A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Underbelly, Donnie Darko: Collector’s Edition, The Chaser’s War on Everything, The War on Democracy, The Investigator, Secret Diary of a Call Girl (DVD); Up the Yangtze, Paris; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Film).

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Underbelly: Uncut (Roadshow, $49.95)
Flashy, trashy drama, heaps of sex and violence, drugs, gang warfare and a cat-and-mouse police story thrown in for good measure. Channel Nine’s now infamous Underbelly series might not be everyone’s cup of espresso, but it ticks more televisual boxes than you can shake a gold medallion at. The loose gangster biography, shot on location in Melbourne’s bars, clubs and cafes, has been subject to a total viewing ban throughout Victoria since its release in February 2008. Its alleged influence on high profile legal cases has attracted widespread media attention, and its viewing figures have been impressive, despite the exclusion of its potentially key audience.
Underbelly darts its way through the lives, lusts and deaths of Melbourne’s finest pin-striped crims from 1995 to 2004. Their warring clans, along with Carl Williams’ somewhat ramshackle outfit, are pursued at every turn by obsessed cop Steve Owen and his pouty sidekick Jacqui James, who also provides a voiceover narrative from a police perspective. The leading characters are gloriously overplayed, hamming up all manner of clichés and stereotypes to Tarantino-style effect, in perfect harmony with the succinct dialogue and slick direction. Particularly compelling are the portrayals of snarly superbitch Roberta Williams and the superb Vince Colosimo as self-titled ‘Black Prince’ Alphonse Gangitano. Comical interludes are provided by the quirky minor cast, mostly in the form of lowly gangster-wannabes and their bumbling misadventures.
For the observant critic there are many aspects of technical imperfection. Much of the action and vocabulary is indulgently generic, the well-used montage scenes becoming increasingly tired and unnecessary, and as with most Aussie drama the acting is inevitably a little ropey at times. However, such trivialities do little to quash the brutal energy and style of Underbelly as an engrossing local drama and visual spectacular. Managing its cast and setting to mesmerising effect, the show projects its appeal to a wide TV audience, and confirms its iconic status in modern Australian pop culture. New to DVD. (13 episodes; 4-disc set; no special features).—Stuart Lynch

Donnie Darko: Collector’s Edition (Roadshow, $29.95)
Donnie Darko is the most romantic film of the year, as it was in 2002. The charming, Virginia-set relationship between the lovely, mysterious Gretchen (Jena Malone) and the similarly appealing Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Holden Caulfield for late 1980s America. The director’s cut of the cult classic agreeably bulks it up with excellent scenes like Donnie with his Dad, though it’s dubious whether the further explanation of the science-fiction ideas is a plus. Richard Kelly’s intriguing, intricate, enigmatic movie’s scenes like Donnie’s riff on Smurf sexuality; Donnie’s scathing “You’re the fuckin Anti-Christ” attack; and, of course, Gretchen’s exchange with Donnie, “You’re weird”, “I’m sorry”, “That was a compliment" remain brilliant. In their new commentary Kelly and Kevin Smith stress the importance of the music, such as Joy Division’s supremely visceral ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Kelly talks notably about “Digging into archetypes... plagiarising my adolesence.” New to DVD. (3-disc set; optional English subtitles; theatrical and director’s cuts; audio commentaries; documentaries; interviews; deleted scenes; trailers; music videos).—Alexander Bisley

The Chaser’s War on Everything (Roadshow, $29.95): “Filth tarted up as satire,” the Senate Estimates Committee proclaims on this quality Aussie DVD’s cover. Most famous for making a mockery of John Howard’s APEC propaganda pageantry, Chaser gets amusingly stuck into the Howard junta. Highlights include romancing Philip Ruddock, superb Where the bloody hell are ya?, Saddam’s trial and the delicious Osama bin Laden Message series. The War on Democracy ($29.95): Not the whole story, but a cogent polemic from John Pilger on American misdeeds in South America. Pilger snares and assembles some astonishing footage, such as Duane Ramsdell “Dewey” Clarridge, whose appalling, beyond-satire behaviour extended far beyond the Contras scandal. The Investigator ($34.95): Six real crime investigations from Bryan Bruce. Who Killed Kayo? is the standout, compellingly investigating Japanese woman Kayo Matsuzawa’s unsolved murder. Secret Diary of a Call Girl ($29.95): Flaccid and boring!. New to DVD.—Alexander Bisley

