Sunday, January 27, 2008

55. Chinese director Yang Zhang's "Luo ye gui gen (Getting Home)" (2007): Beguiling comedy that makes you reflect on human behavior

"A falling leaf returns to its roots” is a Chinese proverb. This endearing film is based on this proverb. It is a modern day story of mainland China--an emerging economic power. Rural migrants are attracted to the cities in search of prosperity. One such 50 year-old-migrant construction worker Zhao (a commendable performance by actor Zhao Benshan), is surprised to find during a drinking bout in a pub that his buddy is not dead drunk but dead as a doornail. As a good peasant would, Zhao vows to keep his promise made during the drinking session that if either buddy died, the other would carry/transport the dead body to the dead man’s village and bury his body there. As a promise is promise, Zhao uses all his wits and physical strength to transport the dead body to the village. The fallen leaf has to return to its roots.

What a yarn, you will say! But hold on. The Chinese director Yang Zhang (also known as Zhang Yang) and his scriptwriter Yao Wang built the film script around a real incident in 2006 when a Chinese peasant did carry a dead buddy to his village oblivious of all Chinese laws that prohibit such an action to ensure that the dead man did not transform into a “hungry ghost.”

Now director Zhang, scriptwriter Wang and a fascinating comic actor Zhao Benshan weave a Pilgrim’s Progress type road-movie story that constantly shifts from escapist top-gear to formidable realism overdrive as it un-spools an array of human behavior--some loathsome, some endearing, some moralizing, some quirky but all very real.

There are vignettes of Asian values. You encounter robbers who appreciate the value of friendship and return their loot to those who honor commitments of friendship. You are shown mothers living as anonymous rag-pickers and professional blood donors, so that their offspring can pursue a comfortable career in the city. Wealthy rural folk do not know who really loves and respects them, and therefore arrange mock funerals following their own faked death to glimpse the truth. There is the philosophical young man who would like to ride to “Tibet” or the roof of the world. There is a family that lives far away from society because the wife/mother has been disfigured by an accident, and yet is a lovely person underneath the scars. There is a truck driver who having lost his love is crestfallen, but needs someone else to set the compass of his life to regain his lost love.

There are other vignettes that show the unhealthy characteristics of economic progress. Construction companies employ migrants but cheat them by paying salaries in counterfeit notes. Highway restaurants overcharge their clients and use thugs to extort money if they don’t pay up. Seedy blood banks pay money for any type of blood donor because there is money in the business. Rich families in cars do not stop to give lifts to the poor and stranded on the roads. Once-robbed travelers do not show compassion to the individual who was responsible for the return of stolen goods—they are concerned with their possessions. Women accuse men of staring at them without bothering to check if the accusation is real or imagined. The list goes on.

The movie underlines that there are two sorts of people. One lot cares for others, empathizes with their problems and helps them get out of their predicaments. The other lot lives for themselves and concentrates on their own material interests. The rural folk seem to fall into the first category, while the neo-rich fall into the other.

The ultimate destination of the “road movie” is the controversial Three Gorges mega-dam. On route to the dam, the viewer can glimpse breathtaking landscapes of China. Is the director feeling sorry for the village of the dead man (and the associated values that go with rural, simple life) that has been covered with the waters of the dam? Only the director can answer, we can only ask the question.

The funny thing about the movie is that while the characters and milieu are Chinese, the essential elements are universal in any economy “progressing” from rich traditional values to a more consumerist, urban rat race. It is no wonder that the film won the 2007 Berlin Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Best Asian film NETPAC award at the recent International Film Festival of Kerala. The movie makes you laugh, but tugs at your conscience. The “falling leaf” in your soul, would like to return to “the root” or traditional life styles when people bonded well and were not out to make a quick buck.

Very close in subject and treatment to the 2004 Iranian black comedy Khab e-talkh (Bitter Dreams), director Yang Zhang and scriptwriter Yao Wang need to be complimented for painting a “celluloid” canvas that entertains those who crave for feel-good escapism (amidst all the black humor). The viewer has to discount the fact that the body does not decay and the Zhao never tires carrying a dead man around. While the escapist element is in the foreground, the real strength of the film comes from the realistic vignettes that are not Chinese but universal in values and temperament. Here is yet another Chinese film that entertains and offers ample food for thought.
P.S. The Iranian film Bitter Dreams has been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

54. Chadean filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's "Daratt (Dry Season)" (2006): Beyond the tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye equation

There are a handful of films from Africa that can leap out like a big cat from the celluloid jungle and make the viewer think.

