Sunday, February 07, 2021

Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest


Renny Harlin: 沉默的證人 / Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest (CN/HK 2019) starring Richie Jen (Santa) and Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao).

Renny Harlin: 沉默的證人 / Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest (CN/HK 2019). The trio in the middle: Zi Yang (Qiao Lin), Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao), Richie Jen (Santa).


沉默的證人 (traditional) / 沉默的证人 (simplified).
    CN/HK © 2019 Wanda Media Co. Ltc. / Media Asia Film. P: Cheng Kim-fung, Lei Qiao, Fei Xiao.
    D: Renny Harlin. SC: David Lesser. DP: Anthony Pun – colour – 2.39:1 – Red Weapon Monstro – Redcode RAW – master format: digital intermediate 2K – released on 35 mm and D-Cinema. M: Anthony Chue. Theme song: Xueran Chen. ED: Ka-Fai Cheung. Stunt coordinator: Ming-sing Wong.
    Companies involved include: Phantom Clip Studio, MBS Studios, Physical FX, China Film Studio. Title design: Wandasunmon.
    C: Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao), Richie Jen (Santa), Zi Yang (Qiao Lin), Carlos Chan (Elf), Shu-liang Ma (Security guard Uncle Jin).
    With: Jin Au-Yeung (Wei Zai), Jiayi Feng (Rudolph), Roger Kwok (Ah Jie), Sonija Kwok (Chen's deceased wife), Clara Lee (Zheng Anqi), Peng Ming (Police officer Wu), Ron Ng (Police officer Li).
    Loc: Hong Kong, Beijing.
    Languages: Mandarin, Cantonese.
    94 min
    Festival premiere: 18 March 2019 Hong Kong International Film Festival.
    Chinese premiere: 16 Aug 2019.
    Hong Kong premiere: 22 Aug 2019.
    Finnish premiere (selected cities): 5 Feb 2021 – released by Night Visions Distribution – with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Sami Siitojoki / Angel Hammer.
    Lappeenranta corona emergency security: max 20 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 1, Lappeenranta, 8 Feb 2021.

AA: Since 2016, Renny Harlin has directed three films in China, two of them belonging to the lineage of Hong Kong action cinema. The first one, Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan, was the biggest box office hit of both Harlin and Chan.

In his new Triad saga Bodies at Rest Harlin pursues an agenda of his own within the constraints of genre cinema. He does not emphasize comedy like Jackie Chan. He does not indulge in operatic bloodshed like John Woo. His cinema is not filled with magic like that of Tsui Hark. And he is not interested in the undercover cop narrative like Ringo Lam.

There is in the core of Harlin's cinema an innate kinetic urge, an instinct for the electrifying mise-en-scène and a natural talent for action cinema, a primal vitality that belongs to the mainstream of the great current of action adventure fantasy that started with Victorin Jasset's serials at the Éclair company.

It was as evident in Harlin's debut feature film Jäätävä polte / Born American as it is in Bodies at Rest, which does not belong to his most magnificent achievements. Despite its modest scope its pulsing dynamism is unmistakable.

Harlin was in the right place at the right time during the golden age of Hollywood's turbo-charged action extravaganzas produced by Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer et al.

They were an over-the-top vision of the age of the bonfire of the vanities, displaying an appetite for destruction. They were post-modern manifestations of the Nero complex that has been in the heart of the cinema since Méliès. We create a world and sit back in an easy chair to watch it burn.

Bodies at Rest takes place at Christmas time at a huge Hong Kong morgue. Harlin brings his Hollywood expertise to the movie, but rainstorms, chases in halls of reflecting surfaces, races to the rescue, car crashes, battles in the freezing works, torrents of broken glass, countdowns, explosions and firestorms are not all there is. Even more engaging is Harlin's command of space and movement.

Jumps to conclusions and leaps of logic are perhaps also stunts expected in this brand of cinema.

What dates Harlin's cinema is his penchant for sadism, but more is not more.

The blitz montages in fight sequences are so rapid that it is hard to make sense of them. Ultra-rapid cutting weakens the impact of action scenes, because it breaks down the suspension of disbelief. We cease to feel viscerally that the actors are really going through all the mayhem.

But perhaps the ADHD mentality is a manifestation of the epoch of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains". We surf quickly ahead without stopping to reflect or feel. No matter how great the overload of attractions, everything remains indifferent.

The movie is well cast. Nick Cheung conveys quiet authority and a silent dignity as Dr. Chen Jia Hao, perhaps in tribute to Harlin's own father who was a doctor and chief physician in his city. Zi Yang as Qiao Lin is a resourceful fighter in the female leading role. Shu-liang Ma brings a jovial presence as the donut-loving security guard Uncle Jin.

The three villains, dressed in Christmas masks, are modelled after familiar archetypes. Richie Jen (Santa) is a poker-faced, callous leader. Carlos Chan (Elf) is an erratic sadist. Jiayi Feng (Rudolph) is an old-timer who faints at the sight of blood.

