Haunted Mirrors: The Dark Side of Robert Hamer

As part of its Ealing: Light and Dark season, which runs from 22 October to 30 December at the NFT, the BFI today re-releases its oft-overlooked kitchen sink noir It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), providing a timely opportunity to reassess the career of its director Robert Hamer, a man whose faltering career David Thomson described as “the most serious miscarriage of talent in the postwar British cinema”. Hamer’s decline is perhaps one all-too familiar in the annals of British film history, a career beginning with much promise, yet ultimately marked by artistic compromise, isolation and self-destruction, with the result that there can seem a capricious, contradictory nature to his small body of work, one which began in supernatural horror (Dead of Night (1945)) and ended with light farce (School for Scoundrels (1960)).

Yet look beyond the superficial differences between his films and there can be found common threads. As Charles Barr notes, in Hamer’s films “you find a gallery of individuals, across the range of classes, whose sexual and emotional drives and strongly repressed and as strongly burst out, only to be damped down in an adjustment to the prevailing Ealing/British dispensation which […] accepts restraint on sex drive and ambition and class resentment”. What is fascinating about Hamer’s output is how, amidst diverse social and historical contexts, repeating themes and motifs come together to form a consistent vision of the British condition. “I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other”, ran Hamer’s oft quoted ethos, and arguably no other British filmmaker has presented in so few films such a comprehensively pessimistic, dark vision of society and its mores.

As as Robert Murphy’s mini-biography of the director at Screenonline states, one important piece of recurring imagery in Hamer’s films is that of the mirror, and that is the one I wish to focus upon here. A useful starting point is the aforementioned It Always Rains on Sunday, as it provides a fulcrum around which several other films can be balanced, not least because it features two actors, Googie Withers and her husband John McCallum, whose films with Hamer both come in his most artistically fertile period (1945-1952) and display the use of the recurring visual motif to its fullest. In the film Withers plays Rose Sandigate, a former East End barmaid now married to a dull middle-aged man (played by Edward Chapman), who learns that her violent former lover Tommy Swann (McCallum) has escaped from prison and is now on the run. In a virtuoso sequence, a dissolve takes us from her combing her hair in the mirror in her drab, domesticated present to a flashback to her first meeting with Swann, glimpsing him in the mirror behind the bar in which she used to work.

Edward Chapman and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
John McCallum and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Here, the function of the mirror is as a kind-of portal to an idealized, romanticized past, and an escape from Rose’s drab, repressed life. In some ways it also feels like a reference to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a woman condemned to domestication, only able to view life’s “shadows of the world” through the lens of a looking glass. In rendering quasi-physically the difference between the lustrous mirror world of the past and the everyday routines of the present, Hamer finds an elegant visual expression of fantasy and repressed sensuality, and as the narrative unfolds and Tommy’s very real presence returns to Rose’s life, the diametrical planes between these mirrored worlds of reality and fantasy begun to blur together with predictably catastrophic consequences.

Withers made two other films with Robert Hamer at Ealing, most significantly the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment of their famous portmanteau horror Dead of Night, released some two years before Sunday. Once again, the theme is repression, a mirror acting as a conduit between an exotic fantasy world and mundane reality: Withers plays Joan, about to be married to her fiancee Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), and who one day buys for him as a present an antique mirror. Note in the still below that when we initially see the mirror, the ‘real’ couple in the foreground are out of focus, instead inviting us to view the pair separated by the triptych frame in the reflection.

Ralph Michael and Googie Withers in Dead of Night (1945)

At this early stage in the narrative, the mirror has no other function than to illustrate visually the suggestion of possible emotional distance between the two characters, something which will be developed further when the mirror’s supernatural properties manifest themselves and Peter finds himself unable to see his fiancee’s reflection at all, as well as crystallizing his paranoia about his bride-to-be and her relationship with her ‘friend’  with whom he suspects she is having an affair. Yet as the story progresses, the mirror motif comes to take on a second main function, namely that of underscoring an overall sense of  the couple’s bourgeois complacency. Although we are in a different, more affluent social milieu to that of the couple in It Always Rains on Sunday, the mise en scene of the segment is again one of drab domesticity. The houses in which they live are shown to be cold, sterile, ordered places of social propriety, while the visions which Peter has in the mirror are in direct opposition, exuding warmth and a seductive exoticism.

