of bombs being dropped onto Laos every 8 minutes! At the same time this was happening the US government denied it was bombing Laos or had US combat forces in the country.

After describing the scale of the bombing of Laos, Meyer goes on to detail how US forces and the CIA operated in the country. Combat forces worked as contractors for the CIA and trained and led Laotian and Chinese mercenaries in Laos. Many of these Americans supplemented their incomes by engaging in the opium trade. US denial of involvement in Laos meant that finding lost or missing US soldiers or pilots in the country was difficult or impossible, since that would force Washington to admit that the US did indeed have forces there.

Meyer rounds off his short documentary by explaining why the US invaded and brought the Vietnam War to Laos: the reason was to shut down the Ho Chi Minh supply trail that passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Meyer explains how the US attempt to cut off the supply trail was bound to fail as the Vietcong in South Vietnam had support from the general public there and could obtain supplies from myriad, mostly local sources, not just from North Vietnam. Ultimately it was the determination of the Vietnamese to reunite as an independent nation, free from Western domination (whether in the form of French colonialism or US neocolonialism), that was the major factor in Vietnam’s victory.

Meyer enlivens his short video documentary with archived film, maps and snippets of old 1970s interviews including one with a US refugee worker dealing with displaced Laotians who relays what the refugees told him about the relentless nature of the bombing and the total destruction it caused. This interview with the refugee worker, which concludes the film, conveys the absolute horror of what amounted to virtual firebombing of the country. What Meyer details is indeed an absolutely shameful episode in US military history.

Meyer probably could have noted the continuing legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: about 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode on impact but remain in many parts of the country and continue to maim and kill Laotians, children in particular.

How medicine and nursing became the accomplices of genocide in “Caring Corrupted: The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich”

James Bailey, “Caring Corrupted: The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich” (2017)

A grim and horrifying film, all the more so for its clinical, matter-of-fact tone driven mainly by interviews of researchers and Holocaust survivors, “Caring Corrupted …” explores and explains in much detail the role of the medical and nursing professions in killing physically and mentally handicapped adults and children in Nazi Germany (1933 – 1945) and participated in the Holocaust. The film uses voice-over narration and interviews to give a detailed chronological narrative in which a context of military defeat, political and economic chaos, and government inability to deal with the Great Depression and pay outstanding war debts to the Allied victors resulted in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists to power in Germany in 1933 and their subsequent control of German society and culture with widespread propaganda resulting in the mass brainwashing of people, and of medical professionals in particular.

Chillingly the film details the Western political / cultural context of the early 20th century, built on Western imperialist policies seeking to justify the genocide and enslavement of peoples in Africa and Asia in order to steal their lands and resources, in which prevailing political, economic and scientific ideas and ideologies combined in birthing scientific racism and eugenics. The film shows that the ideology of racial hygiene to justify selective breeding of humans and getting rid of people deemed racially or genetically inferior was widespread in Western societies from the 19th century onwards well into the 1970s, not just in Germany; indeed, much of the inspiration for pursuing racial hygiene policies in Nazi Germany came from the United States. The nature of German society in the late 19th / early 20th centuries with its emphasis on hierarchy, junior doctors and nurses deferring to more senior doctors and nurses, and women deferring to men provides another aspect to the context.

The film’s chronological narrative follows the development of involuntary euthanasia programs (known as Aktion T4 programs) for handicapped people and children in hospitals, and the ways in which doctors and nurses participated in those programs – the nurses often holding children while the children were overdosed with sedatives by other nurses on the orders of doctors or senior nurses – and how those euthanasia programs developed into larger institutional programs that herded Jewish, gypsy and other groups deemed racially inferior into concentration camps and systematically killed them with the participation of medical and nursing personnel, many of whom had previously worked in the euthanasia programs. In a number of concentration camps in Germany and Poland, horrific and sadistic medical experiments were carried out on inmates: all these experiments were overseen by Dr Josef Mengele and suggested either by him or other physicians. In all these experiments, doctors and nurses were involved in carrying out tasks that amounted to torture, mutilation and murder. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II in May 1945, a number of doctors and nurses were tried and convicted for war crimes and crimes of genocide but many of the institutions they worked in and carried out the euthanasia programs still continue as working hospitals.

Unfortunately many of the root causes and the political / economic / cultural context in which the euthanasia programs leading to the Holocaust arose still exist in societies around the world. As the film concludes, the factors that turned Germany, one of the most culturally advanced nations in the world in the early 20th century, still exist in most nations: they are often factors rooted in human psychology and especially in human social psychology.

