Black Milk (Schwarze Milch, Uisenma Borchu, 2020)

“She doesn’t offend on purpose, she doesn’t know the custom.” an awkward friend of the heroine of Uisenma Borchu’s Black Milk (Schwarze Milch) offers in her defence. “Then she doesn’t belong with us” comes the rather cold reply. Borchu’s semi-autobiographical drama, the director herself left Mongolia at the age of four and was raised in Germany, on one level explores a sense of cultural dislocation and yearning for wholeness but also uncovers the persistent othering of the female existence as the pair of estranged sisters struggle with their awkward bond and conflicting visions of womanhood only to find themselves finally united if in despair and heartbreak. 

Wessi (Uisenma Borchu) is perhaps so estranged from the culture of her birth that her German husband (Franz Rogowski), seemingly abusive, remarks that he’s not even sure her sister really exists and wishes she would “forget about Mongolia” angrily shutting off a record of a retro Mongolian hit. He tells her that she cannot leave, that she is a coward, and that in the end she belongs to him. Leave she does, however, returning to the Steppe apparently in search of something though it is not clear exactly what. In any case though her sister accepts her warmly the hospitality may in a sense be superficial of the kind on which the nomad way of life depends. As Ossi (Gunsmaa Tsogzol) later remarks, it’s bad luck to bar the door. 

Many things are bad luck for Ossi, chief among them harming animals as she explains to Wessi revealing that from time to time snakes do indeed slither inside the yurt. Nevertheless, she earns her living through farming, and despite the tenderness with which she treats a sheep wounded by a wolf, part of her survival depends on harming them. As we eventually witness the traditional methods of slaughter are quite literally visceral if less bloody than expected. Ossi gingerly rescues a fly drowning in her milk, yet in contrast city-raised Wessi appears much less sentimental about the concept of life and death or the natural confluence between the two. 

In this she is perhaps much more masculine than her sister, continually resentful of the overt patriarchy of the nomadic world which tells Ossi it is improper for a woman to tend to the slaughter and she must wait for her husband’s return. Yet Ossi resents her for her urban airs and graces, continuing to behave as a guest barely helping out, dressing in her Western fashions and even pausing in front of a mirror to ask which shade of lipstick suits her best in a clear indication of their differing views of idealised femininity. She rejects her tendency to superiority, claiming an agency that Wessi perhaps is still in search of in insisting that she doesn’t need her, or anyone else, to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do among her own people. 

Likewise, Wessi found herself crushed by a husband who appeared to be cruel and possessive while openly challenging Ossi’s apparently “lonely” marriage to a feckless man who spends his time drinking with other men leaving all the work to her. This may be, in a sense, a dereliction of duty in unwisely leaving his wife alone on the Steppe vulnerable to ill-intentioned passersby while obliged to offer them hospitality full in the knowledge they may take advantage of it. “I’ll kill you if you make trouble and don’t obey” just such an intruder later sneers having thrown Ossi out of her own home to attempt to assault her sister. Wessie meanwhile adopts the attitude of a woman possessed, spinning him a tale of terror pregnant with symbolism as she insists that her breasts run black with milk as if he’d pay for his misuse of her. Yet there’s something in her self-possessed control of her sexuality that alarms her sister, a dangerous transgression in a society defined by male power. 

As the film opens we see Wessi roughly taken by her boorish husband, facedown and impassive while he mounts her from behind ironically mirroring the actions of a rejected stallion among Ossi’s herd. Comparatively less inhibited, she makes no secret of her unfulfilled desire sharing her fantasies with her sometimes scandalised sister though her attraction to an older man Ossi describes as a “freak” and a loner eventually provokes a challenge to the social order, the potentiality of the relationship somehow a taboo even as he becomes a source of masculine strength otherwise turned to by women letdown by their own menfolk. Yet despite their differences the sisters eventually find solace in one another, the pregnant Ossi wrapping her blanket around them both as they look out alone at the desolate terrain, united in shared despair and the knowledge that mutual solidarity is perhaps all they have. 