Ralph Michael in Dead of Night (1945)

Here, as with It Always Rains on Sunday, is the mirror’s trap: the promise of an exotic fantasy world as an escape from the dissatisfaction of drab domesticity, but one which ultimately leads to destruction. So too is there a temporal element – just as Sunday‘s mirror allowed its protagonist to hark back to the past, Peter’s fantastic vision of a Georgian bedchamber, while not of his own past and thus not strictly a flashback, is one rooted in times gone by, with the accompanying suggestion that the idealized values, mores and hierarchy of a past time are what he, and perhaps many other socially conservative backwards-looking Britons, wish their lives and their country could return to.

Hamer’s other film with Googie Withers, the Victorian-era melodrama Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), makes much less use of the mirror motif, though there are occasional glimpses: in one scene David Sutton (Gordon Jackson), in a slight echo of the Dead of Night still above, fusses over his appearance and is chastised by his sister Victoria (Jean Ireland), who states, “I can’t think what’s come over you lately David. You do nothing but fiddle with your necktie and look at yourself in mirrors“.

Gordon Jackson in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

It is, for the most part, a throwaway scene though gains greater weight when considered in the light of Hamer’s preoccupations: David is the son of repressive patriarch Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns), the local chemist whose life centres on very Victorian notions of order and discipline (elegantly underlined by the film’s title, a reference to the overly fussy way he ties up his customers’ parcels). David’s increasing attention to his sartorial presentation is seen as an attempt to break free from these moral strictures and become a ‘man about town’, but one which is repeatedly crushed by his father tyranny which leads him, in an act of defiance, to frequent the raucously wanton confines of the local pub, in effect functioning as the film’s exotic otherworldly mirror plane. There, he meets the landlord’s wife Pearl (Googie Withers again) and becomes embroiled in a murder plot: once again, the mirror’s alluring promises leads to destruction. As a sidenote, Withers at one stage is caught in the reflection in a mirror, just before the film’s dramatic peak here:

Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

Another example of Hamer’s striking use of mirrors occurs in The Long Memory (1952); though ostensibly centred on John Mills’ character Phillip Davidson and his quest to hunt down the people who lied at his trial and caused him to have to spend 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the real interest is in the sub-plot between his former lover Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars) and her relationship with her policeman husband Bob Lowther (once again, John McCallum). As Davidson closes in, Bob becomes increasingly cognizant of the possibility that his wife perjured herself all those years ago and that she has been hiding the truth from him ever since. As with It Always Rains on Sunday, a criminal past comes back to shatter domestic equilibrium (significantly with McCallum on the right side of the law in this case), and truth and fantasy collide with inevitable catastrophe. Hamer again frames the couple in a mirror’s reflection, visually forcing together two characters who are actually physically, and emotionally, far apart:

Elizabeth Sellars and John McCallum in The Long Memory (1952)

Mirrors then, for Hamer, are used as a device to illustrate divisions, disconnections between characters whose emotions are separated into the realm of fantasy, whether as a result of domestic repression or self-deceit, but regardless have already set them irrevocably on the road towards self-destruction. In 1949 Hamer made a film called The Spider and the Fly, which takes its name from the 1829 poem by Mary Howitt, a cautionary tale which warns of the alluring deceptiveness of surface appearances and the allure of the exotic unknown. For Hewitt, like Hamer, the mirrored reflection is the most untrustworthy of images, within which may find us deceiving ourselves the most.

“Sweet creature!” said the Spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise,

How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!

I’ve a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,

If you’ll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”

Polanski at the crossroads: Knife in the Water

This is the text of my introduction to Roman Polanski’s film Knife in the Water which I gave for Film Club Bristol at Arnolfini on 27 May 2012. You can follow Film Club Bristol on Twitter here.

Roman Polanski’s début feature film Knife In The Water (1962), shot in the summer of 1961 and released in Poland the following year, came at the end of a significant period for the Polish film industry. The great director Andrzej Wajda described his former protégé’s debut feature as “the beginning of the new Polish cinema” and i’d like to go into a little detail about the filmmaking circumstances in order to provide some context. Poland had been occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, and a Communist government had been in operation since 1948. Like other satellite states, it had quickly adopted the centralised Soviet system of film production.

