Sunday, January 15, 2017

Netflix review: Orange is the New Black

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Netflix promotional poster for Orange is the New Black

A few years ago I listened to an episode of The Moth podcast where author Piper Kerman told a story about her time in prison. Kerman had been an upper middle class graduate of an all women's college, working as a PR person, when she was sentenced to prison for a previous drug smuggling conviction. At the end of the episode, the announcer mentioned that Kerman had written a book called Orange is the New Black about her experiences in prison, and that there would be a new series on Netflix created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds) based on a fictionalized version of that book.

We started watching the series and I honestly didn't have a lot of high expectations for it. Although it seemed possible from Kerman's Moth episode, I wasn't entirely sure if Kohan's take on the story would address issues like classism and racism. I felt slightly uncomfortable at the idea of being entertained by a story of women in prison if it did not address the problems inherent in the system.

However, I was pleasantly surprised, and as I've watched each season in turn, my respect for the show has grown. For one thing, it is consistently the best show on TV (Netflix, cable, whatever) that features such a diverse group of women. There is a wide range of races, ages, body types, sexual orientations, gender identities, social classes, and situations represented. It is so important to see such a vast range of women interacting with each other, forming friendships and relating to each other, rather than always having their stories filtered through the eyes of men, if they are told at all. It is something I absolutely love about the show.

And it does not shy away from some fairly intense issues. Some I can think of off the top of my head:

  • the overrepresentation of women of colour in prison
  • treatment of trans women in prison
  • abuse of power by guards
  • rape
  • rights of pregnant women in prison
  • racial profiling
  • homophobia
  • ageism
  • labour issues--treatment of prisoners as indentured labour for large corporations; treatment of guards' unions; privatization and for-profit prisons
  • the proliferation of prison as a moneymaking venture in the United States
  • treament of mentally ill prisoners
  • treatment of mentally ill people in society in general (thus causing some to end up in prison when it isn't the best place for them and they actually need treatment
The show isn't without its flaws (which are unfortunately kind of hard to talk about without revealing fairly significant plot points)--one way in which it could improve is to hire some writers of colour--but overall it is one of the best shows I have seen to discuss women's issues and to portray such a vibrantly diverse cast of characters. I am eagerly awaiting the next season.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

movie review: Dark Horse

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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.