Saturday, July 30, 2011

117. Chinese director Quan’an Wang’s “Tuan yuan” (Apart, together) (2010): A director’s second look on the theme of love between spouses in marriages

There is every likelihood that a casual viewing of this film will lead many viewers to categorize the movie as just another ordinary love story. And there is a strong possibility for a viewer to even relegate this work as an unimportant one.  But is it indeed a movie of little consequence?

The strengths of the film become apparent only when one grasps the larger perspective offered by the film—that the film is not merely a tale of love between particular individuals but a study of the bonds built through proximity and a craving for physical nexus, when and if that bond becomes tenuous. It is also a film that studies bonding in marriages under extreme conditions. And this is not a Chinese problem but increasingly a worldwide phenomenon as spouses are often physically separated for reasons dictated by finance and/or politics.

For those who follow the inherent connections between works of a particular director, here is an example of Chinese director Quan’an Wang continuing his cinematic studies on marriage and the individual that one glimpsed in Tuya’s marriage, the cinematic work that preceded Apart, together. Tuya’s marriage had won the Berlin film festival’s top honour, the Golden Bear in 2006.  It is no surprise therefore that Quan’an Wang’s  next movie Apart, together opened the Berlin Film Festival 2010 and that this movie went on to win a Silver Bear, not for the direction, not for the acting, but for scriptwriting! Berlin seems to appreciate this director more than other festivals of equal repute. The screenplay incidentally was co-written by director Quan’an Wang and a Chinese actress Na Jin.

The film Apart, together is a tale of an elderly man called Liu from Taiwan (a territory that China refuses to accept as an independent country) who takes an officially approved tour to mainland China’s Shanghai and uses the chance to reunite with his wife Yu-e and his biological son, both of whom he has not met for half a century. Yu-e has during the long absence of her husband married another man Lu, assuming that chances of reuniting with her first husband is ruled out due to the political cold war between Taiwan and mainland China. But consider the interesting script: both the husbands are former soldiers, one a soldier of the Kuomintang army of Taiwan and the other a soldier of the Red army of mainland China. Both soldiers are exceptional: caring and loving husbands, one who has been torn apart from his wife due to politics, and the other who has lived together with his wife ever since his marriage, bonding well with his wife, stepson and other biological children. The oxymoronic title of the film allows the viewer to compare and contrast the behaviours of the two men throughout the film with the wife, common to both men, serving as the pivot of the see-sawing story.

Interestingly, the story of Tuya’s marriage co-written by Quan’an Wang and Wei (Farewell, my concubine and To live) Lu also had a woman Tuya who marries a second husband ironically out of love for her first husband who is a cripple and needs Tuya’s attention and care as do Tuya’s children. It was a fine example of a woman’s devotion for her first love and spouse under extreme, changing conditions. Tuya’s marriage also had its share of international politics (stated in the most unobtrusive manner) as it was set in Chinese Mongolia, bordering the independent Mongolian nation.  In Apart, together, the director presents a wife Yu-e, who loves the first husband Liu and father of her first son, wrenched away from her life by politics, and reconciled to the idea that they might never be together again. Like Tuya, for survival, Yu-e marries again, fortunately to a kind and loving husband, Lu. Yu-e, like Tuya, has to make a difficult choice, when her first husband Liu returns and asks her to come with him to Taiwan while compensating Lu and his family monetarily. And like Quan’an Wang’s earlier film all the husbands are accommodating in this film as well. A conundrum indeed, and those who choose to view the film will know the interesting outcome of Yu-e’s decision. In both films, the ultimate decision rests with the woman and after making brave decisions each reviews her fate.

