Film Reviews by PD

Welcome to PD's film reviews page. PD has written 42 reviews and rated 134 films.

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The Wild Pear Tree

Another masterpiece from Ceylan

(Edit) 19/11/2019

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest offering is another beautifully made and acted film. It’s typically unhurried of course, which some might lose patience with, but for fans like me it could have gone on for days and I wouldn't have minded at all - quite the contrary.

It's basically to do with childhood and returning to your home town and family with all this entails, aka Chekhov or Ibsen. The central character Sinan is superbly played by Aydin Dogu Demirkol, who you can't take your eyes off for a moment - every twitch, every expression speaks volumes. He's something of a misanthrope, an aspiring writer who is frustrated with what he sees as the sense of disappointment and failure in the lives of his local friends and family, but at the same time fears this will be his own future; the director is highly skilful at questioning Sinan's assumptions and takes great pains to display instead the locals' humility and acceptance, especially Sinan's gambling-addicted father Idris, again, beautifully played by Murat Cemcir, who is straight out of the pages of Hemingway.

There are lengthy dialogues about writing, life-choices, religion, modern Turkey, etc, but the film never feels forced or preachy. And there are some scenes that can truly be called 'great' - Siran's encounter with ex-girlfriend Hatice for example is breathtakingly good: the mood shifts are perfectly controlled as she teases him about his general pessimism and he goads her in turn about what looks like an imminent submission to marriage. And in another wonderful sequence Sinan has a discussion with a famous writer Süleyman (Serkan Keskin) in a bookshop which begins by Sinan ostensibly seeking advice but then increasingly drives Suleyman to distraction as Sinan doesn't seem to respect him - ultimately Sinan just wants to needle him about all the petty vanities and hypocrisies of the literary establishment. My favourite bit is a lengthy, circular conversation between Sinan and two imams during which, under the guise of small talk, they discuss truth, morality and the nature of religious belief. Wonderful, wonderful filmaking.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Mektoub, My Love

Lots to like - and dislike

(Edit) 19/11/2019

Plenty to like here: the film is something of a 'sensory epic' in which its characters revel in a riot of physical pleasure. And on a completely different note to the film's whirl of human chaos, there's also a extended documentary-style sequence of lamb birthing which is totally compelling. A genuine lust for life is undoubtedly at the centre of Kechiche’s filmmaking.

BUT unfortunately there are many weaknesses also. The main problem is the perspective of the film's main character Amin (newcomer Shaïn Boumédine), whose general uncertainty of himself and difference to the mass of humanity around him makes him a naturally sympathetic anchor for the film, but not a terribly compelling one: Kechiche’s script keeps him a largely passive presence throughout, his innermost thoughts and urges unknown to us. Similarly, the character of Ophelie is hardly fleshed out (no pun intended) at all beyond a few scenes on her family farm, which is a pity - what lay behind her choice of partner, whether she regrets her choice, what is going on in her head at any point - are all mysteries.

Then there's the well-documented male leering gaze and the endless bottoms - which are not only tiresome in the extreme, but rather baffling as it seems inconsistent given the thoughtful characterisation of the film's female cast — whose generation-crossing scenes together, as they gossip amongst themselves and analyse their life choices, are some of the film’s most meaningful and most authentic.

And finally whilst Blue is the Warmest Colour for me used its supersized running time to good use, mapping the extensive internal transformation of an unformed girl growing into adulthood, the 186-minute duration of this one feels a lot more ostentatiously stretched to the point of self-indulgence — the lengthy, gruelling nightclub sequence towards the end, in particular, is simply an endurance test. Rather frustrating viewing on the whole therefore, sadly.

3 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Transit

Brave and absorbing film of Europe's past and present

(Edit) 13/11/2019

This very clever and absorbing film, the latest from German director Christian Petzold, is set in a surreal German-occupied present-day France. It's part political allegory, part romance, part thriller, and deals with such themes as loss, trauma, statelessness and historical amnesia - think 'Casablanca' combined with Camus' 'L'Etranger' combined with a JG Ballard-style dystopia. The plot circles around Georg (a transfixing Franz Rogowski), who spends much of the film dodging shock troops with the result that the conventional sense of historical time, with its reassuring sense of progress, has been undone.

