Wednesday, 2 November 2011


Perhaps the most acclaimed film in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s inimitable oeuvre, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant deals with issues of obsession and jealousy. The titular Petra von Kant is an esteemed fashion designer who surrounds herself with objects of decadence in a house she shares with her reticent assistant Marlene. Still bearing the pain of her recent divorce, Petra takes out most of her frustration on Marlene, whom she frequently commands to continue sketching designs. When she is visited by a young dilettante named Karin, Petra finds herself unexpectedly smitten, and her obsession grows to sinister proportions when Karin is called away to Switzerland to reconnect with her husband.

Fassbinder spells out the film’s personal relevance from the very beginning by calling it a ‘case history’ and identifying an unnamed male as the inspiration for Marlene’s character. The all-female cast is perfectly selected, all faces that will be familiar to fans of Fassbinder. Margit Carstensen is marvellous as the lead – uncomfortably rakish in appearance, she portrays the predatory Petra with aplomb. Irm Hermann as Marlene is a ghostly presence throughout the film – in one scene, her teary pale face suddenly vanishes into a blur, underlining her comparative insignificance once Karin has entered the frame. The fashion motif in the film suggests a theme of deception, the two women dressing competitively in a bid to convince the other of her feelings. Though it carries the relics of a low-budget seventies production, Petra von Kant is fundamentally timeless and classic.

Sunday, 28 August 2011


Shot on location in the aggressive confines of a mineshaft, Li Yang’s debut narrative feature follows the exploits of Song and Tang, two mine labourers who con young aspirant workers in the city. The men’s scheme involves them claiming that they and their nephew have secured well-paid jobs in a coalmine, but pretending the nephew has failed to turn up. Offering the open spot to a naïve sixteen-year-old boy named Yuan Fengming, they lead him to an illegal mineshaft with the plan of killing him after a few days and making it look like an accident in order to claim compensation. Song is unexpectedly touched by the boy’s childlike appearance and demeanour, and the scheme hits a snag as the two men argue over Yuan’s fate.

Buoyed by strong performances and subtly intrusive sound design (see the opening five minutes for a fine example), Blind Shaft acts simultaneously as an exposé of a shocking practice which has become far too commonplace, and as a universal statement on financial greed. Li himself has stated that the film should not be seen specifically as an indictment on the Chinese work ethic, but its ban in China suggests that the content hits closer to home than expected. Comparisons to the films of Wang Bing, particularly his marathon documentary Tie Xi Qu, may be reductive, but both directors work towards the similar goal of offering an unabashed insight into the ‘real’ China, and as such one could never overstate the importance of Blind Shaft.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


A group of cattle is herded around an enclosure in relative silence, until the familiar rambling of a rodeo announcer intrudes upon the scene. This relationship between man and animal is enforced repeatedly throughout legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s study of packing plants, Meat. Humans hide behind gigantic, intimidating machines, often heard but not as often seen. Cows and sheep are processed rather than raised, clamped between pieces of metal and hung on large hooks. Occasionally the camera takes a break from the killing floors to sit amongst those who deal in meat. Men on phones, some clad in ten-gallon hats as if fulfilling a stereotype, seduce potential buyers with misleading statistics. At one moment in the film, a group of Japanese tourists are taken around the plant, slavishly jotting down even the most frivolous details.

As usual, Wiseman does not offer any singular commentary, and with a subject matter which is a constant hot button in many circles, even rivalling some human rights issues, one gets the feeling that Wiseman deliberately avoided being more pronounced in his critique of the more inhumane practices of these packing plants. However, it is important to remember that Wiseman had previously documented more shocking animal cruelty in a research lab in Primate, an institution with arguably more responsibility towards their subjects. While Wiseman’s film does grant the viewer exclusive access to the domain of its subject, it does not feel like a particularly unique perspective, nor does it compare with Wiseman’s other in-depth documentaries.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


The residents of Belene, a small Bulgarian town, have been waiting for the construction of a nuclear power plant for over twenty years, and watch the cranes and clouds of smoke in anticipation. Aside from the sudden influence of industrialisation, the townspeople only seem to have one problem – a mosquito infestation. Some residents have found innovative ways to deal with them, such as switching on a high-power fan or vacuuming the air at random intervals, but before long it becomes clear that this fixation is a mask for a number of other problems which lie just beneath the surface. The camera takes on the role of casual observer, allowing each resident to tell their story to the audience.

