Meewella | Critic

According to P

Tag: Shabier Kirchner

QuickView: Past Lives (2023)

“If you leave something behind, you gain something too.”

Nora’s Mom

Opening with three individuals being observed from across a bar, Past Lives then flashes back by several decades, ultimately circling back to that same bar scene now imbued with the years of yearning and intimacy refined through the course of the film. Writer-director Celine Song’s debut explores the relationship between two Korean childhood friends who meet again decades later, its gentleness belying the aching longing it portrays with a haunting tone reminiscent of In The Mood For Love and more recently Decision to Leave. Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised. Song questions whether it is intrusive to connect with someone who is seeking to build their own life, resulting in the stagnating pain of being attached to someone at a distance. She uses the Korean concept of “in-yun” — that even the briefest interaction between people is part of a wider tapestry of fate connecting them across past lives — as both a metaphor and a shared language through which to address a nebulous relationship. Both Greta Lee and Teo Yoo deliver nuanced, moving performances, where much is conveyed through a glance or a gaze. The deliberately simple camerawork follows the actors, focusing on the subtleties of their performances like the importance of a brief but meaningful touch. Both Nora and Hae Sung reassure her husband — insecure, but determined to be supportive — that Hae Sung’s visit is not intended to disrupt their marriage, though the audience may not believe this as much as the characters. When 12-year-old Nora leaves Korea at her parents’ decision there is no melodramatic outburst, only pining and discontent — reconnecting with Hae Sung then represents not only the loss of a relationship but the loss of an entire culture, an alternate life. There are hints of Lost in Translation to its ending, including the closing shot, and the relationship it captures may likewise feel too ephemeral for some viewers; however, for those who have experienced this form of nascent love interrupted by life, Past Lives is likely to burrow deep within.


QuickView: Education (2020)

“One of the ways in which the school system thinks they can treat us is that they genuinely believe we are all a bunch of — I don’t know — cowhands. They never assumed that the same spread of intelligence, professional careers, white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs that you have in this country, we would have had where we came from.”

Mrs. Bartholemew

The final entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anothology, Education explores the sidelining of West Indian children’s schooling through a policy of pushing them out of the regular school system and into “Educationally Sub-Normal” ESN schools. These poorly run institutions reinforced a system already stacked against them, eradicating prospects of success or a desire to better oneself. Although the shortest in the series, the script’s narrow focus avoids the issues of Alex Wheatle in becoming spread too thin. We start and remain mostly with Kingsley, but the film’s perspective does shift briefly to other members of the Smith household: we see his mother’s frustration and then defensiveness and guilt that she lacks the time to be as involved as she would like in her child’s life; we see his sister’s concern as the one who can best see what is happening to her brother; and we see his father’s sense that the family views his manual work with disdain. Education portrays the failure of ESN schools through the boredom of the classroom with students either unchallenged or unsupervised. A teacher playing an extended rendition of House of the Rising Sun on acoustic guitar feels like a deliberate inversion of Jack Black in School of Rock: an uninspiring teacher with a disintereseted class who would prefer to be taught. The confrontation and resolution occurs without much friction, but there are some powerful admissions of how first generation immigrants feel about the country and what they find themselves passing on to their children. Perhaps the most lasting impression for me is one that remains valid today: how galling it was to hear a child describe the history of his ancestors as being slaves, having been taught nothing of the rich culture that predated British colonisation.


Small Axe anthology: Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education

QuickView: Alex Wheatle (2020)

“There’s enough talk of ism and schism and racism. Me no defend nobody against the charge of racism, cos Rasta don’t discriminate. But the main thing you have to worry about in dis here country is the system of class and classism.”


The penultimate film of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Alex Wheatle is a biopic of the British novelist’s early life, culminating with the New Cross fire and the 1981 Brixton riot. The weakest entry in the anthology, it exudes a made-for-TV quality that its siblings escape, routinely feeling restricted in scope and scale. This is not helped by the short running time at just over an hour. As presented on screen, Wheatle is a difficult character with whom to engage since his response to adversity is to dissociate: his vacant visage belies any emotional depth in contrast to similarly lingering shots of Boyega in Red, White and Blue or Shaun Parkes in Mangrove. This is not to say that we feel no sympathy for him; plainly he suffered spending his childhood in the social care system, without family and mistreated by authority figures at home and school. The film is strongest during Wheatle’s fish-out-of-water arrival in London where his Surrey upbringing stands in contrast to the city’s black community with its strong cultural ties. The most telling moment is his naïve response to a warning about the police, “They’re here to help you.” Unfortunately the rapid pacing means we do not really see his character develop organically; instead we are simply presented with scattershot versions — DJ, dealer — occasionally revealing the broken child beneath. It is further fractured by a prison framing device that offers little beyond some fairly trite wisdom from his Rastafarian cellmate. Although it may be disappointing, a weaker entry in the context of an anthology as strong as Small Axe is not to be discounted entirely.


