The Farewell

Of all the films featuring an old woman that I have seen and written about none has coincided with my experiences as much as this film.
I saw it in my local cinema on a Saturday at 18h with only a handful of other viewers.

In my 84th years, grand-mother and great-grandmother, after years of fitting in the English way of life, raising a family and working for the National Health, this film awakened in me the feeling of being in exile.

There was no feeling of identification with the characters but rather a recognition at different levels:
I need to wait for the dvd release before I can study the film in detail but I will pick up the main themes that struck me.

1- the tradition of the family not to inform a sick member of the seriousness of their illness. In my experience, this was the rule and in consultations doctors always managed to send the patient out of the room to talk to the relative.

2- the sister looking after her older sister. My aunt came all the way from Argentina to look after her older brother (my father ) who suffered from Alzheimer.

3- the cultural and language gulf between the families and second generation who emigrated from China to the USA or Japan. In my case the emigration was from Lebanon to France, England, New Zealand and the USA.

This film explores with depth and humour, exile, ageing, family, customs and the important grandmother/grandaughter relationship.

It has a wonderful detached way of examining the state of dissemination of the family without sentimentality.

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Still Walking (2008) 

As with some family reunions, my second viewing of Still Walking was quite painful. I saw it at home with a cousin with whom I had shared family reunions in my youth. Her general comment was: there is a certain coldness between parents and children and between the old couple themselves,  but maybe that’s what it is like in Japanese families. 

When I saw Still Walking at the NFT I was overwhelmed by the familiarity of the atmosphere of a family gathering. I loved the mother and daughter talking cooking together and gossiping, with the mother’s familiar repeated recollections, the father’s grumpiness and detachment, the children running all over the place. I appreciated the efforts of the daughter to avoid conflicts and her interest in moving in with her parents ‘to look after them’ and of the son-in-law trying to ingratiate himself but forgetting to do what he promised. I recognised the new daughter-in-law and her child trying hard but failing to fit in. I somehow  did not completely appreciate the unresolved grief of the loss of the elder son that the reunion was commemorating. 

The story of the death of the elder child while saving a friend,  the bitterness of the father, the revenge of the mother against the rescued man was a surprise. At the Q and A session with Kore Eda this subject was not raised but he mentioned the fact that for the dialogue he only used actual sentences that were used by the cast.

On second viewing I found the portrayal of the grieving old couple quite unacceptable, and dare I say, ageist. I found their resentful attitude and even nastiness towards the rescued man, depicted as an inadequate figure of fun, exaggerated. They both express openly and viciously their hatred. In fact the old couple appear in the whole film as selfish and unpleasant… 

The couple express openly throughout the film prejudices on marriage, work ethic and careers. 

What may have escaped me is the class and generational elements of the families interactions. The parents are well off and the father is very proud of his status as a doctor. He is treated with respect by his neighbours. The mother sticks with her traditional ideas about families, choice of a partner and when to have children. There is a certain distance between the couple.  (The grandmother does not hesitate to recall her husband’s affair in front of everybody.)

The daughter and her  family appear as secondary in the story. She tries to smooth out the conflicts in conversation. Her keenness to move in with her parents reveals a financial need. This is reinforced by the characterisation of the son-in-law as ineffectual. He is asked to do the menial job of mending some tiles in the bathroom but forgets to do so. 

It is when the sister and family leave that the father and mother open up and reveal the cruelty of their yearly invitation. The mother even expresses the wish to carry on punishing the rescued unfortunate man. Having shown no interest in his grandchildren, the father shows some hope in the adopted son when the child shows curiosity in the array of  medicines lining the office of the retired doctor. 

The surviving son, Ryota, his wife and adopted child   represent the new generation. Ryota a jobless art restorer feels strongly the disapproval of his father, in particular because he is unemployed at the moment. But he has the decency of criticising his father for the language he uses to describe the low class survivor. 

The gift of a Kimono by the mother to her daughter-in-law seems to soften her character but her immediate advice that it would be better if she did not have another child…. somehow does not.     

