Cannes 2019

Cannes 2019, Day 6: Sisterhoods shine a light in bleak tales from China and Algeria

China’s Diao Yinan takes film noir to a new level of darkness with his fugitive thriller “The Wild Goose Lake”, while Algeria’s Mounia Meddour brings a timely tale of female defiance and resilience in her Cannes debut “Papicha”.

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival | A still from Mounia Meddour's "Papicha"

You hear them all the time, at every new edition of the world’s most glamorous film festival: the prophetic warnings of Cannes’ impending doom. The stars are gone, the champagne has dried up, Netflix has triumphed and it just won’t stop raining. One doesn’t even queue for the toilets any more, surely it’s a sign? Even the brazen jewel heists have vanished, replaced by rather less cinematic umbrella thefts.

In fairness, you can’t fault festival organisers with not trying. Cannes 2019 has already served up more Hollywood star power than many past editions, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt yet to come. We’ve got a thrilling mix of Palme d’Or laureates and fresh new talent, along with icons of music and sport. Sunday alone sees Terrence Malick enter the contest, Alain Delon pick up a career Palme d’Or, and football legend Diego Maradona hit the red carpet. What more to the people want?

There’s an Argentina football jersey (though not Maradona’s) in Diao Yinan’s competition entry “The Wild Goose Lake”, along with buckets of rain and umbrellas aplenty – including one used to gruesome ends in the gorily mischievous manner of Chinese film noir. In fact, it always seems to rain in Chinese movies at Cannes, the relentless downpour underscoring the bleakness of plot and scenery. It was the case last year with “Ash is Purest White”, Jia Zhangke’s latest meditation on the country’s brutal transition to capitalism, and a deeply moving tale of disappointed love and female resilience. This time Yinan takes the bleakness to a whole new level, painting an even more somber portrait of his country than in his Berlin Golden Bear winner “Black Coal, Thin Ice”.

Set in China’s provincial crime underworld, “The Wild Goose Lake” has many of the hallmarks of a classic fugitive thriller, with a runaway gangster, a hooker caught up in his flight, a policeman hunting him down, and a host of other mobsters who’d like to catch him first. It sounds like a familiar plot, but Yinan has made his scenario as impervious as the dimly lit maze of alleyways, sweatshops and cramped housing blocks where the action unfolds (risk a five-minute power nap and you’ll be playing catch-up for the rest of the film).

This is not a film for inventive narrative, character development or dialogue. Atmosphere is the true character, and Yinan applies his creativity to absorbing set pieces and breathtaking action scenes. Beautifully shot, “The Wild Goose Lake” shines a seedy neon light on a world of organized crime, prostitution and grisly violence (featuring rape, decapitation, impalement, you name it), one where police are hell-bent on avenging their losses, with precious little regard for civilians caught in the crossfire.

There isn’t a pretty building, a speck of blue sky, a fleeting moment of romance and tenderness in the whole movie. Its only instance of physical contact that isn’t a fist-up features one of the most unsentimental and unpolished oral-sex scenes you’ll ever see on the big screen. And yet “The Wild Goose Lake” offers one redeeming factor: amid all the grimness, there is a glimmer of female solidarity, shrewdness and resilience that suggests a path out of the pitch-black darkness.

There was a more obvious sisterhood of resistance in Mounia Meddour’s debut feature “Papicha”, about a group of female university students striving to live, love and learn in the Black Years of Algeria’s 1990s civil war. Screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar fare, it stars Algerian-born French actress Lyna Khoudri as the feisty Nedjma, a young woman with a passion for fashion who struggles to pursue her dream amid rising fundamentalism and oppression.

Inspired by real events, Meddour’s film gives viewers little historical context about the gruesome conflict raging at the time (and pitting a government with dubious democratic credentials against an array of jihadist militant groups). But it poignantly conveys the predicament of youths faced with a stark choice between leaving their home country and battling it out against overwhelming odds. “Algeria is one big waiting room,” says one of Nedjma’s friends. Everyone is waiting for something: a job, a visa, a safe haven. Understandably, most want to get out, but that is out of the question for the protagonist. Nedjma refuses to flee the country she loves, even as she rages against the dying of the light.

Rich in colour and texture, and powered by witty, fast-talking dialogue, “Papicha” is strongest in its portrayal of female friendship and defiance. There is a clever play on how clothes can be used both as instruments of constraint and resistance, harking right back to Algeria’s war of independence from France. It’s a shame the plot loses its focus midway through the film, eventually overplaying the drama and undercutting its credibility. Still, this is a refreshing, earnest and ever so timely work. It comes at a critical stage in the country’s history as Algerian youths – with women at the forefront – battle to save their revolution and avert a return to a dark and not so distant past.

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