By Michael McNulty
The representation of immigrants, diasporas, and conflict of cultural identity has, in the latter half of the century, slowly found footing in recent cinema, under the moniker of migration cinema. These films, which often blend or reimagine the generic conventions and production modes and practices typically associated mainstream cinema with less conventional methods, are often the products of filmmakers who are themselves a product of either post-colonial or post-war displacement. They tell the stories of immigrants and minorities, allowing for a closer examination of the issues of immigration, marginalization, liminality, cultural identity and belonging, and make for some pretty great films too, here are five of the best.
Gegen Die Wand/Head On – Fatih Akin
Fatih Akin’s Gegen Die Wand, or Head On, is a tragic love story between two second generation Turks living in Germany. It follows Cahit (Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) who meet in a mental clinic after both attempting to commit suicide. In a desperate attempt to free herself from the stifling hold of her traditional family, Sibel asks Cahit to marry her to which he eventually agrees.
Akin’s film is firmly transnational. He has adapted the Hollywood melodrama and reworked it beautifully, infusing it with Turkish flavour. The film is divided into chapters, each prefaced by a musical introduction of a traditional Turkish band, playing a traditional Turkish love song against the backdrop of Istanbul. The song they sing effectively reveals the fate of the protagonists, reinforcing the film’s melodramatic undertones, but in a non-traditional, or non-Hollywood way.
It makes use of a wide and diverse range of music genres and styles, the English pop and German punk rock that score the soundtrack to the traditional Turkish ballads that divide the film into its chapters. All of this serves to highlight the transnational process and experience of his protagonists marginalized existence in both their German and Turkish communities.
On a purely narrative level the film explores the liminal spaces that Turkish-German immigrants exist in through the contract marriage of Cahit and Sibel. They are characters that struggle to locate themselves with a German or Turkish cultural context. Instead they are stuck in the margins, struggling to find footing in either, resulting in a conflicted identity and a lack of a sense of belonging.
Cahit is a drunk with a propensity for violent acts, both to himself and others. He lives in squalor, has rejected his Turkish-ness and alienates himself from the Germany community. Sibel feels trapped in the patriarchal grip of her traditional Turkish home. Their eventual marriage of convenience reflects the conflict that underlies the film, both a flight from and an embrace of Turkish and German cultures.
Sibel, in her union to Cahit, finally gets to explore her new found freedom and Cahit gets a chance to reconnect with his heritage. The two enjoy these experiences and slowly fall in love with each other. However, the film does not simplify the complex nature of culture hybridity and their relationship is marred by their inability to locate themselves within a defined cultural identity. The two find themselves back, attempting to navigate the territory between two cultures, ultimately ending in the accidental killing of one of Sibel’s former lovers by Cahit.
The final act of the film sees them both return to Turkey. Sibel shortly after Cahit’s imprisonment and Cahit after several years spent in prison. Akin refrains from fetishizing their homeland and instead presents their return as a practical solution to both their situations. The characters find themselves again in states of limbo with both Cahit and Sibel reversing their roles. Sibel becomes self-destructive, abusing alcohol and drugs, and provoking a beating from three thugs. She has lost control of herself and in doing so, also her identity.
Cahit is reduced to transitory spaces with his time in Istanbul consisting entirely of him in airports, taxis, hotels and buses. He has returned to find Sibel and reconnect with her. However, when he finds her, recovered from her beating, she is married and has a daughter. The two decide to return to Mersin, Cahits place of birth, but Sibel has a change of heart at the last minute, leaving Cahit to make the journey on his own. There is a maturity in Sibel’s decision, but a sadness too as she has resigned herself to an environment she fought so hard to escape. Akin closes the film with Cahit beginning his journey to Mersin and a feeling that there is no redemption for either character and that they will always be trying to locate themselves.
La Graine et le Mulet/The Secret of the Grain – Abdellatif Kechiche
Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Graine et le Mulet tells the story of Slimane (Habib Boufares), an ageing father, who after being made redundant takes his severance package and endeavours to transform a derelict barge into a floating couscous restaurant. Written for his Father, Kechiche’s film revolves around family and community and their positioning within France.
