Thursday 18 July 2024

Favourite Books I've Read This Year In Progress


Gilbert King: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.
Bill Gammage: The Biggest Estate on Earth.
Adam Shatz: The Rebel's Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. 
Adam Hochschild: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.


Andrea Barrett: The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Michelle Paver: Thin Air.
Sarah Lotz: The White Road. 
Maggie Thrash: Rainbow Black.
Gabrielle Zevin: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.
Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead.
Kelly Link: The Book of Love.
Jiaming Tang: Cinema Love.
Yael van der Wouden: The Safekeep.
Emma Copley Eisenberg: Housemates.

Andrea Barrett
's The Voyage of the Narwhal follows a fictional American expedition looking for signs of John Franklin's lost ships Erebus and Terror in the early 1850s. The voyage is also meant to be a scientific journey, gathering data about the fauna and flora of the Arctic. The main character is a scientist, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who is also coming along to look after his sister's fiance, the headstrong expedition leader Zeke. The story may be fictional, but to anyone who has read accounts of real polar expeditions during the 19th century, it holds little treasures of recognition and references many actual events, including the horrifying Inuit accounts that Rae collected about the fate of Franklin and his men. The beauty of the novel is the scientific work though, and the close relationship that Erasmus forges with the surgeon on board (a relationship almost romantic, and tragically doomed), who is similarly fascinated by everything he encounters. There are echoes here of the television adaptation of Harry Goodsir's character in The Terror and of the (in my opinion) best part of the seafaring classic Master and Commander. One of my favourite aspects of the novel were the attempts Erasmus makes to include Ned, the eager and curious young ship cook (with his own tragic story of surviving the potato famine in Ireland), in the journey of discovery. Of course, most things that can go wrong do, including scurvy due to inadequate preparation for overwintering, a nipped and lost ship, and severe discordance within the crew when individuals begin to disagree about priorities and plans. Interwoven with the accounts and thoughts of the explorers are the women back at home, waiting for the men to return and contributing to the scientific work in the only way they're reluctantly allowed to (I thought that Alexandra, a woman who is learning the art of engraving, was deeply fascinating). There is also a discussion of science in relation to racism, both in regards to the understanding of the Inuit that the expedition connects with and the question of slavery back home in the United States just before the Civil War. This is a fantastic novel of fiction that weaves together philosophy, science and polar exploration with all of its dark sides included. 

