Charlie’s Country: a portrait of a man and his community in search of belonging and identity

Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)

A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.

Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.

Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.

The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.

The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can do wrong or go wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.

Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.

With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.

The Gospel According to St Matthew: a minimal neo-realist tale of struggle against corruption and injustice

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St Matthew / Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (1964)

Perhaps more historically accurate or Biblically faithful films – or even just better acted films – have been made about the life of Jesus Christ but few of them surely can match Pasolini’s retelling for power and intensity. Opting for a minimal realist approach using non-professional actors with working-class southern Italian backgrounds, Pasolini draws out the gospel’s message of Jesus’ struggle for social justice against a corrupt religious leadership and the price he had to pay for breaking social conventions and standing up to corrupt hierarchical power and injustice. Shorn of all religious associations, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui, aged 19 years at the time) is presented as an intense and charismatic young revolutionary who nevertheless is not without his contradictions and his moments of doubt and even loss of hope.

The gospel is presented as it is in the Bible, in a series of tableaux and impressions with a heavy focus on close-ups of actors’ faces in their distinctive rough-hewn and weathered glory as befits the working-class people who rallied to Jesus’ call and preaching all those centuries ago. The near-desert environment and the urban landscapes with their rabbit warren buildings clinging to hillsides and linked by labyrinthine streets give the film an exotic otherworldly appearance in which a man powered by divine spirit truly might walk among mortals. Unusual camera angles, abrupt edits, long periods of silence and faces that look so implacable and emotionless that they might have been carved out of Mt Rushmore add to the film’s alien yet matter-of-fact tone.

Filming on the proverbial shoe-string budget means that fancy special effects are out of the question, yet deft editing and imagination take care of scenes where special effects might be called for: the five loaves and the two fishes miraculously feed the crowds gathered around Jesus in a way that comes over as completely natural and straightforward yet audiences can still go slack-jawed at the clever editing involved. The Devil appears as an unassuming traveller and the visions he presents to Jesus to tempt him look completely realistic.

The film’s pace may be very uneven and some significant scenes in Jesus’ life go missing for unexplained reasons. At times the film does drag but after the man is betrayed and arrested by soldiers, the movie starts to move much faster. That the acting ranges from indifferent to bad should be no surprise – all the actors are amateurs after all – and this focuses audience attention on to the film’s message itself and the way it presents Jesus as a mostly serious and uncompromising leader whose compassion appears rarely and briefly. (But when it does appear, it seems more genuine than if it were to appear frequently.)

The musical soundtrack is very eclectic with selections from Afro-American gospel music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Congolese Christian folk music.

The film does not attempt to interpret the gospel narrative but gives a bare-bones rendition of it. Some viewers may find parts of it long and boring. Whatever prior knowledge of the gospel stories people bring to their viewing of the film, they are likely to come away with strong feelings about the film. The minimal neo-realist presentation, the stark setting and the casting of rural workers with no prior acting experience in several roles strip away sentimentality and what we get is a classic story of one man’s heroism against an oppressive system and a message of hope.

Paris, Texas: a film of isolation and rootlessness that cannot find purchase in a ruthless machine society

Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” (1984)

One of American cinema’s finest yet under-appreciated treasures must surely be the unassuming actor Harry Dean Stanton whose acting career reached its diamond anniversary in 2014. Usually cast in supporting roles, here he is employed in the lead role as the amnesiac Travis in Wim Wenders’ road flick “Paris, Texas”, a meditation on isolation, rootlessness, self-discovery and redemption. The thin plot strains credibility and the small cast is sometimes rather workman-like but what it says about the human condition and the particular social environment that has made Travis and his fellow characters what they are is more important.

After four years wandering lost in the desert somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, Travis stumbles into a petrol station and a doctor there calls for help. The authorities call on Travis’ closest of kin, brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), to collect him. Walt brings Travis back in a somewhat roundabout way (involving a detour to a place called Paris, in Texas, consisting of little more than a collection of derelict trucks in the middle of the desert) to his own home in Los Angeles where Travis is reacquainted with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis and Hunter gradually warm to each other to the point where Travis, determining to find out what happened to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), is able to take the boy with him on a long driving trip from Los Angeles to Houston in Texas. There, Travis makes an unpleasant discovery about Jane and has to decide whether to reconcile with her or not.

