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Thursday, 12 September 2019

From the Archives - Adrian Martin retrieves John C Murray's unpublished review of THE DREAMING (Mario Andreacchio, Australia, 1988)

Introduction: This is an unpublished piece by John that I recently came across in my files several months after his death in May 2019. I am not exactly certain how I came to be in possession of it or when it was written, but I suspect it was during the initial flurry of work done for Scott Murray as editor of Australian Film 1978-1994 (Oxford University Press) in the early 1990s. Scott’s original plan for the book (as I recall) was to include feature films that had achieved release only on video, and so various authors (including myself) were commissioned to cover these (often quite obscure and unknown) titles. In the event, however, these entries were dropped and never published. This piece on The Dreaming– a film compromised during production and diverted from its original intentions, according to director Mario Andreacchio  in this 1988 interview (click on the link), – has a modest scope (as befits a reference book entry), but the critical mind and voice are unmistakeably John’s. Adrian Martin, September 2019

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The Dreaming is one of several Australian films to use Aboriginal mythology as the basis for a modern thriller. Here, 1980s characters inadvertently confront terrifying images from the Dreamtime, threatening both their sanity and their lives.

Professor Bernard Thornton (Arthur Dignam) is the head of an archaeological team which discovers a sealed burial chamber on a remote island off the Southern Coast. Breaking into it, he finds and touches a bracelet and, almost immediately, he is haunted by images of a past when whalers came ashore and murdered an Aboriginal girl, Muridji (Kristina Nehm). Similar images haunt the Aboriginal activist Warindji who steals the bracelet from a museum, and the doctor who handles it when treating her in hospital after she has been bashed by guards (shades of earlier, brutal times). By coincidence, the doctor happens to be the Professor’s daughter, Cathy (Penny Cook).

Now while borrowing loosely from Aboriginal mythology, the filmmakers do nothing with their concept other than attempt to milk it for suspense. There is no explanation for what happens (as in touching the bracelet), or for why Warindji seems to be a reincarnation of Muridji, and the Professor of one of the whalers. (Both Nehm and Dignam have dual roles, uncredited.) And the spirit which possesses Cathy, and leads her to the final confrontation with her father, is never identified.

That would all be okay if the film gripped one’s attention, but it fails singularly to do that, leaving the audience sitting there pondering questions that shouldn’t be asked. Essentially, the fault lies with a script which in its ordering and construction of scenes seems to actively mitigate the suspense, relying finally on unconvincing shock moments. And too often the writers resort to that tiredest of clichés: a character waking up just as horror is about to engulf him or her, thus revealing it was all only a dream.

As well, director Mario Andreacchio seems uncomfortable with this sort of material. The action sequences are poorly staged, particularly the climactic one in the lighthouse, and much of the dialogue is handled perfunctorily. There is also a sloppiness one doesn’t expect even in a B-film, such as when Cathy’s husband Geoff (Gary Sweet) is knocked out of his rowboat by a whaler ship. As the ship passes, Geoff is seen in the reverse close-up to turn his head to watch in the wrong direction. Now mistakes can be made in shooting, but why wasn’t the shot flopped over in post-production to fix it? Those involved seemed not to have cared.

Made in South Australia with obviously limited resources, this film went straight to video early in 1989.

© Estate of John C. Murray

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

On UK DVD and Blu-ray - Fiona Mackie reviews 'a special film' OUT OF BLUE (Carol Morley, USA, 2019)

Based on Martin Amis's 1997 novel Night Train, it spoils nothing for me to say how well the inter-blend of crime and post-quantum physics serves the outcome.  And while Schrodinger's Cat perhaps haunts the narrative a fraction too frequently, the black holes and multiple universes weave a spell that blends well with visual traces reflecting the New Orleans of the film's setting.

But there is no cashing in on the kind of scenic scoring of New Orleans streetscapes that could have milked, but would have marred the focus and integrity of the film.  It's in the mood that New Orleans is evoked, and in the crime, with just an occasional glimpse of the French Quarter.

Intricate and profound, gentle and riveting, the film is a triumph of pace, conveying the deep bond between director (Carol Morley) and main character Detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) through which that pace and rhythm have been orchestrated.

For a lover of crime novels, another aspect of the film's uniqueness is how much honour it pays to a novel's capacity to interweave elements and to reverence internal moods and states as well as external clues and discoveries.  It centres this, too, on the psychic and sometimes near-psychotic insights and understandings of the central detective.  In these many ways its translation of novel to film surpasses, in my view, so many attempts at that conversion, and adds significantly to what the novel had to offer.  And like all good crime tales, it keeps you gripped, unfolding its secrets only slowly, yet inclusively.

But with all that detail, I have told you nothing, really, of the plot, which centres on the corpse of a female Professor of Physics, found in the observatory where she worked and taught.  A range of murder suspects includes the African American Professor, Duncan J Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), who was her lover; and who, when questioned exhibits a burst of sudden violence.