I like when by sheer coincidence, two books appear to be in conversation with each other. Michelle Paver's Thin Air chronicles a fictional 1935 attempt to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. Soon after arriving at the foot of the mountain, expedition doctor Stephen, eager to prove to his comrades that he is just as valuable as his older, sneering brother, begins experiencing a haunting - T.S. Eliot's "There is always another one walking beside you", but, as he comes to realise, malevolent, unlike the calming presence that Shackleton felt when he first reported the phenomenon after his trek through the mountains of South Georgia to save his stranded expedition. It appears that the mountain is haunted, perhaps by a member of a previous expedition whose body was never retrieved. Thin Air is a great portrait of the same kind of doomed English arrogance that cost Scott's life at the South Pole, putting a focus on the way the white men of the expedition look down on their support staff (the ones actually doing all the work, while they sip their tea). 
Sarah Lotz
' The White Road doesn't begin on a mountain - it starts in a place that I personally find even more scary, a cave system in Wales in which protagonist Simon is attempting to film the dead bodies of a previous group of cavers for a morbid and sensationalist website he runs with his friend. In the caves, his guide dies after they get trapped by rising water levels, but his presence doesn't leave Simon, as if his bad intentions are now being judged by the constant presence of another malevolent "third man". Simon carries that spectre with him to Everest (again on a mission to film the dead), where he finds himself in the middle of another man's attempt to find closure from the death of his mother on the mountain years earlier. The climb ends in more disaster, and Simon is stuck trying to artificially create closure so the haunting stops. 
Maggie Thrash's Rainbow Black is about the 1980s Satanic Panic, capturing how the (historically real) moral panic around it affects a family running a daycare in New Hampshire: the fall-out spans 20 years, crosses borders, and captures how the traumatic events severely impact the family's thirteen-year old daughter Lacey, who has to rebuild her life from scratch. Lacey fights hard to 
help her struggling parents, who are caught up in a fight against revered specialists (within the justice system, but the book is particularly damning about the social workers and psychologists involved) who have fallen for the panic completely, but in the end, the odds are too stacked against them, and Lacey flees across the border to Canada with her best friend. Years later, the precarious new life they have built together in Quebec comes under threat when old accusations resurface.
Gabrielle Zevin
's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a book about a complicated friendship between Sam and Sadie that begins in a hospital games room. Sam is in it for the long haul after a severe leg injury from a car crash that killed his mother, Sadie is there to visit her sister, who has cancer. They bond over their shared love of computer games and form a tight friendship that runs into some difficulties when Sam finds out that Sadie is collecting brownie points for the community service she is providing by keeping Sam's company (she's gamified friendship, but it's pretty obvious she's being genuine in her affection for Sam). They later reconnect after years of not talking to each other and begin playing again, except this time they make games together - a beautiful, artistic game, ambitious. The book also adds Marx to the mix - a lovely if privileged "tamer of horses" who becomes their producer and thinks about all the things they don't, because they're focused on the work. 
This novel works because it is passionate about the computer games, which are written in a way that the reader can imagine them, maybe even play along. The characters are flawed, but difficult not to root for. I think what really made this exceptional is that it reads like a spin-off of Halt and Catch Fire, specifically the seasons after the first one when the focus was on Cameron and Donna: It's about two incredibly creative people creating beautiful things together, but clashing on principles sometimes, and they both care so much that their differences threaten the friendship constantly. 

Demon Copperhead
is an incredible chronicle of Appalachia in the late 90s and early 2000s: it is about an orphan who somehow survives the horrors of the foster care system, who is failed again and again by the people who should be helping him, contextualized within the (deliberately created) economic deprivation of Appalachia - through the care of a teacher who is passionate about teaching his students about where they come from, and how their situation came about, the book speaks about the history of Appalachia, the fights between miners and owners, the politics of creating an environment in which possibilities are being limited so that resource extraction can happen as cheaply as possible. The novel then goes on to show how the introduction of Oxycontin changes everything yet again, a drug deliberately test-driven in the parts of the country where people put their body on the line for their work. All of this is done through the (frequently incredibly sad) stories of the characters, who are just trying to survive and build a life for themselves against the odds. 
Halfway through the year, by complete chance, a group of books bowled me over with their portrayal of intimacy and desire, of characters trying to know each other, and how the process is difficult. All three books - Jiaming Tang's Cinema Love, Yael van der Wouden's The Safekeep, and Emma Copley Eisenberg's Housemates, also feel deeply embedded in a specific place and time period (Cinema Love goes from Fuzhou to China Town in the later decades of the 20th century, The Safekeep is set in the late 1950s/early 1960s in a small town in the Netherlands, Housemates is about Pennsylvania after the 2016 Presidential Election up to the post-Covid present). With all three of them, it feels wrong to give anything about the story away - they're all stunning books about place-finding, and how it's connected to belonging, history and politics.

Wednesday 17 July 2024


I've been having a difficult time thinking about US politics in the run-up to the election. Just one recurring thought: the greatest weakness of the debate is the idea that anti-fascism and literal Nazis are equidistant from the political centre (a true showcase of how far the Overton window has moved), and the imprecise nature of calling the political climate "polarised", when one side has moved so much further than the other to create a climate where political values become impossible to contain in the same polity. The last few days have also been a lesson in forcing readers and listeners to parse sentences - the idea that violent speech and action are equally present, are perpetrated by both sides, is laughable, and can easily be disproved, and any news outlet not stating this equivocally is seriously putting its ability to truthfully report and analyse reality in question - at a time where misinformation and conspiracy theories are already having such a choke-hold on narratives.

