The most provocative cinema in 2015 gave us a multi-faceted profile of contemporary capitalism and its woes. Transcending popcorn escapism, these four films that reflect the lived effects of the economic and social structures of our day collectively make an impassioned claim: that something is ill about the state of the world.
Their locations differ widely, taking in Portugal, as IMF representatives determine the country’s fate under the influence of their supernatural erections (Arabian Nights); a northern Thai hospital where helpers tenderly attend to sleeping soldiers (Cemetery of Splendour); post-apocalyptic desert landscapes exploited by monstrous rulers (Mad Max: Fury Road); and the Chinese diaspora in Australia in 2025 (Mountains May Depart). The disparity of such far-flung, fantastic extremities only reinforce the feeling that somewhere in the transition to a recklessly global order, we took a wrong turn.
Collectively, these films examine this current moment with imaginative artistry and complicated sadness. Their subjects are all haunted by dreams that fail to materialise – or rather have materialised, but with damning results. This loss is visible, often physical. Whole communities are sick or in mourning: some grieve for an individual, others for a nation. Experienced together, 2015 cinema grieved for the world.
This grief is apparent in the opening of Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy, as firemen wielding a DIY blowtorch destroy an invading wasp nest found atop a tree. As the fireball of nest and wasps burn, leaves crackle, glowing cinders blaze across the night sky. Onlookers cheer. It feels like a small victory in a much longer, losing battle. Unless a miracle occurs the wasps will inevitably win out, decimating the Portuguese bees. Their real-life struggle is paralleled with that of the laid-off dockworkers from Viana do Castelo in the wake of the country’s €78 billion IMF-EU bailout and resultant painful austerity cuts. ‘We have grown ill from waiting,’ says one depressed ex-dockworker. Later, as the film swerves into fabulist territory, a worker visits his doctor in the belly of a whale, getting a check-up for his dodgy heart.
Surrounded by such despair, Gomes plays himself as the ‘helpless paralysed director’ struggling to reconcile his emotional response to the ongoing financial and political crisis with his wonderful storytelling. ‘I am, at once, in the eye of the storm, and in a dead end,’ he says. He deserts his camera and crew, who give chase. Gomes retreats into the Arabian Nights’ structure, appropriated to 2013-2014 Portugal, crafting a six-hour, three-volume film that is currently dominating ‘best of 2015’ lists.
The first chapter, ‘The Men With Hard-Ons’, satirises the flippancy with which neoliberalism toys with people’s lives. Negotiations between the Portuguese Prime Minister and representatives from the Troika (IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank) are sidetracked by a sorcerer who endows them with ferocious erections, leading to lines like ‘The world is spinning around our penises.’
We laugh, but the chapter is loaded with disillusionment and disgust. The belief in technological utopianism and in the ability of leaders to responsibly lead has given way to a sense of crisis. The sentiment is also captured in Mountains May Depart by Jia Zhangke who, like Gomes, seems to argue that the time for subtlety has passed. Depicting China’s high-spirited economic development, the three-act film opens in 1999 with a perky, choreographed dance to The Pet Shop Boys’ pop anthem ‘Go West’ that sends shivers down the spine. Later, the bullying, ambitious businessman actually names his son Dollar, confirming the worst. The film’s melodramatic final act takes place in 2025 in Australia, which has become an outpost of greed and guns (recently legalised) and the Twelve Apostles have been reduced to five.
Jia’s decade-jumping portrait includes the touching life of a coal miner who we see coughing, crumpling, unlikely to survive. More illness. Then 2015 gave us the thousands suffering in Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s blockbuster resurrection of his cult action series. As well as the sick population, the planet has been devastated, resources like water and gasoline severely rationed.
Mad Max: Fury Road plays to environmental anxieties while, collectively, these four films seem to echo the uneasy global headspace in which politicians, industry and activists at the Paris climate conference recognised (to varying degrees) the momentous cusp upon which we stand. Rebecca Solnit wrote in her reports from the talks, ‘Climate change means that there is no status quo. Either we make dramatic changes in our greenhouse gas emissions or we accept dire changes in the impact on oceans, sea level, weather, agriculture, geopolitics, species extinction, economics, and human and nonhuman life generally.’ In other words, exactly the conditions which have led to environmental collapse and resource wars in Miller’s blistering epic.
Again and again, Mad Max: Fury Road asks, ‘Who killed the world?’ The fight for resources controlled by the skull-masked Immortan Joe echoes environmental battles already playing out today – like drought-stricken Oregon’s fight to stop Nestlé from commercialising natural water reserves in Cascade Lacks, or the 750 million people who currently lack access to drinking water, a number set only to rise with climate change.
In contrast to these three films’ cartoonish, grotesque warlords, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour presents a more oblique allegory for Thailand’s political ills. The ghosts of those responsible for the centuries of tyranny, most recently manifest in the establishment in May of a military junta, the twelfth coup since 1932, are given the most fleeting of forms: portraits on walls and James Turrell-like pipes that glow at night, as if feeding dreams and/or propaganda into the soldiers afflicted by the curious sleeping malady. The debilitated soldiers fill wards of a hospital built on the grounds of a royal cemetery, suggesting the layers of history and violence that plague contemporary Thailand.
Less splashy than the other films’ censure, Cemetery of Splendour is an elegy for Thailand that resonates globally. How have we allowed ourselves to sleep through to today? How has Australia not all-out rioted over the approval of the Carmichael mine or the inadequate goal of a 26-28 per cent cut to emissions by 2030? As Jenjira declares she wants to wake up, Itt instructs her to open her eyes as wide as she can, and in the film’s final incredible scene, Jenjira does this: staring eyes wide, watching a group of boys playing soccer around the mounds of an archaeological dig.
Together, the four films diagnose a common situation: a precipice on which we stand, a point of reckoning – we are confronted by our own anguish and shame, our real fear and rising anger. In sum, the feeling past mistakes are crashing down upon us. As we increasingly acknowledge this situation, 2015 delivered films that bowled us over with wildly imaginative narratives at the same time as they argued that to call it all a big-screen dream would be a betrayal. Instead, these films mourned the opportunities we have already missed, and issued a rousing call: from this point on, eyes wide open.
Image: still from Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul