Kaguya-hime to sakura
(c) Hatake Jimusho – GNDHDDTK

Kaguya-hime no Monogatari
directed by Isao Takahata
Review: The Japan Times

A group of children, each aged somewhere between five and ten, call in unison to a toddler. They have just bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Takenoko’ (Li’l Bamboo) because of her freakishly rapid growth. “Takenoko! Takenoko!” they shout, and she starts wandering away from the front porch of the house where she lives and over to them, a grin on their face.

Her father notices her straying from home, so he calls after her with his own nickname: “Hime!” (Princess!)

She pauses halfway between the children and her father. The children shout louder. “Takenoko! Takenoko!”



It’s cute. There’s no danger; the kids, bred with the collectivist values of countryside life, pose no real threat to Kaguya. She is clearly not in any distress, just caught between two human forces eager for her attention.

The grin drops from her face as she looks from one group to the other in confusion. The calls grow and grow until they drown out the chatter of birds and rustle of nearby trees. The children point their heads to the sky and yell as loud as they can. Her father cranes his neck towards her and screams, his eyes closed and his cheeks red with effort. Finally, the smile returns and she starts toddling back to her father. The children give up and stop their bellowing.

You’d expect the father’s protective tension to dissipate, having won the vocal battle for his daughter’s affections. But it doesn’t. He yells even louder. He starts to cry. He can’t bear even to wait a few more seconds for his little princess to come to him, so he gets up from the porch and runs to her, taking her in his arms as tears stream down his face. It takes several seconds before the embrace starts to calm him down. His love consumes and overwhelms him to the point of delusion and toxicity, leading him — and her — into a mirage of happiness. It blinds him from the truth of his life.

This is just one scene from THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, which is sad, contemplative, surprising, and indescribably beautiful. It’s also a bit longer than its thin story deserves, but that feels unfair in the face of such visual brilliance, which was a joy to behold from first minute to last. The animation resembles watercolours and charcoal drawings, and if ever there was a film from which you could print any frame and stick it on your wall, this is it.

I expected all that — just watch the trailer, for goodness’ sake — but I didn’t expect the story, and scenes like the one described above, to stay with me for so long afterwards. It touches on ecology, family relationships, parenting, and the folly of blindly following tradition. It reminds you to be true to yourself. A simple message, but one worth repeating — especially with such inspiration and beauty.

UNDER THE SKIN: Sleep no more

Scarlett Johansson kaleidoscope Under the Skin
Film4 / BFI

directed by Jonathan Glazer
Metacritic: 78

I laid my head down on the pillow and heard Mica Levi’s discordant, grinding score. It whirled inside my head, intercut with the most striking images from UNDER THE SKIN — particularly the 2001-esque pre-credits creation sequence — just as it had for the previous five hours since the film ended. The following night it was the same. There was no escape. I didn’t particularly mind; I like a film that makes me feel something.

Two phrases rang in my head as I settled into my seat way down the front of the Embassy Theatre. One: “it’s pretty visually intense”, spoken in warning by an usher as I tramped down to the front rows so I would be closer to the screen. Two: “misogynist”, a word David Larsen used speculatively in his brief review for The Listener (scroll down to Day Six). On reflection, I think that neither phrase applies — although a subjective case could be made for both. There’s little objective truth in UNDER THE SKIN, except perhaps the strikingly unsettling nature of Levi’s score. Scotland is as beautiful or desolate as you prefer to see it; there is a total absence of humour, or several chuckles of the blackest kind; bodies of liquid can be either vitally restorative or a death sentence. My own opinion on each of these questions changes from moment to moment.

There’s one scene where a character is introduced with the obvious intention of drawing a laugh from the audience. Glazer then flips that around with later scenes involving this character, providing — for me at least — the film’s most unspeakable horror. Despite its Kubrickian artfulness, UNDER THE SKIN seems to have been made in a sort of ramshackle, cobbled-together fashion, so it’s difficult to say whether this bait-and-switch was intentional. It’s that kind of thing, though, that makes it such a remarkable and unnverving work of art. Just like Scarlett Johansson’s appropriately blank character, haltingly drawing men into her van of doom, it hooks you in one way then smacks you around the head in another.