A recent example is Daratt (Dry Season), a movie from Chad, a Central African country that was initially economically weakened by the French colonial rule and later, after gaining independence, slumped into a 40-year-old civil war. The neighboring Darfur crisis and the resulting spillover of refugees have not ameliorated the political and economic situation of this landlocked country. Imagine living in a country that is dusty and hot with the Sahara desert to its north. Imagine living in a country where two generations of its population have not encountered peace or progress but live under the constant shadow of fear and corruption. If you can empathize with the unusually inhospitable situation, you will realize the title of the film is not merely a reflection of the hot, dusty climate, but a metaphor to describe life in Chad today.

This film is a powerful mix of metaphors and fables. The atmosphere captured in the film is real. People still get their news on the radio—not on TV or by reading newspapers. People still eat freshly baked sticks of French bread. People still carry guns that often can compare with the best anywhere in the world, quite in contrast to what else is available. The younger generation includes street-smart crooks and quiet, hardworking young men yearning for normal family bonds and affection that the civil war did not allow to grow. When the young man, a fascinating study of conrolled aggression, is asked by a baker what he wants, he answers laconically—“Not charity.” Today, what Chad requires most is not charity as well, but honest, hard work that will build the nation.

What is unreal in the film? Corruption that eats into the soul of Chad is never glimpsed save for petty thieves selling fluorescent lights stolen from semi-dark streets in the night. What the viewer sees is a baker baking fresh bread and distributing it free to young hungry boys (the entire film suggests that young girls are an endangered species!). Now why would a person do this? Is the baker so rich that charity has become his vocation? It is possible that any scene of money changing hands for the baker’s bread got lopped off on the editing floor because another baker is later shown providing aggressive competition. Terror is never shown on screen save for slippers left behind by crowds that apparently fled in terror.

What are the metaphors in the film? A “blind” grandfather seeks revenge after a radio broadcast proclaims amnesty for the perpetrators of the horrors. The blind man hands a gun to his grandson, now an orphan called Atim (metaphorically meaning an orphan) to avenge the death of his parents by killing a certain individual in a far away city. This perpetrator of crimes, now a symbol of reconciliation, hard work and progress has lost his “voice” and can only speak with artificial aids. Yet he is the one with a kind heart, wanting to adopt a hardworking son, and keeps his armory of weapons well hidden.

The “good” men who seek revenge are blind. The “bad” men who seek reconciliation, normalcy and family life can’t speak (literally and metaphorically). And both men are devout Muslims. That’s Chad today!

The final outcome of the film is easily played out for the viewer because of these physical constraints of the two men. The outcome is easily played out as social mores are not tampered with—the grandfather’s command is seemingly obeyed. The “father’s” love for the “son” is acknowledged.

It would be too simplistic to draw parallels between Daratt and Argentine/Chilean Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the maiden, later adapted for the screen by American novelist Rafael Yglesias for Polish director Roman Polanski. Yglesais' and Polanski's ambiguous final scene in their film Death and the Maiden, where principal players exchange meaningful glances, is a delight.

In total contrast, Dry Season’s final scene is not of individuals but of the dry environment, as the camera zooms out. The viewer is nudged by the director to see the larger picture of the film, not the bare story line. What Polanski and Yglesias did in an American/European film, Mahamet-Saleh Haroun has equaled with ambiguity and force rarely seen in Africa cinema. Will the dry season accept a world of reconciliation that will lead to rain (a metaphoric wet season) and prosperity for future generations indoctrinated in love and traditional values? Perhaps, it will. Perhaps, not.

Dry Season won the 2007 Venice Film Festival's Grand Special Jury Prize and four other minor awards at the event.

Moolaade (Senegal), U–Carmen e Khayelitsha (South Africa), and In Casablanca, angels don’t fly (Morocco) (all three reviewed earlier on this blog) are three examples of mature works of recent African cinema, with its distinct African aesthetics, that transect the length and breadth of the vast continent and capture the tragedy and aspirations of its people. I am delighted to add Dry Season to my list of formidable contemporary African cinema.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

53. Japanese director Naomi Kawase's "Mogari no mori" (The Mourning Forest) (2007): Resurgent Japanese cinema blending nature with traditional values

There are directors who write their own original stories and scripts and there are those directors who bring to the screen works of novelists, playwrights, and even biographers and historians. The directors who develop their own scripts are not just good filmmakers but arguably potential novelists or playwrights.

One such formidable director is Japan's Naomi Kawase. Her films win awards at prestigious film festivals following which the director churns out well received novels in Japanese based on her original film-scripts.

Today, like Kawase, there are exciting filmmakers such as Mexico's Carlos Reygadas and Spain's Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) and Pedro Almodovar (Talk to her/Hable con ella) who need to be appreciated as a breed apart from the regular directors who prefer to ride on the shoulders of other worthies. Kawase's The Mourning Forest, won the Grand Prize at the 2007 Cannes film festival. Many Western critics missed out on the loaded Asian/Japanese cultural subtexts in this remarkable film and even expressed surprise that it won the honor. After viewing the film at the recent 12th International Film Festival of Kerala, I applaud the Cannes jury's verdict.

