There Is No Evil

There Is No Evil is an anthology film with 4 short stories with the common thread being the impact of the death penalty in Iran on ordinary people.

The first, titular story is a little slice-of-life, following a guy getting off night shift, picking up his wife, going to the bank, trying to get parking, picking up his kid, getting the messages, going to visit Granny and getting her tea ready for her, coming home and unpacking the shopping, and getting a bit of kip before his next shift. Then he goes into work, makes a pot of coffee, and releases the trap door on that day’s condemned prisoners. The ordinary banalness of his life is sharply cut off with this stark horror, leaving the viewer feeling like the floor has just given out beneath them too. It’s the casual brutality to it, and the everyday routine of it. The fact it’s just woven into accepted life as if it was nothing.

The second story is called She Said, “You Can Do It”, which follows a young soldier as he tries to figure any way out of his executioner’s duty in the morning. See, in Iran, there’s national service, and you can get out of it, there is some wiggle room, but until you complete it, you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t get a passport, you can’t leave the country, you can’t get a good job, you will struggle in just about every way. So most people roll the dice and do the 2 years, hopefully just get posted somewhere dull, and stand watch every night looking at nothing. This story is about what happens when you lose that roll of the dice. The main character has been posted into the executioners squad, and is facing his first kill in the morning. He spends the night trying various strategies to get out of it, trying to convince other squad members to take his turn, trying to buy his way out of it, trying to phone anyone he knows who might have a little pull. But the clock is counting down, and the film shows it as though it were he who were going to the gallows when time runs out.

The third story is called Birthday. Javad, one of the soldiers in the previous story’s squad, goes home for the birthday of Nana, the woman he loves. He decides he’s going to propose to her . . . and then everything falls to shit. Javad is far less conflicted than the soldier from the previous story, separating work from civilian life. But even in his countryside idyll, the horror of what he is involved in has a way of spilling out in unimagined ways.

The last tale is called Kiss Me, and follows a young woman coming to visit her aunt and uncle in Iran for the first time. Again, living up on the hills in a ragtag farmstead, you could not feel like that darkness could be further way. But old sins cast long shadows. And it shows how the impact these decisions that are being made are felt even generations on.

This film is just great. Gorgeously shot, it marries the mundane and the monstrous in an impressive and nuanced way. It never gets preachy. While obviously being anti-death penalty, it is not here to make an argument, but to explore the human heart, and how it copes when put in these life-and-death decisions. Powerful.

Rosa’s Wedding

Rosa’s Wedding is a rom-com about loving yourself.

Rosa is the lynchpin of her family, holding everyone together and being taken for granted more than a little. She takes the lion’s share of looking after her lonely elderly father on behalf of her siblings. She helps out her divorcing brother with his child care. She does the bulk of work at her job. She is always running errands for her boyfriend or her sister, and struggling to support her daughter who has just become a mother for the first time while living abroad.

And one day, exhausted, she sits down and decides enough is enough. Someone has to put her first. Someone has to take care of her. And that someone is going to be her.

Rosa decides to marry herself, commit herself to her own happiness, to be true and faithful to herself, to listen to herself, to fulfil all her dreams. And the comedy comes in when word of the wedding gets out and misunderstanding ensues.

A warm-hearted story about family, and showing yourself as much care as you show others. Really sweet.

Back to the Wharf

Chinese noir about how life turns on a dime. Song Hao is a conscientious student on track for university, after years of hard work and good choices. Then he is told his university spot has been given to another student, Li Tang, his friend and the son of the corrupt mayor. Both he and his father storm out the house to speak to Li Tang. Song Hao arrives in Li Tang’s neighbourhood first, but goes into the wrong house. There, the inhabitant is surprised by him and attacks him believing him to be a burglar. In the struggle Song Hao stabs the man, and runs off in a panic. His life is over.