The film is based on a 1944 novel by the German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers that draws on her experience as a war refugee, and Petzold's adaptation, situating it in a historically indeterminate moment, overlapping past and present, is done subtly but effectively - you don't need a swastika or a yellow star to get the historical / inhuman backdrop, whilst Georg’s growing attachment to a dead writer's wife, paralleled by his delicate, paternal feelings for a young boy (Lilien Batman) forcefully underscore the story’s topical political resonance.

Early in the film, a narrator (Matthias Brandt) begins talking as Georg reads the dead writer’s novel. The narrator’s identity long remains a mystery; he drops in now and then to add or explain, but not always precisely or reliably (some might find this irritating, of course, but I rather liked it). The typewritten manuscript pages are excerpts from Seghers’s novel, which opens up assorted mind-bending possibilities: Georg could be unwittingly following someone else’s script; or he's caught in a time loop or repeating history; or he could be living in a present that is inseparable from the past. Petzold’s answer may can found in the crowded consulates in which Georg waits alongside despairing men and women, caught in the stateless, agonisingly familiar limbo reproduced in today’s refugee crisis.

It's possibly a tad melodramatic at times (the director seems to think the audience needs a few chase scenes or someone screaming or whatever to keep us interested), and maybe it's just a bit too self-consciously Humphrey Bogart trading melancholic regrets with Ingrid Bergman, but on the whole this is powerful (and brave) stuff.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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The Chambermaid

Superb, empathetic study of an invisible workforce

(Edit) 13/11/2019

This highly original film, director Lila Avilés' first, is a real gem. It invites us to share the life of this invisible woman, during which time we become ever more painfully aware of the world she tends but to which she has no access. Minutely attuned as Avilés and co-writer Juan Carlos Marquéz are to aspects of gender, race and class, their understated yet highly observational screenplay focuses on this young woman’s daily struggle and her desperate (and ultra-modest) hopes and dreams rather than the lives of her employers. From the opening scene, in which Eve uncovers a surprise while restoring order to a room that looks like it was ransacked by a herd of bulls, Avilés depicts with great skill the everyday unpleasantness that is her job, as well as the frequently condescending and often downright inhuman way the customers treat the 'help'. Some seem more considerate than others, but Eve is invariably forgotten in an instant.

Cleverly, the film takes place largely behind the scenes, following Eve and her co-workers up the service lift, into storage closets and amid the mountains of laundry in what appears to be the basement. Crucially, however, Avilés gives Eve a great sense of dignity throughout, ultimately giving her a heroic quality (as opposed to her complacent and spoilt class 'superiors'). The film is pitch-perfect at revealing the unspoken contract between the hotel guests and the anonymous maids who perform all manner of services for them ( for of course, these women are expected to clean up but never to cross the line), but more importantly, it also explores the dynamic between the staff, as in Eve’s budding friendship with co-worker Minitoy (Teresa Sánchez), one of the few people who actually seems to 'see' Eve.

The self-taught director apparently met and researched the maids working at the Intercontinental Hotel during pre-production and rehearsal phases, and this certainly shows. Indeed, Gabriela Cartol 's performance proves so unmannered, so utterly believable throughout, one could be forgiven for assuming that Avilés had found her working at the hotel. The film may feel overly minimalist to those accustomed to a more conventional narrative / action, but there’s an intricacy to all the seemingly mundane details Avilés opts to include, and a photographic instinct behind the way she composes each scene. Sitcoms and studio films have established a comfortable assortment of angles for covering spaces such as hotel rooms and hallways and whatnot, but Avilés render these areas as alien, sci-fi like spaces, particularly when we see them from Eve’s perspective, as in low angles that seem to decapitate other characters as for example when she retrieves lost objects from under the bed. Equally as importantly, Avilés never overplays her hand whilst making it crystal clear that Eve’s aspirations are tragically defined and diminished by the kind of moneyed guests she waits upon, and the final moment of the film, beautifully simple as it is, has a subtle power worthy of the great directors. As a result of this deeply empathetic piece, we are likely never to look at this invisible workforce in quite the same way again. Superb stuff.