The relations between the villains are based on a healthy mutual distrust. Bodies at Rest is not a story-driven film, and the relevant backgrounds of the wars between the Hong Kong and Thai triads, the policemen doubling as gangsters, and the underworld connections of Dr. Chen Jia Hao remain underexposed.

Renny Harlin's first film Born American was a violent anticommunist action fantasy. Bodies at Rest has been made in a country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. It's the last Christmas in Hong Kong for the doctor and his assistant. In the finale, the rainstorm warning is cancelled. We may pause to think about the meaning of the multiple disguises of gangsters as policemen as merry Christmas figures.

The film has been efficiently shot by Anthony Pun, and the score by Anthony Chue is engaging. I like the design of the final credit sequence based on the concept of X-ray photos and silhouettes of hands holding them.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: PROMOTIONAL COPY FROM NIGHT VISIONS DISTRIBUTION:

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton


Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). Starring Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton).

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). "At the Annual Council Dinner, Nigel listens to the Tory candidate give a self-congratulatory speech in which he claims that things are getting better for everyone, although his assessment clearly excludes people from minorities. Nigel furiously attacks the speech for its complacence and backward-looking agenda." (BFI Screenonline synopsis).


 The Wednesday Play: Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editors: Roger Smith, Tony Garnett. Cin: James Balfour – 1,33:1 – b&w. PD: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Film ED: Bill Brind. Telerecording ED: Julian Farr.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton), John Bailey (Jack Hay), Cyril Luckham (Hugh Archibald-Lake), Harry Forehead (Sir Harry Blakeswood), Huw Thomas (newsreader), Betty Bowden (lady chairman), Margaret Diamond (lady secretary), Madge Brindley (Mrs. Thompson), Sonia Graham (Mrs. Phillips), Aimée Delamain (Mrs. Morris), Walter Hall (Mr. Smith), George Desmond (Mr. Harrison), Fred Berman (toastmaster), John Evitts (journalist), Alan Lawrance (fat man), Arthur Ridley (mayor).
    Soundtrack selections include: "The Red Flag" (comp. Melchior Frank, 16th century, lyr. Jim Connell, 1889); final credit theme: an instrumental variation of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (pre-1865 African-American spiritual, a Christmas carol, collected by John Wesley Work, Jr.).
    News clips: Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally ; Oswald Mosley's speech.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 15 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: "Candidate Nigel Barton goes from idealism to cynicism as he becomes disillusioned and suspicious of hollow campaign promises." This Internet Movie Database synopsis seems accurate at first sight, and it seems to reflect the general opinion of Dennis Potter's remarkable sequel to his semi-autobiographical breakthrough play Stand Up, Nigel Barton.

Nigel Barton's Bildungsroman does indeed belong to the great tradition of Balzac's Illusions perdues: the growing up of a provincial youth who enters the big world of modernity. In the first film we witnessed the bitter contrast between Nigel's working-class roots and his Oxford elite existence. Nigel was left with the feeling that he does not belong anywhere.

The death of a Conservative member of parliament in a foxhunt accident necessitates a by-election. The Labour Party nominates Nigel Barton as their candidate for "the totally hopeless seat" in a traditionally and overwhelmingly Tory-dominated district. A seasoned party veteran called Jack Hay (John Bailey) becomes Barton's personal coach.

We follow Nigel's evolution step by step. His first performance is too intellectual: "try not to be too clever", advises Jack while observing a yawning and distracted audience. Next Nigel turns to heavy-handed propaganda, but because he has not done his homework, he fails to answer sharp questions and needs help.

Together, Nigel and Jack start canvassing with a tour on a campaign van: visiting voters at their doorsteps and in groups such as women riders. The idea is to "catch floating voters". ("Let them sink" is Jack's suggestion). Nigel even gets a list of the bereaved, but writing condolence letters for the sake of getting votes goes too far. A visit to an old folks' home shocks Nigel deeply, but even there he fails to connect.

The local Labour workers and a ladies' group see through Nigel's phoniness. He does not even know the lyrics of "The Red Flag". But in the final climax, the Annual Council Dinner, listening to his opponent, the smooth and experienced Tory candidate Hugh Archibald-Lake (who declares that "we are all workers now"), Nigel catches fire and speaks from his heart for the first time, debunking the "myth of affluence", although his offensive manner will bring him no votes. But the angry young man has entered politics and found his own voice.

Although Jack at first appears a cynical opportunist, it turns out that he has never lost his ideals. And although Ann, Nigel's wife, tells her husband that "yours is the worst form of betrayal", after his big speech Ann must confess she "did not know what you are capable of". Nigel was "pretty formidable". "You are not meant for the sidelines". In the process, Nigel really understands for the first time the hard life his father has endured.

One of the most refreshing features of the movie is the dynamics between Ann and Nigel. Ann ironizes Nigel's "advantage of being born to the working class", and Nigel lambasts her "condescending Hampstead socialism". (Ann's irony is similar to Tony Randall's envy towards Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back to Me: "You had everything going for you. Poverty. Squalor. There was only one way for you to go – up.") Ann makes fun of Nigel's "prize bull" campaign badge, while Nigel calls Ann "a prissy cow". Ann has accused Nigel that he has lost his virility during the campaign stress, but the bull / cow dialogue seems to rekindle the fire between the spouses.

