We now return to the 2022 A to Z movie challenge for letters F – J.
F – Fish Tank (2009)
To begin the next segment of this international challenge, we head to late 2000s working-class Britain. Hip hop, swoop bangs, and reality TV: Andrea Arnold’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning sophomore feature is chock-full of the tawdry signifiers of the MySpace era. 15-year-old Mia is tough and has already put up with a lot in her short life. Her mother is neglectful and her opportunities are sparse. Men are mostly threatening, and her fellow girls are hostile. Where to find an outlet?
Well, for Mia, it’s dancing. She spends her time in the attic room rehearsing choreography, hoping to make that into a job one day. Her focus turns to upcoming dancer auditions, which she preps a routine for.
Enter Conor, Mia’s mom’s new boyfriend. He is played by the dashingly handsome Michael Fassbender and, beyond his well-kept physical appearance, there seems to be something that separates him from the rest of the men in her community. She’s skeptical of him at first, but soon becomes attracted to him. Yes, this spells danger.
Unlike most of the other filmmakers on this list, I am familiar with director Andrea Arnold and actually consider her 2003 short Wasp and 2016 feature American Honey to be genuine masterpieces. She excels at social realism with sprinkles of euphoria. Like with American Honey, Arnold picked her protagonist for Fish Tank from off the street. 18-year-old Katie Jarvis was discovered while arguing with her boyfriend at a railway station. The rawness of her lack of acting experience is, I believe, the largest contributor to the success the film finds in paralleling Mia’s general street smarts and romantic naivety.
Bold, uncomfortable, and undeniably rough around the edges, Fish Tank is a slice of life that doesn’t provide a whole lot of answers. Mia is imperfect. Even when she’s not pushing her hard persona, there are not a whole lot of people lining up for her to open up to. All convenient solutions are crass or extreme, and she really doesn’t have anyone to tell her straight about the reality of her dance dream.
On the other side of the spectrum, Fassbender plays a compelling douche and very much set the stage for Alexander Skarsgård's pathetic boyfriend in Marielle Heller's Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). I don't know what compels him to audition for such complex roles, but he seems to have a knack for them.
Fish Tank is not the most optimistic piece on this list, but like Arnold’s other greats, it relishes its subtleties. Moment-by-moment experiences and revelations, coming of age and forming the self. It’s a two-hour exhibition of learning the hard way.
G – Great Freedom (2021)
There is a great actor who has starred in many of the best German movies in the last decade. His name is Franz Rogowski, and he has one of the most memorable faces in film. He’s got one of those faces with texture and story; one that never could be airbrushed in a magazine without losing a bit of his soul. No matter what he is in, it is worth watching for him. Hence my journey to Great Freedom.
Great Freedom is a period piece set over several decades in a German prison. Hans (Rogowski) has been imprisoned for homosexuality just shortly after serving time in a concentration camp for his preferences. He finishes his first sentence while rooming with convicted murderer Viktor (Georg Friedrich), and the two develop a bond.
The most compelling aspect of Great Freedom is its structure. It hops between three different decades, switching when either of the men is thrown in solitary confinement. Hans is in and out (the sentence is only 18 months), but Viktor remains without likelihood of parole.
The story of their connection ebbs and flows; filmmaker Sebastian Meise throws us first into Hans’s final conviction. He is thrilled to see Viktor, and it seems as though they’re both pretty accustomed to the prison routine. Their intimacy is visible, but the trajectory is suspect. How did they develop this depth in the coldest place imaginable?
Great Freedom is more about moments and words exchanged than mounting tension. Admittedly, it can get a little stale from time to time. Hans is very comfortable with himself, and he’s basically just waiting on the world to come around. The world does eventually come around, but fascinatingly, it is Hans who opts out of the newness to be with the person with whom he has forged a connection more powerful than anything the outside world can offer.
The ending is a brilliant accumulation of all that the film touches on about love, patience, and life behind bars. Great Freedom might be a little slow for the more excitable of viewers, but so is life in prison. It has strong dialogue, a tender message, and another great Franz Rogowski’s performance. We’ll see him in Ira Sachs’ Passages with Ben Whishaw soon.
H – House of Hummingbird (2019)
House of Hummingbird takes us to South Korea in the ‘90s. Eun-hee is a 14-year-old girl with a less-than-stellar home life. Her parents argue, her brother beats her, and her sister is constantly testing the boundaries of what she can get away with. She keeps up with schoolwork, but she often doodles in class, and she has a secret boyfriend with whom she spends her limited free time. When she gets a new teacher for her cram Chinese class (an extracurricular, out-of-school-hours study), she finds an unexpected empathy.
Kim Bora’s film is roughly based on her own experience as a teenager in the ‘90s. The autobiographical nature of the film contributes to the looseness of the plot. It’s not exactly an A B C kind of movie, and clocking in at over 138 minutes, it’s pretty long for a coming-of-age story. Bora leads her self-insert along the emotional ups and downs of being a fairweather young person.
Every emotional beat hits, even if the impact is not outwardly displayed. It’s refreshing to see all the different raw elements (her friendships, her family life, a medical diagnosis) progress, oftentimes conflicting with and stealing the shine from one another. Something that is obscenely upsetting in one moment might feel like nothing in the face of a greater upheaval. That’s the dynamic this film explores, and its rocky road never tells you exactly how to feel.
