Monday, March 07, 2022

273. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s tenth complete feature film, “Memoria” (2021), shot in Colombia, based on his original screenplay: Metaphysics of awakening human memory through sound and sight, rather than words

 

















 

A sound like a rumble from the core of the earth” 

—Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scotswoman and a scientist, describing the sound that woke her up one day from slumber  in Colombia, a sound that she wishes to identify and understand (words spoken in the early part of the film)

 

Why are you crying, when they are not of your memories?” 

—Jessica’s new-found acquaintance Hernan (the metaphoric “hard disk," as he describes himself”) says to her, after Jessica (the metaphoric “antenna”, in Hernan’s words) physically connects with Hernan by Jessica placing his palm on her arm (words spoken towards the end of the film)

Memoria is a film that recalls Carlos Reygadas’ opening and closing sequences of his Silent Light (2007), approaching metaphysical mysteries using sounds and visuals. It was not surprising for this critic that Reygadas was one of the many thanked by the filmmakers in the film’s credits. Memoria equally recalls sequences from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris (Kris’ sequences on earth outside his home before travelling into space and Kris viewing the liquid world of Solaris from his spaceship window) and Stalker (the child watching the glass tumbler moving off the table, aided by external vibrations). Viewers, who found Silent Light, Solaris and Stalker boring, would find Memoria exasperating with almost negligible spoken words compared to those films and mysteries deliberately left partially explained. However, for a viewer who loves the films of Reygadas and Tarkovsky—Memoria would be a strangely rewarding and exhilarating experience to view, mixing science and the history of Colombia, where director Weerasethakul detects parallels in recent times with his native Thailand. Those parallels become more apparent if the viewer has watched two of the director’s films Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Cemetery of Splendor (2018).

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) becomes the antenna
of "hard disk" Hernan (Elkin Diaz) by placing his palm on her hand


The archeologist Agnes (Jeanne Balibar) encourages Jessica
to touch the manmade hole in the head of a skull of a girl who 
lived in Colombia 6000 years ago.

Director Weerasethakul had spent time in Colombia to research and grapple with the parallel histories of Colombia and his native Thailand before he decided to write the original script of Memoria as an extension of ideas he had developed in his earlier films Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendor. His fictional character Uncle Boonmee could recall the past lives, so too in Memoria can the mysterious elder Hernan, who claims he never left that village, as he removes the scales of fishes to salt and dry them. In Memoria, there are several references to the dead being excavated in tunnels by road builders possibly referring to the dead bodies of the battles between Marxist Leninist FARC activists and the Colombian militia as well as the skeleton of a girl who had lived 6000 years ago in Colombia with a manmade hole in her skull indicating the way she died. In Cemetery of Splendor, comatose Thai soldiers were kept in hospital wards (over lands where Thai kings were buried) with bright colorful lights to induce good dreams in the still alive but comatose soldiers. None of these facts are mentioned in Memoria explicitly. It is left for an intelligent filmgoer, familiar with the director’s past works to figure out why Jessica’s eyes well with tears when she connects with “hard disk” Hernan, who knows all the past lives of the people of Colombia.


Jessica with young sound engineer Hernan
(Juan Pablo Urrego),who was never real,
presenting her the precise recorded sound


Memoria is a film on sleep, dreams, death and life. Jessica is woken from “sleep” by the strange sound and is eager to know how the elder Hernan can “sleep” without memories and watches him sleep for a while. Dreams play a part in the film as Jessica’s sister Karen claims she was affected by a strange illness after she did not feed and take care of a stray dog that had come to her doorstep. When Jessica recounts the dog story back to Karen who has been cured of her illness she does not recollect it. Who is dreaming--Jessica or Karen? The viewer learns from the sparse conversations that dot the film that Jessica has lost her husband in the recent past. Whose death certificate is Jessica asked to sign by Karen’s partner?  When Jessica connects with “hard disk“ Hernan,  Jessica’s ”antenna” allows Jessica to “recognize” her past childhood items “visible” in the room. However, earlier Jessica dreams that her dentist has died but her sister Karen and her partner assure her that he is alive and well.

Memoria communicates with its viewers using sound, silence and a visual magnetism rare in cinema. That sound that Jessica and the viewer hears for the first time, which is central to the film hits one after a long period of silence.  That thud is recreated with amazing sound engineering of the young Herman with inputs from Jessica and his studio equipment. Later on in the film, Jessica and the viewer accost other denizens of the same building where the sound engineer had worked who convince Jessica that no such person as the young Hernan ever worked there or is known to them when Jessica describes his physique. When Jessica hears the same sound on the street, one Colombian, is startled and runs for his life while others are not affected. In open areas in Colombia, the strange thud also scares a bird but no other human seem to have heard it or is affected. The strange sound switches on a wave of alarms in parked cars that subside as it started indicating it is not a human action.

Jessica had come to Colombia to study the effect of a fungus on orchids and eventually the strange sound opens her eyes to hidden histories of the land and extra-terrestrial communication. When Jessica goes to a doctor seeking a cure for her “affliction” by the strange sounds, she is refused medication but instead advised to take an interest in either art or God to cure her current state.

The cinematography of Mukdeeprom, capturing still life,
as in a painting, with birds in the far background,
uninterested in the fish, even when the characters stop speaking

Jessica recalls objects in the room
as parts of her childhood memory

In Memoria, director and original scriptwriter Weerasethakul comes close to the world of Tarkovsky and the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem whose ideas were distilled in Solaris.


Weerasethakul is aided once again by the cinematography of Sayembhu Mukdeeprom, who captures the beauty of Colombia’s natural resources as though the scenes were still life paintings recalling the cinematography in Terence Malick’s films: The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, and the bison sequence in To the Wonder. Those who care to note the details of the exterior sequence of Jessica and “hard disk” Hernan, will note crow-like birds in the distance, birds that surprisingly do not seem to be attracted by the fish being dried out in the sun. Therein lies clues to the film’s narrative that unfolds in the last 15 minutes of the film.

Memoria, which won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago film festival, was given the following citation for award: “.. for its sense of cinematic poetry and humanism. In this profound and meditative film, the director creates a story that emphasizes the connection people have to the places that they live, to the past and the present, and to the terrestrial and beyond. Tilda Swinton’s note perfect performance embodies Weerasethakul’s faith in cinema, in science, in secular mysticism, and in the possibilities of cross-cultural empathy and understanding.” The comprehensive citation captures it all. Memoria is a film that will exasperate many but be treasured by those who can pick up details in a reflective narrative and string them all together.

 

P.S.  Memoria won the Jury Prize at Cannes film Festival in 2021 and the Gold Hugo for the Best Film at the Chicago film festival. Weeerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Reygadas Silent Light (2007); Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972); and Malick’s  The Thin Red Line (1998), Days of Heaven (1978), and To the Wonder (2012) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access each of the reviews.) Memoria is one of the author's best films of 2021

Monday, February 14, 2022

272. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s fifteenth feature film “Dom Durakov” (House of Fools) (2002), based on his original screenplay: An assessment of a film trashed soon after its release by most critics














A majority of film critics and viewers tend to dismiss Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s films in their initial assessments, especially in recent decades. Why is that? To answer that question, one needs to know some key facts about Konchalovsky and the three phases of his career.

Who is Konchalovsky?

Few know or recall that Konchalovsky was partly responsible for the early masterpieces of Andrei Tarkovsky—The Steamroller and The Violin; Ivan’s Childhood; and Andrei Rublyev. As a screenplay-writer, Konchalovsky collaborated with Tarkovsky (his film school classmate) as a co-scriptwriter on these films as well as for other directors’ films: Shaken Ajmanov’s The End of the Ataman (1971) and Tolomush Okeev’s The Fierce One (1974). He also contributed, as a screenplay-writer, to his half-brother Nikita Mikhalkov’s film A Slave of Love (1976). Many of these films dealt with children and childhood. This was the specifically highlighted in his own debut film as a director and co-scriptwriter, The First Teacher (1965), a film that won the best actress award at the Venice film festival. Then he directed Siberiade (1979), which won the Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury (essentially, the second-best film in competition at that event in 1979). These accomplishments mark his first phase evolving from an important screenplay-writer into a notable film director, winning international recognition at major film festivals.

Then his second phase begins when he moves to Hollywood directing a string of  impressive films in USA: Maria’s Lovers (1984), with his screenplay, nominated for the Venice Golden Lion; Runaway Train (1985), based on a re-worked screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, winner of the best actor Golden Globe, and nominated for the Cannes Golden Palm and three Oscars; Duet for One (1986), based on his co-scripted screenplay and nominated for a Golden Globe; Shy People (1987), based on his original story and screenplay, winner of the best actress award at Cannes, and nominated for the Golden Palm at that festival; and Homer and Eddie (1989) winner of the Golden Seashell award for the best film at the San Sebastian film festival in Spain. This was followed by a critical and commercial disaster called Tango and Cash, made the same year. It was a disaster primarily due to the studio’s (and possibly actor Sylvester Stallone’s) interference with the director’s plans at every stage triggering the exasperated director’s return to Russia. This second phase re-emphasized Konchalovsky’s talents as a director (when there was no studio interference), a screenplay-writer (in three films in this phase) and, more importantly, as a director who could extract award-winning performances from his actors.

Then comes his third phase when he returns to Russia and films The Inner Circle (1991), with his screenplay, and wins a nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin; Ryaba, My Chicken (1994) with his original screenplay, and wins a nomination for the Golden Palm at Cannes that year; and follows those two films by directing  House of Fools  (2002) this time again with his original screenplay, which gets nominated  for the Golden Lion at Venice, winning the Grand Special Jury Prize and the UNICEF award. Konchalovsky followed these three major nominations at the big three festivals with another set of three top-notch films that have actually won him better and more significant laurels: The Postman’s White Nights (2014), Paradise (2016), and Dear Comrades (2020).  The first two were winners of the Silver Lion for the Best Director and the third a winner of Jury’s Special Prize all at the Venice film festival, with all the three screenplays co-scripted by Konchalovsky and his new collaborator, Elena Kiseleva.

The third phase, thus, marks the amazing contributions of Konchalovsky as director and screenplay-writer while collaborating on many films with his actress wife Vysostkaya and his new found co-scriptwriter Kiseleva—a wonderful, winning combination.  

What is most exciting is that Konchalovsky is currently working on rebuilding afresh the Tarkovsky film The First Day, destroyed in 1979 by the Russian Censors, which was based on the script written by Konchalovsky. Both Konchalovsky and Tarkovsky have a close affinity with the Russian Orthodox Church and evidently Tarkovsky’s last film project in the USSR, The First Day, upset the atheist doctrines of USSR in 1979, and contributed in part to the destruction of the completed footage of the film project. That ill-fated Tarkovsky-Konchalovsky film project had followed Konchalovsky’s collaboration on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyev. The destruction of that Tarkovsky film resulted in the self-exile of the director. The timing of the destruction of the film coincides with the year Siberiade was made--the last film of Konchalovsky in the first phase, before he makes films in USA instead of his homeland. 

The numerous nominations and accolades of Konchalovsky over the decades at the big three film festivals of the world—Cannes, Venice and Berlin--are rare feathers in the cap for any film director from any country. Thus, it is rather odd when an awarded work such as House of Fools is hastily dismissed by many..

Assessment of House of Fools

“Why is man happy when he kills another? What is there to be happy about?"—Leo Tolstoy, recalled by a Russian army officer (played by a famous Russian actor, Evginiy Mironov) in the film

Several critics, who assessed this work of Konchalovsky, compared House of Fools with Milos Forman’s famous US film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and found the Konchalovsky film to be a disjointed and unimpressive work. Yet the only common factor between the two films is that both revolve around inmates of a mental asylum.


Yulia Vysotskaya plays an asylum inmate, Zhanna,
who adores Bryan Adams, and dreams that he drives the train
that crosses the bridge each evening, near the asylum


There are major differences between the two films. Forman’s film is an adaptation of novel by Ken Kesey about a criminal who hides in a mental asylum.  Konchalovsky’s film is based on real events and the screenplay is original.

House of Fools is a film on good humans with mental problems. These patients are incarcerated in a mental asylum, run by an efficient doctor, who is dedicated to the well-being of his patients and caring. On the not-so-obvious side--it is based on true incidents in Chechnya (Russia) during the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000. For those unfamiliar with Chechnya, it is a constituent republic of Russia with a predominant Muslim population. Russians predominantly belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Konchalovsky has proven his Russian orthodox credentials in all his cinematic works.

In this film, the inmates of the asylum include patients of both faiths living in harmony. Outside the asylum, there is war (between the Muslim Chechens and the Christian Russians). Konchalovsky's script underscores the camaraderie between the warring factions when they fought side by side in Afghanistan saving each others lives. During the Chechen war, some soldiers of both sides recall that they were once friends and show respect for each other.

When the asylum is bombed by the Russians, many of the inmates “cross” themselves out of fear of impending death--indicating the majority of the inmates are Christian. Ahmed, a Muslim Chechen and a pacifist, incarcerates himself with this motley group of inmates as he finds safety, anonymity, and friendship among the "crazies" who accept him as one of their own.

Zhanna assumes the actor-turned-Chechen soldier, Ahmed
(Sultan Islamov), intends to marry and dresses in white attire,
contributed by various inmates for the bride-to-be 


During the war, many of the support staff flee to save their lives. The good doctor, who alone has to care for some twenty-odd patients, is worried for the safety of his patients and goes out of the hospital to find a bus to transport the inmates to a safer zone, Significantly, even then, they do not wish to leave the hospital, quite unlike the Milos Forman’s film and Ken Kesey’s novel, where troublemaking patients are not sensitively cared for but lobotomized.  In Konchalovsky’s film, the doctor in charge of the hospital listens to and cares for his wards, in contrast to the Hollywood film. House of Fools is a humanist film where a Chechen ultimately seeks the solace of the asylum compared to the world outside. Most importantly, the film is secular, where the doctor and his patients help and love one another irrespective of their religions. This is where House of Fools is considerably different from the Forman film.

Another facet of the film that will surprise many viewers is that many of the patients in the mental hospital are real mental patients who were working alongside professional actors. Not many directors would attempt such a feat; Konchalovsky did it, with elan.

The caring doctor (Vladas Bagdonas) who returns after his
unsuccessful trip to get a bus to evacuate the asylum patients,
is worried that the Chechen soldiers have harmed the innocent Zhanna


The participation of rock singer Bryan Adams as an actor and singer in the film is Konchalovsky's masterstroke along with the soothing words of the song Have you ever really loved a woman? sung by the singer.  The crash of a helicopter and it bursting into flames within the hospital’s grounds during the war show the intensity of the conflict while the innocent Zhanna plays her accordion oblivious of the gangers with a a few feet of her.

Other important trivia, the lead actress Yulia Vysotskaya is the director's wife of over 20 years. Her acting capability is showcased in a wide variety of roles she has subsequently played in her husband's films--most importantly in Paradise and Dear Comrades.

The film is further strengthened on the aural front beyond Bryan Adams by the music of composer Eduard Artemyev. Artemyev's contribution is often bypassed by the fans of Tarkovsky (in Solaris, Stalker, Mirror), of Konchalovsky (in Siberiade, The Inner Circle, Homer and Eddie),of  Mikhalkov (in The Barber of Siberia, A Few Days in the Life of I. I. Oblomov), etc.

The crux of the film lies in the quotation of Tolstoy "Why is man happy when he kills another? What is there to be happy about?" recalled by a Russian army officer (played by a famous Russian actor, Evginiy Mironov,) in the film towards the end.