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) is a film that centers around a 70-year-old man with senile dementia (Alzheimer's disease?) living in an old age home in Japan—somewhat similar to Sarah Polley's Canadian film Away from Home. However, the two films approach the problem from totally different perspectives—underlining the cultural divide between Western and Eastern sensibilities. In both films, young people admire the values of the older generation. Both films are indirectly family films—underlining undying love for spouses. That's where the similarities end.

The Mourning Forest is a sensitive film tracing a senile old man's quixotic pilgrimage to his wife's grave in a forest interlocking a mystical relationship with nature. An old man with depleting memory is cared for by a young woman Machiko, a new nursing recruit, at the retirement/old age home. But her name, which has similar syllables to the name of his wife Mako, who died 33 years before, triggers a passion in him to visit her grave in a forest.On the 33rd anniversary, according to Japanese Buddhist beliefs, the departed must travel to the land of Buddha—somewhat like the Roman Catholic Christian belief of the dead reaching heaven /hell after a stay in purgatory. The time has come for the couple to part forever unless he bids farewell soon before the anniversary.

The Mourning Forest can be divided into two parts.

The first part introduces the viewer to the two main characters--the nurse and the nursed. Both have suffered personal loss and are grieving—the nurse has lost a child for which her husband holds her responsible; the nursed has lost his wife and evidently never remarried and keeps writing letters to his dead wife that must be "delivered." The nurse dominates the first part. We view the two figures chasing each other between rows of tea bushes, their heads clearly visible over the verdant green landscape. There is warmth of the sun. There is an allusion to life.

The second part inverses the earlier situation with the action taking place within the forest (a literal and figurative forest). The nursed dominates the nurse. The nursed tricks the smart young woman as he trudges to his wife's grave. Whether the spot is really her grave or not is of little consequence—the act of undertaking the pilgrimage is of consequence as he has to deliver his letters to his wife before 33 years of her death are completed. The forest covers the human figures (Compare the two scenes above). There is cold, darkness and mystical overflowing streams that threaten hypothermia. There are definite allusions to death and regeneration.

In an interview to a news agency, Kawase said "After the two enter the forest, the forest becomes the force that supports them. It watches over the two of them, sometimes gently, sometimes more strictly."

The film's title roughly translates as "Forest of Mogari" and at the end of the film the director states the meaning of the term "mogari." Mogari means "the time or act of mourning."

Unlike Away from Her, the Japanese film dwells on understanding the richer complexities of life and death. "Running water never returns to its source," says the old man Shigeki to his nurse, words of solace for a young woman to look afresh at her marriage after losing a child.

"If sad things happen, you shouldn't be sad about them or fight them, but vow to make the world a better place for children still to be born. That's my message," Kawase told the Reuters news agency. At the Cannes festival, director Kawase said she made The Mourning Forest because "her grandmother was becoming slightly senile, and today such people are looked down upon somewhat, and pitied, forgetting that it could happen to us someday." Kawase said she hoped viewers would learn kindness and a new way of handling difficulties -- which she said could help people around the world overcome religious and cultural differences.

The nurse strips off her clothes to provide warmth to her ward and protect him from hypothermia—an action that would seem unusual to Western sensibilities. There is no sex here; mere practical help in time of need. There are streams that suddenly flood as if they have a life of their own and emerge as characters in the film.

There is one Japanese film that is somewhat similar in spirit and content—the 1983 Cannes Golden Palm winner Shohei Imamura's Ballad of Narayama, where an active and economically productive old woman is forced to make a last trip up a mountain to fulfill local traditions and her consequent interactions with younger generations in the village. While Imamura used a famous novel to build a film classic, young Kawase has made a rich film using her own story. Kawase is treading in the footsteps of directors Terrence Mallick, Carlos Reygadas and Andrei Tarkovsky when the forest itself is suggestively transformed into a metaphor of memories and traditions, and eventually becomes a source of eternal strength. Kawase is encouraging us to reflect how we can take solace from nature when we face difficult times ("Running water never returns to its source"). Kawase represents the finest in contemporary Japanese cinema today, blending nature and tradition in storytelling.

P.S. The Canadian film Away from Her was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

52. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' "Stellet licht (Silent Light)" (2007): Visually and aurally breathtaking cinema

Can light have sound? So what is silent light? Something surreal, somehow related to the Christian hymn Silent night? The intriguing answers are provided in the film to the patient, thoughtful viewer. This is not a film for the impatient viewer. “Starlight” (accessible cosmic wonders) begins and ends the film—silence dominates the soundtrack, except for crickets, lowing of cattle, and an occasional bird cry.