Sunday 30 June 2024

Reading List: June.

Hampton Sides: The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook.
Hampton Sides: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission.
Susan Sontag: On Photography. 
Daniel Foliard: The Violence of Colonial Photography. 
Philippe Sands: The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain's Colonial Legacy.
Tania Branigan: Red Memory. Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution.
Jiaming Tang: Cinema Love.
R.O. Kwon: Exhibit.

Yael Van Der Wouden: The Safekeep.
Emma Copley Eisenberg: Housemates.
Rebecca Fraimow: Lady Eve's Last Con.


The First Omen (2024, Arkasha Stevenson).
Pamyo (2024, Jang Jae-hyun).
Our Ladies (2019, Michael Caton-Jones).
Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (2024, Adam Wingard).
Force of Nature: The Dry 2 (2024, Robert Connelly).
Flags of Our Fathers (2006, Clint Eastwood).
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood).
The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl).
I Saw the TV Glow (2024, Jane Schoenbrun).
Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, Season One.
This Town, Season One. 
Furies, Season One. 
True Detective, Season Two, Three. 
You, Season One, Two, Three, Four.

Tuesday 25 June 2024

I Saw the TV Glow


They stop attacking if you don't think about them / The longer you wait, the closer you get to suffocating.

Since watching I Saw the TV Glow, I’ve been thinking about being fourteen and watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (she seemed to have a similar devotion to Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine that I had to Terry Farrell’s Jadzia Dax, which is still a fact that tickles a part of my brain – no idea who she is now, but I hope life turned out okay for her) with someone who wasn’t quite a friend – if we had hung out more, or if we had made a habit of watching TV together, we might have been friends, but at that time, staying in contact with people who no longer went to the same school every day was difficult. I think I memorised this one-off occasion because I was normally a lone watcher of television – it wasn’t a shared experience until later in my life, and I spent my teenage years obsessed with TV on my own. Whatever discoveries I made about myself through the medium, and there were many, remained utterly unshared until much later. 