What strikes one is Quan’an Wang’s choice of subjects that he chooses to film. These are not rich or powerful or even politically correct individuals. They are marginalized individuals who are stretched by adversity that was not scripted in an ordinary marriage. The female figure, the wife, makes the crucial decisions that affect the family and her progeny. Quan’an Wang belongs to the “Sixth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers” a generation of filmmakers who love to film such unusual individuals on the fringes of society. (The most interesting filmmakers from China belong to the Fifth and the Sixth Generation.) The Sixth Generation of filmmakers, associated with the late Nineties and the current decade, unlike the Fifth Generation, have made their mark by adopting documentary-like approaches to realistic fiction, capturing the social changes of the day while seeming to consciously reject the high quality standards of the Fifth Generation while infusing a streak of individualism. It would not be surprising for a casual viewer of Chinese cinema used to the rich production values of the Fifth Generation filmmakers, matching the best in Europe and Americas, with unorthodox methods of storytelling to find the works of the Sixth Generation filmmakers less impressive. The Sixth Generation is different and interesting because they tend to present reality in an unconventional way seeking the unusual realistic conditions that do not get associated with the larger segment of the population.
One would assume that the Chinese title “Tuan Yuan” would literally translate into the English title of the movie “Apart, together.” However, the Chinese film critic Maggie Lee states in her review of the film that “Tuan Yuan” actually translates as “happy reunion,” not “apart, together”. That literal meaning would have been adequate only for the reunion of the first husband with his wife, disregarding the equally important segment of the movie dealing with the relationship of the second husband with his wife which is not a happy one once the first husband returns. The official English title “Apart, together” thus adds gravitas to the tale.

The script writers of both Tuya’s marriage and Apart, together are not merely looking at the individuals but at the State’s role in marriage/divorces. In both films the wife and husbands encounter red tape while deciding to take their new paths in life. In both situations offered by the two films, the situation is not the classical one of divorce following an acrimonious marriage but a rare fringe case of keeping all concerned happy and well cared for. These are typical Asian vignettes of marriage where spouses empathize with the future of the other spouse going to extreme trouble to keep the other happy which might seem rather odd to modern Occidental couples.

In both films, marriage does not limit to physical and emotional ties. In both films, and in many other significant films like Changwei Gu’s Kong Que (Peacock), the ritual of the entire family coming together for a meal once or more than once each day, is not merely for a repast but an event where family members take decisions, speak out their thoughts, and decide the future actions. In Apart, together these elements are underscored—especially during one meal when little is eaten on a sumptuous table but the meal is limited to verbal conversation and consumption of liquor. For those who pay attention to screenplays, the works of Quan’an Wang are delectable to scrutinize especially when the characters sit down to eat.

More importantly one is struck by the development of characters in films of Quan’an Wang. All the adults are loving and giving. While young, each character looks at the best option to survive and make a good living. But as they age, the characters mature and look at ways to compensate those that they have wronged. The end of the film does leave questions for the viewer to ponder—but you leave the screening with the confidence that the young will follow the path trodden by their elders. They have learnt this lesson on the dining tables of their homes.

P.S. The Chinese films Tuya's marriage and Peacock, mentioned above, were earlier reviewed on this blog.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

116. Indian filmmakers Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth’s “Vamsha vriksha” (The Geneology Tree/The Family Tree) (1971): A major Indian cinematic work, often forgotten by Indian and global cineastes

Often important movies lean on great literary works to make an impact. Girish Karnad and B.V. Karanth’s Vamsha vriksha, made in black and white on a shoestring budget, is one such example. Vamsha vriksha was based on an Indian novel written in the Kannada language. Soon after the Kannada film was made was made, it went on to win the National Award for the Best Director, the Swarna Kamal (The Golden Lotus award). Forty years down the road, this important landmark in Indian cinema is forgotten. An entire new generation of film-goers in India can hardly recall the film.

Vamsha vriksha is a tale of three generations of two Hindu families in Karnataka. It deals with Indian society’s perceptions of widowhood, motherhood, women’s emancipation, family secrets, intrigue to secure family’s assets after the death of a parent, renunciation of the family, and marital infidelity. Indian culture and societal demands of the day make the film totally riveting in the Seventies with indelible acting performances by three individuals who briefly made a name in Indian cinema as movie directors, each winning top national honors—Girish Karnad (who followed this work with another memorable directorial effort Kaadu/The forest --1973), B.V. Karanth (with his equally important film Chomana Dudi/ Chomana’s Drum--1975), and G.V. Iyer with his ambitious historical biopic in Sanskrit (a dead Indian language) titled Adi Shankaracharya (1983).