The film is long and meandering, and at times it appears not quite focused, as if to mirror its central character’s struggle to understand himself and the most important people in his life, and how his life came off the rails originally. Stanton underplays his part well: his character veers from child-like to adult, gradually opening up and maturing as he re-establishes a relationship with Hunter and then searches for Jane. Stockwell and Clément play their parts well: in their own way, Walt and Anne are as lost in the urban jungle of Los Angeles which in some respects is as much a vast desert as the one where Travis was lost. Carson is appealing as the son caught up in the trappings of modern Western culture, disdaining walking and close physical and emotional contact for the attractions of cars and video-games. But the best (if understated) acting comes in the film’s climax when Travis talks to his wife on the phone at her place of work where she provides phone sex talk to lonely customers: Travis admits to Jane that his love for her became an unhealthy obsession and led to a strong controlling streak on his part that eventually broke up their relationship and which literally sent him into the desert wilderness.

Supported by fine cinematography that emphasises the flat and open expanses of the desert landscapes, the restless society that has put down shallow roots in this environment, and the drawling slide-guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that evokes the stark loneliness of the Texan urban and rural worlds, the film follows Travis’ attempts at rediscovering himself, reuniting his family and finding in the reunion of Jane and Hunter the atonement for his earlier misdeeds that will allow him to move forward without guilt.

Admittedly the film can be hokey in parts and the disruption that Travis could have brought to his brother’s family and Jane is reduced to some misgivings on sister-in-law Anne’s part about the possibility of Travis taking Hunter away from her and Walt. The film could have been edited here and there for length without affecting its distinctive atmosphere and low-key style. Stockwell and Clément are not given much to do and their reaction to Travis disappearing from their home, taking Hunter with him, is inexplicably passive. Having reunited Jane and Hunter, Travis purposely leaves them, perhaps forever, to return where he came from or to pursue his dream of finding Paris, Texas.

The lonely life in the dreary Houston suburb where Jane plies her trade is taken for granted; no-one bothers to ask Jane why she had to take up such seedy work, nor why she couldn’t get a better job in LA with the help of her in-laws. The isolation and rootlessness of people; and the culture and its values that encourage people to continually move around, whether to better themselves, earn more money, pursue fame and riches, and which tout individual freedoms in narrow ways that privilege greed and competition, with the resultant loss of connection and intimacy: all are accepted by director Wenders as they are and are never questioned here. Travis might mature enormously during his quest for identity and need for emotional connection but at the end of the film, he is still at a loss of how to cope and deal with a mostly indifferent, ruthless society. He cannot survive in such a world where work and efficiency for their own sake, where people like his ex-wife and his brother’s family are forced to exist as isolated units, and so he voluntarily chooses to return to the desert. How this voluntary return to isolation is going to aid Travis in further self-discovery and maturation – it could also put him in danger of regression into amnesia – Wenders is unable to say and the conclusion seems half-hearted to the point of defeatism.

Shorn of its excess baggage, “Paris, Texas” would still pack considerable emotional punch, though I suppose it would lose its meandering, lackadaiscal pace .

Becoming a legend through humility and earning grace in “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island”

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island” (1956)

Inagaki’s third and last installment in the historical fiction drama series on the life and times of master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto is a mellow and almost wistful study of the samurai’s spiritual and mental evolution as he prepares for the fight of his life against an evil challenger. At the end of the second film in the series, the samurai Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) vows to seek out and fight Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and this determination becomes the main focus of the third film as the two characters warily circle each other on their respective journeys through life, knowing that once they have decided to fight one another, they can’t avoid their fate. To this end, Miyamoto requests of Sasaki that he be allowed to spend a year to prepare for the fight, during which time he rejects an offer from the Shogun to train warriors and travels to a village where he devotes his life to farming and defending the villagers against feared bandits. The bandits rope in Akemi (Mariko Okada), one of Miyamoto’s rivals for his affections, to lead them to the village. Akemi’s rival, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), tracks down Miyamoto herself and joins him on his farm. This means that in addition to preparing himself psychologically for the showdown with Sasaki, Miyamoto must fight off the brigands and deal with two women jealous of one another and reconcile with Otsu. What’s an ascetic samurai to do under such circumstances? In the meantime, Sasaki lives a life of ease and easy pleasures, visiting courtesans and courting the young daughter of a noble family at Kokura.