His father arrives moments later, only to see Song Hao fleeing, and assuming he must have been arguing with Li Tang, enters the same house. Upon discovery of the wounded man, he kills him for fear of the shame and ruin that will befall his family if the man is able to tell his story. Unbeknownst to father and son is that their coming and goings from the house has been witnessed by Li Tang from his bedroom window in the house across the road. That night, the mayor makes up for stealing Song Hao’s university place by promoting his father to a lucrative position, but Song Hao cannot cope and runs away.

The rest of the film takes place 15 years later, when Song Hao returns for the funeral of his mother. Li Tang is now a wealthy property developer, and Song Hao’s father has started a new family with a new son to carry on the family name without disgrace or ignominy. But old sins cast long shadows, and the question of whether Song Hao can ever quiet his guilty conscience enough to start a new life is one that wavers throughout the film.

This is also a film about class and corruption in China. Li Tang is almost like the Joker, constantly laughing and smiling, but utterly indifferent to the people he walks over to get what he wants. In his designer suits and lavish lifestyle, he acts like life has been oh-so good to him. Meanwhile, Song Hao did everything right, had it all taken away from him, and his life became a downward spiral of misfortune. The story of these two schoolfriends is a bit like Blood Brothers, as the passage of time only seems to deepen the power disparity between them.

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The Last Ones

The Last Ones is about a total prick who owns a mine in Lapland, and thinks he can take whatever he wants, like other people’s land and other people’s wives. It’s almost criminally boring.

I’ve heard this described as Finnish Western. The mine is set up on indigenous land, with the Sami reindeer herders in their tipis in the background, and a corrupt and lawless ruler of the surrounding town presides over a drunk and disillusioned population who came here to seek their fortune only to discover a hard and unjust life. Add to that the love triangle over the only fuckable woman in the town and you can see why people feel there are enough tropes to warrant the name.

But it’s not really. Because it’s not stylised enough in its execution to be called a Western. This is just a film about a lot of miserable people, and it has far more in common with bleak movies about English industrial mining towns than it does with American frontier film. The tone is all wrong, and the hollow pacing doesn’t build to a rise in tension, or a swell of hope cruelly dismissed, but is that unbroken plod that characterise films about working grind.

This film is a good half-hour longer than what I thought was the end shot, and a good two hours longer than what I hoped was the end shot. Just acres of grassland between meaningful events. No investment in any of the characters. And all the music in it sticks out like a sore thumb. So dull.

Father

Grim. Like, Dostoyevsky levels of grim.

The opening scene is a woman dragging her kids by the arm down to a factory and declaring, “I am Biljana Stojkovic. The wife of Nikola Stojkovic. I have a bottle of petrol in my hand. If you don’t pay my husband’s remaining salaries, and the severance package you’ve owed him for two years now, I’ll set both me and my children on fire.” Welcome to the movie.

The film focuses on Nikola’s struggle to regain custody of his kids after they are put into care in the wake of their mother’s self-immolation. He is told that he isn’t fit to look after his kids since he is only a day labourer with no long-term secure employment, that he hasn’t the provided adequately for his kids because they don’t own a computer, and only have cold water in the house. Basically, he’s been pushed into poverty, then blamed for being there. And they’re like, “Why haven’t you got full-time secure employment?” and I’m like, “You gonna hire him on a full-time secure contract? No? Then shut the fuck up then.”

Father is kinda a road trip movie, as Nikola makes his way on foot to Belgrade to deliver his appeal to the government minister. Along the way he is helped by people he meets on the road. Much like the film Herself, this is about a parent moving heaven and earth for their kids, aided by the kindness of strangers. A film full of quiet dignity and strength.

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My Wonderful Wanda

My Wonderful Wanda is a family drama, taking place almost entirely in one house. The titular Wanda is the Polish carer for elderly German patriarch Josef, as he recovers from a stroke. With shades of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, a bond develops between the two in this intimate setting that has far reaching consequences for the family as a whole.