Film was considered a very important propaganda tool, and consequently film-making was financially subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, which also oversaw the establishment of a national film school in the city of Łódź in 1948. Films had to be strictly Party-approved for their ideological content at all stages of production, from the script stage all the way through to post-production, when it was viewed by a panel called a kolaudacja, after which  it was not uncommon for re-shoots to be ordered by the Ministry after a film had been finished if it was not considered ideologically sound. This had a constricting effect on the creativity of filmmakers, whose films were, from the outset, forced to follow dogmatic political lines.

The death of Josef Stalin in 1953 and a subsequent speech made by Nikita Khruschev’s which denounced his ‘cult of personality’ led to the so-called ‘thaw’ in the Soviet Union; the effect of this quickly spread to Poland, leading to the Polish October uprising of 1956 and the rise to power of the reformist politician Władysław Gomułka. This thaw had the effect that Eastern Bloc countries began to decentralise their creative policies and weaken these ideological controls, and also led to the establishment of new modes of film education and production. In 1955 the Creative Film Unit system was introduced, in which a regional production unit, headed by an artistic director, was given greater autonomy over film production, and which allowed greater freedom for filmmakers to express themselves.

From this, emerged a kind-of New Wave referred to as the Polish Film School. Films by directors such as Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda moved Polish cinema away from proscribed Socialist Realism and towards a national cinema dealing with personal issues more relevant to the country’s experience, in particular the still very recent memories of wartime. The thaw continued up until the early 1960s, with films such as Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). However, Polish leader Gomułka was becoming increasingly vocal in his denunciation of where the industry was heading; at a Prague conference in 1957 films of the Polish School were condemned, with calls for an ideological line one again to be towed. With political pressure intensifying, the most influential filmmakers soon found themselves silenced. Andrzej Wajda quickly went abroad where he would make international co-productions; Andrzej Munk died in a car crash in 1961.

Roman Polanski (centre) in Wajda’s Pokolenie (A Generation) (1955)

It was in this climate of thaw and freeze in which Roman Polanski entered the filmmaking stage. He had enrolled at the Łódź national film school in 1954, just as the Polish School was beginning to emerge, and thanks to the new Creative Film Unit system he would rub shoulders with the likes of Wajda and Munk, even appearing as an actor in Wajda’s fim A Generation (1955) . Before graduating in 1959 he would make several short films, including Two Men in a Wardrobe (1958), which would win a prize at the prestigious Brussels Experimental Film Festival. Emboldened by this success, he began writing an outline for his debut feature film with the intention of keeping it minimalistic: three characters, one setting – on a boat in a Mazurian lake – and occurring over the course of three days. The setting is particularly important – Polanski felt that the theatricality of the three person setup was lost when located on a sailboat.

Needing extra input in order to bring a more earthy feel to the dialogue, he recruited a fellow Łódź attendee and future filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski had an enormous input into the finished script, paring the dialogue down to a bare minimum, fleshing out the character of the younger man, but also, inspired by the unities of Greek tragedy, changing the timeframe to the course of 24 hours. His subsequent Polish films deal with tensions between the younger and older generations of Poles, and with drifters disillusioned by contemporary society, and the central conflict in Knife in the Water – between a materialistic, faux cosmopolitan couple who can afford Western luxuries such as a car and a yacht and a poor, hitchhiking student more aligned with primal matters such as hunting and roughing it – makes the film fascinating to examine as much as a product of Skolimowski’s interests.

In spite of this, the film is definitely identifiable as a Roman Polanski film, and it offers many resonances with the films he would make later in his career. Much of the writing about Polanski’s work has focused on the more lurid details about his private life, interpreting his later work in the light of both the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, and later on his conviction for the sexual assault of a minor and subsequent flight from the United States. However, for me the most important details in his autobiography which came to shape his work are from his childhood. He was living in the city of Kraków when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and was forced to subsist in the crammed Jewish Ghetto while his parents were deported to labour camps. Like the author JG Ballard, whose work was informed by his experiences as a child in a Shanghai internment camp, Polanski’s childhood trauma seems throughout his career to have shaped his obsession with power, domination, cruelty and the barbarism which underscores all human interactions.