Like its predecessors, the film includes nature as a significant character in the narrative: scenes of flowing water reflect the plot’s concern with the passage of time and past memory and hint at emotions within Miyamoto and Otsu that they are afraid to admit to themselves, much less each other. To be frank, I found the romantic sub-plot and the rivalry between Akemi and Otsu uninteresting: the two characters are too stereotyped as one-dimensional scheming bitch and helpless no-brain damsel respectively to generate any real tension. The film’s attempt to contrast Miyamoto and Sasaki through their life-styles and activities is laudable, and demonstrates Miyamoto’s down-to-earth integrity and maturity – he had formerly spurned the life of a farmer as he admits to Otsu – compared to Sasaki’s glide through fun and luxurious living.

Made for the general public, the film brushes over how and why Miyamoto adopts a more humble attitude to life. The priest who helped Otsu in the earlier films has gone and the film makes no attempt to explain any Buddhist principles that might be relevant to Miyamoto’s inner quest. We see Miyamoto being quite reluctant to fight the brigand leader and various others but the film does not explain his change of attitude from his early eagerness to prove himself. He avoids fame and celebrity but the film does not show how this desire came about. In short, if viewers want to learn something of Buddhist philosophy and what aspects of it influenced Miyamoto’s life, they will not find anything useful in the film to help.

The main glory of the film is the final battle scene between Sasaki and Miyamoto on the beach at sunrise. Framed between two trees and their canopies and branches, the fight is surprisingly swift and brisk. The end when it comes is unexpected and the victor, overcome by the momentous nature of the fight, is saddened at a life’s brief duration, cut off in its prime. Is he also sorrowful that the fight did not need to take place at all, that because of pride and an obsession with fame, a man has died unnecessarily?

The film does flow better than its predecessors and is much more focused due to its plot. Loose ends are tidied up and there is a definite sense of release and freedom at the end of the film. Miyamoto’s life quest is complete and he earns undying fame: the lesson he had to learn to become a legendary samurai was to become humble and to think of others and care for them before caring about himself and his reputation. There might be a lesson there for Japan and other nations to learn.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – the early days of a famous swordsman celebrated with ambition and energy

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” (1954)

One of the most famous people in Japanese culture is the swordsman and mystic Musashi Miyamoto, author of “Gorin no sho / The Book of Five Rings”, and one imagines that in a culture that reveres martial stereotypes of the samurai and the ninja, and the sport of kendo, Miyamoto’s life should be well documented. The fact though is that records of his life seem to be very spotty and he has been the subject of many tall tales. This did not bother director Hiroshi Inagaki who undertook to make a trilogy of movies detailing an imagined life of Miyamoto from his early years to his battle with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryujima. The films star the notable Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s samurai answer to Hollywood’s cowboy heroes of the same time, as Miyamoto.