There are several reasons why Vamsha vriksha stands out today. First, the film's subject is relevant today as it was in the Seventies. It embodies many aspects of Indian society and its strong foundations built on family values. It underscores the importance of the family tree as a transmitter of those perceived values. In Vamsha vriksha, the devotion and respect of a young widow for her father-in-law and the understanding of the elder for the aspirations of his daughter-in-law convey the feelings of the emerging, evolving India with its gradual acceptance of women’s emancipation and widow remarriage. The importance of the male heir in an Indian patriarchal family is another aspect of the film Vamsha vriksha. The absence of a parent in a child’s life is yet another aspect studied through two contrasting examples in the film. And, finally, there is an unenviable choice for a young Indian Hindu widow to take--whether to deprive a loving family of their only grandson or to live with her son and new husband, bringing sorrow to her first husband’s family. The dilemmas offered in the film are not particular to Karnataka where the Kannada language is spoken but could be applicable anywhere in India or even in other parts of the sub-Continent.

Most Indian critics sideline Vamsha vriksha partly because quality Indian cinema is often associated with three languages—Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi/Urdu—and partly because the better Indian critics and scholars are more comfortable with those afore-mentioned languages. Vamsha vriksha is forgotten today because it was made in Kannada language and its main actors were the directors themselves.

For this critic, Vamsha vriksha and another Indian Golden Lotus/President’s Gold Medal winner, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam film called Nirmalayam (1973) are two important Indian films that have been deprived of international and national recognition in recent decades. Both discuss Indian society and its affinity to the Hindu religion as Ingmar Bergman would in his films on Swedish lifestyles and Christianity. (This critic has often compared and contrasted the ending of Nirmalayam with that of Bergman’s Winter Light--1962.) But the core strength of Vamsha vriksha comes, not from the directors or the actors, but from the Kannada novel by S. L. Bhyrappa, on which the film hangs. The novel’s name, used for its English translation, is The Uprooted.

Girish Karnad is arguably one of India’s finest playwrights ranking alongside the Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh. Karnad could envisage how the novel could be dis-aggregated into poignant sequences to make an impact on the screen. Karnad and Karanth, like Bergman, had an affinity for the stage, but knew what cinema could achieve which the theatre could not. The last sequence in the film, one of the most evocative sequences in Indian cinema, could not have been achieved on stage—only cinema could record that. That sequence transcended tragedy as it made the viewer review all the values of Indian society. But what was more important for this critic was that final sequence could easily be considered to be parallel to the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Bergman’s Winter Light. Several parts of the film rely on movement of the actors, the camera angles, light and shade, rather than the spoken words. It is a remarkable directorial effort, rarely encountered in the annals of Indian cinema. It is a film that indicates a sophisticated mind behind the camera pulling together diverse visual segments that add up to more than the sum of its parts.

However, the true majesty of the film rests on the central character of the film—the patriarch of the film. He is a devout husband, a son who respects his dead father and prays for him on each death anniversary, a caring father-in-law and a doting grandfather. He is steeped in tradition and very religious. Even when his wife urges him to sleep with her handmaiden because she cannot do that for medical reasons after the first child is born, he refuses (compare and contrast it with the almost similar tale of Sarah and Abraham, in the Christian/Jewish/Islamic scriptures). What then, can lay low such a morally tall and charismatic individual?

The true hero behind the film is indeed the writer of the novel--- S L Bhyrappa. The novelist’s development of Katyayani (played by a charming Kannada actress, L.V. Sharada) who breaks free from the shackles of widowhood with tact and consideration for her late husband’s family but loses the companionship of her son, was used by the novelist as a pivot for the see-sawing tales of two families both having to weather moral turpitudes in different contexts. Shame and scandal in families, rich and poor, occur worldwide. But Bhyrappa weaved together the myriad psychological and philosophical strains that a family tree bears on its branches. The film and the novel might expose the reality under the surface of strong cultural values but they do not undermine the role of the tree preserving the cultural values for generations. For Ingmar Bergman in Winter Light, the priest continues his vocation at the end of the film following his personal social and religious turmoil. For Bhyrappa, Karnad and Karanth, in Vamsha vriksha, the family tree does not get uprooted---a grandson following his cathartic moments of losing his mother still cries out for his grandfather, although there is no response. The family tree continues to serve in preserving social and cultural values through the generations.

Vamsha vriksha is one of those rare works of Indian cinema that can match international standards in content and style and can be a rewarding experience for a viewer even after the film gets over. And surprisingly, both Vamsha vriksha and Nirmalayam are two movies that rarely get mentioned in any serious discussion of Indian cinema.

P.S. Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light was reviewed on this blog earlier.