Ten Canoes: morality tale, comedy and demonstration of traditional Yolngu values, beliefs and worldview rolled into one

Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, “Ten Canoes” (2006)

An engrossing story of another story, “Ten Canoes” acts as both a morality tale and an ingenious exposition of the values and beliefs of an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. Like good stories, “Ten Canoes” aims to entertain as well as educate on different levels: as a story about a story, it teaches the value of patience, it contains an interesting twist and warning, and it demonstrates something of how the Yolngu people interpret past, present and future time, and how the passage or flow of time is not necessarily linear in the way Westerners experience time. The role of story-telling in an oral culture like the Yolngu culture goes far beyond simply repeating a story one might have heard as a child and passing it on to the next generation: it may be shaped, changed and improvised on to fit the story-teller’s aims; its narration takes time – maybe a lot of time, as in several days, even weeks – and certain things may have to happen first before the next chapter of the story can be told; and while the story appears to be simple to follow, its message/s may be profound and complex.

The story-about-a-story is narrated by David Gulpilil whose son Jamie appears also as two characters, Dayindi and Yeeralparil. Dayindi is one of ten men on a hunting expedition to find geese and their eggs for their community. The leader of the expedition, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), is Dayindi’s much older brother who has three wives, the third of whom is a beautiful young girl who has caught Dayindi’s eye. Minygululu is aware of Dayindi’s interest in his wife so during the expedition he tells the younger man a story of another young man much like Dayindi and known as Yeeralparil, who lived in Yolngu country thousands of years ago.

Like Dayindi, Yeeralparil has an older brother, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who also has three wives, of whom the youngest wife has caught Yeeralparil’s eye. Ridjimiraril is a much respected hunter in the community. One day, a stranger comes from the stone country beyond the rainforest where the Yolngu live and his arrival is interpreted by the resident Yolngu sorcerer (for want of a better term) as portending trouble. While the Yolngu people allow visiting rights to the stranger, Ridjimiraril’s second wife mysteriously disappears. Ridjimiraril believes the stranger has abducted her for his own and the angry hunter kills a man from the stranger’s tribe, mistaking him for the stranger. The stranger’s tribe demands payback to avoid war and Ridjimiraril submits. After the necessary ritual is performed, Yeeralparil not only gets what he wished for but extra responsibilities result as well, and he realises that from then on his life is going to be one endless hassle after another.

Enough of the Yolngu’s traditional customs and law are explained where necessary and relevant, and viewers see how law and tradition are used to avoid unnecessary and unwanted conflict, violence leading to more violence, and bitterness and resentment. David Gulpilil plays a significant role as narrator, spicing up his telling with humour and playfulness, and insinuating that, like Minygululu, this story-of-a-story needs to take its own time in unfolding and is dependent on listeners’ own willingness and receptiveness to its lessons. In amongst the story-telling, Minygululu, Dayinde and their eight companions prepare bark canoes to travel out onto the rivers and swamps to find and hunt the geese and look for their eggs.

Various characters engage in idle chit-chat and tell one another earthy jokes about turds and flatulence. One character, the jolly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), is obsessed with finding his next honey hit. Wives scold their husbands, gossip about people who might be having affairs and occasionally squabble over petty matters. Men make plans about where they’ll hunt or when the right moment comes to go on the warpath. All this action takes place within a worldview which regards time as circular, in which humans begin their existence as tadpoles in waterholes and return to the exact same waterholes as tadpoles when they die. Within this paradigm, people must learn to let nature take its course, to be patient and to accept what nature gives to them.

The cinematography is well done, emphasising the nature of the country where the Yolngu people live and how it is a significant character in the film in its own right. Colours fade from colour to black-and-white but not in the way audiences might expect: the fading is done to show how concepts of the past, the present and the future mean little to a people for whom the past is very much alive and from which important lessons can and should be learned and heeded.

 

The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.

