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Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Lang enters the sophomore class

It comes as no surprise to hear that the most inspiring film in Samantha Lang's life was "Hiroshima, Mon Amour." "I saw it when I was 16 and must have watched it at least 10 times," says Lang. "I know that film shot by shot, line by line." Echoes of that film's free-spirited and independent heroine, played by Emmanuelle Riva, can be seen in all of Lang's heroines -- in both "The Monkey's Mask" and "The Well" -- as well as in the director herself. Over coffee in Aoyama, she spoke with me about making her sophomore film and the reaction to it.

Samantha Lang

What was different for you on your second film?

The first time you make a feature film, you work so much on instinct that you're much less self-conscious. You're just doing it like a child learning to walk; you're not thinking about walking, you're just walking. When I made "The Well," I was just a student. I didn't expect anything; I didn't think anyone was ever going to see the film. The second time there was a huge amount of pressure.

Where did the film's title come from?

The inspiration for the title was from a Basho haiku, "every year on the monkey's face, a monkey's mask." It's a crime-fiction story, and crime fiction is always about meeting people who have a certain persona and it becomes evident they are not what they seem to be. For me, the ultimate mask was Mickey. She's this girl that we never really see but we learn about through other people's descriptions of her.

How did you view Mickey's poetry, as truth or trash?

I like her poetry. Even if they might not seem to be the most sophisticated poems, for me they were about a young person trying to express something of her passion and her search for understanding. That was what was important to me. Whether or not they were great poems, what was great was their rawness and their lack of fear.

How do you think Australian poetry comes off in the film?

It's based on a book of poetry by a poet who is very irreverent about the Australian poetry scene. So there is a fair amount of irony with which Jill, the main character, speaks about the world she goes into. And I think that is a comment on how sometimes artists and poets can be incredibly pretentious and elitist. What the book, and the movie, are saying is that we all are artists in our own way, and we all have our own understanding of beauty and life, and it doesn't reside only with those people who declare themselves as such.

Did having a lesbian lead affect the film's reception?

It was an issue in the financing of it; in the end, it was France that gave me most of the money to get the film made. In Australia, they'd just say, "Lesbian?" and give up. Even though [Jill] is gay, I never made it as a "gay" film. There were these themes and issues of shifting sexuality, and, for me, the emotions she goes through are universal. That was very important to show. I watched a lot of lesbian films beforehand, and I felt most of them marginalized their audiences by saying "This is the gay banner," and I wanted to say, "it doesn't matter what you are." Of course, it will affect you, but -- like with Jill in the film, who's an outsider -- it's not the sole defining aspect of her personality.

Has the reaction to the nudity surprised you?

It was very interesting to me, because my idea was I should show them as they were, and that could be beautiful, and there would be a kind of reality about it. What I was shocked about, then, was people's reactions. Because I hadn't seen their bodies as like, "not the Hollywood ideal," I had just thought, well, "Susie's like this, Kelly's like this, how can I make them look good given what they've got?" And then people started saying, "Oh, Kelly has wrinkles, and Susie's kinda round," and suddenly I started seeing it through everyone else's eyes. And the big shock for me then, was, oh my God, have I made a terrible mistake by doing this? And it brought home to me the power of Hollywood and cinema in idealizing female shapes.

Both your films seem to deal with sex as a form of power and control.

You always understand things better in retrospect, but I suppose that I recognize that sex has the potential to be lots of different things to people. There's the romantic thing that most people aspire to, but it's also a power game, whether it's between men and women, or women and women -- it's like all power, it's something you have to learn how to use. It can be so intoxicating that you don't know how to use it with responsibility.

Unlike, say, Peter Greenaway, your characters react to this ethically.

I have this interest in trying to redeem my characters, which is a bit Hollywood, too. I sort of think that if you go through life only experiencing and not really learning anything, then . . . [shrugs] I wanted Jill to learn something. I didn't want to have her go through all that shit and come out with nothing at the end.

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