Fine performances are offered by the well-known actors Toby Jones, whose presence in the observatory spreads an ugly and unsettling vibe; and James Caan, who is not immediately recognisable in his brooding portrayal of the father of the victim.

And then there is Jackie Weaver, the victim's mother.  As ever, Weaver is able to embody a complex space that few could convey without blurring and reducing it.  Instead, she lights up and inhabits a character who, without her, might have remained opaque, or simply squashed.  And that would have been greatly to the detriment of the film's achievement; so, a triumph of casting, here.

The context, the colours, the shifting moods constantly challenge one's engagement.  Other than that, I only want to say, don't miss this film, because they are blowing no trumpets for themselves, and therefore they may get scant coverage and attention.

And that would be a vast shame.

Definitely a special film.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Current Cinema - John Snadden tracks down two films under the radar DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (S. Craig Zahler, USA) and NE ZHA ( Yu Yang, China)


Another tale of two excellent films which our dinosaur media has seen fit to ignore.
Dragged Across Concrete is the latest pic from S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) which features two big name stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as long serving inner-city detectives who for different reasons set out to rob a small time drug dealer. 

Zahler builds and sustains suspense exceptionally well as we watch the officers cross the line and then find themselves unable to go back. A long violent sequence which takes place in a hollowed out industrial estate has the fervid atmosphere of a Jim Thompson narrative, as the main players begin to spiral out of control when fear and greed become the driving forces of the film. 
For a tough, visceral crime movie it's not overly violent and the most disturbing moments are implied. Definitely a film for the cineastes and genre buffs.
Ne Zha is an animated film from mainland China which has been cleaning up big time at box-offices worldwide - Melbourne is no exception. 
The story is culled from Chinese mythology and the title character is like a human version of the infamous Monkey King. Non-Asian viewers shouldn't try too hard to follow the convoluted story-line. 
Ne Zha is a smart mouthed, bad tempered demon in a human's body. He's also a pawn in a power struggle between heaven and earth and the shackled monsters of the underworld. He has a goofy protector and a doting mother and father, who all try to keep him on the straight and narrow - a full-time job! 
For most of the pic the animation is nothing special and won't have Disney executives losing sleep. But the final 30 minutes is in a class of its own as the sky darkens and the demons from the underworld are unleashed. Fire, thunder and ice are the weapons of choice in this protracted and stunning End of Days conflagration. 
Although, midway through this sequence the film deliberately stops for a prolonged fart joke - and where the kids in the audience roared their approval! Then the battle continues....
Ne Zha is a movie carefully aimed at the young at heart - no matter what your age.

Editor's Note: Don Groves reported in Inside Film this week:"Distributed by CMC, Chinese director/co-writer Yu Yang’s fantasy/adventure Ne Zha conjured up $188,000 in its third, raising the total to an impressive $1.8 million."

Monday, 9 September 2019

Streaming on SBS on Demand - IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Hans Petter Moland, Norway, 2014)

Twenty five years ago Hans Petter Moland attracted attention with Zero Kelvin. It starred Stellan Skarsgård. It was the first of a number of collaborations between the two, one of which was In Order of Disappearance made in Norway in 2014. Moland remade the film in America with Liam Neeson and it went out around the world in February this year. I didn’t see it.

But, its precursor is now streaming on SBS On Demand. When I watched it had 3 ad breaks of around a minute each, far fewer interruptions than you get when you watch an episode of Spiral on the same service.

Skarsgård plays a Swede living in the backblocks of Norway whose job it is to drive a snowplough to keep a main road open. The vehicle almost resembles something out of Mad Max. He’s so integral to the town that he’s just had an evening out to accept an award for citizen of the year. That night his son, who drives the freight trolley at the local airport, is murdered via an overdose of heroin. The police close the case but Skarsgård is suspicious. His wife accepts the police version of a drug overdose and Skarsgård himself gets so depressed he contemplates suicide until a friend of his son, and a drug dealer, turns up to tell him that his kid was murdered. 

Skarsgård’s wife leaves him and he sets out on a course of bloody revenge. It has taken about half an hour to get to this point, which includes a couple of early revenge murders on low level drug couriers. So far so Scandi noir…. 