The first film of the trilogy, subtitled simply “Musashi Miyamoto”, presents Miyamoto as a young and impetuous village youth, known to his family and community as Takezo. Takezo and friend Matahachi eagerly participate in a civil war (the period is the year 1600, just before Ieyasu Tokugawa became shogun and initiated a long peace of some 267 years) but their side loses badly and the two try to return home. They fall in with two women, Oko and Akemi, who make a living by robbing dead samurai of their arms and money. Akemi tends to Matahachi’s wound and Oko tries to seduce Takezo after seeing him fight off a bunch of thugs single-handedly. Takezo runs away and the women and Matahachi later desert him. Takezo returns to his and Matahachi’s home village to tell Matahachi’s mother and his fiancee Otsu that Matahachi is still alive. Takezo is accused of giving up Matahachi for dead and the village elders order his arrest. Takezo becomes a fugitive but the local Buddhist priest Takuan traps him. Takuan intends to take Takezo under his wing and train him to be a moral man. With the help of Matahachi’s fiancee Otsu (who learns that Matahachi has forsaken her for Oko), Takezo escapes for a time but again Takuan tricks him and imprisons him in Himeji Castle. Here for a number of years Takezo undergoes spiritual and moral training, and starts on the long road to becoming a proper samurai.

The film borrows many plot and style elements from the Western genre including the idea of the main character as a strong, silent lone-wolf figure who will travel from one place to the next taking on various villains and learning through his adventures what it means to be a true and virtuous samurai, and that life, being impermanent, must be cherished and respected. The film may lack the grace and choreography that a Kurosawa might have brought to it but this means that action sequences look all the more realistic and savage. Characters are very stereotyped and what character development exists is extremely limited. The acting is not especially skillful and Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Takezo seems rather wooden. (He was a thirtysomething actor playing a character who was supposed to be in his late teens after all.) Takezo’s early transformation from wild and restless youngster to serious young man trained in proper samuari skills and Buddhist philosophy occurs off-screen in a matter of minutes in a 100-minute film; Inagaki figured that constant chanting of sutras, daily practice with wooden swords and long hours in meditation atop mountains in the middle of winter might not go down well with audiences thirsting for the quick and decisive actions of Hollywood gangster and cowboy films.

The film seems a little uneven given its plot – there’s no great sword-fight at the end and the climax comes from the romantic sub-plot – and there are great leaps from one sub-plot to the next. Matahachi and his women disappear from the film for a long stretch and are brought back near the end. Inagaki manages to pull the different stories together and the film marches resolutely to its finale with its focus firmly on Takezo.

In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat by the US and its allies in 1945, the film’s themes revolve around identity, redemption, rebirth and finding one’s goals and true purpose in life. The general thrust of the film is to show how Takezo comes to take responsibility for his actions and understand their consequences; he becomes less ego-driven and more aware of what others do for him and to use his strengths to defend others without thought for himself. Compared to other samurai films (and especially those of Akira Kurosawa) that I have seen, this movie might not be great technically but it certainly has ambition and energy befitting its main character.

Crimea for Dummies: entertaining travelogue, history lesson and Western media propaganda critique rolled into one

Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” (RT Documentary, 2014)

A unique and interesting film by Los Angeles film school graduate Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” is at once a personal film travelogue, history lesson and critique of the Western news media portrayal of recent events in Crimea. MFS sets out to discover how much the global view reflects the actual situation in the peninsula. The Western opinion is that Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula after the Crimean parliament held an illegal referendum that delivered suspect results. The opinion of the Crimeans themselves, as MFS was to discover, is that the referendum not only was legitimate but it reflected majority opinion of Russian voters (and quite a lot of Crimean Tatars who defied their Majlis order not to participate in the referendum) who did not like what was happening in Ukraine and who wanted to secede and rejoin Russia.

MFS visits Crimea to interview people about what they think of Russia and what their lives are now like under Russian rule. Nearly everyone is happy to be living in Russia because among other things people can now apply for free medical insurance which they could not get in Ukraine. According to what he heard in the news in the US, there were food shortages in Crimea after Russian reunification so he visits food shops and finds food in abundance at affordable prices.

Puzzled that the vast majority of people he meets identify with Russia rather than Ukraine, MFS sets out to learn the history of Crimea and how with its mostly Russian-speaking population it ended up as part of Ukraine. He learns that Crimea was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783 – so its association with Russia began only a few years after the United States declared its independence in 1776. He visits memorials dedicated to those members of the Russian military forces who died defending Sevastopol and Crimea from invasion, first in the 1850s against forces from Britain, France, Turkey and Italy, and then second during the Second World War against Germany. Puzzled that none of these memorials mention Ukraine or Ukrainians, MFS consults a historian about how Crimea became part of Ukraine and she informs him that in 1956 the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine because the leader had spent part of his boyhood in Ukraine and he needed Ukrainian support in the various byzantine machinations in Moscow politics at the time. One interesting tidbit is that MFS learns Ukraine had once offered a military base to the US but since it faced Turkey rather than Russia, the Americans turned down the offer.

