Cinema 2016: An octopus, puppet-sex and naked Germans in Bucharest

2016 has been largely disappointing in Hollywood terms. Two Oscar frontrunners – Arrival and Manchester by the Sea – go down as two of the poorest films I’ve seen in a while. Thank fuck then for those independently-funded films, free from the leprous touch of studio execs with corporate agendas to push and money-making A-listers to cast. Here’s my top five of the year.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is a glorious erotic tale of conniving duplicity set during the Japanese colonial era in Korea. Every fucker (and fucking there is) in the film is dressed to the nines in their waviest early 20th century garms, as cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung bathes sensual washroom escapades in stunningly milky steam, or permits uncle’s brutal beastly basement the dankness it deserves. After 2013’s mildly disappointing Stoker, Park-chan Wook jumps right back in with his old bedmate ‘revenge’ to deliver the most peverted bit of high-brow stylishness you’ll see all year. This film is twisted – in more ways than one – and is well-worth a watch on general release in the UK this spring.

Anomalisa

Let’s travel back to the heady pre-Brexit/Trump days of early spring 2016 for this stop-motion creation from Charlie Kaufman that desconstructs human bonds and relationships with unflinchingly depressing honesty. Heady days indeed! Anomalisa utilises its puppets to brilliant effect by creating a rain-ridden Cincinnati in which British customer-service expert Michael perceives everyone – including his wife and son – as an identically looking and sounding white American man. All except for one anomalous individual. This perception-error can be viewed as a metaphor for depression, or, if you’re feeling really positive, a metaphor for the overwhelming sameness of our mundane existences. Regardless of how you feel about this upbeat symbolism, Anomalisa has the most realistic sex scene you’ll see, ever. Check it out on Netflix now for that alone.

Paterson

There’s two ways to view Jim Jarmusch’s latest slice of quirk, Paterson. One of them entails reflecting on the ease with which marginal satisfaction can stumble slowly into the abyss. But you’ve just read about Anomalisa and are about to read about United States of Love, so we’ll stick with the other interpretation. At its core, Paterson is about Adam Driver’s superbly-nuanced poet Paterson, who drives a bus in the New Jersey town Paterson. It’s a gentle slow-burner of a film in which we observe seven continuous days of Paterson’s life. He drives the same bus route every day, listens to the same kookily unrealistic dreams of his girlfriend when he returns and takes her dog for the same walk with a handy bar-stop every evening. As patterns repeat, the audience settles in and joins Paterson in a neat meditation on the beauty of the routine and the everyday.

United States of Love

Do you like greyness? If so, you’ve come to the right place with Tomasz Wasilewski’s latest and most accomplished offering, United States of Love. His earlier works, In A Bedroom (2012) and Floating Skyscrapers (2013) are both laden with listlessly empty relationships. In this achingly soul-destroying masterpiece, Wasilewski develops his driving theme further to deliver a bleak dissection of four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society. The film is set in 1990, shortly after Poland’s independence from communism, and can be understood as a critique of an emergent predatory capitalism that disconnects state from society and individuals from each other. However, the mute howls of piercing despondency that intersperse each character’s story have a universal existential truth to them. To top it all off, Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu expertly brushes every scene with a sparse palette of washed-out bluish monochrome. It’s 50 shades of grey, but not as you know it.

Toni Erdmann

If you thought you knew how to organise a teambuilding brunch reception, think again. Toni Erdmann is a rare Bulgarian evil-spirit cleansing costume of a film, a tragi-comedy that dons a full suit of absurdity and then slowly strips it off to reveal a remarkably naked pathos. The film revolves around father Winfried’s unexpected visit to his daughter Ines at her workplace and residence in Bucharest. Winfried leaves after a few awkward days, but his titular ‘friend’ remains. A sequence of unfathomable cringe unfolds across the rest of the trip, in which Toni pushes Ines beyond all appropriate boundaries with the hope that she might swap her unwavering seriousness for a more life-affirming happiness. In a spectacularly unique move, director Maren Ade also manages that precious feat of writing a German comedy that is genuinely hilarious. The joke’s on us now – catch this one on the big screen and take your dad with you too.

Manchester by the Sea: Boring, brooding masculinity saves the day (again)

We’re deep into awards season and Manchester by the Sea is picking up a lot of attention. In particular, Casey Affleck’s performance as protagonist Lee Chandler seems to be garnering career-defining acclaim. Unfortunately, the film is a two hour snoozefest in which a particular kind of masculinity – the troubled, brooding kind – is presented again and again and again as deeply heroic and moving. This sort of representation of masculinity doesn’t have to be problematic. Regrettably, in Manchester by the Sea, it is accompanied by a one-dimensional depiction of women in fifty shades of negativity, which ultimately makes for a film full of tired and sexist cliches.