 

Diary of a Chambermaid: a bleak and realist comedy offering

Luis Bunuel, “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964)

Of the Spanish director’s late-autumn career in which he directed classics like “Belle de Jour”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “That Obscure Object of Desire”, this comedy is the one of the more realist and bleak offerings. Bunuel has yet another crack poking fun at and criticising the hypocrisies and hang-ups of smug middle-class culture and the Roman Catholic Church, and portrays the ease with which French society sleep-walked its way into fascism and violence in the 1930s and may still repeat that somnambulist episode.

Sometime in the late 1930s – a sleepy and dreary time in French modern history, as portrayed in the film – Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) leaves the bright lights of Paris to work as a chambermaid in a Normandy estate that has seen better days. As she settles into the quotidian routine there, she becomes familiar with the eccentricities of the family who employs her: Madame Monteil (Francoise Lugagne) is a cleaning fanatic who nurses a bitter, even self-loathing sexual repression; her satyromaniac husband (Michel Piccoli) who apparently got Celestine’s predecessor pregnant; and Madame’s aged father Monsieur Rabour who has a foot and shoe fetish. Celestine also becomes familiar with the household staff: the cook, another maid, a young girl called Claire and the Monteils’ driver and labourer Joseph (Georges Geret) who spouts racist and fascist opinions. The neighbours – a retired army captain and his mistress Rose – are just as odd and maintain a running dispute with the Monteils in which both sides constantly throw garden rubbish across their common wall.

The film moves quite slowly, at least until Rabour ends up dead in bed and little Claire is found raped and murdered in the woods near the estate. Celestine is convinced that Joseph is responsible for the child’s rape and death, and she determines to find the evidence that will incriminate him. She somehow manages to juggle Mr Monteil’s desire to get his paws on her, Joseph’s leering attentions and the captain’s sudden interest in her after he dumps Rose, all while searching for the evidence that will help avenge Claire’s tragic fate. Celestine almost succeeds but the evidence is too flimsy and Joseph is released from police custody; he then travels to Cherbourg to set up a cafe business while Celestine ends up stuck in a boring marriage to the captain.

The film can be very amusing during scenes in which Monteil kills a butterfly with a shotgun in an artful sequence of close-up scenes culminating in an explosion, and in which the pathetic Rabour strokes Celestine’s foot and lower leg while she reads novels to him. The rural scenery has a distinct look and provincial style and would look even more picturesque if the entire film had been made in colour. But the choice of black-and-white film fits in with the general tone of the movie in which the middle class’s apparent respectability and the lower class’s homely loyalty are revealed either as much more sinister and ultimately dangerous, or as emotional repression with an attendant lack of growth and maturation. The acting is very good if a little arty at times, with Joseph behaving almost vampirically towards Celestine in a night-fire scene, and Piccoli playing the hapless Monteil as he pursues Celestine in a way that invites sympathy rather than disgust.

While the events in the film don’t turn out the way viewers might hope for, they do say something about the moral lethargy that infects the characters. If the Monteils really detest one another and Madame doesn’t want to have anything to do with her hubby, why do they not separate and pursue their pleasures instead? Why does a fashionable Parisienne accept lowly work as a chambermaid in a provincial French village? Why does Celestine play off her suitors one against the other? Bunuel may be commenting on the power relationships between individuals, between different groups in society, and ultimately between one woman who would seem to have few tools (psychological and emotional as well as physical) and three men of different social levels from hers.

With a realist look, a straightforward plot and a setting in a quiet rural area in northwest France, this film is easy on the eye and the brain, and serves as a good introduction to the work of Luis Bunuel.

Kuroneko: an ordinary ghost horror story saved by expressionist cinematography and social commentary

Kaneto Shindo, “Kuroneko” (1968)

A companion piece to his earlier classic “Onibaba”, Shindo’s “Kuroneko” explores vengeance and human desires for love in the setting of a typically Japanese ghost horror story. The film also expresses an anti-war theme by concentrating on the disruptions and changes war brings to poor people and to poor women in particular. Two farm women, Yone (Nobuko Otawa, who also appeared in “Onibaba”) and her daughter-in-law Oshige (Kiwako Taichi), are attacked in their home by a group of rough samurai led by Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) who rape and murder them, and who try to cover up their crime by burning down the farm-house with the dead women inside. The women’s spirits then inhabit the bodies of black cats and acquire the ability to change into aristocratic women in order to attack travelling samurai and drain them of their blood in their ghost mansion set up in the bamboo grove where their farmhouse used to be.

