The Children of Godard and 90s TV

By James Leahy, Jamie Payne, David Styan and Karen Alexander

For a critic who started to understand the cinema through the work and writings of the French New Wave (just as Jean-Luc Godard once said he discovered the world through cinema) it’s fascinating to see films like Wong Kar-Wai’s Chunking Express and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, two of this autumn’s major releases in quick succession. They so obviously draw on the same traditions of filmmaking, yet in important ways they’re so different.

They share a casual attitude towards narrative, in which chance plays as important a role as conventional motivation, as well as a love of anecdote. In Chunking Express, the first cop’s search for dated cans of pineapple, on which he gorges himself reminds one of the ironic characterisations of 60s Godard, whilst the Pole’s account of deportation in La Haine seems an equally Godardian digression.

There’s something of this feel, too, about the way Hal Hartley tells the story of Amateur, that there, too, we’re back in the world of mid-60s Godard: Bande à Part, itself a wonderful city film (remember how evocative and moving was Karina’s scene looking at her fellow passengers on the Metro?). Hartley, however, is a different kind of visual stylist from Godard, and very, very different from Wong and Kassovitz.

He is painterly, whereas they draw on the frenetic camerawork of US popular television cop shows for their depiction of life in a modern city. Wong’s ability to use this to generate what is at times an almost abstract, and often visually very beautiful lyricism is remarkable. Here, before one properly realizes it, the stock-in-trade of the violent chase has become a way of articulating a sense of isolation and yearning which the spectator cannot help but share. I suspect that the director of the recent British television serial ‘Resort to Murder’ was attempting to generate a comparable mood and identification, but failed, because, however beautiful and abstract some of the individual compositions may have been, the plot-line and characterisations were always too close. There was neither time nor space for the spectator’s emotions to be engaged. Going away from the characters can bring you closer to them. That’s one of the lessons to be learnt from the films of Ozu, possibly the greatest, and certainly the most tolerant, filmic poet of day to day city life.

Kassovitz’s use of the cop show visual and kinetic style is much closer to that of the programmes which made it popular than Wong’s. The city is a dystopia, and the camerawork articulates the threat, tension and violence that occur every day on the streets. There is, however, one vital difference. In the cop shows, we’re alongside the cops, who are, on the whole, good guys. Here, we’re with the victims. They may be yobs, but they also have an integrity and dignity, and are worthy of respect. At least some respect.

Which brings us to one of the most extraordinary features of Chungking Express, at least for a westerner who knows his movies. How lovable the cops are! Unlike anything in 60s Godard, or even Truffaut! They’re as emotionally fucked up as we are, as obsessive as any Godard hero in pursuit of Anna Karina, yet quite sweet and charming to boot! And what a comfortable human cocoon Hong Kong seems to be! As Ozu, again, has demonstrated, the social values of the East are very different from those of the West, but one is forced to wonder: is this for real? Or is it an avoidance of dimensions of social and political reality that is necessary if one is to continue to make films in modern Hong Kong?

Chungking Express

Jamie Payne, a filmmaker, in conversation with Diarmuid Byron-O’Connor, a sculptor and Paul Darter, a TV producer.

Chinese cinema has spawned a multitude of cult films over the past 20 years. Kung Fu movies and the choreographed gunplay of John Woo appeal to one market and the fifth-generation film-makers Chen Kaige and Zang Timou, with their combination of culture, ritual and sumptuous imagery, to another. Occasionally a film comes along which spans the areas of both commercial and cultural interest. Hong Kong has now given us Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, where ritual is manifested through the characters’ particular idiosyncrasies. They try and find a way out of their loneliness and solitude by giving substance to their individual perception of fate: giving lost loves a sell-by-date, or imagining that the space they live in mirrors their emotional state. For example, when one of the characters reaches the depths of despair it’s the house which weeps for him in the form of a flood. These devices work well in creating a sympathy for the protagonists. Chungking Express is a character-based film; if it weren’t for Wong Kar-Wai’s innovative style the film might not hold our interest for more than an hour. The characters are endearing but their inactivity can often be frustrating. The performances are strong but they do take second place to the aesthetic of the film.

A lesser director would surely stumble under this obstacle, but Kar-Wai combines music, camera-work and design to create an individual film in which nothing is incidental. The photography and the editing are in the contemporary style associated with MTV. This has often been criticised when used in drama, but it suits the chaos of the milieu depicted here, and allows the ingenious manipulation of time and how it is perceived.

It is refreshing to see a film that has the stamp of an extremely talented director. I was so impressed by Kar-Wai’s virtuoso display of his craft that I asked two people whose vision and experience I greatly respect, Diarmuid Byron-O’Connor and Paul Darter, to watch Chungking Express, and share their views of it. I asked them three specific questions.

Jamie Payne: How effective do you think the director’s style was for this particular story?