The first of Knife in the Water‘s Polanskian characteristics is the setting – though the water-borne location might suggest freedom and liberty, for Polanski it represents confinement and aimlessness. His best films – especially the so-called apartment trilogy of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – deal with characters existing in confined personal spaces, in a figurative sense cut off from the outside world, while other films such as Death & the Maiden (1994), Cul-De-Sac (1966) and his more recent film The Ghost Writer (2010) take place on windswept islands more literally cast adrift from the rest of humanity. Water is a key symbol in these latter films, and so too elsewhere: in Pirates (1986) and Bitter Moon (1992) Polanski situates us once again aboard ships, in Chinatown (1974) it is the core of the central mystery plot, and in Rosemary’s Baby, the first of Rosemary’s hallucinatory dreams takes place on a vessel on stormy seas. The other motif in the title – the knife – has both a literal and metaphorical value. Its presence in the film’s title, as well as being an ominous presence throughout the story itself, intimates towards violence, though, as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ironically titled L’Avventura (1960) – the adventure – it is a promise which goes largely unfulfilled in the narrative. The knife also carries with it a rather obvious phallic connotation for this film about male rivalry, and it is also worth noting that Polanski would go on to make an adaptation of Macbeth, in which a knife and water are both important symbols of violence and the quest for purity and absolution.

There is almost always an undercurrent of violence in Polanski’s films, though rather than exploding physically it more often comes in the form of emotional violence; couples in Polanski’s films are seldom happy together, their relationships more often characterised by cruelty, emotional manipulation, possessiveness, frequently sliding into a kind-of sadomasochistic co-dependency and repressed passion. These relationships are then frequently further disturbed by the introduction of a third party, interlopers who bring these problems in to sharper focus. These sexual triangles – most visible in the likes of Cul De Sac, Death & the Maiden and Bitter Moon – then become funny games about domination. In Knife in the Water, Polanski communicates this visually in his narrow, Academy Ratio frame by employing a deep focus, one character in the foreground looming large over the others in the distance. In spite of this, Polanski’s trademark black humour is evident throughout, thanks largely to the jaunty score by his most important collaborator, the musician Krzysztof Komeda. In spite of its virtues, Knife in the Water suffered from the climate of “freeze” which was once again subsuming the Polish film industry. The Ministry of Culture board initially rejected the script of the film for its lack of social commitment, causing Polanski and Skolimowski to go back and add extra dialogue, what they describe as “some bullshit about the younger man living in student accommodation” which, when the script was resubmitted, was enough to get it accepted several years later. At the kolaudacja screening of the film, the reception by party officials was lukewarm – the ending was deemed too ambiguous, a problem which – bizarrely enough – was apparently solved by changing it from two shots of the scene to just one.

The critical reaction was less favourable: “all Polanski has is an international driving licence and no film school diploma”,  ran one review, and the film was released without fanfare with only a limited run. Even Communist leader Gomułka condemned the film publicly as being “not relevant to Polish society.”  Wajda, however, sensed its importance as a way of moving past the old mode of wartime cinema, describing it as “the beginning of the new Polish cinema”. Miraculously the film was eventually picked up by the New York Film Festival, and it became an international hit, making the cover of Time magazine and eventually winning an Academy Award nomination, where it lost out to Fellini’s 8 ½.

The final shot of the film – a stationary car sitting at a crossroads – is an elegant summation of where it had left Polanski and Skolimowski. The latter continued to toil under the censorious Polish system for the remainder of the 60s until the banning of his film Hands Up! led him to go and work abroad, most famously in England with his films Deep End and The Shout. Polanski, however, took the other road; he moved to Paris, began writing Cul De Sac with Gerard Brach, and emerged two years later in Britain with Repulsion. The rest, as they say, is history.

Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu [Warm Water Under a Red Bridge] (Imamura Shōhei, 2001, Japan | France)

This post comes as part of David CairnsThe Late Show blogathon over at Shadowplay.

Making its début as part of the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 2001, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge proved to be Imamura Shōhei’s final film, save for a short segment in the portmanteau 11’9”01 September 11 (2002) of the following year, and came in the then-veteran director’s fiftieth year in the filmmaking business. His varied career saw him begin as assistant Ozu Yasujirō, become a key member of the Nuberu bagu (Japanese New Wave), ‘retiring’ into making documentaries after a high-profile box-office flop, before eventually returning to critical acclaim and a record-equalling two Palme d’Or wins.