Oshige’s husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) returns from northern Japan with the head of an enemy general which he presents to his local governor who turns out to be Raiko Minamoto. Believing Hachi’s lie that he fought the general under the name Gintoki, Minamoto makes him samurai and then orders him to find and destroy the ghosts at Rajo Gate that are preying on samurai. Oshige finds the ghosts and realises they are the ghosts of his dead mother and wife. Oshige is torn between the pact she and Yone have made with underworld demons to destroy samurai and her love and desire for Hachi / Gintoki. Her choice condemns her but saves Hachi / Gintoki’s life. Forced by the governor on pain of death to get rid of Yone, Hachi / Gintoki tries to manoeuvre his way out of his dilemma of having to kill his mother’s ghost but finds himself outwitted.

The story is fairly and straightforward and trots along at a steady pace until its last few scenes when it speeds up and becomes unhinged when Hachi / Gintoki desperately fights his mother’s ghost. It is repetitive, even ritualistically so, for much of its running time and Western audiences may find its repetitive nature tedious. What elevates this ghost story into an eerie investigation of the supernatural woven through with social commentary is artful cinematography in which the natural world, populated by bamboo forests, and a minimalist style, from the furnishings to the dialogue and the costumes, are dominant. White mists swirl through the sparsely furnished rural mansion where the ghost women live. The use of light and darkness to create the world of the ghosts as opposed to the world of humans, and to highlight the desire Oshige and Hachi / Gintoki feel for each other is notable.

The transformation of two human farm women into ghostly aristocrats through a brutal incident clearly establishes Shindo as a director concerned for the well-being of the underclasses; the transformation also suggests that ordinary people who are close to nature and who create are the pawns and playthings of the nobility and warrior classes who, removed from the natural world, can only exploit and destroy what others create. While Hachi the farm-boy is raised to the level of samurai by killing someone, his lack of preparedness for the role he is required to play as samurai – that is, to kill – becomes his undoing. Governor Minamoto who elevates Hachi to the level of samuari and thus sends the young man on his way to karma remains unaffected by the events as they unfold.

The soundtrack is significant in its own right as a character – the film’s opening scenes are done entirely without dialogue and all we hear are the sounds of people drinking and eating, and later the sounds of violence, followed by the sounds of forest insects – and features a range of music from experimental folk using taiko drums to more conventional Western popular styles.

For all the tension created by the revenge plot and the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the main characters as they must navigate their changed status, whether socially in the world of humans or morally among the demons, the film seems quite ordinary compared to “Onibaba”. The acting is not nearly so good and the plot and sub-plots seem disjointed and do not flow well. Compared to other ghost story horror films being put out by other Japanese directors – the brilliant “Kwaidan” comes to mind – “Kuroneko” is redeemed mainly by its expressionist cinematography and must be regarded as a minor classic.

The Teacher: classroom and parents’ meeting as microcosm of political corruption and social stagnation

Jan Hrebejk, “The Teacher / Ucitel’ka” (2016)

Billed as a comedy drama, Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” is a character study of how an individual uses her political status and links to exert and abuse power, and ends up corrupting the institutions and structures in which she works. The film is set in a generic town in Slovakia during the 1980s, a period when it was part of Communist Czechoslovakia and Communism as a governing political and economic ideology was at its most stagnant there and in other Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. The local junior high school hires new teacher Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry) who also happens to be the chairwoman of the local Communist Party chapter. She takes charge of a class of young teenagers and immediately asks all the students, one by one, to declare what their parents do for a living. She soon starts to demand from the students’ parents various services for free, on which the students’ grades depend: if the parents cannot or will not do what she wants, their children’s grades will suffer. Very quickly two students, Danka Kucera and Filip Binder, are in the teacher’s target sights as their parents recognise the teacher’s manipulative behaviour for what it is and refuse to do what she wants. A sub-plot develops when a third student, Karol, whose mother has gone abroad and whose astro-physicist father, Vaclav Littman (Peter Bebjak), has been demoted to washing windows, enrolls at the school and the teacher latches onto Vaclav in the hope that Karol’s parents will divorce. There is a suggestion in the film, and it is only a suggestion as the film does not elaborate further, that Karol’s mother may have defected from Czechoslovakia in order to find work deserving of her talents, and Vaclav and Karol are being punished as a result.

Fed up with the teacher’s behaviour, Danka and Filip’s parents bring their concerns to the school administrators who themselves also have concerns about her students’ performances in exams. The administrators call the parents of Drazdechova’s students for an evening meeting and this meeting is actually the core of the plot. The parents’ reactions and interactions reveal the extent to which, in the wider society, people are willing to tolerate political corruption and abuse of power because they derive short-term personal benefits along the way. They believe also that their children will benefit in the long-term; the notion that instead society will be led by mediocre bureaucrats promoted through favours, bribes and blackmail instead of through merit and achievement, with the result that the stagnation Czechoslovakia is living through comes about, would be lost on them. Confronted by the stories from Danka and Filip’s parents about the teacher’s treatment of the two children, the other parents resort to denial, suggest that Danka should see a psychiatrist and drag in Mr Binder’s criminal past, his use of physical violence against his son and the Binder family’s working-class background to belittle him and his complaints.

The film works surprisingly well and briskly in structuring the story around the parents’ meeting and bringing in flashback examples of the teacher’s manipulations of the children and their parents to make its point. Maurery excels in the role of the teacher and Bebjak as the sheepish, tongue-tied Vaclav Littman, at a loss as to how to deal with Drazdechova throwing herself all over him, makes a deep hang-dog impression. Cinematography is kept to the minimum necessary to push the plot along or to record characters’ reactions, and scenes in the film have a diorama-like quality. The colours of the film have a grey, drab quality and one notices that interior furnishings in people’s apartments have a retro-sixties look even though the film is set in the early 1980s: this may indicate how society in Communist Slovakia has become stagnant and lacking in dynamism and energy.

Subtle hints of class warfare and snobbery in the treatment of Binder during the parents’ meeting add an intriguing layer that flavours Drazdechova’s predation on the children and their parents. The sub-plot revolving around Karol has rich comedy as well as heart-breaking pathos. The film’s climax contains equal amounts of despair and hope as (spoiler alert) initially the reasons for the meeting come to naught – but then the teacher-administrators who called the meeting find unexpected support that starts small and then grows. This part of the film, more or less soundless, underlines the message that to overcome great obstacles, one needs to start small and over time a movement may gradually develop and grow. However this is followed by an anti-climax that reminds us that the kind of manipulative, predatory behaviour demonstrated by Drazdechova is not limited to Communist totalitarian police-state societies, and we must be ever vigilant against its appearance in our own societies.

Blade of the Immortal: one wearying bloodbath after another in a film on obsessive vengeance, duty and the hell of immortality

Takashi Miike, “Blade of the Immortal” (2017)

Condensed from 30 volumes of manga into a single work of about 140 minutes, this film was probably always going to be light on the character development and plotting especially under the direction of one Takashi Miike. What he doesn’t condense though is the original story’s gory nature – if watched casually, the film looks like a never-ending series of sword-bashing bloodbaths following in quick succession – and the sense of exhaustion and tedium that comes with being an immortal samurai. The story takes place in Tokugawa-era Japan, as most such samurai films do, and starts with ronin Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his kid sister Machi (Hana Sugiyaki) being ambushed by a 100-strong horde of thuggish sword-fighters. Machi is cut down by their leader and Manji is forced to fight through the lot of them to reach him. Several minutes later, Manji is the last one standing, or staggering with mortal wounds rather, when along comes a female demon who plugs him with a stack of bloodworms that clean up and heal his wounds, turning him into an immortal.

