In the Real Cinematic World

Posted on Tue 13 May 2014
Amat Escalante’s Heli (opening on Fri 23 May)

Mark Cosgrove, Watershed’s Cinema Curator

In this news post our Cinema Curator Mark Cosgrove writes more about two powerful films opening this month – Mexico’s Heli and China’s A Touch of Sin – which deal with issues ripped straight from the (often violent) headlines in their respective countries. They are, he says, about something real in the all too often escapist world of cinema.

Sometimes – well, most of the time - you could be forgiven for thinking that the majority of film was only concerned with escapist entertainment. Just take a look at the side of a bus driving past you and you will see ads for the latest blockbuster whether it be the recent Noah or the imminent Transformers: Age of Extinction (3D). You could of course argue that Noah is a prescient intervention in the global warming debate or that Transformers is a cautionary tale of the dangers of dabbling with technology.

There is an honourable strand of film criticism which would read into Hollywood’s critiques of contemporary society: the auteur using the genre to stealthily sneak under the entertainment radar a message about the state of things, or perhaps things to come. John Ford was atoning for white man’s guilt in Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Douglas Sirk was critiquing middle class hypocrisy in All That Heaven Allows (1955).

These earlier films were made when the Hollywood studio system was in full flow with many different styles and genres. Hundreds of films were made and in the 1950s the influential French film critics who identified these authorial comments had a case. However, I do not believe this is so today.

Now, the approach of Hollywood is more that the cinema is the theme park and films are the rides. Indeed the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise started out as a thrill ride at Disneyland before it became a film. If you want films which engage with the real world with issues you will need to look elsewhere than the mainstream and most certainly beyond Hollywood.

Scan the wider cinematic horizons and you can see films from countries such as Mexico and China - ironically - which are tackling the realities of life lived in those countries. This doesn’t mean they are any less engaging or don’t deliver entertaining thrilling experiences: Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin (opening here on Fri 16 May) feels at times like a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western with its epic cinemascope and vengeful, violent outsider whilst Amat Escalante’s Heli (opening on Fri 23 May) is at once a terrifying thriller as it is a comment on contemporary Mexican life.

What both films share is that their stories are born from the reality of lives in those countries, and the source material is torn from the news. The past few years have seen a proliferation of extremely terrifying and often very public drug related violence in Mexico ( Escalante’s Heli powerfully portrays the impact of this on a young family to create a damning indictment of modern Mexican life.

Foreign news reports over the past few years have also highlighted the rise in violence in Chinese society ( Little may be reported within the country but Jia Zhangke went outside the state media to discover the stories of A Touch of Sin which include an ex-miner enraged by corruption and profiteering who took the law into his own hands or the female sauna employee who killed her attacker.

Both Heli and A Touch of Sin reveal and respond to what is happening in the world we live in and both do this in compelling and cinematic ways. They get underneath the headlines to convey the impact these stories have. Unlike much of mainstream filmmaking they are about something real in the cinematic world.

Mark Cosgrove
Cinema Curator