Small Axe anthology: Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education

QuickView: Red, White and Blue (2020)

Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

“Big change: that is a slow turning wheel.”

Kenneth Logan

The third of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Red, White and Blue presents Leroy Logan’s decision to join the Metropolitan police in 1983 with the intention of changing the organisation from within. Like Logan, growing up I was taught to avoid any interaction with the police as it carried inherent danger; I was an adult before I realised that this advice was not universal but something that ethnic minorities taught children for their safety. This sets up his father’s dismay at his choice and the sense of betrayal felt by some of the community. John Boyega is a fitting choice to play Leroy Logan, having been outspoken about racial inequality and faced backlash as a result; as Logan he carries himself with a determined zeal which makes his righteous, unbridled outbursts at racist treatment from his fellow officers feel entirely genuine. McQueen doesn’t shy away from overt racism and violence, but also explores the more insidious side of institutional racism, wherein we — like Logan — become hypersensitive to the motivations of every officer and whether there are undertones to each question being asked. Superiors who may seem even-handed still close ranks to protect and promote white officers. The film is at its most powerful in portraying Logan’s isolation both within the force and within the community: one extended shot shows Boyega gazing out at an empty youth centre hall, unable to connect with the children he wants to help; in another he silently eyes his uniform, contemplating his choice and whether it makes him complicit; and later he sits alone in the locker room we have previously seen bustling, framed with deliberate awkwardness at the edge of the shot, staring off-screen. Thematically, it is telling that McQueen chose to focus on the early part of Logan’s career, with an ending showing only that he intends to persevere, reflecting the ongoing struggle to dismantle institutional racism.


Small Axe anthology: Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education

QuickView: Lovers Rock (2020)

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

“Move your feet! You don’t know who you’ll meet.”


The second of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Lovers Rock captures a single night at a West London house party in the 1980s. Although it features the barest bones of a budding romance between two strangers, McQueen’s focus is in distilling the essence of this social experience in what is arguably an hour-long music video. The title refers to a romantic subgenre of reggae that emerged in Britain but is not well-recognised in its birthplace. Its power is evident: sometimes couples are pressed together, barely moving; at others the entire room sways in a rhythmic trance, the joyfully beating heart of an organism. The camera glides deliberately through the house, slipping behind figures and furniture, providing an intimate perspective rather than that of an outside observer. Whenever we return to the living room, we find ourselves in the middle of the dancefloor. The cold blue lighting outside contrasts with the warmth of the phosphorescent yellow inside, an inviting haven away from the threats of violence that briefly emerge. Lovers Rock is an ambitious idea that is well realised, but I wish it had more content. Instead, following Martha as she sneaks back into bed only to be roused immediately by her mother, it is like waking from a dream — enjoyable yet ephemeral.


Small Axe anthology: Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education

QuickView: Mangrove (2020)

Small Axe: Mangrove

“These are new men, new types of human beings. These men have perspective. Know particularly that they glory in the struggle. They are not demoralized or defeated or despairing persons. They are leaders, but are rooted deep among those they lead.”

C.L.R. James

The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Mangrove is an emotionally powerful courtroom drama chronicling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, falsely charged with riot and affray following a protest. That this powerful indictment of systemic racial injustice should be released in the same year as the Black Lives Matter protests could not be more fitting. A joyous opening celebrates the Mangrove restaurant’s opening, but also Notting Hill’s multiculturalism at large. However, it is swiftly overtaken by brutal police raids, one simple yet haunting shot lingering for a half minute on a spinning colander, forcing the viewer to take in the destruction and pain that lingers long after the police depart. As a whole, the film hits the expected beats for its subject matter but is elevated by its thoughtful artistry. Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright provide the film’s emotional core as allies but ideoligical adversaries within the black community. Whilst the sneering PC Pulley is an easy caricature, a more telling scene shows his impassive reaction to a black mother’s grief at her finding that her child has been beaten in custody: the man truly believes he is restoring a natural order that is challenged by the black community’s self-sufficiency. The courtroom itself is a microcosm of the wider world, unwilling to acknowledge racial injustice until it is no longer avoidable. When Frank Crichlow is thrown into a jail cell, the camera gazes up at him as he screams in frustration, the image uncomfortably overexposed with blown out highlights mirroring the bursting emotion he can no longer contain. Similarly, the camera remains fixed on Frank’s face as each of the verdicts is announced, rather than passing from one defendant to the next; tracking the continuing range of emotion he experiences after a long-fought battle is far more powerful. And yet, as we are reminded shortly afterward, this was a single battle for justice in an ongoing war.


Small Axe anthology: Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education

"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