There are many layers to I Saw the TV Glow, and it is obviously a story about a character who buries the truth about themselves deeply, which causes a horrible suffering that reverberates through the whole film. I’m hesitant to apply this trans allegory to myself, because it feels specific to that experience, but it’s undeniable that the profound connection that I felt to the film is connected to being queer in the suburbs and existing vicariously through the same television show that I Saw the TV Glow is inspired by. The Pink Opaque, a mystery show on the fictional Young Adult Network, is such a loving reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a mythology that Brigette Lundy-Paine’s Maddy claims is too complex for “most kids”, featuring Monsters of the Week and a Big Bad (Mr Melancholy). There’s a bar that features live musical acts called Double Lunch (a name that reminds me of the Doublemeat Palace) that feels like Buffy’s The Bronze (there’s a whole journey here from the 90s/2000s Cibo Matto, The Breeders and Aimee Mann to Phoebe Bridgers, Sloppy Jane and King Woman). The first episode Owen (Ian Foreman and Justice Smith) every gets to watch in person features the ice-cream man as a monster of the week, and it has all the vibes of a small-time Buffy villain (plus remember the time when Xander drove an ice cream truck?). Henchmen Marco and Polo perform an almost interpretative dance routine that resembles the eeriness of the Gentlemen in Hush, one of Buffy’s most ambitious episodes. Then there’s the eighteen second appearance of Amber Benson as the mum of the kid who Owen has used as an alibi for his secretive viewings of the Pink Opaque – he appeals to her to keep him stuck in the town that Maddy is leaving, desperately pleading with her to the point of breakdown – a moment that feels even more significant considering that Benson’s Tara, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, may have survived had she gotten out of Sunnydale before Warren hit her with a stray shot. Benson has mostly retired from acting and is now a very good narrator of audio books, so her presence, if very brief, in this film feels kind of inherently magical.
There are also more personal parallels between Owen’s accessibility problems with the show and my own. Owen isn’t allowed to watch – at the beginning of the film, he’s in seventh grade and his bed-time is before the show starts on Saturday nights (the real reason might be that his dad, who remains stubbornly out of view for the most part but is still a terrifying presence that he is obviously scared of, thinks it’s a show for “girls”, an early hint at what confines Owen is working in). He knows of the show because he’s seen trailers, and he has a deep knowledge that he wants to watch it before ever seeing it, but it isn’t until he meets Maddy, who is two years older, that the opportunity arises. Their first meeting happens on election night in 1996 (Owen's mum will vote for "the saxophone man" again) – and the school not quite functioning as a school in the scene, with people existing there at a time when they wouldn’t normally, creates a really interesting atmosphere of possibility (it reminded me of a sleep-over that we had, for some reason, in 11th or 12th grade, and how the halls felt completely different during night time – like Maddy says, “It's like the school gets transformed into something else.”) Maddy is reading a book-form episode guide of the show and Owen comes up with the plan to tell his parents that he is having a sleep-over with a friend (who he doesn’t actually still seem to be friends with – in fact, it feels like maybe Owen doesn’t have any friends anymore), when he is in fact watching The Pink Opaque with Maddy and one of her friends (who is way less into the show than her). It’s a one-time only occasion, but after that, Maddy records the show on VHS tapes for him.
Back when I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had to rely on the awful time delay (and dubbed version) of international syndication. I started somewhere at the beginning of season four, and didn’t even see the three high school seasons of the show until a bit later. The internet of the 2000s couldn’t provide me the episodes yet, but some dedicated fans kept a database of all the scripts as they were released (or typed them up, maybe), and that’s how I found out that my favourite character, Tara, was going to die – maybe six months or a year before I ever saw Seeing Red. There is a certain added preciousness to how I feel about Buffy now because of how it took actual work and dedication to follow along, and I think that the context of Owen’s viewing is just as relevant to how important The Pink Opaque becomes to him: he is isolated, but shares this with Maddy, even if it’s just through her delivery of tapes (until later, when they begin watching together again – at that point, Maddy is also cut off from her previous friends through what feels like homophobia and the horrors of high school bullying). One of the saddest moments of the film – and there are so many – is when Owen, now an adult, goes back to watch the show (now available to stream, without the previous inherent magic of video tapes) and finds it radically changed: it looks nothing like the genuinely scary scenes that we’ve previously been shown of The Pink Opaque, and the characters are now children, or very early teens, instead of the Tara and Isabel we’ve previously seen, who seemed to be of a similar age as Owen and Maddy. There’s more than one way to interpret this: Owen is an adult now, and maybe the show just felt a lot more grown-up when he was a kid than it does now (although I’d argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if not its creator, has aged pretty well). Or it’s that Owen didn’t go through the process of self-discovery that the show engendered in Maddy, and stayed in the suburbs – he got trapped in the place he was meant to leave, even though the chalk writing on the pavement still says that it’s not too late – and now whatever magic the show could have provided, whatever salve being represented on screen could have brought, has worn off and is no longer accessible to him. Owen’s initial experience of the show is so intense that he (literally, at one point) gets swallowed up by the screen as if it were a portal, but only Maddy leaves. When Maddy returns later in an attempt to save Owen, she talks about how the limit between reality and the show are unclear – she has so fully identified with the character of Tara (played by musician Lindsey Jordan aka Snail Mail) that she’s shed her old name, and she believes that Mr Melancholy is real, that the only way to escape the fake world of the suburbs is through the same ritual that happens on the show (being buried alive – which is already the sensation that Owen has with regards to his whole life). The film never judges Maddy’s ideas: and the meeting occurs, after all, at Double Lunch, where two bands play just like they do on the show, like it’s some kind of liminal place between the two realities.

