Girl, Thunder Road, and Ash is Purest White.
Note: parts of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).
I had never actually been to the BFI Southbank before these last few days. OK, that’s not strictly true, I’ve been inside the building numerous times over the years on brief wanders through the ground floor and noses into the (often ludicrously over-priced) shop. But I had never actually seen anything in or spent extended time at the BFI Southbank until this year’s pre-Festival screenings. Not unintentionally, mind, it’s just that my many trips to London over the years never managed to leave enough time to have a proper explore or see anything in the building – I am the only member of my family who is heavily into Film, and trips down here are usually family affairs – whilst the previous Festivals, thanks to my not turning up until the main part of them started, just never had me cross paths with it.
So, I’m already getting to tick off personal wishes this year! I have now been in all three of the building’s theatres, and each one seems to have been designed to resemble a different kind of non-multiplex screening room. NFT1 has the boutique opulence of an old-fashioned theatre, NFT2 mimicking the sloped neck-craning of the Prince Charles Cinema but thankfully way more viewable and better designed, and NFT3 is a press screening room with absolutely no legroom ever. It sounds incredibly nerdy, and that’s because it is, but I always love visiting non-multiplex cinemas whenever the chance comes along specifically for this kind of design work. There’s a personality to the hodgepodge that sticks out from the uniformity of your chain cinemas, where you can see how those responsible for the designs have tried to spruce up the viewing experience or had to work around spatial restrictions. I find it adds something to the films I have to cover, an additional layer for me to appreciate. Looking forward to returning to the Picturehouse Central in two days’ time. But for now, the last day of pre-Festival screenings.
Premiered Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes and already selected as Belgium’s entry into the Best Foreign Film race at next year’s Oscars, Girl (Grade: B-) is clearly being groomed for big things and more cynical folk than I could even accuse it of being foreign Oscar Bait. Lukas Dhont’s debut feature (playing at this particular Festival in the appropriate First Feature Competition category) follows 16-year-old Lara (Victor Polster), who lives with her single father (Arieh Worthalter) and 6-year-old brother, at a very difficult time in her life. Lara and her family have just moved across Belgium in order for her to attend one of the country’s most prestigious dance academies, and she’s also preparing for the long gruelling process of finally being able to transition her body into that of a woman’s. At the moment, she’s unashamedly out to everybody, that part of her identity is never in question and her doting father is trying his best to be her rock throughout the process, but the fact that her body is still that of a man’s is taking a heavy psychological toll on her whilst her ballet training is taking a heavy physical toll on her body too, potentially putting her operation in jeopardy.
Thankfully, Dhont’s crack at this kind of material gets a leg up on recent mainstream British and American attempts to tell the tales of trans-dysphoria, like The Danish Girl or elements of Dallas Buyer’s Club, by mostly going for a smaller, less-crowdpleasing, and emotionally heavier take on the material. Similarly to how Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post tackled the effects of gay conversion camps, Dhont and co-screenwriter Angelo Tijssens focus more on microaggressions and the everyday trivialities that remind a pre-op trans-person of the purgatory they are currently caught in. Teachers being innocently insensitive over changing rooms, the anxiety of a sexual experience (or inability to be sexual), a group of women trying their best to push someone into opening up more and hitting raw nerves in doing so (or turning entitled when refused).
Dhont and Tijssens also do a sterling job of immersing the viewer into that miasma of feeling comfortable in one’s identity but constantly stressed and angry at their biological state. The mood is thick and weighing even whilst Girl goes to great lengths to demonstrate the support system Lara has in place, because it can be impossible for pre-op trans-folk such as her to communicate their self-loathing in a way that others can understand even if those in that support network are receptive like Lara’s are. Relative newcomer Victor Polster delivers an instant-breakout performance, embodying Lara’s insular withdrawn maelstrom completely without ever making her a pitying one-dimensional tragedy figure, even during the rare times the script goes big.
