Bright Lights Film Journal

Mapping the (Cinematic) Genome: <em>Hiroshima, Mon Amour</em> (1959); <em>Peppermint Candy</em> (1999); <em>Black Coal, Thin Ice</em> (2014)

Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, Hiroshima, Mon Amour

Our cinematic genome, meanwhile, is becoming – if not always more clearly defined – certainly more rich and diverse and, at the same time, more universal than ever.

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Tours of Ground Zero

There’s a scene in Hiroshima Mon Amour where a tour guide points out Ground Zero to a group of excited bus passengers. Director Alain Resnais makes no comment on the passing moment, which is what defines it as Nouvelle Vague. But what strikes me now, as a dazed “Remainer” in the midst of Brexit, is that there’s something in our makeup that not only adjusts with surprising speed to shocking events, but also comes to acquiesce in their entertainment value.

This was far from the only hint of perversity in an avant-garde classic. Though billed as a romance in the shadow of war – normally a “banker” for producers – the film proved a dour obstacle course for contemporary and later audiences: hard-to-read time disjunctions between WW II France and postwar Japan; precious, pseud’s corner play on memory and forgetting; bits of banal, mysteriously repeated dialogue.

The complete master of the latter dark art was, of course, Harold Pinter, whose own stage-writing career, by 1959, was already unstoppable. Now, with Sam Beckett as an established catalyst between British and French theatre, new ideas were soon feeding off a primordial screen-writing soup that would sustain not only Resnais but, in a very short while, Pinter himself.

As an art film, then, Hiroshima is one of the most famous ever made. But its own most lasting relationships would seem to be with art history, not social criticism. On the other hand, making a lot of bafflingly subversive gestures had long been recognised as potentially the most biting of commentaries, especially for those feeling trapped in a world gone mad.

Among artists who best exposed the ruptured Reason of their century, Luis Bunuel, not content with presenting the specific evils left in the wake of WW I, had, in Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or – and at the cost of anything resembling a smooth-running career – kicked out at all “normal” forms, including those of protest and satire.

This is not to sneer at artists like Otto Dix, the power of whose direct approach in the Kriegskruppel/War Cripples series hit me when, in a suitably darkened gallery, I recently encountered one of his charcoal drawings. Though so familiar in reproduction, the shock was as dreadful as first intended almost a century ago.

Marguerite Duras. Photo courtesy of the GNU Free Documentation License, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile a once “obscure” black-and-white French art movie has somehow developed its own stark protest: mercifully short on the curiously blunted sadomasochism that was to dominate 1970s cinema, this story of a crippled East-West love affair – “She” French; “He” Japanese – seems to possess more tortured immediacy than ever. But script-writer Marguerite Duras – on whose early life in Indo-China (Vietnam) the story is loosely based – doesn’t just whine on about insuperable racial or gender barriers. For her the trouble is that the lovers are too horribly glued together, too alike – both of them guilt-ridden traitors to some overwhelmingly conformist and ultimately abstract cause.

What strikes me today, then, is not just the film’s artistic daring but its focus on the problems of romance in any time or place – East or West, in war or peace. To help achieve this, Hiroshima Mon Amour contains one of the best-written female roles in postwar cinema: despite the cool surfaces, “Elle” is searingly played by Emmanuelle Riva, an actress who has quietly continued to provide European cinema with many of its greatest moments. As recently as 2012 in Haneke’s Amour she is “Anne,” who, as one half of an inseparable octogenarian couple, faces terminal illness in a world that doesn’t understand how any sane person could ever want to die.

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In the last century, international war as a kind of epidemic, an immediate stress on everyone’s lives, was experienced far more pervasively in mainland Europe and Japan than elsewhere. (I’m not forgetting Russia or China, whose film industries were, at this stage, more limited by political and economic strictures.) This is one reason why critics continue, for example, to venerate French and Italian Neo-Realism. Of course, that’s no reason to ignore the cinema of any other place or time that explores similar territory, often having to work around Orwellian claims about how happy everyone is with Big Brother in their midst.

