Film

May the Force be with these films facing Star Wars at the box office

Look at the size of that thing! Saluting the plucky young rebel filmmakers daring to go up against the might of The Last Jedi on its week of release

This week sees an unassuming little science-fiction film called The Last Jedi open in cinemas. I’d like to tell you more but the distributors aren’t screening it in time for our deadline. I can’t blame them. I liked the last Star Wars film quite a bit, and this new one looks pretty good too, but, really, they are Death Stars of cinema releases; vast, planet-sized pieces of machinery issuing scorched-earth marketing campaigns from which other distributors shrink in terror.

Still, a few brave films are venturing out this week and in deference to their spirit of intrepid enterprise against the all-conquering behemoth we’re providing a rundown of the assembled competition.

Sounding an affectionate (and given the circumstances, appropriate) tribute to indefatigably independent filmmaking is the French documentary The Prince of Nothingwood. It’s a portrait of Salim Shaheen, a dizzyingly prolific Afghan filmmaker making his 111th feature despite the hardships and threat of violence that blight his homeland. About the quality of his output I remain sceptical, but Shaheen is a force of nature, and a true cinematic maverick, and the documentary is a hoot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvTkI8L4tgQ

Another form of risk-taking is celebrated by Mountain. From the makers of Sherpa, this visually breathtaking documentary features vertigo-inducing shots of climbers scaling various high-altitude summits, accompanied by a soaring orchestral score. Willem Dafoe provides a gravelly voiced rumination of the instinct that compels mountaineers to risk their lives in search of new peaks. From the looks of some of the footage, I wondered if it’s a form of madness?

A more subdued affair: Song of Granite, from the very fine Irish filmmaker Pat Collins. This is a biopic of the Irish folk singer Joe Heaney, that tells the story of his life from his youth in rural pre-war Galway to exile in the UK and America in haunting fragments, filmed in ravishing black and white. An elliptic, bracingly experimental feature told mostly in Gaelic, it is Ireland’s nomination to the Best Foreign Language category in next year’s Oscars.

A similar slow-burner is Mountains May Depart, the new film from Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Centred on a woman called Tao (a breathtaking performance by Zhao Tao), this remarkable drama spans 25 years of change in China.

It begins in 1999, on the eve of the millennial celebrations in the city of Fenyang. Then a young woman, Tao is introduced leading an exercise class to the Pet Shop Boys’ anthem Go West (a title that playfully evokes the direction of travel of China’s economic policies). Bubbling with youthful enthusiasm (convincingly conveyed by the actress, older than her character at this point), Tao’s two male friends Zhang (Zhang Yi) and Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong) are falling in love with her.

The film is split into three episodes. In 1999 we see a love triangle form between Tao, Zhang and Liangzi. A brash young entrepreneur with a taste for German cars, Zhang is emblematic of the capitalist fervour taking hold of society. Against her better judgment Tao marries him, attaching her fortunes to winds of change that she doesn’t entirely trust.

Against the slick and precision-tooled spectacle of Jedi, my money’s on the deeply felt artistry of this terrific Chinese film

Over the next two episodes, returning to Fenyang in 2014, then jumping forward to Australia of 2025, the film sees its characters endure divorce, bereavement, rocketing wealth and generational strife. This is a magnificent film, delicately observed and acutely alert to the impact of economic development on its characters’ lives.

Concerned as much with the emotional costs as the material benefits of progress, it poignantly explores the consolations and distresses of growing up and growing old; hanging over events is an atmosphere of regret. Comparisons like these are invidious, but hey, here I go! Against the slick and precision-tooled spectacle of Jedi, my money’s on the deeply felt artistry of this terrific Chinese film.

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