Spending too much time focusing on a specific genre of movie, even if through love, can have an adverse effect. While you might become more forgiving of the reliance on familiar tropes or structures, and in fact delight in skillful deployment, it can also mean you demand more from them, and will feel especially betrayed if your favoured genre is mistreated through laziness or cynicism. I’ll mark down sci-fi or horror films that strike me as derivative or joyless; hence my constant rage over the Resident Evil franchise and the Donald Trump of junk cinema, P.W.S. Anderson (the W.S. stands for Terrible Director). Daisyhellcakes is unforgiving of romcoms that aren’t rom or com. During a recent viewing of Five-Year Engagement I thought I’d have to call an ambulance for her.
But then a genre movie can come along and do just one specific thing right, or depict a familiar tale with a different approach, or introduce a rogue element, and the result can be greater than expected. Which brings me to The Sapphires, a by-the-book tale of a singing group in the 60s chosen as a festival selection by Daisyhellcakes as we battled to buy as many tickets as possible on the very stressful first day of ticket sales. Would I have chosen it? Hell no; it’s exactly the kind of inspirational tale of triumph over adversity that galls me. As much as SF/horror/fantasy/superheroism films are my dream genre, this kind of history-smoothing anti-controversial family entertainment is the kind of thing I avoid. Poor Daisy. I complained all the way to the cinema. What an asshole I am.
The Sapphires, directed by Wayne Blair, is based on a play by actor Tony Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay with prolific writer Keith Thompson (who IMDb claims also played tenor sax on the soundtrack to The Draughtsman’s Contract, fact fans). It follows the short career of an Indigenous Australian girl group shunned by the white settlers near their home town. Briggs based the movie on the lives of his mother and aunt, and bluntly addresses the way the indigenous people were treated in this era while cleverly making his protagonists strong and confident enough that this essential commentary never derails the movie’s upbeat tone. The group powers on, defiantly, and we happily go with them.
Their career is kickstarted by Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a wastrel who becomes manager of The Sapphires, shaping their look and turning them on to the soul music he loves. His guidance leads to them travelling to Vietnam to play for US troops stationed there, where their fortunes are threatened by rifts within the group caused by jealousy, over-confidence, and racial strife, especially between Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Kay (Shari Sebbens), whose animosity is borne of Kay’s forced assimilation into white culture and subsequent rejection of her family. This was one of the more interesting aspects of the movie, and could’ve been explored further — perhaps linking it to Dave’s appropriation and celebration of African-American culture — but this is not that movie.
So it’s Dreamgirls meets Rabbit-Proof Fence by way of Good Morning, Vietnam, using a backdrop of racial tension as adversity to overcome. In the UK this could sit on a shelf next to Billy Elliot or The Full Monty; talented people take a gamble on the performing arts while history churns away in the background, adding a few discordant notes to a tune that would otherwise just be a pleasant melody. If this is your kind of thing you’ll likely have a great time with The Sapphires, which is competently made, gutsily performed by the four singers (Mailman, Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell), and relatively uncomplicated. It is what it is, for the most part.
There’s an argument to be made that this is toothless stuff, and I can see that. The tragedy of history now used as a darker tone added to an otherwise candy-bright palette, blowing past scenes of death and destruction and issues of racism and terrible crimes perpetrated against communities as if they’re just the dips in the up-and-down pacing graph of a McKee three-act structure. But it at least handles the difficult issue of assimilation as a personal betrayal; giving this crime a face might be enough to help some people cope with the ramifications of this awful policy. [ETA: I've also been told by @DamiennePradier that the threatened Yorta Yorta language is used in the movie, helping publicise efforts to revive a language almost made extinct by European colonisation, which is great.] The movie does predictably silly things to ensure the audience goes home happy, especially in the final act, but it’s not the only movie to do these kinds of narrative and tonal acrobatics, and at least it does them well enough.
