On Oct 30, the day before the American Film Market opened in Santa Monica, the Asian Society of Southern California had organised the US-China Entertainment Summit at the Skirball Center, allowing the speakers to be present at both events, in “a year of US-China trade tensions and turbulence”. An enthusiastic presentation by Jack Gao (Founding Partner and CEO of Beijing TDFT Co) described how his “smart cinema” delivers films to the subscribers’ smart phones “in the viewing conditions of well-equipped theatre” – an untapped market, as 80% of Chinese have never been “to the movies”. On the other hand was the concern expressed by Carrie Wong (Managing Director of Golden Dragon Pictures Ltd in HK, and Head of Local Production Film & TV Greater China for Sony Pictures) about creating and identifying original products to seduce audiences back into the theatres. After the likes of Jiang Wei (CEO of Legendary East and General Manager of Wanda Media), Patrick Frater (Variety’s Asia Bureau Chief) or Chinese American uber-producer Janet Yang addressed issues of cooperation, co-production and cross-national talent representation – the summit honoured two actors involved with major Chinese or Chinese-themed hits: Michelle Yeoh, the goddess of Crazy Rich Asians; and Xu Zheng, who stars in Wo Bu Shi Yao Shen (Dying to Survive).
Asians on the Move
Co-produced by Xu Zheng and Ning Hao, and helmed by first-time director Wen Muye, Dying to Survive opened to rave reviews last July in China and became an instant, huge box-office success. At the time of this writing, it is still without US distributor, in spite of earlier rumours of a possible acquisition by Netflix, so the US-China Institute of the University of Southern California1 organised a screening in the headquarters of the American Film Institute. Dying to Survive is a “small film”, comparable with what is understood as “independent cinema” at Sundance: a combination of commercial leaning (a bankable star, a flawed but easily likeable anti-hero) and crisp authorship. Treading this boundary since his Beijing Film Academy graduation film, Xiang Huo (Incense, 2003), Ning Hao has directed, produced and championed dark, sarcastic pieces. After his first success, Lu cao di (Mongolian Ping Pong, 2005), he found his calling in two immensely popular comedies, the Chongiing-based thieves-crooks-and-politicians fable Fengkuang de shitou (Crazy Stone, 2006) and Fengkuang de saiche (Crazy Racer, 2009). Then, enthused by the Coen Brothers Westerns, he shot Wu Ren Qu (No Man’s Land) in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and ran into censorship issues due to the Uighur “unrest” in Xingjiang,2 as well as his robust and devil-may-care amorality. Finally, the film was released in 2013, recut and mangled – still enjoying box-office success in China. Afterwards, Ning confined himself to the safer ground of commercial genre films, Huang jin da jie an (Guns and Roses, 2012), Xin Hua Lu Fang (Breakup Buddies, 2014) and Feng kuang de wai xing ren (Crazy Alien, 2019). In 2016, he expanded his company, Dirty Monkey, into the “72 Transformation Film Project” to produce smaller or mid-size genre films by new directors. Ning and Xu are have known each other since the latter was cast in the role of a greedy developer in Crazy Stone.3 Flirting occasionally with auteur films on both sides of Shenzhen (from Pang Ho Cheung in Hong Kong to Jia Zhangke in the PRC), Xu leaped into (self)directing with a couple of mega-hits, Ren Zai Jiong Tu zhi Tai Jiong (Lost in Thailand, 2012) and Gang Jiong (Lost in Hong Kong, 2015).
In Dying to Survive, he gives what is arguably his best performance as Cheng Yong, a sloppy-looking loser who sells Indian aphrodisiacs in a dingy little store while fighting the custody of his young son with the ex who has left him for a richer man – until he is unexpectedly touched by the grace of grift. As Chinese drug companies artificially inflate the cost of an anti-cancer drug, a desperate patient, Lv Shouyi (Wang Chuanjun) convinces him to smuggle a generic brand made in India for a much cheaper price. Cheng finds he has the gift of the gab, the élan, the cunning of a perfect negotiator to deal with the Indian manufacturer, as well as the unassuming skills of an accomplished smuggler. Moreover, he is drafted inside the circle of patient activists who have organised themselves to survive – a vibrant cross-section of contemporary Chinese society: an office worker; a bleached-hair sullen teen (Zhang Yu); a priest (Yang Xinming); and no-nonsense organiser Liu Sihui, a single mother working a strip-joint pole to make end meets (Tan Zhuo). Cheng becomes not only a rich man who can keep his son, but a folk hero respected by the patient activists, (re)discovering himself in the process. The scenes of activism hit home, and the filmmakers avoid easy romantic clichés, crafting a nuanced relationship of mutual respect between Cheng and Liu.
Crazy Rich Asians (directed by Jon M. Chu for Warners Bros) generated a craze within the Chinese American community, where it was hailed as a “milestone” and the first feature with an all-Asian cast since Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (1993).4 What about… Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) – another US-sino co-production that also starred the incomparable Michelle Yeoh and received the greatest number of Oscar nominations for a foreign-language film (the same as Roma)? Yet, Crouching Tiger was entirely in Mandarin, while Crazy Rich is spoken primarily in English (with a bit of Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay on the side). So the emotional satisfaction was not to see a bevvy of Asian faces on the screen (any film made in Asia will do the same) but to see a Hollywood movie casting Asian actors in all the parts.
Soft power: even if you hate America, you still dream of Hollywood – still want to be loved by it as by an absent and callous Daddy. A not-particularly-original version of Prince Charmin’ masquerading as a commoner (Henry Golding) and wooing the shepherdess (Constance Wu, in academic’s clothing), Crazy Rich is a subliminally perverse Oedipal tale, aiming at the vanishing point of an invisible figure. Behind the seductive, saturated images of rows after rows of expensive couture, lovely women dressed to the hilt and going on the warpath to find and/or keep a man, careful and mouth-watering food preparations, and the gay cousin (Nico Santos) giving fashion advice while gossiping about tasteless décolletés, a figure is missing: all this time, Daddy is on a business trip. Yet everything points at him. The house, populated, decorated, managed by the women (and protected by a retinue of Sikh guards),5 belongs to him. The two matriarchs, his mother (a first-rate turn by veteran actress Lisa Lu)6 and his wife Eleanor (a splendid Michelle Yeoh), are dead-set against the shepherdess because they think (rightly so) she won’t be able to make the same sacrifices to patriarchy as they did.
Like an ornate wedding dress, the film carries a long train of unconscious longings, orientalist lures, stereotypes, regrets and hopes of fitting within the American/Hollywood dream: look at me, Daddy, I am beautiful, I am interesting, I can be rich even, I exist. In China the film tanked: “Mainland audiences prefer their ‘Chinese’ stories to come from China and their Hollywood stories to come from Hollywood.” 7
Women on the Move
Then the AFM opened (Oct 31-Nov 7) – at a slower pace this year, according to most exhibitors. There were also much less screenings in the surrounding theatres (too expensive; not enough buyers attending). However, Wanda Media still presented Guo Chun Tian (The Crossing), Bai Xue’s first feature; showcased in Toronto in September where it received a NETPAC honourable mention, the film resurfaced this February in the Generation 14+ section of the Berlinale. While many mainland directors love to copy Hong Kong action flicks, The Crossing plunges into the city’s kinetic energy by leaning more toward the social realism of the Hong Kong New Wave. We follow the protagonist, 16 year-old Peipei, in the huge, dismal projects once built to house Hong Kong’s surplus of immigrants; we explore the populous labyrinths of working class commercial spaces, the accumulation, side by side, of small stalls where everything can be sold or repaired, from fake designer’s handbags, to faux pashminas to a dazzling array of electronic goods. The film almost concludes on a series of remarkable images, moving from the cops bursting into the smugglers’ den to a series of aerial shots of the facade of the huge apartment building, with its hundreds of small lit windows, each hinting at some hidden narrative. A 2007 graduate from the Beijing Film Academy where she studied under Fifth Generation legend Tian Zhuangzhuang – who later stepped into the role of executive producer – Bai attracted the attention of Wanda Media executives. This support allowed her to enlist prestigious technical credits, such as Matthieu Laclau, who has edited the films produced and directed by Jia Zhangke since 2011.