But, and this is a big “but,” all of this praise does come with one major qualifier: Girl doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s a fact which can get lost when watching films at a festival, where you basically are sealed in a bubble for however long it lasts, but it is important to bear in mind when assessing a film like Girl. Because though it may play as part of a prestigious festival and it may indeed be really good and genuinely affecting, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s yet another transgender story made by cis writers, directors, and actors focussed on the act and angst of transitioning that are designed to have cis audiences go “oh, poor thing.” And no matter how sensitively it’s portrayed (and it mostly is) or how strong that central performance is (and it is really strong), this is a topic that has been done to overkill and holds back trans-storytelling in the medium of Film through the simple fact that it’s the only way this story is ever being told. That trans-focussed stories can only be about woe or some form of tragedy based around that specific facet of their identity instead of one’s whole personality.
I’ll leave it to those much better versed in Queer Film Theory and with more experience in these areas to explain this issue in more detail (here’s a good start). But the fact remains that, especially after the ending, Girl falls quite neatly into the same traps that have claimed films like The Danish Girl and Boys Don’t Cry in the past and I have to knock the film for that, affecting though it may be.
In what’s supposedly been a recurring problem with the pre-Festival screenings taking place at the BFI Southbank this year, thanks to construction work going on around the building, I arrived at my screening of Thunder Road (Grade: B+) just barely before it got closed off due to capacity. That may sound like a surprise to those of you reading these articles, this film that most of you probably hadn’t heard of before now and screening prior to the Festival having its demand exceed capacity, but those in the know such as myself actually had this down as one of the most anticipated of the Festival. See, Thunder Road is the feature-length expansion (and feature-length directorial debut) of writer and star Jim Cummings’ brilliant 2016 short film of the same name and, I am very pleased to report, that’s a transition both the premise and the talent have managed to execute mostly smooth as butter.
For those who haven’t seen it, and I really do recommend that you take 13 minutes out of your day to watch (trust me on this), the Thunder Road short involves Cummings’ Officer Arnaud giving a rambling, hyper-emotional, and borderline-violent eulogy at the funeral of his mother, a respected dancer who loved Springsteen and whom Arnaud fears he was ungrateful towards and disappointed whilst she was alive. It’s a pitch-perfect piece of tragicomedy delivered in sputtering monologue and one excruciating take that refuses to give the viewer an out, and Cummings wisely lifts it pretty much wholesale for the opening to his feature-expansion. Thunder Road the feature then follows the weeks after Arnaud’s bewildering breakdown at the funeral as this angry, put-upon, and altogether pathetic man starts self-destructing with great prejudice as a result of his grief, an impending divorce from his contentious ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) and accompanying custody battle over their resentful daughter (Kendall Farr), and problems at work with his partner Officer Lewis (Nican Robinson) amongst so many others.
You might think that you’re supposed to sympathise with Arnaud, therefore, as his life completely falls apart at the seams despite his attempts to do better and resultantly feel uneasy with the idea of doing so given real-world circumstances in this year of ours 2018. But whilst Cummings does occasionally provide Arnaud with notes of sympathy and the hint of redemption, Arnaud is primarily a character designed to alternately laugh at and be horrified by. He is the kind of loser that doubles as life’s chew-toy, but he also brings a lot of his problems on himself by being alternately an “aw, shucks” down-home imbecile of the highest degree and a vindictive asshole with the capacity to dive right over the line of acceptability in a blind rage without even being aware of it. This is a man who treats his dyslexia like a cancer diagnosis and whose response to being told that his daughter may also have a mild form of it is to start blaming himself before screaming at the elementary school teacher who broke the news to him, his daughter’s table in hand ready to chuck at the guy’s head.
Arnaud was a fascinating character in the original short and fortunately becomes even more so when we’re forced to spend even longer in his company – the film is firmly from his point-of-view, even if Thunder Road isn’t exactly sympathetic to Arnaud’s many plights, which does mean that the remainder of the cast are comparatively thin in characterisation and have to lean more on their performers to carry them through. Cummings has a hand in damn-near every facet of Thunder Road (*insert played-out Little Britain Dennis Waterman joke here*) but whilst his direction is confident and only occasionally showy, and his screenplay is a tonal masterclass, this is primarily a showcase for his acting talents and he turns in what may be my favourite performance of the entire year. He makes Arnaud so abjectly pathetic yet also low-key vile in a compulsively entertaining way that, whilst you’d never want to meet the man in real-life, remaining in his presence for 90 minutes is compulsive. The ability to watch such a uniquely drawn character keep sinking to new depths in such an accomplished character piece never becoming tiring. I am extremely excited for whatever Cummings’ next move may be because his is a voice bursting with further potential going forward.