I have a lot of other notes from the screening, scribbled anxiously but legibly as I tried to make sense of it all. Samples:

  • Jesus. The sea
  • Snuffing lives out as if they mean nothing
  • can’t understand what people are saying
  • breathing this lady’s perfume
  • how we augment ourselves
  • who’s the guy
  • reversing the gaze?
  • skin > river of blood > life
  • What’s under her own skin?
  • Liability? Vulnerable. Confused

LILTING: Walling us out

LILTING starring Pei-Pei Cheng and Ben Whishaw

directed by Hong Khaou
Review: The Lumiere Reader – ‘A remarkably delicate affair’

So delicate that under a light touch, it shrinks to nothing. I went to LILTING for two reasons:

  1. Ben Whishaw, the brilliant and honest young actor from CLOUD ATLAS and BRIGHT STAR, whose performance in this film was described in the NZIFF program as one of ‘exquisite sympathetic imagination’;
  2. The focus on cross-cultural communication, a particular interest of mine.

Whishaw is just fine, as always, as is the rest of the cast. And the cross-cultural communication is reasonably realistically portrayed, if rather stagy. But this turns out to be one of the film’s biggest flaws.

The vast majority of its runtime is taken up by scenes involving Whishaw’s character, the prickly mother of his deceased partner (Pei-Pei Cheng), and a Mandarin-English interpreter (Naomi Christie), meaning we get each line of dialogue twice: once in English, once in Mandarin. These conversations-by-proxy may be realistic, but they aren’t particularly thrilling or dramatic, nor do they illuminate much about the characters’ struggle to connect. The differences between Whishaw and Cheng are immediately apparent — progressive, young, gay British man, and traditional, old, straight Chinese-Cambodian woman — and the way those differences are overcome ultimately has little to do with spoken language. More than anything else, the three-way dialogue scenes make for a film that’s at least one-and-a-half times longer than it needed to be.

Apart from all that, I was left with way more questions than answers. Not questions of philosophical import about the nature of communucation, as I’d hoped for, but vexing questions about the plot: what does Whishaw’s character do for a living, given that he’s able to live in that massive flat but we never see him work? Why does he want Cheng to stay romantically involved with a fellow retirement home resident? Suddenly, he and the interpreter — a woman — seem very close; how and when did that happen?

Khaou’s frustrating tendency in LILTING is to linger way too long on scenes of little consequence, then skim over the moments that actually catch the attention. He even turns up the score — the cloying, manipulative, ‘feel something you dicks’ score — to the point that it obscures what may have been some of the most tantalising pieces of dialogue, if we’d been able to hear them. It’s ironic that a film about overcoming the limits of our communicative abilities is itself spoiled by an over-reliance on withholding information from the audience.


Voices of the Land film

directed by Paul Wolffram
Review: Cinema Aotearoa

The quirks of’s online seat allocation mean that nerdy early bookers like me are almost always put in the middle of a full row, regardless of the overall house size. When I staggered into VOICES OF THE LAND, heaving after me a plastic bag filled with hardcover library books, I stared down that ancient social experiment: shuffle past two already-seated patrons and hope they don’t hate you forever. Fortunately for me, the two women — I’d guess they were in their seventies — stood with a smile. I still apologised for existing, as one must.

The plastic bag crashed into the second woman’s leg as I sat down next to her. “You’re quite the reader, aren’t you?” she said. I admitted the books had been borrowed by my girlfriend and that I hadn’t read a word of them. The woman segued seamlessly into a discussion of a book she recently read and was fascinated by. It went in one ear and out the other, but I nodded an acknowledgement and proceeded to tell her what I was reading: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which concerns a Dutch man living in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. His marriage steadily disintegrates thereafter, and the rest of his life devolves into meaninglessness. The man’s only solace is cricket, which he played often as a boy and is surprised to find in baseball-mad NYC.

The woman nodded back, then said her son was in New York on September 11 as well. She noted that his marriage had also fallen apart over the ensuing couple of years, and that he and his then-wife ultimately divorced. My brief description of Netherland must have sounded uneasily familiar, and I was struck by the reminder of how directly fiction can echo reality. But if the eerieness of the coincidence bothered her, she didn’t show it. In any case, it didn’t seem like the time or place to delve deeper, and I felt embarrassed at having unwittingly called to mind her son’s past trials, so I simply said “That’s no good” and asked what else she was seeing in the film festival. We went on to talk about our expectations of VOICES OF THE LAND and its subject, the brilliant Richard Nunns, a Pākehā who learned how to play Taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) in dreams. Then the film started.

Nunns has Parkinson’s disease, and as you watch him shuffle with a stooped gait along forest paths and stony beaches with protégé Horomona Horo, it’s as if the Earth is slowly pulling him back down to it. His connection with the land is greater than most, comparable to almost any Māori. Over his seven decades, he has accumulated an unequalled volume of experience and knowledge regarding Taonga pūoro, and that flows into a wealth of other insights: about divine inspiration, about why Pākehā often fail to connect with Māori, about the nature of sound and its value to us, and about his own influence. He shares these insights in his own inimitable, rhythmic language: “these are the ways in which our sonic environment is subsumed.” As much as the land may be calling him back, Richard Nunns’ abundance of knowledge — and his awareness that it is held by remarkably few — may be weighing him down.

So he’s passing it on to Horo, an affable and deferent man with a hulking figure and a long ponytail. Through this film collaboration with Paul Wolffram, he’s also passing some of it on to us. Ninety minutes in Nunns’ company could never compare to the lifetime of looking and listening it’s taken to get him to this level of understanding, and Horo is clearly the next master of Taonga pūoro, but there is so much for an audience — especially in New Zealand — to take away from VOICES OF THE LAND. Take the headphones out of your ears next time you go for a walk. Allow yourself to experience the sound waves moving through you. Pay attention to where those sounds are coming from. Respect their sources, and remember that the river or the forest have been around a lot longer than you have. A lot of Nunns’ work with Horo, and previously with the late, great Hirini Melbourne, involves playing to the land: taking their instruments out to some barely touched forest or foreshore scene, usually by request, and following their sonic inspiration. Their mastery is not so much of the instruments but of their connection with them, and by extension the land itself.

Throughout VOICES OF THE LAND, I couldn’t help being reminded of my dad, who I sometimes feel I am slowly becoming. Like Nunns, he has an array of artifacts displayed around his house, including several creaking bookshelves bearing cherished works; like Nunns, he has a story for each of them, and for pretty much everything else in his sphere of orbit. Among the artifacts are some instruments, some of which bear some resemblance to Taonga pūoro. My dad was once in the Scratch Orchestra, a collective led by Phil Dadson that performed a combination of music and sonic experimentation. The one I always remember is the repeated scrunching up of a page of newspaper into a ball then reopening it, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Try this, if you have a newspaper handy, and notice how the sound and feel of the newsprint changes. It’s this kind of mindfulness towards the objects and sounds in one’s environment that Nunns has spent his whole life promoting.

I was lucky enough to see Melbourne and Nunns perform once, at WOMAD in Auckland in 1999. They took over the Auckland Town Hall for an hour and held everyone in their thrall as they moved between various instruments that had been placed on the stage. This music was like nothing I’d heard before: sparse, not particularly tuneful, but possessed of a seemingly inherent gravity that captivated me. (By the way, you probably already know this sound if you’ve seen any New Zealand film since ONCE WERE WARRIORS, but if you’re drawing a blank, have a listen here.) My dad was sitting beside me that day; he’d bought my ticket. Later, I was too embarrassed — too fourteen and pimply — to dance to Pacific Island fusion group Te Vaka out in Aotea Square, but my dad was shuffling away with a smile on his face in his huge black-and-blue jandals. At one point he gently admonished me for folding my arms and refusing to give in. “Can’t you just let it take you over eventually, just let it move your feet for you?” I remained coiled, and he carried on dancing.

VOICES OF THE LAND closes with one of the best final shots I’ve seen: a moment of dazzling, patient, inevitable simplicity, a reminder of the wonder in something that happens perpetually. It left me feeling inspired and moved. The woman asked me what I thought as we stood up and left the cinema, and I told her that I loved the film but felt embarrassed that I’d seen (and heard) so little of New Zealand. “Oh, you must,” she said. “Why haven’t you seen much? Are you not from here?”

I replied that I grew up in the Waikato and have since lived in Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington; that I’d visited beautiful locations such as Cape Reinga, Mahia, the Tararuas, Abel Tasman National Park, and Castle Basin in the Southern Alps. And as I spoke, I realised that I have seen quite a lot of New Zealand. I’ve only seen the Tararuas and Abel Tasman thanks to my girlfriend, who is as filled with fascination in nature as anyone I’ve met. But I owe the rest — and many others — to my parents, especially my dad. We had so many week-long driving holidays when I was a kid, sleeping in tents and living on Rice Risotto as we took in the many sights of the North Island. My dad was obsessed with taking the back roads instead of the state highways, carsickness be damned, just to see something different. He lived for some years on the edge of bush in the Waitakere Range, west of Auckland, and he still feels its pull. Whatever connection I have to the land, I owe a huge part of it to him.

Read an interview with Richard Nunns here.
Read more about Taonga pūoro here.

HARD TO BE A GOD: The philosophy of shit

Hard to Be a God (film)HARD TO BE A GOD
directed by Aleksei German
Village Voice: ‘Brilliant Russian Film Imagines Humanity Without a Renaissance’

I spent three hours covered in black-and-white mud and shit at HARD TO BE A GOD. Should’ve walked out after one.

It’s based on a 1964 novel that sounds fascinating and philosophically rich. “The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.” (Wikipedia) Anton, known in the alien world as Don Rumata, comes to realise that although his advanced understanding of society accords him godlike qualities, he is hamstrung by the low beliefs of those around him. What a quandary: to know how to alleviate people’s suffering, to feel obliged to intervene, but to know any intervention can only at best offer temporary relief. The struggle for knowledge and improvement will rage on, punctuated by faeces and entrails, and you are powerless to do anything but watch.

If only the film had stuck more closely to these lines! Instead, the philosophy is virtually absent as German insists on keeping his camera at the level of the sodden, shit-stained dirt. Scenes unfold incoherently as Don Rumata staggers from one set of filthy, snot-ridden characters to another, none of whom is meaningfully distinct from the others — at least, as far as I could tell. German’s shooting style relies heavily on long, unchoreographed takes and features wavering focus, an insistence on close-up rather than wide angle cinematography, and regular, indistinct intrusions into the foreground of the frame by otherwise unseen characters and objects. At no point are any concessions made to an audience’s expectation for plot or character development; it is all base elements, mud and bodily functions and weapons. For three hours, and in black and white for good measure, lest anything capture our attention or imagination.

The point may be that we, the 21st Century audience, are equally powerless observers to the horrors of history. A good point, if so. And I’ll never feel more like I’ve spent three hours in the unenlightened Middle Ages, nor more appreciative of modern conveniences. But the point is laboured, and every element of the film remains out of most viewers’ grasp. The society Don Rumata inhabits is called Arkanar; fitting, as HARD TO BE A GOD is arcane in the extreme.


directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
The Guardian: 3/5

What an idea! Two groups of people, one with their gravity inverted so they walk on the ceiling and have to construct their lives around not falling into the sky. The two groups live in adjacent cities with little awareness of one another, primarily because their respective leaders do everything they can to keep them separate. PATEMA INVERTED brings them into contact through Patema, a teen girl heroine from the underground city with a penchant for unauthorised exploration, and Eiji, a fish-out-of-water in the 1984-esque Earthbound society.

So much potential. So many possible paths to tread, and so many facets of a compelling idea to explore. But while he sustained my interest through the premise, Yoshiura lost me with his characters. Often, just as the world began to draw me in and get my mind turning over, he’d hone back in on Eiji and Patema, stereotypical anime teenagers, alternately sullen and earnest. Their connection begins unconvincingly with youthful stargazing and, once cemented, blinds them to almost anything else. At one point, they reach an incomprehensibly vast city that appears to be deserted, but their focus remains squarely on each other. I wouldn’t mind, but if you’re going to make your film about the characters, then they need to be more captivating than this pair.

The ending is one of PATEMA INVERTED’s more satisfying elements, as it fits the scenario into a wider context and inverts our previous understanding of the characters. But I still left feeling cheated. Why couldn’t they have applied that level of inspiration to the rest of it?

The film I really wanted to see from this scenario would’ve had Eiji and Patema have sex as soon as possible, then focus on their offspring. Would they be able to fly? Would they use their understanding of both societies to bring about peace? Would they be unloved outcasts wherever they went? That would have been really interesting.

THE LUNCHBOX: Overlaps and folded chapatis

Irrfan Khan in THE LUNCHBOX
(c) Sony Pictures Classics

directed by Ritesh Batra
Metacritic: 76

After a note about the high volume of seat ushers and a small bitch about the seat allocation (I was stuck somewhere up the rear right of the Embassy Cinema despite booking my seats quite early), the first of my scribbles about THE LUNCHBOX was one word: ‘hungry’.

It’s not a film about food, exactly, although food is an important part of its subtly expressed message about the fundamental connections between people. But you see food early, and often, and you want to eat it, regardless of whether you’ve just eaten an enormous yum char lunch (as I had). With its combination of tastes and textures and unpretentious presentation, Is there any cuisine more visually appealing than home-cooked Indian?

Similarly appealing are Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan, the housewife (‘Ila’) and salaryman (‘Saajan’) at the centre of THE LUNCHBOX’s straightforward plot of a dabba that repeatedly gets sent to the wrong man. The mistake could be corrected easily, but both Ila and Saajan settle into a note-passing routine that seasons their unfulfilling lives: she with her distracted, near-absent husband, he with his widowed malaise involving little more than cigarettes and government files. Kaur is just fine, and Nawazudin Siddiqui is perfectly pitched between irritating and charming in a supporting role, but you must see this for Khan, one of the great actors of our time. He does so much with so little.

The teeming metropolis that surrounds these characters seems to function more as a delivery device for boosted GDP rather than as a social structure. The man alone in a Himalayan cave for years could never be as lonely as the man in the city who lives alone, works alone, and travels on the packed commuter trains alone. But connections are possible. One of the most striking ways Batra illustrates this is by regularly overlapping sound between scenes — as if the previous scene continues to echo in a character’s head, even if they weren’t in it. They’re all in it together, for better or worse.

By the way, THE LUNCHBOX is set in Mumbai, a city I have visited and loved twice. The opening shot was of a mass of drab suburban railway tracks and the plain apartment blocks that overlook them. It gave me the chills. My impression of the film might therefore have been coloured somewhat favourably, but it is really good.

Read an interview with director Ritesh Batra here.

#NZFF: Bleakfest

(‘Bleakfest’ is the name of a real thing that my friends Amy and James did last year — a night of the bleakest films, screened back to back in a dingy Hataitai flat — but I’m nicking it for this section of my NZ International Film Festival, during which I felt like the Earth was a crusted, burnt-out husk.)