Besides, we get to see O’Dowd lift the entire movie up to the extent that my pre-film grouchiness was rendered moot. I have no idea how much of his patter is improvised or scripted, but as the rest of the cast progress through rote comedic set-ups and lines, he is the sour in the sweet, a hapless screw-up who snarks on the philistine locals but supports the group without losing his salty tone. If he wasn’t already a star, this would make him a star. Without him The Sapphires would be unbearably sentimental, and no amount of lazy cutting to “Horrors of War!” imagery would change that. With O’Dowd, the movie is enough of a success that I’ll even recommend it. Plus they put Hold On, I’m Coming by Sam and Dave on the soundtrack; I cannot resist its monumental power.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time seemed more on my wavelength; a Korean gangster movie set in the 80s, depicting the rise of a former customs officer to the position of “Godfather” (a loose translation of “Daebu”, the term applied to him throughout the movie). This seemed straightforward; a Korean Casino, or Mesrine, starring Choi Min-sik, whose performance in Park Chan-wook’s unbeatable revenge classic Oldboy is seared into the minds of all who have experienced it. Despite not having any idea what a Nameless Gangster is, or what the rules of the time were (this is never explained), this seemed like it would be a cut-and-dried account of one man’s criminal history.
In a way it is, but the protagonist — Choi Ik-hyun — is nothing like you’d expect. He’s a buffoon, a drunkard and coward who makes his way from lowly corrupt customs official to drug kingpin and businessman through wheedling, voluntary humiliation, and a form of nepotism that seems alien to a Western audience. This isn’t Vincent Cassel blasting through France while wearing a series of mustaches and turtleneck sweaters. It isn’t even Joe Pesci torturing his Las Vegas enemies into submission using vices, though the memorable baseball bat scene from Casino is referenced. This is the rise of the schlub; The Godfather Part II if Don Corleone was a chaotic, opportunistic alcoholic who thinks shame and dignity are interchangeable.
Configuring expectations to this bizarre characterisation took the better part of an hour, as I tried to force this new variable into an old equation. What seems on the outside to be a deadly serious film about political corruption and compromise in the quest to clean up the Korean city of Busan becomes almost comedic in tone. Choi Min-sik is as brilliant as you’d expect, but the character he plays is a colossal tit, an exasperating idiot who just happens to be very good at failing upwards and taking advantage of every situation that befalls him. Add to this enough exaggerated cranial violence to suggest it should have been called Endless Concussion and this viewer was quite baffled for a while. It does work, though, amazingly enough.
Choi Ik-hyun starts out hustling importers for spare change and watches, but accidentally stumbles across a stash of heroin. He grabs it, tries to sell it to local gangster Choi Hyung-bae (the quietly impressive Ha Jung-woo), but gets drunk first and promptly offends his potential partner by bringing up a familial connection. Incensed, Hyung-bae turns on the drunkard, only to become aware that he truly is related to Ik-hyun (the politics and customs of Korean familial loyalty are lost on me so I just had to roll with this plot development), and is forced to partner up with him. At first the gangster seems reluctant, but Ik-hyun’s gifts for networking and self-abasement become an asset.
Eventually the two come up against rival gangster Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong), leading to a pitched battle in which nearly every head in the scene gets smacked, twatted, crushed, bombarded with bamboo and glass and wood; enough to cause sympathetic subdural haematomas in the audience just by looking at it. Following this conflagration comes a détente between the two gangs that surely cannot last; the result is distrust, betrayal and unwelcome attention from the vicious public prosecutor Jo Beom-seok (a magnificently unpleasant performance from Kwak Do-won). The question becomes how far Ik-hyun will go to save his own skin, and who will he betray to ensure his own safety.
Again, standard stuff transformed by strong work from one actor in a role you wouldn’t expect. Min-sik is magnificent, willingly playing the fool, finding a kind of nobility in his willingness to use himself as a tool in dangerous situations in order to prevail and profit. Yun Jong-bin’s direction is unflashy, focusing on our anti-hero, who drives the movie when double- and treble-crosses begin to weigh the movie down, especially in an unwisely reflective, flabby final act. But the abiding memory of the film is one of pleasure; this is an oft-told tale given an unexpected spin, littered with good actors at the top of their game. The UK’s gangster film industry would do well to watch this and perhaps learn some lessons in how to undercut its reflexive machismo to good effect.