Then the complications start to ensue and the film turns away from grim brutality into a dramatic comedy of mishap, misunderstanding and misadventure. The drug community thinks it knows who is breaking the rules. By ‘chance’ Skarsgård’s brother is a reformed crim who knows the ins and outs of the local drug trade. His Chinese girlfriend is not happy. The drug kingpin’s ex-wife, the scrumptious Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (from Borgen), is not impressed with her child’s welfare when he’s in the care of the drug kingpin. A bunch of Serbs, ruled over by an aging Bruno Ganz, who had previously kept to their patch, object to one of their members being offed. The crosses mount up to signify chapter endings. There are a couple of dozen by the end…

It’s almost into Donald Westlake territory and makes you chortle quite a lot…I’m curious enough now to want to see the Moland/Neeson/US remake.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Streaming on Stan - Rod Bishop reviews THE LOUDEST VOICE (7 Episodes directed by Kari Skoglan, Jeremy Podeswa, Scott Z Burns & Stephen Frears, USA, 2019)

Here’s something you don’t see every day. 
Rupert Murdoch getting pushed around. 
Russell Crowe, Simon McBurney, The Loudest Voice
Firstly, by the frightening Republican bully Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe) and later - to a lesser degree - by the Michelle-Obama-adoring Wendi Deng (Julee Cerda).
For most Australians, however, The Loudest Voice’s biggest problem is the ridiculously unconvincing Rupert Murdoch. Played by Simon McBurney, the English thespian produces the worst Australian accent since … well, since forever. The timbre of McBurney’s voice is nothing like Murdoch’s and, a few facial features aside, he doesn’t look much like dear old Rupert. To make matters worse, he calls everyone “mate” and is portrayed as the wimpiest media tycoon imaginable.
Lachlan Murdoch, played by American Barry Watson, at least vaguely resembles the anointed son, but that’s more to do with the skills of the wardrobe department, than anything else. Watson doesn’t sound remotely Australian either.
On this front at least, Russell Crowe and Naomi Watts show the rest of the cast how to convincingly impersonate American accents. It’s said Watts had to work hard to make her Minnesota accent acceptable, but this may only be of interest to Minnesotans. 
Years ago, bemused at the way our Aussie actors seemed to fly into the States, adopt an American accent and get away with it, I asked a longtime friend in Los Angeles how this was possible. He set me straight: “When we hear an American accent we haven’t heard before; we just assume it’s from some part of the country we’ve never been to.” That simple, it seems.
Playing Ailes and Gretchen Carlson, Crowe and Watts have the best roles they have had in a while and deserve to figure prominently at the Emmys. 
Ailes, we are told, single handedly created Fox News. He hires and fires, he runs the programming schedule, the news room, the television production studios and even writes some of the “journalism”. He coaches prospective “personalities” like Sean Hannity, he advices on colour schemes for the sets and during program breaks, even stops makeup artists from taking sweat off interviewees faces.
And he’s a monster. He humiliates, abuses, belittles and sexually harasses. He’s a bigot and a racist and a misogynist, but when his voice drops and he puts on his best puppy dog eyes, he excels at passive aggression. 
The series painstakingly details his right-wing fanaticism and his decades-long sexual harassment of female employees. He’s convinced Obama is “a Muslim in the White House”; that anyone with leftist causes who chooses activism is a “communist”; that all the major print and news outlets in the USA are run by liberal elites. He believes Fox News is balanced and fair because it is counteracting (that is, “balancing”) the leftist monolith of news organisations in the rest of the country.
He alone decides to push the bogus weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq with Dick Cheney’s full cooperation, despite both men knowing there is not a single piece of evidence to substantiate the claim. He champions Trump and gets rid of anyone who disagrees with him. Not being able to fire Rupert Murdoch, he either belligerently shouts his boss down until he gets his way, or, failing that, gets petulant and threatens to resign. Rupert backs down every time. 
Except for one. At his last audience with Murdoch, James and Lachlan are in attendance. Ailes looks at them: “What are they doing here?” “I just came to watch” replies Lachlan. Never imagined Lachlan Murdoch might have a sense of humour.

TWO FOR THE ROAD TO PORDENONE- Barrie Pattison reports on one off screenings of ANOTHER CHILD (Yoon-seok Kim, South Korea) and MARIA AND THE OTHERS (Nely Reguera. Spain)

Here’s two for the road before I set out for Paris and Pordenone, films from a couple of the one-off screenings that are becoming the core of my experience of new movies.

Koreans are now doing six hundred films a year. The KOFFIA  Korean Film Festival delivered Miseongnyeon /Another Child directed by Yoon-seok Kim one of their leading stars whose work we know from the violent thrillers Hwanghae/Yellow Sea(2010)  and The Chaser/Chugyeogja (2008).

This one pivots on feckless (usually shown feckful) dad Kim who is having an affair with So-jin Kim owner of a roasted duck restaurant without his church going wife knowing. The wife has made a killing in the real estate market by buying their flat in her own name.

Film opens with the couple’s school girl daughter caught spying on the restaurant. The situation is complicated by the fact that dad’s tootsie’s own daughter Se-jin Kim goes to the same school. Their encounters include a face off on the school roof, an area roped off after the girls started using it to smoke, and a punch up which crashes through a re-enforced glass door. After that one, the girls finish the movie with cuts healing on their faces. Their ineffectual, baton waving teacher Hee-won Kim, seethes with frustration at his lack of authority in the situation. 

