Thursday, September 15, 2022

277. Japanese film director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s fifteenth feature film “Broker” (2022), based on his original screenplay, set in South Korea and made in the Korean language: “Finding ourselves and each other”


 













 

"'Thank you for being born.' - A single sentence that touches the audience in such a way that entire films rarely can. When every character, no matter how small or large, is intricately layered, simultaneously fractured and in the end so lovingly developed, that's cinema. Great cinema. This film is a journey. One filled with longings, with decisions, with detours. Sometimes it is precisely these detours that we must take in life to find ourselves and each other. And we found a bit of ourselves in this film."

--Citation of the Best International film award for Broker at the Munich film festival


Two contemporary Japanese directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase are fascinating filmmakers because both make wonderful, distinctive films, both write their own original screenplays and most of their tales revolve around relationships involving parents and children, orphans and adoption. Sometimes the parents are old and dying, sometimes they are young and experiencing parenthood for the first time; sometimes they are yearning to be part of a family. (Kawase, of course, adds nature into the equation, while Kore-eda adds heart-warming humour.) That is why their films are so appealing when you reflect on what they offer in their films.

Young mother So-young (acted by IU, the stage name of
singer-songwriter-actress Lee Ji-eun)
preparing to deposit her child in the box
for adoption late in the night

So-young depositing her child in the Church's adoption box


Kore-eda has shifted gears in the last two films; his tales have moved beyond Japan. In The Truth (2019) the tale was set in France with three generations of a family in focus and the ethics or lack of ethics in their behaviour, developing the tale, with the help of outstanding French actresses (Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, playing the major roles of mother and daughter, respectively). In Broker (2022), the Kore-eda tale is set in South Korea with Korean actors, one of whom won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in this very film. Almost every character in Broker is significant. Each character is an orphan, or has given birth to a child that she cannot care for, or is a character hoping to have a foster child to care for. Thus, the tale is once again about orphans and families, a recurring Kore-eda them. To this basic framework in Broker, Kore-eda adds the element of illegal, unethical and criminal commerce into the mix.


Kore-eda's criminal family: like the one in his Shoplifters.
Three, if not four (including the baby), are orphans. The man
holding the child is the main 'broker' (Song Kang-ho, who won
the Cannes Best Actor award for the role)




The two lady Korean police officers shadowing the brokers
in an unmarked car to catch them the act of human-trafficking 




The mother So-young entrapped by the shadow police

Kore-eda’s forte is to present diverse characters and to link them all in a single central concept as directors Robert Altman or John Cassavetes would do in their films. In Broker, as stated in the above award citation, the overarching theme is about being born into this world and appreciating the support from another person to live and form essential relationships for the future. Those who have been deprived of such fulsome life try to ensure that others they notice to be deprived of that privilege do get to enjoy that missing bonding. In Kore-eda’s Shoplifters  (2018) the film dwelt on the fact that we don’t choose our family—it could have helped if we could. In Kore-eda’s most complex and rewarding film, The Third Murder (2017), the director extended the human bonding among human beings, to visual metaphors of man and birds. Kore-eda’s recent geographical moves to France and Korea, remind you of another contemporary Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), consciously shifting the tale of the film from Japan to Korea. Kore-eda and Hamaguchi are both asking us to view the world as a global village, where human concerns remain the same, irrespective of geographies.

The mother joins the 'brokers' to negotiate with 
likely foster parents

In Broker, Kore-eda’s move from Japan to Korea is possibly prompted by Korea allowing unwanted children to be anonymously dropped off in a box at a church, which is not so common a practice in Japan. Whilst most such children are taken good care of by the church, there is a grown-up orphan who has infiltrated the staff of that church to steal new drop-offs before the church authorities get to record its arrival. The “brokers” delete footage recorded in the surveillance footage recorded by the church. The stolen children get good care by the human traffickers described by the director’s chosen title as ”brokers” who look for foster parents in the black market.  There are always eager childless couples ready to pay good money for adopting a child bypassing the red tape of legal adoption that the church and the country insist on before the adoption is legally formalized. Two Korean police-women in an unmarked vehicle, have tip-off of the brokers’ activities and are shadowing them to catch the brokers red-handed making an illegal deal with foster parents. Director and writer Kore-eda loves to add spice to the basic framework—here he throws in a murder, a rich-widow of the murdered person with no real love for a child but shows an interest in raising the child because it her murdered husband’s offspring, and finally one of the shadowing policewomen‘s personal interest in adoption. It may seem too convoluted and unreal but it works as it did in Shoplifters.  Both Kore-eda and Kawase, as original scriptwriters/directors, are amazing in their abilities making film after film on subjects that are essentially on children, orphans and family.