4 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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Sometimes Always Never

clever script not matched by the production or performances

(Edit) 13/11/2019

Mmm - one of those that attempts to deal with some serious themes (loss, grief, desire for familial connection etc) by being self-consciously 'charming', but for me I'm afraid both the acting and the production didn't match Frank Cottrell Boyce's clever, wry and witty script. The styling of the film seems to stand separately from the dialogue, which is realistic by comparison, and this, which includes an abundance of Wes Anderson-style symmetrical framing and frequent use of tongue-in-cheek title cards, only serves to distract the audience from what's going on rather than reinforce any emotive power the film might have, whilst the deliberately low-key performances just seem to lack depth and nuance to me. Add to all this a truly horrible sentimental ending, I'm coming away thinking this one, though admittedly watchable, could have been so much better, sadly.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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The Souvenir

Engaging and intriguing

(Edit) 13/11/2019

Joanna Hogg's latest film is never not engaging. Her protagonist, Julie (beautifully played by Honor Swinton Byrne), is a 24-year-old 'privileged' woman with a Knightsbridge flat who wants to make a film about a boy growing up by the docks of Sunderland. Quizzed by authority figures sceptical of her choice to stray so far from her own experience, Julie speaks of her insularity, her class privilege, her need to cultivate a socially conscious aesthetic. She pores over black-and-white footage of working-class boys in a school playground , leaning into her manual typewriter (it’s the 1980s) and struggling to concoct a story line. The people who question Julie’s motivation for telling this story are Men Who Explain Things to Her. Enter stage right, Anthony — seen only from the back at first — holding forth in a plummy voice on her proposed characters (“Why are they more real than me?”) and wondering whether she’s trying to peddle a “received idea of life on the docks.” He’s perhaps a bit too ridiculous (“You’re very special, Julie.” “Very normal, really.” “You’re a freak.” “I think I’m quite average.” “You’re lost, and you’ll always be lost”) to be entirely convincing. Indeed, you do wonder if they'd ever be in a relationship in real life - 'how on earth did they get together?' someone asks at some point, and we're inclined to agree, whilst we often want to shout at Julie for her indecision and inability to see the blindingly obvious, but perhaps that's exactly what Hogg wants us to feel. First impressions are soon revealed to be turned on their head, and while Anthony is denying and denying and playing head games (“I know you have a received version of what I’m supposed to be”), Julie is struggling in film school to learn to frame her experience. There’s some loose talk of the mechanics of Psycho and some stabs (no pun intended) at directing scenes, but no artistic breakthroughs. (Not in this installment, anyway: The Souvenir: Part II is in preproduction). Anthony claims to work for the Foreign Office, but a note of scepticism is in order for the simple reason that, as Julie slowly discovers, he has a habit of lying about nearly everything.

The title refers to a painting by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard that Anthony and Julie view on one of their 'dates'. It depicts a young woman, scrutinised by her pet dog, carving letters into the trunk of a tree. “She’s very much in love,” Anthony says with his usual suave certainty, and perhaps he’s right. But there’s a lot more going on in the picture (as in the film) than that simple declaration would suggest. The woman is making a mark and putting down a marker, declaring her own presence with a mixture of shame and audacity, impulsiveness and deliberation. So, Julie does love Anthony, and sacrifices a great deal for him without quite realising what she’s doing. Over the span of the film her friends slip away, and the work that had seemed so urgent feels a bit more remote. But the interplay of forces in Julie’s life is subtle, as is the balance, in her own temperament, between decisiveness and passivity.

What's the point? Mmm ... well I suppose it's something to do with the director digging into her own past. In her stunning first film, Unrelated (2007), a story of a 40-ish woman who joins a friend’s family in Italy while trying to come to terms with not having children is steeped in honest sentiment, but without being sentimental. It feels detached, but when you get it, you’re overwhelmed by it. We don't get the same feeling here, and because Hogg rarely moves the camera, we might well feel marooned with people you don’t know for reasons we don’t understand. But Hogg usually convinces us that this is the only honest way to tell a story with any emotional complexity. An intriguing piece of filmaking with lots to offer for the patient and those who can live without a conventional narrative thread.