With the opening scene done, dusted and tidied away, we skip 50 years to the story of another young girl, Rin Asano (Sugiyaki again), forced to watch in horror as her sword-fighting instructor father is cut down and her mother violated by another bunch of thugs led by the charismatic Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Rin manages to escape the butchery and vows vengeance upon Anotsu. Conveniently the female demon appears and directs the girl to seek out Manji. Rin quickly finds him and Manji agrees to help the child – but has he taken on an impossible task, given that Anotsu learned his skills with the sword from his father and grandfather who themselves trained with Manji’s forebears? Is Rin’s desire for vengeance too excessive and likely to bring both Rin and Manji to ruin? And how much does – or can – Rin substitute for Machi whose loss Manji still grieves over?

On top of the possible obstacles Manji and Rin face in exacting vengeance on those who destroyed Rin’s family, the villain Anotsu himself is double-crossed by the Shogun’s representatives who draw him and his gang into a scheme to teach the Shogun’s warriors sword-fighting skills. The government’s treachery leads to the annihilation of Anotsu’s school of thugs so by the time Manji and Anotsu finally meet (after they have both shredded entire armies of fighters into near-mincemeat), the two almost feel some sympathy for each other as outsiders operating on the fringes of an oppressive and corrupt law, and sickened and exhausted by the demands others make on them to keep fighting and killing.

The problems Manji and Anotsu encounter on their respective quests – Manji for finally being able to die, and Anotsu for power and influence – give the film some depth (if not much) and something for the actors to play with that enhances their characters. Miike’s flamboyant and excessive approach in retelling the story of Manji ends up interrogating the notion of vengeance: can the pursuit of vengeance become an end and an evil in itself as the mostly useless Rin keeps egging on Manji to pursue Anotsu? Why does Manji readily agree to Rin’s demands? At this point he might well curse the demon for having made him immortal – because his life becomes a relentless grind of one killing spree after another.

Miike paces the fighting sequences well – a huge battle scene may be followed by a smaller scuffle, in turn followed by another bloodbath – and while the major characters are essentially one-dimensional, Kimura at least conveys Manji’s world-weary attitude well. On the other hand, sub-plots that include two female antagonists, one of them a sword-wielding fighter (Erika Toda), are not very well developed and could have been omitted from the film.

The incredible fight scenes are well choreographed if surreal – there ain’t no-one that good who can mow down a hundred swordsmen with a long sword, a short sword and whatever other cutlery he carries with him – but over the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes their extreme and excessive nature can be wearying. Perhaps if Miike had cut out some of the more unnecessary fight scenes and concentrated more on Manji and Rin becoming a tight little family unit, or on Anotsu’s background, making the character a not unsympathetic fellow battling what he sees as government corruption, he could still have his intense and over-the-top film, that opens up a new focus on character and plot in future films.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Kenneth Branagh): a lavish and brisk remake turns out to be an ego trip

Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express ” (2017)

At least superficially this film is quite enjoyable to see Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played here by Kenneth Branagh who also directed the film) solve the whodunnit mystery in brisk and no-nonsense style amid lavish surroundings and a dramatic (if computer-enhanced) Alpine mountain landscape. Branagh preens his way through nearly every shot and scene as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at the expense of his co-stars, many of whom are equally as illustrious as he if not more so. Viewers keen on solving the mystery before Poirot does are given plenty of clues and a back-story to the shenanigans on board the famous Orient Express train.

Summoned by London to return from the Middle East, Poirot meets Xavier Bouc, the son of an old friend, who is the director of the Orient Express and who promptly offers him a place on board. After meeting a number of passengers – who, oddly, total no more than thirteen – Poirot is approached by an American art dealer, Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who wants Poirot to be his bodyguard: Ratchett has received some threatening letters and fears someone on the train is out to kill him. Poirot senses that Ratchett is an unpleasant fellow and refuses to protect him. During the night strange noises emanate from Ratchett’s compartment and in the morning he is found dead from twelve stab wounds. Poirot and Bouc set about solving the mystery of Ratchett’s death and Poirot discovers from a clue left at the crime scene that Ratchett is in fact John Cassetti, a criminal who years ago had kidnapped and murdered a child, Daisy Armstrong. The kidnapping and murder led to the death of Daisy’s mother and the eventual suicide of her father, John. The family’s housemaid Susanne was wrongly arrested and charged with the murder and the trial judge was under pressure to convict her. Susanne later committed suicide in prison.