Maddy: What about you, do you like girls?
Owen: I don't know.
Maddy: Boys?
Owen: I think that I like TV shows. When I think about that stuff it feels like someone took a shovel and dug out all my insides and I know there's nothing in there, but I'm still too nervous to open myself up and check. I know there's something wrong with me.

Maddy identifies with Tara, who embraces her powers. She thinks of Owen as Isabel (Helena Howard), who is unsure and uncertain. She opens the proverbial box, while Owen never does – the closest he comes, maybe, is when he wears a dress, when Maddy paints the tattoo on his neck that connects Isabel and Tara, that he is so desperate to erase later. He won’t leave with Maddy – he’ll stay in the same house, after the death of his mother and his terrifying dad (I wonder how Schoenbrun got Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit to randomly play this character!), he’ll work in the movie theatre and then in the entertainment centre, he’ll buy a new TV and maybe have a family that we never see (his only interactions with other people are awkward, always teetering on the edge of some kind of violence), that he claims he cares about. It’s suffocating, desperate. These highly artificial spaces feel like they negate the existence of an outside world, like nothing else exists – just the way that sets on a television show would. 

2024, directed by Jane Schoenbrun, starring Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Lindsey Jordan.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Links: 12/06/24


A couple of days ago, Israeli special forces freed four hostages, and killed 274 Palestinians, mainly in devastating air raids to cover the retreat from the Nuseirat refugee camp, where many refugees live in tents. The UN Security council has adopted a US drafted resolution for a hostage-for-ceasefire proposal but both sides in the conflict have yet to agree to it. 
Adam Shatz, who has also just released a great biography of Frantz Fanon, wrote this in the LRB: 

"The military operation in Gaza has altered the shape, perhaps even the meaning, of the struggle over Palestine – it seems misleading, and even offensive, to refer to a ‘conflict’ between two peoples after one of them has slaughtered the other in such staggering numbers. The scale of the destruction is reflected in the terminology: ‘domicide’ for the destruction of housing stock; ‘scholasticide’ for the destruction of the education system, including its teachers (95 university professors have been killed); ‘ecocide’ for the ruination of Gaza’s agriculture and natural landscape. Sara Roy, a leading expert on Gaza who is herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, describes this as a process of ‘econocide’, ‘the wholesale destruction of an economy and its constituent parts’ – the ‘logical extension’, she writes, of Israel’s deliberate ‘de-development’ of Gaza’s economy since 1967."

The US Presidential race is heading towards the first television debates between presumed candidate Trump and current President Biden at the end of June. Earlier this month, Donald Trump was found guilty of all 34 charges in the hush money trial (falsifying business records to cover up his affair with Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election). Sentencing is expected on July 11, with prison time unlikely for a first offender, and Trump is expected to appeal, but remains, for now, the first convicted felon to run for the US Presidency. 
To underline how unusual the Presidential race and the current political context in the US is, Rolling Stone has covered a secret recording created by filmmaker Lauren Windsor of remarks made by Supreme Court Justice Alito, who is also in the news currently for flying a flag associated with the Capitol riots on January 6 in front of two of his residences (a flag he claims his wife put up in reaction to a neighbourhood dispute). The Supreme Court is tasked with judging how the Justice Department has approached charging participants of the riots.

The justice’s unguarded comments highlight the degree to which Alito makes little effort to present himself as a neutral umpire calling judicial balls and strikes, but rather as a partisan member of a hard-right judicial faction that’s empowered to make life-altering decisions for every American.  

Pop Culture: 

Arcane, which finished its first season in 2021, has finally received a season two release date: November, and there's a trailer out. The stunning animation work was famously time-consuming, hence the long break in-between seasons, and the main voice actresses (Hailee Steinfeld, Katie Leung, Ella Purnell) have been very busy over the last years as well.