The Chechen soldier Ahmed acts as if he has fallen for
the accordion-playing Zhanna and blurts out that he will
 marry her, little realizing the consequences 

Conclusion

When Konchalovsky writes his own original screenplays (as opposed to when he is adapting an existing written work) few aspects emerge: his firm Christian roots, his wide reading, and his love for Russia. While each tale could be set in different locations--a remote marshy forest in USA (as in Shy People), a mental asylum (as in House of Fools), or a remote village in Russia (as in The Postman’s White Nights)--step back from the obvious tale and you will spot a metaphor that is critical of the current state of  the director's homeland.  Those are his unique strengths.

 

P.S.  House of Fools won the Grand Special Jury Prize and the UNICEF award at the Venice film Festival in 2002. Konchalovsky’s films Runaway Train, Shy People, The Postman’s White Nights, and Paradise, have been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access each of the reviews.) Konchalovsky is one of the author's top 15 active filmmakers.



 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

271. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ninth feature film “Doraibu mai ka” (Drive My Car) (2021), based on his co-scripted screenplay, adapting a fascinating short story written by the celebrated contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami: An unusual script structure comprising a 39-minute prologue, followed by the main tale, and tying it all up with a stunning, minimalist, micro-epilogue

 

















Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will appeal to different folks for totally different reasons. Those familiar with Haruki Murakami’s written work flock to watch cinematic adaptations of his written works such as the Korean director Chang-dong Lee’s Burning (2018), Japanese director Anh Hung Tran’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or the Japanese director Jun Ichikawa’s Toni Takitani (2004), among the nine such feature films already released.  Drive My Car is the latest cinematic adaptation of the nine films and is based on a short story with the same title as the film. 

The film Drive My Car is equally interesting for readers who love Anton Chekov’s famous play Uncle Vanya. They will be pleasantly surprised that it still can be staged in myriad ways, though purists will find Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1970 film version of Uncle Vanya with Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Sergei Bondarchuk and Irina Kupchenko, as the definitive cinematic adaptation.

However, director Hamaguchi leaps beyond the original tales of Murakami and Chekov with a stunning screenplay melding both the literary works. Those who have read Murakami’s short story will easily spot that Chekov’s play is barely discussed in the short story, while the film discusses the casting, the rehearsals and the staging of the play in considerable detail. There is a reason for it. More on that later.


Kafuku's wife Oto (Reika Kirishima),
an actress-turned-playwright,
 who appears only in the prologue


Evidently Hamaguchi had the tacit approval of Murakami (who is credited as the second among the three co-scriptwriters, the third being Takamasa Oe). Murakami’s tale is essentially of the happily married middle-aged couple, Kafuku (a stage actor who eventually becomes a stage director) and his wife Oto (an attractive stage actress flowering into a playwright over the decades). The couple have an active sex life and Oto gets her creative ideas as a playwright post-coitus, narrating it to her husband before writing it on paper. (This aspect of the tale is incorporated by the scriptwriters from another Murakami short story called Scheherazade.) Both thespians are in love with each other. Some 20 years before, a child was born to Kafuku and Oto, that did not survive beyond 3 days after birth. Both grieved and mutually decided not to procreate another child. In spite of their mutual love, the wife has trysts with other actors on the sly, which the husband had sensed and discovered to be true. As the uxorial love between the couple was not affected, the husband opted to never confront his wife with his knowledge of his wife’s infidelity. One day, his beloved wife of 20 years dies. In the film, Drive My Car, Oto’s death is unexpected. In the short story, the husband and wife knew Oto had cancer; Oto was hospitalized and only allowed Kafuku, Oto’s mother and Oto’s sister to visit her—no one else.

After the screen credits, the substantive main tale of the film is presented. The Saab car is an interesting subject for both the film and the short story. In Murakami’s tale, the Saab car is yellow; in the film, it’s red. In the prologue, Kafuku’s fondness for this vehicle recalls novelist Robert Pirsig’s hero and his philosophical fondness for his motorbike in his famous autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values. Kafuku, who loves his car and is a careful driver, involuntarily involves it in an accident due to a blind spot in his vision (real and metaphorical), soon after discovering his wife in bed with a lover. It is the red Saab that links the prologue, the main tale and the epilogue—hence the Pirsig connection. Not even Kafuku. In fact, Kafuku is “physically absent” in the epilogue. Kafuku’s love for his Saab is as strong as his love for his dead wife Oto. When Kafuku, is invited to a Japanese city of Hiroshima to direct and present an experimental Uncle Vanya, with performers speaking different languages, we are indirectly made to realize that considerable time has passed after Oto’s death as Kafuku has evolved from a famous actor playing Uncle Vanya in the play to be respected at that point of time as a famous director of the Chekov play. Thus, it is in the main portion of Hamaguchi’s film that we encounter for the first time Kafuku’s female driver Misaki, suggested by the drama company funding and contracting Kafuku to stage the play. As per their rules of that company, all major creative figures are not allowed to drive cars, during period the play is being rehearsed and performed publicly. This would not seem out of place for a viewer who has not read Murakami’s short story.  However, Murakami’s short story begins with Misaki being employed by Kafuku soon after Oto’s death and the Saab accident, at the behest of the garage owner who repaired the Saab, following the accident.


The Saab car flanked by its owner Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) (left) and his personal
driver Misaki (Toko Miura) (right)


Hamaguchi’s film now reintroduces Oto’s final illicit lover, Takatsuki, briefly shown in the prologue twice, once having sex with Oto and then at Oto’s funeral where Takatsuki condoles Kafuku. Takatsuki is picked by Kafuku in the film to play Uncle Vanya, a role Kafuku had perfected as an actor in earlier stage productions in Japan—despite Takatsuki being too young to play the role. Kafuku’s ulterior design is to get to befriend Takatsuki to figure out what attracted Oto to Takatsuki for a brief period.

Kafuku (right) engages Takatsuki (Oto's lover, left)
in conversations relating to Oto


The deliberate switching of chronology and changes in the introduction of the driver Misaki serves a bigger role in Hamaguchi’s film than in the short story—he introduces two new characters that are not part of the Murakami story. They are a male official of the drama company and his Korean wife who is an actress, who cannot speak but communicates in the sign language. These two important characters are not part of Murakami’s story.  The Korean actress is cast by Kafuku in an important role in the experimental production accentuating that the world is a global village. These additional characters are creations of co-scriptwriters Hamaguchi and Oe, without tampering much with Murakami’s original creations of Kafuku, his wife Oto, his driver Misaki and Oto’s last lover Takatsuki.

Further, the unusual rehearsals and performances of Uncle Vanya in the film Drive My Car that take up considerable screen time of the 3-hour film are not even a part of the Murakami short story. In the short story, there is no mention of Takatsuki’s arrest by the police midway for crimes barely discussed in the film during a rehearsal of the Chekov play—all these are creations of Hamaguchi and Oe. So is the entire trip of Kafuko and his driver Misaki to Misaki’s house where she and her mother lived, before her mother’s death, opening up parallels in their lonely lives. The lonely Misaki and the widower Kafuko realize the difficult years of their past and that like Sonya and her Uncle Vanya need to move on with positive ideals. Both love driving the Saab car with its manual gear shifts, without literal or  metaphorical jerks.

To the credit of Hamaguchi and Oe, their additions to the Murakami tale lifted up the story to a new level. Their stunning minimalist epilogue urges the viewer to figure out much of the tale that is left for the viewer to figure out and savour. For one, the epilogue is set in the pandemic—so the time has moved forward from the main portion of the film. Secondly, the concept of the experimental version of the play with characters speaking in different tongues, with a written script projected above the stage to help the audience, in many ways reflects Chekov’s hope and dream when he wrote the play after visiting Siberia that ends with the words of Sonya to Uncle Vanya: “…We will live a good life. We will look back on it with a smile. My sweet uncle, we will hear angels, see the riches of heaven, and look down on earthly evil. All our suffering will become good that covers the earth. I believe it. I believe it.

 The plain and physically unattractive driver Misaki, in the film and in the story, listens to the recording of the play as she drives Kafuku around and identifies herself with Sonya of the play, who like Misaki is not physically attractive. Thirdly, and most importantly. the epilogue is not set in Japan but in Korea. Misaki, the red Saab, and the dog that belongs to the Korean actress (who communicates through sign language) have moved on to Korea. (If you can’t read the two different languages, you will note the side of the road they drive on has changed in the epilogue from the main film) Hamaguchi forces the viewer to connect the dots and figure it all out at the end of the film. A reflective viewer would note the wider connection between a play performed in different languages and the Corona virus  pandemic that affected all parts of the world (indicated by the masks worn in the epilogue). This is undoubtedly one of the finest, complex, and mature adapted screenplays in recent times. It’s a also a good example of a film that cajoles a lazy film viewer to read the original written work to appreciate and compare both mediums. If one reads Murakami's short story, any intelligent viewer will be able to grasp the importance of a creative and well-adapted screenplay, which leaves the original tale, to the extent shown in the film, almost intact. Thus both Murakami and Hamaguchi would be pleased with their distinct products in two different mediums.

 

P.S.  Drive My Car is one of the author's best films of 2021. The film won the Best Screenplay award, the FIPRESCI prize and the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival; the Silver Hugo jury prize at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Kieslowski award for the best feature film at the Denver International Film Festival; the Golden Globe for the Best Motion Picture in a non-English language at the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscar for Best International Film. It is expected to win more accolades. Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Uncle Vanya (1970) can be accessed with English subtitles on YouTube free of cost.

 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

270. German film director Maria Schrader’s third feature film “Ich bin dein Mensch” (I am Your Man) (2021) (Germany) in German, based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky: Can artificial intelligence and robotics find your perfect spouse in the near future?



 














Your pain is pathetic. It is pathetic because it is relative. It is also not pathetic because it is part of you, and that’s why I love it.” 

---The android Tom created by algorithms and constantly capable of processing new information and thus evolving and responding constantly to be the designed perfect partner of Alma, a human archaeologist, ironically studying how people have changed over 4000 years by studying cuneiform scripts.


 

Maria Schrader’s film I am Your Man is a fascinating sci-fi (science fiction) film. The film progresses from the milestones set by the talking and scheming computer HAL of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey (1968), to the crafty gynoid (a female android) of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), to the algorithm-oriented holographic spouses of the sci-fi play by Jordan Harrison and its adapted movie version of Michael Almeyreda’s Marjorie Prime (2017) to eventually introduce us to director Maria Schrader’s Tom—a perfect android, very smart, handsome, affable and totally benevolent to humans. In Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey, HAL the computer had become so smart that it began to give malevolent advice to misguide humans and even went to the extent of turning off the life-support system of three crewmen surviving in animated suspension, killing them instantly, in an effort to control the human crew of the space ship. In Garland’s Oscar-winning Ex Machina the near-perfect gynoid Ava locks up her human friend and leaves her mortally wounded human creator’s scientific facility to blend with the outside world of humans—yet another but more sophisticated variant of HAL. In Harrison’s/Almeyreda’s Marjorie Prime, while the holographic spouses cannot be touched they provide psychological and benevolent comfort to humans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but can recall the memories of those suffering from the disease and thus provide succor. But one of the holograms does trip up to upset the near perfect scenario. Thus both Maria Schrader’s I am Your Man and Almeyreda’s Marjorie Prime take the viewer to the distinct possibility of recreating memories of past love in humans with the intelligent use of artificial intelligence in the not-so-distant future.  Schrader’s film scores over Almeyreda’s film because the android Tom in I am Your Man is physical, protective, affable with all humans, and good looking. Screenplay writers Jan Schomburg and Maria Schrader reveal towards the end of the film that even the name Tom is connected with Thomas, a childhood sweetheart of Alma, the archaeologist—evidently information sourced by the company that manufactured Tom by delving deep into the memory of Alma aided by her brain scans. (Actress Maren Eggert, won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2021, for her performance as Alma in I am your Man.)

The android Tom (Dan Stevens) observing Alma 
(Maren Eggert) to pick up minute details to please
her, in her apartment

In the film I am your Man, Alma the archaeologist, faces a fund crunch for her scientific project and to augment her depleting financial resources she agrees to participate in a 3-week evaluation of an android boyfriend developed by a company by assimilating her past memories with the aid of a brain scan among other sources of information to suit her dream spouse--intelligent, handsome and somewhat exotic. The evaluation period of Tom includes a 3-day live-in period when the pair does have a sexual encounter that satisfies the needs of Alma. 

Tom and Alma outdoors--Alma loves
the companionship

Alma is touched by Tom waiting the rain to meet
her as agreed earlier


Tom and the android company's 
representative (Sandra Huller)

Alma is single, middle aged and successful in her field of archaeology. She has had a recent affair with her boyfriend that unfortunately resulted in a miscarriage. Soon he starts dating another woman and that woman is now pregnant. Alma is pushed into a fragile psychological state: her ability to conceive is in doubt and her boyfriend has found a new flame. Her father is battling dementia. Evidently, Alma does not want to die alone. When she asks Tom what is the saddest thing he can think of, Tom responds as Alma would have done in an honest moment: "Dying alone." Tom, the android watching Alma work in the lab, is able to absorb the basics of her work, search the internet and warn her that another set of scientists in another part of the world is ahead of her and on the verge of publishing their results before Alma’s team would be able to do the same. Tears well up in Alma’s eyes, while confronting these facts. The reaction of Tom to that situation is his profound analytical response: “So the tears in your eyes only relate to you yourself and your career? They are egotistical tears.”  Tom even graciously suggests an alternate paper that Alma could put together with the work she has put in thus far. Alma is hurt and packs him off to the android factory that manufactured him.

Wild animals may be wary of humans;
not so of androids

A key line spoken in the film


Today, we tend to assume that human beings have better feelings than machines/programmed androids. Schrader’s film contradicts that notion. Tom sits next to a customer in a café, while both watch a TV clip showing people failing to implement a plan. The customers sitting next to Tom laugh as they fail. Tom asks the customer seated next to him: “Could you explain to me what is funny about it?” He is answered “It looks so silly. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” Tom continues, “The fact that no one dies?” He gets this answer, “That definitely would not be funny. Dying is definitely not funny, right?” Schrader and short-story writer Braslavsky thus project a future scenario when programmed androids could be more humane than humans in their gut reactions that sift good from the bad/insensitive ones.

After dispatching Tom off back to the factory that made him in egotistical anger, Alma writes up her evaluation of Tom, who is “not human” and is “not flawed in any conventional sense” during the 3-week period. Lines from her negative evaluation include “Are humans intended to have all their needs met with a push of a button? It will create a society of addicts who decide to not challenge themselves and endure conflicts.

A key scene between Tom and Alma


The delightful end of this unusual film is quite unpredictable providing the viewer with a cocktail of light entertainment, science, and thought-provoking questions about humans and machines programmed to improve themselves in a positive way, quite unlike “HAL”, “Eva”, and “Marjorie Prime” who preceded “Tom,” in cinematic chronology. Congratulations to the filmmakers and the short-story writer!

 

P.S.  I am Your Man won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for Ms Maren Eggert who plays Alma. It has also won the best fiction film and the best director awards at the German national awards and is Germany’s submission to the Oscars in the foreign language category.. It is one of the best films of 2021 for the author. The sci-fi film Marjorie Prime (2017) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the colored name of the film in the post-script to access the review.)



Sunday, November 14, 2021

269. Canadian film director Denis Côté’s tenth feature film “Hygiène sociale” (Social Hygiene) (2021) in French, based on his original script: An unusual film that serves to entertain verbally and visually as a dark comedy, without sex or violence
















T
he title of the film Social Hygiene will remind viewers of the Covid pandemic’s cardinal rule to avoid infection—maintain social distancing to avoid infection. In fact, no two characters make physical contact in the entire film and maintain at least a 12 feet distance between each other. There is no mention of Covid or even wearing of masks in the film. Simply put, though the film was made during the pandemic, the film has nothing to do with it. Further, the film’s original script was written by the director Denis Côté in 2015, much before the onset of the pandemic. 
 
