Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Eastern Europe, part V

I am almost at the end of the Eastern European cinema & soccer spotlight. Plenty of themes have emerged from all the films but for this part, I will only focus on the mood evoked by the films in question.

Lightness showing shades of darkness:

Fuse (2003, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Director Pjer Zalica): Rating 8/10

The war between 1992 & 1994 has spawned plenty of films, mostly dealing with themes of war & rebuilding efforts - parents dealing with their dead sons, villages & towns dealing with unemployment and economy restructuring and shattered love stories. Fuse starts with a father trying to cope with the death of one of his sons in the war; he still does not believe his son has died and has conversations with his son's ghost (or himself as it turns out). There are plenty of tragic stories around the town of Tesanj as the locals attempt to move on. When the unexpected news arrives that the American president (Bill Clinton) will be visiting town, the town council look for ways to brush aside the corruption and ugliness in order to present a happy face. That means dealing with the local prostitution and crime ring along with trying to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring Serbian town. A U.N force is sent to ensure that the two towns can peacefully patrol the borders. Plenty of farcical situations are shown regarding how the two sets of patrol guards deal with each other, along with some painful truths about the war. It is to Zalica's credit that the humour is balanced with the tragedy in such a delicate manner. Like No Man's Land, the film also shows the difficulties that independent U.N forces can have in trying to understand the local situations.

Dealing with tragedy & darkness with some touches of lightness:

Pretty Village Pretty Flames (1996, Former Yugoslavia, Director Srdjan Dragojevic): Rating 7/10

Srdjan Dragojevic has crafted a powerful film that shows the insanity & cruelty of war. The film starts off with two childhood friends, Milan (a Serb) and Halil (a Muslim) overlooking the opening of a national unity tunnel in 1971. We follow these two friends story over the next few decades when the war places them on opposite sides of the tunnel, Milan inside with 6 other people who are cut off from their Serbian army and Halil outside the tunnel. The bulk of the film is spent inside the tunnel with Milan and the other people trying to survive the opposing forces bullets. The film moves forward and backwards in time, enabling us to get respite from the harrowing war scenes. In the film's future sequences, Milan is lying in a hospital bed trying to get his strength back and plot his final revenge. In the past sequences, we see the two childhood friends growing up. But the film does not spare us the evil of war showing close up footage of burning villages and the lengths people go to survive in harsh conditions. The moments of jokes and humour in the tunnel manage to take away from of the edge from the darkness that surrounds this film.

Darkness descends :

Mirage (2004, Macedonia, Director Svetozar Ristovski): Rating 10/10

Mirage starts off similar to Underground -- a gypsy band is led by a drunk man (in Underground it was two drunk men) through the streets at night time, causing disturbance and waking people up. That is where the similarity ends though. The rest of Mirage shows a universal theme about how society can shape a young person; the film could have been set in any city in the world, let alone Veles, Macedonia. The drunken man in the film is a father who is trying to cope with his work situation and the changing political landscape of Macedonia. His wife & young son Marko quietly endure everything, whereas his teenage daughter gives him a headache as she seeks to sleep with anyone of her desire. Both the teenage daughter and father take their frustrations out on Marko, the quiet 12 year old who endures his father's beating and his sister's verbal lashings. Marko is an innocent boy but we see how the bleak environment surrounding him shapes his behaviour. Marko is bullied at school by a bunch of thugs who have power to do anything because one of the bully's father is the local chief of police. The only initial hope in Marko's life is his writing -- his teacher mentions his poetry could win him a trip to Paris. That gives him some purpose to escape his life around him. And when Marko comes across a convict named Paris, he sees that as a sign that Paris, France will be his destiny. But in the end, both Paris and his teacher let him down -- in a painful scene, we see Marko being beaten up by the bullies outside his teacher's home and when the teacher arrives, he sees the bullies and gets away to let Marko be thrashed. Paris tells Marko to take care of himself and even shows him how to use a gun but when Marko really needs him, he leaves.

Everytime when Marko sees a glimmer of hope that things will improve, things get worse. We can slowly see the darkness increasing and the ending is a real kick in the gut. Marko gets his revenge but that is not the kind of justice one would have hoped for but it does prove that weakness can't survive in a society where force and might are prized. Not pleasant viewing but a well crafted film.