Tuesday 11 June 2024


2024 feels like an interesting year to think about Godzilla. The big scaly boy has been present for a few years now in the American Monsterverse series of films and TV shows, which, in spite of still sometimes capturing meaningful emotional moments (I’d say this is mostly true of Monarch – the recurring theme is absent or failing parents), mostly strips the cultural meaning and context from the story. This is most obvious in comparing the two most recent releases, Monsterverse’s Godzilla x Kong and the Japanese-made, Takashi Yamazaki-directed Godzilla Minus One: one of these films is about the post-WW2 devastation of the Japanese psyche, specifically about the shame of a kamikaze pilot who returns home, an oxymoron, a contradiction that he desperately struggles to live with, the other, in spite of having its moments (I could have maybe watched a whole dialogue-free film about Kong’s struggle to free his new-found people and his emotional connection to a deeply traumatised sulky teenage ape), seems mostly predicated on “wouldn’t it be cool if…” (Kong and Godzilla fought in front of and absolutely flattened the Great Pyramids, fights took place in zero gravity, etc.). These American films are an exercise in what happens when something culturally load-bearing like Godzilla (an ultimately unbeatable, unimaginably strong entity that wreaks havoc – the reality of the nuclear bomb, made into a giant, ancient lizard awakened by the atomic age), is removed from its context and thrown into a different one, with little grasp of inherent meaning (I think this is maybe why Kong, a character much easier to place and make sympathetic due to his simian similarity to humanity, has been more at the centre of these films lately). Godzilla Minus One is one of the best films to come out this year (or last year, originally), Godzilla x Kong is an entertaining but ultimately forgettable entry into a series of films that must, by virtue of 2024 franchise logic, continue for as long as there is any money to be made (to its credit, it still attracts great actors like Rebecca Hall, and young Kaylee Hottle once again gives a fantastic performance).

This is a very long-winded way to arrive at the idea of what cultural context means for a horror film, and how horror can meaningfully address historical trauma, while that meaning would inevitably get stripped away when removed from a context where it could be understood. The devastation in Godzilla Minus One does not begin with the attack of the monster, it’s the pre-existing condition of the firebombed Tokyo that pilot Koichi returns to after the end of the war. The population has already been defeated, and many of the returned soldiers live with both the shame of their loss and the realisation that they were never more than cannon fodder for empire. Familial ties are torn apart by death, and somehow, new connections and meaning have to be found in what is left, only to be again tested once Godzilla appears from the waves, like a personification of PTSD where trauma is ever-present.

The 2024 Korean horror film Pamyo (titled Exhuma in English) is a great example of film impossible to imagine removed from its cultural context. It is steeped in traumatic history and religious rites. The titular idea of exhumation – literal in the sense that the removal of a body from a burial site is at the centre of the film – carries through as a theme of exhuming history, and finding more than one kind of monster in the process. The film is separated into chapters that could also be said to correspond with the process of disinterring, as the true story is revealed the deeper the main characters dig. The story begins when shaman Hwarim (a truly great Kim Go-eun, rightfully lauded for the performance) and her assistant Bong Gil (Lee Do-hyun) are hired by a rich man to investigate a curse that has befallen the firstborn males of his family. While his newborn son is in a hospital in the US, suffering from an undiagnosed illness, Hwarim and Gil team up with seasoned geomancer Kim Sang Deok (Choi Min-sik, from Oldboy) and mortician Ko Yeung-Geun (Yoo Hae-jin) race against time to lift the curse. They trace it back to the grandfather, a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers (the family’s wealth is based on a century-old betrayal), who is buried in an unmarked plot behind a locked gate, in the mountains near the border to North Korea. Geomancer Sang Deok immediately realises that the promised fortuitous plot promised to the buried man by a monk named “Gisune” (the first hint of how history will play into this story – it’s not a Korean name) is anything but, and the team sets up to remove the body, with the intention to cremate it without ever opening the coffin. This first part of the story almost functions like a self-contained film, and features the most haunting and memorable scene: Hwarim performs a mesmerising ritual before the coffin is removed, a stunningly choreographed dance featuring knives, guts, ashes and pork. Lacking the cultural context of the beliefs represented in the film, I could only be deeply moved by the aesthetics of the ritual, the sheer feat of the actress moving through the steps, all of which adds up to one of the most affecting moments of film I’ve seen this year (the closest reference point for emotional impact of one scene is Mariko’s attempt to leave Osaka castle in Shōgun – also a choreographed performance steeped in deep cultural meaning). The coffin is eventually removed from the plot, but a witless assistant in the funeral home the coffin is taken to makes the error of opening it before it can be incinerated. A spirit escapes, and takes full revenge on the family that has doomed him, from his perspective, to this grave – hungry because no sacrifices of food have been made to him in the century he has been buried, he kills all firstborn men except the baby, which narrowly escapes when the team manages to finally burn the coffin, just in time.