A working-class girl with a bifurcated identity, speaking both Cantonese and Mandarin, Peipei is the daughter of the Chinese mistress of a Hong Kong man. The man is no Rockefeller, but a hard-working security guard with another family to support. In Shenzhen, Peipei’s mother still keeps her playgirl mentality, involving in long mah-jong games and gossiping with other mistresses. To the dismay of their undereducated moms, children of Hong Kong fathers have to get an education in English. So Peipei goes back and forth from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. At school, her best friend, Jo, is a rich girl who, for reasons of her own, is also interested in crossing boundaries. Her father had promised to let her study abroad; she dates a young noodle vendor, Hao, outside of her social class. The two girls dream of earning enough money to go together to a hot springs spa in Japan. Eventually, Peipei joins the smuggling ring in which Hao is involved, taking cells from Hong Kong to Shenzhen.
Bai’s assured mise en scène sets The Crossing apart from other delinquent-female-coming-of-age stories by masterfully anchoring her fiction in the body of the actress. Huang Yao obviously got the job because she could run, playing a character whose work capital is her youthful physical energy; this is what she sells, this is why they hire her; except for rare moments of stasis, she is in motion, she keeps running from one side to the other of the frontier – to avoid being searched, to escape the police, to be on time either in school or to download her cargo to her appointed contact. This homage to female physical resilience echoes other female Stakhanovites of the small profit, the stubbornness of the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta (1999), or the ceaseless runs of Qin Hailu through the mean streets of Mongkok, in the first part of Fruit Chan’s Lauh Lin Piu Piu (Durian Durian, 2000), that other film about a crossing.
Now, most exhibitors show films via links, which allows for smaller outfits to have a presence at the Market as well. Mongolian cinema is still relatively unknown – suffering from the proximity with Inner Mongolia (an Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China); the propensity of Han filmmakers – Xie Fei with Hei jun ma (A Mongolian Tale, 1995), Ning Hao with Mongolian Ping Pong, Wang Quan’an with Tuya de hunshi (Tuya’s Wedding, 2006) and Ondog (2019) – to make beautiful, exotic films, inspired Mongolian culture; and the presence of an accomplished Mongolian filmmaker, Wu Ershan (born in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia) in the Chinese film industry. Founded in 1958, the Inner Mongolia Film Studio was once headed by Sai Fu – the half of the husband-and-wife filmmaker team Sai Fu and Mai Lisi – but it suffered from the reorganisation of state studios in the late 1990s.8 To Tsogtbayar Namsrai, “the films made in Inner Mongolian are more Chinese than Mongolian… only in Mongolia do you make real Mongolian films.” A regular attendee of the AFM, Namsrai founded the San Francisco-based Mongol Film Distribution in 2010, with thirty-odd films in his catalogue and co-production services.
Having been unified as the largest contiguous empire in history by Genghis Khan (1162-1227), Mongolia was conquered by the Chinese Qing Dynasty in the 17th century. It acquired autonomy through the 1921 Mongolian Revolution led by the Mongolian People Party, helped by the Soviet Red Army. However, the country became a bargaining chip between The Soviet Union and China. In the 1930s, Outer Mongolia was subjected to an extremely rigorous Stalinist repression that almost entirely wiped out the Buddhist clergy. It only obtained independence in 1945 as the Mongolian People’s Republic – while in 1947 China integrated Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region. During the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, Mongolia was aligned with the Soviet Union, becoming a satellite state as steps were taken to increase the collectivisation and socialisation of the economy.
The national film studio, Mongol Kino, founded with Soviet technical assistance in 1935, focused on documentaries and propaganda movies. The new Mongolian Revolution, leading to democratic elections in July 1990, triggered a cinematic renaissance as well. In 2009, the Arts Council of Mongolia founded the Ulaanbaatar International Film Festival (UBIFF) in the country’s capital. Several similar events followed suit, expanding the local film culture.
At the AFM, Namsrai was presenting Amidral (Life) that had just won Best Film Award at the recent UFIFF at the end of October. The eighth film by Sengedorj Janchivdorj – who had received a NETPAC award for his first feature, Adam (Oxygen, 2010) – Life is the second screenplay penned for him by a female writer, Nomuunzul Turmunkh, and it is produced by the two main actresses, the dramatically beautiful Purevsuren Dorj (who plays the spoiled heiress Khulan in different stages of her life, from unruly teenager to party girl to married woman to repentant pilgrim) and Navchaa Bazarjav (inhabiting, with palpable and confident emotion, the role of Baigalmaa, Khulan’s servant and confident). While it veers once too often toward the melodramatic, Life is a film about women striving to address issues pertaining to gender, class and modernity in a society experiencing major changes. No nostalgic vista of the grasslands, no heroic young men galloping horses… Even though the protagonist walks and prostrates herself throughout the countryside, Life remains focused on its subject: the new urban middle and upper-middle class.