Armed with this information, Poirot eventually discovers through interviewing all the passengers on the train, plus one of the train conductors, that every single person aboard (save himself, Bouc and the train staff) is connected to the Armstrong family in some way. Alert viewers can guess which of these people will have had a hand in Ratchett’s murder before Poirot makes his announcement in an anti-climactic climax in which all the accused are assembled in a tableau resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper”. Poirot subsequently finds himself in a dilemma torn between his excessively neat and tidy rational worldview, in which humans behave in ways that are logically transparent, and the real messy world in which people, governed by emotions and motivations they often cannot understand in themselves, perform criminal acts without regard for the consequences … and yet if they do not perform such acts, they may end up trapped in a depressive limbo or resort to the comfort of addictive painkiller drugs or even suicide.

The film has no easy answer for Poirot’s dilemma and he is forced to back down before a very minor character’s pragmatic decision regarding the fate of the guilty party / parties. At the end of the film he is left angry and discontented by the events on the Orient Express and only a new summons from London directing him back to Egypt and a trip down the Nile River (which means that Branagh may be coming back with his version of “Death on the Nile”!) holds out a promise that his universe will neatly resolve and repair itself back into tidy order.

While Branagh walks a balance between comic silliness and in-your-face seriousness for much of the film, and Depp oozes genuine menace in the few scenes he has, other capable actors have very little to do: the characters played by Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi could have been played by lesser actors and Penelope Cruz has great difficulty playing a guilt-ridden missionary. Michelle Pfeiffer puts on a bravura performance as Mrs Hubbard towards the film’s end but by then viewers will think this is too little, too late.

Various tweaks have been made to the plot and some of the characters for the insertion of unnecessary and annoying identity-politics issues (such as making one character black so that Poirot is forced into solving the murder mystery before police authorities catch up and arrest that black character for the murder) that add nothing to the plot or to the overarching theme of Poirot encountering a chaotic and irrational universe and pushing back with deductive reasoning and logic. An unnecessary opening scene in which Poirot presides, god-like, over an incident involving the three Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem comes across as prejudiced against religion and racist to boot. The film also delights too much in overhead shots, long panning and CGI-generated shots of the Orient Express stranded on a bridge in an artificial-looking montane landscape.

If, as seems likely, a sequel is to be made – Hollywood being intent on cannibalising all its old movies, turning away from contemporary story scenarios that might reveal a United States in cultural as well as political, economic and financial stagnation and decline – please someone stop Branagh from directing the film: on “Murder …”, he just gets too carried away by his character Poirot and the film’s visual and technical aspects to care about the rest of the cast and the story.

Les Biches: a coolly elegant and stylish film on obsessive love, the fragility of identity and class tensions

Claude Chabrol, “Les Biches / The Does” (1968)

A beautifully elegant film of stylishness and subtle performances from its lead female characters, “Les Biches” is a psychological study of obsessive love leading to jealousy and derangement and of the nature of identity and its fragility. It’s also a study of class, and how one set of rules exists for the upper class who happily and nonchalantly engage in decadent activities and another exists for the lower classes.

The action seems to take place in a hermetically sealed world where only the upper class swan about freely and anyone else has to be invited in. Wealthy Parisian socialite Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) encounters a struggling street artist called Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and seduces her. The two lovers then drive down to holiday in St Tropez and stay in Frédérique’s villa which is also inhabited by Violeta the cook and two gay male room-mates. Initially Frédérique and Why have a great time as lovers. However a young architect called Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) intrudes on the women’s happiness: he and Why are attracted to each other but Frédérique, jealous of the burgeoning romance, seduces Paul instead and makes him her lover. Complications arise when Frédérique realises she really does love Paul and wants to be close to him 24/7, leaving Why in bored limbo. The three try to live together but Frédérique and Paul’s affair arouses intense jealousy in Why. Who will prevail over the other in claiming Paul’s attentions for herself: Frédérique or Why?