The tortured lone wolf of Hollywood cool

Lee’s characterisation runs throughout the film with incredible clarity. First and foremost, he’s a man. This is evidenced initially by a slick sequence of shots that show us his life as a janitor. Lee gets down and dirty with a toilet plunger, carries lots of furniture on his broad shoulders and, naturally, is the object of sexual attention from his female clients. The thing is, Lee’s more than just a man – he’s a man with a tortured past. You can tell this by the manner in which he looks into the vague distance, gets himself into unprovoked bar fights and avoids women’s sexual overtures. What bugs me about this sort of masculinity is that it’s so fucking boring. We’ve seen lone wolves like this countless times. From Harry Callahan through Snake Plissken to John McClane, Hollywood loves a man with dead/estranged family who goes solo.

Admittedly, the characters that I’ve just cited appear in action flicks, rather than Sundance-debuting dramas. Nonetheless, Lee is still the same masculine archetype, walking alone into the sunset, hero-status traced across his forehead. Clearly, there is a market for this kind of character and that’s fine. Equally, I’m sure that there are white working-class men, in Boston and beyond, who will relate to Lee’s masculinity. I don’t seek to delegitimise that. My big issue with Manchester by the Sea is that it perpetuates gender stereotypes with no recourse to critique. You see, regardless of whether Lee is successful or not in his relationship with his dead brother’s son Patrick, he’s no hero. In fact, his intoxicated negligence caused the death of his three infant children, in a way that is never satisfactorily resolved.

Alcoholic, hysterical, sexual playthings

In the final third of the film, there’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife Randi that provides him with the opportunity to take responsibility for his fiery past actions. Unbelievably, the scene turns into an abhorrent man-as-victim monologue where Randi repeatedly apologises for saying harmful things to Lee. Let’s step back for a moment. Lee got drunk, smoked a spliff, did some nosebag and burned down his family home. But he’s the one who was wronged here? Cool.

Indeed, Lee constantly bitches about Randi elsewhere as a miserable, annoying ex-wife. The other women in the film don’t fare much better. There’s Elise, Lee’s brother’s ex-wife, who is an alcoholic turned emotional wreck. There’s Lee’s aunt, a hysterical woman who has to walk out of a hospital appointment. There’s Silvie, one of Patrick’s girlfriends, who is bossy and imposing. There’s also Sandy, Patrick’s second girlfriend, who exists primarily as a potential sexual conquest. Of course, it’s entirely possible and real that women do live and act in these ways. However, none of these characters are given any space to develop beyond their assigned sexist cliches. And the only women that are given any sort of positive treatment – Dr. Bethany and Jill (Sandy’s mum) – probably only have around a minute’s screen time between them.

A film for our times?

All of this leaves a sour taste. By all means, represent men in an unimaginative way. But at least give women an equitable representation that does justice to their equally multidimensional personalities. I mean, perhaps I’m on the wrong side of history here. We live in an age where obnoxious white supremacists masquerading as ‘the alt-right’ run boycott campaigns against Star Wars films because they’ve cast women and people of colour in leading roles. I don’t know, maybe it’s in the Anglo-American zeitgest to praise a film that treats women so reductively? Obviously, this is bullshit. If you want a real film about grief and masculinity that credibly represents its female characters, check out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

A final thought. One of the scenes in Manchester by the Sea involves Lee giving a statement to police where he discloses cannabis and cocaine use, to no moral or criminal consequence. While watching this, I couldn’t help thinking about the incarceration disparity for drug offences in the US, where African-Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for such offences.

Did you hear about the historic rape allegations that were brought against Nate Parker, the black director of race period drama The Birth of a Nation? Probably. Did you hear about the historic sexual harrassment allegations that were brought against star of Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck? Probably not.

This truly is a film for our times.

Arrival: Big trouble with big China

Arrival is ostensibly a film about communication. At its core, the plot details how Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) deciphers a series of linguistic symbols communicated to her by extra-terrestrial visitors. But what happens when we attempt to decipher the other subtle symbols that the film displays elsewhere? We peel back layers of tensioned diplomatic relationships that expose America’s fragile sense of self as a global superpower. It becomes a celebration of cultural imperialism. And ends with enough cheese to fill a fair few smorgasbords.

