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NOBODY KNOWS (2004) dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

4 Aug

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When I asked my Japanese colleague to suggest a Japanese movie, she pitched the same film that London’s Institute of Contemporary Art emailed me about that very same week, the film they are showing to their members free this month. I guessed there must be something in it. Nobody Knows: the first movie I’ve watched for three months.

Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki are aged between 12 and 5. Accompanied by their mother, Akira moves into a new apartment in Tokyo, with Shigeru and Yuki smuggled into the building inside suitcases because children aren’t allowed. Kyoko arrives later by herself. Only Akira can leave the building or go onto the balcony. None of the kids go to school (there is no compulsory education in Japan, I was told, therefore it is possible to not attend one).

The director, Hirokazu Koreeda, uses a kind of Hitchcockian attention to detail to give us so much more than what is presented. The mother in this film is not so much a bad mother than not a mother at all. They say that sometimes bad homes produce good children and good homes bad ones. Despite dreadful conditions some people grow up to become beautiful with noble values. At the start of the film we see Akira shiftily looking at magazines in a mini-mart, the manager pulls him over to check his bag, finds unaccounted for things, stolen goods. Luckily the checkout assistant noticed some boys putting items into the bag. Akira’s innocence at this moment subtly is retained throughout the rest of the film. He’s a good person; we can be sure. We see him studying, wanting to better himself, rise out of circumstance.

The mother, Keiko, who talks to her children more like a friend than a mother clearly has mental problems. Every now and again in Japan, someone with an annoyingly sweet syrupy voice comes along – for instance, there’s a waitress in a Denny’s that I go to regularly – it makes me totally wonder if it’s all front or how it is even possible to squeak and smile and be so false sounding when at the same time genuine. It’s a voice so sincere it can only be artificial. The Japanese aren’t known for their great expressiveness. Bad feeling can easily be disguised or blockaded by a smile – or a citrine voice, babbling insane. The kid’s mother speaks in this naive way.

She disappears ‘to work’ for a month, leaving them about as much yen as an average monthly salary, only the money runs out and Akira has to ask round Yuki’s possible fathers for money in order to survive. Akira and Kyoko know that really their mother has gone off to be with some man; she promises them a normal life with the education that they dream of when she marries. In Japan, marriage is similar to how it was in the 1970’s in the West and more expected of couples living together. A single parent family is unusual. The kids, each with their different fathers, are odd even with a mother. But without any emotional, financial or physical parental support the kids are super! Mature and well-behaved. Not at all the wild savages one might expect.

Their mother eventually returns. Briefly. Akira tells her, over coffee in Mr Donut, that she’s selfish. The Japanese have a concept called amae, which roughly translates as a bitter-sweet love, like the relationships we have with our parents. I think that more than this, amae is the sweet aspect to the love and it doesn’t have to be so, amae you can give and you can take it away too. If Akira was adult, he might be more deeply pissed off with his mother in the cafeteria. As it is she encourages him to eat his donut, while he quickly forgets his harsh words and laughs at hers. She leaves more money, promises to be back by Christmas, then goes again into the bitter chill of a night lit with the cold, harsh, bright white artificial light common to Japan.

Of course, she’s not back at Christmas. Akira and Kyoko take the male and female domestic roles. When we were kids were used to fantasize that we were fourteen and had younger siblings to rear. It was a game we would play when we were ourselves still babies. The reality is living in squalor, wearing unwashed clothes, a sea of garbage [Japan has totally Americanized my language, no apologies], unpaid bills and (wait for it) a diet of… noodles! If it sounds like life in East London, then you should see it on screen, the kids are so lovely and respectable, despite fending for themselves. It isn’t an entirely bleak movie, although their suffering is presented without much gloss or veneer.

Plus cup noodles in Japan are way better than cheap noodles from the Kingsland Sainsburys! Even tramps in Tokyo, living without social security, wouldn’t eat those soggy relics that taste like recycled cardboard and are actually better eaten uncooked like biscuits. For about 45p, a cup noodle is pretty reasonable, maybe not delicious (oi shi) like the kids ironically declare but not bad. The freeze dried content is ok. There is a whole aisle in Tokyo supermarkets given over to noodles. U.F.O. green are my favorite – yes, soba with wasabi mayonnaise is oi shi! I think cup noodles are fairly average for lunch or dinner in Japan and not as scorned upon as in the U.K.. The kids also eat going off sushi that they get free from the mini-mart. It’s not an idyllic existence.

