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It’s the weekend of Valentine’s Day, so what better than to suggest a little bit of unromantic counter-programming to watch?
Florence Pugh’s breakout film Lady Macbeth, a film about a young woman embroiled in a number of toxic relationships is worth your time on iPlayer.
However, if you *are* looking for romantic recommendations for the weekend – look no further than the sumptuous, achingly felt cinema of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, whose films like In The Mood for Love and Chungking Express are the gold standard for tales of heartache and romantic whimsy.
The one new original release of the week, Paul Greengrass’s News of the World, doesn’t quite fit either bill, but those looking for a solid western will likely be pleased by it.
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News of the World
Though the title carries (rightfully) negative connotations in the UK, News of the World is a story of the importance of sympathy and empathy and how information, even about those distant or foreign to you, is the most essential part of building functioning community. An adaptation of the novel of the same name, Paul Greengrass’s latest film follows war veteran turned newsreader Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks), who discovers a young girl, named Johanna (Helena Zengel) amidst a slaughtered group of Koiwa Native American people. Johanna is a young German immigrant who was adopted by those people, and so Kidd takes it upon himself to travel through hostile country to reunite Johanna with her surviving blood relatives. As he does so, a surrogate familial relationship of course forms between the two, despite the language barrier.
Through their journey Greengrass observes the unpleasantness of American settlement, absent of the aforementioned empathy as the director keeps the self-entitlement of its white denizens in full display, showing nothing but contempt for Black and indigenous people alike. It’s hardly groundbreaking for the genre nor for the filmmaker - many will recognise elements such as the grizzled older man with an unpleasant past and his younger, more innocent charge. But it’s a solid watch, for Hank’s typically gentle and steadfast performance and his chemistry with the excellent young actor Helena Zengel, here just 11 and showing incredible nuance.
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While the burgeoning father/daughter bond between the two is sweet, News of the World mostly operates at a comfortable plateau, with occasionally impressive vistas and entertaining turns from Hanks as he stands up to the various bullies of the American south. There is one major highlight – a tense, patient gunfight amongst a rocky outcrop as Kidd quietly runs out of bullets and has to cunningly devise a way out of it, Greengrass’s patented handheld, sometimes shaky camerawork is dialled back somewhat for the classic, wide vistas that one would expect of a western but perhaps not from the United 93 and Captain Phillips director.
Also on Netflix: To All the Boys, Always and Forever
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Firmly anti-Valentines material, William Oldroyd’s slippery 2016 film is imperfect and imprecise, but at the very least an excellent early showcase for the talents of Florence Pugh. Set in rural England in 1865, Pugh plays Katherine, a woman stuck in an embittered arranged marriage – her terse relationship with her husband leading to an affair with the servant Sebastian, and her growing wants leading to moral decline and contemptuousness.
It’s not so much a feminist story of liberation as it is one of selfishness. Oldroyd’s direction perhaps a little too opaque for its own good, alternating between ignorance and hyperaware of the racial dynamics between the characters, but Pugh is eminently watchable even as her character becomes more and more detestable.
Also on iPlayer: The Deer Hunter, Sliding Doors, Monsters University
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The World of Wong Kar-wai collection
Even across various genres there is an acute heartache at the core of Wong Kar-wai’s filmography. His characters long for something unattainable, whether it’s something in the past or right in front of their eyes, but still painfully beyond their grasp. Since his debut feature As Tears Go By in the late 80s the filmmaker has put his own melancholic stamp on the genre films that characterised his native Hong Kong scene, with works such as the exquisite Fallen Angels putting his own overtly romantic spin on the gangster movies of his peers like John Woo.
His major western breakout film Chungking Express – shot in just 23 days and champion by the likes of Quentin Tarantino – is more whimsical in its romantic expression, its story divided between two heartbroken men (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Wong’s muse, Tony Leung) and the romances that help them back on their feet. Happy Together, which also stars Leung, is more volatile but no less gorgeous, a mixture of vivid colour and sumptuous black and white visuals chronicling the fierce love and co-dependence between two men on holiday in Buenos Aires. His informal trilogy of Days of Being Wild, In The Mood For Love and 2046 is also tied together by heartbreak, the latter two films following Chow (Tony Leung again) and his brief encounter with Su Lizhen (a radiant Maggie Cheung), and its devastating fallout.
The visual appeal of Wong’s films, frequently shot by maestro cinematographer Christopher Doyle, is not to be understated - but there’s also something to be said of his soundtracks, all curations of vintage pop songs and traditional music that expertly communicate the feelings that characters might leave unspoken. That, and they’re often extremely catchy choices: expect to be humming California Dreamin’ for days after watching Chungking. Quite simply, some of the greatest cinema ever made.
Also on BFI Player: A Deal With The Universe, Weekend