La Graine et le Mulet, titled differently for UK and US audiences, is itself a reference to two ingredients that compose Soaud’s (Baraouïa Marzouk) winning dish – couscous and mullet fish. However, they also serve as a symbolic reference for the film’s locality and the cohesion of two cultures. Couscous calls to the bled – or homeland – of Souad and Slimane and the mullet to the fish sourced from the waters Slimane has worked so closely to for 35 years. Although Kechiche’s film is not about couscous, the symbolic important of the dish is central to the film, it is the binding gel that glues everything together.
Kechcihe’s film has moved beyond the cités and banlieues, it is not a film that directly deals with the marginalization of immigrants, avoiding stories of criminality and violence. Unlike many films that precede it, La Graine et le Mulet, does not position its protagonist in a world of longing for the homeland. When prompted by his sons as to why he does not consider returning back to his country of origin he replies that he does not need to. He has lived, worked and made a life for himself and his children in France and it is now his home.
In subverting a typical migrant narrative of displacement and marginalization where first, second, or third generation immigrants struggle both inwardly and outwardly against the new and traditional, Kechiche has created a film about inclusion. La Graine presents a family and a community tightly bound together where there exists a mutual love and respect between children, parents and cultures. It avoids the stereotypical representations of North African immigrants, placing them firmly within the French working class community in a city in which they have become a part of the fabric. In doing so, Kechiche allows for a film that explores multiculturalism in contemporary French society.
Kechiche makes use of spaces, domestic and public and the movement between them, to underline intercultural representation, cohesion and exchange. Slimane’s home in the appropriately named L’Hôtel de L’Orient, functions as a hub for the North African community of Sète. By placing Slimane in an environment typically associated as being transitory, it emphasises his permanency and that of the other lodgers that share the space. Although it is a closed space, shared and enjoyed by a community of specific heritage, it possesses a Frenchness, as amidst the traditional music, and dancing, its lodgers drink beer, mix with women and speak in French.
When Slimane embarks, with Rym (Hafsia Herzi), to the various offices (bank, council, zoning and port authority) necessary to get approval for the restaurant boat, it is one of few moments the film creates a sense of division. This is predominantly through the language used with an emphasis being placed on “us” and “you” and “how we do things here – in France.” However, it feels out of place and is never acknowledge by the characters. The emphasis instead lies on the abundance of energy that Rym brings to these meetings. Often speaking on behalf of Slimane, she is a representative of cultural integration and rightful opportunity, solidifying her belonging and the location of North African immigrants within France.
Kechiche uses the space of Slimane’s transformed restaurant boat to underline the sense of place for North African immigrants in France. The boat becomes a place of coming together, of family, community and culture. Slimane employs his ex-wife, Souad, to make the couscous, his extended family to work as waiters, and members of his community to play music. The invited guests and potential investors who enter into the space are welcomed into an opportunity of cultural exchange. Simultaneously, the boat also becomes a point of integration for the private worlds of Slimane, his family and North African community and the public world of France through the potential investors. The boat is a physical manifestation of cultural cohesion and belonging, further underlining Kechiche’s sense of multiculturalism within France.
Nihon Kuroshakai/Ley Lines – Takashi Miike
Nihon Kuroshakai, known as Ley Lines in US and UK markets, makes up the third instalment of Takashi Miike’s Black Triad Trilogy, preceded by Shinjuku Triad Society and Rainy Dog respectively. The trilogy holds no narrative or character crossover and is instead thematically linked. All three films concern themselves with the seedy underbelly of the criminal world and social and national estrangement and marginalization.
Ley Lines follows three mixed race teenagers, Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura), a troublemaking youth, his studious brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya) and their goofy sidekick friend Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi) as they leave their rural Japanese village for Tokyo and the greater ambition of leaving Japan itself. Upon arrival in Tokyo, strapped for cash after being rip off by Anita (Dan Li), a Chinese prostitute who later joins their gang, the four fall into the criminal world of Japan’s Kabukicho district in the hopes of generating enough money to escape the country for Brazil.
The original Japanese titling of the film, Nihon Kuroshakai, underlines the central concern of Japanese identity and belonging. Nihon means origin of the sun and refers to Japan. In the context of this film it can also be read as alluding to nihonjinron, or the discourse of Japanese national and cultural identity. The ethnic heritage of the protagonists in this film, they are Chinese, is at odds with their geographic location, Japan. The result is a conflict in cultural identity, with the protagonists existing as outcasts within Japan and struggling to locate themselves within a wider cultural context. The film is peppered with multicultural characters, the gang that Ryuichi and his crew become embroiled in is of Chinese origins and the character that introduces them to the toluene drug scene is of African descent. As such, Ley Lines can be viewed as an examination of Japanese national and cultural identity and through the protagonist’s fragmented individual identities Miike provides an insight into the fragmented national and cultural identity of Japan.