A Touch of Sin | First story | Western-style

I did a strange thing. Instead of just rambling my thoughts about Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin here on Jdanspsa Wyksui, I compressed them into a hopefully coherent form and submitted them to Stuff Nation, the often questionable user-generated content arm of Fairfax’s news website. Here’s an excerpt:

In Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin – one of the more bitter and cynical films I’ve seen in a while – China’s power is concentrated in the hands of an elite few, while the majority of the population is left to pick over the dust in their masters’ wake. […] What happened to the glorious idea of China for these people? Far from being marginalised, they are in the thick of the mainstream. Their aspirations for more money, more power, and more freedom lead them to fight against the current with whatever tools they have available to them – but the flow is always stronger. 

You can read my full review here, which I end by saying that the film is worth seeing. My bitterness and cynicism straight after the screening overrode any attempt to judge the film’s quality, but the more time elapses since I saw it, the better I think it is.

On the other hand, Amat Escalante’s Heli is the absolute bleakest of the bleak, and impossible for me to recommend. Imagine a family of three generations that lives a purely functional life in a shack in Mexico, their lives as parched of emotion as the barren landscape that surrounds them. Then, imagine those lives being wrenched and battered by a mostly accidental run-in with a drug cartel. One reviewer walked out during the central sequence of chilling gang violence: “Life’s too short for that amount of bleak”.

Notes on Heli, Mexican film | Walkout
My notes for ‘Heli’

Heli is the name of the main character, a young man in his early 20s who appears to be the main breadwinner of the household. There’s also his dad, his teen sister, his wife, and his baby daughter. Before the gang comes knocking, he moves from the breakfast table > to his job at a car manufacturing plant > to the dinner table > to bed, without ever cracking a smile. After the shooting and torture, his face remains as flat and emotionless as ever; the only question is what rage he will find in himself, and at whom he will direct it.

The following things are also presented in Heli, with the same passion-free realism as everything else:

  • A teen romance
  • A gynaecological exam
  • Two dog killings
  • A boot standing on a human face
  • 2.5L Coke bottles
  • A sex scene

Heli teenage girl

I’m guessing Escalante’s point was to simply show the plain reality of gang infiltration into Mexican society, and its effects on regular lower-class families. Okay, great: I feel the hopelessness, the flatness, the limit on aspiration. And I don’t plan to see this film ever again.

#NZFF: “The coward is here”

In A Field in England, there are four archetypes: the educated coward, the driven leader, the bitter cynic, and the wise, plain-speaking simpleton. Their violent, black-and-white Civil War world — gunfire, bayonets, and explosions amid the long grass of the meadow — becomes pure chaos upon the insertion of O’Neil, a charismatic Irishman who might be the personification of Satan. “Open up, and let the devil in!”

A Field in England silhouettes

The field of the title buzzes with life. Regular inserts show tiny larvae creeping among the grasses, which wave in gorgeous slow motion. The humans cut a swathe through it, digging and bleeding into it, picking it up and eating it, but the field lives on despite their presence. It’s also my belief, though, that A Field in England is an applicable name for director Ben Wheatley’s cinematic sandbox: a space in film history that he is cultivating completely on his own. His earlier Kill List was the most surprising horror-drama I’ve seen in years, with possible influences as disparate as Clive Barker and Ken Loach, and his latest bears similarities with Eraserhead and Irréversible. I have joined Wheatley’s ever-growing fan following because rather than erecting untouchable monuments to his own genius, he draws us deep into his space and shows us these fresh horrors up close. Even at his most surreal, as he is in A Field in England, I don’t think he ever forgets his audience.

Not that this is an easy watch. Faces are blown off, visual non sequiturs abound, and stroboscopic effects feature prominently. Much of the first half hour or so is a search for detail: who are these people? Where did they come from? And where are they going? Rich and varied aural effects offer few clues. Occasionally, Wheatley breaks the loose narrative for what I would call a ‘live photograph’: the actors posing dramatically, with shivering hands and chests rising and falling, for no obvious reason. But slowly they reveal themselves through sparse dialogue, arguably the film’s strongest element. “Perhaps we should all go back and suffer,” says the simpleton looking back in the direction of the battlefield. “Knowledge is its own payment,” says the educated coward when asked how well his master keeps him. “Shit and thistles,” says the cynic as a description of the field (and possibly as a summation of his life).

