Thursday, February 22, 2007

31. Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang's "Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less)" (1999): A marvelous neo-realist Chinese film, ideal for family viewing

Long after De Sica made Bicycle thief and Fellini his La Strada, neo-realist traditions grab me like no other in cinema history. The Chinese film Not one less, made half a century after the Italian masterpieces, underlines several aspects of neo-realist traditions—non-actors can transform into great actors provided you have an intelligent script and a talented director, poverty attracts anyone with a conscience, the candid camera is a marvelous tool, and human values exist to be appreciated irrespective of national boundaries. It truly deserved the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival.

A reluctant substitute teacher taking on a job that would fetch a doubtful "50 yuan" from a village mayor with questionable priorities transforms into a national hero in less than a month as she strives hard to ensure the number of her students do not dwindle until the regular teacher returns. Her resolutions transform the economic state of the school, make her students into socially responsible "young adults" and teach a lesson to the wily mayor and a gatekeeper at the city TV station, who go by rules rather than by discretion.

The brilliance of the film is that the film hooks the audience as a thriller would until the film ends. Yet there is no sex, no violence, no beautiful face, no delightful music or engaging camera angles—only reactions caught by candid camera (at least most of the time).

The most poignant comment was the young student's comment "I loved the city but it made me beg for food" For a contemporary Chinese film made under tight censorship—the film's director Yimou Zhang (also referred to as Zhang Yimou) seems to offer layers of comment beyond the obvious story line. Did Teacher Wei do what she did for the sake of money or as a responsible teacher? Are you likely to forget propagandist songs but recall simple songs on family values? Is individual greatness (teacher Wei) appreciated more than group actions (school as a group, nation's need for good athletes overriding permission of the parents of potential athletes)? Is the richness of rural lifestyles discounted by rising urban materialism? Does it require an individual's actions to underline the demands of the rural poor? These are hidden questions for each viewer to answer.

I have only seen one other film of director Yimou Zhang and that's Red Sorghum. Not one less towers over Red Sorghum in every department of film-making.

I saw this Chinese film on an Indian TV channel. I only wish more such international films get shown widely on TV throughout the world. It would raise the bar of what constitutes good cinema to many who currently have little idea of good cinema except those made in their own countries. Recent mainland Chinese films like Peacock and Not one less have established their world class credentials.

P.S. I was more than amused to find Ford and Coca-Cola financed the film in part, which is probably why the school kids in a remote Chinese village know about Coke and relish rationed drops of the liquid. Who was pulling whose leg here???

Monday, February 05, 2007

30. British filmmaker David Lean's "Ryan's daughter" (1970): A complex masterpiece that never got its due praise when released

More than 30 years after the movie was made, Ryan's Daughter needs to be compared with his other important works--Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai and A Passage to India. Pauline Kael and many others ripped up the film because it was a loose adapatation of Madame Bovary. But this is Ryan's Daughter, not Madame Bovary.

Visually the three finest are Ryan's Daughter, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago.

Aurally--in the departments of music and sound--the finest two are Ryan's Daughter and Dr Zhivago.

If performances make a movie, four of the movies were outstanding: Ryan's Daughter, Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai.

Yet why is Ryan's Daughter not considered the finest? There is no hero, there is no heroine--it is a film of anti-heroes. It is a film that focuses on the ugly side of human reality where everyone is a loser--husband, wife, lover, priest, soldier, revolutionary, and even the traitor. It provides a realism that we glimpsed in patches in Dr Zhivago and A passage to India--a realism that almost eluded us in Lawrence of Arabia.

The film's strengths lie in two aspects that were most criticized some thirty years ago--its music and its screenplay.

Hear Maurice Jarre's score today and you will realize the notes hark back to Lean's previous work (mostly Zhivago and little of Lawrence) with the comical allusions to the village fool's gait. Jarre's score in Ryan's daughter may not have the universal appeal of Lara's theme in Zhivago, but a close study of the score will unfold riches to the aural senses when compared to the simplistic Lara's theme.

Bolt's original screenplay is as rewarding to study as Jude the Obscure to a student of Thomas Hardy or Titus Andronicus to a Shakespeare student. Bolt (and Lean, of course) provides food for thought--who is good and who is bad, who is ugly and who is beautiful, who is crippled and who is whole...

It is easier to make lovely, heroic epics such as Lawrence or Zhivago than to make a film on losers and moral and physical cripples such as Ryan's Daughter. I think this is Lean's and Bolt's finest work. It is also Robert Mitchum's finest work as it was in the case of Christopher Jones, Leo McKern and Trevor Howard. John Mills stood out among the fine performers because his character was spectacular.

I am a great admirer of most of Lean's films and having seen the film thrice, I rate it as his best and perhaps his most complex yet mature work.