Monday 14 August 2023

Klondike (Maryna Er Gorbach, 2022)

The 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) underpins Maryna Er Gorbach's grimly impressive Klondike, an unflinching portrayal of the Donbass conflict that may be a bit strong for some stomachs.  While the war in Donbass may have officially ended in February 2022, it was immediately supplanted by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  Er Gorbach's film, then, occupies an unusual space in that it shows a conflict from the nominal past, yet we all know that the situation it depicts is one that is both escalating and ongoing.  Perhaps the point that Klondike is making is that the time in which it is set is largely indistinguishable from the present day; without the reference point that is the MH17 tragedy, the Ukraine of Klondike could easily pass for the 2023 incarnation of the country.  At a moment in which it seems as if the situation in Ukraine is slipping down the headlines, Klondike feels like a very timely film.

Klondike centres on the pregnant Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna), whose home is hit by a stray mortar on the same day when MH17 is downed.  Irka and her husband Tolik (the late Sergey Shadrin) live in a small village near the Russian border, and Tolik appears to have pro-Russian sympathies.  While Tolik is very keen for the couple to flee the area, Irka refuses to leave, even though much of the house's living room is now exposed to the elements.  The debris from the wreckage of MH17 spreads as far as Irka and Tolik's property, but even this doesn't give Irka the urge to abandon her home.  As anti-Ukrainian separatists tighten their grip on the region, Irka's fiercely pro-Ukrainian brother Yaryk (Oleg Shcherbina) arrives to check on his sister and proceeds to clash with Tolik, although the two bickering men do have a go at repairing the broken wall.      

In the days following the shooting down of MH17, a Dutch couple arrive in Ukraine with the hope that their daughter somehow survived the crash; listening to them as they go through the denial stage of grief is a deeply upsetting experience.  The presence of these reluctant visitors has an impact on Irka and Tolik, who are tasked with driving the couple to and from the crash site; as they deliver the Dutch couple to a pro-Russian checkpoint, the foreigners are allowed through, but Tolik and Irka are aggressively turned back.  As their chance of escaping the village now appears to have passed, things look very bleak for the parents-to-be as they return to their home; unfortunately, this proves to be a bad move, as a brutal band of Russian separatists (at least one of whom speaks Chechen) soon descend on the property.  There is also the question of what happened to Yaryk, who abruptly disappeared following his heated argument with Tolik.    

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Klondike is the use of real footage of anti-Ukrainian separatists looting the MH17 wreckage, and it's certainly a bold move by Maryna Er Gorbach to include such material.  As Three Colours: Red proved, weaving a real-life tragedy into a work of fiction is always a risky business, especially when that catastrophe is one as recent and raw as the MH17 crash, in which nearly 300 people—more than two-thirds of whom were Dutch—lost their lives.  Yet despite this considerable challenge, Er Gorbach manages to place the MH17 case in a milieu that is neither inappropriate nor sensationalist.  This is a sober, measured piece of filmmaking, with the jittery handheld camerawork so typical of modern-day war movies eschewed in favour of immaculately composed shots in which the camera is always mounted firmly on its tripod.  Should you make it to the end of the film—and its last reel is especially gruelling—you will be rewarded with the faintest flicker of hope.  Klondike is a difficult watch, but also a very necessary one.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday 1 August 2023

A Light Never Goes Out (Anastasia Tsang, 2022)

Middle-aged widow Mei-heung (Sylvia Chang) has gone through countless sleepless nights since the abrupt death of her husband, Bill (Simon Yam). One day, she finds a key among the items that Bill left behind, leading her to his secret neon workshop where she meets the young apprentice, Leo (Henick Chou). With his help, Mei-heung tries to uncover the story behind the signs and learns the craft of blowing neon lights in hope of fulfilling her deceased husband's last wish of recreating one of Hong Kong’s legendary neon light with her own hands. Along the way, Mei-heung reminisces about her meaningful moments with Bill and unearths pieces of Bill's past, the only consolation left to her. Meanwhile, Mei-heung’s daughter, Prism (Cecilia Choi), plans to leave Hong Kong with her fiancé.

As clues of the legendary neon sign gradually emerge, the secrets that Mei-heung couldn't face are about to be revealed. Neon lights are essentially writing calligraphy with light. First introduced in the 1930s, they embody the ideology and aesthetic orientation of Hong Kong. With the industrial boom of the 1960s, many businesses, nightclubs, and restaurants used neon signs to promote their services or simply as a branding tool. The colourful, layered patchwork neon signs outlined Hong Kong's streets and neighbourhoods, and were integral to its specific energy, and most especially at nightfall when they lit up the streets. The neon signs became not only a symbol of individual success, but also of the significant status of Hong Kong's fast-growing economy and tourism industry. 

With the full implementation of the new ordinance enacted by the Hong Kong government in 2010 to strictly control and remove potentially dangerous outdoor neon light signages, these symbolic signs have been removed one by one. The large-scale demolition operation aroused the public's concern and attention, who have gradually come to see the neon night scenery as part of Hong Kong's rich history and unique culture. Their disappearance is not just the loss of the streetscape, but also of the memory and stories of every Hong Kong individual behind it. A Light Never Goes Out—which had its European premiere back in January at IFF Rotterdam—is a spirited look into Hong Kong’s iconic neon signs through a touching story about love and loss. 

Director Anastasia Tsang mourns this fading icon of Hong Kong through the poignant story of a widow in A Light Never Goes Out: “Hong Kong’s blooming neon lights have always been an icon of its economic prosperity. They lined the city's streets during the economic boom of the 1980’s, lighting up a "Pearl of the Orient" that enchanted the whole world. As an iconic imagery of Hong Kong, neon lights represented the city's most prosperous era, and its fading glow seems like a metaphor of the city's fate. Like Hong Kongers who tend to hang on to the good old days, the widow in the film desperately wants to retrieve her husband's past. Even when it seems to be futilely stubborn, sometimes we need to insist in order to exist.”

Source/images: Trinity CineAsia