Category: British Cinema

Lies We Tell (UK 2017)

I saw this new British title at the Keighley Picture House where every third Sunday there is a Film Club. The film is set in Bradford with scenes also shot in Keighley. So it sounded interesting enough to train over from Leeds to see.

It opens in mainstream style as we see Harvey Keitel as Demi Lampros driven by Gabriel Byrne as chauffeur Donald. This is about all we see of Keitel; a little later Gina McKee has a similar walk-on part as Donald’s separated wife Heather. These cameos suggest something of the snapshot quality of the film.

The basic plots involves Donald having to cover up evidence of an extra-marital affair after Demi suddenly dies. The other partner of the affair is Amber (Sibylla Deen), a trainee lawyer and the older daughter of a traditional Muslim family from Pakistan. Donald and Amber’s attempts to keep the affair secret are constantly frustrated by an escalating wave of fresh complications. Some of these revolve round her family but most involve her ex-husband KD (Jan Uddin). Whilst KD pays lip-service to the mores of the Muslim community he is involved in some form of gangsterism which involves drugs and prostitution. In addition to an earlier arranged marriage and divorce with Amber, she was also the victim of marital rape, KD now has a Caucasian girlfriend pregnant. And he is planning to marry Amber’s younger sister Miriam (Danica Johnson).

It should be apparent that the title has an over-complicated plot line. At times it seems like a film noir but at others an inversion of East is East (1999). I did find the plot at times rather difficult to follow, partly because I found some of dialogue unclear. The film includes Urdu dialogue which does not have English sub-titles. Just to give one example, I was never clear if Amber and KD had actually had a legal marriage or a legal divorce: I had to check this in the Sight & Sound plot synopsis.

The plot-line is made more difficult by the style of the production. The editing in particular tends to jump from one event to another, not always allowing complete clarity. So we cut from the Demi and Donald in the car in the evening following a tryst to a helicopter landing at the his palatial mansion to take his coffin home; [the synopsis explains that will be Greece]. Later Amber is attacked in the street by two young women; one is Tracey (Emily Atack), KD’s pregnant girlfriend. The other is a young Asian woman who appears to be part of Amber’s extended family. I was never clear why the latter assisted Tracy in this fairly violent assault.

Within this rather muddled presentation the cast are generally good. Sibylla Deen as Amber is excellent and Gabriel Byrne’s world-weary Donald is convincing. In addition we have Mark Addy as Billy, his brother-in-law and house mate, providing some lighter relief. They also share the house with Cinders, a bouncy terrier who is impregnated by the neighbouring Rottweiler resulting in one or more puppies, more Rottweiler than terrier. But the supporting cast struggle with poorly written characterisations. KD in particular is a fairly stereotypical villain and the Muslim Elders are equally stereotyped.

This was directed by Mitu Misra, a first time film-maker who also wrote the story. The script is by Ewen Glass and Andy McDermott. The production company is Bradford International Film Associates, which I suspect is a company set up to develop this project. My sense is that there has not been a lot of involvement by more experienced Asian or Muslim artists. I was interested to note that the accompanying music was by Zbgniew Preisner; the well-known Polish composer. I make this point because I found the whole production unremittingly stereotypical. Apart from a few key characters most of the people are unsympathetic. There is a sense of a conflict between the younger and older generations in the Muslim community but predominately both groups are treated unsympathetically. In contrast, with the exception of Amber, who embraces western values, just about all the positive characters are Caucasian; including another cameo with Nicholas Farrell as Amber’s sympathetic boss .There are a number of Muslim rituals and community tropes broadly presented in a negative manner. As you can guess the plot leads to Amber trying to escape from her community. This the motif that figures in films set in Third World countries as western protagonists flee the chaos. Transposing that to a migrant community in Britain seems to me fairly reactionary.

