While the majority of the films I saw at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival – and isn’t that a lovely phrase to write, normally I’d only manage a couple of films at this festival in total – were firmly within the confines of two of the festival strands, I did see a small assortment of films that didn’t fit into either of those categories. Films that I didn’t pick for logical reasons but instead because something about them – the description, a post on the GFF twitter feed, the trailer, or even just that this might be my only chance to see them on a big screen.
I have a funny feeling that this wasn’t the film that I meant to see, that when I was flicking back and forth between the schedule and the film blurbs I mixed it up with another film, because this very much wasn’t the plot I was expecting. It’s a good movie and I’m glad I watched it, but I ended up watching a historical drama – does it count as a period piece when the era is the 1970s? – when I was expecting a crime thriller. As much as the film does feature an escaped prisoner, this being the Cultural Revolution, he’s quite clearly in prison for political reasons, rather than for the ‘fighting’ for which he’s supposedly doing time. Also, given that the film was apparently originally selected for the Berlinale and then withdrawn for ‘post-production problems’ that seem to have been code for censorship reasons, I’d be interested to know what subtler political statements the film is making about present day China that are not obvious to the less informed viewer. On the surface it’s as much about children paying for their parents mistakes as it is about anything else and no less moving if that’s all that really is going on.
It’s a film that really illuminates both just how vast China is as a country – the dessert between the two ‘work unit’ locations we move between in the film seems like it could go on forever – and how claustrophobic life in that time was – everyone in the film is trapped within their assigned role to a greater or lesser extent. After all who needs walls or guards or fences when you have gossipy neighbours and miles of dessert?
I had presumed early in the film that the circulating films were meant to sugar the pill of the propaganda newsreels, that they showed first so that people wouldn’t leave as soon as the film finished. But it turns out that the townspeople are so desperate for an escape from their lives that – regardless of their grumbling about having already seen the film many times – they will watch it over and again if given the chance. Just as our fugitive, Zhang Jiusheng, could happily watch the damaged fragment of newsreel featuring his daughter, over and over, in a loop all night, so the audience would watch anything the projectionist screens for them just as long as they can escape their day to day lives for little while longer. Finding a little freedom in the only place they can.
Love, Life and Goldfish
This film is a delight. Probably my favourite film of the festival, this is a film that commits utterly to it’s concept. I should make clear that the concept is completely ridiculous, being a musical comedy set in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere where the vast majority of the population are obsessed with goldfish. Specifically goldfish scooping – a part of Japanese culture that had totally passed me by but that much like the film both baffles and delights me.
The film is gorgeously shot, the colours are so vivid, the sets and locations are a visual treat – the contrast between the crushingly mundane and the vividly fantastical is perfectly handled. More generally, the film walks the perfect balance between playing it’s concept straight and not taking it too seriously. Both characters and cast seem to have the attitude of yes this is very odd, but this is our life deal with it. In fact of all the things that our ‘hero’ Makoto Kashiba does that his new colleagues find to be ‘odd’ the bursting into thematically appropriate song is the very least of it.
Fascinatingly to me, our hero, the character that we follow throughout is not the ‘romantic hero’ of the film. He absolutely thinks he is and resists that furiously – he is repressed to the point of comic disaster – but it turns out that he’s the catalyst for change both in himself and for the people he meets. His happy ending is absolutely what he was hoping for, but really not what I was expecting from the genre. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many old-fashioned Hollywood movie musicals, because I definitely had narrative expectations, some of which the film played with in a pleasingly meta fashion, but others it just totally ignored. It turned out to be something stranger and better than I was expecting.
Cleo from 5 to 7
Showing as part of the GFF’s Winds of Change Retrospective Season – where they’re screening great films from 1962 in the early morning slot, for free, you just turn up on the morning and if there’s space you get in! – this was the one film of the season that I was really excited to see. Like most film students, I got a little obsessed with the Nouvelle Vague films for a while though it was more through the medium of Cahiers Du Cinema than the films themselves as the films I could see were limited by the choices of the university library and what fellow film students had that they were willing to lend me. As a result I’ve always known Agnès Varda’s work more by reputation than in actuality.
When the Film Festival’s Co-Director Allan Hunter did the film’s introduction, he pointed out that Varda’s work has more in common with that of film makers Allan Resnais and Chris Marker than it does with the work of the more famous Nouvelle Vague directors like Truffaut and Goddard that she’s so closely associated with in most people’s minds and I have to agree, there’s an intimacy and a painterliness to this film that fits better with those films. More Left Bank than Right Bank if you like.
So when the opportunity to see probably her most famous film – on film even – I couldn’t resist, and it was well worth it. Apparently Varda herself called this film a portrait of a woman painted over a documentary about Paris, and I can see what she meant. It looks very much like an observational style documentary, just the protagonist we’re following as our guide through that world is an actress, interacting with other actors, saying scripted lines. You can really see Varda’s experience as a photographer and a documentarian here, her focus on faces and spaces, letting the story tell itself and giving things space to unfold ‘naturally’.
This is definitely one of those films where I felt that I’d seen a lot of the ideas and style choices before, but that also came with the knowledge that most of those films were in fact referencing – or at least influenced by – this one. The cliches aren’t cliches, this is where those cliches came from originally.