The movie’s most dramatic moment is based on a real-life tragedy, which really connects the film with its time period. Seoul was modernizing quite quickly at the turn of the 20th century, and the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge made a significant impact on the filmmaker. In an interview with Asian Movie Pulse, she said that the event “was a significant wake-up call for South Korea in terms of raising up the awareness of what we were doing… we had to be really aware about the consequences of rush actions.”
That much-to-do attitude applies to the main character as well, who Bora imagines as a hummingbird. Only after seeing the legitimate consequences of disingenuous fleeting moments does her family take stock in what they have. House of Hummingbird is a lowkey coming-of-age movie that finds great appreciation for patience and earnestness. Watch for the insightful young actors and Bora’s vivid recollection of a time of constant change.
I – Insiang (1976)
I covered beloved FIlipino filmmaker Lino Brocka’s masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light for one of my 10 Films, 10 Countries, 10 Days challenge. Brocka was a fervent revolutionary with curiosity and passion for a slew of different social issues, so I couldn’t help but prioritize his other most famous film for this challenge: 1976’s Insiang (the first ever Filipino movie shown at the Cannes Film Festival).
The titular character, Insiang (Hilda Koronel), is a young woman who is verbally abused by her mother, Tonya. Although Insiang maintains social appearances, Tonya is restrictive and skeptical, bruised by the husband that left her behind. After a public groping incident by way of her nephew, Tonya kicks out her sister in-law’s family and in moves Dado, Tonya’s much younger boyfriend. Insiang suspects him immediately and is proven right when he rapes her, although Dado convinces Tonya that it was Insiang who seduced him.
Brief TW: this movie’s opening scene features an extended scene in a pig slaughterhouse. All blood and guts shown, all squealing to be heard. It caught me off guard, and it is meant to catch you off guard. But I do not want anyone throwing up because of a lack of warning.
The ensuing 30-minute introduction is Brocka setting the socio-economic scene. The occupational pickings are limited and people lean on extended family to get by. Likewise, it’s a small town, and most everyone knows each other and their business. Insiang is beautiful and many men want her, but she recognizes the lack of safety that implies. Of course, the patriarchal notions of the setting are set up to victim blame her.
Hilda Koronel’s performance is mesmerizing and Brocka uses a variety of techniques to enhance her sense of isolation – harrowing music, thoughtful zooms, and confined lines that separate her from her peers. It’s one of those movies whose plot doesn’t fully hit you until its final scene and you understand the depth of its focus. Although the assault is not shown, the words exchanged about it pack great punch, and the reminder of it lingers in the foreground, her indignation mounting in each and every interaction she tolerates. What does justice even look like in poverty?
Insiang is powerful in the moments that you stop to ponder it. When you reach beneath the melodrama and lay out the passive reality it presents, you find yourself in that same alienated fervor.
J – Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
Oh boy, if you thought that title was a lot, just wait ‘til you read the description. Miguel Llansó is a Spanish director who works primarily out of Ethiopia. This film is set in Estonia, Latvia and Ethiopia, but features performers of many different origins being dubbed by English speakers, including a man wearing a face cutout of Joseph Stalin, because the objective of the movie is to take down the virtual Soviet Union. It’s overwhelming and over-the-top and very low-budget ‘80s sci-fi. Stiff acting, hollow logic, crass sex scenes. It’s all very reminiscent of a bygone era that will work for others and be extremely frustrating for others. I find myself more in the latter camp, but you know what? There is something to appreciate here, and I’m going to do my best to articulate it.
This movie feels like the pinnacle of globalization, not only for its diverse nationality representation, but because it has so many freaking references. If you believe in chewing up the scenery to the absolute max, this maximalist filmmaker has the goods for you. An anti-drug president named Batfro that is literally just a dude dressed up as Batman with the logo blurred out (a VFX effect added onto every single one of his scenes), a Matrix-esque simulated world where people can be coded and de-coded into people or insects, stop motion fights between two dudes with political figure masks plastered onto their faces (I think it was JFK, but it was really dark, so I could just be stupid). And don’t think the title is just a funny expression – there is a character who identifies as Jesus and Stalin wants to PUT A STOP TO IT.
Although I found this movie mentally exhausting (not least because of how the main female character was often naked and moaning pornographically), I do think it is very amusing. Hey, do some drugs and give this the New York Ninja treatment and we might have a cult classic on our hands. The holograms looked pretty good, for what it’s worth, and the movie really believes in its cyber-camp aesthetic. Cheap costumes, real locations. It rings of Aquaman and Power Rangers and yet it’s darkly lit enough to convey gritty when it matters.
I am not designed to enjoy trash spectacle but being this ludicrous earns my respect nonetheless. To make this in 2019, on a budget of roughly $400,000, with all the randomness it undertakes – it’s cool. I hope by throwing in these goofy selections (like The Eagle Shooting Heroes), people can come to appreciate the sillier side of international cinema and realize that it shouldn’t be so daunting to throw on a film from a different part of the world. And this one is dubbed in English, so it should be absolutely no trouble at all. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.
Fish Tank and Insiang are streaming on the Criterion Channel and Great Freedom and House of Hummingbird are available on Mubi. Check them out now.