This opening shot sets the tone for a film made with non-professional actors (real life Mennonites from several countries, according to reports) . The film won the Jury’s Grand Prize at Cannes 2007. It is a spectacular film experience for any viewer who loves cinema. This is my first Reygadas film and I have become an admirer of this young man.

Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas writes his own scripts. He is one of the few filmmakers of importance today who does that—alongside Spain’s Pedro Almodovar and Japan’s Naomi Kawase.

Reygadas’ stunning movie Silent Light dwells on a collapsing marriage within a religious Mennonite community in Mexico, speaking not Spanish (the language of Mexico) but a rare European language (Plautdietsch) that mixes German and Dutch words, leading up to the eventual renewal of this fragile family. Reygadas begins the film with a 6-minute long time-lapse photography of dawn breaking to the sounds of nature and ends the film with twilight merging into the night.

The opening shot was lost on many in the audience as a noisy viewer kept talking three minutes into the film, unaware that the film was running, until I had to reveal this fact to him at the 12th International Film festival of Kerala. The film's opening shot was so stunning that after the 6th minute the audience who grasped what was happening began clapping, having savored the effect. The last time I recall a similar involuntary reaction from an audience was when Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi was screened decades ago in Mumbai at another International Film Festival.

There is something magical, supernatural in nature if we care to reflect on daily occurrences. There is a touch of director Andrei Tarkovsky in Reygadas’ Silent Light as he captures the magical, fleeting moments in life that all of us encounter but do not register. There is a touch of director Terrence Mallick’s cinema as he connects human actions with nature (a heartbroken wife runs into a glen and collapses trying to clutch a tree trunk). And there is a touch of director Ermanno Olmi in the endearing rustic pace of the film. Whether he was influenced by these giants of cinema I do not know—but many sequences recall the works of those directors.

That the film recalls Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) is an indisputable fact. Ordet was based on a play by a Danish playwright Kaj Munk. Reygadas film is based on his own script that almost resembles a silent film because of the sparse dialog. Both films are on religious themes, on falling in love outside marriage, and leading up to an eventual miracle. Reygadas uses these basic religious and abstract ingredients to weave a modern story that is as powerful as Dreyer’s classic work by adding the realistic and accessible components of nature—automated milking of milch cows (without milking, the cows would be in distress) and a family bathing scene—do seem to be included as daily occurrences that have a cyclical similarity to the main plot—the collapse and rebuilding of a marriage. Reygadas’ cinema invites the viewer to look at nature captured by the film and discover parallels to the story-line. This film is one of the richest examples of cinema today that combines intelligently a structured screenplay, creative sound management, and marvelous photography that soothes your eyes, ears and mind.

Early in the film, the “family” is introduced sitting around a table in silent prayer before partaking a meal. The silence is broken by the tick-tock of the clock. The children are obviously unaware of the tension in the room, except that they would like to eat the food in front of them. The adults are under tension. When the head of the family remains alone on the table (symbolic statement) he breaks into uncontrollable sobs. He gets up to stop the loud clock (symbolic) that evidently disturbed the silent prayer. This action becomes important if we realize that the clock never bothered the family silent prayers before. All is not well. Time has to stand still.

Composition of frames (see above) in the film remind you of Terrence Mallick—the balancing visuals of men and children sitting bales of hay on trailer—again recalling a cosmic balancing force in life

Both Silent Light and Ordet revolve around a miracle, where a woman’s love for a male lover and tears for his dead wife leads to calming a turbulent marriage. The film is not religious but the Mennonite world is religious. Religion remains in the background; in the foreground is love between individuals, lovers, husbands, wives, sons, parents, et al. What the film does is nudge the viewer to perceive a mystical, cosmic world, a world beyond the earth we live in, which is enveloped in love. There is a cosmic orbit that the director wants his viewers to note—a similar cyclical orbit to the erring husband driving his truck in circles as if in a trance on the farm. Mennonite children who are not exposed to TVs seem to enjoy the comedy of Belgian actor and singer Jacques Brel in a closed van. While Reygadas seems to be concentrating on the peculiarities of a fringe religious group, the universal truths about children’s behavior and adult behavior captured in the film zoom out beyond the world of Mennonites. They are universal.

The film begins in silence and ends in silence against a backdrop of stars in the night. The indirect reference to the Silent night (Stellet nacht) hymn is unmistakable. For the patient viewer here is film to enjoy long after the film ends. Reygadas' mastery of the medium is obvious. This is one of the most interesting films of the decade, but sadly will be lost totally on an impatient or distracted viewer.