On the surface the theme is ‘the devastating ripples of secrets and lies’ but it does spend most of its time on cultural politics. So I think it really fails to dramatise in an effective way the contradictions that I suspect were the aims of the film-makers. A much better treatment of the problems faced by a young, modern woman from a Muslim community is Yasmin (2004), also set in and around Keighley. [The film was discussed in an article in the printed ITP World April 2005].

However I was glad that I saw this. Watching the treatment of such a story was interesting and the film looks fine, shot digitally in colour and in the 2.35:1 ratio. There was also pleasure in watching familiar settings in Bradford. However these also have anachronisms, one shot at the Keighley Railway Station shows a steam locomotive, part of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway; why would any of the characters be boarding this train?

I was also glad because it gave me an opportunity to visit the Keighley Picture House. They have a rather good main auditorium and a smaller but pleasant upstairs auditorium where the Film Club screenings take place. This is another of these welcome traditional cinemas that are part of the Northern Morris chain.

Violent Playground (UK 1958)

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The youth of the day

Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).

The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.

Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.

As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the mayor of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!

Summertime (UK-US 1955)

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To do or not to do

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.

A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016)

A promotional image for the film suggesting the African-British ‘marriage’

It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.

A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.

The couple meet in London . . .

In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced  a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.

Jack Davenport plays the British official who obstructs democracy in Bechuanaland and lends support to apartheid South Africa

The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.

But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.

Noose (UK 1948)

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Joseph Calleia’s bad guy hassled by Carole Landis’ American reporter

This is a strange film that veers from expressionist noir to knockabout comedy throughout. The noir is brilliantly done but the ‘comedy’ distracts. Part of the post-war ‘spiv’ cycle where the bad guys are those who had a ‘good’ war economically by running the ‘black’ market, Noose doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in its material. Maybe the director decided to have some fun by messing about with camera angles and lighting whilst indulging in occasional slapstick. Edward T Greville’s direction veers between the brilliant and daft. At times it seemed like a bargain basement Citizen Kane: when a character looks at a dance floor through cut glass we see the fragmented images. The opening is a bravura shot of Bar (Nigel Patrick) arriving at work (it’s not quite one take but that was clearly the intention) and, to indicate the inebriation of a character who hiccoughs, the camera tilts left-right-left-right.

This film’s also interesting for the female protagonist played by Carole Landis in her last film before committing suicide. She’s a feisty American fashion reporter in London who decides to expose Joseph Calleia’s black market racket. She’s somewhat blasé about what’s she’s doing and BFI’s Screenonline piece is worth reading as it points out the narrative’s opposition between the ‘bad’ foreigners and the ‘good’ British criminal fraternity. I disagree about Nigel Patrick, however, who the piece suggests is over-theatrical; I found his performance entirely engaging. It was one of his first films and he became a stalwart of British cinema.

Noose (The Silk Noose in America) is an unusual example of a film that mixes its styles in a rather haphazard way which is a pity as many of the noir scenes are compelling.

Bitter Harvest (UK 1963)

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Nice boy (John Stride) disapproves and lusts after ‘bad’ girl (Janet Munro)

Talking Pictures’ synopsis, along with the title, suggests a cautionary tale:

A young Welsh girl leaves her home with the intention to seek a glamorous life in London.

‘Sixties British cinema regularly dealt with the dangers of London for provincial girls; as in The Pleasure Girls though in Smashing Time (1967) the girls do have fun. The opening sequence, with some excellent handheld camerawork, shows Jennie Jones (Janet Munro) trashing a place; she’s drunk and very unhappy. Most of the film is a flashback showing how she came to be in that predicament.

The early scenes, in ‘the valleys’ near Cardiff make it quite clear why Jennie has to escape so on one level she comes across as strong because leaving is the only option. However once in London she is economically dependent (upon ‘nice guy’ Bob – John Stride). She’s also shown to be overly-influenced by the glamour marketed by advertising; thought to be a female weakness at the time. That Jennie seems at once a protagonist and a victim must be, in large part, due to Munro’s marvellous performance. She’s given top billing and later became familiar in Disney films; she also appeared in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). She died in 1972, apparently from an alcohol related illness.