The men in this film tend to be contemptible. Se-jin Kim’s own dad shows up mainly interested in squeezing some money out of his estranged family and is upset to realise that his daughter is too young to take out a credit card in his name.

Complications multiply stoked by messages on lost cell ‘phones. The pregnant restaurateur has to be rushed to hospital by her rival who picks up the bill for her upgrade to a better ward and is shown (nice touch) mopping up the blood on her car seat afterwards. Se-jin Kim insists on repaying her out of the family’s thin bank roll. At the hospital dad Kim hides from the girls, marking time behind a pillar on a moving escalator.

The mix of comedy of embarrassment and touching moments is a tough act for a new director to pull off.

You’re unlikely to see this one but the rest would be a spoiler if it did ever show up.

Finally, it's only his two sisters who get to see the premature baby in its incubator. Sister Se-jin Kim  starts washing bootees and resolves to quit school, the way her own mother did, and raise him herself when none of the parents show willing but they come to the ward to find his incubator empty. The child has not been adopted as they feared but died and been packed in a cardboard box for the crematorium.

They pursue van driver Jong-jun Jeong (finally a sympathetic male character) who lets them ride along and gives them the box containing the remains which Se-jin Kim  brings to school causing another clash with her fellow daughter.

Jeong-eun Lee has thrown dad out and So-jin Kim, embarrassed by the breast milk showing through her blouse, has realised that he’s not going to settle with her. Scene of him being mugged at the sea side resort where he thought his friend would put him up but instead pushy local woman Jeong-eun Lee hits him up with a fee for parking in front of her home on the breakwater and the bike kids waylay him at night. Finally, his estranged wife has to pay his cab fare back and drive him from the flat he no longer shares to the hospital with a suspected broken arm.

Ends with the two girls in an abandoned fun fair deciding the fate of the less than a hand full of the dead baby’s ashes.

Sharp, well-chosen images emphasize nicely shaded characters, making the piece more than normally promising but they can’t get through it all before attention becomes strained.

The Cervantes Institute gave us a viewing of the 2016 María (y los demás)/Maria and the Others, the first feature of former assistant director Nely Reguera, a vehicle for great looking Bárbara Lennie, known for Todos lo saben/Everybody Knows(2018)  and particularly as the TV host in El rein /The Candidate2018) now making a try at a lead with the responsibility for carrying a production. 

At thirty-five Lennie is the support of her aging father José Ángel Egido, fussing about his diet and medication while holding down a job with a small publishing venture where she hosts signings for their authors as well as stacking the books.

In the nature of these films, she finds herself being sidelined when dad’s fifty-ish Argentinian nurse Marina Skell becomes his fiancée, without showing suitable concern about his gastric reflux, and the happy couple plan on selling the now closed family restaurant. Lennie’s brother is tired of working for others as a chief kitchen hand in London and had designs on re-opening the place. Meanwhile her publisher boss has lined up a novel by an established author to take the place in their schedule that Lennie wanted to fill with the book she has been working on since college. 

Things aren’t so good with her lover Julián Villagrán either. He won’t introduce her to his little daughters. Coyly framed sex scenes suggest senorita Lennie isn’t going to reward her fans but she does get around to a nude scene.

A series of events accelerates her discontent. Arrangements for the wedding mean digging out the Sabima tree that has always been in the family yard. Selecting the wedding dress has Barbara looking killer in the demo model she’s trying on, outshining the bride. Sending the glamorous selfie off isn’t received well when she’s trying to force the issue with the boyfriend. (“she brought a teddy bear” one of his little girls observes) It all increases her felling of frustration. Having to rescue Skell from the surf just stokes resentment.

Barbara oversleeps and the wedding arrangements go to pieces - “There are no canapes. The guests have nothing to eat.” She lets them get on without her.

Performances are good and the piece is exactly set in Galacia but they can’t convince us that what we are seeing is serious drama rather than handsomely mounted soap.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

CINEMA REBORN 2020 - 30 April-3 May, the Randwick Ritz

Federico Fellini was born 100 years ago in 1920

Cinema Reborn 2020

The Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn announced today that the 2020 season will take place at the Randwick Ritz cinema from Thursday 30 April to Sunday 3 May.

 

Cinema Reborn began in 2018 and is dedicated to presenting digital restorations of classic cinema from around the world. The festival has now become part of an ever-growing circuit of film events devoted to showcasing the restoration work of the world’s major production companies and international film archives. 

 

Ernst Lubitsch

Program

Highlights of the previous Cinema Reborn programs included Memories of Underdevelopment(Tomás Gutiérrez Alea), Yol–The Full Version (Yilmaz Güney), Wanda(Barbara Loden), Sons of Matthew(Charles Chauvel), A Matter of Life and Death(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray), Sans Lendemain (Max Ophuls), The Crime of M. Lange (Jean Renoir), One From the Heart(Francis Ford Coppola), Woman on the Run(Norman Foster), People of the Australian Western Desert(Ian Dunlop), Between Wars(Michael Thornhill), In a Year of 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and The Night of Counting the Years(Shadi Abdel Salam) .