On their smart phones, people driven out by “civil” war or less-than-civil starvation can now watch full-length features made in the very places they have fled. Apart from a hugely resourceful Iranian cinema, there’s an entirely new era of films coming from “poor” African states, like Eritrea and Somalia. And, though still few in number, these include “real” independent films, not government-produced propaganda.

Firee (2016), from Eritrea

To say that this complicates age-old problems of memory and forgetting, of idealising and understanding, of losing and finding hope, probably marks a new low in understatement. Our cinematic genome, meanwhile, is becoming – if not always more clearly defined – certainly more rich and diverse and, at the same time, more universal than ever.

Against this global background, however, it can often feel as though America and Europe are simply not coming up with enough “good” movies – that is, movies not crushed to death by crass commercialism. But Western blockbusters, for all their gleefully nasty wit, their connections with a tradition that takes in Dante and William Blake, and, not least, their breath-taking CGI, sometimes manifest only too super-heroically their weird indifference to life on earth.

Aferim! (2015),, from Romania

Luckily, if we grub around a bit, it’s clear the Indies (East or West) haven’t all bought tickets for Mars. (I actually liked The Martian, by the way – all that old-fashioned resourcefulness and commitment to one another.) And in amongst stack upon stack of undeservedly overlooked directors, modern Romania, already generous to a fault, has also given us Radu Jude. Probably the youngest of his colleagues to make an international mark, Jude’s holistic grasp of social reality is as firm as Shakespeare’s. And he’s funny, too. Try The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) and Aferim! (2015). But only if you want to be reminded that unfussily brilliant filmmaking is not a thing of the past.

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Life in Reverse

Still in search mode, I want to continue and conclude with two productions from the East: a well-received “horror,” Peppermint Candy (1999) from Korean director Chang-dong Lee; and a successful “crime thriller,” Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), from Chinese director Yi’nan Diao. And the first thing to note is that both films seem so wedded to Western genres we might wonder if we’ve strayed from home all. (As I write, the business headlines are busy highlighting the rise and rise of a “Chinese Hollywood,” spearheaded by billionaire film enthusiast Dalian Wanda.)

Meanwhile, the most striking thing about Peppermint Candy is that it tells its story of a young man’s suicide in strictly observed reverse order: no risk of confusingly ordered flashbacks; just a linear route back through time. Even so, we never quite know where the story will lead, except that it’s unlikely to become another Tale of Benjamin Button. This is a genuine solace for anyone allergic to pure whimsy; sadly, though, the long-term trend – judging from the novel in English, anyway – is not reassuring: witness Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (2016) which, like Time’s Arrow from Martin Amis in 1991, climbs every mountain to show that Anglo-Saxons can’t do magic realism.

Without whimsy, then, and with as little explanation as Resnais or Pinter, Chang-dong Lee confronts us with Yongho – a man in his mid-thirties already so sick he can’t share a riverside picnic with old friends without screwing up everybody’s fun, most nastily during the open-air karaoke session. Not that this puts his close friends off. And not that their concern prevents him from rushing to a nearby viaduct and standing in front of an oncoming train.

Beloved by world cinema – and before cinema the novel (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) and before that again, painting (Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed) – trains carry not just our physical carcasses but our souls – an endlessly interpretable mythological perspective, but endlessly modern too. (For the reminder of Turner’s role in myth-making in the visuaI arts, I thank Inigo Thomas and his recent piece in the London Review of Books on Room 34 of the National Gallery.)

Peppermint Candy

Chang-dong Lee continues to play with trains in later films, though none, I think, run eerily backwards as they do in Peppermint Candy – “eerily” not because we notice what’s happening but because we don’t, or only when passing walkers or cars start flowing, as it were, uphill.

As we relive his time in the police, the army, and, lastly/firstly, those idyllic college days, Yongho does become less violent. But this reverse moral transformation is extremely understated. So if we begin to suspect Chang-dong Lee is merely showing brutalisation as the key to Yongho’s brutality, an always-restrained narrative style nudges us away from simplistic tautologies of that kind.