The plot is very thin and most of the film’s attractions come from the actors’ own ability to make their characters come alive: in this, Audran does a far better job than the other main actors Sassard and Trintignant. Of the three, Trintignant’s character Paul seems a bit one-dimensional and ineffectual if cautious and dead set on Frédérique for her money. Trintignan’s Paul gives every impression of being manipulated by Frédérique. The burden of carrying the film falls on Audran and Sassard and both play their parts well, with Audran having the edge on Sassard in portraying a vampiric predator who sucks the life and vitality out of both Paul and Why. The hold that Frédérique has over Why is enough to rob the younger woman of her original bohemian street artist identity and replace it with Frédérique’s own glossy but ultimately empty spirit. Eventually (spoiler alert), Why confronts Frédérique and gets rid of the socialite – but at what cost to her own sanity and stability?

The gay freeloaders Robèque and Riais provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise very insular and suffocating film and act as Frédérique’s familiars in much the same as bats might do for Count Dracula. They are also dealt with in much the same way by Frédérique as she deals with Why: when their usefulness comes to an end, the socialite throws them out of the house and sends them back to Paris. As for Why, Frédérique gives the younger woman plenty of clues (which Why fails to pick up) that she is no longer wanted. Such is the difference between someone wealthy like Frédérique who can make and break people, and those of the lower classes who are bedazzled by wealth and influence, and are made and broken accordingly.

Few films on sexual power, the class divide, upper class decadence and the fragility of identity are so subtle and coolly elegant as this one with such a small cast.

Zatoichi: a colourful package of comedy, violence and drama masks an unoriginal plot and characters not always worthy of sympathy

Takeshi Kitano, “Zatoichi” (2003)

Based in part on the television and film series revolving around the adventures of itinerant blind masseur / swordsman Zatoichi in late Tokugawa Japan, Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” smoothly combines drama, slapstick comedy and extreme violence in equal measures around a not-too-original plot narrative in which a lone wandering martial arts expert comes across a community suffering from poverty, oppression and exploitation by local warlords and their gangs, and sets about freeing the poor from their tyranny. This theme happens to dovetail with Kitano’s own fascination with violence, the underworld and vengeance, so perhaps we should not be surprised that his version of “Zatoichi” emphasises bloody swordplay, the machinations of warlords and their gangs, and extreme revenge. Yet at the same time the film draws audiences into sympathy for vulnerable characters and empathy with their behaviour and motivations.

Zatoichi (Kitano) wanders into an unnamed village caught up in a war between yakuza gangs who demand huge amounts of protection money from the villagers. He finds shelter with O-ume (Michiyo Okusu), a farming widow, and her ne’er-do-well gambler nephew Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) who is often the butt of many jokes in the film. About the same time, two geisha siblings (one of whom is actually a man) seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and other family members on their family estate ten years ago arrive in the village. Zatoichi, O-ume and Shinkichi befriend these geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike) and learn about their tragic history. The geishas eventually discover that the men who murdered their parents are the same yakuza gangsters terrorising the community, and Zatoichi sets about dispatching these men. For the most part, the job is not too difficult – except that the yakuza leader has just hired ronin samurai Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as his bodyguard. Hattori boasts a mean, almost demonic way with his sword and a showdown between him and Zatoichi seems set to be the film’s pyrotechnic climax.

The film builds slowly and steadily to the inevitable clash of katanas with plenty of diversions along the way. This does mean that audiences need to concentrate quite hard to follow the plot. Kitano spends much time crafting back histories for various characters including Hattori as well as the geisha siblings, touching on touchy subjects such as paedophilia and suggesting that life for ronin samurai and their families could be as hard and oppressive as the lives of lowly peasants. One feels as much for Hattori and his need to help his sickly wife as one does for the geishas, no matter how intensely and darkly their desire for vengeance burns and eats them up. Special attention should be paid to the bartender and his aged assistant father who washes the sake cups and chops the vegetables. Kitano’s own character Zatoichi differs little from the type of characters he usually plays: impassive, stoic, saying very little and giving the impression of harbouring great, often unearthly wisdom and not a few dark secrets.

The violence may be bloody but it is done quickly and efficiently (and maybe a little too artistically and cleanly in a way that screams it was done with computer-based effects) and often it is over before the audience has had time to draw breath.