Andrey Paounov’s shrewd documentary asks many questions and leaves the answers, if any, to the viewer, and as a result it is difficult to understand the intended effect. Each interviewee offers a unique perspective on the town’s many issues, and the cumulative effect is somewhat depressing. A sinister commentary is made on the town’s future when it is revealed that the ex-mayor, the man who was responsible for much of Belene’s city planning and industrial development, also played a key role in the local Communist-era labour camp. While the film does concern itself heavily with the impossibility of leaving the past behind, Paounov does not forget to balance his piece with humour and wit, and at times it feels as if Christopher Guest and his team have taken on small-town Eastern Europe.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

on hiatus

Another period of stagnation for this blog I'm afraid - a lot of work going on with uni and almost no time to watch films! Celluloid Breakfast should hopefully be back in business by the end of May, so stick around for then!

Sunday, 6 March 2011


A modern twist on the Pygmalion story, Endhiran concerns the endeavours of Dr. Vaseegran who constructs a high-powered android named Chitti in his own image. Despite sharing the athletic ability of Bruce Lee and the dance moves of Michael Jackson, Chitti is not regarded by the relevant authorities as a valuable contribution to the field as it lacks rational ability or emotions. When Vaseegran transplants a positronic brain into Chitti to help him relate to humans better, he gets more than he bargained for as Chitti’s newfound emotions lead him to develop strong feelings towards Vaseegran’s fiancée Sana. Attempting to win Sana back, Vaseegran foolishly goes into competition with Chitti’s superhuman powers, underestimating the android’s ability to mimic his master’s behaviour.

A huge success at the box office, grossing more than any other Indian film ever, Endhiran covers many genres and feels as if it was designed to entertain the widest range of people conceivable, although whether it fulfilled this goal is another question. Lead actor Rajnikanth, playing both Vaseegran and his robot analogue Chitti, has some great comedic turns but is unable to sustain interest for the film’s 155-minute runtime. For the casual Western viewer, there are plenty of WTF moments – a scene where a naked girl runs into traffic is particularly baffling – as well as a plethora of tongue-in-cheek movie references, although the proviso of satire has not saved the film from accusations of plagiarism. But for all its various flaws, this Kollywood blockbuster has undeniable entertainment value.

Friday, 25 February 2011


Having made the big move to Prague, a young woman named Tonka becomes a prostitute in order to earn her keep, and quickly becomes integrated into the ways of brothel life. She returns to her countryside home with expensive gifts for her mother, but is evasive about how she acquired the money for them. She also rejoins her lover Jan who proposes marriage, an offer which has clearly been hanging over their relationship for a while. Tonka struggles to deal with her duplicitous lifestyle, and when she agrees to spend the night with a murderer who is condemned to be hanged, she is rejected even by her fellow prostitutes.

From the first moment we see Tonka, she is already a tainted woman, her reputation scuppered by her brothel connections, and as such it is difficult to know which part of her story we are to learn from. If anything, the film appears to tell us, as in Mikio Naruse’s later Morning’s Tree-Lined Street, that the bright lights of the city are a misleading augury. The scenes with Tonka in the countryside are beautiful, pleasant, summery – when the story returns to the city however, we are greeted by nocturnal shadows and noxious smoke. Slovenian actress Ita Rina, best known for her role in Erotikon, does a great job of portraying the protagonist trapped in the evil shadows of Prague. Director Karl Anton employs tropes of German Expressionism and French Impressionism in his visual arsenal, creating a melodrama with surprising emotional reach.