Kore-eda’s nod to US director P. T. Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999), with the policewoman listening to the song Wise Up, used in the US film and discussing it over the phone while shadowing the human-traffickers is another element to reinforce the global village concept of Kore-eda’s vision.  

Broker is definitely one of the best films of 2022 and of the director’s oeuvre. The last five minutes of the film wraps up the tale on a positive note, bringing to mind the similarities and the contrasts of the two films Broker and Shoplifters. Once again Kore-eda makes the thin line between the good guys (Korean cops, caring parents) and the bad guys (brokers of all hues, murderers, vengeful wives, bad son born to a good family getting involved with thugs) almost disappear. The Third Murder, however,  remains the more sophisticated and philosophical work of Kore-eda.


P.S.   Broker won the Best Actor award and the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes international film festival in 2022. It won the Best International Film award at the 2022 Munich film festival. Two earlier works of director Kore-eda The Third Murder (2017) and The Truth (2019) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews.) My ranked list of Kore-eda's films is on Letterboxd.


 

Monday, August 22, 2022

276. The late French director Bertrand Tavernier’s feature film “Ça commence aujourd'hui” (It All Starts Today) (1999), based on a commendable screenplay co-written by the director, his daughter Tiffany, and Dominique Sampiero: A primary school teacher who walks the extra mile to serve and speak for the tiny tots raised by parents with marginal incomes










 





 

"For its commitment to everyday heroism, its multi-layered approach to an array of social problems, and for the visual force of the storytelling.”

--Citation of the FIPRESCI award bestowed on the film It All Starts Today at the Berlin International Film Festival

There have been several films made on uplifting student-teacher relationships. These include To Sir, With Love (1967) a film on boisterous white high school students from slums of London eventually admiring and respecting their black rookie teacher;  Dead Poet’s Society (1989) on another rookie teacher kindling creative self-expression through poetry in  a US boarding school for senior US students from wealthy  backgrounds resulting in their unwavering respect and love for him; Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), a remake of a film made 30 years before, where a stodgy Latin teacher after his marriage transforms  himself into an endearing school headmaster winning the hearts of his students;  Not One Less (1999), a neorealist Chinese film with real life characters playing their real roles directed by Yimou Zhang, focusing on a real life 13-year-old substitute teacher bringing to the fore the urban-rural education divide and the earnest desire of the teacher to teach and carefor all her wards equally well;  and The Class (2008), a French film on the true experiences of a French language and literature middle-school teacher dealing with his foreign-born students disciplining them and gradually gaining their confidence--yet not all students feel they ‘learned’ anything in his class.

It is Bertrand Tavernier’s two feature films on related subjects that discuss matters more substantive in the teacher-pupil interactivity, namely his films A Week’s Vacation (1980) and It All Starts Today (1999). In both films, the teachers are not rookies they have some credible experience in their jobs. The former discusses the importance of a female teacher observing and "listening" to her pupils in their early teens in a school in Lyons, France. The film underscores the fact that a reflective teacher could gain from the interactions with the pupils. However, Tavernier’s  It All Starts Today inverts the teaching role further to a teacher taking proactive steps to get the local government and the student’s parents to get involved in helping the teachers to impart education as they wish they could with limited resources provided by the local government.