6 out of 9 members found this review helpful.

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Bait

A Quiet Classic

(Edit) 13/11/2019

This highly original film from independent writer-director Mark Jenkin is a powerful and at times surreal study of fear and loathing in a Cornish fishing village, the dominant mood being, aka Bad Day at Black Rock, suspicion, outrage and doom. Shot in Cornwall, its microbudget production was partly crewed by staff and students from the film school at Falmouth University, where Jenkin is an associate lecturer.

Bait is grounded in simple, archetypal themes of tradition versus modernity, poor natives against rich invaders. Based on the various tensions between locals and tourists in a once-thriving fishing village, it’s an evocative portrait of culture clashes in an area where traditional trades and lifestyles are under threat. The surface plot has the stark feel of classic neorealism, being shot with a vintage Bolex cine-camera on black-and-white 16mm film, the director hand-processing his footage to give it a scratchy, antique feel, whilst all dialogue and sound effects were overdubbed afterwards.

Local Cornish comedian Edward Rowe is very watchable as the film's brooding anti-hero Martin Ward, a fisherman who has fallen on hard times, and who largely blames the big-city tourists who have colonised his once-thriving coastal village with vacation homes that remain empty most of the year. This conflict is personal for Martin, having been forced to sell the harbourside cottage where he was raised to a wealthy London couple, Sandra and Tom Leigh (excellently played by Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd), who have converted it into what they consider to be a charming holiday retreat but, having gutted the place and redecorated it in a twee ‘fisherfolk’ style with nets and maritime memorabilia on the walls, have of course effectively ripped out its soul in the process - as Martin growls: “Ropes and chains like a sex dungeon.”

As he scrapes a meagre living from the seafood that he nets along the rocky coastline at dawn every day, Martin dreams of buying his own boat and going back to full-time fishing. But suppressed anger is slowly eating him alive, and a minor dispute with the Leighs over parking his battered truck outside their cottage soon escalates into a full-scale class war, and the Pinteresque pressure-cooker mix of suspicion and resentment eventually boils over into confrontation, retribution and lethal violence.

Jenkin is perhaps guilty of exaggerating the locals’ resistance to change for contrived effect, but most of the film is sophisticated and intelligent, depicting a symbolic battle that resonates in a post-austerity Britain where the gulf between rich and poor only seems to get worse. And the Cornish landscape is deliberately and successfully desentimentalised, the director effectively turning it into an anti-picture postcard – I loved the raw, slightly depressed feel of the landscape, far more in keeping with mining traditions & fishing villages in Cornwall than current Rock / Padstow & Poldark associations. Yet at the same time everything – a pint of beer, lapping waves, brooding faces – is captured with an infectious love of tactile detail, and it is this that perhaps elevates the film into the quiet classic for which it should be recognised.

11 out of 13 members found this review helpful.

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Sunset

Bewilderment and decadence in pre-1914 Budapest

(Edit) 13/11/2019

László Nemes’ film is set in Budapest on the brink of World War I and depicts a refined world careering towards chaos - his aim being to capture with disorienting images the period just before Europe’s leaders committed collective suicide. Some reviewers have suggested that “Sunset” could be his flip-side to Murnau’s “Sunrise”, a film similarly tackling human emotions buffeted by modernity, but for me I was more reminded of Holly Martins’ flailing attempts at constructing meaning in post-war Vienna during his search for the ‘third man’.

Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in Budapest from Trieste looking for work at the city’s most renowned millinery establishment, which not coincidentally bears her name. Orphaned in mysterious circumstances (never revealed) at the age of two, she’s trying to connect with her legacy through the shop her parents once owned, but the new proprietor Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) sends her away, clearly threatened by her presence. Stepping out of the boutique’s rarefied atmosphere into the cacophonous streets of 1913 Budapest thrusts her into the jarring hubbub of modernity. At a boarding house she’s attacked by Gáspár (Levente Molnár), an unstable coachman muttering something about the Leiter son; Irisz knows nothing about a brother, so tries to find some answers. The information she gathers is fragmentary and troubling, but she persists in her search, which is full of strange encounters with menacing figures who hint at things without ever revealing anything concrete.