Partly autobiographical, this peculiar independent film from the Philippines reflects on the American influence during the occupation, suggesting where it has benefited his town and where the illusion of goodness is soon to give way. Director Kidlat Tahimik plays a version of himself, a young jeepney driver obsessed with his transistor radio. An avid follower of the Voice of America broadcasting service, Kidlat is heavily seduced by this voice of an apparent higher power, and occupies himself with the dream of being part of the developed world. When he is offered the opportunity to move to Paris, he accepts almost instantly, and soon learns that the Western world operates on more than the icons he had grown up with.

Unapologetically experimental in his storytelling, Tahimik works without any strong semblance of rhythm or pace – pieces of music begin and then are abruptly stopped before the next scene. Dubbing is similarly amateurish, with Tahimik’s character providing a partly diegetic commentary which brings to mind underground filmmakers. This is not to simplify Tahimik’s intellectual goal – if anything, the uneven shooting style and use of bricolage clarify his point, implying that his cinematic voice is an imbalanced compromise as a result of colonialism. Tahimik makes frequent use of visual and verbal puns – the motif of chewing gum plays a metaphorical role, painting the American influence as a fleeting fancy. Perfumed Nightmare lacks the rigour of other post-colonial films such as Soleil Ô, but the personal angle makes this film all the more charming.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Set in post-genocide Rwanda, A Love Letter To My Country follows the burgeoning romance between a Tutsi girl and Hutu man, whose lives have undergone vastly different changes as a result of the senseless mass murder. After a particularly impassioned performance in the local choir, Martha is singled out by choirmaster Rukundo, who hopes to get to know her better through a series of dates. When the couple finally get a chance to talk intimately, each reveals their background. Martha has lost almost all of her family to the genocide, while Rukundo was a conscientious objector to his family’s participation in the murders. The relationship endures tribulations as the pair’s families revive old prejudices.

The strength in the film is in not revealing the differences between Martha and Rukundo immediately – on face value, the two are able to get along without issue. Themes of unity prevail throughout the film, although often these are presented as illusions, and the open ending serves only to suggest that there are still repercussions of discrimination. The film is utterly absorbing at moments – some great acting in the scene where Rukundo’s family express their distrust of Tutsi makes for compelling viewing – but there are several flaws which keep the film from achieving its goal fully. Martha and Rukundo’s relationship happens quicker than the audience can fathom, and the film suffers from a few distracting technical shortcomings. Nonetheless, A Love Letter To My Country has great intentions and hopefully augurs well for the Rwandan film industry.

Friday, 28 January 2011


In the tradition of films such as Of Time and the City and My Winnipeg, Helsinki, Forever is a sedate mood piece paying tribute to the Finnish capital through fragments of the country’s visual arts. More than just a bricolage piece, the film takes on the structure of a metaphysical journey, links being made between shots, locations, time periods – trams enter screen in the 1930s and leave it in the 1960s. Commentary from a man and a woman (the man’s voice is director Peter von Bagh) propel the visual essay through its twists and turns, only interrupted by smatterings of Finnish pop music.

Peter von Bagh is better known by some as a film historian, and this project displays as deep a love for cinema as it does for Helsinki. Many of the films shown share superficial elements in common – long shadows, minimal movement – and while technical aspects of the film are never brought up, the film functions as a history of Finnish cinema. The one issue here is in the editing – given von Bagh’s access to previously unfamiliar films, one wonders if we’re seeing the clips that best fulfil the film’s intent or if the visual connections are too enjoyable to pass up. In this sense, Helsinki, Forever falls short of the likes of Sans Soleil in creating a compelling film essay, but it nonetheless manages to hold one’s attention. Wistful at times, joyful at others, Helsinki, Forever manages to brim with vivacity through a reconnection with the past.