- Christian Hain
Berlinale 2019 – Days 8 and 9: Chinese Families, an OST without a Film, and Brazil Beyond Football.
(Berlin.) Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a Chinese family drama of three hours, and the pace is slow. An intense film, and not easy to grasp in all details. Turns out, upon leaving the cinema, almost everybody I’ve been talking to, needed to rectify a different false assumption regarding a character’s identity before the film was over. This was not, I must insist, due to “they look all the same anyway!”, but the director’s convoluted storytelling, using a lot, no really: a l o t, of abrupt flashbacks, jumping back and forth in time. And at the same time, the story circles around the same motives over and over again. This is not meant to condemn the film, not at all – So Long, My Son (sounds almost like a Chinese name: "Solong My-Son", does it not?), seems not without chances in the race for the Golden Bear, far from it!
Perhaps take the time to watch it more than once.
During the thirty-six years of its implementation, from 1979-2015, the Chinese one-child-policy, albeit being exemplary from a certain point of view - a world population of 8 billion is simply too much – engendered numerous tragedies on the individual level. Today, Chinese filmmakers are allowed to talk of those events.
One family really gets it bad: Their son drowns when playing at a reservoir in the film’s opening scene, his younger brother having been killed years ago before being born even when the mother's sister - also the parents’ boss at the local factory - dutifully reported the hitherto secret pregnancy to authorities, resulting in a forced abortion; and finally the boy they’ve raised in stead of the dead ones runs away for troubles at school. It doesn’t rain man, it pours (in one scene as literally as symbolically).
Now this last boy is (apparently) just a random orphan, and it never gets quite clear where and how they’ve found him – that’s the confusion I’ve been talking about. He’s definitely not the boy the male protagonist earlier fathered with a family friend who the, after the political change, left for the US. That political change, by the way, only accelerates that sister’s, and her husband’s, ascent. They’ve made it big in the old times, and they'll make it even bigger in the new. This lucky half of the family also played a role in the boy's drowning, but life is a mere accident. And karma...
Sounds complicated? Rest assured, this is about the whole plot. And don’t be misled: it's not about revenge, rather the opposites: repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation. They were all doing their duty, playing the role that fate has assigned them.
Don’t pay too much attention to detail, try to enjoy the acting, the slow, non-linear, storytelling, as if it were a narrative in a language you don’t fully master. It's moving, still.
“There is no trace of our past”, a character states at some point, and although this is not even true in the film, it talks about modern, no longer yellow, nor red, China. Xiaoshuai tries to protect the past from obliteration, and the lives of the small people who suffered from a system that claimed to serve them above all.
Take note: Two Chinese films were scheduled to take part in Berlinale’s competition this year, but Yi Miao Zhong’s One Second has been pulled after the festival already started. The official version says “technical problems in post-production”, rumours say “political problems in storytelling”. Maybe there’s a one-film-policy.
WArts Verdict: One bear for each film, this would be somehow revolutionary in Berlinale culture. The dark horse (/Bear) in competition.
In 1971, at the height of her career, Aretha Franklin briefly returned to her roots when giving two gospel concerts at a Los Angeles church. The resulting live album would become her, and the gospel genre’s, most commercially successful ever. The gigs were filmed by Sidney Pollack, but due to technical problems (in postproduction? no, but that’s definitely a different story) the film was never completed. You probably expect to read at this point: “...until now”, but things may not be that simple. The film has remained untouched for almost fifty years, and Pollack died in 2008 – still, imdb lists him (posthumously) as the director. When Alan Elliott reanimated the project a couple of years ago, he was still alive though. Now, is this the originally intended film, or something new? It’s complicated.
Amazing Grace never aspires to be more than a supersized music video, a soundtrack without a film. Watching is it is like listening to that live album, but sitting in a cinema with a sound system better or worse than at home. Particularly in the beginning, it felt like Berlinale destroying our ears, but those first were also the most high key songs of all (full disclaimer: I never visit the opera because I cannot stand soprano voices). Rhythm’s great, though!
The hosting reverend, James Cleveland, himself a gospel legend, gives a little speak, reminding the live audience that a) “this is a religious service”, and b) there’s sound and film recording resulting in frequent re-takes. The latter we hardly see. There is one interruption when “a whole glass of water fell on a cable”, but we don’t see the cleaning works, and later, when some technicians apparently panic in the background, we won’t learn why. Aretha also changes her dress more than once, but the cameras record no break, songs just blend one into another.
