Thursday, January 11, 2007

Asian flavours kick off 2007

There is something to be said for continuity. A trip to Asia marked the end of 2006 and the final film I saw as the year ended was the Korean flick The Host on Dec 31. So it shouldn't be a surprise that 3 Asian films were the first movies I saw this year. Of the three, one was a film that I wanted to see for more than 6 months, a second was a movie that I had heard about but was not eager to see and the third was a repeat viewing of a personal favourite from last year.

Invisible Waves (directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang): Rating 8.5/10

I had wanted to get this film for CIFF last year and attempted to get it for our upcoming Pan-Asian film festival this year but the producers never replied to our queries. So I was delighted to finally get a chance to see this film as it was released on DVD.

In the end, it is a worthy watch. Ofcourse, since Christopher Doyle shot the film, there were was never a question about the film's visual beauty. Just like Pen-Ek's previous film, Last Life in the Universe, Doyle has perfectly chosen an appropriate palette to match the story's somber mood. The story is that of revenge & murder yet the peaceful mood projected by the film makes one forget that. On that of that, Pen-Ek has ensured the film has no un-neccesary extras or dialogues. The only people one sees on screen are meant to be there. Streets, bars and ships are empty, devoid of any life whatsoever. As a result, we can spend our time focusing on only the characters on hand and drawing our own conclusions.

The main character, a chef (played by Asano Tadanobu), commits a murder hoping that is his ticket to freedom. However, a murder is never that easy. Especially, when the chef has made the mistake of shattering the invisible yet firm boundaries of trust and loyalty. After the chef has committed the murder, his boss, who had hired him for the kill, asks the chef to leave Macau for Phuket. But trouble follows the Chef onto the ship and eventually in Phuket. How the chef evades trouble and returns back for revenge forms the final hour of the story.

The peaceful background score and the earthy visual colors give the film a very dreamy feel. Even though the film drags on near the end, if one is sucked in by the leisurely mood, one won't notice the time ticking away. But if is not enchanted by the film's look, then the last 30 minutes might feel like the work of an over-indulgent self-absorbed director. Either way, there is something to be said for the style that Pen-Ek brings to his films and how Christopher Doyle perfectly manages to give the visual look to accomplish Pen-Ek's vision.

Just like in his previous film, Pen-Ek has chosen the Japanese actor Asano for the lead character. Asano is a worthy choice as the chef (Kyoji) because he only shows the barest emotion required of his character. Kyoji is calm before the murder, while he is having an affair, after the brutal killing and unfazed despite being mugged and beaten up in Phuket. All the characters fit with the film's framework. There is a tiny but interesting cameo for Eric Tsang who normally is found in Hong Kong gangster movies. In the end, while I liked this film, I am still not fully convinced this is a great work. It is certainly good but the deliberate omission of extra characters and background noise makes one feel that they are watching a very controlled film.

Exiled (directed by Johnny To): Rating 7.5/10

Macau. Two gangsters knock on a door. A woman opens the door. The men are looking for Wo. The woman informs them that no one by that name lives there and closes the door. A few minutes later, two more gangsters arrive asking the same question. Once again, the woman slams the door and the men leave. These two men run into the other two men waiting half a block down. They all know each other and not surprised to find themselves at this location. The woman looks nervously from her window while taking care of her baby. A few moments later, a truck packed with furniture appears. The driver is none other than Wo, who sees the four men but continues to drive on. He opens the door to his apartment, followed by one man from each of the pair. The three go upstairs. The apartment is mostly empty but Wo bends down to open the bottom drawer of a cupboard and takes out a gun. He starts to fill in the six bullets. The two men empty out 6 bullets from their multi-cartridge weapon so that they are all on level terms with 6 bullets each. Then the three face off, pointing the gun towards each other (the scene is inspired no doubt from Reservoir Dogs). A moment passes by, the wind blows through the apartment and then poetically, the bullets start flying. After the firing had ended, Wo’s wife enters telling Wo that the baby needs food. Wo looks towards the other two and asks if they can sit down and talk. But one of the men says that there is no furniture. The next few scenes can only take place in a Johnny To movie. The five men (Wo + the 4 gangsters) empty all the furniture from the truck, fix the place up, cook fresh food and all sit down together to have dinner.

It turns out all the men know each other -- two men were sent to kill Wo because he had tried to knock off the big boss and two other came to inform Wo out of loyalty. Eventually, the five men sit down and chat regarding Wo’s future. The next morning, the five go off in search of a final job. The rest of the movie is as stylish as most Johnny To films but unlike the Election series, these movies contain a bit of dry humor like that present in To’s P.T.U film. With a lot of the actors being the same from those movies, at times the movie feels like similarly covered ground. What sets this apart from past To films is the choice of Macau and the two stylish gun shoot out scenes, the second one being near the end. For kicks, a Red Bull can is tossed in the air while on the ground, the bullets fly. I have not seen the original Mission film which might have been a prequel for this film as it contained the same actors. If I had not seen enough Johnny To movies in the past, I might have liked this film more.

Khoshla Ka Ghosla (directed by Dibakar Banerjee): Rating 10/10

Very rarely do I see a movie more than once but I had see Khosla Ka Ghosla again, a film I consider as one of the best films of 2006. I had helped book this film for CIFF last year just on instinct that it might be a good movie given the star cast of Boman Irani and Anupam Kher. I barely knew the story and there were no reviews of the film as no one had seen it. The movie was to be released in India on September 22 and it showed at our festival on Monday, Sept 25. The word from India was very good on the opening weekend and that helped ease my worries. Still, I walked nervously into the theatre on Monday evening. I was still nervous during the film’s opening 15 minutes but gradually I eased into the film, got comfortable and duly loved the film.

But on this second viewing, I was able to give this film my undivided attention. And I loved the film even more. It is a perfect movie from all accounts. Not only is the story shockingly realistic, the dialogues are very true of a Punjabi family living in Delhi. One has to listen carefully to how the dialogues are delivered (the tone) and pay attention to the little expressions and acts of fidgeting that signify a character’s mental state (example: Anupam Kher’s discomfort at bringing home a bottle of alcohol). I can’t think of a finer North Indian movie that I have seen in the last decade than this one. The complete cast is excellent with Anupam Kher, Ranvir Shorey, Navin Nischol and Boman Irani giving vintage performances. Even though I have singled out these few actors, the entire ensemble cast & crew deserves credit for giving this story life (Jaideep Sahni wrote this gem).

Despite this movie’s virtues, I still can’t help but ask the question: who will watch this movie? Most Indians used to Bollywood song and dance films probably skipped this comedy as there are no songs, no melodrama (Even though, the soundtrack contains a very lively pulsating Punjabi dance number). And will this movie get distribution so non-Indians can get a chance to see this? I just hope that word gets out and people try to watch this film. The positive thing is a lot of the people I talked with in India last month loved it. I just hope more such Indian movies are made and get wider distribution. Along with Being Cyrus, Khosla Ka Ghosla is proof that good Indian movies can be made within a branch of the nonsense studio system with Bollywood actors. Both these worthy films were released in 2006 and both were works by first time directors. Boman Irani was the one common actor in both films and along with his performance in Lago Raho Munnabhai cemented his status as one of the best Indian actors working in the film industry today.

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