The documentary works as both history and travelogue: through Francis’s eyes and experiences, viewers see the kind of sunny, tourist-oriented place Crimea (and more specifically Sevastopol and Yalta) could be with opportunities for sight-seeing, walking tours, swimming and boat trips. In his interviews with the local people, MFS apparently does not meet any non-Russian individuals (like Crimean Tatars for example) who might offer a point of view at odds with the majority opinion that Crimea is and always has been a part of Russia since 1783. Crimean history since that year is rich in associations with Russian history and culture – the famous writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov spent part of his life here – and MFS learns to his consternation that from 1991 to 2014, the Ukrainian government actively sought to suppress this rich history and other expressions of Russian identity among the Crimeans.

Playing a wide-eyed tourist naif enables MFS to come close to people who speak more frankly than they might have done otherwise had he come as an investigator or journalist. Plenty of close-ups feature and MFS’s clowning about gives the film the air of a home-made production.

Propaganda this film may be – there is no way of telling what might have been omitted from the film’s final version and how much – though it is very entertaining and informative. I might say at this point that the woman historian MFS consults was incorrect in saying that Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1956: the year of transfer was actually 1954, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, in which Ukrainian cossacks joined with Russia in an alliance against the Crimean Tatar khanate and its allies, and that one reason for the transfer may have been easier administration of a pipeline transporting water for public consumption from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Crimea. The transfer was made quite arbitrarily with no consultation with the Soviet parliament at the time, as should have been done according to the Soviet constitution. Another reason possibly may have been to sway Ukrainians away from supporting nationalist Ukrainian groups agitating for Ukraine to break away from the Soviet Union at the time.

Whether you view the film as propaganda or not, it is nevertheless a good introduction to a small territory in the Black Sea that for centuries has been coveted as prime real estate by great powers past and present.

Mixing samurai sword action, gore and political commentary on “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance”

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance / Shurayukihime: Urami Renga” (1974)

At the end of the first eponymous film, main character Yuki (Meiko Kaji) was dying in the snow but here she has recovered enough to become a fugitive on the run from the Meiji government for having killed the people who murdered her family. A bounty has been placed on her head and Yuki has to travel constantly and furtively to escape oppressive justice. A government agent, Kikui (Shin Kishida), grants her a reprieve from imprisonment, torture and death by giving her a mission: to assassinate activist and trouble-maker Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami) who holds a document whose false flag secrets could incriminate Kikui and a prominent politician, and lead to nation-wide unrest and rioting. Naturally Kikui and his politician friend want the document destroyed. As Yuki tracks down Ransui Tokunaga and becomes involved in his family affairs which include a rivalry with his impoverished doctor brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada) over Shusuke’s estranged wife, the swords-woman finds herself embroiled in conflicting political and personal rivalries in a context of a more militaristic and oppressive society using supposedly progessive social and economic reforms to enforce authoritarian laws and stultifying conformity on the population at large.

As sequels go, this is not a bad one and while very plot-heavy at the expense of character development, the film is engrossing in its own way due to the historical background with the ideas that Meiji-era Japan has eagerly embraced. The Meiji government has imposed a corrupt and violent police force on the people, and guns prove more useful and deadly than martial arts, but the ordinary people have also come to embrace radical politics and its promise of equality, freedom for all and democratic rule. As a result the government resorts to even more violence and torture, and employs underhanded and shocking methods including biological warfare tools – one character is injected with bubonic plague and thrown into a Tokyo slum – to get what it wants and this theme of increasing militarisation and oppression through a selective Westernisation / modernisation program of early 20th-century Japan informs the entire film. While the driving motivation of revenge no longer exists, the convoluted plot produces enough skulduggery, betrayal and corruption on the part of Kikui, his politician friend and government institutions to imbue Yuki with a new life’s mission: to gain justice for and defend the weak, the poor and the vulnerable.