The opening sequence is the film’s strongest moment – and I wish it had kept this tone throughout. Dressed only in his underwear and socks, showing his skinny body and ageing flesh, an old man stands up, uncomfortably, in front of a perfectly made-up, couture-clad Khulan, who tells her young son, Sonor, “Look closely. You see what happens if you don’t eat your meal?” under Baigalmaa’s critical gaze. Then, telling the man to get dressed, Khulan gives him a hundred (US) dollars bill. “You are way out of line,” scolds Baigalmaa. This is a human being.”
Like The Birds’ Melanie Daniels, Khulan is a poor little rich girl without a mother, who thinks that it gives her the right to do exactly as she pleases. In 21st century Mongolia this means taking drugs, riding motorcycles, having passionate affairs, and, once pregnant, accepting a marriage of convenience with Daddy’s assistant/driver. Yet, a flawed character herself, Baigalmaa is there for her – an older, working class woman. Between these two poles the texture of the film is woven, a thread sometimes over-embroidered, sometimes desperately thin, that runs all the way to the resurgence of religion. It also leads to the hope that Mongolian cinema is about to surprise us.
Your History is Coming Back to You
No overlap this year between the dates of the AFM and the AFI FEST Presented by Audi (November 8-15), which offered a most exciting Cinema Legacy section, devoted to the restored versions of six film directed by women – from Chantal Akerman to Kathleen Collins – from an ineludible icon of auteur cinema to an African American director taken away from us too soon (Collins was 46 when she died of cancer in 1988). A few African American women had worked in silent cinema (Madame E. Touissant Welcome, sister of photographer James Van Der Zee) and in ethnographic films (Zora Neale Hurston) but Collins’s Losing Ground (1982) is credited as the first feature directed by a black woman to be released theatrically (though not widely) after being awarded First Prize at the Figueroa International Film Festival in Portugal. The story of a troubled marriage between a philosophy professor and a successful painter (filmmaker Bill Gunn) with Duane Jones (of Night of the Living Dead fame) sarcastically playing “the other man”, Losing Ground is a finely tuned, complex portrayal of the sexual impasse in a black middle-class setting.
No more than James Baldwin, was Collins (who studied a year in France, was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and was a playwright and an academic as well) interested in representing only black characters, as evidenced by her first film, The Brother Cruz and Miss Malloy (1980). A swift 50 minutes, it was shown on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), then disappeared before being restored in 2013 by Collins’s daughter, Nina, and Milestone Films, these heroes of our cinephilia.9 Shockingly, we had to wait five years for a first public screening at AFI FEST…
The film narrates the serendipitous encounter between three Puerto Rican teenagers (Randy Ruiz, Lionel Pina and Jose Machado) and a gently Irish, ageing stage actress (screen and stage legend, Sylvia Field, then 79) in New York State’s rural Rockland County.
Orphaned at a young age after their father was shot during a botched bank robbery, the brothers live in a ramshackle house under the paternal ghost’s watchful eyes – although only the elder, Victor, can hear his voice. Collins articulates another POV: an invisible party follows the brothers. A vintage car materialises from off-screen, and, seen from the back, Miss Malloy, a flowery hat on her head, gets out and walks away. When she eventually contacts the brothers she tells them – echoing Murnau’s famous line in Nosferatu – that every day they “tempt fate” by crossing a trestle bridge. Miss Malloy hires the brothers to clean and re-decorate the fascinating yet decrepit labyrinth of her mansion and garden, as she wants to give one last party before she dies. The party will never happen, and racial prejudices die hard: after sharing precious time with Miss Malloy, the brothers are humiliated by her lawyer at the moment of receiving the vintage roadster she bequeathed to them… With a sure hand, Collins explores a light, free form of magic realism – looking with affection and melancholy at what could never be.