Upon watching the trailer, I thought Josef was just a dirty auld man, pawing at the nearest young thing now his wife was older. And he is kind of that, but he’s also at his most vulnerable he’s been in his entire life. Paralysed over most of his body, struggling to regain any mobility, he has returned to the helplessness of a child. And the person caring for him, spending time with him, doing the most intimate of acts, cleaning and caring for his naked and defenceless body, is Wanda. Not his family, not his children, not his wife. All of whom have the time and money to care for him themselves, but have elected to hire someone else to do it. And it makes you wonder about how you could ever hand over such intimacies to a stranger without expecting relationships to form and change.

Josef pays Wanda for an ‘extra service’. Again, at first you can only recoil in judgement, but you can also see a man who, having been near to death and chilled by his sense of his own mortality, is willing to pay any price to feel alive. So much has been taken from him, his independence, his control over his body and his life, and his identity as he saw it. He needs something, something that that screams I’m not dead yet!

Needless to say, this sets in motion a chain of events that challenges Josef’s family to their limits. But ironically, this crisis forces them to confront whether they really are a family or just a group of people who share a name and wealth. In defiance of expectations, this somewhat cold and aloof family warms and strengthens in the heat of conflict. Actually a surprisingly touching film.

Spring Tide

Spring Tide is a portrait of the quiet psychological war of one family. Three generations of women live in one flat. The grandmother is a relentless hammer on the mother, irritated by her mere presence, emotionally abusive and spiteful for any perceived slight. The mother has grown silent through years of experience, knowing that engaging with the grandmother’s rants will have no benefit. The daughter is confused and disorientated, constantly being manipulated as a pawn by the grandmother against the mother, and so by turns spoiled and scolded, held up as an achievement of the grandmother’s guidance or denigrated as the culmination of all the mother’s shame.

This is a triptych of character studies, rather than a story with a plot. The tension in the household pushes the characters forward, rather than any quest or instigated drama. Without a direct throughline of the story, that only increases the suspense of the film, because you are constantly waiting for I-know-not-what, some form of emotional explosion or implosion or catharsis, and there is no indication of what form it will come in. You are gripped by the prospect of the tension swelling into a tide of change or collapsing back into a withdrawal and defeat.

The mother is largely silent in the film, except in her final scene where she says everything that needs said. Outside of the home, she has a career and respect, and inwardly she has a strong sense of herself, unbroken by her mother. Yet inside the house, she is like a dog too used to being beaten. She weathers the grandmother’s rages like a storm, still as a sturdy tree beneath lightning and thunder. She gives no reaction, denies any satisfaction at the constant torrent of abuse poured on her. It looks exhausting.

The grandmother is greedily eager for others’ good opinion of her. She takes part in community events, takes interest in her neighbours, keeps in touch with old classmates, and generally garners the liking and praise of all. She projects an image of an ideal citizen, conscientious and caring, responsible and generous with her time. No one would believe the mother were she to actually tell what it was like living with her. At home she is vicious, unyielding, manipulative, and spiteful. She seems to find provocation in the very sight of the mother, who scurries to her room like a shadow so as to minimise the grandmother’s opportunities to explode.

The daughter is only 9-years-old and confused by the ever-changing atmosphere around her. The grandmother constantly pitches her against her mother, and misrepresents her. In addition to the constant gaslighting, there are also unspoken secrets, like who her father was, how he died, where her mother was for the first few years of her life, and why she was not around so much. This digging for the genuine facts of her life is further muddied by her grandmother’s continually changing family narrative based on her moods and rages.

One of the repeated battles between the grandmother and mother is that of the memory of the grandfather. The grandmother claims he was a terrible husband, a sex offender, and the source of all her woes. The daughter appears to have a kind memory of him. And you’re not sure if that is just the innocence of the eyes of a child, or if this, like so much of what the grandmother says, is just another story to gain her sympathy and allow her to frame herself as the victim of abuse, rather than the perpetrator. The grandmother is excellent at pressing true facts into telling false stories. But to the mother, the grandfather was just another member of the family the grandmother defeated, and now in his absence, she destroys any trace of him, down to even his good memory.

