Cannes 2013: Three morality tales for our times

Jia Zhangke takes up arms, Koreeda Hirokazu turns class tables and Clio Barnard scraps and scrapes on the outskirts of Bradford.

Kieron Corless
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A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin

Some of the busiest people on the Croisette these last few sodden days have been the abundant African immigrants selling umbrellas, their presence cheek-by-jowl with the customary spectacle of conspicuous Cannes excess a reminder of parlous economic realities outside the festival bubble.

The symptoms of the current neoliberal malaise have of course been intermittently reflected and dissected onscreen, in by and large the best films of an admittedly average-to-poor bunch I’ve seen so far here. By some distance the most arresting and an early contender for the Palme d’Or is Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, which finds the greatest Chinese director of his generation in more angry, viscerally confrontational mode than he’s ever been. The film gathers together four separate stories based on horrific real-life incidents of murder and suicide in China; in the first, for example, a miner, furious at corrupt local officials, takes up his gun and sets off on a murderous rampage.

It’s a bit of a shock at first to see a Jia film open with a series of bloody murders, as he sets about grafting something altogether more pulpy and Kitano-esque onto his more customary naturalist aesthetic. But for me it worked, mainly for its ability – as always – to intuit and convey some sense of the larger processes shaping these violent individual responses to a hostile, alienating economic climate. It’s hard to think of another director better than Jia at framing his characters in their environments: geography is destiny, you might say. Jia has clearly decided that harsh times call for a harsh response, but you can’t help wondering how a film so bluntly critical will play with the authorities in China, or how it even got made.

Like Father Like Son

Like Father Like Son

Also in competition is Koreeda Hirozaku’s Like Father Like Son, which turns on the conceit that two families of very different economic standing must swap what they thought were their own young sons after the belated discovery of a hospital botch-up at birth. The affluent family has only the one child, neglected by a loving but often absent father dedicated to his high-flying, round-the-clock architect’s job. The flaws in their comfortable, carefully regulated lifestyle are gradually exposed through contact with the larger family’s more chaotic, financially precarious but apparently happier existence.

Koreeda milks and finesses the situation with some aplomb, drawing pitch-perfect performances from his cast (including the children) and steering the narrative into the carefully grounded philosophical terrain signalled by the film’s title, deftly exploring questions of heredity and nature versus nurture. Like Father Like Son plays out as a gentle, cautionary morality tale for our times, which might be its weakness. It can feel at times a shade too knowing, a bit too schematic in its narrative patternings, with a sense of couching some improving advice on how to live better. I could have done without the sentimental ending, too.

The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant

Fathers are also an underlying problem in Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, either absent or completely useless, with mothers inevitably left to fill the breach as best they can. Screening in Directors’ Fortnight, the film, loosely based on an Oscar Wilde story, is set in the same lower-class Bradford milieu as Barnard’s fine debut The Arbor, but opts this time for a more straightforward storytelling approach that feels right for the material.

Two truanting schoolboys’ friendship is tested when they are gradually drawn into the world of scrap-metal dealing, attracted by its downbeat adult glamour and the opportunities it offers to make fast, easy money and bond with the local scrap-dealer’s horse.

Two elements stood out for me: the film’s vivid evocation of edge-lands, the scrubby, generally disregarded hinterland areas on the outskirts of British cities, and its depiction of the actual physical circulation of money, its corrupting effects given a tangible feel and presence. There’s even a trap-racing action sequence, heavily betted on, like Ben Hur in Bradford.

If nothing else, Barnard’s film will claim the world record for what we might call the expleted imperative: characters telling each other to “Fuck off you daft [cunt / twat / wanker / etc].” Therein lay a problem, it seemed to me, a slight reductiveness and lack of credibility in its portrayal of working-class lives, overcome to some extent by the energy of the young performances, particularly Connor Chapman, a real find who’s uncannily akin to the boy in the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike. Of the films I’ve seen here so far, this was by some distance the most rapturously received by its audience.

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