Daniel (Philippe Torreton) truly cares for his students
and they love him for it


It All Starts Today has actor Philippe Torreton playing the role of Daniel, a head teacher of a primary school in a small mining town in France where former miners Daniel’s father survive with an oxygen cylinder strapped to his back. Miners not only battle pollution of particulate matter affecting tem while they worked in the mines, they have few other options of re-employment. Some are not clever enough to look for sustainable options for livelihood and slip into despair. Most are not sufficiently educated to move out and nor do they have any plans to start a new life and hence spend their days and nights in front of the TV sets. Their offspring are named after characters like “Starsky” and “Hutch”  from popular US TV serials. Some of the families cannot pay their utility bills and send their kids where they can get some education and mingle with others of their age. Worse still it is these cash-strapped families who are expected to support Daniel’s school through funds provided by the local civil council.

Daniel is the angry young man who is livid when the council cuts the lunch program for the kids and the parents are supposed to provide each kid with their lunches. When Daniel confronts the chief of the civic body, he is told the council has no money and Daniel, the underpaid teacher, offers a small contribution from his purse so that they make efforts to garner more funds to restart the scheme.


Daniel takes food on a personal initiative to the home of a
child whose parents are struggling to survive;
the other kids on the street are only marginally better off

Tavernier and his co-scriptwriters keep the viewer cleverly engaged to the bleak tale of the film using two tools. The first is Daniel’s demanding parallel personal life where his father is sick and his girlfriend wants him to father her next child while he pleases every student  (including his girlfriend's son from an earlier reationship with another man) with care and empathy. The second is Daniel's and his girlfriend’s out-of-the-box ideas to keep the young students happy and educated. One such innovative idea is to ask a parent who is a truck driver to bring his heavy duty truck to the school for the students to see what it could do—which proves to be a real treat for the kids who have never seen such a vehicle up-close.

Daniel, the angry multi-tasking primary school teacher,
is not just good at his job, he is loved by his students


When a financially struggling parent commits suicide with the children, the community that had preferred to look the other way comes out in full strength providing a flower-decked hearse.  Tavernier’s strength has been his choice of credible actors in minor roles such as the lady—Mrs Henry--who is driven to suicide because she does not see any hope to improve her lot.


Daniel talks to a child to figure out if he is 
being ill-treated at home, a role uncommon in a usual
teacher-student relationship

Daniel is concerned and takes proactive steps to stop a student from being brutalized at home by an abusive step-parent. The film is not merely a tale of an angry teacher forced to multi-task; it is a film about an individual being proactive to make the economically depressed society of a mining town to realize that change in their attitudes will go a long way to help their progenies to prepare for the future. The FIPRESCI award citation for the film (mentioned above) captured the strengths of the film well.

 

P.S.   It All Starts Today won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin international film festival in 1999 and was nominated for the Golden Bear. It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and an Honorable Mention from the main Competition Jury for “the specialty of the topic;” the Best Film awards at the ASECAN, Sant Jordi  and the Fotogramas de Plata film festivals, all  three in Spain; the Audience Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Spain; the Best Actor award at the Lumiere Awards, France; and  the Ecumenical Film Award at the Norwegian Film Festival. The other 1999 film mentioned above Not One Less, made in China, was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on that name in this post-script to access the review)

 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

275. Italian director Paolo Taviani’s twenty-second feature film “Leonora addio” (2022), based on his original screenplay: A fitting, unique tribute to the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Luigi Pirandello and to the late film director Vittorio Taviani from the 91-year-old Paolo, younger brother of Vittorio









 



 

“Have any of you read Pirandello?” asks a senior priest in a Sicilian seminary to his junior priests 
“I read him in secret, then I confessed” replies a junior priest meekly, with penitence, “I have read one novel--The Old and The Young.” 
“Do you remember the inscription? It reads –To my children: young today, old tomorrow” adds the senior priest, a Pirandello admirer
--conversation between priests in a seminary within the film Leonora addio

Paolo Taviani collaborated with his late elder brother Vittorio on 20 feature films until Vittorio’s demise in 2018 at the age of 88. Their first feature film was released/made in 1962. The two brothers had a unique method of directing their films. Each directed alternate scenes with the other watching but never interfering. That formula worked. The Russian film maestro Aleksander Sukorov, in an interview given to this writer, said it was very rare and commendable for two creative persons to collaborate as directors on feature films for a long stretch of time (he was referring to Grigori Kozintsev and Leonard Trauberg of Russia who worked on a much shorter list of films than what the Tavianis made together.) Two of those Taviani collaborations won the highest award at the Cannes (Padre Padrone) and Berlin (Caesar Must Die) film festivals over the decades. Many of their films are geographically related to Sicily in Italy. All the Taviani films have either original or adapted screenplays written by the brothers. Paolo Taviani has made two feature films after the death of the Vittorio—the first of the two was based on the jointly written screenplay of both the brothers. Leonora Addio, the latest work of Paolo Taviani, made at the ripe age of 91 is the sole work where there is no official contribution of the late elder brother—but in the title credits, soon after the film’s title, are the words “...to my brother Vittorio.” 