To some degree, these generations are the generations of China. The grandmother is fiercely patriotic, forgiving of past hardships under Mao, and happy to constantly change the story of her life to suit the needs of the moment. The mother is a journalist, interested only in the truth, exposing shortcomings and corruption, and wanting to hold people to account. The daughter is the trying to sift through what she’s being told for what to actually believe, trying to get her personality out from under the baggage of the older generations, and find the truth about her identity.

A really compelling film.

In The Shadows

In The Shadows is an old-school dystopia, like, 19th century dystopia. The central character is one of a community of miners, who live and work in the ravine of this quarry where the mine and its processing plant stands. Their entire life is focused on toil in this difficult and back-breaking work, for which they receive no apparent recompense other than food and lodging.

The visual style of this film is its main star, the set design, the props, the costume. It is beautifully ugly. Everything is mocket, decayed, rusted, or lichened. People sleep on top of old boilers or water tanks. Loose and snaking wires curl everywhere, powering the coal machines and the omnipresent surveillance equipment. Everything is pipes, or pistons, or cogs. Visually it reminds me of things like the geometry in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu, and the panopticon, and stuff like 1984.

There is an unseen management, who gaze on every aspect of their lives through cameras, and who are feared like the wrath of God. In their faceless omniscience, their random health inspections can lead to the termination of contract, or transfer, to a fate unknown. You daren’t get sick, daren’t get injured, daren’t slow your work.

The main character, the miner, is able to successfully pass off an injury at the beginning of the film, allowing him to question for the first time the powers that be. If they are not all-knowing, then they may not be all-powerful.

Tugging at that thread leads him to the possibility that the greatest tool oppression has is our willingness to comply with it.

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Dolly, Kitty and Those Twinkling Stars

What an epic! A family drama, a coming-of-age, this film is just packed.

It focuses on Dolly, a frustrated housewife, and her cousin Kaajal, who is more like a sister to her. But this film spills out in a hundred directions, taking in storylines with Dolly’s mother and kids, Kaajal’s friends and lovers. Yet it doesn’t lose focus, and you never feel like your time is being wasted. All of it informs how these two characters figure things out for themselves.

Dolly is going through a mid-life crisis, spending money like water, and flirting with this college-age delivery boy. Her sex life with her crappy husband is in the toilet and she is flagging in her ability to maintain her happy families rictus grin.

Kaajal is much younger, and very naive. She comes to live with Dolly in the big city from her small village, but quickly moves out because Dolly’s crappy husband is a sexually predatory creep. Struggling to survive, she turns her hand to everything.

She ends up renting a bed a Christian hostel for unwed and surrogate mothers. Her only pal there is a prostitute. She ends up getting a job in a call centre for a phone sex/romance chat line. As a naive virgin from a conservative rural area, she is totally out of her depth.

The main theme of the movie is about playing the roles required of us as women. Dolly has to be a dutiful wife. Kaajal’s telephone persona is Kitty, who has to alternate between a virgin and whore depending on her client’s fantasy. Dolly has a child, Puppa, that she is raising as her son, but who is constantly tell her that she’s a girl. Puppa is always being told she has to act more like a boy.

This again is echoed in the character of Dolly’s mother. She abandoned her husband and daughter when Dolly was a kid, but is trying to reconnect with her now she is grown. Dolly is full of rage at her. “How could you?!” she asks her furiously. “What kind of mother could do that?!” Her mother is unapologetic, and simply says, she wasn’t happy and she had to live her own life.

There can be nothing more of a betrayal than a woman who lives for herself, rather than servicing the roles required of her. And the arc of the movie is Dolly coming to understand her mother’s decision.

That doesn’t even cover it. I’m giving you the tip of the iceberg here. But what I loved is that the film says that experiences can be ambivalent, but you can still take the good away from them. The power of men and the structure of sexism pervades women’s lives, but it doesn’t need to define them, we can take away from our experiences what we need and what we enjoy from them.

Great film.