Although the goodbyes feel warm enough,  the young couple decide not to spend the night again in the family home. 

The last shots show Ryota, wife, young boy and younger daughter tending the family grave.  

I find it strange that no commentaries are made in the reviews on the representation of the grieving old couple in this film. The Q and A session with Kore Eda did not mention the traditional relationships and ways of behaving between parents and children in Japanese customs. Neither does the film offer any way to sympathise with the grieving grandparents. 

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POETRY (2010) -2-

Recently, a friend recommended Lucy Bolton’s chapter The Intertextual Stardom of Iris: Winslet, Dench, Murdoch, and Alzheimer’s Disease,Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures (2015).  This took me years back before I started my blog. Coming back to the film, I posted on August 24th 2011 : Iris and Cultural Ageism.

As an exercise, I asked myself what I remembered of the films with a dementia theme. From Iris the image of young Iris careering down a street on a bicycle was prominent. 

But from Away From Her 2016, it was a thought rather than an image that persisted. Knowing little about Dementias at the time I found it extraordinary that the newly diagnosed protagonist, was capable of foreseeing her future and insisted on being in control of it. 

I had been working on and off on Poetry (2010) and found it extremely difficult to follow the thread of the film’s narrative. I was overwhelmed by the youth gang rape, the school girl suicide, the fathers of the rapists and the collusion the school head in hiding the crime, and the grandmother’s efforts to contribute to the compensation. 

 I collapsed in unconsciousness and admitted to hospital with pneumonia. That night I had an extraordinary dream. I was viewing Poetry, in full colour and two parts. Part one was Mija in early dementia pursuing her needs and recollecting her youth, the gang rape, the cover up.  Part two was Mija’s confirmed Alzheimer’s diagnosis and her determination to fulfil her duties before committing suicide.  In my delirium a sentence kept appearing: you will only understand the film if you consider it as the story of an independent 66 year old woman recently diagnosed with Azlheimer’s. 

And indeed now recovered, I see Mija’s story as the story of a 66 years old woman, diagnosed as suffering from  Alzheimer disease.

I will not analyse scene by scene and sequence by sequence but will give an overall account of details that made sense to me.  

In the first half of the film we get to know Mija.  She is fiercely independent. She looks after her teenager grandson to help her divorced daughter who lives away. He is un unpleasant youth involved in the group rape of a school girl. She works as a carer/cleaner for a man disfigured by a stroke. Mija does not divulge to her daughter that she has been referred to Seoul to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimers. She does not divulge to her daughter the involvement of her son Wook in the gang rape and the following suicide of the school girl. She insists on being admitted to the poetry class because she was ‘good at poetry in her youth’. We see her rummage in her bag to look for her purse that she holds in her hand and find it difficult to find the last word of sentences. She steals the photo of Agnes the school girl at the funeral service.  She visits  the school and peeps into the lab where the rapes took place.  

 At  around 1hour we and Mija have the definite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. We have seen her rummage in her bag to look for her purse that she holds in her hand and find it difficult to find the last word of a sentence. But in the next sequences we have now two modes of Mija’s behaviour. On the one hand she escapes into the beautiful poetic world and on the other she has to confront the practicalities of dealing with the responsibilities of her grandson’s crime. 

Thus while waiting for one of the fathers of the  young rapists to ask him for a loan to pay for her part of compensation she sings;

 Time passes and flowers fade

Wet lipstick on the wine glass

With my yearning for you

 Ive been grabbing onto the rope I had to release 

but now is the time to let go. 

you may have forgotten

my name by now

But I crudely raise 

A wine glass again because of you 

Now I wanna take off my dress of attachment 

And drink a glass of oblivion

During the poetry session while women speak of their experiences and feelings as adults, she reverts to her very early childhood. A trip to the countryside leads her to a main road, a bridge and the wide river. She considers the depth of the river, looks at her hat fall down into it and as the raindrops fall onto her poetry booklet she gets back all wet onto the bus and returns to her disabled employer. 

