Dennis Broe wraps up Cannes 2019, which witnessed tthe continued rise of Asian cinema
It’s official. Cannes 2019 is in the books and the biggest story is perhaps the continuing rise of Asian cinema not only in its popular form – in the Korean violence epic The Cop, The Gangster and The Devil – but more importantly in its independent cinema. This year there was a marked social and critical aspect in three films in particular: South Korea’s examination of contemporary class struggle Parasite, winner of the Palme d'Or for best film; China’s laying bare of a poor people’s economy in the guise of a cop and gangster film in Wild Goose Lake; and Taiwan’s examination of the film industry’s exploitation and fracturing of the consciousness of a young actress in Nina Wu.
During the festival, Trump upped the ante in his now all-out economic war against China by banning Huawei – for the sin of outstripping US technology in both innovation and price – from laying the infrastructure for the development of the 5G network, pegged as essential for future expansion of the streaming industry in its coming attempt to incorporate film viewing under its wing. China is less of a presence in the market here, also because of Trump’s embargo. Meanwhile, however, Chinese audiences are advancing in their level of sophistication. They are largely rejecting fluff aimed at them by Hollywood such as Crazy Rich Asians which took in only $1.7 million in what is soon to be the largest film market in the world. Instead those audiences have been clamouring to see films like last year’s Cannes winner Shoplifters, about a quasi-family of scammers whose compassion is greater than the bourgeois family next door, and Capernaum, a film set in Lebanon about life on the streets.
Less of a presence this year also is Saudi Arabia, being more cautious, after the Khashoggi killing than last year’s spreading of money around the Croisette which saw AMC Theatres sign a deal to open cinemas in the kingdom which they did not relinquish, though the Endeavor agency did give $400 million dollars. French investigative reporters broke stories about French arms sales to the Mohammad Bin Salman dictatorship which they implied were used in the war in Yemen, potentially to kill women and children, which no one in the film industry seems to be upset about as this year the Saudi deals were done more quietly. Khashoggi’s Washington Post editor described this slinking around as evidence, if any is needed, that “Hollywood is putting profits over everything.” That was the view from the much improved Hollywood Reporter. The more mercenary Variety just described the situation as still posing “a risk for business ventures.”
Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, starts with a hilarious opening of its first segment as a family living in a basement and feeding off a neighbor’s internet loses the connection, and attempts to find another Wi-Fi network they can latch onto. They live in a poor section of Seoul, with one neighbour often urinating near their house. All of which contrasts sharply with the verdant lawns of a modern mansion where the son, Ki-woo, is hired at as a tutor. This first segment, as he cannily smuggles his whole family into the service of the rich corporate magnate, recalls last year’s Japanese film Shoplifters. The next segment, with the family celebrating when the rich family leaves for the weekend but then being trapped when they return unexpectedly, is an absurdist farce along the lines of Home Alone. But the final segment overturns the mood of the first two as the poor family’s house is flooded and they must accept clothes from a gym which is contrasted to the splendor and extravagance of the rich parents’ closet.
The mood here, as the class struggle worsens, turns grim – moving from a Hollywood feelgood comedy where class tensions are concealed, to more of a Claude Chabrol-type confrontation of the two lifestyles a la La Ceremonie. And indeed there is nothing feelgood about the fact that one family suffers while the other has it all. The rich family is not evil, simply rich, but their walled-off position in contrast to the utter misery of those around them makes them a target, with the husband continually displaying his indignation at anyone who, as he says, “crosses the line.” This is marvellous social filmmaking from director Bong Joon Ho, who here and in such films as The Host, Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer and Okja proves himself to be the contemporary director today who best combines a social conscience with a popular appeal, which makes him in my opinion the best director in the world.
Wild Goose Lake, by Diao Yinan, whose previous Black Coal/Thin Ice used the sleaziest of thriller clichés – the serial killer – as an excuse to portray the desperateness of a region in Northeast China whose coal economy had deadened its souls. Here the spotlight is on central China, with Diao employing the tropes of the film noir – the cop and the femme fatale – to again deliver a survey of contemporary rural sprawl in China and to comment on a situation where every move made by the gangsters is matched by the cops, who seem not to be their opposites but their sideshadows. The film is about how relations have fractured in this new money economy but in a last turn, the emphasis is instead on how people care about each other and the desperate lengths one must go to, including multiple betrayals, to assert human kindness.
