Genre: Psychological Thriller
Those of us left craving more after Mad Max: Fury Road may find some solace in Nimród Antal’s 2003 debut feature. Although it is darker and stranger and pre-apocalyptic, the same tension and energy remains.
Budapest subways run on an honours system, with random ticket inspections. In Control we meet an underdog group of ticket inspectors through the life-and-death world of ticket control. As the action begins, suicides have become rampant in the subway, and there seems to be more to them than first thought.
This is a frantically paced movie and liberties have been taken with the lives of transport inspectors. So much so that a mandated cold opening informs us this story of surreal mystery and danger is not representative of the real Budapest underground. This fictional version is the world for this movie, a constant electric buzzing and lack of natural light emphasise the oppressiveness and unnerving feel of this piece. This atmosphere works well with the literal and figurative underworld it plays host to. Gyula Pados’s cinematography deserves praise here for longer take and panning shots that help build the tension and tell a fast-paced story. The mood is slightly broken by certain songs on the soundtrack, but mostly holds up well. This dark, dank world has become home to Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi) after losing his job in the world above. This story evokes struggles with vicious cycles- literally a dead-end and dangerous job, figuratively a depressive mind or imprisonment in hell.
Genre: Psychological Drama
Directed by Oscar-winning Czechoslovak duo Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, this piece is mystical, beautiful and unnerving. Earlier work from the two had been banned under Soviet Realism due to its abstract style. Does this 1971 fever dream hold up today?
Through a nonlinear structure, we see the unravelling story of Yanos (Rade Markovic), a Czech fisherman who rescues the enigmatic young Anada (Paula Pritchett) from the river. As Yanos becomes tempted by the beautiful girl, his wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic) diminishes into illness. Yanos himself half-remembers the past events and is forced to re-live them as flashbacks. Between flashbacks, Yanos is questioned by a Greek-Chorus like group of men from a local bar in a feverish drunken dream.
This is not a film to take literally. It reads almost like a folk tale- a warning against unfaithfulness in thought and marriage, to appreciate that you have lest you lose it forever. Stylistically, it could be compared to a low-fi Inception. The visuals (Vladimmir Novotny) are well-framed and lighting is used to colourfully illustrate the changes in Yanos’ perceptions and mood as he falls deeper into his confusion. As a technical piece, this film is quite the catch; as a story, it asks much of an audience for what it is. Its complexity can sometimes wash away meaning. The piece flows like the river from one disconnected scene to the other and requires rapt attention to keep track of. It is shot in a very bold style, recreating half-remembered memory- there are bits that cannot be explained and ask the audience to construct their own meaning. Anada seems like a figment of Yanos’ imagination symbolising disloyal thought and desire. Pritchett is a pretty picture, but she fails to catch the eye with anything other than her figure- her performance comes off as bland. She is not the film’s only confounding character either- we see at times the couple’s young son and a rich-looking man from nearby. The boy leaves home, the man is blinded in a car accident, but they feel shallow due to a small amount of screen time and the choppy pace of this work. Despite all this, the style of the film makes the otherwise rather simple story compelling. The editing leads an audience to think of their own memories that have become blurred, become more of a feeling than a record of real events. Markovik’s performance and the surrealism offer us reasons to watch however- but this is no evening’s light entertainment. Watch this re-release, but have friends around to talk about it afterwards and confirm what you saw was real.
Genre: Political Drama
Richard Eyre’s film adaptation of David Hare’s The Absence of War (1995) presents an insightful exploration of what goes on behind the scenes of a British General election. Based on David Hare’s 1993 play of the same name, and adapted by the author, it is based on observations taken from Labour’s defeat in the 1992 election. It feels realistic, and tells a compelling story about politics.
George Jones (John Thaw) plays the leader of a hopeful Labour party in a fictionalised general election. We see him struggle with fellow party members, the media and the state of British politics in an effort to seize the day and win this election for his party.
The Absence of War feels like a hyper-real docu-drama. Using BBC broadcasts, it instantly evokes a very British feel. It retains its relevance- politics today are becoming increasingly reified. George is a front of a party leader- he has been weakened by years of spin, and laments being able to tell the truth. When he does try to be genuine again, and speak his mind, he falters. This much is clear- even in 1995, this movie shows harshly that there is no place for authenticity in British politics. This message seems to become more relevant every year.
Genre: Animal Drama
Stanislav Rostotsky’s 1977 hit film is sweet as cake. But eat cake for three hours and you’ll feel sick. It has received many awards in its time, but the pacing of the plot was already weighed down enough.
White Bim Black Ear follows the life of an oddly-coloured dog, Bim, who struggles when his owner is rushed to a Moscow hospital far away. In his searches, Bim is helped and hindered by all manner of humans, from friendly neighbours to evil collar-collectors.
Straight off the bat, this film features on-point performances. Ivan Ivanovich (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) is a thoughtfully presented and sympathetic older man who has known loss and loves his dog dearly- an unusual character archetype that is interesting to see. Bim (uncredited) utterly loveable at all times and trained as well as Toto. The film displays touching moments, and presents a clear moral- life is for loving- not to be wasted on conflict or misery. Yet however heart-warming it might be, vast gaps between worthwhile moments leave the viewer tepid. A three hour length, with multiple re-used plot points and contrived-feeling conflicts leave the mind to wonder. The villains are one-dimensional- a prissy neighbour never stops trying to get Bim taken away with the flimsy motivation of her being uptight. She only becoming more annoying with time. This length also dilutes meaning in the film. It brushes upon post-war trauma, corruption caused by money and other real issues, but quickly shies away, retreating to… more cute dog shots. Regular sections of Bim journeying through harsh countryside mirrors the audience’s experiences getting to the brilliant bits of this film. Ivan sums it up perfectly when told by the doctor:
”We’ll have to keep you here.”
“No, please professor!”
White Bim has beautiful moments, but they are drowned in cute, overwhelming fluff.
Genre: Visual Drama
Chen Kaige’s 1984 debut caused a stir in China at the time, toeing the line of criticism of the Chinese Communist party, making points still relevant today.
Set in the rural central China of 1939, Yellow Earth follows Gu Qing (Wang Xueqi), a travelling member of the Eighth Route Army. He stays with a poor family and forms a bond with a girl, Cuiqiao (Xue Bai). Cuiqiao is due to enter an arranged marriage, and is inspired by Qing’s stories about southern culture, and wishes to escape her rural life to become a soldier in the Red Army. Qing, representing the growing Maoist movement in China at the time connects with this traditional community like sandpaper. The distance between the family and Qing is beautifully shown in the awkward conversation and Zhang Yimou’s careful scene composition. Qing toes the line on becoming a criticism of the Communist Party in china at that time and their failure to help the peasants. He is either late to meet Cuiqiao so she can escape her marriage, or providing no help when he returns to find the village battling a drought. The simple, visual approach to storytelling is a refreshing aspect of this piece but the music is a close second. In these songs, the harsh realities of poor life are laid bare and character struggles that are never spoken of can be sung about. Cuiqiao sings of her fear of the marriage, and her father (Tan Tuo) rarely shows emotion, except for when he breaks into a heart-breaking song about his fears for his daughter and how she will be treated in this marriage.
Yellow Earth provides an evocative look at an old China, a place that we can still compare to inequalities in China today.