A Field in England is bizarre and fragmented enough to be open to many interpretations. Mine is that it’s about power: who has it, why they have it, how it corrupts and evolves and dissolves. The educated coward has lived for a long time under one man’s power; how will he respond to sudden dominance by another master? Can a cynic ever be truly powerful? And in the absence of other personal qualities, how useful is a good leader? O’Neil is the controlling figure of doom that throws everything out of alignment, emitting his own fantastic, unexplained power and bringing everyone over to his side whether they like it or not, but he too is fallible. Absolute power, if it even exists outside of theory, cannot be wielded for long due to its shifting nature.

We sat way up the back of the Paramount for this one, and I joked at the start that it might be appropriate to look into the abyss from afar, rather than up close. We knew more or less what we were in for. It proved to be as nightmarish as expected, so perhaps we were saved from the savage head-trip we might have experienced up close. More pertinently, our distance from the screen meant that I took all my notes in the dark. They are a total mess, scrawled diagonally in fragments across lined pages:

A Field in England notes | NZFF

For a film as disorienting as A Field in England, that seems appropriate.

#nzff: Truth, Ruins, and Autonomy

In director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, Dwight lives an idyllic-sounding life: his home is in the sand dunes, he bathes in the sea, and he eats fresh fish for dinner. This isn’t how we meet him, though. The opening shots portray the plain interiors of a house with all the banal trappings of suburban life and eventually settle on bearded, bedraggled Dwight, soaking in the bathtub. A family arrives home and he leaps out the bathroom window in a towel, still dripping wet as he sprints awkwardly back into the margins of society. Not his banal life.

Dwight | Blue Ruin

Dwight, who lives in a rusty old car that he also drives, appears not to have been doing much with his life for some time. He has no friends, though he’s known to police; indeed, it’s the intervention of a sympathetic policewoman that gives Dwight his purpose and sets the plot in motion. Unfortunately, that purpose is bloody, clumsy revenge for an incident that happened long in the past. Whatever Dwight has been doing, he now has little on his mind except murder of the most functional and least glamorous kind.

There are a few laughs in Blue Ruin, and I was surprised at how much they made me laugh. Dwight’s general ineptitude is endearing in a sad kind of way, so when he hacksaws the end off an arrow embedded in his thigh before pouring alcohol all over the wound and ripping the head out, it’s as funny as it is cringeworthy. The film’s violent scenes also feel as banal as any of Dwight’s day-to-day life, illustrating how his world has been flattened out into a near-emotionless husk.

My problem was that once exposition took over about 40 minutes in, all the good work of the almost dialogue-free setup unravelled a little in the face of so much direct information. I would’ve been content not to know why any of this was happening if the rest of the film was as expertly crafted as that opening third, and there’s one character who has no real reason to trust Dwight but does so for the sake of the plot. As a result, the climax wasn’t the gut punch it maybe should’ve been, although there was some emotional resonance in the line, “Because my father loved your mother, we all die” — delivered as flatly and plainly as any other in the film.

Onto something completely different. I saw A Separation a few months ago and thought it was a total masterpiece, expertly crafted but with a very natural feel, believable and thought-provoking. My bar for The Past was therefore pretty high. Thankfully, it could be described in much the same way, and we can now declare that Asghar Farhadi is a cinematic master of truth and its consequences. Even the title card at the start is a perfect encapsulation of the film’s subject. He must put a lot of time into developing his films: they feel so natural and yet are so tightly crafted.