Antonin (right) spars verbally with his love
Cassiopée, while her new admirer silently watches 
in the background



The film is built around the pivotal character, Antonin, married, but staying away from his wife, Eglantine. Where? In a friend’s Volkswagen! Antonin, we realize is prone to making up unreal stories, is well read, deft with language wordplay, and is a thief, vandalizing cars in the process. The director/screenplay-writer Denis Côté’s central character encounters four ladies apart from his wife Eglantine. He meets with his sister, Solveig; his secret love, Cassiopée; a lady named Rose from the Ministry of Revenue tracking him down to coerce him to cough up his unpaid tax dues; and finally, Aurore, who has been also tracking him to get back a jacket and a computer he stole from her car, and some compensation for smashing its windows to steal those items.   

Antonin talks to his wife Eglantine

Antonin talks to Rose (note she wears pink),
the tax collector who can send him to prison




All the meetings with the five ladies are staged like a Samuel Beckett play with two or three characters (always including Antonin) in open grassy fields, often on the edges of forests. There is minimal movement from the characters often rooted to the same spot; only wordplay ensues with pregnant pauses between spoken lines. The only exceptionally active scene is Aurore dancing by herself in the forest to music, the source of which is never revealed. Why and what provokes Aurore, a theology student who works in a McDonald’s outlet, to suddenly dance or decide to take an interest in criminals is an amusing conundrum. To the casual viewer, the social criticism of Facebook, internet and taxes in the script may not be obvious. All the characters have lines to speak that refer to the ills of contemporary society and lifestyles.   

Antonin interacts with Solveig, his sister,
after she states that she found a lover at a restaurant
Note: She is still holding her wine glass 


Côté’s Antonin (mostly captured by the static camera in long shots, with a rare close-up towards the end of the film) is revealed as a filmmaker struggling to complete his script, and responds to Aurore’s revelation that she is a student of theology thus: “I believe in myself. I believe I can find the keys to my enigmas in my life by myself.”  

Antonin returns the jacket he stole from
Aurore's car to her. Note: Aurore's dress differs
 from those worn by other women



When asked about when and where he met his wife, Antonin wittily replies “I met my wife in a zoo, by the cage of the hyena. The rest is a long quiet river.” 

In Côté’s interesting script, the best lines are not invested with Antonin alone. Antonin’s love Cassiopée calls him a narcissist and says “You are 100 times dead. I love you as a zombie....Men are like mushrooms. The more handsome they are the more poison they contain.” The cocky Antonin pleads and buckles under Rose’s threat “I have the key to your prison cell at the edge of my pen,” to pay his taxes. To Aurore, Antonin agrees to return the jacket and computer. His sister, Solveig, finally finds a lover over tea and long tales, uttering the words “Carpe Diem.” His wife, too, leaves him for another lover. The once confident and witty Antonin is completely “socially distanced.” 

Antonin holds a flower he wishes to present to his love
Cassiopée (center, background) while his wife (left)
notes it all and decides to leave her philandering husband



Denis Côté, the filmmaker is essentially a charming, absurdist playwright, who stages his written work in natural open surroundings with clearly demarcated stage markings for his actors in grassy patches with distant bird, animal, and traffic sounds on the soundtrack. The rare body movements of most characters are in sharp contrast to Aurore flexible body movements during her dancing spell in the film. 

Aurore dances in the forest, the only character
in the film who moves a lot physically


While Côté presents verbal sparring that will interest most viewers, there are details that some could miss. The clothes worn by all actors are period costumes a century old, with the sole exception of Aurore’s clothes that are contemporary. Thus her clothes and her dance movements are in interesting contrast to all other characters. Is Côté suggesting that Antonin’s appropriate love interest should be Aurore, not the characters wearing century-old costumes? Antonin does confess he finds Aurore attractive. 

Antonin (Maxim Gaudette) levelled by all women:
The only close-up shot in the entire film


Then there is a deliberate smudge in the static vision to the left corner of the First Act in the countryside with Antonin sparring with his sister possibly to accentuate the picture postcard shot, because Solveig retains her hands-on-the-hips pose for a long while. When the static camera moves, there seems to be a purpose to intervene in the social distancing of the actors and the camera. Denis Côté’s film provides unusual entertainment for those who can appreciate good playwrights and a totally fresh approach to the medium that is visually and verbally witty. A very interesting filmmaker setting a new style! 

 P.S.  Social Hygiene won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival’s “Encounters” section and the Best Director award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. This film is one of the best films of 2021 for the author.




Saturday, November 13, 2021

268. Iranian film directors Maryam Moghadam’s and Behtash Sanaeeha’s feature film “Ghasideh Gave Sefid” (Ballad of a White Cow) (2020) (Iran) in Farsi/Persian language, based on their original script: Fallouts of the miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is executed for a murder he did not commit

 
















 

And recall when Moses said to his people, “Allah commands you to slaughter a cow”

They answered, “Do you make a mockery of us?”