As many of Takashi Miike’s films are, Ley Lines is set in Kabukicho, an area recognized as Tokyo’s red light district and is commonly associated with gangs and criminal activity. Miike often depicts it as a morale wasteland and a hotbed of criminality, replete with violence, sexual depravity, alcohol and drugs. This is a deliberate choice of location in which Miike allows his characters to reject heroic and moral narrative trajectories. It is a landscape suited for damaged individuals and disconnected drifters who lack, particularly in this case, a geographical and emotional sense of belonging and find in this criminal world an opportunity to carve out an identity for themselves. In this case the characters join forces with a local mobster and sell toluene in the hopes of eventually making enough money to pay their way out of Japan.
Although Ley Ley Lines is a hybrid of genres it can be viewed as existing in the Yakuza genre and Miike uses the genre and criminal world to reinforce the marginalization of his characters. Yakuza films often reflect the anxieties and attitudes as well as allude to the struggle between the traditional and new landscapes of post war Japan. Through the Yakuza genre and its strong ties to traditional Japanese cultural concepts such as loyalty, togetherness and belonging, Miike again addresses the ideology of Japanese-ness and the “others” attempt to locate themselves within it. Ryuichi and his friends form a mini diasporic community who run contrary to these values; they are fuelled by individualist motives, to generate enough money so that they can escape Japan to Brazil. Running parallel to this is the fact that criminality exists outside of the law and is therefore marginal. By positioning his mixed raced protagonists in an already marginal environment they become further marginalized.
The films ending, with Ruiychi and Anita, covered in blood and rowing a small boat off into the horizon, after a shootout in which gang leader Wong is killed, is purposefully bleak and ambiguous. Although the two protagonists jump into water, they are fired upon by the rest of Wong’s gang and never resurface. One assumes that they have been killed; suggesting that only in their death is any real hope for them in their pursuit of identity.
Le Grand Voyage/The Grand Journey – Ismaël Ferroukhi
Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Le Grand Voyage sees French-Moroccan Reda (Nicolas Cazalé) reluctantly drive his repressive Father (Mohamed Majd) to Mecca for the Islamic religious pilgrimage, Hajj.
Le Grand Voyage is a reimagining of one of American’s most recognizable genres – the road movie. However, it subverts the genre in refusing to adhere to some of its most defining tropes. Ferroukhi’s film is not one, like Easy Rider, that that rebels against social norms and is not American in its treatment of the Road movie. Whereas the American road movie promises an openness and freedom, when transposed to a European context, the road movie becomes more contained. Although there is a fluidity of movement across borders and between countries, the travellers in these films are faced with the restrictions of culture, language and communication. This has allowed for the European road movie to introduce a new dynamic, the films become about the search for identity, rather than an affirmation of it.
Le Grand Voyage is an expansive examination of relationships and identity, with regards to how the characters identify and relate with each other as Father and son and how they identify and relate with their cultures, French, Moroccan and Muslim. It is important to consider that Reda is both a reluctant accomplice and a necessity in this journey. Reda’s Father’s journey is a personal one and a religious responsibility. The journey the two embark on cannot be read as a reintroduction of cultural heritage and an opportunity to reconnect with it, but as a journey of discovery.
The positioning of the characters with respect to the religious pilgrimage – Reda views it as a hindrance, his Father as a duty – evokes an immediate tension between the Father and son and their attitudes and belief systems. The trip will interfere with Reda’s schooling and he will miss the opportunity to take his end of year exams. This clash of priorities creates a clear generational and cultural divide, with Reda believing his place to be firmly located within France.
The relationship’s dynamic of Reda’s resistance versus his Father autocracy leaves little room for either to compromise on their values. It is not until the introduction of Mustapha (Jacky Nercessian) in Turkey, relevant for its location, the middle ground where the Western world and the Arab world (and as a result Christianity and Islam) meet, that Reda is presented with the opportunity to consider his position differently. Mustapha represents a more moderate approach, like Reda’s Father he too was a migrant in France and has found a middle ground in both cultures.