Black Milk screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Kit Hung, 2009)

Soundless Wind Chime posterTwo transients find love in the crowded streets of Hong Kong, only to lose it again and long for its return. Deliberately obscure, Kit Hung’s debut Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Wúshēng Fēng Líng) is an elegy for lost love, a poetic meditation on the power of memory and a treatise on the art of letting go. Though the lovers manage to construct a world for themselves shielded from the external chaos, its shell gradually fractures under the pressure of real world concerns until tragedy finally intervenes and shatters it forever.

Ricky (Lu Yulai), a mainlander recently arrived in Hong Kong, lives with an aunt (Wella Zhang) who makes a living through prostitution, while he makes ends meet as a delivery boy at neighbourhood eatery. One day, he pauses on the job to watch a foreign juggler (Hannes Lindenblatt) at which point his wallet is stolen by a foreign pickpocket who we later learn to be a German speaking Swiss man named Pascal (Bernhard Bulling). Pascal is currently in an abusive relationship with the juggler whose act is a set up to attract a crowd so that Pascal can rob the captivated spectators. After being beaten up and then brutally raped by his boyfriend, Pascal ups and leaves, eking out a living through juggling on the streets. Arriving at Ricky’s restaurant, he gives him his wallet (and ID card) back and the two strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, living together first at Ricky’s aunt’s and then getting their own place where they can truly be themselves.

To begin with the relationship is a rather happy and open one. Though Ricky decides to leave his aunt’s place immediately after she figures out that he is gay and in a relationship with Pascal, she does not disapprove of his sexuality and only stops to warn him not to invite his ailing mother to Hong Kong because she doesn’t know what the fallout will be from realising her sister is a prostitute and her son is gay all at the same time. Likewise, the lively ladies at the restaurant all seem fairly accepting (or perhaps just oblivious) of Ricky’s relationship with Pascal, impressed by his juggling skill and including him in their after hours mahjong games. The young couple do however have their differences, notably in Pascal’s self destructive streak which sends him back into Hong Kong’s gay nightlife scene while Ricky would rather just spend time home alone together.

The disjointed, non-linear narrative opens in the middle with Ricky making his way to Switzerland in search of Pascal, in a spiritual more than literal sense. Whilst there he runs into another man, Ueli, who looks exactly like Pascal even if he is nothing like him in spirit. The film’s title is inspired by the Chinese belief that a soul lingers after it leaves the body, attaching itself to an animal in order to stay longer and make its last goodbyes. Traditionally, a wind chime is though to reveal the presence of spirits, and it is this Ricky has come looking for as the wind chime outside Ueli’s antique shop gleefully trembles as if it were pleased to see him.

Ricky’s memories spiral away from him as snow covered Switzerland echoes sunny Hong Kong, each thought and action recalling some part of his life with Pascal while he grows closer to the wounded, grieving Ueli whom he believes, on some level, to be Pascal returned to him in another form. Later, Hung shifts the action to the Mainland where Ricky has returned to look after his dying mother, working as a taxi driver to make ends meet. Unable to find Pascal, uncertain whether his soul has flown to Hong Kong where they made their home or the place where he was born, Ricky has himself returned to source and prompted Ueli to make his journey in reverse, bringing him news of Pascal but also perhaps promising an end rather than a beginning.

Hung wears his influences on his sleeves – his style owes much to Wong Kai-Wai but more particularly to Tsai Ming-Liang as his frequent forays into surrealistic musical interludes make plain. Yet his narrative is confused and overly impressionistic, withholding essential pieces of information which would make sense of the more obscure elements such as the lost luggage receipt Ricky takes with him to Switzerland and the contents of the bag he ultimately obtains. Deeply melancholic and filled with a wistful sense of longing – the soundless wind chime of the title lying silent yet attentive, Hung’s dreamlike debut is a strangely affecting exploration of grief and transience as his hero learns how to live after love, abandoning his pain to realms of nostalgia and rediscovering the peaceful emptiness of ordinary silence.

Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)

phoenixIn late June of 1945, one woman is escorting another through a US checkpoint in Berlin. The young American soldier is somewhat cocky and feigns an officious sort of suspicion that causes him to demand the bandaged woman reveal her face – just to be sure. The obvious agony she feels just beginning to unwind the various layers which hide her identity is enough to convince him that he’s made a cruel mistake and he lets the pair pass.

Finally Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) delivers the wounded Nelly (Nina Hoss) to a specialist hospital. A survivor of Auschwitz, Nelly was at some point shot in the head and left for dead. Though she miraculously survived, her face is ruined – missing nose, shattered cheekbones etc. She will need extensive reconstructive surgery. “Who would you like to be?” her doctor asks her, but Nelly only wants to be herself – exactly as she was. The doctor advises against it – it can never be exactly the same and the uncanniness is something not everyone can get over plus it can be an advantage to be given the opportunity to start all over again with a new face, a new identity newly shed of all the scars of a traumatic past. Nelly, however, is insistent.

Returning to the city with Lene, she learns that her entire family and many of their mutual friends have been killed though others turned out to have been nazi sympathisers. Nelly repeatedly asks about her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but Lene is reluctant to talk about him. Roaming the streets alone at night she tracks him down to a seedy cabaret club, Pheonix, in the American sector where he now clears tables rather than playing the piano. When she calls him by his former name he barely reacts and fails to recognise her. Later he tracks Nelly down and makes her a very odd proposition – pretend to be his deceased wife to claim the inheritance then split the proceeds.

“I no longer exist” exclaims Nelly at one point. Robbed of everything apart from her breath, Nelly has been erased and replaced by something with no clear history. She wants to go back, to reclaim the life she led before exactly how it was but her home no longer exists – her city is in rubble, most of her friends are dead and the husband that she’s made the anchor of her survival may have been the very one who betrayed her.

Meeting Johnny (now “Johannes”) again and moving into his back room she studies for the role of a lifetime – once again inhabiting her former self, stepping into the shoes of a soulless ghost. Nelly pleads with him silently to remember – recall her from the abyss, recognise her living form as the woman who was taken away in October 1944. Johnny, however, cannot bear to think about the past. He’s convinced himself his wife is dead and is only interested in claiming her money to make a new life in the post-war world. No matter how the coincidences mount up as “Esther” not only looks like “Nelly” but also has her handwriting, voice and movement, Johnny refuses to recognise her or acknowledge their shared tragedy.

Operating like an inverted Vertigo, Phoenix is an extremely rich character drama which not only deals with one woman rebuilding herself from the ashes but also with her nation’s sense of guilt as it resolutely refuses to look the victims of its crime in the eye. Nelly needs to remember and have her existence acknowledged in order to reclaim her identity, but Johnny cannot bear to look, his guilt is so great that it would shatter his sense of self irrevocably. They dance around each other caught between past and future but both trapped, their passage blocked by the symbolic checkpoints that exist all around them in their now ruined city.

Just as the doctor told her, it can never be exactly the same. At the end of the film, Nelly’s transformation is complete, her selfhood restored though somehow different from before. Lene wanted to run away to Palestine, create a new world for her people free from fear and persecution, Johnny wanted to forget and Nelly needed to remember (and be remembered) in order to become herself again but in the end nobody gets quite what they wanted. Only Nelly by meeting her former self head on is able to evolve, finally pulling away from us, out of focus.

Petzold serves us ghosts of several varieties including those of our cinematic pasts by imbuing his melodrama with the gloomy allure of the film noir mixed with the uncomfortable psychology of the Hitchcockian thriller and the uncanny horror of Eyes Without a Face. Probing questions of identity which extend from the individual to the national it asks us to consider a post-war world of guilt and recrimination in which everyone is engaged in rebuilding an idea of selfhood which can take account of wounds suffered or inflicted. Difficult and complex yet beautiful too, Phoenix is anchored by the extremely accomplished performance of its star Nina Hoss and proves a hauntingly melancholy exploration of all it means to be alive.

Phoenix is currently available in the UK on blu-ray, DVD and VOD courtesy of SODA Pictures and is available in the US as part of the Criterion Collection.