Speaking of lessons, anyone trying to depict uplifting tales of adversity conquered could learn a lot from Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, which features all of the expected narrative dips and peaks in its tale of characters struggling to survive as the world craps on them from a great height. As with The Sapphires this is the kind of movie that leaves me cold, but the strong cast and residual good feeling about Jacques Audiard following his prison masterpiece A Prophet meant there was no way I would miss this. Thankfully, Audiard is enough of an artist that he can take something with the potential to be a pandering melodrama and forge something powerful from the raw material (a short story from Craig Davidson, here co-adapted with Thomas Bidegain).
As Audiard admitted in the illuminating Q&A, Rust and Bone might feature two protagonists, but the focus is mainly on Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose growth as a person and as a father is arguably even more dramatic than that of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). He’s an aimless unemployed former amateur boxer who makes his way to the French Riviera with his son, taking residence in his sister’s home and scrabbling to find work as a bouncer and security guard. After a brutal nightclub fight he meets killer whale trainer Stéphanie, who drags him into what seems to be an ongoing row with her boyfriend, which he’s only too happy to do. Both of them are lost and angry, obviously unable to connect with anyone, with Alain’s son likely to be the worst casualty.
They would probably never see each other again after this meet-not-cute, but a horrific accident at Stéphanie’s marina leaves her grievously injured and wheelchair-bound. Out of boredom and depression Stéphanie contacts Ali, and an unlikely friendship begins as he helps her return to the water in which she feels at home, a relationship that grows and nourishes them more than they realise. What follows is a struggle for them both as they become better and more compassionate people, with the emotional peaks and troughs you would expect. Stéphanie comes back to life, recaptures her sensuality, regains her confidence. Ali learns to be aware of the feelings of those around him, the consequences of his actions, and the love he has for his son.
This description sounds bloody awful, I’ll be honest, but one of the keys to Rust and Bone‘s considerable success is Audiard’s approach to the material. It’s a perfect balance between sentimentality and grit, sitting at the LaGrange point between the awful saccharine cluelessness of box-office smash Intouchable and equally awful depravity-wallow Tyrannosaur (which I railed against here). Both of those movies are the worst examples I can think of, either ignoring or downplaying the psychological effects of disability, or emptily depicting poverty as a grinding, almost comically-relentless wave of effluent splashing over the protagonists. Both movies pander to the expectations of the audience, offering no challenge, no insight, into what it is to be a human facing great odds.
Rust and Bone is closer to the artistic ideal of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where Julian Schnabel’s bold direction transformed the tale of one man’s locked-in syndrome into a moving, unsentimental sensory experience. While Audiard’s movie isn’t as formally daring as that, it’s a real movie nonetheless, gloriously shot by Stéphane Fontaine and well scored by SoC favourite Alexandre Desplat (Audiard also gets good use out of songs by Bon Iver and Katy Perry that work surprisingly well). Any cloying sentimentality is masked by Audiard’s focus on the grim reality of his characters’ lives. These people struggle and learn, but their climb is never played for easy uplift, almost seeming to be accidental. His light touch makes all the difference.
Cotillard and Schoenaerts deserve the rest of the praise, bravely playing their characters as abrasive losers from the first frame, risking audience rejection but winning us over with their slow growth. Cotillard in particular is stunning; her embrace of Schoenaert’s brutality and confidence is best exemplified in the scene in which he restarts his career as a boxer. Audiard contrasts her tranquil aquatic world with this vicious, bloody milieu; dirt and scars and wounds, depicted with the same expressive photography and editing used to show her other life. Stéphanie felt at home underwater, and when she loses that, Ali helps her rediscover that feeling of safety. She is transfixed as the man she has come to love becomes a beast, her understandable fear and trepidation mixed with a reawakening and new-found faith in her companion captured in just one epiphanic expression. Amazing.
So where The Sapphires and Nameless Gangster offer a slight variation on a familiar theme, Rust and Bone transcends expectations through Audiard’s muscular but sensitive direction, and two of the strongest performances of the year. This isn’t just a crowdpleaser with occasional sour notes; it’s a perfectly blended mix of seemingly immiscible elements which somehow come together to create something greater. So much genre stuff seems formulaic or worthless, but when something as intelligent and sensitive as Rust and Bone comes along, I’m helpless before it. Congratulations to Audiard, Cotillard and Schoenaerts for making such a memorable, moving experience, a feel-good movie with blood on its knuckles and steel in its spine. It deserves its success.