As Yuki, Kaji displays just enough emotion to make her steely character plausible as the avenging angel turned crusader for the poor. She has very little to say and all feeling and character are expressed through her eyes and facial expression – Kaji proves quite adept at saying much in her body language if not in her dialogue. All other characters in the film are treated as disposable and so are very one-dimensional. The love triangle sub-plot is sketchily developed but we learn enough about it in characters’ dialogue that it is plausible. The lack of characterisation proves to be a major flaw as Yuki appears not to care that much for social justice compared to her own desire to evade the law and an argument may be mounted that she only acts the way she does mainly to avenge the torture and death of someone she holds dear and at the same time set even the score with the police. We end up caring much more for the people of the Tokyo slums who lose their homes to arson instigated by Kikui and his hench-men.

The cinematography is very good with much emphasis on beautiful outdoor scenes and unusual angles of filming. There is not quite as much visual experimentation with the movie driven by the complicated plot and its unexpected twists. Fight scenes are occasional and their portrayal is more competent and efficient than elaborate and balletic. Indeed, Yuki does well over most of her killing in the opening credits.

Lovers of samurai sword action and a large body count may be disappointed that there is less choppy-chop though what there is can be very gruesome with one character getting his eyes put out on separate occasions. The political angle may be confusing and the twists in the plot tend to drag out the action and can be exasperating to viewers not familiar with the history of Meiji-era Japan. But for those who know that history and the struggle of the Japanese in general against the hierarchical and totalitarian tendencies of their society and culture, this sequel to “Lady Snowblood” can be quite an absorbing experience.

Thought-provoking and entertaining inquiry into animal rights in “Speciesism: the Movie”

Mark Devries, “Speciesism: the Movie” (2013)

As home movies go, few possibly extend very far into the realms of journeys of self-discovery and self-awakening as this one does. Law student Mark Devries employs an original style of investigative journalism that can only be described as klutzy devil’s advocate inquiry into the concept of speciesism – the assigning of economic value to animal species and the ramifications that this has for the way we humans treat our fellow animal travellers on Earth – and the moral and environmental implications speciesism holds for us.

Initially Devries’ attention is captured by a group of young women posing semi-naked in the street protesting against the fur industry. His curiosity as to why some people campaign for better treatment of animals leads him to investigate chicken and pig factory farms and how these operate. Devries’ quest takes him to the animal rights group PETA where he meets people who introduce him to the concept of speciesism. Further intrigued, Devries sets out to meet and interview a number of philosophers, scientists and academics including Richard Dawkins, Temple Grandin and Peter Singer; he also interviews members of the public for their views on speciesism and even ventures to speak to a leading representative of the American Nazi Society. For “balance”, Devries also speaks to someone at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and finds his views on the morality of treating humans and animals differently very depressing.

For a self-made documentary, the camera is less jumpy than one might expect and the film is powered all the way through by Devries’ endearingly unassuming and non-confrontational interviewing approach and narration. His sincerity and adoption of the neutral-everyday-observer, mostly sceptical of the claims made by animal-rights campaigners, highlights the change in attitude he undergoes and this gradual transformation anchors the film all the way through and becomes part of his message. He allows everyone he interviews the chance to explain their views as to why speciesism is or is not wrong. He challenges philosophers to explain why they believe on rational grounds alone why speciesism is wrong and why humans cannot claim to be higher or more special than other animals.