Strikingly the film is shot in colour, a rarity in cinema at the time. It was produced by the prolific Independent Artists (their fêted This Sporting Life was also released in 1963) and marketed as an exploitation movie as can be seen from the poster below.

Peter Graham Smith’s direction is good and some of the editing, where an extreme close up of a character’s face appears for a very short amount to time, is highly distinctive.

Ted Willis adapted Patrick Hamilton’s novel 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and it suffers from the poor pacing of Jennie’s downfall. We know from the start it’s going to end badly but the ‘fall’ is too precipitous giving the film an abrupt ending. That said, it’s worth watching for Munro alone.

The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France 2018)

Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson)

The Little Stranger is a beautifully made film adapted from a celebrated novel and directed by a ‘name’ director. It has four well-known star actors playing the leads and I liked it very much. It is also slow and in some ways sombre and its presentation from the distributors (Pathé/Fox in the UK) risks alienating its audience. Certainly that appears to have been the case in the US where it died in its second week, generating only $210 per screen from 477 screens. Its first weekend in the UK was poor but not disastrous, with a screen average of just over £1,000 from 297 screens giving it 13th place in the weekly chart. I suspect the film will skew older and therefore mid-week box office might be better.

The problem is that some audiences might be expecting a ghost story/horror film/haunted house picture when in fact it is a gothic melodrama set very carefully in 1948. Some IMDb comments suggest that for some US audiences the narrative will be bewildering but for older and more aware UK audiences, it should resonate.

Outline (NO SPOILERS!)

The film is adapted from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, her third to be Booker Prize nominated. She followed the 2006 The Night Watch, set in wartime 1940s London with a story set in 1948 during the period of the 1945-50 Labour government which transformed the UK. She claimed that this was a novel about a socialist Britain undergoing change.

Faraday and Caroline with Roderick (Will Poulter). Credit: Nicola Dove / Focus Features; from Focus press site

Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a GP (General Practitioner) in rural Warwickshire, a 37 year-old bachelor somewhat reluctant to embrace the National Health Service which is slowly being introduced. One day he is summoned to ‘Hundreds Hall’, the local stately home now beginning to decay as inheritance tax bites into the upper middle-classes’ wealth. He’s been there once before as an 8-year-old boy in 1919 when the hall was still in its Imperial pomp putting on a show for the local villagers, but now he finds the young heir Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) to be a disabled RAF veteran, supported by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday has been called to see  young Betty, the only servant left. Betty is frightened and miserable rather than sick and there is a suggestion that there is something in the great house which is not quite right. Faraday finds himself curiously drawn into the world of the Ayres, first treating Roderick’s condition and then becoming more deeply involved in the family’s affairs. It will be some time before Faraday becomes fully aware of the symptoms and the extent of the family’s decline. How he reacts to events and what he attempts to do (or not do) forms the basis of the narrative.

Commentary

As directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a script by Lucinda Coxon, The Little Stranger is a slow-burning gothic tale well-served by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and music by Abrahamson’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rennicks. Production design, art direction, costume, sound design, location scouting etc. are all top-notch. The key is restraint – and repression. Gleeson seems to me to be both perfect for the role, but also in one sense ‘wrong’ somehow. (He’s actually a year younger than Ruth Wilson, but his character is meant to be ten years older than hers – I suppose that means she is also wrong for the role, but I don’t think it’s important). More important is Gleeson’s very severe appearance as Faraday and his carefully researched accent – which gives his narration a restrained rationality. We don’t get a first name for Faraday (named for the scientist?). The use of the surname puts the doctor in his place in terms of social class. The upper classes always used surnames in social situations, especially the men, following public school practice. Faraday addresses his patient as ‘Roderick’ or ‘Rod’ but if they were social acquaintances he would have called him ‘Ayres’.