The following sequence where she gives him a viagra tablet and carries out a full sexual act is the source of many disagreements amongst people I know. Personally I choose to think that having contemplated death she decides to repair her unkind outburst at his earlier request. 

She next is persuaded by the fathers of the rapists and the school director to influence “woman to woman”  the mother of the young victim into accepting the compensation. She travels to her village. But on the way she gets distracted by nature, the birdsong and the ripe apricots falling on the ground. She converse with the mother and does not approach the subject of compensation. 

  the apricot throws itself to the ground

it is crushed and trampled for its next life 

blessed to walk in such beauty 

As she leaves the mother we see her realise that she did not do what she was supposed to do.  

The next sequence is a poetry conference.The policeman who declaimed rather rude poems in class is defended by one of the women who says that he is a good policeman and fights against corruption. 

Finally she breaks down under the stress of her two worlds. She sits down on the ground outside the hall and sobs The policeman: Why are you crying big sister, is something wrong? is it about poetry because you can’t write any? He sits next to her. 

This is another example of cuts where the viewer is left to interpret. Cut to her untidy flat. She puts the photo of the young school girl on the table and looks at her.

She prepares the meal. Wook sits at the table and looks at the picture. Give me something to eat I am hungry. He turns the tele on. She is on the balcony looking at the children playing. This time Wook appears as a young child happy playing with the children. This is probably the time of her decision. (Children playing at the bottom of Mija’s flat is a recurring image) .

She goes to tell the fathers that she has not got the money but she is pressurised by the men and the presence of the the mother. 

Next sequence is a family scene of the disabled man and a her demand for money. 

Please give me five million won. I beg you don’t ask why. Why should I give you money without a reason? Is this blackmail? 

it does not matter what you think. I won’t make any excuses. 

Again this is a scene where interpretations by viewers differ about Mija’s intentions. Personally I do not think that she was blackmailing him. She saw this as her duty to pay her due. 

The next sequences are the most subtle and heartbreaking. Mija grabs her grandson from the playing arcade, takes him for a meal, suggests he should have his hair cut, cuts and cleans his toe nails, comments on the way he washes, “you should always keep your body clean.” Cut to Mija and Wook playing badminton at the bottom of the flats. A car stops and the policeman looks at the game, suggests how to play while his aid guides Wook to the car and drives away. The game carries on between Mija and the policeman. 

At the table Mija writes. Cut to the poetry class where the teacher reads the poem Agnes Song sent by Mija.  

 Cut to Mija’s daughter entering the neat empty flat.  

At the Poetry class, the poem Agnes Song is read first with the images of children playing, then a travelling shot  of Agnes walking to school, and Mija’s voice slowly replaced by the young schoolgirl’s voice. It is time to say goodbye …. and slowly  Agnes turns round and looks into the camera. 

I am fascinated by the way this film portrays an older woman subjected to the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. On a background of social corruption and male power she appears in control and decides to take a major decision. Her end is not obviously exposed but it is left for the viewer to imagine.

Finally I found the balance between escape into poetry and need to confront reality a very interesting view of the beginnings of Alzheimer disease. 


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POETRY (2010)

POETRY (2010)

How did I miss this great film featuring a 66 years old grandmother? Directed by Lee Chang-dong,  it won the 2010 Cannes Best Screenplay Award and many more. 

I discovered it recently while searching for films that have mentions of dementia.  Available on DVD with Italian subtitles, I found it with English subtitles on YOU TUBE and viewed it more than once. 

It is the sort of film like “Eternity and a Day”  that defies the usual expression: “this film is about” in reviews that so often misrepresent films. It is a film  that uses all the capacities of film making from the script to the screen. 

A film that marries language and images, it is a rare film that explores all aspects of the life on an old woman. It suggests rather than declares and leaves the viewer space for thought and maybe interpretation. 

 It deserves a full analysis. I have no extended spare time to engage in this exercise at the moment. I would like however to note how male dominated is the background of the life of this old woman and how resilient she proves to be.  