That one little choir member (may I say “midget”?) seems an extraordinary personality; the conductor/head dancer, Alexander Hamilton, is awesome too - finally I’ve understood what any conductor is good for! Clara Ward, who her father in another speech briefly introduces as Aretha’s role model and a close family friend, appears a more complicated character... Only in the very end, she deems that little Franklin girl worthy of some recognition.
And is one of the few pale faces indeed Mick Jagger, or a double?
For a concert film at a film festival, you could ask for more background information, some sort of story even in a documentary (it doesn’t need to be Sister Act, but still).
Back in the days you would call this “negro culture” without discounting it in any way, but as differences, identities, are no longer deemed appropriate today, that culture will vanish like the words already did (remember: exclusion creates diversity, those two are inseparable - the definition of “I” and “we” is “not you”). Let’s enjoy it as long as it lasts.
WArts Verdict: “C’mon brothers and sister, c’mon now, ev’rybody clap your hands, yeah, c’mon, clap your hands, yeah, can I have an ‘Amen’? I don’t hear you, I said: ‘Can I have an Amen....’?!”
Vagner Moura, Marighella, that’s not Barça's or Real’s list of transfer targets for next summer, but a Brazilian director and the title role of his film.
Berlinale calls the historic Marighella – given name Carlos – a “writer and politician” which seems debatable. He's written exactly one book of essays, the Minimanual of Urban Guerilla, and while being a member of the Brazilian Communist Party, his only political “office” was leader of a guerrilla cell, the National Liberation Action (NLA), fighting a military regime that rose to power in 1964. Every Socialist group needs its charismatic leader, an individual endowed with a great will to power, thus in his very self refuting the ideology he promotes, and Marighella was one of them.
That regime was supported by the US (rather annoyingly for the people behind Vice which screened at Berlinale some days ago: the US in those years were led by JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson, two Democrats), and it certainly did not treat its opponents humanely. Yet, the film itself repeatedly states, that the majority of the Brazilian population was in favour of the putsch.
Marghella succeeds in exemplifying the spiral of violence, the group at first demanding “democracy” soon changes the vocabulary to “communism”, a train robbery for a waggon load of guns leads to bank robberies for money to fund the revolution, executions of CIA military advisors, the abduction of an ambassador, and throwing grenades at American institutions. The enemy is no less ruthless, torturing and killing with verve. The revolutionaries’ families will suffer, not least Marighella’s young son.
When Lucas Moura and actor Bruno Gagliasso (playing the main antagonist, a psychopathic police officer) are serious in claiming, they intended to tell a “balanced story”, even to show the bad guy in an ambivalent way, they’ve failed. He is pure evil. The sides are taken, light versus darkness. There is one double scene however, switching between that CIA man teaching how to “morally destroy the enemy” and Marighella being interviewed by a French journalist sympathetic to the cause, when you might think, how much better it would have been, had they replaced the journalist with an employee of the Russian embassy. As much suffering they caused, the US were not alone in seeking to expand their power sphere those days...
Moura further complains of a lack of history-awareness among his fellow Brazilians, caused by an education system that ignores the country’s more recent history. Yet, his film suffers from the same defaults as the Brazilian entry at another Berlinale, Marcelo Gomes’ Joaquim in 2017: It falls short of a true biopic, you only understand what is going on, if you know the facts already. Marighella is more action flic than history course, for most parts shooting and screaming (not "dawai, dawai", but "vai, vai" - "go, go", being the most repeated words) overweigh all care for details.
The lead actress should urgently get that mole checked, it's covering half of her face! To return to Vice once more: Here you have a case, where the US should have rather deposed of an evil dictator and his henchmen, whereas in Iraq, they are criticized for having done exactly that – for all the wrong reasons of course, but still it's funny to hear human rights activists demand Saddam should have kept on torturing and killing his people in impunity. Seems, the US can do nothing right - an interesting thought experiment: Had the CIA not supported but eliminated that brutal Brazilian regime, would the world have seen an Iraq like situation of countless splinter groups fighting each other, and the civil population? It doesn't seem impossible.
WArts Verdict: Ordem e Progresso. Lets stay orderly, and proceed to other films.