Waves (2006) (H)

Directed by Li Tao

Waves achieves that most encouraging potential of documentary film: the presentation of events that constitute a unique experience for the individuals on screen, while also inviting the audience to respond and relate to what’s going on based on their own personal experience. It follows brief periods in the lives of four Chinese teenagers attending Hutt Valley High School as international students, achieving a rare level of intimacy that keeps you fascinated by these people as it provokes you to consider your own position. I’ll get this out of the way immediately: it falls short of the highest rating because of some distracting technical issues and often limited documentary technique, but I am at pains to insist that the content is good enough to carry these failings.

First we meet Ken. The message from his story is that no matter how well you manage to adapt, no matter how friendly your hosts and new classmates are, there’s no place like home. Over at Lumière, they’ve made special mention of the scene in which he breaks down crying while looking at a photo taken back in China. It is incredibly moving, but the conversation he has with his father that immediately precedes it is just as important to note – especially when he says “Oh, you’re on a business trip”. It’s the purest portrait of alienation cinema has to offer, and it is all the more surprising given that it comes immediately after he has so happily celebrated Father’s Day with his homestay family. Yes, things are going fine for Ken (later we see that he’s coping wonderfully at school, too), but it doesn’t take a lot of reminding that the comforts of home are sorely missed.

Rose is next, and her story provides many of the film’s most delightful moments. At first the focus is narrow: we see her hanging out with a few other Chinese students, at home in her bedroom, and studying in class. She seems just as alienated as Ken did. However, Tao steadily reveals more details until we see just how remarkable this girl is – she’s pursuing academic opportunities she would have ignored back home, she speaks good English with a Kiwi accent, and most of all, she is popular and well-liked by many at school. This is illustrated best by a brief shot of the gifts she receives for her birthday just from other students – a desk drawer stuffed to overflowing with chocolates, flowers and toys. She hasn’t just come here to study; she’s really making the most of the experience.

Her to-camera musings on the differences between the Chinese and Kiwi cultures throw up many questions. She says that in China you are more driven, better focused, but less individual; in New Zealand, you are encouraged to be unique and pursue that which appeals to you. Which is better? Who is to say? Rose prefers the freedom afforded her in New Zealand, but her parents might feel it is impractical to be studying music and design. I believe that any individual of capable thought should be allowed to seek out whatever path in life they wish, as long as they are not doing harm to others; when I have kids, I will have similarly open expectations of them as my parents had of me. Being allowed to experience two cultures growing up, Rose has the ability to transcend them both and be truly international; she’s the most assimilated of the four, and to these Kiwi eyes, the smartest and most interesting. She is the most like a Kiwi, and I respond well to that; however, I think it’s just as much the case that she is a special, unusually socially capable person.

With Lin, Tao focuses completely on the trials and tribulations she experiences leading up to the school ball. It’s a snapshot of the challenges our wonderful country presents, as well as a sometimes painful reminder of how god-damned difficult high school could be sometimes. Lin struggles to reconcile the ball with Chinese values; back home, she would be studying for exams, not having a night of fun. Indeed, she swings back and forth between whether to go or stay in studying, as she has trouble finding a dress and a partner. We have all had these impending major engagements that we worry about a great deal, thinking of all the things that can and surely will go wrong, only to find that everything comes together on the day. Somehow. I imagine she would have had similar problems with coming to New Zealand, but it looks like that worked out okay, too.

If Lin had difficulty getting her head around how things go in New Zealand, Jane flat out rejects them. She has no desire to enjoy this country the same way she enjoys her homeland. It’s just a step along the way, a period of her life best lived as alone as possible for fear of becoming attached to something she is sure she will soon leave behind. As Tao narrates, she is part of the group at school that remains quiet in the background – she is what most Kiwis would say is a ‘typical’ Asian student. She so misses home that she keeps her watch set to Beijing time. To me, this is a little bit sad, like she’s missing out on something that could be wonderful. That’s just my point of view, though. To her, the maximum amount of isolation is necessary to survive as the person she is. Where I would want to get to know as many different people as possible, she wants only to complete the qualifications and go back to where she is happy and feels comfortable. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

All this is particularly interesting to me, because I will soon become an outsider in a foreign country. I’m going to Japan next year, and I wonder, what will be the same? Will it be me switching off the lights and sobbing as I look at pictures of me with my family? Granted, I am older than these four were coming here, but I am sure some of my experiences won’t be too far removed from theirs. That’s the great beauty of this film: it gives you brief portraits of four very unique individuals, but contributes so much to our universal understanding of each other as a species. Equally as impressive, it does it without once hitting us over the head with an idea.

In the post-screening Q & A (or what I caught of it before running off to work), Tao stated that she ostensibly made the film for the parents of these international students, so that they could see what life was like for their children; however, upon completing it and showing it to others, she saw that it could have an impact on many Kiwi viewers. I would go further than that. I would suggest that, in a Western society that is increasingly assimilating itself with previously ignored (and even feared) cultures such as China, almost anyone could be moved to think deeply by this film. Of course there were a select few walkouts – we obviously still have some way to go – but too bad for them. Waves is a more insightful and provocative film about New Zealand and the global society than any that has been made for a long time.

The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005) (H)

Original title: ‘De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté’
IMDb / Ebert
Based on ‘Fingers’ by James Toback
Written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista
Directed by Jacques Audiard

When James Toback wrote and directed Fingers in 1978 with Harvey Keitel in the lead role, he probably didn’t expect that two and a half decades on it would be reworked by a French writer/director named Jacques Audiard. Those of you who are familiar with his earlier Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) already know what a good director he is; with De battre… he has shown himself to be one of the most exciting and confident filmmakers working today.

This is subjective filmmaking of a very high order. Immediately we are thrust into the world of Tom (Romain Duris), a small-time real estate crook who used to be a decent pianist. Everything that happens in the film, we see from his point of view – he’s in virtually every scene – so the film achieves a real sense of getting inside someone’s head. The plot turns on Tom’s decision to try and get back into playing the piano, with a view to getting out of derelict buildings and onto the stage. Whether he gets there or not depends on how well he can rein in his nerves, his constantly racing brain, and finally find calmness at the piano.

However, just as in La pianiste, piano-playing is shown not to be a pleasant creative outlet but a source of disappointment and infuriation. The scenes of him evicting tenants with rats and baseball bats have a similar nervous energy to those of him practising with his Chinese mentor (who provides some of the film’s best moments). He is always moving – his fingers, his feet, his eyes – he never stops for a moment to just relax. Duris’ tension-filled performance is instantly intriguing, and despite maybe a couple of slightly forced moments, he’s bang-on perfect, a mixture of good Ewan McGregor and (dare I say it) the incomparable Vincent Cassel. As well as the Chinese girl, the supporting characters include his real estate associates, their spouses, his dad, and a shady Russian man. They’re all mixed up in each other’s business some way or another, and they collide in different – some very powerful – ways.

Audiard’s direction is characteristically excellent. While this is not quite as complete a film as Sur mes lèvres, it enveloped me immediately and keep me solidly transfixed for its duration. Like Pawlikowski and Herzog, he has an uncanny sense of timing each scene perfectly so that it isn’t too short or long – each time we cut to a new scene, it feels like a perfectly natural progression, even if there may still have been more to say. The camerawork, almost entirely hand-held, fits the story well; he shoots in a freeform style with useful shifts in focus that is almost invisible. That is, you are never distracted by the nature of the images, but enthralled by what is contained within them.

I’d also like to make a special mention for the music. The best soundtrack I’ve heard in ages, this film mixes classical with French pop and house to extremely good effect. Scenes of Tom listening on the car stereo and Tom listening through headphones are interspersed among the scenes of him slaving away at the piano seemed to fit so very well. I can’t say why, it’s a metaphor for something maybe, or maybe it’s just a great way of showing how he’s in touch with the past and the present but slightly unhinged at the same time.

De battre… ends with an epilogue set two years after the main action that is alarming and brutal. At first it felt a bit sudden, maybe even out of place, but on reflection I think it fits perfectly and even sums up the film. We change, but we stay the same. Things grow in us, and are replaced by new things, but they don’t die out; they lie dormant, waiting for an opportunity to be brought to the surface. This is laid out in explicit detail in the epilogue, and we are left shocked and, in the case of this viewer, completely satisfied. This is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) (H)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney

George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. is unusual among modern films in that it has a great deal of respect for its audience. It simply presents a series of events that occurred in the 1950s involving Sen. Joseph McCarthy and CBS News, particularly the host of ‘See It Now’, Edward Murrow; it doesn’t ever become preachy, or manipulative, or attempt to guide the viewer through what is going on. It’s like it’s been brought forward from that great decade in American film, the 70s – it can be compared to All the President’s Men, because it is very much in the same class.

To begin with, this is not only a very good film, but such a good rendering of its time period to be practically an archival document. Shot by Robert Elswit in glorious black and white, everything feels as though it has been lifted straight out of the 50s. The best way to illustrate this is by observing the seamless integration of McCarthy archive footage into the film – indeed, test audiences suggested to Clooney that he should have hired a different actor to play McCarthy because of his overacting, not realising it was the man himself. Everything feels just right: immediately we are immersed in immaculate period detail, and it is no struggle to remain immersed throughout the duration of the film.

That the film is biased towards Murrow and his colleagues makes no difference to me. In fact, I prefer it that way, and not just because I agree with their strong belief in free speech and their disagreement with scare tactics by extremely powerful people. I think it makes for a more effective film, because McCarthyism is not something one reacts to with ambivalence; you have to decide which side you stand on, and the fact that Clooney wastes no time with the opposing views makes the film a lot tighter and ultimately more effective. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is that while it is a film about that period of great nationwide fear, it also directly reflects parallel events in current times. Back then, a newsman and his team were willing to stand up to a fearmonger and say “this isn’t right”, but today lies and outright ineptitude in American politics go largely unchallenged by mainstream media. It is not surprising that in Murrow’s final speech, he mentions American foreign policy in the Middle East; it is the only time in the film where Clooney explicitly offers the audience a connection, and it works very well.

In the role of Ed Murrow, David Strathairn is magnificent. He carries the film with remarkable authority and integrity; as he looks directly into the camera and speaks those immortal words of the title, we trust him, because he means it. His serious, focused remarks are balanced with some wonderful lines of sardonic wit. Only once does he show vulnerability for a moment, but he immediately picks himself up and gets on with the job again – a true professional. Equally as good is Ray Wise as the doomed colleague Don Hollenbeck: the scene in which O’Brien’s piece is read out to him is phenomenal, as he tries – but fails – to maintain a cheery demeanour. It’s surprisingly affecting. Everyone else in the cast – Clooney, Langella, Downey Jr., Clarkson, Daniels – is functional, doing the job as well as they need to without distracting from Strathairn’s great performance. I would, however, single out one scene between Downey Jr. and Clarkson as being terrifically acted, and that is just after Daniels’ character has spoken to them. We expect to see disappointment, but their tenderness towards each other is just wonderful… a superbly well-written and well-acted moment.

If anything, Good Night, and Good Luck. finishes a little too quickly. We could probably have done with another twenty minutes to convey a bit more detail, because those unfamiliar with the events going in would perhaps struggle to keep up, and anyway, I would’ve been delighted to stay in that lush black and white world a bit longer. Still, this is an absurdly early contender for the best film to be released this year. The fine acting, the wonderful pans and re-focuses, the taut directing – it’s finely honed cinema, great to watch and it makes you think.