Berenice Bejo | The Past

Farhadi sets up the principal characters one by one — Marie-Anne, her ex-husband Ahmad, her new partner Samir, her children Lucie and Lea, and Samir’s son Fouad, who was born to his now-comatose wife. From there, the details of why Ahmad left and why Samir’s wife are in a coma are slowly revealed, and there’s so much going on with character that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Coming in from the outside, but with the understanding of someone who’s lived in this house for years, Ahmad is able to weigh up every situation and speak freely and honestly towards a positive resolution, free of the baggage that confines everyone else’s present. And he is very helpful, and clearly still loved by everyone (apart from Samir, who you’ve got to feel for), but even from his more straightforward perspective he cannot know everything; truth is not as simple as it seems, and in some cases, an assumption can stand in for the truth without anyone really noticing.

Much of the action takes place in a grand old French house that Marie-Anne and Samir are redecorating to within an inch of its life, perhaps in an effort to paint over Ahmad’s past presence. My expletive-laden notes taken during the film ask why they want to put so many chandeliers in, and why they left an open tin of paint sitting around when there are unhappy young children on the loose. If they have a plan for the redecoration, it’s either a half-page afterthought or a messy binder full of clashing ideas. I really wanted to tell everyone to just stop for a day to sit down and figure out what they’re doing with their lives, which is kind of what Ahmad tries to do, but an honest appraisal only gets you so far — and anyway, no time for that now, the doorway needs painting.

Lucie | The Past | Pauline Burlet

The people in this film have been through some shit. They’re not particularly responsible, although they do genuinely love one another and want everything to work out. You can see it in Ahmad’s eyes when he remembers the final months of the marriage, or in Marie-Anne’s rage when her daughter fails to return home one night. Fouad is a naughty child, rebellious and violent, but he’s dealing with the loss of his mother and her sudden replacement with a new one. You can choose not to look back, but the past still happened. The acting is uniformly exceptional, and The Past is another masterpiece; the future, for these characters at least, remains uncertain.

Farhadi is from Iran, where it’s hard for a director to get a film made without government intervention. Wadjda is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a woman in Saudi Arabia, where it the list of things a woman can do seems shorter than the list of all they are barred from. Her film, about a sassy teenage girl who really wants to buy a bike in a land where “women don’t ride bikes”, is therefore a remarkable achievement, but it is worth your time for many other reasons besides.

Wadjda | Sneakers

Wadjda is the name of the teenage girl, and we quickly learn about the male-dominated world she inhabits — one that we in New Zealand, for all our faults and occasionally overt sexism, cannot even imagine. Turns out there are lewd construction site workers everywhere, and they’re not above shouting inappropriate comments at a young girl; the difference is that in Saudi Arabia, it’s officially the girl’s fault for being female. I wonder how the Bechdel test would apply to this film when its female characters’ entire function in society, drummed into them since the cradle, is to bear male children. Naturally, a lot of their conversation revolves around the men in their lives, but it isn’t just idle chatter: men are almost all they’ve been taught to care about, with Allah and the Devil watching on closely.

She really wants that bike, though. She’s even willing to devote herself to the Quran studies she hates in the hope of winning enough cash to buy one herself after her initial attempts at entrepreneurship move more slowly than she would like. But how sweet and winning those attempts are! Wadjda’s enterprising spirit even extends to her moments of sadness, when she readily accepts five riyals from a neighbourhood boy if she’ll just stop crying. She listens to Grouplove on her tinny cassette player and wears Converse sneakers to school. All this warrants regular cries of “khalas!” (‘Enough!’ orStop it!’) from her mother and teachers, but a girl like Wadjda needs autonomy. Otherwise, she’ll be stifled into misery.

Wadjda | Helmet | Bike

Wadjda is clearly a film by autonomous woman. It’s well made and well acted, and there’s a charming looseness about the plot that’s similar to Wadjda’s most appealing qualities. It’s inevitable that Wadjda will eventually be proposed marriage, but when it comes in one of the film’s later scenes, it isn’t the heel stamp on her freedom one might have expected; instead, it’s secondary to pursuing her bike dream, and all the more sweet for that. I left the cinema with a big smile on my face. If a woman can direct a film in Saudi Arabia,  a film ostensibly about women supporting one another through their oppression, maybe a girl can ride a bike?