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Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang, 2007)
“Imagine the Grand Canyon turned into a lake,” intones the director in a voice-over. This is his analogy of what happens to the Yangtze as it is walled up by the building of the Three Gorges Dam, to create the world’s biggest centre for hydro-electricity. Entire cities will be flooded and in all, 4 million people will be forcibly relocated. That’s the population of New Zealand.
This may be economically beneficial for the country but individuals will suffer, or in the words of one dispossessed merchant, there is a call to “sacrifice the little family for the big family.” Not for them the protest songs and the Nimby-ism; the choice is simple – move or drown. You can talk about it as much as you like, but it won’t make any difference.
Director Yung Chang describes his first feature documentary as ‘Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now’ which is a pretty apt description. The environmental impact is enormous, as evinced in the opening shot of a glitzy cruise liner, the Victoria Queen, dwarfed by a yacht. Chang chooses instead to personalise the issue by zooming in on some of the people who have fallen through the cracks, Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu to be precise.
These two work on the cruise liner which takes wealthy tourists up the Yangtze on an ominously named ‘farewell cruise’. The tourists are mostly here to see an ancient version of China that doesn’t exist anymore. Chang experienced the same thing when he went to look for the mythical China of his grandfather’s legends and found a whole new country was being creating. There are incredible feats of engineering and industry and juxtaposed with lingering shots of peasant fishers in silhouette against glorious sunsets are rampant builders without any discernible health and safety regulations.
The gap between wealth and poverty is extreme. The Victoria Queen passes cities ablaze with neon lights and advertising and shacks sliding into the encroaching waters. Everywhere there are signs of sacrifice and progress, and there are indicators of to what level the flood-waters will rise. When Yu Shui’s family are forced to move to higher ground, they loose the fertile plain in which they grew their crops. Her father explains that, “In the little hut, although it didn’t look good, we didn’t have to pay for vegetables and water.” His struggle up an incline with a wardrobe on his back that threatens to crush him, is symbolic of his efforts to survive.
Chen Bo Yu works as a porter and entertainer (with some excruciating excerpts of cruise karaoke entertainment). He explains that his dream is to make more money and he doesn’t help the old or the young because they don’t tip. When he is told he must leave the company because his arrogance doesn’t suit them, he complacently acknowledges that his family will support him – “It is their responsibility”.
Yu Shui does not have this luxury. She yearns to go to high school but her parents can’t afford to send her, much to their chagrin. Her mother bemoans, “If we had a choice, how could we do this to you?” Instead she is taught how to load dishwashers and welcome clients. Yu Shui is a sulky and sullen teenager but it is hard not to feel for her as her dreams literally disappear down the plughole.
This is supposedly a documentary, but it seems as though certain scenes were acted for the cameras as some raw emotions are exposed. The new recruits are given English names (Cindy and Jerry) and trained to be subservient and to care for others, with military precision. In a vignette which could be hilarious if it weren’t true, they are given a crash course in dealing with foreigners: don’t compare Canada to America; don’t talk about Quebecois independence, Northern Ireland or the monarchy; don’t call people old or fat (in English, say ‘plump’). ‘Jerry’ talks about football to a couple of German lads who shrink away from him, and a particularly patronising American woman congratulates him because he is “not as intrusive as I thought you would be.”
On another occasion, a group of girls sit around discussing Yu Shui, saying she needs to toughen up, work harder and realise that cleaning is her duty. They sound like a bitchy gaggle from America’s Next Top Model as they imply that she has not learned her place, except her prize is not to starve and live in poverty. Chang states that the Chinese believe success is determined by five things: fate, luck, environment, character and education. We wonder how many of these Yu Shui will be granted.
He adds that “As the water rises, my grandfather’s stories disappear”. There are many changes; some might call them progress; others might call them loss. A merchant claims, “Our country is so strong and prosperous now that it can stop the gigantic river.” China is great – it has become a world power – but at what humanitarian cost? To Western eyes, this is the big question, and the sound of the boat’s horn as it looms through the smog indicates that Chang has filmed a mournful elegy.
He prefaces his film with a Confucius proverb: ‘There are three methods of gaining wisdom: reflection which is the noblest; imitation which is the easiest; and experience which is the bitterest.’ The motto of Communism is ‘For the greater good’. To build the necessary stadia for the Beijing Olympics, 1.5 million people have been relocated. Many have moved contentedly, proud to showcase their nation to the world – they’re all one big happy family. While our liberal heartstrings are tugged by the plight of the individual, there is a future and it is relentless, flowing ceaselessly on like a river. In Theatres Now.—Kate Blackhurst