Diarmuid Byron-O’Connor: The story was told through the style. Typically, the metaphors of water and time carried the idea of solitude in the city, where transience and impersonality set the stage as much as the filmic design. The use of jump cuts in the action sequences distances this aspect of their lives from the normality of their existence, the ‘off-guard’ normality of eating, chatting and dreaming, where only hand-held photography can capture the spontaneous and casual incident. As Flaubert said in Madame Bovary: ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ This quote is regularly used to describe the romantic frustration of the artist. Wong accepts this inevitability, and plays on impotency, banality and coincidence, safe in the knowledge that doing so will at least draw out our sympathy.

Paul Darter: The stories in the film are familiar fables of mooning over lost loves and absent girl-friends. Cops stand around in all-night diners and talk to the girls who are flipping the burgers (or chef’s salad in this case). The stories are deceptively simple ones, but they are told with the full range of camera pyrotechniques that viewers in the NYPD Blue generation have come to expect.

The time-lapse sky-scapes, hyperkinetic camera chases and jump-cut sequences (shades of Homicide: Life On The Street!) have caused some to compare this to Nouvelle Vague territory, but where the French New Wave gloried in the originality of new techniques to shock and disorientate, here they are simply the most appropriate tool for telling these tales of fractured urban love.

JP: The Western influence is very apparent in Chungking Express especially in the use of music. Do you think these influences serve the film?

DB: It certainly serves my purpose as a westerner, and didn’t detract from my enjoyment. As a cultural statement, perhaps China has more to offer than re-hashed Cranberries tunes, but I doubt Hong Kong has. I don’t think Wong misplaced any idiom of ours. If anything, he used them to some effect. I certainly spotted Gloria Swanson and Raymond Chandler in there, but then I am ignorant of China’s equivalents, should there be any.

One thing is certain and that is that Wong is dealing with unusual themes for a world population all of whom have heard ‘California Dreamin’’ and know what it means.

PD: On a cynical level I think Kar-Wai realises that the more accessible his films are to a western audience the more money he will make in foreign sales.

Having said that, the music references – a Chinese version of a Cranberries’ single and The Mamas and the Papas – are hardly the soundtrack choices of someone begging to sell out to the west.

‘California Dreamin’’ seems a bit of a sledge-hammer underscoring of the Faye Wong character’s escapist dreams.

JP: Considering the story what do you feel is missing?

DB: The film is very much of the moment in a pop sense, and an excellent example of its genre. It was certainly refreshing to see something with equality in the male and female roles which still had a point to make about normal life.

What was missing was the memorable soundtrack, a series of clichéd stills images, and an inevitable sequel – big shame!

PD: The strength of the stories lies in the details – our wry smiles of recognition at the habits of people living alone, or responses when surprised guiltily in private acts like reading another’s mail.

We are drawn to the characters and the idiosyncratic surreal moments of their lives, but ultimately not much more than that. As in Clerks, we are invited into a funny and familiar world, but, like most slacker movies, this one is too cool to suggest that the loves which are lost here will really mean anything to these characters ten years down the road. Ultimately the movie lacks a sense of risk. In the second half we want the love story to work out but if it doesn’t, hey, that’s OK too. Chinese fast food – but a top class meal at Poons rather than a Pot Noodle.

La Haine

By Karen Alexander

Walking home from across the village green in the Wiltshire countryside I think about cricket, test matches, and England’s green and pleasant land. I stop at a gate and muse on the idea of Ingrid Pollard photographs of black people in the country. Feeling suddenly very conspicuous, I move on. I read about the United Nations’ air strikes on Bosnia. I turn a page and I’m appalled at white America’s shock at policeman Mark Fuhrman’s testimony on the blatant racism of the LA police at the OJ Simpson trial – for blacks and Hispanic, needless to say, this was not news. Following my tranquil walk these newspaper stories set me up for La Haine, the winner of the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The gritty black-and-white newsreel riot of the opening images, cut to Bob Marley’s ‘Burnin and Lootin’, bring to mind videos of the miners’ strike and Isaac Julien’s early video work Who Killed Colin Roach and Territories, images of communities spurred into action against state oppression. To quote the film: ‘So far so good’. As the film continues my references shift, as I see designer labels and read subtitles which are littered with American street slang, I now start to think of trendy fashion spreads, Spike Lee films and Yo MTV Raps.

Part Boyz N the Hood, part Hanging With The Home Boys, part Do The Right Thing, La Haine charts 24 hours in the lives of three young men who are part of a community that erupts following the beating and subsequent death in custody of a young Arab. In the ensuing riot and attack on the local police station, a policeman loses his gun. The three teenagers at the core of the narrative, Hubert, an aspiring black boxer who supplements the family income by drug dealing, Vinz, a working class Jew with a Robert De Niro fixation, and Said, the rebellious son of Arab immigrants, are deeply affected by the events of the previous night. They crave revenge. They are also in possession of the missing gun.