Another opus – and another filmmaker – that tragically disappeared, was Nietzchka Keene’s The Juniper Tree (Einitréð, 1990), whose haunting gamut of black white and grey (shot in the stark, spectacular Icelandic landscapes) shone in the world premiere of a brand new DCP.10 A UCLA graduate (like Nina Menkes and Cauleen Smith), Keene (who taught filmmaking at the University of University of Wisconsin–Madison until her death) shot Juniper on a tiny budget after spending a year in Iceland on a Fulbright grant, and then, due to the difficulty of raising additional funds, spent another two years editing it. After its completion, it was shown in 23 film festivals, art centres and cinematheques around the world – it was briefly distributed by Comstock but never enjoyed a general release. A feminist revisitation of a Grimm Fairy Tale 11, Juniper is now praised as having offered her first acting part to a young Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who, at 22, is an understated, yet generous and powerful presence, both the centre of gravity of the mise en scène, and an observer at the margin of the fiction. After their mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir) is burned for witchcraft,12 Margit and her older sister sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) seek refuge in a place where nobody knows them, and, for Katia, the solution lies in marrying the widower Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring). Keene hints at what really binds the couple – the carnal pleasure they experience from each other. Left out of the equation, Margit and Johann’s son Jonas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) react one with silent suspicion, the other with violent anger against his new stepmother. Subverting the accusation of witchcraft, Keene stages it instead as an escalation of resentment and misunderstanding that ultimately leads to tragedy – as, however, the little dead boy survives as a bird…13
The Road Not Taken
The Cinema Legacy section was both an uplifting and a bittersweet experience. These films could have been crossover – except that their authors were not offered meaningful production deals. Nina Menkes still has to fight to raise money for her films – that are too few and far between. Having completed her first feature Magdalena Viraga, in 1986, she switched to 35mm for Queen of Diamonds (1990), a masterpiece of visual composition, unexpected images and compelling editing for which she was still her own DP.14 In its central 16-minute sequence, an unflappable young woman, Firdaus (Tinka Menkes, the director’s sister, main actor and close collaborator from 1981 to 1996)15 deals cards in the closed, obsessive confines of a Las Vegas casino: a deluge of artificial lights, the permanent clatter of slot machines, the absence of clocks make you forget where you are, who you are, and that “real life is elsewhere”. Outside. Yet outside is the reverse of this perverted American dream that the gamblers come to buy. A parched desert with a rare oasis; three sad circus elephants moving their tusks in the midst of a traffic jam; a motel with paper-thin walls where you can hear the neighbour beating up his girlfriend, or see an old man getting ready for death; the spontaneous combustion of a palm tree; a ring stuck in the entrails of a grilled fish, as in a comic-book version of The Arabian Nights; a strangely silent outdoor wedding (ambient sound having been deleted from the track). Queen is bracketed between two images of phantasmic uber-femininity: an opening close-up of a heavily manicured female hand, with unbelievably long fingernails (very inconvenient for a blackjack dealer… and actually forbidden to women exerting this profession) and the last shot of Firdaus, wearing a diaphanous party dress, walking down the road at night, her body contoured by the shivering lights of passing cars. Until an unseen motorist stops and invites her to get in his vehicle. The last image pushes the heroine a little further into the “rabbit hole” that has swallowed so many women in Menkes’ cinema. Like Juniper, Queen is set at the threshold between two worlds, with the iconic figure of a woman functioning as the “bridge” passed through by Murnau or Collins. It anchors its magical elements in a precise rendering of reality. Hailed in international festivals, Queen didn’t have a distributor, until Arbelos (formerly Cinelicious) acquired the US rights of the restored version (as they did for Juniper.)
In Drylongso (1998), shown in a new 16mm print struck by the Academy Film Archive, Cauleen Smith also gives her protagonist, Pica (Toby Smith, who won an Independent Spirit Award for her performance) the bridge between life and death to cross – with the most ephemeral form of art (Polaroid photographs) as the passeur. Obsessed by the disappearance of young black men (70% of them are dead, on drugs, or in jail), Pica wants to document them as a project for her art class. The assignment demands that the work be shown in a gallery while Pica has other plans: building shrines for each dead and organising a celebration in the Magnolia Street abandoned lot in Oakland where her friend Malik (Will Power) was killed. In her wanderings, she runs into Tobi (April Barnett) who is struggling to escape from an abusive boyfriend – and eventually dresses as a gangbanger to protect herself: “White people get out of the way,” she says. “Aren’t you afraid they are going to shoot you?” asks Pica.