                                                                                

Cinema Reborn 2020 will present a program of eleven films over four days.  The full program will be announced in February 2020

 

Ida Lupino

Venue - The Randwick Ritz

Cinema Reborn is especially pleased that for a second year the event will take place at Randwick’s iconic art deco Ritz Cinema, a venue with state of the art projection equipment and one of the few remaining theatres in Sydney able to screen both digital copies and 35mm.

 

Cinema Reborn once again appreciates the support of the dedicated staff of the Ritz.

 

Eddie Tamir, the proprietor of The Ritz and of Melbourne’s Classic, Lido and Cameo cinemas has indicated his continuing enthusiasm for the project and commented: “We love having the greatest films of the past playing alongside the best films of today.

 

Luis Bunuel

Subscription Ticketing

To assist our patrons and supporters to enjoy the event to the maximum, in Cinema Reborn 2020 will offer the opportunity to purchase a dedicated budget-priced subscription ticket which will admit to all screenings.

 

Billy Wilder

Charitable Donations

Cinema Reborn is greatly assisted by charitable donations and a dedicated fund will again be set up to accept tax-deductible gifts from donors. Donations are accepted throughout the year from those not seeking tax deductibility and parties interested in donating, supporting screenings or offering sponsorship of any kind should contact the festival directly at the contact points below. 

 

Interstate Venues

Negotiations are underway to present Cinema Reborn 2020 at interstate venues and there will be further announcements when these details have been settled.

 

 

For further information:

 

Contact

 

Geoff Gardner

Chair, Organising Committee

CINEMA REBORN

 

Email: filmalert101@gmail.com

Ph: 0416 912 567

Friday, 6 September 2019

Bergman & Hitchcock - 25-27 October - A three film retrospective presented by the Canberra International Film Festival - Canberra

Andrew Pike, Director of the Canberra International Film Festival draws attention to the event being presented by CIFF in October, a screening of three films  made together by star Ingrid Bergman and director Alfred Hitchcock. Click on the link to go to the CIFF website for more information, bookings etc. 

Andrew writes:


Hitchcock gained notoriety for mistreating his actresses, but with Ingrid Bergman, he seems to have met his match:  she was committed to her career and her craft, and wanted to be challenged creatively by working with the great directors of the time.

Under Capricorn
Both Bergman and Hitchcock did some of their best work in a succession of films of enduring fascination. It seems to have been a collaboration from which both gained a great deal:  Bergman was stretched creatively in three films of great emotional intensity, and Hitchcock was driven to express some of his own personal anguish for the first time in his work.

Spellbound
The trio of films is an odd one:  SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS were major box-office successes, nominated for many Oscars and still applauded by critics today. 

Notorious
In counterpoint, UNDER CAPRICORN, was an expensive Technicolor production which failed commercially and virtually disappeared from view for many decades;  initially poorly reviewed, it is now increasingly finding avid supporters and is ripe for re-appraisal. The selection of stills below are taken from UNDER CAPRICORN.










  



Thursday, 5 September 2019

On New Indonesian Cinema - Scholar David Hanan reports on two adaptations of novels by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - BUMI MANUSIA (Hanung Bramantyo) and PERBURUAN (Richard Oh)


Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the 1980s

Two Indonesian films, based on novels by the internationally renowned left-wing Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), were released in cinemas throughout Indonesia in the third week of August, around the time of Indonesian Independence Day celebrations. As film critic for the quality Indonesian weekly Tempo, Leila Chudori, wrote last week, the fact that these two films could have been produced in Indonesia, and then released widely throughout the country by the two major cinema chains is at least one indication that Indonesia wishes to become a country which prioritizes freedom of expression, and as such this is something to be celebrated. Under the Suharto New Order regime, Pramoedya’s novels were banned on account of their alleged ‘Marxist-Leninist content’, and you could be sent to jail if you attempted to sell them. Tempo, in fact, devoted nine substantial pages to the release of the films, including—in addition to Leila Chudori’s reviews—background information about the history of their production, including information about negotiations with Pramoedya’s family over rights, and Pramoedya’s own earlier involvement, before his death, in various discussions of film rights to his novels. 

Pramoedya, whose novels have now been translated into well over 40 languages, was a member of Lekra (Institute of People’s Culture) – an arts organisation that advocated socialist realism in both the visual and literary arts. Pramoedya was arrested in October 1965, at the time of the mass killings and imprisonment of communist rank and file (and numerous ‘suspected’ communists, and others) that followed the abortive army purge of 30 September 1965. Without trial, but due to his known left-wing views and his membership of Lekra, Pramoedya was  jailed for 14 years by the Suharto New Order regime, initially in Java but then on the prison island of Buru in the Moluccas. Even after his release, Pramoedya remained largely persona non gratain Suharto’s Indonesia,  and not allowed to travel in Indonesia outside of Jakarta, nor to travel overseas, despite international acclaim for his books since the 1980s.