The film has deep texture about Britain's postwar politics. Perhaps the most moving passage of the whole show is an insert from Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally which leads to an elliptic resume of the history of the Labour Party since 1945 (Bevan was the father of the National Health Service).

An ominous presence in a historical insert is Oswald Mosley, whose political past included both Labour and Fascism, and who in the late 1950s became the father of the still ongoing anti-immigration movement, topical with Brexit.

The dimensions are both timeless and topical. Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton evokes Plato and Aristotle, their studies on rhetorics. It evokes Tony Blair and Boris Johnson. "Double talk, that is my language".

The film language of Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton is less experimental than that of Stand Up, Nigel Barton, but the finale is special. At the council dinner, Nigel both loses and finds himself. There is a final blitz montage in front of a mirror. Facing the camera, Nigel rehearses three forms of address, transforming from an angry Barton to a well-tempered Barton. His speech slows down and he catches his breath when he utters: "vote ... vote ... vote".

Dennis Potter asks us a question. Each viewer must find an answer for oneself.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: DATA AND SERGIO ANGELINI'S ANALYSIS FROM BFI SCREENONLINE:

Stand Up, Nigel Barton


Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), starring Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton). The coalminer's family is appalled to watch a television show in which the son Nigel, a student at Oxford, confesses his agony at living in a class society. My screenshot from YouTube.

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), with Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton) as students at the University of Oxford. My screenshot from YouTube.


The Wednesday Play : Stand Up, Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editor: Tony Garnett. B&w. PD: Richard Henry. S: Paddy Wilson.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton), Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney), Robert Mill (Adrian), Janet Henfrey (Miss Tillings, a teacher), P. J. Kavanagh (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Georgie), Godfrey James (Bert).
    Soundtrack selections include: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (Thomas Paine Westendorf, 1875), "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis, 1947), "The Old Rugged Cross" (Methodist hymn, 1912, George Bennard) and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1965) perf. The Animals.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 8 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: Having discovered a few weeks ago the early Dennis Potter masterpiece Moonlight on the Highway (1969) I delved deeper and viewed his breakthrough telefilms, the Nigel Barton Plays. The producer is James MacTaggart, who directed Moonlight on the Highway. Gareth Davies, the director of the Nigel Barton plays, elicits excellent performances from the cast.

The Nigel Barton plays belong to the currents of the Angry Young Men, Free Cinema and Kitchen Sink Drama. Nigel Barton is an angry young man, the mining town is conveyed with naturalism, and there is a freedom of experimentation. Much is familiar from contemporary British films such as Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life.

But a unique Dennis Potter signature is already prominent. The story is semi-autobiographical, because the agonizing Bildungsroman is very similar with Potter's own trajectory from a mining town to the University of Oxford. Nigel Barton experiences a massive identity crisis and exposes it to the whole nation in a BBC documentary about "Britain, land of barriers": "I don't feel as I belong anywhere".

Already at this point, Potter as a storyteller is far from straightforward. Instead of a linear progress, the narrative is based on a juxtaposition between home and Oxford. The present tense is intercut with flashbacks. In embarrassing school memories, grown-ups play schoolchildren. The actors feel free to address us directly.

Potter has an eye for the expressive detail. In memories of school bullying, when asked to select a passage from the Bible to read, George, a schoolmate, selects the Book of Ezekiel (the one with Oholah and Oholibah), and when Miss Tillings, the teacher, blows her top, Nigel is first held up as the teacher's pet and then inevitably bullied. In the story of retaliation Nigel tears the stem off from the class daffodil and frames George.

The film begins with a long backward tracking shot of Nigel's father walking in the middle of the road, instead of on the sidewalk. Why? It's an old miners' tradition. After Nigel's appearance in the television documentary, confessing his unease about his coal village background, mother and father are deeply shocked. Father goes out, and Nigel finds him coughing painfully. Miner's lungs. In the final long forward tracking shot we are behind Nigel and his father, walking in the middle of the road until they disappear into the darkness. It's night, and they are going to the pub together.

Soundtrack selections do not yet play such a dominant role as in Potter's most famous teleplays, but they are more inventively used than in average shows. "Sixteen Tons" and "The Old Rugged Cross" are among the tunes on display. Like in This Sporting Life, singing at the Working Men's Club is memorable.

During the closing credits, Barry Mann and Claudia Weil's topical hit, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", released by The Animals in July 1965, is playing, a more obvious song selection than usually in Potter's plays, but it must have irresistible because it so directly articulates the British "angry young man" attitude, although written by Brill Building professionals.

Like in Moonlight on the Highway, there is an impressive "atlas of faces". In the mining town, there are no indifferent extras. Every face tells a story.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: DATA AND SERGIO ANGELINI'S ANALYSIS FROM BFI SCREENONLINE: