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.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Freshly returned from a stint in the French Foreign Legion, Hans takes on a lowlier job as a fruit merchant, working under the constant henpecking of his sensible wife Irmgard. An incident involving a past love spurs Hans into a sad routine of nostalgia and self-destruction, punctuated by frequent trips to the bar where he tells anyone who will listen about his former career as a policeman. When Irmgard pushes him too far one night, Hans flips and attacks her with a chair, and the subsequent argument leads to Hans suffering a violent heart attack. The relationship is turned on its head as Irmgard has an affair during Hans’ hospitalisation, raising the ugly issue of trust once again.

The Merchant of Four Seasons marks an evolution in Fassbinder’s style, although vestiges of his sarcastic sense of humour are still palpable. Neither Hans nor Irmgard is a particularly sympathetic character, but their tempestuous relationship is what holds the film together. On the surface the film could be Fassbinder’s twist on the fairy tale, Hans playing a stubby ogre to Irmgard’s svelte princess – at one point Irmgard amuses herself by telling Hans she only really fell for him because of him comical appearance. Indeed the film itself works best as an awkward comedy, despite its serious themes and depressing dénouements. The Merchant of Four Seasons is somewhat reminiscent of Fassbinder’s earlier Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? in its impatient editing, but occasional flashbacks and stronger characterisation allow the viewer enough access.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Isaac works as a photographer whose role it is to take the ‘final’ pictures of people’s loved ones. Having been hired by a particularly wealthy family to photograph the body of the recently married Angélica, Isaac finds himself inappropriately fixated on the resultant images. As he attempts to return to normality, heading to vineyards to photograph the local workers, Isaac is constantly haunted by the image of this beautiful woman he never knew. His behaviour grows more erratic, and an unfortunate episode during one of his photography expeditions confirms the extent of his manic infatuation.

This being the latest film of many by prolific 102-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira, The Strange Case of Angelica is evidence of a well-lived career in film. De Oliveira establishes mood magnificently, the first ten minutes of the film dominated by the sound and presence of nighttime rain, and a plot about photography gives a great excuse for some superb images of the Douro countryside. With the collaboration of cinematographer Sabine Lancelin, who has lensed several of his productions, de Oliveira composes each scene like a tableau, restricting movement to maintain the illusion of a painting come to life. Disappointingly, as with several of the director’s most recent pictures, Angelica is too stoical to convince emotionally, especially in the film’s fantastical moments – for example, Isaac’s imagined meeting with Angélica comes off more farcical than magical. Though not totally devoid of enjoyment, Angelica requires considerable patience, and the third act is likely to leave one wanting.

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Based on the Camil Petrescu novel of the same name, Bed of Procust concerns a romantic relationship in 1920s Bucharest. Fred pursues a liaison with the vivacious Emilia, but an eventful night together has them lying together in bed, reminiscing about past loves and hidden truths. Fred, reading through love letters, recalls his romance with a young socialite named Madame T, an archetype of femininity, and through flashbacks we see what he gave up for love. Emilia looks back on her time with the deceased Ladima, an old friend of Fred’s, and remembers their incompatibility, and we also learn of her tendency towards promiscuity. In trying to recapture the past, Fred and Emilia are forced to reflect on the future of their current relationship.

With a premise that keeps its two protagonists in a bed for the present time, relating the story through vignettes, Bed of Procust expects a lot from its cast. Thankfully Petru Vutcarau and Tania Popa fulfil their roles as the protagonists, but it is Maia Morgenstern as the seductive Madame T who steals the show, her performance and image channelling the actresses of yesteryear. With the theme of love and romance repeating through the film, it gets a bit cloying at times, sentimental even, but there is a straightness to the whole product that keeps each memory relevant. Full credit must go to husband-and-wife directing team Viorica Mesina and Sergiu Prodan who, in their only film project, do a great job of bringing literature to screen.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


Set in the unforgiving landscape of an impoverished barrio in Mexico City, Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados places focus on the lives of children forgotten by society, and the interpersonal relationships they form in order to survive. Jaibo, a teenager well respected by many of the younger local kids, escapes from a correctional facility and enlists the assistance of his friend Pedro to get revenge on those who wronged him. Feeling that his involvement has sent him in the wrong direction, he elects to repair his relationship with his mother, but his connection to Jaibo threatens to draw him permanently into the life of a downtrodden street urchin.

Though an uncharacteristic film for Buñuel, Los Olvidados manages to balance a serious portrayal of real life with warming moments of surrealism, manifest in a dream that Pedro has of the boy that he and Jaibo kill. In setting the scene, Buñuel strongly gets across the idea that these children have had to band together out of circumstance, and Pedro’s active desire to leave this life behind make him seem more mature than even the oldest of the street urchins. Buñuel’s psychological investment in his characters allows the film to serve as an ethnological document as well as a gripping twist on the crime genre without trivialising the subject matter. With its focus on the precocious development of children, Los Olvidados is a remarkably timeless feature (the relevance of which will scarcely diminish), and would make a brilliant double feature with Forbidden Games.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


In an instance of comic self-reflexivity, prolific director Rainer Werner Fassbinder uses Beware of a Holy Whore to lampoon his career as a filmmaker, specifically reflecting on his time making surreal western Whity. Lou Castel plays the director of a project set in Spain which appears to be stuck at the point of no return. We first join the crew as they congregate in the lobby of a hotel, chain drinking and flirting as they wait for the director to turn up so the shoot can start. When he finally arrives (escorted from a helicopter no less), he is less than impressed with the location and proceeds to shout down to anyone who dares challenge him, revealing a whole network of relationships between cast and crew members, emotional and sexual.

Beware of a Holy Whore is said to have been the film Fassbinder regarded as his best, and if one knows the rest of his work, its importance is obvious. Casting himself as the short-fused production manager Sascha, rather than the despotic director, is perhaps for cathartic purposes, allowing him to experience his own megalomania from the perspective of one of his ‘subjects’. The film references several of Fassbinder’s earlier films – the overwhelming sexual tensions and discussion of community living come straight from Katzelmacher – but there’s enough in this film to keep the uninitiated entertained. With its sarcastic exaggeration of film relationships and awkward theatrical flare, Beware of a Holy Whore is a perfect introduction to the work of Fassbinder.

Friday, 7 January 2011


It’s a futuristic 1994, and the Worldvision Song Festival is underway. Alphie and Bibi travel from their native Canada to participate for their country with a spirited ballad, only to be met with consternation from the sizeable audience, who have had their expectations raised by the glitzy stage histrionics of the BIM, a heartless music corporation which will stop at nothing to win. Alphie and Bibi soon find themselves subsumed by BIM’s record label, and for a while Bibi rides the crest of celebrity. Learning the sinister truth about BIM, Alphie tries his hardest to liberate Bibi from the clutches of BIM’s leader Mr. Boogalow.

With a central concept based on a Eurovision Song Contest of the future, one has to expect an overdose of camp from The Apple, and by golly it delivers. From the glittery triangle appliqués to the abundance of gold, The Apple appears to be picking up on the extravagances missed out on by previous musicals, even outkitsching Rocky Horror Picture Show in its caricatures of the entertainment business. The allegory of sin is obvious but restrained, the apple motif only whipped out for a particularly saucy number, although the film’s conclusion takes on an overtly religious angle which almost substracts from the fun. Regardless of one’s susceptibility to this sort of film, The Apple is very impressive for its sheer scale and design, and it’s a shame it still hasn’t quite had its day. Look out for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Miriam Margolyes and Yma Sumac.