Leonora addio is not a mere tip of the hat to Vittorio from Paolo. It is also an acknowledgement of the brothers’ admiration for the Italian playwright, novelist and poet Luigi Pirandello, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. Though controversial as a supporter of Mussolini’s Fascism for a while, he was admired and respected, not merely in Sicily but all of Italy and the world as people became increasingly aware of what he had written and published. The Taviani brothers had made a fascinating 1984 film titled Kaos (released as Chaos in USA) based on four short stories written by Pirandello. In Leonora addio, some scenes from Kaos are included, or rather, recreated. 

Years later in 1998, the brothers made another feature film You Laugh based on two Pirandello stories. Pirandello was indeed close to the hearts and minds of the two Sicilian brothers. 



While Sicilians respect Pirandello, they are superstitious
and refuse to fly on a flight with his ashes on board



Pirandello's ashes arrive in Sicily in a Greek urn
and are transferred to a white coffin meant for a dead child,
while Pirandello's admirers peek at the activity


The comedy of Pirandello rubbed off on films of the Taviani brothers. In Leonora addio, Pirandello’s ashes are carried in a white coffin of small size meant for a sinless child because “the town has run out of adult coffins.” A child who witnesses the stately procession of the coffin asks her father innocently, “Papa, has a child died?,” evoking spontaneous laughter from the grieving adults. 

In this dreamlike sequence, a nod to Kubrick's final sequence in
2001-A Space Odyssey, Paolo Taviani recreates
an old man (Pirandello?/Vittorio?) on his deathbed as the door opens
to reveal three children who emerge and age fast to elderly adulthood



Later in the film, when the final resting place for the ashes is decided after a 15-year search for an appropriate final resting place, there is a leaping leg-clap by the individual who located it, recalling Carol Reed’s musical film  Oliver!, where the leg-clap is beautifully executed by actors Ron Moody and Jack Wild walking into the sunset at end of the film! 

Leonora addio may not be appear to be a perfect film on a casual viewing but it provides perfect entertainment for those familiar with the works of Pirandello and of the Taviani brothers. Much of the film deals with the relocation of the jar containing Pirandello’s ashes to the area in Sicily where the writer was born and grew up. That process of relocation is described with considerable respect which mingles with wry humor, typical of most Taviani films. Most of all, one has to respect the effort of a 91-year-old director showing his love and respect for his elder brother and colleague, as also to a great Italian writer that both brothers admired. Implicit in  Leonora addio are the decisions taken by people in the evening of their lives and how those decisions are dealt with by those who survive the person who has died. The film constantly deals with children and the elderly--"young today, old tomorrow."


Leonora addio's second segment is Pirandello's The Nail,
where an affable Sicilian immigrant boy (in Brooklyn) who
can dance to music while working as a waiter. In Taviani's earlier work 
Kaos, Sicilian boys dreamt to emigrate to USA


The immigrant boy waiter who dances, later kills a girl who was
fighting another seemingly "without purpose." Taviani's earlier film
Good Morning, Babylon was about two Sicilian brothers who
emigrate to USA and find work with D W Griffith in Hollywood 


It is thus not without purpose that the first half of Leonora addio, dealing with the relocation of Pirandello’s ashes as per the writer's wishes, is shot in black and white, which is followed by a Pirandello story titled The Nail set in Brooklyn, USA, filmed in contrasting lush color, This segment also deals with death of a little girl with a large nail and her killer’s frequent trip to place flowers on her grave on a regular basis, after his release from prison. When the killer is asked why he killed the girl, he answers that he killed  the girl because she was was fighting with another “without purpose.” The viewer could reflect if the growth of Fascism under Mussolini was "without purpose" as well.

The most intriguing trivia is that the title Leonora addio is indeed the title of a written work of Pirandello that surprisingly is not discussed within the film. So why did Paolo choose the title of that Pirandello work as the title of the film? There must be a reason and there is one that fits logically. There is a Pirandello play called Tonight We Improvise, which is part of the Pirandello trilogy of plays better known as ‘Theatre within Theatre.’ In this play, a famous opera singer describes the physical theater to her children, who have never seen it, while singing parts of the opera ending with the duet Leonara addio, she apparently dies from exhaustion only to get up later and seek the forgiveness of the audience. 

Time must pass and carry us away with all the scenarios of life” is a Pirandello quote spoken in Leonora addio. The film allows us to do the same recalling both Pirandello and the elder Taviani. All this adds to the details inter-mingling the memories of the works of Pirandello with the past works of the Taviani brothers and other works of Italian cinema shown in clips within the film. Leonora addio’s depth of communication will be lost on those viewers who are not sufficiently exposed to the films of the Taviani brothers or the written works of Pirandello, significantly his most famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author and its related concept of “theatre in the theatre.” It can argued that Pirandello’s “theatre in the theatre” laid the foundation for the more famous concept of “theatre of the absurd” of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Arthur Adamov. However, for those who are familiar with all that, Leonora addio provides quality entertainment. If we look closely at the title credits, the title of the film followed immediately by the dedication, is a personal message from Paolo “Leonora addio.. to my brother Vittorio,” which a lover of good cinema and literature would relish and approve of. 

P.S. Leonora addio won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin international film festival in 2022 and was nominated for the Golden Bear. The Taviani brothers' film Caesar Must Die (2012) has been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the film's title in this post-script to access the review). Paolo Taviani is one of the author’s favorite 15 active filmmakers in the world. Two of the Taviani films are included in the author’s list of top 250 films: Padre Padrone and Kaos.


Sunday, June 12, 2022

274. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s eighth feature film “Baglilik Hasan” (Commitment Hasan) (2021) (Turkey), based on his original screenplay: An interesting study of a Turkish male farmer growing apples and tomatoes preparing for a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife, a dream-come-true trip for her













"You think you can go on a pilgrimage and come back clean as a whistle? Only God can forgive you, sir." 

--Turgut, an honest former employee of Hasan, branded as a thief by Hasan, when Turgut procured less price from a buyer of Hasan's produce, a buyer who was only ready to pay that lesser sum

 

N
uri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu are the two most important internationally recognized contemporary film directors who make films of very high standards. 

Commitment Hasan is the second film in a row from Semih Kaplanoglu (it follows the 2019 film Commitment or Baglilik Asli) with the key word “Baglilik” in Turkish language (or “Commitment” in English) in the titles of both films. Kaplanoglu watchers can assume this film is possibly a part of a second trilogy in the making–the first one being the Yusuf trilogy of “Yumurta” (Egg) (2007), “Sut” (Milk) (2008), and “Bal” (Honey) (2010), made in reverse chronology of Yusuf’s life. All the five films are original tales/screenplays of director Kaplanoglu, with Honey winning the prestigious Golden Bear for the Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. After the Yusuf trilogy, Kaplanoglu made Grain (2017), a science fiction film in black and white in English language, which won the best film award at the Tokyo film festival, but faced a possible undercurrent of opposition from the pro-GMO lobbies that led to poor distribution in many developed countries. Kaplanoglu’s interest in farm life, agriculture, apiculture and horticulture is evident in his body of work—mainly written by him with a few exceptions. 


The farmer Hasan (Umut Karadag)  is a calculating man, ensuring
that he got the best part of his father's property by going to court,
while alienating his brother


The two “Baglilik” films are comparable studies to each other but not connected. The first is a character study on Asli (a Turkish affluent, working lady) being attitudinally transformed by the actions and life of her baby-sitter (from a lower-economic strata). The second film is a character study on Hasan, a calculating male farmer transformed by his wife Emina’s considered advice, who finally has her dream wish of a pilgrimage with her husband to Mecca looming on the horizon, after ensuring that there are no debts to be paid and seeking the blessings of Hasan’s near and dear ones before undertaking the pilgrimage. Both Emina and Hasan seem to be made for each other, squeezing money out of every little transaction they make. Emina, despite all her flaws, wants to make the perfect pilgrimage with her husband and be blessed.

