I recently heard of a somewhat bizarre phenomenon that’s happened in North Korea over several decades, and it got me thinking. Before I let my thoughts run away with me without providing any context, I’ll briefly explain said “phenomenon”.
In a nutshell, South Korean activists wait for the right time of year, around Spring time, when the wind is blowing in the right direction to the North. Gathering information about life in South Korea, as well as other democratic societies, they then fill balloons with helium and attach the ‘care packages’ to the balloons allowing the wind to drift them northwards over the heavily armed demilitarised zone (a slight contradiction in that phrasing). The hope is that the packages that aren’t shot down, will find their way to ordinary North Koreans who will then learn the truth about how they are living and what lies beyond their restricted country’s borders.
Incredibly this happened when a group of activists dropped care packages, which included USB sticks, with the Seth Rogen/James Franco starring The Interview attached. This is the film in which a TV producer and tabloid personality travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong Un, played as a spoilt man-child by Randall Park, but with orders to assassinate the dictator by the CIA. Cue hi-jinx and chicanery, mixed with the usual comedy tropes of this group. Now not to dismiss the films of Apatow, Rogen, Franco et al, I genuinely think they’re funny; Franco playing a version of himself in ‘This is the End’ delivering the line “got’s to go”, destroys me every time I see it. However, I’m not writing a blog about any of their films. Nor am I writing about the the most famous thing about this film and the ensuing drama it caused, but it does bare mentioning. That would be the, now infamous, “Sony hack” as it is so often described, which caused huge data leaks and software malfunctions for the Sony corporation. This was inflicted upon them by the North Korean regime due to their outrage at the portrayal of their *ahem* esteemed leader, one Kim Jong Un.
If you’ve made it this far what I would like to write about is something that the image of a walled off country, being fed information by citizens of a free state, via wind assisted Spring time balloons, conjured in me. As depressing as it may well be, it made me think of a barren post Brexit wasteland, living in our own walled off island with no access to basic amenities, such as toilet paper and ‘luxury’ fruit (bananas). Here though, we’ll persevere because 45-55 year old men will remind us of the Second World War and how great we did. In the meantime, many of us will be left wondering how they would know when they weren’t alive and didn’t live through it and also, didn’t we have some help? Weren’t we allies? There’s something in that I think…
Alas, less of the depressing state of what’s to come and let me bring home my point. If we were to live in this BrexSHIT wasteland, where every morning we’ll swear allegiance to Winston Churchill, Jeremy Clarkson and Jim Davidson, we’ll have no access to Europe. Thus, we’ll have no access to European cinema. After truly labouring the point, I’d like to combat this hell by saying Brexit was/is one of largest scams we’ll ever see and I can’t wait for the public inquiry. Also, here are some of my favourite European films. *steps down off soapbox*
There’s obviously a treasure trove of films I could dive into here. European cinema and the daring of several directors has left a lasting imprint on what we watch today. Fritz Lang’s vastly influential M & Metropolis were borne out of the German Expressionism movement. There’s the French New Wave’s Truffaut, Varda and Godard, as well as the Italian neorealist directors such as Antonioni and Fellini. I’ve already pushed my luck on this one, but to list the amount of classic European cinema would leave me with a PhD in European cinema list making. Ultimately I just wanted to highlight two films that I think are great, but wanted to recognise the breadth of what there is to choose from. As in life, choosing EUropean is often the way to go.
Firstly is the film I’ve seen most recently, but is the oldest by a distance. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, which translates to Don’t Touch the Loot (released in the UK as Honour Among Thieves) was released in 1954 and almost perfectly encapsulates the theme here; in that it was a French and Italian co-production. It starred Jean Gabin as ageing gangster Max, who is forced out of his seemingly idyllic retirement after being double crossed by rivals in search of the score that afforded him retirement bliss. Directed by Jacques Becker, who’s other notable films include Casque d’or (1952) and Le Trou (1960) and who’s mentor was the distinguished French auteur Jean Renoir, this film has gone on to become a classic in general, and especially in the gangster genre; and by most people’s money, it is the most revered film of Becker’s back catalogue. For someone who’s favourite film on most days of the week is Goodfellas, it was a massive gap in my film knowledge. While watching for the first time it became clear to me that this film must have had an influence on Scorsese’s The Irishman. In its themes of ageing criminals, glamour and then the clear lack of it, as well as ruthlessness between friends/allies. Despite not having the scale of Scorsese’s masterpiece, in that it’s around half the length and wasn’t bankrolled by Netflix, those core themes are running through both. The score that is so prominent and propulsive throughout The Irishman, is also directly influenced by Jean Wiener’s score. Jean Gabin’s Max steely composed protagonist, also reminded me of De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. While Max is more of a figurehead, organisationally speaking, their demeanours have clear similarities. Reading about the film afterwards, it was nice to know that I hadn’t imagined all of this; Scorsese,in conversation with the great Spike Lee, was quoted as saying that this film was a direct influence on his. Perhaps lost to time somewhat, but given that the incredible streaming service/film distributor Mubi recently added it to their collection, I think now is the time for rediscovery.
My second recommendation is an Italian film from 2018, Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice). There are two things that irk me more than most, when it comes to films, and both have occurred with this gem. Firstly, when I intend to see something at the cinema, don’t make time and then see it via streaming. If I love it, like this, I’m full of regret that I didn’t make time and inevitably have a word with myself, vowing to never make the same mistake. Secondly, and happening ever more frequently, is when distributors forego releasing a film on Blu-ray, and opt only for digital or digital and DVD. Neither of these options interest me and a film I would deeply treasure, leaves a metaphorical rectangular gap in my collection. Both of these irksome things happened with Happy as Lazzaro and I thought this blog would be the right place for me to vent this fury. I know, first world problems, complaining about a film not being on Blu-ray and my own internal strife about not going to the cinema. I’ve given you an insight into my mind and the less said about it, the better. Let’s move on.
Back to the film, which tells the story of a peasant family who are, unknowingly, exploited for their labour by a tobacco baroness. On first glance, and for much of the first act, it appears our sharecroppers and their exploiter in chief are living around the late 19th/early 20th century. However, there are items we see from the baroness’s son, Tancredi, which don’t befit the time we think we’re in; such as his clothing and a Walkman. In fact, it turns out we’re in the 1980’s where such work has now been outlawed, however no one told this family, let alone our protagonist Lazzaro; who himself is often exploited by his community due to his simple outlook and unwavering kindness. Director Alice Rohrwacher’s beautiful film continues to surprise however, due to a kidnapping plot and some time hopping. There’s parallels and metaphors galore in the way the baroness is running her ‘business’, compared to Italian society and government which over the years have often been in a vice grip to corruption and crime. To go into much more would be creeping into spoiler territory, which in turn would really break the spell this film holds on you as the viewer. Seek it out, in the meantime I’m going to order an Italian import Blu-ray. I hope it has subtitles.
There really is so many films I could’ve chosen here, but I wanted to highlight two that I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about. They’re great and so is European cinema. Thanks for indulging me, I’m off to fly some helium filled balloons off to Holland…