The 2018 Cannes Film Festival, held 8 to 19 May, was notorious for delivering nearly as much drama off the screen as on it. There was a dispute over Netflix, and the company’s subsequent withdrawal from the competition. Terry Gilliam’s 20-year odyssey ended unfortunately with him suffering a brain haemorrhage as he took to the red carpet for The Man who Killed Don Quixote. The #MeToo movement was prevalent, with actress Asia Argento banning Harvey Weinstein from Cannes, a man who has enjoyed success at the festival but who is alleged to have committed sexual transgressions there too.
There was even some surprise, suspense and mystery on screen as the festival presented an array of crime films that also embrace the related genres of espionage and gangster movies. Here are five of the best, plus one you might also enjoy that is a little off-centre. Look out for these films from the far corners of the world as they find general release in the coming months, and make sure you don’t lose them in the glut of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters
Bonnie and Clyde in Kazakhstan in a film whose title is a quote from Camus, and is a little facetious. The world the movie describes is far from gentle and, rather than indifferent, it is cruel, as a young girl is sent by her mother from the country to the city to marry an older rich man and settle the family’s debts. She is accompanied by a man her own age who loves her and becomes a kind of guardian angel. What they encounter is a world where businessmen and gangsters look and act alike. After multiple deceptions, in the film’s strongest sequence the duo take to the road in a desperate bid for freedom that both recalls and outdoes the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde. Bitter but enchanting.
What at first appears to be Cold War nostalgia instead morphs into a revealing look at how the powers on the Korean peninsula worked to keep the war going. The Spy Gone North is not an action film, more a taut espionage and suspense thriller where a South Korean spy posing an entrepreneur attempts to find out whether the North is constructing atomic weapons. Strangely, that task is forgotten in the film’s much stronger second half which details the ways military men on both sides want the buildup to continue and, in the South, how the intelligence service was used in a bid to sabotage the election of a peace candidate. Set in the 90s, the film’s feel-good ending affirms a friendship between the spy from the South and his counterpart in the North, thus validating the will of the people on both sides for peace.
This film noir from Argentina about the motorcycle-riding getaway driver for a purse snatching duo is a reminder that Argentina was the source of some fantastic crime films with doomed heroes in the 1940s and 50s. The thieves drag an old lady with them as they make off with her purse, an act which upsets the driver Miguel. He slowly insinuates his way into the victim’s life and the two becoming intertwined. The film features shots framed in a 1940s Hollywood style with the thief in foreground watching Miguel’s righteous father bidding for the affection of his son, close-ups of Miguel facing off with the partner who wants him to continue his life of crime, and a sense of foreboding affecting the lead as his bid for forgiveness puts him in peril. The film’s low caste characters offer a view of the other side of a suffering country that its right-wing, market-oriented government is bent on denying.
Yes, this is Scarface in Colombia with its tale of the rise and fall of drug dealer in the land of the Wayuu Indians, but it is so much more. Directed by the team who created The Embrace of the Serpent, about an encounter between a German explorer and the last of an indigenous tribe, Birds of Passage has a similar theme only writ larger. It details the 20-year history of the tribe’s involvement in selling and shipping marijuana – and what it adds to the typical gangster film is an acute awareness of how the greed, violence and customs of the West penetrate and ultimately destroy other cultures. One by one the customs that gave this people resilience are surrendered and substituted by a thirst for material goods. We watch collective pride replaced with vengeance in a way that deepens the gangster genre while delivering all the expectations of that genre based on the lead dealer’s rise and fall. This is Narcos from the Colombian perspective. It even nods to that series with a parallel scene in which the police stop the drug runners, not to imprison them but to make sure they get their cut. It also outdoes the Netflix effort thanks to an inner understanding of the subject matter.
This onscreen extension of #MeToo, about an Earth Mother battling global energy companies in Iceland, opens with a razzle-dazzle sequence as the lone warrior brings down a power plant using a bow and arrow. Hala teaches a choir by day but she’s an environmental activist by night, attempting to keep Rio Tinto and Chinese developers out of Iceland’s rural highlands, one of the last bastions of nature in Europe. She is attacked by American CIA and Israeli monitors, but savvy enough to put her cell phone in a microwave while talking to a co-conspirator in a ministry office. Here’s a real Wonder Woman who battles for justice for the world’s climate victims. The film’s concluding segment has Hala visiting Ukraine, where she plans to adopt a girl orphaned by a war that has unleashed untold natural devastation on that country, a war provoked by US and NATO aggression in the region. Aiding her in her quest are on-screen musicians and Ukrainian folk dancers whose music provides a cultural echo of the natural life Hala is sworn to protect.
Not strictly a crime or espionage film, although Cold War has elements of the latter in its unexpectedly complex examination of the conflict from a Polish perspective. The film, which covers a decade in frayed European relationships caused by the Cold War, is shot in resplendent black and white, capturing the drabness of the Eastern Bloc and, in high contrast, the glitter that is not gold of the West and particularly Paris. The film explores how the aspirations of artists – here, star crossed lovers, a singer and an composer/accompanist – were similar in the Second World to the First, with the performers wanting to get to Moscow rather than New York or London. Divided Berlin will be their meeting place on this occasion. The Cold War of the title also refers to a battle between men and women but the conflict between the two leads lurks beneath their struggle to find peace on either side of the socialist/capitalist divide.
Dennis Broe is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir; Maverick or How the West Was Lost; and the soon to be published Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and the End of Leisure.