Debut films reveal a director’s inherent creative attempts to seduce the viewer much more than what is evident in their later body of work. Some directors mature with each film, making each new film more alluring than their first attempt at cinema. These exceptions are few and far between—Bergman, Kieslowski, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Terrence Mallick, and John Cassavetes are among the few who evolved for the better after their debut films. Many like Orson Welles don't.
Árpád Bogdán’s debut film seduces you with stylized visuals and an intensity that gives you an insight into the director’s mind. His profound knowledge of the subject is evident throughout a film that is bereft of sex and violence. There is a poetic feel to the images that include a horse running wild on the streets of Budapest before it is caught and led into a horse trailer. The sequence is an eerie symbolic reminder of earlier visuals in the film of the young boy fleeing from parents/elders being arrested by police with the mother figure urging the child to run before he himself is caught and taken to an orphanage, psychologically scarred. And later, having seen the film, I was not surprised to discover on the Internet that this interesting film on institutionalized orphans has been made by a man who himself lived with a foster family until 14 and never enjoyed regular schooling. And yet he is a poet and a painter to boot! Is a young Paradjanov emerging in Hungary? Happy New Life seduces you as visual poem would, revealing some emotions and submerging others for the interested viewer to discover. Not surprisingly, much of it is autobiographical.
The importance of a debut film is often increased when the screenplay is written by the director himself/herself. Young Bogdán has predictably written the screenplay himself. He does not need anyone else to write out the screenplay. The story is of an orphan who grew up in a state-run orphanage, who having grown up leaves the state-run foster-care to earn a living and raise a family. Family life is a simple gift most of us enjoy, but has eluded the protagonist in the film, save for some fleeting memories of childhood. Only four women enjoy fleeting screen time in the film, a woman in a poster advertising a perfume who comes alive in a dream sequence, an old woman who is a foster mother of an orphan girl, images of a lost mother, and finally the young orphan girl who is missing her real mother. If you look at the choice of womanhood presented , all life stages are covered. Yet there is no obvious man-woman relationship as in other regular films--because the growth of the young man is stunted by events. Yet the film presents "empty" dining spaces in a factory and foetal-curled positions that describe loneliness of the protagonist. The film says much visually. Spoken words are few. Compared to a recent wordy film on orphans from Australia December Boys (2007), Happy New Life would be close to a silent film. But with poets like Bogdan, long conversations are excess baggage to avoid.
Before the film begins, there is a preface from the director of the large numbers of young Hungarian “orphans” under state care who when grown up are thrown up to enter society as equals and build their own families. The protagonist wants to know his past. He stumbles on something from documents in an envelope handed over by a benevolent warden. The viewers of the film later see him shredding the envelope and its contents. The warden noting that the information has only had a negative effect on the young man regrets his decision but invites his past ward to visit his new rural home. The film would appear to be despondent one because the director opts to leave the real issues partly hidden for the viewer to ferret out.
Happy New Life forced me to recall another debut film tackling existential, social and moral questions—Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge (1958), arguably his finest work that kicked off the new cinema movement in France. In that film, too, one of the two buddies, François shouts at Serge "You're like animals, as though you had no reason for living." Responds Serge: "We haven't. How could we? The earth's like granite; they can barely scrape a living. They work because they've no choice.” In Happy New Life, too, the young orphan does not really see a “reason for living” when he comes out of orphanages, especially if he knows who he really is. Director Árpád Bogdán has stated in an interview that even if the film presents a despondent view, unlike the film's story he has personally looked at life positively by creating movies, drawing paintings, and writing poems. One hopes that this minor Manfred Salzgeber award winning film at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival propels the director to make even better cinema than this one.
Many questions would irk the alert viewer after viewing the film. Is the film merely on loneliness of orphans? Aren’t there sufficient messages in the film about gypsy families in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, though the term "gypsy" is never mentioned? The young director has admitted his interest in romology (the study of gypsies, their language and sociology). Bulgarian director, Milena Andanova, recently made an interesting but less stylized film Monkeys in Winter (2006) dwelling on this emerging topic for filmmakers in Europe just as some American filmmakers such as Abraham Polonsky tried to provide the American Indian’s viewpoint in a revisionist western Tell them Willie Boy is Here (1969). Just as the issues relating to the broken promises made to American Indians are rarely discussed in USA, the gypsies of Europe found their issues swept under the carpet by each country and regime.
The two cinematographers who worked on the film Happy New Life include Gábor Szabó, a young Hungarian cameraman chosen by Vilmos Zsigmond, to film his own first film The Long Shadow (1992). Szigmond is a reputed cameraman from Hungary who made his mark in Hollywood and if he felt confident with Szabo it is no surprise that Bogdán picked him as well. It is unusual that two cinematographers share the credits for Happy New Life, Mark Gyori (film editor as well on this film) with Szabo as the second. Did Bogdán and Szabo fall out?
Hungarian filmmakers have mesmerized me, particularly Zoltan Fabri, Istvan Szabo and to some extent Miklos Jancso—so much so that as a young film critic I traveled across continents from New Delhi to Budapest to interview two of them in 1982. Fabri would have been pleased with the work of young Bogdán, if he were alive today.