Charlotte Rampling as Mrs Ayres with Dr Faraday

The Little Stranger is all about social class. In some ways, Faraday is a working-class Tory. This has been a fairly common tradition in the UK in rural areas, especially in the families of servants (Faraday’s mother was a maid at the ‘big house’). But Faraday is made more complex by specific lines of dialogue in which he reveals some contradictory views about the Labour government’s policies. The real discourse about class focuses on the house which is crumbling physically and metaphorically as a symbol of the decline of the Ayres and their ilk. Most commentators have referred to Abrahamson’s last film Room because it featured in the 2017 Oscars, but I was reminded of What Richard Did (Ireland 2012) which also featured social class in quite subtle ways and was for me a more interesting film than Room.

Sarah Waters says of her initial research for the novel that she watched the films of the period, read popular novels and looked for the ‘voices’ of ordinary people. She kept in mind novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca 1941 by Hitchcock), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she watched I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur film loosely based on Jane Eyre that has some elements in common with The Little Stranger, including the ambiguity of events. Are they supernatural or the result of some kind of psychological disturbance? There are several shots of staircases that suggest a Hitchcockian narrative.

Faraday and Caroline are equally repressed sexually – but is she more aware of her situation?

What is fascinating and satisfying about Waters’ complex narrative that is well-served here is that it has so many layers and narrative possibilities. The set-up offers us a potential romance between Faraday and Caroline and there is a key scene at a dance which I won’t spoil, except to point out that this is the only one of Waters’ narratives not to include a lesbian relationship. All we know about Caroline is that she was involved in the war effort but came back to the hall to help care for her brother. Many younger people during the war were politicised by the experience of ‘social mixing’ and in some ways Caroline is to the left of Faraday. As for Faraday himself , we also know only a little of his history. His parents struggled to give him an education and after qualifying as a doctor he spent the war years working in a military hospital. He has the chance to work in London but he seems obsessed with staying in the village. If this was a film made in the 1940s the central character might have been played by David Farrar or James Mason, both actors with very different personae to that of Domhnall Gleeson. I’m racking my brain to think of a 1940s cinema equivalent of the Faraday character and the actor who might play him. Trevor Howard seems a bit to smooth/posh.

Who or what is ‘The Little Stranger’? The people around me in the cinema seem to have made up their minds, but I think it is an open question. I’ll have to back to the novel, since I’ve forgotten Sarah Waters’ original ending. Perhaps I don’t want an ending anyway? The metaphor of the crumbling mansion, the new homes being built in the grounds by the local council and so on are fine for me. I note a couple of American reviews who see this as about ‘Britain in decline’. For me, 1948 signals the re-birth of Britain as a more equal society. Unfortunately the new world was not to last, but sweeping away the old to make room for the new is to be celebrated isn’t it? Perhaps ‘The Little Stranger’ is the infant welfare state?

Here’s the official UK trailer (with a few more spoilers than presented in the text above):

Ten Thousand Waves (UK-China 2010)

Zhao Tao as Ruan Ling-yu in The Goddess walks down a 1930s Shanghai street for the cameras

In 2017 I visited the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to watch Vertigo Sea, an ‘installation’ film by John Akomfrah. A few weeks ago I managed to catch Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the same gallery. I first came across both artists when they were young independent filmmakers in the workshops Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa respectively. Isaac and John both became directors recognised in international independent/festival/auteur cinema before moving into more art-orientated forms and attracting wide attention for their installation works. Both have focused on issues associated with their own ideas about identity. John Akomfrah has long been fascinated by migration and it’s interesting that Isaac Julien should join him in making a piece about a specific tragic moment of contemporary migration.

The deaths of twenty-three Chinese migrants in Morecambe Bay in 2004 was a horrific event which resulted in the conviction of three Chinese for trafficking with one also as a gangmaster responsible for manslaughter. Isaac Julien was shocked by the events and he teamed up with the Chinese poet Wang Ping to make a trip to Morecambe Bay and then to explore a multimedia arts project about Chinese migration and the sea. This was the beginning of the project in 2006 and it was completed for the Sydney Biennial in 2010. Since then the work has been on show in several galleries, sometimes as a complex nine-screen multi-media show and sometimes, as here in Manchester, as a three-screen video installation accompanied by two large photographic exhibits. Since I’ve already written about the viewing conditions at the Whitworth, I won’t repeat my complaints, but it’s a shame that an otherwise excellent venue can’t do more to make viewers more comfortable. Like Vertigo Sea, Ten Thousand Waves takes around 49 minutes for a complete run through its narrative and most people stayed for only part of the full experience when I watched the film. Unlike Vertigo Sea in which the three screens seemed sometimes to offer different material and sometimes to produce meanings by the juxtapositions of sounds and images on adjacent screens, Ten Thousand Waves seemed to be playing the same sequence of images, slightly out of synch with each other, on all three screens. But since it is impossible to focus on three large screens simultaneously, I can’t be sure. I entered the installation partway through and stayed until I was sure I’d seen the whole thing.

Zhao Tao stares out from a high-rise window in contemporary Shanghai

There are three distinct sections of the narrative, although two of these also use two or more different kinds of material within them. What I assume is ‘found footage’ from the screens of the Liverpool Coastguard shows helicopter footage of the discovery of one of the survivors of the tragedy in Morecambe Bay and is accompanied by some of the phone and radio dialogue associated with the emergency. A further sound layer has Wang Ping’s poem about the events read by the British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong. This is all very affecting, although the poem strikes an odd note with references to the ‘North Wales Sea’ since no such body of water exists (it’s the Irish Sea and specifically Morecambe Bay). It’s an understandable mistake for a Chinese poet, but a bit sad that a British filmmaker doesn’t know his geography. Perhaps it is deliberately a ‘fantasy name’? Either way it’s odd for someone like me who knows that coastline well. The second section is filmed in Shanghai and offers sequences of the actor Zhao Tao (known for her work with her partner the auteur director Jia Zhang-ke) dressed in 1930s period costume on the streets of the Bund as it would have been in the film melodrama The Goddess (China 1934). This is presented as a reconstruction so we see the camera following the actor as she goes into buildings and a tram clanks down the street. It occurred to me later (when I learned of the intended The Goddess connection) that Julien here is mirroring the work of Stanley Kwan on the film Actress/Centre Stage (Hong Kong 1991). In that film, Maggie Cheung plays the 1930s actor Ruan Ling-yu (the star of The Goddess) in a biopic which also works as a kind of documentary-drama about Maggie Cheung herself and her performance alongside interviews with survivors of the 1930s Shanghai film industry and archive sequences from the original films. I’m assuming that these streets in Shanghai are preserved/reconstructed as both tourist attractions and film locations. After Ten Thousand Waves, I watched Lou Ye’s 2006 film Purple Butterfly, possibly filmed on the same streets for a 1930-set Shanghai film. Isaac Julien also offers us short scenes of modern Shanghai (urban motorways) and other brief images which might be of young people in some form of protest march (I didn’t take notes, so this was just a fleeting image).

Maggie Cheung recreates her role as Flying Snow in the studio

The third major section of Ten Thousand Waves is also in two parts and also features Maggie Cheung. Ms Cheung is now largely retired from feature films but here she appears in flowing white robes as if dressed for her part as ‘Flying Snow’ in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-HK 2002) (but also wearing an incongruous pair of white sports shoes). Once again, Julien shows the construction of this footage so we see Maggie on wires being pulled along against a green screen with a wind machine blowing. These movements are then laid over footage of a river gorge in South China in which also we see a group of men travelling down the river in period costume. It is from this footage that the two large still photographs exhibited alongside the film are taken, one of Maggie Cheung in flight (‘Maiden of Silence’) and one of the men (‘Yishuan Island, Dreaming’). Also in the studio, we see master calligrapher Gong Fagen who uses a large brush to write on glass, which is then rubbed off. The notes accompanying the exhibition also mention ‘video artist Yang Fudong’ and the music score which “incorporates music and original score by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra as well as by the classical composer Maria de Alvear”.