One feels that Kitano packs so much into this film because the plot is not all that original and very few characters are actually worthy of much sympathy. The cinematography is often very pretty. The film seems made for a Western audience which might explain why some of the dance sequences are so long and why Kitano opted to include a Hollywood-style chorus-line musical extravaganza, complete with tap-dancing, at the end of the film. We do not learn very much about the character of Zatoichi himself, why he is blind (or pretends to be blind) and why he elects to travel alone from one isolated community to the next and to flush out corruption and oppression everywhere he goes. The theme of blindness in its various guises – including the notion that having sight often makes one blind to things that visually blind people would pick up – is not as fully explored and fleshed out as it could have been.

There is a nihilistic aspect to the film as well: some characters die undeserving and tragic deaths; and the geisha siblings are more affected by their desire for vengeance than by their suffering than they are prepared to admit, and how they will cope when the cause of their suffering has been obliterated by others is unclear.

As expected, Zatoichi goes on his way to another oppressed village in a fantasy pre-Meiji Japan and audiences will have had their fill of comedy, tragedy and drama in a colourful and stylised package.

The Thief of Paris: a tedious, lacklustre comedy of one individual’s rebellion against social hypocrisy

Louis Malle, “Le Voleur / The Thief of Paris” (1967)

A crime comedy caper starring then popular French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and directed by Louis Malle, “Le Voleur” turns out to be a rather dull character study. Georges Randal (Belmondo), orphaned at a young age, discovers after finishing college and military training that his guardian uncle has fleeced him of his parents’ fortune and plans to marry off cousin Charlotte (Genevieve Bujold), whom Georges loves, to a down-and-out aristocrat as Georges is now too poor to marry her. Enraged, Georges steals the fiancé’s family jewels (bought with Charlotte’s – and hence Georges’ – money) and as a result a scandal involving the prospective mother-in-law is brought out into the public eye. Shamed, the families call off the engagement. From then on, motivated by a desire for social justice and vengeance, Georges embarks on a life as a professional gentleman thief. In this, he is unexpectedly aided and educated by a Roman Catholic priest (Julien Guiomar) and another professional gentleman thief (Paul le Person). Through these mentors, Georges makes many contacts, learns new skills and has several romantic affairs.

Eventually Georges recovers his fortune, becomes rich and is able to avenge himself on his uncle by expertly forging a new will while the old fellow is on his deathbed. The new will eventually restores the uncle’s house to Charlotte as its rightful owner and Georges and Charlotte are able to marry. Georges’ two mentors retire as professional thieves and Georges himself seems set for life as a wealthy self-made man. Yet Georges finds himself unable to stop his life of thieving and burglary and feels compelled to carry on, knowing that one day he will be eventually caught and imprisoned.

The pace is too slow for the plot – it should have been briskly rocketing along right up to the delicious climax where the uncle is watching his nephew rewrite the will and the old geriatric is desperately reaching for his gun to finish off the impudent fellow. At times the film seems uncertain as to whether it wants to be a straight-out light-hearted comedy or something more sober. Perhaps the surprise for viewers is that, having avenged himself on his uncle and won Charlotte back, Georges should continue with his life of crime rather than change direction and devote himself to pursuing social justice some other way by establishing factories run on democratic socialist principles for example or channelling some of his wealth into charity work. The pop faux-Freudian psychology prevalent in 1960s films though predicts that Georges will find himself unable to give up the thrills and compulsions of thieving: the very act of theft is the one occasion when Georges feels most alive which does not say very much for the charms of late 19th-century French society, displayed in all its lurid decadence thanks to excellent cinematography.

The acting is efficient without being remarkable and the plot has very few thrilling highlights (in a film about how a professional thief is born and made) which also account for the general tedium. A film about an individual who rebels against the hypocrisy and shallowness of French bourgeois society yet eventually becomes enslaved to his personal rebellion which he knows may lead him to alienation and ruin could have been very intriguing in its premise alone. Shame that this idea isn’t more fully developed and explored to its ultimate logical conclusion.