Reda and his Father’s journey is not a traditional migration narrative, neither of the two are from Saudi, the country which they travel towards. The film gives very little time to France with the characters moving between a number of eastern European and Arab countries. In doing this, Ferroukhi places his characters, throughout the film, in the role of foreigners, both to themselves and their surroundings.
This is most clearly exemplified through the use of language. French is the shared language of both Reda and his Father, although Reda’s Father very rarely uses it. Reda communicates in French and his Father in Arabic; although Reda understands his Father he cannot speak Arabic himself. Language binds people to culture and in Reda’s inability to speak Arabic and his Father’s reluctance to speak French their separation from one another is reinforced, both in their relationship and in the culture with which they identify.
The film culminates with the two’s arrival at Mecca. Here Reda’s Father begins the Hajj, is liberated and at peace and Reda finally understands the significance of the pilgrimage for his Father. However, the narrative does not reach a neat conclusion; the dualities of both Reda and his Father are not harmoniously brought together. The film remains ambiguous in Reda’s understanding of his experiences and poses many questions as to how he has interpreted his trip, the impact it has had on his identity and where and how he will continue from this point.
Chung Gwong Cha Sit/Happy Together – Wong Kar Wai
Released in the year Hong Kong was returned to China and winning Wong Kar Wai a best director award at Cannes, Happy Together, tells the story of two homosexual lovers who travel from Hong Kong to Argentina to see the Iguazu water falls. Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho-ping (Leslie Cheung) have an unhealthy relationship that is peppered by breakups and reunions. However, Fai is incapable of letting Ho go and whenever Ho suggests that they “start again” Fai always does. Wong Kar Wai uses the story of their relationship to create a meditation on love and desire, isolation, dislocation and new beginnings.
The film begins, while the opening credits are still rolling, with a quick close up montage of the Fai and Ho’s passports. The date stamped in the pages is 1995, before the British handover of Hong Kong to China and therefore the passports are British. Wong uses the passport purposefully as a visual reminder of the historical and political backdrop of Hong Kong, the characters geographic location within Argentina and as a symbol of the individual’s ability to move between national and international borders. The passport is used again later, to greater effect, when Fai hides Ho’s passport and never returns it. The lack of documentation is a literal and figurative stripping of identity and mobility.
In positioning the film in Argentina, Wong has positioned his characters, in a figurative sense, at the end of the world – a reference made later in the film when Chang (Chen Chang) visits the lighthouse in Ushuaia, commonly regarded as the most southern city in the world. Wong couples his characters physical isolation with a human one. Although the film is set in Buenos Aires the characters very rarely interact with the locales, instead they are framed within the confined spaces of Fai apartment, a tango bar and Chinese restaurant, often only with each other or other members of the Chinese immigrant community. The occasional scenes that see either Fai or Ho within the wider context of Buenos Aires maintain an aesthetic of alienation and they are reduced to conducting lonely sexual transactions that leave them feeling unfulfilled and isolated.
The sexuality of Fai and Ho works to further dislocate them. Fai is the more traditional of the two, he cooks, cleans, has a strong work ethic and a belief in traditional monogamous relationships. In identifying him as a homosexual, Wong puts his sexuality at odds with his traditional values, ultimately positioning them as incompatible. Fai sexual identity has also formed a chasm between him and his father as illustrated through the phone call he puts through that is cut short. In isolating Fai from his father, Wong further alienates Fai from his homeland and its culture and traditions.
Happy Together spends very little time addressing the wider geopolitical history of Hong Kong, however it must be considered within the context of the film. Although the film begins in 1995, by the films end and as Fai makes his return journey to Hong Kong, the death of Deng Xiaoping is announced on the television screen in Fai’s hotel bedroom. This situating the film two years later in 1997. Wong Kar Wai, in doing this, runs a parallel between the Fai’s internal questioning of his future and identity with that of Hong Kong’s. It begs the promise of a new beginning or as Ho continually puts to Fai throughout the film, the potential to “start again.” Given the internal transformation of Fai, who has finally taken Ho’s suggestion on board, and is starting again without the poison of Ho’s immaturity and dependence to hold him back, there is an underlying optimism to Fai’s personal new beginning and perhaps that of Hong Kong’s.