Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – October 2015

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month we look at restorations of two very different classics of world cinema, including Black Girl from Senegal and Dragon Inn from Taiwan.


Black Girl (Blu-Ray & DVD, BFI)

While I do my best to see a diverse range of films, I admit to having a pretty huge blank spot when it comes to the cinema of Africa. Partly this is due to how little we hear of it in the west, and how briefly it’s mentioned in most histories of cinema. Even in the age of video streaming and Blu-Ray restorations, most African cinema remains relatively hard to see. With this in mind, it’s great to see the BFI not only releasing one of the most famous films from the continent, but also doing so with the care and attention characteristic of the BFI’s home cinema releases. Black Girl is the 1966 feature film debut of Senegalese author and director Ousmane Sembène, who would later come to be regarded as the ‘father of African film’. While films had of course been made in Sub-Saharan Africa before, Black Girl represented something new. The world had seen plenty of films made about Africa before, but what about a film told from an entirely non-western perspective, produced, written and acted by the people of Senegal? Black Girl’s importance in the development of world cinema is considerable then, but even outside of its historical value, Black Girl is a stunningly well accomplished film in its own right.

Black Girl is a film that feels like it strikes a perfect balance between simplicity and complexity. The film’s story is a small one in many ways, built around the interactions between a handful of key characters. Yet it’s also a story that manages to speak volumes about the world’s complex post-colonial cultural landscape. The girl of the title is Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse), a young woman working as a nanny for a wealthy French couple in Dakar, Senegal. When she’s offered the chance to move her work to France she leaps at the opportunity, her perceptions coloured by the glamorous photographs she’s seen in Elle magazine. The naivety of Diouana’s expectations becomes depressingly clear as soon as she arrives in France, and realises she is little more than a glorified cleaner, confined to the wealthy couple’s apartment and isolated from human contact. Diouana muses on her now prison-like surroundings: “For me France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom”. The French couple who employ her fail to see any of this, and seem surprised and annoyed when Diouana becomes depressed. While they may regard Diouana as a human being in theory, they fail to realise this also means she has the same human needs as they do. Diouana and her bosses may no longer technically adopt the roles of master and slave as their ancestors would have done, but their current power dynamic continues to echo these roles to an uncomfortable degree.

Black Girl is a rare example of an author adapting one of their own works to film, in this case one of Ousmane Sembène’s short stories from his work as an author. This is significant, as it feels like Sembène had a clear understanding of the thematic depths of his story, and more importantly, that he knew how to tease these depths out. Mbissine Thérèse’s subdued performance may not always give that much away, but we’re invited to explore her inner life through an effective mix of voiceovers and flashbacks. Perhaps the most interesting device Black Girl deploys though is that of the traditional Senegalese mask the French couple keep in their apartment. This prop becomes loaded with meaning as the film progresses, shifting to adopt different properties in different scenes. The couple who own the apartment cherish both Diouana and the mask as acquisitions from an exotic land, but fail to understand the complexities of either. In the film’s most powerful scene the mask returns to its home in Dakar, where a young boy wears it and proceeds to chase the French husband through the streets like an angry ghost. Black Girl is filled with such images, rich with nuance and meaning.

Given Black Girl was not only the debut film of its director, but also the beginnings of a new film industry, you’d be forgiven for expecting it to be a somewhat clumsy affair. What is so striking about Black Girl though is how confident and assured it feels. The same also extends to Borom Sarret, a short film by Sembène also included with this release. Again the film eloquently depicts the cultural barriers that exist between people from different worlds. In this case it’s the story of a wagoner from a poor part of Dakar, who ventures into the pristine streets of the wealthy side of the city. As with Black Girl, the film manages to say a lot with a little, and does a wonderful job of capturing the bustling atmosphere of Dakar’s streets. It’s likely that this BFI release will be many people’s first encounter with the work of Ousmane Sembène, so the features on the disc are especially welcome. Not only do you get two versions of the film, both in Blu-Ray quality, but also two informative features about Sembène and Senegalese cinema in general. Semebene: The Making of African Cinema is an hour long documentary that acts as a career retrospective, but also does a good job of underscoring the politics that lie at the heart of his work. Meanwhile, Semebene: A Portrait fleshes out our understanding of the man himself in a skilfully woven collage of sounds and photography. Both features also offer a glimpse at Sembène’s film work, which it’d be great to see becoming more easily available in future. For existing fans of Sembène’s work, this release features one of his most extraordinary films looking better than you ever will have seen it before. For those new to him, or to African cinema in general, this is an enticing glimpse into a whole new world of film.