Perhaps the most riveting section of the film is Devries’ investigation of the impact that factory farming of pigs in North Carolina state has on the environment and the health of people who live close to the farms. One man who lives in the vicinity of one such farm shows Devries the spraying of hog faeces and urine onto land around the farm. Droplets may become airborne and be blown by winds onto neighbouring properties; the people living on these properties may be exposed to exotic microbes and bacteria that have evolved super-strength immunity thanks to having been exposed to antibiotics in the pigs’ feed. Hogwash can also enter and contaminate rivers, ponds, lakes and groundwater on which people depend for water supplies. The people Devries meets are ordinary everyday Americans with twangy Southern accents who vote Republican and hold conservative views on most issues, yet they are afire with anger at the way corporations dominate federal and state politicis with money and influence, run roughshod over people’s rights and threaten people’s health and livelihoods as well as the health of animals and the survival of natural environments.

Devries also makes interesting comparisons between our treatment of animals and slavery during the 1800s, and challenges people’s views on animals as lesser beings by using the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust as a standard of comparison. To this end, he interviews a Holocaust survivor who equates our treatment of animals as equivalent to the Nazi treatment of Jewish concentration camp victims and speaks to a rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the latter definitely does not come off as an exemplary advocate for Judaism.

The film is aimed mainly at young people and university / college undergraduates and so it is easy to follow. It is a highly personal journey so it eschews the use of statistics and dizzying graphics and does not have the preachy tone that might be expected of documentaries on animal rights. Having a particular audience in mind, and a young one at that, means that “Speciesism …” cannot delve very much into the economic and political systems and ideologies that support and bolster the corporations that profit from factory farming and which encourage people to believe that animals on factory farms are being cared for humanely. The film ultimately makes a plea to audiences to consider ways in which they can help animals and give them the lives they deserve. Unfortunately it does not go much farther than that.

As it is, “Speciesism” is a very thorough, absorbing, thought-provoking and commendable exploration of issues surrounding animal rights and the concept of speciesism.

 

 

Apocalypse Now (Redux): an illustration of how war fashions society and individuals in its own image

Francis Ford Coppola, “Apocalypse Now (Redux)” (2001)

The actual plot is very basic: sometime during the Vietnam War  – a newspaper clipping on Charles Manson’s trial suggests the year may be 1970 and there is mention also of President Nixon – the protagonist Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission by his superiors to hunt down and kill renegade US colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The mission seems fairly straightforward enough but in the nightmare that was the Vietnam War, Willard’s quest turns into a personal surreal and hallucinatory descent into inner hell. As his boat takes him up the Nung River and deep into Cambodia, Willard learns more about Colonel Kurtz’s history from the dossier given him and is drawn to the man’s contradictory character. It seem that Colonel Kurtz had been a model soldier and leader and was mooted for a position as General in the US Army. Willard learns that Kurtz was rather too efficient at his job, using methods and tactics to kill Viet Cong which his superiors “disapprove” of and has now become deranged.

On his way to the river that will take him to Kurtz, Willard and the four men he travels with (they are all known by various nicknames) encounter a rag-tag bunch of characters and witness some strange incidents: there is the eccentric and trigger-happy Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, recklessly orders an air strike on a Vietnamese village and then directs his men to spray napalm fire into a forest, turning it into one huge inferno. Kilgore helps Willard and his men reach the Nung River where the group commences to travel on its own. Crewman Lance (Sam Bottoms) is spooked by a tiger and wastes ammunition trying to get rid of the animal. Sailing upstream, the men come across a US supply depot show featuring some Playboy bunnies which ends in chaos with soldiers punching one another over the girls. An encounter with some fisher-folk on a sampan goes awry when one of the crew goes berserk and machine-guns everyone; when the crew decide to take an injured woman on board their boat and seek medical help, Willard cold-bloodedly shoots her dead. Later the US navy boat is attacked by unseen assailants who kill crew-member Clean (Lawrence Fishburne), leading to a simmering conflict between Willard and the boat’s skipper Chief (Albert Hall).

A surreal episode follows in which the crew are entertained by French colonial plantation owners who might have stepped straight out of a time-machine from 20 or 30 years ago. On resuming their journey, the crew soon reach their destination which turns out to be a savage fiefdom of mountain tribal folk in awe and worshipping a living god who turns out to be … Kurtz, living in a temple surrounded by corpses. Kurtz imprisons Willard and taunts him by killing one of the crew members and throwing the dead man’s head into Willard’s lap, and then lecturing Willard on his own theories of war and civilisation. For a while, it seems as if Willard will end up as yet another of Kurtz’s victims but there are some surprises in store.

