Sunday, 30 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Directed by Lynne Ramsay
UK/ US, 2011
Lynne Ramsay’s bold adaptation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 best-selling novel of the same name “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was just named best film at the BFI London Film Festival.
It is not an easy watch and perhaps not for someone approaching childbirth for the first time as “We Need To Talk About Kevin” might just be the scariest film about parenting ever made. It's probably more something to be endured rather than enjoyed and once the credits roll most audiences will be breathing a sigh of relief, happy that it's over. Yet, I think it is one of the best movies I saw this year. It dramatise the before-and-after life of a woman whose son has carried out a slaughter in an American high school. The film has been given a cruel added resonance by this summer's real-life massacre of innocent teenagers in Norway.
Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, once a hip, city-loving travel writer, a woman seemingly full of passion for life. Then frustrated mother living in a big house in the suburbs, with her naive husband, played by John C. Reilly and increasingly malign and manipulative first-born child Kevin. Eventually a lonely woman struck numb by the realisation that she has reared a mass murderer. With Kevin locked up in prison, she becomes the target of anger, hatred and incrimination.
Eva is essentially passive. She calmly receives a savage slap in the face from one of the massacre victim's mothers, feels like she has to hide out amongst soup cans when she spots another bereaved parent in the supermarket and unprotestingly accepts broken eggs, another petty act of revenge, at the checkout or buckets of red paint thrown on her home and car. She grapples with her feelings of grief and responsibility. Did she ever love her son? And how much of what Kevin did was her fault?
Eva was never a perfect mother. Motherhood haven't come easily to this adventurous, fiercely independent, some might say selfish woman, especially when faced with an angry, baby. One of Ramsay’s most memorable sequences shows Eva pushing Kevin's pram alongside a ear-battering construction site so that the rattle of the jackhammers drowns out his screams and gives her a few brief seconds of peace. On the other occasion she quite frankly admits she'd rather be in Paris than sitting with him at that moment. As she's reflecting on her son formative years, throughout which she was convinced that there was something seriously wrong with him, she wonders whether her ambivalence towards motherhood, the weird displacement of pregnancy, could have ultimately affected Kevin's life. Eva is trying to cope with the sins of her son and the guilt of whether she should, or could, have done anything differently.
It's not spoiling anything to mention the massacre at the school - the audience, just like Eva knows something bad is going to happen and spends the film anxiously waiting for it. Wisely, Ramsay avoids showing the event in detail, instead delving deeply into Kevin's complex psychology and his twisted relationship with the family. However, this is not a film about a sociopath, more a tale of how a mother copes with this terrible legacy. Swinton gives us a lot of insight into the character's mounting horror as she realizes exactly the kind of monster she's given birth to.
Lynne Ramsay' s particularly bold use of red and music makes this story even more disturbing. Extremely good movie. The award was fully deserved.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Twenty-Four Eyes

Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita

Japan, 1954

Keisuke Kinoshita was one of the most prolific Japanese postwar directors, producing 42 films in 23 years, and then going on to a career in television. He is noted for his films about the suffering of women, especially mothers, and the strong performances of female stars in them.

„Twenty-Four Eyes” is an adaptation of a novel by the female writer Sakae Tsuboi. Set in a picturesque island in the Inland Sea, and covering a 20-year time span embracing prewar, wartime and early postwar Japan, it centres on the relationship between a primary school teacher and the 12 island children in her first class. (The 12 children explain the 24 eyes of the title). In the course of the film, she faces problems of acceptance by the children and their parents, then ideological criticism from the educational authorities, then wartime privations and losses in her family and among her pupils. The hardships of the young girls in her class, forced by economic privation and/or death of their parents to leave school and support their families, are stressed; as is the destiny of the young boys to become cannon fodder. The film concludes with a tearful reunion between the bereaved teacher and her original pupils, whose ranks are sadly depleted by the suffering of the past decade.

The film evinces a characteristic attitude towards World War II among the Japanese – an attitude of sorrow rather than remorse. In the early years of the Occupation, the Japanese cinema briefly gave voice to anger and protest against the sins of prewar and wartime leaders, who had “misled” the nation, but by the 1950s this attitude had given way to a more amorphous wallowing in sorrow and a general feeling of victimhood. Made soon after the end of the Occupation, when memories of the war were still fresh, Twenty Four Eyes functioned both as a symptom of these prevalent attitudes and an aid to their consolidation; it was welcomed by domestic audiences, giving them the opportunity to indulge in mourning. The film was not only a popular one, it also garnered the award of Best Film of the year from the national film critics. When you consider that 1954 was a year of prodigious achievements in the Japanese cinema – the year of Kurosawa’s "Seven Samurai"– it was an astounding coup for Kinoshita. It appears the critics, as well as the public, responded to a certain Zeitgeist in which a soft and diffused backward look on their own recent past was highly valued.

"Twenty Four Eyes" remained a favorite with Japanese audiences for decades after its production. Its use of music and cinematography alone is conducive to an indulgence in nostalgia. The film is punctuated with choruses of well-known children’s songs, appealing to the Japanese audience’s sentimental memories of their own childhood; and, for modern urban Japanese, the picturesque island setting with its small old-fashioned village community arouses nostalgia for the furusato, the old home town, where life was simpler if more arduous, apparently timeless and changeless. Both triggers of nostalgia, childhood and furusato, are brought together in the children’s song “Furusato”, sung repeatedly during the film.

The heroine, Miss Oishi, played by Hideko Takamine, is a teacher who is modern in dress and educational practice but also very maternal towards her pupils as well as being a mother herself. She voices some critical opinions, but these had become commonplace in postwar Japan, given the benefit of hindsight. Even in the prewar setting, she is not threatening; on the contrary, she is supremely comforting, a loving and loyal friend to her past pupils, and fellow sufferer in the trials and tribulations of the times they live through. She may be more educated and middle class than they are but that does not make her exempt from suffering and loss. She, like the villagers, suffers wartime privation and loss of a child and a husband. They are all scarred and aged by the war. As in wartime ideology, the Japanese are represented as more united than divided. Differences of class, gender and even political opinion are finally rendered less important than a common experience of suffering. The audience is invited to empathise with Miss Oishi and her pupils, and to shed copious tears.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Autumn reading

Now that summer is definitely over I should turn towards the pile of books, I've collected over last few weeks.

The Story of Film by Mark Cousins

A gateway to hours of movie watching.

This edition of The Story of Film, published to coincide with the fascinating 15-hour film documentary that is now aired in UK TV. Apparently it's the most accessible and compelling history of the medium yet published. The book is divided into three main epochs: Silent (1885-1928), Sound (1928-1990) and Digital (1990-Present). Film critic, producer and presenter, Mark Cousins shows how film-makers are influenced both by the historical events of their times, and by each other. Film is an international medium, so as well as covering the great American films and film-makers, the book explores cinema in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America, and shows how cinematic ideas and techniques cross national boundaries.

Directory of World Cinema: Spain

Bought yesterday at the London Spanish Film Festival this latest volume of the renowned Intellect collection offers an insight into Spanish national cinema through a series of reviews, essays and interviews covering key players and genres in their sociopolitical context.

24 Frames: The Cinema of Latin America

Similar idea: through twenty-four essays, each considering one significant film or documentary, the editors of this volume have compiled a unique introduction to the cinematic output of countries as diverse as Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela.