Film picks of the month
Mountains May Depart (126 minutes)
Directed by Jia Zhangke
This is a brilliant, clever, grounded film about the new entrepreneurial China, which has changed everything, empowering some, destroying others.
On the eve of the New Year in 1999, shopkeeper’s daughter Tao has two suitors – Zhang, who’s a coalminer, and is quiet, kind and easy-going; and Liangzi, a pushy graduate entrepreneur. Liangzi buys a BMW, takes Tao for drives and lets her drive. Tao chooses him. He names their child Dollar, buys the mine where Zhang works and sacks him.
Fifteen years on, they have divorced and Liangzi, now very well-off and remarried, has custody of their seven-year-old son. Tao only sees him when her father dies and the boy returns for the funeral. Meanwhile, Zhang, with a young wife and child, has lung cancer.
The story is close to classic melodrama, but it’s so well-grounded in circumstance and character that it’s absolutely convincing.
In the third section, set in 2025, Dollar lives in Australia but has no sense of belonging or what to do with his life. Communication technology has moved on somewhat and people have become separated from themselves, and others, and what they might be. Enterprise culture has empowered the selfish who destroy other people’s lives.
This is a great-looking, brilliantly acted film with a sense of humour, a sense of the everyday, a sense of history and a sense of tragedy.
Makala (96 minutes)
Directed by Emmanuel Gras
Swinging a slender axe, a young man is chopping down a massive tree. It’s hot, he sweats a lot. From a large plastic flagon, he drinks litres of water. A young woman, with a baby, prepares a meal, grilling a rat over an open fire.
He fells the tree and reduces it, over the following days, to a neatly stacked log-pile. He lays turf and soil over this, leaving air gaps, sets the wood alight and lets it burn for two weeks. Makala is Swahili for coal or charcoal and the young man, Kasongo, is a charcoal maker.
He talks with Lydie, his wife. When he sells the charcoal in Kolwezi, he hopes to buy 12 roofing sheets for the house they’re planning to build. He loads the charcoal into plastic sacks. Their most valuable possession, his bicycle, disappears beneath the mass of sacks he ties around and about it. Lashed to the handlebars, and jutting beyond the sacks, is a sturdy branch that he uses to steer the bike.
While it’s still dark, he sets off, pushing the load over rough tracks and untarmacked roads, to Kolwezi. It is four eventful days and nights away.
This is a simple, profound, compelling documentary. It’s a man with an axe and a bike – and it’s a whole world. Of unremitting labour; of honest people and thieves; of love and indifference; of aspiration and disappointment.