The film has become more relevant in the current COVID-19 pandemic era as medical and nursing professionals, particularly those working in hospitals, come under pressure from governments to administer injections of experimental drugs with often severe side effects (including death) and short-lived benefits, and to deny patients more appropriate and safer (but less profitable for large pharmaceutical firms) treatments. General practitioners in many countries are also under pressure to administer jabs of purported vaccines to patients or face the threat of losing their licences to practise medicine. Widespread government propaganda about COVID-19 and its supposed threat to public health to justify lockdowns and abolishing civil liberties, and at the same time discriminate against people refusing injections of COVID-19 vaccines, eerily echoes the Nazi propaganda that demonised Jewish people, gypsies, Slavs and others considered racially inferior and unfit.

It is no longer just enough to learn about the Holocaust and the roles that the medical and nursing professions played in it; we must also learn how we can easily be manipulated and brainwashed by governments and corporations into hate and following their agendas.

CTRL Z: gentle romantic time-travel comedy with a sting in its tail

James Kennedy, “CTRL Z” (2017)

Cats may have nine lives but the characters in this very funny sci-fi romantic comedy end up having nearly 4,800 lives thanks to a time-travel device invented by main character Ed (Edward Easton), a socially shy romantic who finds talking to and impressing Sarah (Katie Beresford) the girl of his dreams so excruciatingly difficult that he needs an infinite number of attempts to work up the courage to approach her. Each time he makes a dreadful mistake, he has to reset his time device back to the point where he is about to leave the table at the fast food restaurant to walk over to where she sits alone – but this means after making his mistake he has to die or kill himself. For support he has brought along a friend Carrie (Kath Hughes) and for much of the film’s running time Ed and Carrie keep up a constant repartee about his time-travelling box (which Ed explains has certain limitations, all of which are necessary for the way in which the plot eventually unfolds: the time-travel device only goes back in time to a predetermined time but is able to loop over and over indefinitely), the effects it has already had on both their lives – they have been stuck in the fast food restaurant for three years already – and the countless (ahem) times Ed has tried to talk to Sarah without getting sick and throwing up. Eventually after Carrie’s numerous suggestions to Ed fail, Ed turns to the waitress (Natalie Ferrigno) for help and the waitress suggests Sarah is upset and not amenable to being chatted up. Ed then tries in his own way to offer comfort to Sarah who is touched by his gesture of kindness.

From then on the surprises pile on quite thick and fast: Ed’s attempt at romance seems to have failed once again but then there is a twist and for the first time in a long time Ed’s life seems to be on track with a definite friendship. The climax when it comes – when Ed steps out onto the road – is sudden and savage, and Ed’s face, when he goes into an endless time loop, is sure to spark speculation about his behaviour during that loop. Having got off first base finally after nearly 4,800 tries, does he now suddenly realise that making second base is more difficult than he knows … or is the euphoria of leaving first base so good that he wants to relive that moment for as long as he can even if it means dying another 4,800 times? And what will happen after the plutonium in his time-travel device finally decays after, say … 82 million years later?

Comedians Easton and Hughes have good chemistry together and their timing is excellent while Beresford and Ferrigno have much less to do and seem more limited. The other minor characters in the fast food restaurant serve as decoration but even they are quite memorable in their reactions to Ed and Carrie stabbing each other with steak knives. The fast food restaurant setting with the low lighting throws the emphasis on Ed and Carrie, and the film noirish evening / late night ambience adds mystery and a sense of this story being isolated and self-contained that suits the plot with its looping repetitions.

A significant moment comes when Ed and Carrie step outside the fast food restaurant for a quick smoke and Carrie accuses Ed of reworking his life’s narrative in a way that suits his selfish purposes while others (like her) are not allowed the same privilege. At the same time the decisions that Ed makes and reworks (or on the other hand, does not make or rework) surely have an effect on other people’s lives that are long-lasting: over the three years that Ed has been working up the courage to talk to Sarah, she and the other people in the fast food restaurant may have lost three years of their lives. Interestingly it’s only when Sarah makes a decision that all characters, Ed included, can move on from three years of endless repetitions.

Ostensibly a film about friendships and the difficulties of romantic love and how it must be negotiated, “Ctrl Z” has a little sting in its tail that might say something about the nature of repetition, addiction and ultimately control over one’s life and other people’s lives. What seems to be apparent victory for Ed turns out to have a price.