By this time, it becomes obvious that script narrative coherence isn’t what Nemes is aiming for, and making sense out of how people are connected Dickens-style is something of a lost cause. But in terms of sheer visual impact, Mátyás Erdély’s screenplay impresses, wandering through the impressive sets with a dreamlike episodic quality worthy of Kubrick, as Irisz keeps searching for answers neither she (nor the audience) ever find. The mystery here is in what’s happening rather than why - the film creates a destabilising atmosphere in which the decadent upper classes indulge in perverse machinations while the city around them seethes with discontent and violence. This is all of course leading to an inevitable clash, which Nemes (perhaps unnecessarily obviously) thrusts home with a final shot in the trenches, which is presumably a premonition of an impending catastrophic war and a change in the world order, a bleak reminder of the carnage that marked the start of the modern era. Nemes pointedly uses an array of ultra-splendid hats as symbols of extravagant uselessness soon to be tossed onto the bonfire begun in Sarajevo, although here they remain objects of beauty rather than something, aka ladies’ day at Ascot, merely something to be ridiculed.

Jakab is barely off screen, often seen from behind as the camera prowls near her neck much as it trailed Géza Röhrig in ‘A Son of Saul’. And Erdély’s screenplay is used to disorientate, to deliver a deliberately convoluted narrative of a disconnected nightmare. As a result, the film will divide audiences, and many will find it totally unwatchable, but as long as you can cope with the lack of a conventional narrative thread, there’s much to admire here.

2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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Burning

Tense drama depicting an isolating world

(Edit) 13/11/2019

This latest film from the great South Korean director Lee Chang-dong involves the complicated, increasingly fraught relationships among three characters whose lives become intertwined. The story has the quality of a mystery thriller, but Chang deliberately subverts the genre to turn it into a tense meditation on what it means to live in a divided, profoundly isolating world that relentlessly drives a wedge between the self and others.

Jong-seo Jun gives a wonderful natural performance as the cryptic, inscrutable Haemi, (for example, she possesses an unseen cat and peels invisible tangerines) while Ah-in Yoo is quite brilliant as the socially awkward Jongsu. Their 'relationship', such as it as, is cleverly balanced by the wealthy enigma, Ben (Steven Yeun), and the three form an extremely awkward triangle with tragic results. And while each event expands the narrative — filling in the larger picture with nods at sexual relations, class divisions and a riven people — they don’t necessarily explain what happens or resolve the film's ambiguity.

For me, the second half lacked some of the tension of the first, and it's probably a tad overlong and repetitive, but the ending is beautifully handled and totally unexpected.

0 out of 0 members found this review helpful.

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High Life

A vision ultimately not fully realised?

(Edit) 13/11/2019

Mmmm ... had to think hard and long about this one. Here's where I'm at fwiw

First, the strengths: i liked the juxtaposition of the jarring, often startling imagery with the minimal dialogue, and the film certainly raises many interesting themes and ideas, generally painting a grim apocalyptic picture with humanity at war with itself aka Lord of the Flies (although to be fair it's not totally pessimistic). There's also an interesting counter-intuitive dynamic to the members of the ship, where the women are shackled to their beds while the men are permitted to roam free, whilst at the same time, upending the power dynamic with Binoche's Dr. Dibs in control over the relatively docile men, coercing them into submission by dangling the promise of return to Earth if they behave. Societal pressure is the only thing standing between men and their next “conquest”? Structurally, the film employs a clever non-linear story to weave the tale - one in 3 parts where we watch Part 2 first (Monte raising daughter on deserted ship), then part 1 (fragments about what led to the situation), then pt 3. There's quite a few exposition sequences to fill us in but because of Denis' minimalist style, she prefers to just jam this info into as short a space as possible, but you get used to this and anyone with half a brain can follow it, honest! And the fact that it will annoy some sci-fi enthusiasts is another plus for me - for (of course) it's less interested in humanity’s future than its present, and, aka JG Ballard, uses the sci-fi setting as an excuse to explore the human condition (esp its ugly side). Finally, Binoche's performance is emotionally packed, conveying deep pain, repression, and longing.