The key symbolism in the movie evokes a sensation of being in the situation of the mother, even though we haven’t seen her for most of the film, we are sutured into her mindset of absence through clever portrayals. Close-ups of feet and hands. The camera spends just a second or two too long on Kyoko’s frilly socks, making her feet seem half-way between tiny and adult, while walking in the adult role in the household. The manicured red nails that her mother gives her, so grown-up, a final memory of her primary carer, chipping away, fading away like the carefree childhood she doesn’t have, stained by responsibility.

Likewise, Yuki’s slippers, which make a noise, represent the silence the family endures in their secret abandonment. Akira allows her to wear them outside, in his youth immune to the contagious noise that any self-respecting parent would confine to indoors, oblivious to the attention they attract. We know Yuki is dead when we see her hand still and unmoving, upturned, unresponsive. The tacky, noisey, much loved slippers are pushed onto her feet one final time.

An interesting scene is at the start when Kyoko accidentally spills her mother’s nail varnish. “I told you not to touch my things!” the mother says angrily, trying to wipe up the stain. Later Kyoko blames herself for her mother’s departure. But the real insight to be gained from this moment is the idea of ‘my things.’ We spend the rest of the movie watching this woman’s ‘things’ as they go through a winter alone; face the rebirth of spring alone; make friends alone; sell their possessions alone; bury one of themselves alone. We’re kept captive in her psychology because these little hands and feet that we repeatedly see belong to these children. But they are children that have formed inside her body. They are her hands and feet as much as they are theirs.

As a viewer I was expecting the film to end with the mother’s return. But it ended with a sudden still shot. And I could look inside her head because I had unknowingly been conditioned by the director to become the mother. I kept going when the movie stopped; my absence roared deafeningly.

Out there, somewhere, in a miserable marriage that could turn sour, a child-like woman with a dishonest voice keeps a dark secret from her husband. She fears the reprisal of her children for abandoning them. The longer she spends away, the worse it gets, the more difficult it becomes to return. So she doesn’t return. Instead, during the day, she believes the lie she has created for herself, while at night she lies awake haunted by the terror of being found out. She is the mother of four children and nobody, absolutely nobody, knows.

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MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011) written and directed by Sean Durkin

25 Feb

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If I were to ask you to provide some watching material on domestic violence, you might create a list that looked something like this. Once We Were Warriors jumps out as a particularly brutal vision of what a violent relationship means. I expect the majority of the population associate domestic violence with images of women dealt a black eye or worse. The reality is that domestic abuse is pretty much akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been living for two years under the guise of Marcy May in a commune somewhere. She’s not sure where exactly but she thinks it’s in New York state. We see her running away from it at the beginning of the film. She’s hiding, trembling, clearly afraid, being approached by a man. Recognised, paralysed, then relieved when he doesn’t make her go back – she telephones her sister, who comes to collect her, marking the beginning of Martha’s return to society.

If you’ve ever found yourself living in fear, you might relate to her plight. All she can do is run from the commune, from the brainwashed state, but by starting the process of running away she has also started the process of confronting herself, having to figure out and cope with whatever it was that made her so compatible to this damaging relationship with a cult. She has to work out what segments of her personality are actualised from other people’s values, what parts of herself originate in her own beliefs, like any broken relationship. Only this was a prolonged disfunctional affair with a whole group of people – influenced by the presence of a leader whose power was continually reinforced by their agreement – where she found comfort in losing individuality, losing a sense of identity. But where was the security among that? Where was Martha?

A psychoanalyst once told me that he didn’t think the nuclear family is the ideal state for raising offspring. The appeal of a cult is that as human beings we’re driven towards groups, yet we also need leadership and someone or something to direct us. Otherwise we’re faced with fear of ourselves, disorder, inertia. Being in an individual state, instead of being led, is a frightening state. Martha has found the courage to leave and look her fear of being an individual in the eye. But back in the big bad world she is juxaposed against a background of ‘normal’ and starts to behave like a confused chameleon who has lost its ability to transform the pattern of its skin in order to go unnoticed. She cannot adjust.