. . . and fishermen travel down the river in Ghangxi

What does all this mean? The notes tell us that:

. . . the film interweaves moments of Chinese history, custom and legend to explore contemporary experiences of desire, loss and separation. Central to the film is the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu the Sea Goddess, the protector of seafarers, alongside  scenes of the Ghangxi province in Southern China, where the cockle-pickers’ spirits  journeyed back to the ‘middle kingdom’.

I find it difficult to articulate what I felt watching the film and thinking about it later. A few weeks earlier I had sat on the banks of the River Kent estuary in Morecambe Bay watching the ‘Arnside Bore’, the racing tide which is signalled by warning sirens. It’s horrific to think of cockle-pickers caught by such tides at night and totally unprepared. Whether that feeling of helplessness and horror that comes from the archive footage can be linked to the Shanghai footage so that, to quote the notes again, “[the film] penetrates the realities of labour, landscape and migration that continues to define our times” is an open question.

Since I know something about the two cinematic references the installation uses, I suppose I can make some kind of connection. I was also to some extent primed for the experience by the Manchester-based Chinese film scholar Felicia Chan who sent me her paper ‘Cosmopolitan Pleasures and Affects; Or Why Are We Still Talking about Yellowface in Twenty-First-Century Cinema?’, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Issue 14, Winter 2017, pp. 41–60. Dr Chan is concerned that the orientalist images of ‘exotic China’, first created or ‘captured’ in the West and then repeated within contemporary Chinese culture, have come to dominate global representations of ‘Chineseness’. She uses Ten Thousand Waves as one of several examples, picking out a comment by the Guardian‘s correspondent in a report about the acquisition of rights to present the installation at the Whitworth:

. . . these images are continually reprised for Western ‘cosmopolitan’ consumption, even when spoken of as a ‘homecoming’ to the north of England (Brown 2016). The ‘local’ on this occasion, whether of Morecambe, the north of England, or the plight of the Chinese migrants cannot really compete with the scopophilic power of the Chinese exotic once again.

(ref: Brown, Mark, ‘Film on Morecambe Cockle Picker Disaster Bought for UK Art Collections’, the Guardian, 22 March 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/22/film-isaac-julien-morecambe-cockle-picker-disaster-uk-public-art.) (Felicia Chan is the author of Cosmopolitan Cinema: Cross-Cultural Encounters in East Asian Film. I.B. Tauris, 2017)

I’m with Felicia Chan on wondering why Isaac Julien chose such well-known images and references from Chinese recent visual culture in constructing his story. I’m also saddened to realise (admittedly only some time after experiencing Ten Thousand Waves) that Julien might have discovered other historical migration links for the waters of Morecambe Bay. A few miles south of Hest Bank (the closest coastal settlement to the site of the tragedy) is Sunderland Point, on the headland of the River Lune estuary. In the 18th century this tiny village became part of slave trade practice. Lancaster was then the third largest English slave port and ships that were too large to reach its rapidly silting docks dropped cargo at Sunderland. As well as slavery, the ports of the Irish Sea were also embarkation ports for migrants from the UK to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The main English port for migration from the region would have been Liverpool). Finally, just south of Lancaster is another possible Chinese connection via the silk mill at Galgate which operated from 1792 until 1971. Each of these connections might have enabled a different kind of analysis of the local-global perspectives on the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers tragedy.

Viewing the 3 screen installation seems like a somewhat diminished version of Isaac Julien’s vision and in the clip below he talks about the 9 screen original and its sense of immersion. In other similar clips on YouTube he talks about the visual qualities of his work (shot on 35mm) and the importance of the best available projection. From the glimpses of the 9 screen version I can see that the moving camera becomes more noticeable – and there also seems to be material that either isn’t in the 3 screen version, or which is less pronounced in the overall presentation. As an artwork, Ten Thousand Waves is certainly impressive but the questions it raises need discussion.