This is only half of the film, and what follows goes deeper into history. The burial of the collaborator (this dates back to the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945) is only the tip of the iceberg, and the geomancer feels compelled to dig deeper, feeling that there is more to uncover in this haunted place, when one of the men who have helped lift the coffin falls inexplicably ill. Deeper in the gravesite, the team discovers another, massive coffin, buried standing up, wrapped in barbed wire to either keep someone out or, more likely keep something in. The solution to this horrifying mystery that soon begins having a bodycount goes deeper into Korean history: the buried man is the beheaded body of the 16th century Japanese general who unsuccessfully tried to occupy Korea in a seven-year campaign just before the end of the Sengoku Period. His placement is part of an attempt to disrupt the Korean peninsula with the placement of metal rods at vital points (“The fox that bites the waist of the tiger”, separating North and South Korea) – although it takes the geomancer until the final moments of the film to realise that the General is carrying this rod in his body, in the form of a samurai sword. Without either knowledge of Korean and Japanese history and mythology, or the willingness to research them, many of the smaller details of the film would remain elusive for a Western audience, and yet they are exactly what makes the film so interesting and layered, and it wouldn’t be without the cultural specificity.

2024, directed by Jang Jae-hyun, starring Kim Go-eun, Choi Min-sik, Lee Do-hyun, Yoo Hae-jin.

Monday 3 June 2024

We Are Lady Parts

Stuck in the master’s house with the master’s tools.

In the penultimate episode of We Are Lady Parts, it feels like the titular band has finally fulfilled its dreams. They are in the studio of their choice, recording their first album with legendary producer Dirty Mahmood, days away from releasing Villain Era to the public and going on a tour that takes them beyond intimate venues (a Glastonbury slot!). Then Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey) – who has been through it this season, losing her home to London real estate redevelopment and recently turning thirty – meets her idol, singer Sister Squire (played by the great Meera Syal). She fumbles and stutters, trying to express how important this role model was to her development as an artist, how she paved the way for Lady Parts against the odds of a hostile recording industry. Sister Squire remains stoic and holds back from returning the compliments – in her eyes, Lady Parts has had it easier than her, and is squandering the platform they’ve been given, that has always been denied to her, by making “funny Muslim songs” instead of addressing issues of inequality and racism. 

Saira, in the midst of an identity crisis, brings the concerns to her bandmates, who are hesitant to agree with her. To them the idea of speaking about issues that go beyond what they have personally experienced feels like co-opting atrocities for clout. Lady Parts is already radical, and punk, because its very existence makes it so, and their presence in this recording studio, after signing a record deal with a label (ominously the only people we see from the label are floppy-haired white men), and replacing their great friend and advocate Momtaz with a white manager who promises better access (why is that?), already feels precarious enough without ruffling more feathers. After the initial rush of finally reaching their goals, Lady Parts are hitting a glass ceiling – their music is being rewritten by those very same floppy-haired white guys to make it more palatable, and their manager advises against writing songs that go beyond what they’ve already written, because the contract they’ve signed means that the label can sit on the album indefinitely, in full possession of their rights, if they go beyond what they’ve established their songwriting to be so far.