In such a long working life, a number of distinct phases emerge from the whole, the final of which seems to begin after the eight-year hiatus following Kuroi ame [Black Rain] (1989) with Unagi [The Eel] (1997), the Cannes winner with which Warm Water… shares many similarities. Like that earlier film, it takes as its protagonist a man who relocates to a small town to start a new life, though the focus here seems to be on a mischievous sense of mystery rather the murderous melodrama with which The Eel begins. Yosuke (Yakusho Kōji) is an unemployed former salaryman with apparently few prospects for finding a job, much to the chagrin of his unforgiving, nagging wife. When his elderly friend Taro dies, he remembers that he informed him about a valuable gold Buddha he has deposited in a small fishing town many years before, and urges his friend to follow his directions to find it and sell for his own profit.

Once there, Yosuke quickly locates the key geographical clue – the red bridge which stands over the river running through the town – and follows the occupant of the house adjacent to it to the supermarket where he is shocked to witnesses two things: firstly, that the woman, Saeko, is depositing items from the cheese aisle into her handbag without paying for them and, more disturbingly, she is somehow leaking liquid onto the floor beneath her. Disturbed, he follows her back to her house where he soon discovers her strange biological quirk, best not described in too much detail here but what comes to be known in the film as ‘venting’, which she may only achieve by either shoplifting or by sexual stimulation.

The fast descent into the surreal confirms the film to be what it self-describes as an ‘impossible tale’, and slides into obviously metaphorical whimsy. There follows a rash of Freudian symbolism (signposted by the ‘water’ and ‘red bridge’ of the title) including a strange hallucinatory dream incorporating Yosuke’s entry into to a womb-like state composed of stars (which augments the theme of fertility raised by Saeko’s exaggerated medical condition), repeated flashbacks to Taro’s inane quasi-philosophical ramblings about erectile dysfunction, and another younger character’s obsession with his own ‘precious life essence’. The plotting, after its initial coherence, becomes increasingly scattershot, haphazardly throwing in a visit to a state-of-the-art neutrino observatory, an odd flashback to Saeko’s mother’s water-bound death, more venting, more clumsy flashbacks and some occasional documentary-like shots aboard a fishing vessel.

When considering Imamura’s later films, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the negative and what he had lost in terms of his filmcraft by this time. Gone are the obviously strong, central female characters of his 1960s films which, rightly or wrongly, had him labelled as a director of feminisuto (feminist) films, and his famously ‘anthropological’ portrayal of the lower classes of Japan scarcely seen in the respectable canons of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. Mostly absent too is the strongly observational style, which at their best disintegrated the borderline between documentary and fiction (see the superb Ningen Johatsu (1967)), or showed glimpses of social order in pre-industrial Japanese cultures (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (1968), Narayama Bushiko (1983)). The late-period films seem whimsical and inconsequential in comparison.

This insistence on looking back on former glories does the films of Imamura’s late phase a disservice. What is notably different about them is that they feel so much more laidback, less motivated by a reactionary anger, and more upbeat, allowing the comedic side honed by the influence of his mentor Kawashima Yūzō to be shown more fully. Perhaps too, he was calmed by the influence of working with his eldest son Tengan Daisuke, screenwriter here and on The Eel and latterly a collaborator with Miike Takashi (himself a graduate of Imamura’s own Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film).

While lacking the bite of his best work then, what gives Warm Water… its strange charm is this newly-found air of relaxation in the director’s work, the film’s assembly of a small-town world and its population with a host of curious characters – the grandmother who obsessively writes clairvoyant fortune messages all day, the African college student running around the town being tailed by his bicycle-riding, baseball-bat-wielding trainer barking orders at him through a megaphone, the old fishermen of the town, their young rival and his over-exuberant girlfriend – and a host of other minor details and offbeat asides.