Hasan's wife Emina (Filiz Bozok) drives hard bargains with
poorer folks than her, but wants her husband to seek forgiveness
from those he has wronged, before going on a Hajj pilgrimage



There are remarkable common elements in the two “Commitment” films. In both films, it is a female character that is the catalyst for change, not a male character. This is very significant within a male dominated scenario of Muslim Turkey. The second and the more trenchant element pronounced in Commitment Hasan is the importance of forgiveness in Islam, which was underscored in the recent Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow as well. In the Turkish film, it is a key male figure that has been wronged and refuses to forgive the wrong-doer; in the Iranian film it is a key female character that in a similar situation refuses to forgive those who request forgiveness. 

Is it dementia or is it more than that? 
Hasan is not recognized by his brother Muzaffar, on meeting
him after 2 years

The two brothers, one seeming to not recognize the other,
captured in silhouette by cinematographer Ozgur Eken, as he
had done in certain scenes in Kaplanoglu's earlier film, Milk



One can note the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films in those of Semih Kaplanoglu (the shot of rear head profile of Tarkovsky’s mother sitting on the fence in Mirror reprised in Kaplanoglu’s Milk) or the sudden rains in Tarkovsky’s/Zvyaginstsev’s films reprised as an unreal rain of rotten apples in Commitment Hasan. A shepherd, who Hasan encounters for the second time, this time on the road, tells him that Tugrut, Hasan's former diligent worker, who Hasan is hoping to meet is waiting for Hasan at the coffee-shop. Earlier in the film, Hasan had been rude to the shepherd for letting his sheep graze on his land without permission. Surprisingly for Hasan, the shepherd knows Hasan is preparing to go on a Hajj pilgrimage and possibly even conjectured the reason Hasan wants to meet his former worker. Kaplanoglu thus infuses elements of magic realism and unusual abilities in personalities poorer than Hasan to read Hasan’s mind and purpose. There are extra-ordinary aspects of Kaplanoglu’s original screenplay that connects the chopped tree in Hasan’s dream, the shepherd’s comments while sitting under the tree that is not chopped as dreamt by Hasan, and the chain of events that follow. Kaplanoglu expects the viewer to connect the dots and get the larger picture of repentance and its importance before seeking a blessed outcome of a costly pilgrimage. 

The differences between the films of Ceylan and Kaplanoglu are very thin. Kaplanoglu’s religious commentary is obvious for the viewer, while Ceylan prefers to discuss religion obliquely (e.g., the concept of free will discussed by two imams in The Wild Pear Tree). 

Kaplanoglu’s films have slightly more interesting performances than those of Ceylan. Both directors take great care with the cinematography (the giant tree in Commitment Hasan and Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree image are remarkably similar as are the water-well sequences in both films). The final sequences of Commitment Hasan with the two brothers are visually not far removed from the end sequence visuals of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—but one film ends in silhouette shadows, the other in light. Kaplanoglu’s Milk had employed the silhouette effect (see my review on this blog) which is not surprising as the cinematographer of the two Kaplanoglu films is the same person: Ozgur Eken. 

Finally and very importantly, both directors do not use music on the soundtrack of their films, which make their filming so refreshing compared to most other films from other parts of the world. There is heightened use of natural sounds but their films are almost bereft of composed music, unless the script requires it.

P.S. The film Commitment Hasan won the Best Foreign film at Sao Paulo International Film Festival; the Best Cinematography Award at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival; and Audience Awards for the Best International Film and the Best Actor at the Golden Rooster Awards, China. Kaplanoglu's earlier films Milk; Honey; Grain; and Commitment have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The other films referred in the above review: the Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow; Tarkovsky's Mirror;  Malick's The Tree of Life; and Ceylan' The Wild Pear Tree have also been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews of that particular film.) 

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 the 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. Weerasethakul’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 nomination 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.