The two films released in August 2019 are Bumi Manusia (based on the novel of the same title, known in its English translation as This Earth of Mankind, the first in the series of four ‘Buru Quartet’ novels, all written while Pramoedya was a prisoner on Buru island), and Perburuan (The Hunt), based on an early novel by Pramoedya, first published in 1952. Perburuan was drafted in 1947-8 at the time Pramoedya was a prisoner of the Dutch, during the Indonesian struggle for independence. Although Bumi Manusia was published, deliberately, around independence day in August 1980, it was banned in mid-1981– even after a positive reception in the Indonesian literary world, and ten printings by its publisher. Both film adaptations have been produced by the same company, Falcon Pictures, under the leadership of a young woman producer, Frederica.

Promo for Bumi Manusia, with director, Hanung Bramantyo, and 
Sha Ine Febriyanti (Nyai Ontosoroh) on the right.

The epic, three-hour Bumi Manusia, directed by Hanung Bramantyo,depicts the growing awareness on the part of its young, Javanese narrator-protagonist, Minke —‘a native’ of aristocratic background who is attending a Dutch school near Surabaya—at the intensity and severity of class and racial discrimination under Dutch colonialism. This awareness is deepened, particularly, as Minke gradually comes close to—indeed becomes a part of—a Dutch Indonesian family, headed by a Javanese peasant woman of no education but great percipience, Nyai Ontosoroh,  sold as a young girl by her impoverished father to his employer (Nyai means “concubine”). Nyai Ontosoroh is now managing her Dutch ‘husband’s’  estate and business affairs, after her ‘husband’, Herman Mellema, who has never contracted a marriage with her, has succumbed to a daily routine of visits to a local whorehouse where he languishes for much of the time in an alcoholic and opium-induced stupor. Both novel and film show the extent of racial discrimination, whether it be through the sniping of school friends or insistent shouted demands by Dutch officials that ‘natives’ should not dare to speak the Dutch language, or discrimination within employment, and in the legal system, whether in its inequitable laws or in the behaviour of its judges. 

As in the novel, at the centre of the film is Nyai Ontosoroh, who, in her maternal strength persists in confronting all exigencies that confront her and her mixed-blood daughter, Annelies, whether internal conflicts in the family or in her family’s relation to Dutch authorities or Dutch power. In both novel and film, racial and class discrimination are patently obvious, so rather than being seen as Marxist works, for one does not need a Marxist analysis to see class and racial distinctions under colonialism, the uniqueness of the film and the novel is the tribute they pay to women, as a key source of strength and integrity within the family, even in the Dutch colonial period. The character of the frequently outspoken Nyai Ontosoroh is impressively played (by stage and screen actress Sha Ine Febriyanti), so that Nyai Ontosoroh is the real centre of the film, giving the film a feminist dimension, quite appropriate to Pramoedya's novel. 
Sha Ine Febriyanti, Iqbaal Ramadhan
The film has been criticised by some on the grounds that the lead male actor, Iqbaal Ramadhan, who plays the 19-years old Minke, is not really adequate to the role. Iqbaal, who had appeared in two particularly successful teen movies and who has also worked as a singer in a band, was chosen almost certainly for commercial reasons, as well as his age. Objections have also been raised about some of the sets, particularly the supposedly 20-years old nineteenth century house, where Nyai Ontosoroh and her family live on the estate, which, with its newly-built feel and its sparkling coats of paint, seemed quite unrealistic, and distracts from any convincing sense of period the film achieves elsewhere.

Obviously films based on long novels pose numerous problems of adaptation. While it is now quite some time since I read Pramoedya's novel, I do think that the adaptation achieved by the film's scriptwriters did manage to achieve a clarity of exposition in its focus on the novel's key themes: the problems posed by colonialism in terms of the pervasive racism it sets up, whether inherent in  personal or social relations, or indeed also frequently in legal situations. According to reports, the main script-writer on the film, Salman Aristo, spent two and a half years on the project, and consulted widely during the various stages of drafting the script. There are two climaxes in the film. First, the trial over the death of Herman Mellema, and then the later court scenes of the tribunal in Surabaya examining the question of whether Nyai Ontosoroh’s mixed-blood daughter, Annelies, should be forcibly moved to Holland to live with the family of her Dutch step-brother by a previous marriage of her late father, thus breaking up the family in Java, at the same time making it possible for the step-brother to take over the estate. Both brought these themes out very well and with great cumulative power.
 