Finally for my pre-Festival screenings, and also super-anticipated by the Industry and Press already down here given the line snaked back to some stairs 20 minutes before the screening even started, there was the ninth non-documentary feature film from the acclaimed Jia Zhangke. Zhangke is the kind of filmmaker whose name by this point carries an aura of reverent fervour by pretty much anybody who considers themselves a Serious Film Fan. I overheard several guys telling their colleagues that had turned up to watch this one film that at least they’d picked one by “the greatest filmmaker in the world,” another related an anecdote/theory that the Toronto International Film Festival’s Platform strand was named after Zhangke’s second film of the same name, and my East Asian Cinema module back in Film Studies dedicated several weeks to his oeuvre and how it represented the evolution of Chinese cinema. Anticipation, then, was high.
For those whom happily embrace the thrall of Jia Zhangke, Ash is Purest White (Grade: C+) will be another satisfactory slice of prime Zhangke. Ash is yet another elegiac mood piece that’s primarily a metaphor for the evolution/regression of China as a society, of the kind that Zhangke has effectively codified for the rest of acclaimed modern East Asian cinema. It stretches its legs (running as it does well over two hours), fixates on a pair of simple-to-describe but emotionally-complex characters, is gorgeously shot throughout, and is sometimes briefly interrupted by shocking bursts of violence that can hit you right in your stomach. Ash borrows Mountains May Depart’s clearly-defined three-act structure to tell the story of mob boss Bin (Liao Fan) and his lover Qiao (Zhao Tao), over the course of 17 years. Beginning in 2001, jumping ahead five years later after Qiao saves Bin from a public hit only to find that he’s moved on whilst she was in prison, and finally finishing with their contentious reuniting in 2017.
Zhangke gradually moves his latest work from a gangster film to a romance drama as the narrative rolls on, as the gangsters of the early days go legit or fail to escape the dead-end towns that eventually become gentrified and render their prospective criminal escapades obsolete. Tao and Fan are both excellent, but most especially Tao who exudes a magnetism in everything she does. Every line of dialogue she speaks, every move she makes, every action she takes revealing a woman with far more strength than she or anyone else is willing to let on, later curdling into a loss of self after five years away that never manages to heal no matter how hard she tries. Whilst Zhangke is, to me at least, still the best in his field at filming China, draping it in the arthouse realist style that defines a large amount of East Asian Cinema like this – all lengthy takes, stretched-out beats between dialogue, conversations delivered slowly and deliberately, often sparsely-populated – but still finding or injecting actual life into every frame so that proceedings don’t feel like a grubby sparsely-populated dollhouse. Real soul in each frame.
…can I tell you a shameful secret, however? Jia Zhangke films have never managed to connect with me. I am always left cold by them, appreciating the formalism but never grabbed by the characters or the tones and wishing that they’d hurry the hell up already. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that they borderline bore me, which I know is the kind of statement that might get me strung up and quartered by other real members of the Film Press. But it’s how I felt when watching Pickpocket, when watching A Touch of Sin, when watching Mountains May Depart, and now when watching Ash as Purest White. After an opening 40 minutes that culminate in an arresting as hell visual, I found the film’s second part dragged on for what felt like an eternity, although the scene where Bin and Qiao finally reunite is truly brilliant, and then its final part starts out strong but blows past at least five perfect closing shots and loses all momentum when the true ending does arrive. I honestly got quite restless and sleepy throughout a good stretch of Ash, the film coming close repeatedly to losing me.
Fans of Zhangke are likely going to want to bump that grade up a full letter because this is just someone whose works I have never been able to connect with, and Ash is Purest White is nothing if not another Jia Zhangke film. But I can only grade films based on how I personally felt about them and, whilst there is some stuff I appreciated and properly liked, I just wasn’t into the movie. Sorry.
Tomorrow: the Festival proper gets underway with Steve McQueen’s long-overdue return in the shape of Lynda LaPlante adaptation, Widows.