Vikaari: how war and instability might breed a new species of predatory, psychopathic human

Sandun Seneviratne, Charlie Bray, “Vikaari” (2020)

Cunningly disguised as a TV current affairs article / mini-documentary, complete with different styles of filming including videotaping, this short film – possibly inspired by John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos” and the films that were based on it – is a commentary on political and social instability in nations that have long suffered from civil war or destabilisation by foreign forces, and the consequences that arise from that instability. In Sri Lanka and other war-torn nations across the planet, an alarming phenomenon is observed: women are giving birth to children with unusual physical and mental characteristics including mind control, telekinesis, communicating with one another through telepathy and other apparent paranormal abilities. The children are distinguished by their apparent autistic behaviour and their blank eyes. Across Sri Lanka, the children’s presence among impoverished townspeople and villages in the countryside leads to unease and tension that boil over into hatred and the formation of vigilante groups intent on killing them; at the same time there are individuals and charity groups sympathetic to the plight of families with these children who try to shield the families from discrimination, intolerance and violence. The children though have their own ways of retaliating against those who would destroy them – and the film carries hints that the children themselves are not above exploiting those who would try to help them.

The acting is credible and even minor characters play their roles well though their screen time may be no more than a few minutes. Stand-out actors are Ashan Dias, playing the vigilante group leader, and Bimsara Premaratne as the do-gooder doctor who organises a charity to help the families of the vikaari (“change” in Sanskrit) children. Richard Dee-Roberts plays the Western armchair science expert brought onto the unnamed news program to discuss the vikaari phenomenon and Charlie Bray who co-wrote the script has a small part to play in the film. Chevaan Daniel is brought in as the Sri Lankan President sanctimoniously mouthing platitudes about racial tolerance and Sri Lanka being a multicultural nation where racial and other discrimination is dealt with, despite the nation having just come out of a 30-year civil war based in large part by the Sri Lankan government persecuting an ethnic and religious minority.

The underlying themes and messages may be a bit confused but somehow the most important message – that the vikaari phenomenon has come about as an evolutionary survival mechanism in response to war and foreign meddling, and that the vikaari children demonstrate a predatory, even psychopathic mind-set in response to the brutality and violence of wars begun by people seeking to control others and to steal their lands and resources – is buried deeply under other messages about tolerance and how discrimination and racial attacks can only reinforce and prolong distrust and instability.

Unregistered: living authentically versus living a comfortable but insecure lie

Sophia Banks, “Unregistered” (2018)

This short film commenting on the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency (2017 – 2021) has a lush treatment that suggests it could be a pilot for a television series or a full-length movie. Rekker and Ata are two teenagers in love: we first meet them wandering through an open forest bathed in radiant sunlight. The first inkling that all might not be what meets the eye is Ata’s concern for her contact lens which she has lost in the forest undergrowth. At the same time images of her looking through a screen at herself and Rekker walking through the forest pop up briefly throughout the scene. Rekker wants to know why Ata keeps recording their moves in real time, and Ata replies evasively.

The two hear a megaphone message and they pass through the scene and into everyday city life in Los Angeles. Viewers realise the forest scene was an artificial creation, hologram-like yet apparently three-dimensional with objects that acted and felt like their real counterparts. Almost straight away a stranger not far from Rekker and Ata is identified by drones as “unregistered” – having been scanned by the drones, he is found not to have an identity they recognise, so they drop a cyber-cage over him and trap him – and police quickly move in, remove the cage and subdue him. They take him away to be deported to a camp.

Much of the rest of this love story cum police-state dystopia concerns the tension that arises between Ata and Rekker, as Rekker challenges Ata’s attitude towards living in a world of unreality, accepting comfort and security at the cost of giving up political freedoms and being able to choose to live authentically. The film later shows Ata at home with her parents, the parents being revealed as administrators in the police-state bureaucracy, and the tensions that develop between the parents and the daughter. Rekker drops by to give Ata a birthday present and at this point an unexpected plot twist also drops into the narrative, forcing Rekker to make a choice that will change his life and Ata’s life forever.

While the plot seems unfinished and the characters are rather shallow, the film makes a clear point about being able to choose an authentic life in which individuals can make choices and bear responsibility for those choices, as opposed to living vicariously through simulations or other people’s experiences, and not having the ability to choose what to experience and what to avoid. A life of comfort, security and conformity is shown to be no compensation for living under constant surveillance and in fear of being arrested and imprisoned.

The Fisherman: character study of outsider-turned-superhero in alien invasion short

Alejandro Suarez Lozano, “The Fisherman” (2015)

A cleverly made and succinct little SF horror film set in Hong Kong, “The Fisherman” combines a character study that might have been inspired by the Ernest Hemingway classic “The Old Man and the Sea” with a theme about how people become marginalised and impoverished by changes in society and technology that leave them, their work and skills behind. Fisherman Wong (Andrew Ng) who specialises in fishing for squid is down on his luck and in danger of losing his fishing boat (where he also lives), being three months behind on his rent, because overcrowding in the harbour and the proliferation of tourist boats and dance party cruises have scared away the marine life. Wong promises his irate landlord that he’ll make a big catch on his next trip that will pay off what he owes. During the evening he sails his vessel far out of the harbour and witnesses an odd electrical storm that sends a lightning bolt into the sea and spawns an odd underwater being. The bell on his line tinkles and the fisherman draws up an odd-looking mewling squid. He puts it into a holding basket but it escapes and all his dreams of instant wealth vanish. Despondent, Wong almost considers suicide until the bell rings again, more insistently this time, and Wong goes out to draw up what turns out to be the catch of his life …

For most of its running time the film builds up in a leisurely way that fills viewers in on Wong’s taciturn nature, his determination and greed, and this concentration on Wong’s character helps add to the suspense that gradually escalates during the fishing trip. His is not a complicated character, being motivated by what he can get in the next catch and how he can spend the money. Unfortunately with living expenses being high in Hong Kong – many working-class people of Wong’s generation having to live in virtual rabbit-hutch conditions in crowded shared accommodation – Wong probably can only hope that he’ll be able to spend the rest of his days living on his old rented fishing vessel. It’s in the last few minutes that the plot twists come that test Wong’s toughness, resilience and ability to come back from the dead. The film turns into instant horror flick as Wong fights for his life, and then into an alien invasion movie as he returns into the harbour and sees his home city on fire from an invasion of monsters high in the sky. Somehow the thought that he might be the only survivor and that he no longer need pay any outstanding debts on his boat and equipment briefly flashes through his mind. A new career as bounty alien hunter beckons him as the bell on his line starts ringing again …

Ng does well as the hardened fisherman who has seen all and experienced all, and who now has more than a few tall tales to tell tourists. Wong doesn’t say a lot in the film but film close-ups of his face and eyes, even in the dark, show his fear and wariness despite his bravado.

Hardly a moment goes to waste in this film; every scene, every bit of dialogue helps to build up Wong’s character and the world he lives in (and which later turns upside down). Wong starts out as a poor fisherman left behind by greedy materialist capitalist society and technology but at the film’s end he becomes potentially indispensable to a society barely surviving under alien onslaught. Who would have thought that the hordes led by cephalopod capo di capi Cthulhu would turn out to be the saviours of humanity by attacking the citadels of global financial capitalism?

Alone: drama and emotion in a tiny space-pod

William Hellmuth, “Alone” (2020)

A moving film about connection – and about how so strong humans’ need for connection can be that some individuals will travel across the universe for it – “Alone” packs in plenty of drama and emotion in very tight and limited environments. Astronaut engineer Kaya Torres (Stephanie Barkley) is separated from her research ship by an unseen disaster and her tiny pod is now languishing in orbit around a black hole. Torres sends out distress calls while she works out what to do and her calls for help are answered by Hammer (Thomas Wilson Brown), a cartographer marooned on a distant planet. Over several days as Torres’ situation grows increasingly desperate, the astronaut and the cartographer come to know and to care for each other. When her supplies have nearly run out, Torres drives her pod through the black hole and lands on Hammer’s planet. She follows a line of lights into a cave where a disheartening truth awaits her.

The film is a good study of human character under pressure in extreme isolation – Torres is light years away from human society, and no-one knows where she is or even if she exists – and Barkley does an excellent job inhabiting the character and her fears. The extreme isolation of space and how knowing how far away you are from the rest of humanity might affect your self-identity – after all, we often define ourselves in opposition against some humans or communities of humans – and throughout the film viewers can see Torres slowly disintegrating psychologically. From a brash person with a potty mouth and a stubborn spirit, Torres gradually becomes more fearful, succumbs to the demon hooch and relies more and more on Hammer’s communications through their computers to keep her going. She soon becomes obsessed with finding Hammer.

The film relies on good acting, which Barkley supplies plenty of, and the plot moves at a fairly brisk place. There’s not much time given over to philosophising and regretting the day when one had to board the research ship some time before catastrophe struck it. Barkley establishes her character as stoic and practical but over time Torres deteriorates visibly as her hopes of being rescued fade. As Hammer, Brown has harder work to do making his voice seem human, given the dialogue he has to deliver which reveals he does not know what vodka is. There is a suggestion that Hammer may not really be human at all. It is this fear perhaps that drives Torres to search him out and find out who he really is.

The technical effects are good without being remarkable for a short film on a tiny budget. The whole film is driven by dialogue and what the actors do with it. The plot’s climax cleverly is a test of Torres’ character and almost results in a cliff-hanger ending. The film seems to beg for a sequel but I consider it self-contained and complete.