Awards season often tends to benefit the newer, shinier end-of-year releases that are freshest in voters’ memories, but Celine Song’s lovely, low-key Past Lives appears to be quietly staying the course. Having premiered way back in January, hit cinemas in the summer and since become available to stream – with the DVD out last week for physical media loyalists – it is now routinely popping up on best-of-2023 lists, and scooped best feature at the Gotham awards in the US. Something sticks in the mind and heart about Song’s melancholic, gentle but emotionally acute tale of a rekindled relationship between a Korean-American immigrant and the childhood friend she left behind in Seoul. Anyone whose life has been split across countries can relate to its study of the split identities and frayed possibilities of immigrant existence.
It’s those infinitely complex internal tensions – at once universally recognisable and particular to each individual – atop external fish-out-of-water challenges that make the immigrant experience such a rich and recurring film subject. As early as 1917, English émigré Charlie Chaplin distilled all those dynamics in his 22-minute short The Immigrant (Internet Archive), playing his signature Little Tramp character’s calamitous voyage to, and overwhelmed arrival in, New York for maximum comedy and pathos. Nearly 100 years later, American director James Gray took the same title for a rather more solemn look at a European ingenue seeking a new life in the Big Apple, meeting with ugly exploitation and poisoned ardour. Gray’s The Immigrant (2013) plays as symphonically grand tragedy, but retains that old romantic mythos around the US as a place to make or remake yourself.
Fronted by the symbolically inviting figure of the Statue of Liberty – poignantly presented in Song’s film as a tourist trap still imbued with outsider meaning – New York remains the locus of so much immigrant cinema, the epitome of national and cultural convergence. It’s the climactic, seemingly impossible destination of Elia Kazan’s vast, achingly felt three-hour epic America, America (1963), a detailed account of a young Greek man’s struggle to secure a passage across the Atlantic, rooted in the director’s own family history and thus bullish on the ultimate rewards of immigration.
John Crowley and Nick Hornby’s elegant adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2015) is a little more conflicted, as represented by bright-eyed Irishwoman Saoirse Ronan’s romantic deliberations between two men: one in her old world, one in the new. In Joan Micklin Silver’s wonderful Hester Street (1975), meanwhile, a marriage has to end before Carol Kane’s meek eastern European Jewish immigrant can begin to assimilate in New York; her Americanisation overlaps with her liberation. Mira Nair’s sensitive, sharply observed The Namesake (2006) traces the divide between the offspring of Bengali immigrants in New York and their own US-born children: an age-old conflict, in which one generation’s pride becomes another’s shame.
In Marjane Satrapi’s gorgeous autobiographical animation Persepolis (2007), it’s Europe that provides refuge from the strains and insecurities of growing up amid the Iranian Revolution, but it’s not a one-way narrative. Satrapi’s alter ego spends the film caught between past and present, family and freedom, hopeful that she may one day return home for good. For Diouana, the young Senegalese protagonist of Ousmane Sembène’s devastating Black Girl (1966; Apple), France gradually closes off more opportunities than it opens: a final spiritual homecoming is too late.
One of the great London immigrant stories, Horace Ové’s crackling 1978 film Pressure (BFI Player) is now available to stream in the sharp restoration that got a cinema release earlier this year. Following a young Londoner caught between the head-down conformity of his God-fearing, West Indian-born parents and the restless rebellion of the black power movement, it’s a blistering portrait of everyday British racism, and the disorientation of not feeling at home in the place you were born. For a sunnier view of the London melting pot, turn to family favourite Paddington (2014). The Peruvian bear’s irresistible misadventures in the Big Smoke are accompanied by a running street chorus celebrating the city’s diversity and inclusivity, perhaps optimistically, viewed in an era of stop-the-boats politicking.
Also new on streaming
The Great Escaper
With Michael Caine having recently announced his imminent retirement and Glenda Jackson having died earlier this year, there’s an end-of-an-era poignancy to this jovial dramatisation of a minor 2014 news item – about spirited nursing home escapee Bernard Jordan – that rather outscales the modest ambitions of the film itself.
Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) takes a leaf from the Adam McKay school of brash current affairs satire in this quick, superficial but diverting account of the GameStop financial saga that briefly brought Wall Street to its knees. Its portrayal of ordinary American underdogs taking on the system is more idealistic than strictly realistic, notwithstanding its mock-doc flourishes.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
After 2008’s little-loved Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, returning to this once-galloping franchise seemed ill-advised. Sadly, James Mangold’s lumbering treasure hunt doesn’t beat the odds, lacking even Spielberg’s formal showmanship to counter an increasingly loopy script.
All titles available to rent on multiple platforms unless specified.