By locating this based-on-real-life story in a cité – one of the bleak housing estates located on the fringes of Paris, populated by ethnically mixed groups, La Haine’s dystopic vision will have a shock value for audiences not used to seeing such ‘realistic’ images of Paris. This aside, what will probably prompt more cause for concern, especially to the right wing, will be the endless references to and mimicry of African-American culture. This speaks volumes for satellite TV and the globalisation of images of oppression, as a ‘style thang’, with its Hood street chic, break dancing and hip-hop. My concern however has more to do with the nihilism which is seen to be part and parcel of this culture, somehow coming with the territory. Against this background Vinz, Hubert and Said can only have hopeless and loveless existences. These young men’s lives have no meaning, and death seems the only way of escaping the ghetto. But this is Paris, not New York or Los Angeles; this difference should come into play somewhere. Instead, La Haine looks like an American film which has been badly transplanted. In his desire to make ‘a really provocative picture’ Kassovitz has dissipated the potential strength of his subject matter. The dynamics of race and class are necessarily different in contemporary France; to filter his narrative through a transatlantic superstructure is to lose a specifically European ‘otherness’.

Hubert Kounde (Hubert), Vincent Cassel (Vinz) and Said Taghmaoui (Said) are the film’s main asset. They give fine performances as the no-hope teenagers constantly looking for and dreaming about escaping their poverty ridden environment. As the hours in the day tick away their loyalty to each other is tested and at times found wanting. The fragile unity they have with each other is constantly under threat. When they explore downtown Paris they get more than they bargained for; Hubert and Said, in what is one of the truly nasty scenes in the film, are sadistically beaten up in a police station as part of a training exercise put on for the benefit of a trainee policeman.

Kassovitz maps out the depressing terrain of the cité with his weaving camera, but we get little about the politics of survival in this place where the majority of young men seem to be unemployed and the women, when seen, are either mothers or referred to as ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ or, even better, ‘Wonderbra bitch’. By focussing on petty crime, street gangs and guns, the implication is that a behavioural rather than a structural change is what is needed to put things right. The young men’s frustration, anger and despair is directed at each other or at the police; violence and the gun are seen as the only answer. Hubert, the aspiring boxer, is shown as silent and brooding. He is the only one out of the three who is able to think before he acts, making the end of the film, when Vinz is shot and Said gazes in handcuffed frustration as Hubert and a policeman hold guns to each other’s head, even more tragic.

I ask myself why a movie set within a volatile suburban working-class ghetto of Paris, depicting the growing pains of three young men, can gain an almost mythical reputation – Miramax have acquired it for an allegedly large sum for US distribution. The answer, I feel, has a lot to do with Mathieu Kassovitz being young and male – 25 to be exact. This in itself isn’t the problem, the problem comes when the cinema, music, TV and youth magazines stand in for people’s lived experience of the world, and become self-reflexive mirrors. In his short career in front of and behind the camera Kassovitz, who started out as an actor, has learnt enough about cinema to produce a well-crafted film, and enough about the media as a whole to know that police brutality, urban violence and communities under siege will always get you a headline.

Karen Alexander is a writer, lecturer and sometimes filmmaker. She is currently working as a producer at Real World Studios in Wiltshire.

So Far... Everything Is OK!

By David Styan

The hatred referred to in the title is that of the three characters whose names open the film: Said, stealthily etched on the back of a riot police van; Vinz, glittering from a garish ring on the sleeping owner’s fist; Hubert, stamped on a faded boxing handbill in a gym. Hube himself is slamming a punchbag in the smouldering remains of his gym as the three friends gather their wits in the morning after a night of rioting in their suburban, satellite town.

La Haine chronicles the course of the ensuing day, a series of banal incidents between the suburb and Paris. Kassovitz and his actors use cité (or the slang téci) rather than banlieu with its connotation of delinquency and crime, an image which the film simultaneously confirms and challenges. The three Frenchmen have come to terms with the interlinked consequences of the fact that a fourth friend – Abdel  –  is comatose in hospital after the clashes with the police, and that Vinz possesses a pistol, filched from the police in the riot. The three strive simply to contain their energies and define themselves amidst an aimless, impoverished and volatile life consisting chiefly of cadging money and making petty deals, punctuated frequently by confrontations with the police.

La Haine is the second feature film by 28-year-old Mathieu Kassovitz. Its launch in June triggered a storm of critical acclaim, social angst and political soul-searching in France. This was largely the result of its timing; the film opened shortly after an electoral campaign dominated by vacuous slogans against ‘social exclusion’, youth unemployment and urban deprivation. The same week rioters trashed the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Grand after a youth was killed in a car chase with the police. Similar riots ensued in the Le Havre and Rouen.