Perhaps this is not enough for fans of his more ‘important’ films, but Warm Water… does offer a modified version of the director’s eye for the anthropological; Saeko’s ‘venting’ drains out into the river, which sends the local fish and seabirds into a kind-of frenzy and in turn ensures a bumper haul for the local fishermen. If Imamura’s earlier films more directly showed human behaviours to be analogous to those of animals such as snakes, insects and pigs, then what these later films show is a more serene vision, of man as an essential part of the balance of nature. The film’s final shot, though primarily a terrifically funny visual gag, also serves this vision: a superimposed rainbow, apparently caused by a particularly large ‘vent’ by Saeko; an oddly contrived moment of transcendence which closed this great director’s career.

Madeo [Mother] (Bong Joon-ho, 2009, South Korea)

Kim Hye-ja in Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"

The exploration of the sometimes mysterious bond between a mother and her child is the kind of theme one might well expect to be best suited to straightforward melodrama but, ever the meddler with genre, Bong Joon-ho has crafted an engrossing detective-story thriller around the subject, a film which constantly defies the viewer’s expectations and offers both a moving portrayal of the power of the familial bond and a dark portrait of this link when pushed to its extremes. As well as being a play with familiar generic tropes, so too is his film a meditation on the importance of memory, set against the backdrop of a wider critique of male domination and female peripheralization in Korean society.

What characterized Bong’s previous two films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), was an obviously withering contempt for the patriarchal authorities contemporary to the periods in which they were set. In the former film, based on a real-life series of incidents in the late 1980s, a bungling police investigative team fail to catch a serial killer, while in the latter, the present-day residents of Seoul find themselves at the mercy of both their own paranoid government and the decidedly more gung-ho US authorities in the wake of an attack on the city by a gargantuan monster. In both films, it is the ordinary people who are made to suffer because of, or be scapegoats for, their public officials’ inadequacies.

Mother apparently continues this thematic concern by focusing on an unnamed mother’s struggle to clear her son Do-joon’s name after he is, she firmly believes, wrongly incarcerated and made an easy scapegoat for the brutal murder of a young schoolgirl. In trying to prove his innocence we see her comes up against over-worked detectives, violent police interrogators and – worst of all – her well-paid lawyer who turns out to be more concerned with scoffing buffets and drunkenly cavorting with escorts rather than helping her champion her son’s case.

The film is almost exclusively viewed from the point of view of Do-joon’s mother, and we are quickly inclined to feel sympathy for her when, in film’s first scene after the opening titles, we witness her cutting her finger with a large slicing machine while she is paying more attention to her son’s safety than her own. When Do-joon is hit by a passing car, the aggressive Jin-tae leads him to seek revenge on the driver at the local golf course, where we learn that Do-joon is mentally slow, forgetful and easily led by his more impulsive friend. Indeed, we see that while Jin-tae is capable of sporadic acts of violence, his meek friend is unable even to kick a car’s wing mirror without coming off the worst in the act.

Do-joon’s mother is, as any parent would be, concerned that her good-natured son continues to keep company with this ‘bad seed’, but their maternal relationship also seems at best off-kilter, and at worst positively unhealthy: though he is 27 years old, she still over-dotes on him as if he were an infant, and the virginal son still sleeps in his mother’s bed at night. In one tragi-comic scene she even feeds him ‘medicine’ while he stands in the street relieving himself against a wall; after he rushes off she tries to tidy up after him, scraping the urine away with her foot, and covering the spot with a nearby piece of metal.

The odd dynamic between mother and son seems strange but at this stage somewhat benign and as if it is being played for laughs, and when the harmless but distinctly un-savvy Do-joon gets hauled in by the police and roughed up by their interrogator in order to sign a confession, we naturally side with the mother in protesting his innocence, as well as suspecting Jin-Tae’s possible guilt. It is here that Mother shifts into a familiar detective-story mode, with the titular protagonist seeking clues to uncover the identity of the real killer, motivated both by her love (however strange) for her son and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the official channels of law enforcement to look beyond the circumstantial evidence of the case.

This is how the story appears to want to unfold as it settles down, and there is a sense of a return to his previous films’ concerns with the powerless oppressed struggling in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. Our identification with the mother and her struggle has been uncomplicated, resting on easily identifiable premises: a vulnerable, elderly woman struggling against uncaring authorities to prove her mild-mannered son innocent and to turn suspicion towards his violent friend. Yet almost as soon as her own investigation begins she appears to come up against a dead end, one which turns at least one of these assumptions on its head. In classic detective-thriller tradition, and with more than a little hint of Twin Peaks, her sleuthing leads her to make some startling discoveries about her small town and she becomes embroiled in a much more sinister and potentially dangerous situation than she first had anticipated.

