Angles and demons

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am

After navigating the winding backstreets of Beirut by taxi and motorbike, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez arrives at a nondescript house in one of the Lebanese capital's quieter neighbourhoods. It's July 24, 1973, and the Venezuelan brushes past burly guards to enter a room. He is vying to become leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's European network. He tells the group's leader, Wadie Haddad, that it's time the front took 'the Palestinian struggle to an international level'.

So the rise of Carlos the Jackal begins - or that's how French filmmaker Olivier Assayas sees it - in the opening scenes of Carlos, his 5 1/2-hour, three-part biopic of the suave, self-styled liberation fighter-turned-mercenary whose nom de guerre is synonymous with 1970s and 80s terrorism. The director was in Hong Kong at the weekend for the first of three screenings of the shorter version of Carlos at this year's French Cinepanorama festival, which features a retrospective of his work.

'In terms of modern history, I think he [Carlos] embodies an idea which has not really been used in movies: that is, the notion of the geopolitical implications of terrorism,' Assayas says.

'There have been movies made about terrorism, but they've always been local - there are Japanese [Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army], Italian [Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night] or German [Uli Edel's The Baader-Meinhof Complex] films... but the stories of those guys make no sense if you disconnect them from transnational issues and political alliances. And Carlos, being a Latin American militant involved in Middle Eastern politics and active in Europe, brings that whole notion to life.'

Beginning with his induction into Haddad's inner circle, Carlos tracks the growing infamy of its protagonist (played by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez) through his ever more audacious terrorist attacks. Among them were the December 1975 storming of an Opec conference at the cartel's Vienna headquarters, in which Carlos' group abducted several oil ministers, later releasing them for hefty ransoms. The incident is re-enacted in detail in Carlos, giving the series (and the three-hour theatrical version being screened here) the air of a scintillating action-thriller.

But while offering plenty of explosive set-pieces, Carlos is much more than bullets and blasts. The film depicts Carlos' wilderness years after that ill-fated hostage-taking plot: his falling out with Waddad over his handling of the incident - the group was supposed to kill the Saudi and Iranian ministers rather than ransom them.

Carlos then touts his services to regimes in the Eastern Bloc and Middle East before being handed over by his Sudanese protectors to the French authorities in 1994. He is now serving a life sentence in France for murdering two French detectives in 1975.

Transnational dynamics feature strongly in the Assayas retrospective. Sentimental Destinies (2000) reveals the development of international trade in the early 20th century through the life of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), a Protestant preacher who abandons his quiet life in Switzerland to return to France and breathe life into his family's porcelain business. Barnery talks of the threat from Japanese competitors, while the characters discuss how to boost profits by improving efficiency of imported labour and opening foreign warehouses - all precursors to the cutthroat business ethos commonplace in today's globalised world.

An adaptation of Jacques Chardonne's 1934 novel, Sentimental Destinies is similar to Carlos, as 'it deals with the transformation of the world within the arc of one character', Assayas says.

Sentimental Destinies marked the start of a decade of making films with global links.

Demonlover (2002) revolves around a young woman's role in a multinational company's attempt to acquire rights to Japanese stereoscopic pornographic manga. Clean (2004) documents a Chinese drug addict's release from a Canadian prison and her rehabilitation in Paris, where she tries to reconnect with her estranged son. In Boarding Gate (2007), the protagonist works at a container port for a Chinese couple and flees to Hong Kong after she kills her American entrepreneur lover, only to find herself getting mixed up in a scheme involving, among others, an American woman who runs mainland sweatshops.

It's a long way from the French literature Assayas studied at university, and he attributes his global perspective to a spell as a journalist for the French magazine Cahiers de Cinema.

'I had this opportunity of travelling and watching movies in other cultures, and experiencing other cultures by spending time in the US and Asia,' he says. 'I realised that what was going on in the mid-80s in [films from] Hong Kong and Taipei was relevant to me in the way French cinema wasn't.'

While on a research trip to Asia, he met directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang De-chang, then embarking on careers that would eventually become cornerstones of the Taiwanese New Wave.

'They were having this dialogue with their own cultures and representing their own worlds [in ways] which are extremely meaningful to me,' says Assayas, who made a documentary about Hou in 1997.

But it was through Maggie Cheung Man-yuk that Assayas forged a strong link with Hong Kong and Asian cinema. After he cast her in Irma Vep (1996) as a Hong Kong actress taking part in a French remake of a vampire movie, their relationship turned personal and the pair married in 1998. They divorced in 2001, but remained friendly enough to work together in 2004's Clean: Cheung's starring role won her the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

'Irma Vep is important to me on so many levels - it's the first time I experimented with using as a central character in my film someone foreign to my film culture,' Assayas says. 'It's an experiment: what if you take someone who's a superstar in Chinese cinema and film her in the context of French independent filmmaking? It opened up the idea of using international actors - and that led to casting Edgar Ramirez for Carlos and being comfortable with it, because I know you gain things by mixing cultures.'

Carlos screens on Dec 8, at 9pm at Broadway The One and Dec 11, at 2pm at Palace IFC. Details at