Still shrouded in paralyzing fear, she hallucinates, she is trapped in memory, strung out like a fly lured into a web designed by a pain that she has not yet begun to elaborate upon or understand. We learn that when her mother died, her sister and aunt became her only family. We learn of the domination of the cult by the leader, Patrick, drugging the new girls and then ‘cleansing’ them with his cock, at first unacceptable but then her roommate tells her ‘you’re lucky,’ which sparks a path of internalisation. Eventually Martha herself is delivering girls to Patrick’s door.

Out of the cult, at her sister’s retreat house, normal stuff like not getting into bed with two people when they are fucking, or drinking alcohol, or swimming naked, becomes such an intense challenge that Martha flips. She picks up the phone and calls the cult. An eerie girl’s voice answers. But even creepier is the moment she hangs up the phone. It rings right back. It serves as a reminder that you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of the girl.

And that’s how it is with domestic violence and psychologically abusive relationships. No matter how far removed you are, no matter if bruises have faded, it’s stepping back to examine more closely what occurs inside yourself, inside the relationship, so difficult to do, to turn what’s wrong on the outside inside out and cleanse yourself, lead and teach yourself while removed from the problem, while a long way away physically; self-perpetuating, still going through it, still working it through. For the cure to what’s wrong is the same as the poison already consumed.

THE TURIN HORSE (2011) dir. Bela Tarr

5 Sep

Have you ever had a flash of insight – for a just few seconds – into a mind-boggling idea that you couldn’t ever quite grasp again in the same way?  Physical events can lead to an inexplicable, monumental, moment of marvel. Reading Wittgenstein in the Freud Museum, for example. For a catastrophic instant the notion that this could be possible secreted awesomeness.

Whatever he acknowledged, Frederich Nietzche – great philosopher, saw a horse being flogged in Turin. He flung his arms round it, sobbing, before descending into a weary, bedridden state that he lived through for ten years before dying. The Turin Horse follows on immediately after the encounter between man and horse, taking the path of the stubborn horse and her owner, back to their rural abode.

Perhaps the reason for the intense fascination at the little we are presented with on screen is that – filmed in monochrome – it is almost as if we are travelling back in time to January 3rd, 1889 and watching the mundane lives of the owner of the horse and his daughter. It doesn’t seem acted, the slow pace and clever camerawork give a level of realism that’s extraordinarily easy to watch, albeit with minimal action.

The wind is howling, the girl boils some potatoes, they get dressed, they get undressed, the girl fetches water, they muck out the horse. This is their daily routine. This is being human. Stark. Mysterious. What about variety? Why don’t they want more to happen? Don’t they tire of potatoes? There is a strong sense of purpose heightened by the camerawork creating something resembling a moving black and white photograph.

Some people will find it as interesting as being locked in a dark room with some straw to lie on and nothing else to do. But I found it strangely mesmerising. I expect in the cinema this is an extraordinarily relaxing movie. Perhaps the repetitive melody on strings for the score – music to leave a sense of anticipation and excitement, music that makes my heart race through listening – helps lull the viewer.  

I’m left curious about connecting to this motion picture experientially during a theatre screen view.

The other characters that come into the plot remind us loosely of Nietzsche’s ideas.  The girl reads out loud from a book given to her by gypsies in an exchange (with water). There is a visitor incorporated into the script. He sits at the table and talks. It’s as if we can see an occurence in history, somewhere near the apex of the philosopher’s suggestions, as they begin to filter down through the pyramid of mind and embed themselves into the collective-consciousness of human psyche.

Just as a small child can these days discern between a circle and a square, when this was once a ‘discovery’ of great men, all ideas sink deeper and deeper into our being. Whatever was always already there troubling Nietzsche, what might have happened to his mental faculties on that fateful day, is not known although the tale is not lost to aeons thanks to The Turin Horse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNkN_xCXozw

HUNGER (2008) dir. Steve McQueen

15 Aug

 

I once went for dinner at a traditional Basque Country Sociedad. On the walls were framed oversized photographs. They showed a building devastated by a bomb. I wondered why such ETA attrocities were on the walls. Was it out of pride or was it ‘so lest we forget’? Later when discussing it, my friend said that “many people had been sacrificed by ETA” and “it was a way of remembering those who were sacrificed”. Stop. ETA murdered people. It wasn’t sacrifice.

My opposed-to-ETA Spanish friend then argued that sacrificed was the right word – it made the actions seem stronger. The people were sacrificed in the name of independence. No, no, no! I could see his logic but I couldn’t imagine a newsreader saying “the IRA today sacrificed five innocent people when they detonated a bomb.” It didn’t seem appropriate to justify events in this way. 

However, Hunger is a film about an IRA sacrifice – a hunger strike nine men perished from – and maybe gives us an historical clue as to why it doesn’t seem right in English to supplement the word ‘murder’ with ‘sacrifice’ when talking about terrorism, no matter how so perceived.

Back in 1981 Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is locked up in the Maze Prison. He wants IRA prisoners like himself to be treated with the privledges of political prisoners, allowed to wear his own clothes, escape the criminalisation that comes with being in gaol. The British government is refusing to acknowledge events in Northern Ireland as war; the inmates are criminals as any other and are punished accordingly. 

Steve McQueen is a master of characterisation. He doesn’t present Bobby Sands in the opening sequence, instead we get a series of symbolic activity that creates the backdrop, the physical setting to the mental state of Sands, the tension, the paranoia of the world around him. We become familiar with a sadistic guard who lives in an OCD orderly fear, looking beneath his car in the morning before starting his engine, carefully removing his wedding ring, monotonously washing his bloodied knuckles.

We engage with two prisoners in the squalid cell next to Sands, on strike, what they called ‘blanket strike’. They refused to wear the prison uniform, were left naked with blankets. Combined with a ‘no wash’ protest, their faeces spread on the walls, urine poured beneath the door into the corridor, the conditions appear beyond horrendous. Thank fuck cinema is without smell.

Once we have adjusted to the intensity surrounding the inmates, the discomfort of two grown men naked in a tiny filthy room, living a life lesser than most animals, only then, we are presented with Sands, dragged along the corridor, beaten, roughly given a haircut, a black-eye and a bath. Then we see him fully-clothed, relaxed, talking to his parents at a visit. He says to his mother, “you’re looking well!”
“So are you,” she lies, leaving a strong sense of artifice.

After another scene of prisoners being beaten in the corridor, this time by riot police with batons (one of whom, a young boy in tears, has hidden from the brutality round the corner), the fierce spirit of Sands is revealed. Bloodied and on the floor he rolls over, lies still, looks straight and steady with a mad glint in his eye.  

For sixteen minutes we watch him talk over his hunger strike plan with a priest. He smokes three cigarettes. The priest wants no part of it. Interestingly, the scene does not cut while Sands talks about his encounter with an injured foal as a boy. Instead, we keep a continual place, for the entire sixteen mintues, at the side of the table where they sit, listening and watching. 

The priest thinks it is futile against a British government who will not change their stance on what they see as murdering terrorists. The priest tells him that they will not recognise his actions. His sacrifice will not achieve anything. It will be long ignored. In years to come, no one but my Spanish acquaintance will perceive the IRA as purpetrayors of sacrifice. The hunger strike is suicidal and nothing more.

McQueen is a total genius when it comes to sound. This lengthy conversation is followed by the cleaner sweeping urine from the floor. It lasts almost five minutes. We see him scatter disinfectant along the length and then work his way from one end of the corridor to the other. Swish. Swish. Swish. The whole time we’re hoping that we actually see him reach the end. We want to watch, it’s incredibly dull but compelling, fascinating. The repetitive sound lingers on into the start of the hunger strike.

Scenes become more shorter, choppier, less coherent. Hallucinations represent the interior states of Sands. As he becomes weaker and weaker, his spiritual realisations are shown to us in subtle images, his fragile existence mirrored by his frail body. We watch him deteriorate, covered in sores, our viewpoint obscured by his bedside table with a steaming hot mug of unwanted tea, strangely cruel yet elegant.

Fassbender had to live on a diet of 600 calories per day in order to play a man dying of starvation. He is an amazing actor. An abundance of force one moment yet something vapid about him the next. Steve McQueen is a highly courageous director. A cinema wizard. The portraiture he weaves into his films is the absolute best. This is a great film albeit exploring the darker side of humanity, ironically, a consequence of fundamental belief in humanity.