Yet just as Kassovitz is not the first filmmaker to focus on the future of French youth in les banlieues, June’s riots were simply the latest in a series of urban protests which have periodically scarred the suburbs of Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and other large cities over the past decade. Each riot follows a familiar pattern, usually police brutality igniting smouldering resentment in communities scarred more by chronic unemployment than petty drug-dealing, where children of immigrants live in high-density, poor quality 70s housing marginalised both geographically and socially from the city.

The furore over the film is only partly due to timing: La Haine undoubtedly hit a raw nerve of fear and ignorance due to the fact that many French people see such suburbs as Chanteloup-les-vignes, where the film was shot, only as ghettos refracted through sensational television images; places as dangerous and alien as Bosnia or, till recently, Belfast. Kassovitz playfully exploits the media’s anthropological fascination for the suburbs as foreign, violent places. Parisian journalists seek interviews from the safety of their car as if the youths are wild exhibits in a Safari park, or indeed, nearby Disneyland. Yet Vinz and his mates equally live in a world saturated by electronic images. Vinz brags that the riots ‘were fun, just like on TV’. He revels in blurred TV footage of their looting. Zany graffiti cover this, as they do every other urban jungle in western Europe; references to Rodney King and US rap culture are as common as the cameras which pop up at the slightest hint of violence.

Yet, despite the often simplistic journalistic and academic hype which accompanied the release of the film in France (brace yourselves for facile comparisons with Bradford, Brixton and Toxteth when La Haine is released here in mid-November) this is not a film primarily about race, drugs, religion, urban riots or hostility to the police. Islam is never mentioned, and some in France have cogently argues that the film’s message is not specific to les banlieues, but is a metaphor for a more general French malaise.[1] Hube and Said repeat the same core story in the opening and closing moments of the film, that of a man falling from a 50-storey building. As he hurtles down he reassures himself that everything is OK... So far, everything is OK. There is no problem during the fall; it is the landing which is the problem. Such is the incipient sense of impending crisis which pervades the film and made it so popular .

It is difficult to reconcile Kassovitz’s own incendiary claim that he wanted to make an anti-police film with the actual dialogue between his irrepressible mates, the actors Said Taghmaoui, Vinz Cassel and Hube Kounde, who essentially play themselves. The youths’ vision of their own predicament is nuanced. They aren’t simply victims of the police, rather, they’re fighting against themselves and their plight. They themselves are the ones who suffer in the rioting: the looter’s own burnt out car, Hube’s gym gutted by the kids he’d built it for. The police and the ‘brothers’ now working for the Law or the Council are every bit as insecure as the three protagonists; this is seen most clearly in the false bravado of the cop who has the final shot as La Haine itself crashes to the ground.

Critics have made much of the fact that the three are Arab, African and Jewish. However, these roots are largely irrelevant to their common identity. What is relevant is that all are stuck on the edge, lacking jobs and purpose. If they’ve any aim it is to resist categotrisation and forge a new French identity, both in spite and because of those ‘wearing leather jackets and voting Le Pen’ whom they deride in the Metro. All three have principles; Hube strives to ensure that they do the right thing in deciding whether to retaliate and revenge Abdel’s eventual death, or simply defend themselves. Homespun philosophy is never far away; Said slags of Vinz’s self-doubt about himself and his gun as ‘Half Moses, half Mickey Mouse’. Only Vinz, the least secure of the three, dares utter the pitifully interrogative assertion: ‘I know who I am and where I came from.’ Identity and ideas are constructed through the incessant banter of stories that have neither end nor clear meaning. Indeed the only tale in the 90-minute film which has a conclusion is an elderly Pole’s bewildering homily about shitting between Dachau and Siberia.

The film is driven along by Said’s lightning dialogue. Volatile sentences spew out of him in incessant volleys of abuse which ricochet between Hube and Vinz. All three have short tempers and their incessant verbal abuse of each other and anyone they meet invariably flares into scuffles or arrest. The ad-libbed script consists of slang and swearing, and the screenplay is deceptively simple.[2] Yet La Haine has been simultaneously the most controversial film and most cutting social critique to come out of France this year. Sadly Kassovitz’s multiple meanings, his nuanced visual and verbal puns, are likely to be lost on a non-French audience. The subtitles, which are a sloppy pastiche of black American slang, in which Vinz and Hube talk as if they were ‘homeboys’ in the ‘hood’, hinder rather than help an understanding of this dimension of the film.


[1] ‘Regarde les tomber; à propos de La Haine’, O. Mongin, L’Esprit (Paris, Aug-Sept. 1995)
[2] Jusqu’ici tout va bien, G. Fevier, M. Kassovitz, Actes Sud (Paris 1995)

David Styan is currently researching Franco-Arab relations in the Department of International relations at the London School of Economics.