Perburuan Poster Launch, Richard Oh far left
The second film, Perburuan (The Hunt), deals with a quite different period, the Japanese occupation of the Indonesian islands (February 1942 – August 1945), a period which Pramoedya himself experienced as a young man. Both film and novel deal with the aftermath of a rebellion by Javanese members of a PETA military unit against their Japanese commanders. PETA (Pembela Tanah Air) or ‘Defenders of the Homeland’ was a military organization set up in October 1943 by the Japanese army to train young Indonesians to fight alongside Japanese forces in any possible invasion by the Allies to retake the Indonesian islands, given that the likely outcome would be not only the defeat of the Japanese, but the re-imposition of Dutch colonialism. 

Much of the film is taken up with depicting a manhunt by Japanese for one particular Indonesian PETA member, Raden Hardo, on the run from the Japanese for six months - from the time of the rebellion in February 1945 to the end of World War II in the Pacific, in August of the same year. Perburuanwas published by Penguin Books in 1991, under the title The Fugitive in a translation by Australian, Max Lane, who also translated the whole of the Buru Quartet.

Perburuan, directed by Chinese Indonesian, Richard Oh, is an unusually nuanced film for a film set during a war. Although there are scenes of violence and killings, Perburuan—like other films by Richard Oh—is imbued with an abiding sense of contemplation of the implications of what is depicted. With the Japanese initially welcomed in Java, having driven out the Dutch colonisers, but imposing over time an increasingly cruel and repressive regime, stripping the country of its resources, human and natural, to fuel their war effort—for Javanese World War II in Java was a period of confusion as to loyalties, filled with unclear, fraught and changing allegiances, allegiances that could change in a matter of minutes. While Hardo and his colleagues in the rebellion are pursued through jungle and cornfields, and along rivers, some local Javanese community leaders assist the Japanese in the hunt, and some seemingly loyal PETA members dissemble in their relations with the Japanese. 

The film then avoids the usual stereotyped oppositions characteristic of a war film, and implies the ambiguities within Indonesia’s own history. At the same time as the film lays out the moral ambiguities of the situation, the rich natural environment in which the film is shot, much of it at night time, heightens the sense of absurdity and irony of the continuing hunt. And rather than concentrating on strategic action and heroism in its central characters, for long stretches of its narrative it mimes the confusion within their over-taxed minds, using interior monologues or dialogue carried on between the fugitives—sometimes between characters within quite different spaces, sometimes not knowing to whom they are talking or listening, or dissembling as to who they themselves are. These are stratagems used at times by directors such as Alain Resnais, but are rarely seen—if at all—in an Indonesian film.

Hanung Bramantyo (right), director of Bumi Manusia, is currently one of Indonesia’s most successful and capable commercial directors. Apart from Bumi Manusia, he has directed at least thirty features since 2004. One of his most successful films, Ayat-ayat Cinta(Verses of Love, 2008), based on a best-selling Indonesian novel, is, like the novel, a lugubrious romantic melodrama set in Indonesian graduate student circles in Cairo, which in the course of a convoluted plot—involving inter-racial romance, abduction, rape, and a court case presided over by Egyptian judges, and even a death sentence—addresses various possibilities within Islam, in particular polygamy and the notion of taaruf(where a woman proposes marriage via an intermediary). Ayat-ayat Cintaachieved an audience of 3.7 million. 

Hanung also made popular historical films (among them a film about Sukarno) and a quite serious film of considerable all round quality, Perempuan Berkalung Sorban(The Woman with the Turban), based on a novel by an Indonesian woman writer (Abidah El Khalieqy), which explores discrimination against daughters—and women in general—in Islamic boarding schools in Java. As a director Hanung appears to work very quickly. His previous film, the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular ‘historical’ epic about the legendary early seventeenth century Central Javanese leader, Sultan AgungTahta, Perjuangan, Cinta(Sultan Agung: Throne, Struggles, Love) was released in August 2018, only a year before Bumi ManusiaSultan Agungwon the prize for the best directed Indonesian film of 2018 at the prestigious Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival. 

Sumatran born Richard Oh, director of Perburuan, is a writer, publisher, entrepreneur, bookshop owner and filmmaker. Given the priority he has given to his other numerous activities, his output as a filmmaker has been relatively small, but distinguished. His 2006 film,Koper(The Lost Suitcase) is a poetic work about the mundane routines and the perpetually unfulfilled hopes of lower middle class Jakartans. This film dealt with the difficulties of living in one of the world’s most crowded and polluted cities, but it does not emphasize the most extreme conditions, rather it wryly evokes the subjective experience of the broad masses of lower middle-class people, a very large social group, indeed. 


As reported in Tempo, Pramoedya’s daughter, Astuti Ananta Toer, recalls that at one stage, when Pramoedya was still alive, Oliver Stone attempted to negotiate rights to film the novel Bumi Manusia, presumably offering considerable sums of money for the rights. Pramoedya declined the offer, his reply being that the novel really needed to be filmed by an Indonesian director. Whatever controversies arise over this first film of Bumi Manusia, produced entirely by an Indonesian team, Pramoedya was acting with a characteristic insistence on the importance of local cultural and historical knowledge, and was certainly right to do so. 

