Saturday, November 05, 2016


Dark Horse: The True Story of Dream Alliance  
(UK, 2015)  
director: Louise Osmond

I have a particular soft spot for British underdog movies. You know the ones I'm talking about: Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Made in Dagenham. Those are fictional or at least fictionalized narrative films, but even though Dark Horse is a documentary, it bears remarkable resemblance to those other movies.

In 2000, a Welsh woman named Jan Vokes convinced 30 of her fellow villagers to form a syndicate and pool their money together to breed and raise a racehorse. As her husband notes, once Jan has put her mind to something, you can't stop her. And thus begins the story of Dream Alliance, the horse who came from dubious stock and was raised on an allotment, but went on to remarkable success.

The movie makes good use of Jan and her fellow owners' considerable charm. They are fully aware that the world of horse racing is generally reserved for the wealthy and the titled. Part of their pride comes from being working class and having stood up against the snobs--and proving themselves to be as good if not better. There are some very amusing interviews where the top class trainer the syndicate chose for Dream Alliance admits to his initial skepticism and patronizing thoughts about the horse's chances of ever running in a real race, never mind winning. His account of his change of heart is very touching and genuine.

That is actually a good way to describe this movie overall: touching and genuine. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a smile on my face when I left the theatre. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

movie review: Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman

mrs b woman of n korea poster

Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman
(France/South Korea, 2016)
directed by Jero Yun

This documentary is a fascinating glimpse into the world of escapees from North Korea. It follows the titular Mrs. B as she travels from China to South Korea to claim refugee status. She has left a husband and sons behind in North Korea, and her ultimate goal is to help them start a life in South Korea too.

However, there are a couple of complications: when she escaped over the border from North Korea to China, she was sold to a Chinese man, so she actually has two husbands, one North Korean, and one Chinese. The more surprising complication, however, is that she actually loves her Chinese husband and his family, and the feeling is reciprocal: they are justifiably worried about her as she embarks on the long and dangerous journey to South Korea from their tiny rural Chinese village. The day before she leaves, her mother in law insists on giving her money, saying it's to help her sons. Mrs. B gruffly teases her in-laws and tries to refuse the money, saying that they need it more.

Really, nothing is as black and white in this story as one might expect. When the film first opens, we see to our surprise that the trafficked has become the trafficker: full of hustle and enterprise, Mrs. B runs a healthy business herself, helping people escape from North Korea (for pay). Part of her success stems from her fluency in both Mandarin and Korean--a sign of how completely she has embraced her new life in China. The reality is, she's a strong-willed woman torn between two families. She feels guilty and despairing over having to choose between them.

The director, Jero Yun, has managed to get amazing footage of Mrs. B and her two families. Various family members speak surprisingly openly and touchingly about their ambivalence and conflicting emotions. The film isn't beautiful in a conventional way--it's grainy and grey and suitably bleak, but it is a unique window into a life we know little about here in the West. I would love to see a follow up so we could find out how Mrs. B's story turns out.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

movie review: Bernadette Lafont and God Created the Free Woman (original title: Bernadette Lafont et Dieu créa la femme libre)

(This review is part of a series, related to my professional development project of attending the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.)

Bernadette Lafont Poster

Bernadette Lafont and God Created the Free Woman (original title: Bernadette Lafont et Dieu créa la femme libre)
(France, 2016)
directed by Esther Hoffenberg

I did not know who Bernadette Lafont was before watching this documentary. The main reasons we chose to attend this particular festival screening were because it fit with our schedule and there were still tickets available! However, within minutes I was very pleased with our serendipitous choice--it was wonderful to be introduced to this bold, intelligent, successful French actor and to learn about her role in France's feminist movement. As a bonus, two of Lafont's granddaughters were in attendance and spoke briefly and movingly about their late grandmother.

Lafont started out in French New Wave films with rising directors Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol--her 1957 debut was in Truffaut's first professional film, a short called "Les Mistons" ("The Mischief Makers"). Lafont, 18 at the time of filming, appeared with her then-husband Gerard Blain. Not long after, the two split up, partly because (as Lafont explained it), Blain could not cope with her rising career and desire for a life outside the home and in addition to her role as wife and mother.

Not only does the film take us on a tour of Lafont's film career; it also delves into her rich and complex personal life. In interviews with her granddaughters and her close friend, actor Bulle Ogier, we learn about Lafont's joys as well as her tragedies, such as the accidental death of her daughter (actor Pauline Lafont) at age 25.

Lafont was a real force to be reckoned with, both as an actor and a feminist. She chose films that embodied her views on women's rights and used her fame to create a space for women to maintain a conversation about equality and feminism. Up to her death in 2013, she was still acting in major roles to much critical and popular acclaim. In her final film, Paulette, she played the starring role as a cranky pensioner who becomes a drug dealer to make ends meet. Paulette shrewdly uses the social invisibility of elderly women to her advantage: she can fly under everyone's radar because society assumes she has no agency.

I would highly recommend this documentary to anyone interested in French film and/or the history of feminism in French culture.