You cheeky bastard

The main narrative thread of Arrival revolves around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial vessels across the globe. These spacecraft arrive in Australia, the Black Sea, China, Greenland, Japan, Pakistan, Siberia, Sierra-Leone, Sudan, the UK, Venezuela and, the setting of the film, the US. In the first half of the film, there is a lot of screentime devoted to the development of diplomatic communications between these countries. More specifically, we observe how these diplomatic communications break down, almost immediately from the start of the film. Regrettably, this also the start of some of the major issues within the film.

Russia, naturally, is a big old aggressor who are super keen to use military power almost as soon as their spaceship arrives in Siberia. They’re also the ones who cut contact with all the other countries and thereby lead to a communication blackout early on in the film. Why’s that? I guess because Russians are bad and reprehensible and don’t do multilateral negotiations, or something. In fact, the coded treatment of Russia in Arrival draws on such a laughable ‘evil’ stereotype that it’s almost as if the film-makers have thought “fuck it, everyone knows what these guys are like, let’s give absolutely no depth to their actions.”

Those untrustworthy East Slavs aren’t the only ones who are painted with the most basic palette of primary colours though. While they might not be drawn quite as negatively, the semiotic representation of other countries is equally simplistic. The UK basically pops up to say “you cheeky bastard” in a British accent and then disappears again. What does this mean? Perhaps it reflects an uneven relationship in which the Brits aren’t taken seriously. Or maybe the director wanted to wow his audience with this really original take on British lexicon. Then we’ve got Sudan, a Muslim country where lots of Arabs wearing shemagh either pray or run around lots. I guess it’s some progress that they’re not all strapped-up terrorists shouting “yella”, but this is culturally inaccurate and so one-dimensional. Spare a thought for Sierra-Leone too, who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no scenes in the film, presumably because sub-Saharan Africa isn’t really very important. These blindingly obvious signifiers plague the remaining countries, which you’ll notice soon enough if you watch the film.

Public enemy

While the representation of other countries is full of tired cliches, the depiction of China brings something new, and indeed timely, to the table. Needless to say, it’s still problematic. In Arrival, China is set up as a global superpower, alongside Russia and the US. China isn’t quite as trigger happy as their Eurasian neighbours, but as the film grunts towards a climax, it’s China that threatens world peace. China has surrounded its extra-terrestrial visitors with full military might and is threatening to destroy them, thus risking the chance of alien retaliation and/or a major diplomatic escalation. Essentially, China becomes the biggest aggressor, the one willing to risk everything because they’re sceptical of this newly-arrived other. Ultimately, there’s only one way that the Chinese-initiated disaster can be averted. This is through a nonviolent time-travelling intervention by Dr Banks, during which she is able to wow the Chinese head of state with her supreme cultural knowledge of linguistics.

Reality absolutely doesn’t reflect this. Even within the context of the film, this is a strange one. You see, it’s actually the Americans who first attack the inhabitants of the spacecraft, by placing a bomb inside it. Instead of this becoming a major plot point, these Americans are dismissed as a bunch of embarrassing mavericks. They’re not immediately punished for their actions and just trail off out of the film. In fact, reality does reflect American imperial aggression. We can sit here all day and talk about the civilians of Iraq, Saddam without trial and illusory WMDs. But let’s think about Fidel Castro, who died earlier this weekend. In the eyes of Arrival, the US follows diplomacy to the bitter end, even as its friends and foes resort to violence. The diplomacy that Castro was afforded following the 1959 Cuban Revolution: 634 assassination attempts.

The coming war

So why does Arrival portray China in such unkind, aggressive terms, while the US is given the spot of a peaceful benevolent? Simply put, the film is a form of soft power. Its intention is to act as propaganda for both American citizens and those elsewhere in the Global North. As I watched this film, I was reminded of an essay by John Pilger. In this essay, Pilger argues that a world war has already covertly begun. One of the major sites of this emergent war is the South China Sea. Pilger suggests that the US has destabilised local relations in this area as a means of paving essential military access for its warships. Likewise, he outlines the numerous American allies surrounding China who host American military bases. Pilger will soon release a film on this topic:

Interestingly, the book that Arrival is based on has none of the global communication nonsense that dirties the film. It’s simply not neccessary for a plot that works perfectly well as a smart sci-fi story. So when I see a film in which China is held up as the bad guy, I’m immediately suspicious. And when that film gives me the most unoriginally offensive stereotypes of other nations, I’m somewhat disgusted.

Don’t watch Arrival this weekend. If you’re after a film about the beauty of communication and human existence, watch Paterson instead.