“Drylongso” is an old African American phrase meaning “just the same old thing”; more dead bodies are found in Oakland, as a serial killer is on the loose and “these murders are a low priority for the police.” Twenty years have passed, and it’s the same old thing again and again. The shrines Smith asked fellow artist Ursula Natasha Ogunji16 to design strike more acutely now that so many of them have been erected throughout the US, to grieve over the deaths of young black men.
Shot mostly with available light in 16mm, Drylongso is a pleasure to watch, in particular as a meaningful example of how to shoot the skin of black people. In a panel organised in 2011 at the UCLA Film & Television Archive during the celebration of the LA Rebellion School of Filmmakers, Smith talked eloquently about the vexing issue of how poorly it is often done in mainstream cinema (some DPs going as far as asking black performers to put grease over the exposed part of their bodies, to better capture light). Smith came to UCLA after Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima etc… had graduated, but as an undergraduate in San Francisco State University (SFSU), she studied with one of the leading members of the LA Rebellion, Larry Clark 17and learnt from her mentor which stock to use and how to handle lighting to produce a realistic, beautiful and accurate rendering of black skin.
Drylongso was shown in the “American Spectrum” at Sundance in 1999; it went on to win the Grand Prize at the PanAfrican Film Festival but did not secure theatrical distribution. At the time of this writing, it is only available on second-hand VHS (Smith herself not having a DVD of it). In 1998, the Variety reviewer condescendingly wrote that it “will better serve as a calling card for producer-director-editor-cowriter Smith.”18 A calling card to what? As if studio executives were waiting for talented young black female filmmakers to call them with a project.
Having debuted with remarkable experimental shorts, such as Daily Rains (1990), and Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron (1993),19 Smith followed Drylongso with an Afro-futurist narrative short, The Changing Same (2001, shot in 35mm), but didn’t make another feature. Since then she has had a brilliant career, illustrating herself in short video, multi-channel and multi-media installations/performances incorporating sculptural objects and texts, collaborations with artists and musicians, as well as Black Utopia LP, (35mm slides plus an original LP recorded by Smith), a splendid homage to Sun Ra taking the form of a constantly evolving performance, most recently presented in February in Rotterdam). Studio executives weren’t waiting for her to call, but she wasn’t waiting for them to call her either. Resilience is a woman.
In Europe, Akerman had to struggle all her life (with the help of her company, Paradise Films) to make the films she wanted – and she did not always succeed to raise the money she needed. A prestigious co-production (involving Gaumont) made possible by the success of Jeanne Dielman, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) could have insured her transition toward a more commercially viable cinema. She had to make some compromises, such as working with a new DP; in exchange she was offered a larger budget and a stellar distribution of European actors: Heinrich, the man who awkwardly tries to make love to Anna was played by Helmut Griem, who had appeared in Visconti’s La caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1969) and Ludwig (1972) as well as Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972); Magali Noel, Ida, the family friend with a son to marry, had been the unforgettable “Gradisca” in Fellini’s Amarcord (1973); Lea Massari, the mother, appeared in Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), and Louis Malle’s Le souffle au coeur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971); Hanns Zischler, the man met in the train, had been Rüdiger Vogler’s depressive and almost silent traveling companion in Wim Wenders’s Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road, 1976); and Jean-Pierre Cassel, the lover met in Paris, was one of hottest and most bankable French actors. As for Aurore Clément, her first part had been a young Jewish girl in a relationship with an unsophisticated teenage country boy working fort he Gestapo during the French Occupation in Louis Malle’s controversial Lacombe, Lucien (1974). Her most famous line, when she falls in bed with Lucien is “I am fed up with being Jewish”. (Akerman had a very robust sense of humour).
Yet, the film fell in an in-between. Not a mega-production (which means that they had to cut corners), it still managed to turn off some hard core experimental aficionados, those who wanted Akerman to stay in line with her first films. It was also misunderstood – at a time her work was read through a mainstream feminist grid. Snippets of queer cinema appear, but they remain off-screen, floating in a story told to the mother (while lying naked in bed with her) or in aborted phone call attempts, some recorded on a clunky answering machine. The significance of a Jewish filmmaker traveling through Western Europe by train, or the exilic poignancy of the linguistic alienation experienced by Ida (who no longer knows which language to master) or the mother (who still speaks French with an accent) were hardly discussed – film theory wasn’t ready for this, yet.
