Flickhead
Film Review
By Ray Young

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hop01A.jpg
Kalomba Mbuyi

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Hop

A film by Dominique Standaert

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Film Movement

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    We’ve become so conditioned by color in the movies, that when Hop opens in stunning black-and-white, it immediately begins its seduction. The tale of ‘the hop’ is related by an African teenager, Justin, the sole black among white students in a classroom in Brussels. He’s giving an oral report explaining why Pygmies speak French, tracing it back to Julius Caesar and the elephants of Hannibal. The teacher and class are drawn in by the mystique and secret of ‘the hop’ — a tactic, an evasive maneuver, a bluff, a smokescreen — and so were we. It distracts us from realizing the black-and-white photography mirrors the race issues Hop artfully attends to.
    Played by Kalomba Mbuyi, an engaging young actor making his debut, Justin is a straight-A student who must rely upon ‘the hop’ as a means to survive. He and his widower father are illegal immigrants, using their wits and skills to avoid deportation and blend in to the local scenery. But the father is eventually caught, and Justin must formulate a ‘hop’ to bring him home.
    The feature film debut of writer/director Dominique Standaert, Hop calls attention to the (generally unspoken) racism within blue-collar European neighborhoods, and the ease most white men have in condemning minorities. As dialects alternate between French and Flemish, however, the Belgian culture is observed with some discretion as something random and unfocused, making the film’s concerns of race and deportation simultaneously threatening and ironic.
    Standaert takes sly liberal jabs at the Belgian Office of Foreign Affairs, a conservative dinosaur prone to bullying tactics when deporting Justin’s father (played with the submissive unease of someone who’s ‘been there’ by Ansou Diedhou). When Justin tricks them with ‘the hop,’ the picture approaches areas posing any number of David-versus-Goliath clichés. Yet Kalomba Mbuyi’s affecting performance, swaying easily (and believably) from comedy to pathos, combined with the script’s clever detour into the world of a semi-retired communist activist, add a human dimension to the film’s political ideology.
    In this latter part, a droll rescue plot through an imaginary army of revolutionary Pygmies, the theme of small versus large coincides with the elucidating of differences separating anarchy from terrorism. With his burly deportment reminiscent of James Whitmore or William Bendix, Jan Decleir plays the activist, Frans, as an intellectual whose militant nature has been stifled by lethargy. (He’s also a wry comic foil to Mbuyi’s young idealist.) After the scenario has bridged its disparate cultures — either with the help of a compassionate official (the actress Alexandra Vandernoot alternating from icy to magnanimous), or Frans’s silently quixotic companion (Antje De Boeck), or the region’s shared enthusiasm for soccer — the picture finds a group of unlikely allies gathered ‘round the TV. It’s a disquieting scene in which black is momentarily tolerated or accepted by white, but only by white’s tainted grace.
    Hop is a rich production from modest means. At the outset, Vincent D’Hondt’s playful score is reminiscent of some of Nino Rota’s work for Fellini. And Remon Fromont’s cinematography — shot with the digital 24P camera — explores the breadth black-and-white, both in imagery and as metaphor for racial themes and the simplicity of seemingly difficult choices amid confusion.
    Included on the DVD is Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, Lick the Star (1998), an informed 14-minute short feature about flip-flopping (and nasty) adolescent behavior.

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Copyright © 2004 by Ray Young