Dragon Inn (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

King Hu is one of the all-time greats of martial arts cinema, yet you wouldn’t necessarily know this from how poorly his work has been treated over the years. I’ve managed to see a few of his films before, but only ever in such terrible condition you’d assume they were some dodgy b-movie somebody found in a basement. Watching the currently available version of A Touch of Zen feels a bit like trying to watch a dodgy VHS by peering outside through somebody’s living room window, while the subtitles on some of the films are so poorly done they read a bit like everybody is drunk. Not that this doesn’t make the films entertaining in other ways, but still, it’s a shame to see such little care gone into presenting such great films. So it’s massively exciting then to see that Eureka have targeted King Hu for their Masters of Cinema line, especially in light of the work they’ve done in the past celebrating underappreciated filmmakers such as Shohei Imamura.

The setting of Dragon Inn is ‘Dragon’s Gate’, an isolated inn on the western border of the Chinese empire during the Ming Dynasty. Political upheaval has swept across the land, resulting in the execution of the current Minister of Defence at the hands of the Emperor’s Eunuch. The minister of defence’s two children manage to flee into the wilderness, though even in exile they remain in danger. Cao Shoqin (Bai Ying) and his agents are in close pursuit, with the intention of giving the children the same fate as their father. Also arriving at the inn is the mysterious Xiao Shaozi (Shih Jun), a hero in the lone wandering swordsman mould. He’s joined by a brother-sister martial arts duo (featuring another of the tough female characters King Hu became known for), and the inn’s owner, who also happens to be pretty deadly with a sword. At first it’s not entirely clear where loyalties lie, as the gathering cast of characters suspiciously size each other up from across the tables of the inn, but as tensions rise a climatic showdown inches nearer and nearer.

One of Dragon Inn’s great strengths is actually the location itself. With no other shelter for miles around the characters are forced to take refuge under the same roof. This is obviously a perfect recipe for mistrust and tension, especially given half of the characters happen to be skilled martial artists. This means plenty of opportunities for dazzling displays and physical feats, whether it’s catching weapons with chopsticks in the inn’s main hall, swiftly swapping out poisoned bowls of noodle soup, or sending foes hurtling through the air with a single sweep of a sword. The film’s greatest star throughout all of this is director King Hu himself. The camera glides across the rooms of the inn like a breeze drifting in from outside, lending the film’s showdowns a feel of grace. Meanwhile, occasional lighting fast cuts do a fantastic job of magnifying the combat’s intensity. While the fights themselves are obviously excellently done, it’s apparent that Hu is just as interested in the drama that lies in the build up to violence too.

On its release, Dragon Inn was a big success in East Asia, leading it to become a hugely important influence on the development of the wuxia genre. The film went onto spawn multiple remakes, and even served as the backdrop for 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Though King Hu would later direct more refined films, it’s clear to see why Dragon Inn was such a hit as it’s a ton of fun throughout. After seeing Hu’s work in such poor quality in the past, it’s also particularly great to see the film as a 4k restoration. The release is rounded out with the inclusion of a short documentary by David Cairns, whose analysis of the film manages to be both informative and entertaining. All of this is very positive, and I only hope this isn’t the last King Hu restoration we’ll see from Eureka, and in particular that his 1971 masterwork A Touch of Zen isn’t far behind.