I would appreciate any information on writing in English or French about this film that my readers can refer to me.

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My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010) take 2

Brent U3A film group session. We were 5 women and 2 men.  

None of the group attending had seen the film when I showed it in 2011.

In my post  then I concentrated on the representation of the old woman and the ageist/sexist attitude of critics, in particular Bradshaw in the Guardian. 

This new group led by another member of the Brent U3A concentrates on old age generally.

 5 women and two men attended the session.  They all liked the film and an interesting discussion ensued. I realised then how child neglect and mother inadequacy, violence, alcoholism, grief, lover betrayal, ageing physical decline mix with good will and love in the two main characters. The realism of the rural cafe, and the lives of its staff and clients, was convincing. As in life feel good episodes tempered the hardness of the back story. I enjoyed the two representations of retirement homes. I did not find the film contrived, full of cliches as some reviewers maintained. Casadesus aged 97 and Depardieu give a great performance.

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This is an aide-memoir about Kore-eda wonderful film. I have to wait until a DVD is made available so I can relish again with more focus on the old married couple and their mixed feelings about their children and family visit . In the meantime Trevor Johnston – Sight and Sound February 2010.

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HANNAH (2018)

I missed seeing Hannah (2018) on the big screen. This film co-funded by Euroimages of the Council of Europe did not get a wide distribution in London but a friend alerted me.  She recommended the most depressing film about an old  woman she had ever seen and wanted to know what I thought. She knows that I do not like to be influenced by being told what the film is about so I had no preconceptions. 

My first impression was in response to the first image and sound. For the first time in films about old women I recognised my own ageing skin. Age spots are also called sun spots to make them more acceptable. In French they are sometimes referred to, more cruelly, as  ‘les fleurs de cimetière’. But I also noticed the temporal vein that had me worried a few months ago. 

The opening close-up is of Charlotte Rampling making odd disturbing unnatural sounds. I interpreted this as a woman in deep distress, possibly demented and the next sequence as a session of psychological workshop for people needing to express their distress. I wondered why the face closeup     filled only half of the wide screen. This framing was common throughout the film.

As the film progressed I desisted from this interpretation as Rampling seemed to operate normally going to acting workshops, swimming, working as a cleaner and child minder, baking, using public transport. But I became more and more irritated by the greys, browns and different shades of cold blue of the settings, by Rampling’s cropped closeups appearing more often than not on the side of the screen with a dark area on the other half. The long sequences, the  brown vertical lines appearing regularly in some scenes, the stairs, the long sequences of waiting for the train? tube?, the multitude of stairs, children running, the dog not eating, all details of the mise-en-scene are designed to force you to make sense of a film that has no story. One is forced to interpret the signs and try and fit them in a non existing narrative. I felt insulted  by the scene – a too obvious image –  where she emasculates (is this the right word?) the lilies after being rejected by her son. The sequences about a beached dead whale and the walk to the dustbin in the back of buildings seem to be  cuts of  another film.   

I sought  help in the reviews. It seems that most of them picked out some of details in the film to support their own interpretations which are often contradictory. In so doing they construct a story by ignoring other significant sequences.  The late divulging of the reason for the husband’s incarceration in particular is left for viewers to imagine or ignore and the reviewers to be so divided in their assessments. 


This film deserves a serious study about film and interpretation. Rampling obtained many acting awards for this film but it seems that it is not possible to understand who she is. 

She is described by  English, American and French reviewers in many different ways : 

bleak portrait of an ageing house-cleaner in suburban Brussels who is struggling to cope with the fallout from her husband’s recent criminal conviction (it involves, we learn over the course of the film, child sexual abuse).

woman crumbling under duress after her husband is incarcerated

mutique, grise, confite de mal-être et de haine d’elle-même

Hannah’s face may tremble, but we sense more than a hint of steel underneath  

  Hannah imperceptibly deteriorates 

  frigid portrait of a woman in crisis

Isolation and extreme emotional anguish

Hannah’s face may tremble, but we sense more than a hint of steel underneath

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