But, but - the weaknesses. As many critics have noted, it's (deliberately) highly disturbing at nearly every turn, creating a number of sequences that are not for the squeamish or easily offended. Now, I've not got a problem with this at all as such, but I'm feeling here it's a little too obvious and self-conscious in this respect, and the constant images of rape, assault, murder, grief, gore, claustrophobia, suffering, general despair, etc etc are pounded into you over and over without much reprieve, which simply wears you down in the end to the point that you just want to be released, frankly. Moreover, Binoche's Dibs apart, the actors are solid enough but leave you rather unmoved - it's difficult to care about any of them.

Taken as a whole, for me the form didn’t match the function and much of the film’s complexity is lost in the shuffle somewhat - too often the ideas here, visual and otherwise, feel haphazard: outer and inner space, Pattinson’s head, sexual taboo, apocalypse now or maybe then etc etc — more like material for a 'vision board' than something fully realised.

3 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Woman at War

Weighty environmental fable with a light touch and warm heart

(Edit) 13/11/2019

Benedikt Erlingsson's film raises some weighty themes but treats them with a very light touch and warm heart. It's basically an environmental drama wrapped in whimsical comedy and tied up with a bow of midlife soul-searching. The package is a little hit-and-miss, but is still very watchable due to to an engaging central performance and a cinematographer, Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson, whose sweeping shots of frozen heath and lowering Icelandic skies tend to save us from extraneous distractions.

The movie’s heart and spine is Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), 50, a sunny choir director and fearless eco-activist. Intent on halting the construction of a new aluminum smelter outside Reykjavik, she sabotages power lines and does (literal) battle with the drones deployed to find her. Her exploits become increasingly daring, and when we see no partner or family other than an identical twin sister (also played by Geirharosdottir), we begin to wonder if her adventures are filling more than just a need to save her homeland, a suspicion strengthened after the arrival of a letter announcing that her application to adopt a child, filed years earlier, has been approved. Yet as Halla teeters between motherhood and vandalism, creation and destruction, her embrace of the natural world intensifies. Often she’s pictured moving through water or clinging to the earth, face buried in gorse and arms flung wide, as if trying to stop her world from spinning, whilst surreal touches, like pop-up musicians only Halla can see, give the movie’s politics a playful, fable-like quality.

There's quite a few implausible plot twists and the adoption sub-plot perhaps doesn't quite work as well as the main 'woman vs world' theme, but generally this is a poignant, intriguing piece of filmmaking.

5 out of 5 members found this review helpful.

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The Third Wife

Weighty critique of rigid patriarchy

(Edit) 13/11/2019

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, the inspiration for Ash Myfair's debut film seems to comes from real-life stories of her grandparents and great-grandparents that have been passed down through the generations.

Set in 19th century Vietnam, this concerns the story of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), who is just 14 when, through an arranged marriage, she becomes the third wife of Hung (Le Vu Long), a wealthy landowner, whose word is the law on the silk plantation he runs. This sets the scene for a weighty yet in many ways subtle critique of rigid patriarchy, for while the wives snatch freedom wherever they can find it, life is confined to a transactional cycle of matrimony and reproduction at the behest of family honour.

Although the cycles of life and death that belong to the natural world are alluring, even peaceful in their persistence, there is a violent undercurrent that reveals an unjust (and enduring) feminine condition. So, even when Hung's son challenges the system by not consummating his marriage, it is, inevitably, his young bride who suffers most. And innocent as she is, May quickly perceives the wifely pecking order, so that when she gets pregnant, she innately understands that giving Hung a boy will secure her in his favour, thus recognising that as much as the women must co-operate in their pliant, companionable domesticity, they are also in biological and sexual competition with one another. Nevertheless, the possibility of freedom occasionally stirs with the breeze, and the film’s final scenes hint at desperate and defiant acts of resistance.

It's an apologetically quiet film, taking its time drifting through May’s coming of age, and its dialogue is sparse and its pace meditative. The camera lingers: on newly cut-hair flowing downstream, on Hung swallowing a glistening egg yolk from May’s tummy (a local fertility ritual?), and the bloody – and hard to watch as it looks so real – killing of a rooster. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj's work is superb, and 13-year old Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s performance as May is pitch-perfect throughout. Sophisticated stuff.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.
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