In London with time on my hands so I went to Holland Park to pass by one of my favourite sculptures, ‘Boy with Bear Cubs’, and to explore the parts of the park I had not previously seen. I wanted to see the ‘Kyoto Garden’ and was pleased to find that I was the only visitor. The steady drizzle of February rain in London probably helped keep other visitors away!
The garden has been here since the early 90s. It boasts a rock waterfall and a pool with Koi carp in it. This little piece of Japan in the capital is here to celebrate the Japan festival held in 1992. As an extension to the garden, a further area called the Fukushima Memorial Garden was opened in 2012 in gratitude of the Japanese people for British support following disasters in Japan in 2011.
The area was silent when I visited so the sense of peace I was looking for was easy to achieve.
This film about film is an interesting exploration of gender in Chinese cinema by director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang. The sub-title, ‘Gender in Chinese Cinema’ sets us up for a documentary of interviews and film clips around gender fluidity in films by Chinese directors.
Many of the films are ones I am familiar with such as ‘Farewell My Concubine’ and ‘Vive L’amour’ but there were others that have now been added to the list of films to hunt down. Interestingly, many of the directors and actors deny any connection between their work and the idea of being gay, and even deny the work having gay themes. Leslie Cheung answers questions about so frequently being cast in effeminate roles as recognising in himself a certain degree of vulnerability.
Kwan presents the film in ‘chapters’ starting with his own experiences as a child, being taken to the male bath houses by his father and ending with his interview with his mother when he asks her if it concerns her that she has a gay son. Between, we see images of male bonding from martial arts films and others and images of masculinity in both men and women. The Chinese Opera is a rich resource for crossing gender norms and this is explored, yet it seems, in the late 90s at least, that Hong Kong and Taiwan were more open to expressions of homosexuality than mainland China. It may have changed!
It comes across as something of a period piece itself, now, but the documentary, narrated by Tony Rayns, is worth watching for the signs that things are shifting in cinema.
I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
Reading Anthony Sattin’s book reminded me of this television drama from 1992 with the excellent Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. In this particular film, the drama revolves around the post- war peace conference in Paris where the victorious allies carved up the world. This was the stage on which Lawrence, acting as an adviser to Feisal, the would- be leader of a new Arab nation; one that they believed had been promised by Britain during the war in return for Arab support.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed and the spoils were there for the taking by Britain and France. Both countries wanted influence in the area and the claims of the Arab peoples, themselves, were forgotten.
Denis Quilley played Lord Curzon and Nicholas Jones played Lord Dyson. The fact that both key players on the British side were Lords says a lot about the times! Feisal was played by Anthony Siddig.
The film shows clearly the growing British exasperation with Lawrence, especially over what they see as his disloyalty, while Lawrence shows his contempt for duplicitous politicians. The peace conference is the perfect setting for the political manoeuvering of nations. It also shows how the establishment deals with outsiders.
At this stage of his life, Lawrence is famous. A stage show in London portrays him as a heroic figure in the Middle East. Whether the man himself is happy to be portrayed in this way is left open but the film does show that identity can be forced on people as well as embraced. By showing how awkward he is with women, the implication is that he prefers men for intimacy. I prefer Anthony Sattin’s conclusion that we do not have the evidence on which to conclude whether or not he was gay. I suppose in a way it proves its own point: identity can be forced upon people.
‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1996 film from Czech film-maker Jan Sverak is a wonderful exploration of how a life can change and find meaning in an unexpected way. The director’s father Zdenek plays the central role of Louka, a dedicated bachelor who earns his living as a cellist, or struggles to by playing at funerals; his previous job with an orchestra was lost when he was considered to be politically unreliable. This is Czechoslovakia in the late 80s and, although the Soviet bloc is disintegrating, the regime is still a totalitarian one.
Louka struggles to make a living and agrees to marry a Russian woman for cash. Things go wrong when she uses her new citizenship status to esacpe to the West, leaving her five-year old son behind. The boy is the Kolya of the title.
The story is one of a growing bond between man and boy, despite the language difficulties and the other problems of an inexperienced bachelor trying to look after a young boy. What becomes clear, though, is the sense that both need each other. For Louka, in particular, the change to his life is positive; he finds purpose in the role of parent.
Towards the end of the film, the events of the late 80s in the Eastern bloc affect both man and boy. The ending plays cleverly on the idea of freedom and loss, for both individuals and groups.
The film is never sentimental but it is affecting. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?