Mother‘s convoluted narrative about-turns not only maintain an admirable air of suspense for its 130 minute running time, but serve to undermine many of the assumptions and prejudices the viewer holds about the story and its characters. If Memories of Murder played on the tropes of the police procedural genre and The Host similarly toyed with the familiar mores of the family-drama-amidst-monster-attack movie, the film uses the setup of a detective-story to expose how the viewer becomes emotionally complicit with the depths of its main character’s moral elasticity without even realizing it – until, that is, it is too late. The beating heart of Bong’s film is a dark, twisted one which, as well as showing how familial bonds can be an empowering, all-conquering force for good, they are the same ones which can drive people to go too far. Nevertheless, lead actress Kim Hye-ja, familiar to Korean audiences for playing more placid matriarchs, conjures up a mesmerizing central performance as a quiet, subservient elderly mother steeled by her resolve to free her son, and it is hard not to be swept along by this woman’s sheer determination.

The film’s feminine title underlines the fact that there is a large focus on the cultural and social divide between the genders, and though the subject of female subjugation is not broached explicitly, it is one which is ever-present in the background. If men are not alternately portrayed as bullying, incompetent, pathetic, money-grabbing, self-serving, violent, whimsical or sexually rapacious creatures then, as in the case of the fathers of both Do-joon and murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung, they are absent entirely. The question of Do-joon’s father is never raised, and at one stage his mother even suggests to one of her acupuncture clients that it was ‘medicine’ which made her pregnant with her son. By contrast, women are the efficient workers, the gossips who know what is happening in the community, the victims of bullying, taken advantage of sexually, or at the extremes are driven to drink or attempted suicide. The mourners at Moon Ah-jung’s wake are almost exclusively female.

Do-joon’s memory – or lack thereof – serves not merely as a device to initiate and maintain the central mystery plot, but also as a metaphor for his essential unknowability to his mother, regardless of how close their relationship is; to what extent his amnesia is selective by choice or otherwise is never made explicit, which leaves us as much in the dark as she is. One dramatic revelation about their past, however, offers some clue as to its cause, as well as suggesting that one thing he may not be able to remember is something that she chooses advantageously not to remind him of. It also serves to cast in darker hues both her character and her apparently unselfish servitude to him. By the end, we are left to guess the extent to which Do-joon is able to piece together what his mother has done; she, however, makes sure she takes steps never to remember, and the film’s memorable final shot serves as a poignant recapitulation of its equally striking first.

The film’s emotional zenith comes when the mother is called upon to visit JT, an adolescent with Downs’ Syndrome who has been captured after escaping from the sanitorium. She simply asks him if he has any parents, a mother? His negative reply causes her to break down – but is it entirely out of pity for him? Her relationship with her son may have empowered her to go to extraordinary, almost unthinkable lengths to save him, but as much as this moment comes as catharsis it also serves to remind her of the horrors she has witnessed too. All in the journey of a mother, though, one in which the ability to forget may well be as important as that to remember.

Mother is released on DVD on 20 September by Optimum Releasing.

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, 2009, Italy / France)

In contrast to Francisco Franco, his Spanish counterpart who displayed little interest in the subject, Benito Mussolini never neglected the social importance of cinema; indeed, on opening the world-famous Cinecittà studios in 1937, he stood in front of a massive sign bearing a slogan he had coined himself, “Cinema is the most powerful weapon”. Though, as Peter Bondanella points out, recent archival work has suggested that the actual propaganda content of the films produced during World War Two was minimal, the shadow of the Mussolini name still looms large over the industry’s history: as well as his government’s construction of Cinecittà, his son Vittorio was a noted film critic and heavily involved in establishing the careers of Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. and even the top prize at the Venice Film Festival proudly carried the Mussolini name for the first years of its existence.

The Mussolini years also saw the foundation of the other major pillar of the modern Italian film industry, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the important filmmaking school which would one day count one Marco Bellocchio as a graduate. There is, then, a sense of Oedipus-like patricide to Bellocchio’s making of a film which paints Il Duce in such an unflattering light, but then the 70 year-old director has taken dysfunctional families and their internal psychologies as his central interest from his debut film – the intensely savage domestic drama Fists in the Pocket (1965) – onwards, so it ought to be of little surprise that he eventually turn his attention to that most notorious of Italian father figures.