Probably the story’s most effective check on dull conclusionism is a worried absence/presence of the love interests – Hongja the cheating wife and original true love Sunim. She is revealed in the last dialogue of the picture as a young girl who wraps peppermint candy in a factory, the candy so beloved of Yongho. This is the only stable character-locating device in the movie; but even at the last moment we don’t really know where this locates Sunim or Yongho, the boyfriend who can never – at any stage of his highly disturbed life – match her unwavering love.

Peppermint Candy

So, as far back as college days and before the main events of adulthood, a die of some sort has already been cast: togetherness, tenderness, a family life of his own are permanently out of reach. That doomed picnic by the river with which we began is prefigured in the first picnic as – through the eyes of Yongho – we “finally” look up at the sky and see a bright, iron-hard nothingness coming to slam us into a place of everlasting rest.

I think my Korean friends might agree if I say that – far from being sentimental – this ending portrays the acute sense of tragedy that can still hang over a divided culture trapped in the steel jaws of geopolitics.

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Strangely Beautiful Chaos

For me it was Shower (Zhang Yang) that first showed how truly independent films from and about mainland China were becoming aware of Yi’nan Diao, who co-wrote and starred in the film. Those who admire the cinema of postwar Japan, for example, are primed to like films that comment quietly but lucidly on social change as experienced by old and young. Stylistically, we might also recognise a tradition that allows for intimate human portraits contained, though, in structures so keen to avoid controversy as to threaten unintended blandness.

Happily, Yi’nan Diao turns out to be incapable of Bland. What’s more, he manages to deal with violent subjects without the obvious farce of Extreme Cinema. Just to be clear, when pushing at cinematic form, this is also my cup of meat. But also to clear the air, I suppose there’s always a Western apprehension that we’ll end up swapping the worst of “our” cinema for an equally disappointing oriental equivalent.

Raised on hardboiled epics such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, some of us might be torn between fearing and desiring a return to such standards, seldom trusting they can ever be emulated, much less bettered. Then comes Black Coal, Thin Ice, a film so satisfying I have to make a more than usual effort to leave the reader some imaginative space of his/her own in which to experience it for themselves.

I’ll single out two features only: first, the colour cinematography of Jingsong Dong, here so richly varied and sensitive in its shaping of moods and scenes I’m back in the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, making my enraptured way through the single best collection of paintings anywhere on the planet.

Colour noir: Black Coal, Thin Ice

Nuanced noir; nuanced colour: Yi’nan Diao, with a little help from his friends, blows away any remaining snobbish doubts on that score. Though perhaps the keenest appreciation here should be shown to Yong-gi Lee, the “colorist,” unsurprisingly among Yi’nan’s frequent collaborators and much sought after by fellow directors.

The second point concerns the policeman, Zhang Zili (brilliantly played by Liao Fan) through whose often drunken eyes we “follow” events. As a true descendant of Chandler’s Marlowe he is not hard to recognize. But even Chandler’s definitively tense prose-poetry has, I think, been outstripped by – again an unlooked-for nuance – Zhang’s less-than-lonely place in society. Zhang’s moral agency, like his work and his very life, is as threatened as Marlowe’s; but there’s another un-Marlowe-like connection between Zhang’s worldview and that of other “normal” workers – not just other policemen but, for example, firefighters.

Liao Fan

Called to an incident where a drunk (not Zhang) is letting off fireworks from a high-rise block of flats into the pale blue sky and into the streets below, the fire brigade struggles to see where the culprit is firing from. There’s something Chaplinesque but also eerily beautiful about the ongoing chaos: yes, the colour photography explains much of this effect; as does the contrast with far grimmer misdeeds that the film has been detailing and, very frequently, losing us in the detail.

In the end, though, I was left with that same sense of acquiescence in life’s apparently boundless miseries first brought home by that bus tour at Ground Zero. On reflection, this has less to do with a zest for the ghoulish and much more to do with moving forward with life as it is, no matter our immediate pains. It could be called “making the best of a bad job”; but in this case it can also be called “great art.”