Finally, there was the very remarkable Nina Wu, which in the age of Me Too is a kind of Harvey Weinstein meets Mulholland Drive. Torture the woman, Hitchcock proclaimed, as a key to his films and this film, with screenplay co-authored by its director Midi Z and lead actress Wu Ke-xi, is that dictum from the point of view of the tortured actress. Humiliated in her film audition, almost killed on the set in order to get her to properly emote in the last scene of the film, and witness to her dog – named Oscar in a nod to her industry ambitions – being annihilated. The film uses fantasy sequences to depict the schizophrenia this treatment induces, but ends with the sexual manipulation that is the ultimate key to a madness brought on by the male power structure of the industry. The film references Uma Thurman, who had complained of rough treatment by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill and Tarantino was in the audience, coming to support its Taiwanese director, but in so doing perhaps confronted with his own valued position in what was the house of Weinstein, with Pulp Fiction, lauded at Cannes, having secured Harvey’s career.
Tarantino’s own film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is reactionary, though narratively brilliant in its time leaps, in its incorporation of his memories from growing up in the Hollywood of the late 1960s, on the cusp of a change that would be announced with 1969’s Easy Rider lauded that year at Cannes, and in the way it blends a fictional world with our own knowledge of the Manson murders. Once singles out women and hippies, and particularly liberated women, as participating in the demise of an entirely masculinist studio system that had utterly lost touch with reality.
At the same time Tarantino premiered his film on the red carpet, the biggest budget film at the festival, an old partner of his, Robert Rodriquez, about ten minutes further down the beach, demonstrated how a film could be made for 7000 dollars similar to the film that secured his place in the industry – El Mariachi. Rodriquez shot Red 11 in the downtime as he waited for the rushes to be edited in his big budget Alita Battle Angel. His film is about a big pharma company experimenting on subjects who become guinea pigs because they are too poor to pay their debts. Based on Rodriquez’ own experience when he became a test subject to finance his first film, Red 11 looks credible and has in the end a more distinguished and relevant subject matter than Tarantino’s.
Also on hand at Cannes was Once Upon a Time star Leonardo DiCaprio. On the day after the premiere he introduced a climate film produced and narrated by himself called Ice On Fire, which usefully details the effect of climate destruction – to call it climate change at this point is simply to obscure the issue – on the polar ice caps and the equally harmful and less discussed effects of releasing methane, stored in the earth for millennia, into the atmosphere. What is not so useful is its position that climate destruction can be stopped by technology and by the goodwill of capitalists. A German scientist explains, with a straight face, that one need only build 300,000 of his giant balloon-like sucking structures and spread them across the globe to capture 1% of the carbon released by fossil fuels. Later, a New Mexico rancher who notes the leaks inherent in a fracking device near his ranch suggests that if the CEOs of the fracking companies could come look at the leaks, they would immediately stop them. The authors of this film need to read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything about the actual steps it will take to change the situation the film adequately and with gorgeous photography describes.
Finally, there was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, about a conscientious objector in Austria who refuses to go to Hitler’s war. The early scenes in the Austrian countryside recall the wheat fields of Days of Heaven, and the squalor in the pacifist Franz’s prison cell likewise conjures up a sequence in The New World where the Indians visit the settlers who have degenerated over the winter. The film itself depicts not the sprawling physical combat of The Thin Red Line, but instead the psychological battle between the Nazis and the Austrian peasants favouring the war and the stolid courage of Franz and his wife Fani in the face of his moral decision which everyone tells him will change nothing but which we see having an effect in the anger it unleashes in those around him who are suppressing their own moral qualms.
In the opening documentary sequence of Hitler parading in his motorcade to cheering throngs, one cannot help but think that this is not just a film about World War II. It is also about the way a thinking, caring director like Malick is experiencing Trump and John Bolton’s Axis of Oil, er, Evil in attempting to provoke wars with Iran, Venezuela and North Korea while at the same time sparking big power confrontations with China and Russia. The world must seem mad to Malick and indeed it may be, though the character in his film has the courage to oppose this madness.
My Cannes Prizes:
Best Film: Parasite
Best Actor: Willem Defoe in Lighthouse
Best Actress: Valerie Packner (Fani) in A Hidden Life
(both actor and actress will resurface at Oscar time.)
Best Screenplay: Paul Laverty for Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You
and Midi Z and Wu Ke-xi for Nina Wu
Best Direction: Terrence Malick for A Hidden Life
Top 5 films at the fest, in competition or out:
Capital in the 21st Century
Sorry We Missed You
Dennis Broe is a culture critic whose latest work is Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His art and architecture criticism appear on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and at Culture Matters and People’s World.