The film is noteworthy in part for its technical work and cinematography which often render the setting very dream-like and psychedelic in parts. The night-time scene during which Willard’s men panic at the presence of a tiger is rendered in blue and green light, thus heightening the fear of the unknown that the men feel. At times, viewers can well believe that as the US navy boat continues on its journey, it is entering another very ghostly dimension in which conventional beliefs about morality fall away and men like Colonel Kurtz become truly and dangerously free; there are shots in which mist rises from the waters and envelops the boat as it sails. The crew-men’s use of hallucinatory drugs, their liking for the psychedelic rock music of the period and their increasingly fragile mental state add to this viewer’s impression that they are physically as well as mentally entering another world in which everything is somehow brighter, darker, deeper, more vivid and more dangerous, spiritually as well as physically. For much of the film, the cinematography is beautiful and unearthly, and the film’s leisurely pace combined with long scenic shots of forest, river and above all the mist rising over the river have the effect of plunging viewers deeply into a world, seemingly a paradise at times, far away from the reality of war.

The music soundtrack is significant to the film also, and never more so than in the climactic scene (in which a song by The Doors is playing) in which Kurtz is made to confront his own mortality and the full awfulness of human (and by implication his own) cruelty, darkness and the hollowness to come. In this scene also, Willard (who throughout the movie has been studying the military dossier on Kurtz and has come to identify with the man, his background and motives) finally bonds with Kurtz in spirit and action. Oh all right then, here comes the spoiler: Willard kills Kurtz with a machete.  Here at last the film makes a profound statement about the effect of the Vietnam war on individuals like Kurtz and Willard and, through them, on American society: war as an entity seizes people and refashions them in its own image and values, turning them into total killers, and then unleashes them onto the rest of the world. Initially when the Americans brought total war to Vietnam, they imagined they could control it with their technology, their ideals and beliefs, and their goals; but the war ends up controlling America heart and soul. One imagines that when Willard returns to “civilisation”, he will be handsomely rewarded and celebrated as a war hero and role model for future generations of soldiers to follow … but spiritually and morally he is dead inside.

Significantly even though this is a film about the Vietnam war, very few Vietnamese people appear save as extras: all the violence and the suffocating insanity are provided by Americans. Everywhere in the film where Americans group together, the viewer gets the feeling that violence, madness and mindless killing will result … and the viewer is usually right. It would make no difference if Willard were to meet Kurtz or not and Kurtz, when he does appear, comes across as a very ordinary if rather eccentric fellow: no more and no less mad than his fellow Americans, he epitomises the perfect robotic killing-machine made so by the demands, expectations and rewards of the military culture that took him in as a young man.

The film perhaps makes too much of its theme of human nature as essentially contradictory and capable of both good and evil, and not enough of that theme’s dark twin which is that human nature also reflects back to society and to us the values and behaviours prized and rewarded by that society. Kurtz is what he is because American society has rewarded him with war medals and increased status in the army and society generally while pretending to ignore his amorality and brutal methods. Eventually he reaches a state where he realises that American society is essentially as amoral as he is, in celebrating him first and secondly fearing and rejecting him for much the same reasons it celebrated him originally – because he is too efficient at what he does. Having reached his pinnacle and finding no satisfaction in it, just emptiness, he submits to his society’s final judgement over him. This is really what makes “Apocalypse Now” such a powerful work, not least because we are still so reluctant to acknowledge that as social creatures we are highly malleable, we reinforce what society wants from us and in turn allow society to mould us even more in particular directions. If war seems to be the permanent state of the world, it is because that is what our society celebrates. We need not invoke biological explanations to explain our war-like and avaricious behaviour and actions towards others.

The film remains one of Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest directing achievements from the 1970s; it’s a great pity that his work after that decade declined so much.