Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Where’s it on? Blu-ray
Flowers of Shanghai begins with one of the great opening shots. A slow fade in to a tea-drinking scene aglow with the gold light from candles and a gas lamp. We’re in a ‘flower house’ in Qing dynasty Shanghai, where male guests are being entertained at table by a courtesan known as Pearl. In an unbroken 10-minute take, Pin Bing Lee’s camera drifts this way and that across the table to follow the conversation and introduce us to the house’s patrons. The slow sideways back and forth from the camera is hypnotic. Unseen observers, we feel supernaturally suspended in mid-air above the table cloth. It’s a suitably woozy introduction to the opium-filled ambience of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s luminous film, which introduces us to five such courtesans and their life of service in China’s 19th-century pleasure quarters. The major 1980s and 90s films of this Taiwanese master filmmaker aren’t easy to see, so let’s hope this glittering Criterion edition is a sign of more to come.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Where’s it on? BBC2, Saturday, 11am
A stylistic ancestor of Hou, Max Ophuls is the patron saint of lengthy, unbroken camera movements. Never merely flashy, his extended travelling shots come freighted with emotion and irony. Letter from an Unknown Woman, which is getting a tempting Saturday morning slot on BBC2, is one of the precious handful of films that the German director made in Hollywood. This one’s set in old Vienna, where Ophuls was a theatre director back in the 1920s. Joan Fontaine stars as the tremulous teenager who develops a crush on her neighbour – Louis Jourdan’s dashing concert pianist, Stefan Brand. They will have an affair, but years later Stefan can scarcely remember her – though the impact he’s had on her life proves ruinous. A heartbreaking tale of misplaced love, Letter from an Unknown Woman is based on a novel by Stefan Zweig and comes steeped in opulent, turn-of-the-century Viennese atmosphere – albeit recreated in Hollywood.
It Must Be Heaven (2019)
Where’s it on? Cinemas nationwide and digital platforms, including BFI Player
They don’t come along very often, but a new film by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman is always worth making a date for. It Must Be Heaven is his fourth feature and his first since 2009’s The Time That Remains. You never get far into any writing on Suleiman without finding comparisons to Buster Keaton and/or Jacques Tati. This is not just for his own bemused on-screen presence and the way his character always seems to be the calm on the precipice of chaos, but for the manner in which his films rearrange his environment into a succession of choreographed comic moments. In It Must Be Heaven, he’s playing himself, a lauded international director travelling to Paris and New York to talk to producers about his new project, his identity as a Palestinian always following him around like a shadow. A fish out of water, he wanders the streets or observes from a pavement café, espresso in hand, as surreal scenes of contemporary life emerge around him.
Kansas City (1996)
Where’s it on? BFI Player
Part of Robert Altman’s 1990s comeback, but made directly after the catwalk wobble of Prêt-a-Porter (1994), Kansas City is a tale of jazz, kidnapping and gangsters set in the eponymous Missouri city during the 1930s. It’s his second musical city movie, but where Nashville (1975) is shot through with cynicism about the country music capital, Kansas City is dyed with affection. This was Altman’s own hometown and the film takes place in 1934, when the director would have been an impressionable nine-year-old. The plot is some complicated business in which Jennifer Jason Leigh’s hard-nosed Blondie O’Hara kidnaps a politician’s wife in order to bribe said politician (Michael Murphy, who often plays Altman’s politicians) to help free her husband from the clutches of ruthless (and exquisitely monikered) gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). What makes Kansas City swing, however, are the many downtime moments of nightclub bands playing the music that made the city a cradle of jazz in those smoky days.
The Reason I Jump (2020)
Where’s it on? Cinemas nationwide
British documentary maker Jerry Rothwell has previously made waves with Deep Water (2006) – his enthralling account of Donald Crowhurst’s infamous round-the-world yacht race of 1968, co-directed by Louise Osmond – and the Greenpeace origins story How to Change the World (2015). His latest is more of an interior voyage, using exceptionally vivid sound design and visuals to explore the sensory life of five young people with non-verbal autism. It’s centred around a bestselling book of the same name by Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida that’s been lauded since publication for its remarkable insights into autistic perception – though many have disputed that Higashida could have written it himself. Rothwell’s film joins young people from locations including the UK, India and Sierra Leone, exploring – and attempting to find a cinematic analogue for – the way in which people with non-verbal autism experience and contextualise their emotions and surroundings. It’s a thoughtful, empathetically made film.