---“Surah of the Cow” in the Holy Quran (Opening quote in the film)


Iran continues to make interesting feature films, year after year, bereft of sex, nudity, escapist car chases and on-screen violence. Ballad of a White Cow is a tale of the bread-winner of small nuclear family found guilty of the killing of a known friend by a court, condemned to death by a three judge bench according to Iranian law and consequently executed for the crime. Later, the real killer confesses to the crime. A miscarriage of justice has unintentionally taken place.

While the wife of the hastily executed innocent man approaches the Iranian Supreme Court for justice for her and her mute daughter and retribution for the judges, one of the three judges is devastated by the revelations of the real killer and reaches out to help the wife and child of the executed prisoner, without revealing his own identity, and quits his job as a judge much to the amazement of the judiciary and officials, as he had merely applied existing laws of the land. That single judge, among the three judges who jointly  passed the hasty sentence, makes a laudable effort to make amends even before the Supreme Court surprisingly ruled that the wife and child had to be compensated and judges be held responsible in some way. The film is an implicit critique of capital punishment and of miscarriage of justice.

Mina (Maryam Moghadam) with her brother-in-law
reacting to the information that her dead husband
was innocent and the real killer has confessed

The interesting original script treads more on the indirect punishment on the blameless wife Mina (played by the screenplay-writer and co-director Moghadam) and daughter, living in a rented apartment. If a strange man, Reza (Alireza Sani Far), visits her to pay back “a loan” he took from Mina’s husband, the owner of the rented apartment also hastily assumes his tenant is involved in some immoral activity and asks Mina to speedily vacate. In Iran, a single woman with a child and without a job, cannot easily find an alternate accommodation at short notice, even if she has the money. Thus, the film is not just about capital punishment and miscarriage of justice, it is a commentary on single women/mothers in Iran. However, women in Iran do enjoy a lot of freedom and respect compared to their counterparts in some other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Mina explains to her daughter Bita
that her father has gone far away 

Reza is a rare individual with a conscience. His life as a judge crumbles with a hasty judgement he made with two others on the basis of questionable evidence. Reza’s son, whose mother is either dead or divorced, is so alienated from his father after he learns of his father’s involvement in the miscarriage of justice that he rushes to join the army and soon commits suicide. Reza is twice broken. But the good man has no courage to inform Mina that he was one of the three judges who hastily condemned Mina’s husband to death.

The Judge Reza (Alireza Sani Far) arrives at Mina's
door without revealing his true identity, stating that
he has come to return a large sum of money
her husband had lent him

What follows has to be interpreted keeping in mind the opening quote about the cow. A white cow is shown in a mosque (the barbed wire on the walls resemble a prison) readied for slaughter early in the film to help the viewer with a visual connection to the opening quote. The script-writer Moghadam envisages Mina as a worker in a milk-packaging factory, a metaphoric connect to the innocent cow in the quotation. Mina does seem to eventually accept her husband’s execution as a submission to the will of Allah (God) as a good Muslim. When Mina realizes her husband was innocent she finds that she and her mute daughter seems to have been “mocked” by the judicial system. The “mockery” extends to Mina, already under stress from the judiciary, the owner of her initial apartment, and Mina’s father-in-law trying to grab the “blood money” or the financial compensation from the government, added up to Mina losing her job at the milk packaging factory, due to a strike. The finale of the film could confound an average viewer but if the viewer realizes Mina is intelligent, the ending is easy to decipher. The tale can be considered as a modern-day parable. The tale is a very interesting confrontation of the ethics of a remorseful judge and that of the eventual suffering victim’s ability or lack of ability to forgive. The viewer is left much to ruminate on.

Reza realizing Mina's problems of finding
a new apartment provides her an apartment he owns
that is lying unused at discounted rent

Mina and Bita prepare for an uncertain future

Ms Maryam Moghadam (spelled Moqaddam in Wikipedia) and Mr Behtash Sanaeeha are a rare husband-wife team making their first film Ballad of a White Cow as co-directors which won them the awards for the Best New Director at the 2021 Valladolid International Film Festival in Spain. The Uruguayan/Mexican couple of Rodrigo Plá and his wife Laura Santullo are another team who made their first film as co-directors. In both these husband-wife teams, the wife is the main original writer of award-winning screenplays. Unlike Ms Santullo who has never ventured to act, Ms Moghadam is an accomplished actress, having worked as actress in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain (2013) and her husband’s debut film Risk of Acid Rain (2015) and several other feature and TV films. Ms Moghadam’s script refers to a film Bita (1972), made in Iran prior to the Ayatollah revolution, a favorite film of her daughter, Bita, named after the title character of that film. Bita, though mute, can hear and enjoy feature films and is a film addict. The film Ballad of a White Cow is dedicated to “Mina,” which some feel is the name of the screenplay-writer’s mother. If that is indeed true, young Bita’s love for films is an autobiographical trivia of the lady co-director.


P.S.  Ballad of a White Cow has won, apart from the Valladolid award mentioned above, the Best Film award at the Jerusalem Film Festival (Israel), an incredible honor in light of the fact that there is not much love lost between Israel and Iran. The film is currently competing for the Krzysztof Kieslowski award for the best film at the Denver film festival. Rodrigo Plá's and his wife Laura Santullo's first co-directed film The Other Tom was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the film's name in this postscript to access that review) Though initially released in 2020 in some parts of the world, the film is listed among the best films of  2021 of the author.