In the US, the accessibility of English-subtitled prints complicated matters. Akerman had a distributor, World Artists, who eventually filed for bankruptcy, leaving many poorly preserved prints in unpaid storages. Films deposited in archives were mislabelled or damaged by vinegar syndrome. After Akerman’s death, a foundation was created that empowered the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique with the archiving and restoration of her films. English subtitling remains an issue. The DCP of Les Rendez-vous d’Anna done by Janus Films is making the film available to a new generation of spectators, who have read texts about the representation of the Shoah, accented or exilic cinema and fluid sexualities, who have seen films by Béla Tarr, James Benning and Tacita Dean, who are attuned to the vibration of an image in absolute stillness. We no longer expect Akerman’s films to play in multiplexes; instead, we want them to give us something to savour, something to think about, something to return to.
Since 1978 Les Rendez-vous d’Anna has completed a significant journey in contemporary consciousness. What remains after multiple screenings? A series of gestures that send ripples of echoes, some clear, some still mysterious, each a multi-semantic icon. Anna opening the window of her hotel room, to let the noises of the city come in – anticipating the ending of Toute une nuit (1982). Anna crouching in the hotel hallway to elegantly pick up (and eat) a left-over green pea from a room service tray; curiosity, mischievousness, of course, but doesn’t it bring the shadow of certain people eating leftovers from other people’s food, in not such a distant past? Anna carefully searching through her bag and her pockets to remember where she put her passport, when she is required to show it at the frontier. Clément matter-of-factedly assumes the comical aspect of Akerman-the-female-Charlie-Chaplin who can’t find her way out of a paper bag – as humorously displayed in part 3 of Je Tu Il Elle (1975) – Julie falling down as soon as she arrives at her ex’s apartment. But also, in the soft rattle of the train, can’t we fathom the reverberations of orders once shouted in German?
With Nitrate Kisses (1992), we are entering the realm of experimental documentary – yet, being Barbara Hammer’s first feature after 64 films and videos of varying length completed since 1968, it was a crossover of some sort – out of the smaller circle of queer filmmaking into international cinephilia. Nitrate world premiered in Toronto in September 1992, then was selected in the Documentary Section at Sundance the following January. “Two teenage girls were the first to walk out. They told me they felt like they were watching their mothers make love and that made them uncomfortable.”20 Nobody walked out during the AFI screening. Restored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the print was part of the retrospective Barbara Hammer, Superdyke, (9 November-15 December) organised in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Los Angeles Filmforum.
Showing the film in the Legacy section had an exhilarating mirroring effect, as it is already mining our lost heritage of queer images. In 1990, Hammer had completed Sanctus by using 35mm Nitrate X-ray footage of the human body shot by James Sibley Watson in the 1950s. A multi-talented man – an MD as well as an educator, an artist and a philanthropist – Watson is best-known to have directed the avant-garde silent film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) with Melville Folsom Webber. Continuing her research on Watson at the George Eastman Archive in Rochester, Hammer discovered the outtakes of another 35mm film co-directed with Webber, Lot in Sodom (1932), one of the earliest film containing positive queer images in the US (under the pretext of ultimate Biblical punishment). The 1930s witnessed both intense sexual experimentation and the birth of Nazism. Pursuing her quest in Germany, Hammer explored spaces where people rejected by the regime and who would later be marked for deportation – queers, prostitute and Jews – would gather, such as a famous bar in Mulakstrasse (former East Berlin) and discover archival photographs, especially in the house/museum of the transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Nitrate also explores the unpredictable dialectic of visibility/invisibility in the US, through the history of author Willa Carter who liked to cross-dress but later burnt her love letters as as to not be known as a “lesbian writer”, allusions to the Hayes Code, snippets of blues music with not-so-hidden queer themes. This alluring archival and documentary material is montaged with footage of older lesbians making love – especially those exploring “deviant” or S & M sexuality (deviant, laments Hammer, even in the eyes of the