What happens next is stunning. Frustrated and sad, Saira makes an attempt to write a song about what she perceives as censorship and a limiting of her artistic expression. She is in a space that she’s coveted all season: this great recording studio, where her role model once recorded her own songs. But just as she gets to the meat of the song – “I won’t mention the…”, the space turns hostile. She can’t get the words out, they are bleeped out, and the more she tries to speak, the more violently she is rebuked by this space that she’s dreamed about making music in. Even in the absence of other people there, the studio itself and its connection to the establishment: the label, the white manager – Saira is not allowed to speak. The more she tries, the more furious the silencing becomes, until it chokes her and throws her against the studio wall.
The thing that makes this scene so devastating is that Saira never gets to speak the full sentence, but the audience can guess what is being left out here – Saira is being stopped from saying it, and so it is never said on We Are Lady Parts, the show we are watching, and from what I’ve been gathering from reviews, this blank space continues to exist in the conversation about it. It acutely feels like a commentary that works on the meta level too: We Are Lady Parts does not mention what is happening in Gaza, but there is a whole episode about not being allowed to speak. Over the credits of the episode, Rasha Nahas’ Nbeed plays: “And in a river / In a running river / In every country I've been to / Its water extinguishes everything that burns / And there is a girl / There is a free girl / Dancing barefoot on the top of a mountain / With her eyes she sees the waves of the sea”. Rasha Nahas appears in person in the final episode, when we see what Momtaz has been up to since Lady Parts replaced her: she’s created a space where young musicians can perform that looks genuinely like it fulfills the DIY imperative of punk, far away from the censorship of the music establishment. 

The question of how to navigate the establishment without undermining and giving up values permeates the whole season. Saira’s decision to let go of Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), who has been so tirelessly supportive from the start and has tried everything in her power to boost the band is a bitter pill to swallow, even if it leads to Momtaz rediscovering what she loves doing and carving out a meaningful space for herself in the process. Juliette Motamed’s Ayesha spends the season trying to figure out if she should come out to her parents, after being given an ultimatum (ugh) by her rich white girlfriend, a question that comes down to what she wants for herself and what is being asked of her as a role model for other young girls (in one of the many funny but deeply cringeworthy moments of the show, a member of Second Wife, a Gen-Z band that is covering Lady Parts’ song and trying to make their own way after they’ve paved it for them, shows Ayesha queer fanart of her and Saira – a veil that should never be lifted between fans and artists). Anjani Vasan’s Amina, who once again functions as a narrator for the series, stands up to the little microaggressions of her job and writes the inspirational Villain Era (“I'll respond to your email at a reasonable hour” feels like the perfect expression for post-2020 attempts to fight back against the horrors of hustle culture), and figures out that the white folk-singer (shudders) she’s coveting is indeed exoticizing her instead of appreciating her as a person, when it becomes clear that he finds it exciting to be seen as the kind of guy who would date a hijabi. Faith Omole’s Bisma, who is raising a rebellious teenager (a song dedicated to her, Malala Made Me Do It, features actual real life Nobel Prize winning Malala Yousafzai, on a horse-throne), encounters the public’s perception of her as “mummy spice” and struggles with the question of how to live her truth as a black Muslim, of what it means to cover her hair with a hijab, when one is the expression of her Muslim and the other an expression of her Black identity (I can’t think of another show that has the capacity to tackle this intersection, or does it so well). All the characters are balancing demands on them with their own desires, and are navigating a world that is built to make this struggle particularly difficult. We Are Lady Parts magic is in its punk spirit, its heartfelt humour, and ability to find so many moments of glorious reclamation and power.

2021-, created by Nida Manzoor, starring Anjana Vasan, Sarah Kameela Impey, Faith Omole, Lucie Shorthouse, Juliette Motamed.