In My Father’s Den (2004) (H)

Based on ‘In My Father’s Den’ by Maurice Gee
Written and Directed by Brad McGann

It was Ma who first personally encouraged me to go and see In My Father’s Den. I remember her saying that she thought it was as close to a perfect film as she had seen – in strength of narrative, structure, acting, and directing skill. After several further positive testimonies, I did go and see it, and was still surprised by how good it was. Not perfect, because I found a few things to be distractingly out of place (which I’ll talk about later), but up there with the top few films made in this country.

It’s the story of a war photographer, Paul Prior, who returns home to a small town in central Otago for his father’s funeral. He intends to leave immediately, but is persuaded to stay and teach teenagers English – or, rather, educate them of a world that exists beyond the nearby hills. He strikes up a friendship with a girl in the class, Celia, with whom he has a connection that is gradually revealed. Then Celia goes missing, and the story takes a dark turn – you’ll have to see it to find out the rest.

Sounds somewhat formulaic, but upon this surprisingly complex plot is strung a highly effective film that expertly creates its own world, a time and place we can believe in without having to suspend disbelief. It’s not set in some obviously fake place where teenagers talk like 35 year-olds; among many nice writing touches, people use ‘fuck’ like people in real life (a lot, but not to sound bad-ass), and teenagers are narrow-minded and clear-thinking (if not always smart). The structure of the film is important too. Until the 50-minute mark, it is straightforward and mostly linear, but after that it regularly mixes in flashbacks, which are so often poorly used but are utilised to great effect here. It is a much better film from then on, more engaging, more complex. All of this is down to McGann’s abilities as a writer: in updating Gee’s novel, he has made additions and improvements to make it work better on film, rather than just trying to translate it.

Family and ‘the ties that bind’ play a big part in his screenplay. Paul’s relationship with his brother, both in the present and the past, is extremely well fleshed out: it steadily reveals itself without you having to think particularly hard, and is of course crucial to the film’s outcome. That is characteristic of the film, though, and I suppose is the point that I’ve been looking for – plot elements are slowly and carefully revealed at certain points, never heavy-handedly, and that is what makes it all work so well. You get totally involved in the story, then for days afterwards think about the themes raised – personal isolation, small town mentality, the hurt that can lie buried in families for years. Any screenplay that offers an engaging story and rewards thinking about it afterwards must be admired.

Thankfully, McGann isn’t just a talented writer; he shows some pretty well-honed directing chops as well. This is his first feature film after much work in TV and shorts, and this is clearly the work of someone who knows and understands film technique, not someone just finding their feet. Shots often show the moments before and after someone speaks, lingering on their face, suggesting much but revealing little – it’s fascinating stuff. There’s the odd unnecessary crane shot, or purely expository scene (particularly in the first third), but overall it’s a very assured debut. Particularly his use of contemporary music – the original score is plinky-plonky rubbish that derails a few moments, but whenever Patti Smith or Kiri te Kanawa take over, it adds so very much to the action. To all you young aspiring Tarantinos in America, this is how music should be used – not to compensate for the lack of quality of a scene, but to build upon it, emphasise it.

McGann is magnificently served by his actors. The supporting roles are filled by good NZ actors and reasonably well played, but In My Father’s Den relies on its two leads, and they are magnificent. Emily Barclay is remarkable as Celia, showing impressive range in a difficult role that could easily have become annoying; it’s the signal of a major new talent in NZ acting. As Paul, however, Matthew Macfadyen gets inside the character and gives one of the defining performances of the new millennium. He stutters, he blinks, all these things that are totally against acting tradition, and he uses them to hint at the hurt Paul feels inside. Never for a moment does it feel forced. If he can recover from the mis-step that was being cast as Mr. Darcy, he could go on to an illustrious career – but it’s hard to see him ever doing better work than what he does here.

I was moved to write this review, after weeks of umming and aahing, when I read the news that Brad McGann has been diagnosed with cancer. Read this at Lumière and go along to the screening if you have time and can afford it. It would be tremendously sad if we lost such a talented artist so young.