David Hanan


Biographical Note
In 2017 David Hanan published (with Palgrave Macmillan) Cultural Specificity in Indonesian Film: Diversity in Unityclick here for publishing information. He is presently completing a second manuscript, a companion volume to the first, entitled Moments in Indonesian Film History: Film and Popular Culture in a Developing Society. He is currently an Honorary Fellow with the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

The Current Cinema - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison finds 'great viewing' with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

There’s a new champion in the Hollywood nostalgia stakes. Move over Ready Player One and Shazam.  Now we've got Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I’d say vied with Pulp Fiction as his best work to date and one of the best films made in quite a while. 

It’s carefully set in 1969 when the studio movie was buckling under the competition of TV, European action movies and kung fu - and the time of the Manson Murders.

This creates a note of jokey menace which is an interesting contrast to Francois Truffaut’s La nuit américaine set four years later, where the maker treats the mix of scandal, insecurity and phony glamour in film making as an inviting fairy land. To my surprise Tarantino emerges as the sharper observer. Ad-libbing in his promotion interviews, Tarantino proves to have an inexhaustible flow of trivia information on the films and TV of the era, quite putting the children of the Cinémathèque to shame.

This comes up in the film as the unending parade of citations - impersonations of Steve McQueen, Sam Wanamaker, Connie Stevens, Mama Cass, Michelle Phillips & Rumer Willis (as Joanna Pettet), mini-skirts, The Mansion, a Joanna poster, C.C and Company on screen, Henry Wilcoxon’s credit from A Man in the Wilderness, the Burt Ward voice-over, Gordon Mitchell in the spaghetti thriller car chase, Leonardo DiCaprio inserted into The Great EscapePendulum playing in the cinema opposite the one where Margaret Robbie’s Sharon Tate goes to see herself in The Wrecking Crew- Tarantino enjoys Tate getting a laugh in his film where the clip comes up.

Robbie, prominently billed, whom we know is smart from her Tonja Harding, gets attention playing dumb. Cross-cutting hers and the imitation Steve McQueen strut is one of the film’s best gags.

Julia Butters, Leonardo DiCaprio
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows that Tarantino is able to shape all this into something that is not just an exercise in prompted recall but also a shrewd comment. The only character the film puts up as really sympathetic is child performer Julia Butters.  She takes her acting unnervingly seriously but recognises the implications in the pulp western that  Leonardo DiCaprio is reading in relation to his own situation. DiCaprio, reduced to villain in Timothy Olyphant‘s series, and needing to be prompted on his dialogue as the (edited) scene plays out, is something we haven’t seen before and it adds conviction, complete with its connection to his drinking.

The striking element that is examined without obvious comment is a class division. Brad Pitt, who does the more dangerous movie work, operates out of a trailer next to a pumping oil field with a pet fed on canned meat dog food. It gets its own star spot. He straps on his macho utility belt to repair star (albeit fading) DiCaprio’s mansion that has a parking spot with a front-of-house billboard of his image. 

In what is a long film, the build-up to the action finale is imposing. One of the things that drives it is that we know we are seeing Hollywood - indeed the movie business - in decline. What we are watching is a companion piece to The Last Picture Show. Texasville has the same contempt for the Eurotrash movie. We get Al Pacino wanting to sign DiCaprio for a movie with “the second best director of spaghetti westerns”, a slander for Sergio Corbucci who was the leader in his field. The switch when DiCaprio achieves his screen persona gets an audience cheer.

Margaret Qualley
The more realist counterpoint comes with the ride scantily clad young Margaret Qualley hitches with Brad Pit to the Spahn stunt Ranch, now the base of The Family, offering to blow him while he drives. Her scenes should launch a star career. Pitt taking it upon himself to investigate the situation of Bruce Dern’s George Spahn, his one-time employer, is an interesting inversion. What’s happening is as it’s represented by Dakota Fanning’s foul mouthed Squeaky Frome and not the coercion that Pitt anticipated. His good guy act is not appreciated by Dern but it does give us a chance to see Pitt's character doing his hard man, about which we were wondering till he took down Bruce Lee/Kato carrying on about the spirit of the warrior, prompting Zoë Bell’s “The Dude killed his own wife” with the clip that builds to Pitt with the spear gun pointing in the wife’s direction. 

This comes (very Brecht) book ended by black and white Academy frame clips - an on-set interview showing the relationship between star and stunt man, which the film will expand, and then the fake Red Apple cigarette commercial.

What we’ve got is a film that seems to be all texture, without the form and devices of literature, without heroes and headed up by a couple of star actors who win our admiration anyway, opposed to a genuine psychopath who seems to be a twisted version of the film’s achievers. It’s a great viewing and it stays with you afterwards - maybe always.