Vincere takes as its main subject not Mussolini himself but Ida Dalser, his first wife and the mother of his first-born son, but who the dictator-to-be expediently came to deny all knowledge of during the course of his political ascent. The film traces two parallel narratives – Ida’s own personal story and the story of Benito’s increasing prominence in political affairs. What may loosely be described as the first half of the film charts Ida and Benito’s chance meeting and eventual romance; the young Mussolini is painted here as a firebrand atheist and left-wing agitator with an immense personal magnetism, with whom the rapt Ida is overwhelmingly enamoured. They marry, and she eventually sells all of her possessions to help him set up his newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, but it soon emerges that he has married another woman, Rachele, and fathered a daughter with her. Ida is subsequently abandoned and painted as a mad obsessive, prevented from seeing her husband, and eventually incarcerated in a series of psychiatric hospitals for the remainder of her life for protesting the existence of their marriage.

In the film’s first half, Mussolini is a very real presence in Dalser’s life, but as Dalser is placed under police surveillance and eventual imprisonment, what we see of Il Duce is increasingly glimpsed only through newsreels, portraits, and even at a later stage a large bust which his unrecognised son sends crashing to the floor in disgust. From the very personal view of the very passionate man established in the film’s first half, all that is seen of Mussolini in its second half is that famously gurn-like public face, monstrously grimacing and gesticulating wildly in front of baying crowds. It is not just his personality which has changed; a complete political volte-face has seen him change from republican atheist left-wing pacifist into warmongering Fascist in alliance with the King and the Pope.

The film, then, invites the viewer into drawing a parallel between Mussolini’s treatment of Dalser and his chameleonic political transformation, both of which demonstrative of his characteristically Machiavellian ability to recast himself according to expediency. In this sense, it is a continuation of Bellocchio’s best films of the 1960s which posited that dysfunctional personal lives are both the cause and effect of a wider dysfunctional culture; where Vincere differs from those though, as well as placing it apart from Bernardo Bertolucci’s more famous The Conformist (1970), is that instead of offering a psychosexual explanation for the causes of fascism, Bellocchio seems to be presenting Mussolini’s conversion as much more straightforwardly stemming from an overriding, all-consuming ambition.

This simplicity makes for a much more accessible film than one might associate with the director. Dalser’s steadfast refusal to deny that she was ever married to Benito – an admission which would likely see her freed from institutionalisation – paints her as an anti-fascist heroine, refusing to submit to a lie for personal convenience, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s powerful central performance makes for a moving portrait of a woman completely unable to understand or accept her husband’s betrayal. Carlo Crivelli’s score, by turns bombastic and pulsating, raises the drama far beyond realism and into the heights of operatic tragedy.

On this plane of melodrama, Vincere functions well, but as political polemic it feels unsatisfactory. The film’s first half feels rushed, necessarily crammed with inserted pieces of newsreel footage illustrating the political situation which gave rise to Mussolini’s ascent, but at the expense of allowing breathing space for the characters to become fully delineated. As such, when Dalser is spurned, the viewer is left as confused as she as to the reasons for her abandonment, and these are never satisfactorily resolved later in the film. This serves the drama, and allies us well to Dalser’s point of view, but offers little in the way of insight into the character who is of real interest in the story, Mussolini himself.

Vincere, then, represents something of a compromise: that the chief interest of the story is absent for most of the film’s duration presents a challenge which it only partially meets up to. Yet there are moments of genuine brilliance: in one comical early scene, the young Mussolini foments a fight between partisan pro-war and anti-war supporters inside a cinema, the calamitous violence onscreen replicated in front of it, both continuing to be scored by an increasingly frantic silent film accompanist at the piano. Later, the grown-up son of Mussolini – played by the same Filippo Timi who portrayed the young Benito Sr – struts around aping the comically grotesque figure he has seen on newsreels of the father he never knew. Both scenes – comic and tragic – point towards the social function of cinema as a reflection of – and shaper of – society, a dual function that Mussolini’s own recognition of gave rise to the birth of modern Italian cinema.