Iska's Journey (2007, Hungary, Director Csaba Bollók): Rating 8/10

Another film where a 12 year old sees their life go from bad to worse. This time, it is a young girl whose hopes of a decent future are completely shattered when the screen fades to black at the end. The film's start finds young Iska trying to earn whatever little money she can by collecting metal scrap at the junkyard. Her parents are of no help to her and are willing to nab any little money Iska makes. As a result, she is left to fend for herself gathering food at a mining cafeteria. When things start to get bad, she leaves home and finds herself at an orphanage where things aren't any better. Atleast she manages to make friends with a boy her age. There is a hint of love that develops between the two as they plan to take the train to the seaside. However, Iska has to wrap one final thing up before leaving with the boy. And this is where things take an unexpected turn for the worst. What happens next is nothing short of cruel and ensures we leave the film with no hope of Iska ever having a decent go at life. During the first half, I was reminded of the beautiful Polish film Jestem which I saw in part I of the Eastern European series. But the last 20 minutes of this 92 minute film is a prequel of sorts to events shown in Lukas Moodysson's 2002 film Lilja 4-ever.

Some form of lightness:

After so much darkness, a light humour film is more than welcome. And I managed to get three such films -- two Czech and one Latvian short film.

Wonder (2007, Czech Republic, Director Mirjam Landa): Rating 7/10

A light hearted comedy/musical which starts off with Micky fleeing a prison. The only thing that got him through prison was his love of Karin, a local theater artist. So the first thing Micky does after leaving prison is to go audition for Karin's latest musical production. Through a series of clever tricks, he gets to play a part in the play. Predictably, Karin falls for him and Micky manages to get on everyone's good sides. Some quirky characters present in this film, especially the high strung director who demands a perfect performance from all actors. The musical performances are enjoyable and make for a decent viewing despite the contrived and predictable story.

Holiday Makers (2007, Czech Republic, Director Jirí Vejdelek): Rating 8/10

This is a real riot from the opening few minutes when a group of people board a tourist bus headed for a beach vacation in Italy. I was reminded of the two recent Bollywood films Honeymoon Travels and Just Married which dealt with similar themes. But those Bollywood films only focused on married couples. Holiday Makers has better etched out characters and deals with couple and parental relationship issues. The two bus drivers are downright hilarious in their dead-pan manner -- both drivers are named Karel and are obsessed with little details. For example, they debate on how long they should give the passengers at a rest-room stop or are persistent that the passengers return the coffee cup handles otherwise no one would be able to enjoy their coffee.

Ready and Done (2007, 23 min, Latvia, Director Inese Klava): Rating 9/10

This short documentary provides plenty of dead-pan humour, just by placing a camera in a 60 year old elevator in a Latvian hospital. We get the unexpected reactions of the hospital staff and patients who enter the elevator to find a camera there. The camera captures the last few days of this aging elevator which is to be replaced by a brand new elevator. The new elevator is 'supposed' to be faster, easier to use and more efficient. Supposed is the key word as we find that new technology comes with more problems. Also, we get to meet lift operator whose job might be rendered obsolete by the new elevator.

Observing Life go by:

Theodore (2007, 29 min, Latvia, Director Laila Pakalnina): Rating 8/10

This mostly silent film shows life through the eyes of Theodore, an aging Latvian man who is on the last few years (or days) of his life. Theodore uses his bicycle to get around and heads down to drink some beers while watching life go by. We get to see the sights that Theodore does first hand and we clearly hear all the sounds around him, including the peaceful sound of his bicycle as it makes its way across the countryside.


Pacze Moj said...

Yet another post about cinema from my corner of the world, and, yet again, you put me to shame! I haven't seen a single one of your chosen films.

At least I've seen Underground...


And now I kind of want to see it again. Some of it makes me break into fits of laughter, and some of it breaks my heart.

Sachin G. said...

Actually Pacze, the last 5 films on my list are ones that not many people in North America have seen, so don't worry about those :)

In fact, a lot of the 2006 & 2007 films I have seen in the Eastern European series are only starting to do the North American film festival rounds this year. I know some films such as the Hungarian film, Happy New Life will make its North American premier at TIFF this year.