mainstream queer community). An elegant, vertiginous parallel is drawn between the site of crumbling buildings, bullet-ridden streets, corroded film emulsion, and the bodies of these women immersed in tenderness and pleasure. Arguably the first film to break the taboo of the sexuality of older lesbians, Nitrate is a paean to physical joy, an intimate exploration of tactility and texture – the body as landscape, the body as text, the film strip as body, decay as trace of past pleasures, haunted and made meaningful by what we call history. The memory of kisses long gone still linger on a damaged print, on a crumbled photograph, in the lyrics of a song, in the remnants of a destroyed building. Nitrate Kisses does all of this – and more, in the rhythm of its always-imaginative editing, inspired by Gertrude Stein’s notion of “simultaneous time: where we can experience a multiplicity of images and feelings at the same time.”21
- https://china.usc.edu ↩
- See Amnesty International report on China: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/china/report-china/, accessed 22 February, 2019. The report for the year 2009 is available on https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/48000/pol100012009en.pdf, accessed 22 February, 2019, p. 109. ↩
- Xu went on to act in several of Ning’s films: Crazy Racer, No Man’s Land, Breakup Buddies and Crazy Alien. ↩
- Justin Chang was one of the critics moved by the film, although with some reservations. See https://www.npr.org/2018/08/15/638888430/satire-soap-opera-duty-devotion-crazy-rich-asians-is-a-movie-milestone, accessed 22 February, 2019. ↩
- The guards are the only non-Chinese in the diegesis. Critics of the film have justly noted the absence of other ethnic groups, while Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. ↩
- Born in 1927 in Beijing, Lisa Lu emigrated to the US in the 1950s, and has appeared in a number of films, television shows and theatre plays in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and the United States. She appeared in particular in The Last Emperor (1987) and The Joy Luck Club. ↩
- See Katrina Yu: “Why Crazy Rich Asians was a box-office flop in China”, Al Jazeera, 12 December 2018, accessed 22 February, 2019. ↩
- Sai Fu and Mai Lisi directed several award-winning films, such as Yidai tian jiao Chengjisihan (Genghis Khan) that was China’s Oscar entry in 1998, before moving to Beijing after leaving the Inner Mongolia Film Studio. Their daughter, Degena Yun, recounted Sai Fu’s cancer and death in her remarkable autobiographic film, Gaobie (A Simple Goodbye, 2015). ↩
- Throughout the years, the New-York company Milestone Films have restored and made available cinematic treasures such as Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964). ↩
- A 16mm print had initially been restored in 2018 by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. ↩
- It had also inspired an installation/performance by the artist Joan Jonas (1976, reconstructed 1994). ↩
- Due to the lack of records, it is difficult to estimate the exact number of women victims of witch-hunt – sometimes deemed an unrecognised holocaust – but it could be from 45,000 to several millions. Feminist enquiries about witches, amazons and goddess figures were foregrounded in Western feminism in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. For example, Nina Menkes’ Magdalena Viraga, ends on the protagonist, put to jail no the suspicion of having murdered one of her johns, reclaiming her identity as a witch in a halo of flames. ↩
- Keene directed two other films, Heroine of Hell (1995), shown on PBS, and Barefoot to Jerusalem, whose post-production was completed in 1998 after her death. ↩
- The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. ↩
- The name is inspired by the protagonist of Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, Zed Books, London and New York, 1983. ↩
- Now called Wura-Natasha Ogunji the award-winning performance and visual artist, born in St. Louis in 1970, lives and works between the US and Lagos, Nigeria. Working in a variety of mediums, she is best known for her videos. At the time of the shooting of Drylongso, she was an MFA student in photography at San Jose State University. ↩
- Not to be confused with the director of Kids (1995), this Larry Clark directed Passing Through (1977), often cited as one of the best jazz films ever made. See https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/larry-clark. ↩
- Oliver Jones, review of Drylongso: https://variety.com/1998/film/reviews/drylongso-1200455434/, retrieved 28 February, 2019. ↩
- At SFSU, Trinh T. Minh-ha was also an important mentor to Smith. ↩
- Barbara Hammer, Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, New York, 2010, p. 219. ↩
- John Arthur Peetz: “Interview with Barbara Hammer”, Artforum, 15 June, 2010. ↩