Also for The Lumière Reader: Renee Liang reviews Up the Yangtze; Brannavan Gnanalingam interviews director Yung Chang.

Paris (Cédric Klapisch, 2007)
A sort of cinematic tourist brochure, Cédric Klapisch’s Paris is the film the uneven Paris, je t’aime should have been. The director of The Spanish Apartment crafts a heart-warming exploration of the lives, loves and neighbourhoods of the City of Lights. Or, more appropriately, that romantic Paris of our imagination. Opening with a head-spinning montage of its main players, we meet Romain Duris in the role of a cabaret dancer awaiting heart surgery. Juliette Binoche is his social-worker sister who moves in to care for him. There is the ageing and cynical history professor, played by Fabrice Luchini, who falls in love with a tempestuous student, and an assortment of working-class Parisians falling in and out of amour.
As the film plays out the lives and locales of these people become intertwined, often tenuously, although Klapisch has the good sense not to force the point. And this film is as much about Paris’ neighborhoods as its protagonists: we visit the beautiful Sacré-Coeur, Père Lachaise, the Eiffel Tower and numerous other iconic locations. We also travel to lesser-known districts, including Rungis, a colossal market of fruit crates and meat carcasses. Even these blue-collar suburbs are bathed in a deceptively warm glow by cinematographer Christophe Beaucar.
While the entire cast performs admirably, the film’s standout performance comes from Duris, who gives Paris its emotional heart. He also acts as our tour guide, observing goings-on from the window of his apartment. “I watch other people live. I wonder who they are, where they go? They become heroes in my little stories,” his character comments.
As is the nature of any multi-character cavalcade, the film suffers from a lack of exposition. Characters are introduced and just as quickly dropped. A plot line regarding a Cameroonian’s attempt to illegally make his way to France shows great potential, but is frustratingly underdeveloped. Fortunately, Duris is there as the film’s glue, pulling the picture back together whenever it threatens to fall apart. While it might lack a certain emotional gravitas, Paris is none-the-less a lighthearted and satisfying ode to the City of Love. In Theatres Now.—Caleb Starrenburg [Read More]

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Pregnancy is no joke in Cristian Mungiu’s paralysing, instantly absorbing film, a Cannes winner with a view to a kill. Unlikely to be received in the red states, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days rarely flinches or skips a beat in mapping its trajectory of two Romanian women – one pregnant, the other an accomplice – in pursuit of an illegal abortion under Ceausescu rule. As the film hits the ground running, it tails Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), in close proximity, as she carries out a series of measures specified by underground abortionist Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a passive-aggressive asshole who nonetheless understands the severity of the deed. Rendezvousing in a deadpan hotel, Bebe terrorises Otilia’s roommate with the sickly details of extracting a four month old foetus, how to dispose of it, and the ever-present danger of being caught. Propelled through a vacuum of institutional corridors and poorly lit walkways, Mungiu trades in the bellyaching anxiety and momentum of another Romanian triumph, The Death of Mr Lazaresu (also shot by Oleg Mutu), along with routing the Dardenne Brothers’ clenching formalism (namely, their Palm d’Or recipient, The Child). The shots though are held much longer and impose greater tension without the need for more artificial thriller conventions, while the cinemascope frame imprisons and isolates its characters through sterile space. Filmed with austerity and urgency, it’s as riveting as it is necessary; the irony of its final scene does not go unspoken. In Theatres Now.—Tim Wong [Read More]