What I’ve Been Watching in January: Five Highlights

One of my goals at the start of 2021 was to continue my journey through the film canon that I had started last year when the first set of restrictions had been established in Ireland in light of the coronavirus pandemic. My focus was mainly on catching up with texts from outside the USA/UK, delving into esteemed works from directors in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. When I was in college, a few of the modules I did as part of my course referenced films from these regions, but the academic calendar only allowed so much time to explore them, coupled with the fact that I often had to approach these movies with a particular framework in mind. The current circumstances have made it possible for me to return to some of the features that were covered in certain college classes that I had missed, as well as becoming well-versed in the filmographies of a few highly-regarded directors whose significance I was aware of in the context of general film studies discourse, but had not been able to fully appreciate yet. Simultaneously, I kept up-to-date with a number of new releases, some of which had been on the festival circuit in 2020, while others were about to make their debuts on various streaming/on-demand platforms. Having seen a number of influential and extraordinary pieces of cinema throughout the month of January, I thought that I should dedicate my first blog entry of 2021 to highlighting five features which profoundly resonated with me and that I ought to draw readers’ attention towards. What will become apparent as you go through this post is that the majority of these movies are in a foreign language, and a couple of them are approximately 3-4 hours long. If there has been one major takeaway from binging so many beloved pictures this past month, it is that I am far less daunted by the prospect of sitting through a 180-minute film than I was at the start of 2021. Without further ado, here are the five highlights of what I have watched in January.

  1. A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang)

My acquisition of a PlayStation 5 was the catalyst for my renewed interest in physical media in the final few months of 2020. In my early teens I was obsessed with purchasing DVD’s/Blu-Rays, gradually building up a collection of revered classics and fresh releases which had captured my attention. However, the prominence of streaming services in the latter half of the 2010’s made the practice of buying physical copies of films pretty obsolete when so many of them were available across these platforms. With access to a PS5 and subsequently a Blu-Ray drive, I started to browse through the titles in the Criterion Collection which were available to customers in the UK and Ireland. Two films from Taiwanese director Edward Yang piqued my curiosity: A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi (2000). From reading glowing reviews of them on the social networking service Letterboxd, I realised that the pair of them were considered essential viewings for film fans like myself. I received copies of both over the Christmas period, and a few days into 2021 I sat down on a Sunday evening and absorbed all four hours of the former, an epic crime drama set in the late 1950s/early 1960s which also acts as a deeply moving coming-of-age tale.

A Brighter Summer Day is a mesmerising encapsulation of many individual and communal concerns which pervaded Taiwan, specifically the capital of Taipei, during this period. Over the course of 237 minutes, it tackles subjects such as identity, violence, fidelity, and alienation from a perspective marginalised from mainstream cinema. Yang’s work illuminates cultural development in mid-20th century Taiwanese society through its subjects, many of whom are teenagers caught up in a brewing conflict between two street gangs which escalates through misunderstandings and the re-emergence of key figures. Mainly revolved around an adolescent boy named Zhang Zhen a.k.a. S’ir, Yang draws viewers’ attention to the Taiwanese youth’s growing preoccupation with artefacts of Western culture, from baseball bats to the discography of Elvis Presley, while the city of Taipei itself is rich in Japanese-style architecture as its inhabitants, largely made up of immigrants from Mainland China following the events of the Chinese Civil War, struggle to adapt to their new home. The multitude of effects of the uncertainty which characterised the region during this period in its history are captured through the cast of characters. Many of its younger members resort to gang violence to find a sense of belonging, having been raised in a society in a state of flux and lacking concrete foundations, while the adults are forced to rue the eradication of communal values and absence of economic stability as they live under a military dictatorship.

The atmosphere of trepidation lingers throughout A Brighter Summer Day, but unless they have done any research prior to watching the film about the events which inspired it, it will not be entirely clear to viewers where the narrative is heading. A tragedy feels inevitable but not necessarily predictable. This unease is exacerbated by Yang’s tendency to let a few crucial plot developments occur either off-screen or framing events in a manner that obscures critical details. However, Yang’s masterful feature is not designed to build towards a hugely cathartic climatic moment. Ultimately, it serves as an earnest, enlightening and poignant depiction of a community’s inhabitants who attempt to navigate a period of turbulency, but whose fractured identity inhibits them from doing so successfully.

2. Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky)

The fact that it took me until just after I reached the age of 24 to watch a film by Andrei Tarkovsky is shameful on my part. However, I am oddly relieved that I waited this long, because I can imagine myself at 17 and 18 finding his work a little too ponderously paced and narratively opaque for my sensibilities. Over the past couple of months, I have slowly made my way through Tarkovsky’s filmography, with a few gaps still to plug, but the one that has transfixed me the most thus far is his 1966 biographical historical drama Andrei Rublev. Split into eight episodes, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the Russian director’s second feature uses the life of its titular subject – a lauded icon painter – to comment on a variety of issues which characterised his home nation in the 15th century, from political unrest to artistic freedom. While the other Tarkovsky works I have seen – Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Solaris (1973), and Mirror (1975) – are deeply emotionally layered, there is a fair amount to unpack until the weight of a particular image or line of dialogue hits you. In the case of Andrei Rublev, it is an impeccable portrait of artist that charts his life, one shrouded in ambiguity, in an ambitious, unconventional manner, but never loses sight of the complex relationship with his craft, rendering its poignancy far more immediate.

One of the most striking elements of Andrei Rublev is the emphasis on the role art plays in both an individual’s life and in the context of an entire nation. It explores the extent to which a piece of art is made for the creator itself, a community, or simply for the sake of appeasing the members of authoritarian institutions who seek to enhance a nation’s cultural output. A fascinating dynamic in the picture is that between Rublev himself and one of his fellow painters, Kirill. The latter is a far less gifted artist than the titular figure, and early in the film commits acts borne out of jealousy and a desire for recognition. Kirill is absent from the third to seventh episode, and when he re-emerges, his fractured relationship with Andrei evolves considerably, culminating in a powerful moment when he derides Rublev for not fulfilling his artistic potential. The turmoil that has been inflicted upon Russia through famine and war is undoubtedly a factor in Kirill’s change of heart, but he is fully aware of the ability of art to enrich people’s lives, therefore imploring Andrei not to waste his talents.

Intriguingly, Andrei Rublev never lets viewers witness its subject display his artistic prowess on screen. Only during the epilogue does Tarkovsky allow us to revel in Rublev’s genius as a change in colour scheme commences a divine sequence. As it transpires, the audience has been watching a genius in full flow throughout the film, the genius being Tarkovsky. The Russian’s 1966 epic is an immaculately crafted masterpiece, one that I shall revisit on numerous occasions.

3. Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020, Jasmila Žbanić)

In January, I was extremely fortunate to have been asked by members of the Cinemagic team to watch and record quick video reviews of a number of films that they would be covering across multiple editions of their ‘Preview Show’. One of them was the Bosnian submission for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, titled Quo Vadis Aida? Helmed by Jasmila Žbanić, this harrowing drama tackles a traumatic moment in her nation’s history: the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war, when more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were executed by members of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) on July 11th 1995. Taking place in the hours preceding the massacre, it specifically revolves around a UN translator named Aida, who is forced to occupy a difficult position whereby she relays information gleamed from discussions between UN officials and Bosnian leaders to Srebrenica’s inhabitants, all the while attempting to ensure her own’s family protection. 

By covering events from Aida’s perspective, Žbanić injects an additional layer of tension to an already disconcerting subject, as the film is able to oscillate between the civilians in Srebrenica attempting to seek refuge in the town’s UN encampment and the interactions between the main protagonist, the Dutch authorities controlling the base, and the Bosnian militants. The situation tests Aida’s roles as a professional and a mother, challenging her on the extent to which she is willing to push back against the inaction of the Dutch commanders and give her family and many other Bosniaks. This inner conflict is exhibited superbly by lead actress Jasna Đuričić, strikingly conveying the steeliness and fieriness of the character.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is all the more heartbreaking to watch due to how restrained Žbanić is in regards to her application of certain dramatic techniques. There is hardly any non-diegetic music throughout, flashbacks are used sparingly but in a manner that enhances the complex dynamics between various figures, and the dialogue never verges on reading as overly sentimental, complementing the disturbing sense of authenticity evoked by the feature. It also offers a stimulating commentary on bureaucracy within adversity. While viewers will channel Aida’s growing frustration with the Dutch commanders’ insistence that they should refrain from taking action against the VRS, their nuanced characterisation reflects the onerous nature of their job as they adhere to orders from higher-ups, sharply juxtaposing with the agency the protagonist eventually displays. Undoubtedly a gruelling experience, especially for those with knowledge of the massacre, Quo Vadis Aida? nevertheless serves as a vivid, gripping piece of cinema, one that hopefully introduces a wider audience to Žbanić’s work.

4. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)

In my final year of college, I decided to do an elective module titled Non-Western Cinema. A few months into this subject, my lecturer introduced the class to an Iranian director named Abbas Kiarostami, highly reputable in the film industry. I ended up doing an assignment on his 2002 effort Ten, an innovative work which follows a female driver over the course of ten vignettes, all taking place in her car, where she converses with her son, sister, and numerous strangers. Ten adheres to the genre of docufiction, a staple of Kiarostami’s work whereby he recreates real events using many of the figures directly involved in the original incidents. Arguably the most seminal piece of docufiction from Kiarostami is his 1990 feature Close-Up, a film I ought to have watched during my Non-Western Cinema module but finally caught up with over the past month.

Close-Up tackles the story of Hossain Sabzian, a man on trial for fraud having falsely claimed to be another Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami met Sabzian while he was in prison, and subsequently offered him, and other key individuals involved in the case, the opportunity to re-enact the events which led up to his arrest. The conceit of this film is pretty intriguing, but the execution is quite remarkable. Throughout Close-Up, viewers will be constantly evaluating their sense of what is real and what is fabricated. Even though we are not watching crucial moments play out as they actually occurred as we usually would with a typical documentary, the use of the real subjects of the case goes some way to legitimising the level of emotional investment viewers have in the narrative.

As we follow Sabzian throughout the picture, we are curious to understand what inspired him to impersonate Makhmalbaf, and it slowly becomes apparent that he feels more at ease interacting with Kiarostami. When he is under the spotlight, the central figure opens up about how excluded he feels from society, and how cinema, specifically the works of Makhmalbaf, offers him respite. Although there remain questions about the authenticity of proceedings, at the heart of Close-Up is an affecting character study, one which resonates strongly with film fans in particular. Through its non-linear storytelling, hybridity of genres, and lingering questions about its representation of critical moments, Kiarostami’s critically lauded feature is an astonishing manifestation of an artist pushing the boundaries of the medium, but simultaneously presents a solid case for the valuable role of art for the underprivileged in society.

5. Nomadland (2020, Chloe Zhao)

I try to avoid discussing recent films in the context of awards season, because I often find by labelling something as “The Best Picture Frontrunner” or a “lock” for a nomination/win, it raises casual viewers’ expectations to an extreme level, and I would rather evaluate the movie on its own merits rather than assessing the extent to which it matched the hype it had generated. Nonetheless, if there was one feature I would suggest keeping an eye on over the coming months as various award bodies hand out their annual accolades, it would be Chloe Zhao’s exquisite drama, led by the indomitable Frances McDormand.

Following up her widely praised 2019 flick The Rider, Zhao’s latest effort centres on Fern, a woman in her sixties dealing with the recent losses of her job, house, and husband, whose life consists of travelling through Western America in a dilapidated van, also serving as her new ‘home’, as she takes various menial, often short-term jobs. She eventually encounters a multitude of communities whose members adopt a similar lifestyle, known as ‘nomads’. Through her interactions with them, Fern ponders the direction she has taken following her husband’s passing as well as the 2008 economic crash which was the catalyst for the radical changes in her life.

Continuing the trend of her previous films, Zhao spotlights individuals on the margins of society, in this case a generation of older American workers who were victims of the turmoil caused by the Great Recession. One of Nomadland’s most striking elements is the casting of non-professional actors in notable supporting roles, many of whom are actual nomads. This forms an extra layer of earnestness to Zhao’s already startlingly candid depiction of communities who have been largely undervalued in American society. In collaboration with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao succeeds in vividly capturing the compressed, occasionally suffocating nature of the nomads’ lifestyle, with the scenes featuring Fern in her van reflecting this in an arresting fashion, along with the beauty of the landscapes of the American West they pass through frequently through gorgeous wide shots.

Frances McDormand continues to demonstrate why she is one of the most reliable performers working today. Her turn in Nomadland is just as captivating as her Academy-Award winning one in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but while the latter was unforgettable due to her forcefulness and relentless energy, McDormand’s portrayal of Fern is more subdued, with her facial expressions bearing the weight of a devastating few years, and small mannerisms conveying the solace she finds in her current existence. Zhao draws the lead character as a woman who is not incapable of opening up to others and gaining comfort through human contact, but one who, for multiple reasons (many beyond her control), cannot make long-term commitments. Overall, Nomadland is an absorbing depiction of an individual feeling estranged from wider society while embracing the values of a specific community, serving as a frank, profound piece from one of the most promising filmmakers working today.

Here are a handful of other films I thoroughly enjoyed watching during the past month that I strongly recommend:

  • Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, Leo McCarey)
  • Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)
  • Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa)
  • L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
  • Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda)
  • High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)
  • Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  • Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)
  • Vagabond (1985, Agnès Varda)
  • La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz)
  • Yi Yi (2000, Edward Yang)

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