Wednesday, September 26, 2007

CIFF: notable film comments

I wanted to consolidate comments from my earlier posts regarding some note worthy films playing at CIFF this year. With the exception of Vanaja and Bushman's secrets, all the other films still have screenings over the next 4 days.

Drained (2006, Brazil, Heitor Dhalia): Rating 10/10

This is one of the most witty and original films I have seen this year. Credit for bringing these eccentric characters to life goes to Lourenço Mutarelli who wrote the novel and to Heitor Dhalia for bringing pitch perfect performances from his cast. The film can be described as a deadpan dark comedy but the main character Lourenco (Selton Mello) is much more dangerous than any character in a Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki film.

By profession, Lourenco collects people's antiques. But it is never clear whether he sells these antiques or simply keeps them for his collection. He decides the value of each antique himself and if he likes the story behind the item, be buys it. His office (housed in a warehouse) is always lined up with people waiting to sell their item by pouring their heart out to Lourenco. But right from the film's start, Lourenco's mind is preoccupied with two things -- Garconete's behind (a waitress played by Paula Braun) and the foul smell that comes from his bathroom. It would be unfair to give away any more details but the unique characters and scenarios make Lourenco's life hell.

There are some audacious camera shots in the movie such as the opening sequence where the camera shamelessly glares at Garconete's behind -- we watch every swing as she gracefully heads to work. The film stands out from other Brazilian films because of its visual choices -- there are no bright colors saturating the screen but instead brownish colors are prominent. Also, there are no scenes of beaches or any other visual cues that could place this film in Brazil.

Time (2006, South Korea, Ki-duk Kim): Rating 8.5/10

Perfect beauty, the all demanding quest. Will perfection result in happiness and endless love? Even though the answer is obvious but humans still cling onto that dream. Such is the case with the main female character in Kim Ki-duk's latest film. At the start of the movie, we see a woman being cut open and transformed into a beautiful person thanks to the miracles of plastic surgery. The entire process is an ugly one and we are given a front row seat in the operation room to witness the surgery. But it takes about 6 months for the face to be fully healed. Until then, the woman has to cover herself and hide her scarred face from the public. After the surgery, the woman leaves the surgeon's office with her face covered carrying a picture of her old ugly self. A young sweet looking girl, Seh-hee, crashes into her and causes her picture to fall to the ground breaking the frame. See-hee is apologetic and runs to get the frame fixed. But the masked woman does not wait and leaves the scene. From then on, we get a look into See-hee's life. She is dating a handsome man, Ji-woo. Even though See-hee has him to herself, she can't help get jealous over his wandering eye -- everytime Ji-woo talks to a another woman, she gets angry. Unsure about her beauty, she goes to get her face altered. As part of her rebirth, she disappears from Ji-woo's life for 6 months ago.

The sudden disappearance of See-hee causes Ji-woo some grief. After a period of 6 months, the newly touched up See-hee surfaces. But Ji-woo does not recognize her. So she goes about enticing Ji-woo and tries to erase his memories of the old See-hee. But much to her dismay, Ji-woo is still in love with the old See-hee. She is stuck in a lose-lose situation, because if he can't love the new See-hee, then her transformation was a failure. And if he does love the new look See-hee, that confirms her old fears about him not wanting the sweet old self.

But things are not as straight forward as they seem. The concept of time is an important factor in the story. We are given clues from the start that we might not be getting the linear story we are seeing. Sure enough, a rift in time occurs when Ji-woo disappears himself in order to get revenge on See-hee -- he goes to get surgery done on his face as well in order to balance out See-hee's transformation.

In the past, Kim Ki-duk focussed on individual human flaws. Films like Bad Guy, The Bow, 3-Iron, Spring, Summer.. had a touch of spirituality to them as the movies explored human weakness. This time around, he dispenses with spirituality and takes a stand against a society which places beauty over all other values. When humans chase only beauty, they lose a sense of themselves and ultimately spiritual connection. In that regard, the film's most memorable elements are 'space' and 'cleanliness'. Everything is framed in such a manner to give each character the maximum space which only heightens their sense of isolation. And everything appears white and pristine, as if life is completely clean. But by showing the ugliness that hides beneath the surface, we also get a sense of how false and illusionary the appearances are.

This intense yet elegantly balanced film is probably Kim Ki-duk's most accessible film. And the on screen beauty balances out any of the ugly human nature on display.

Armin (2007, Bosnia co-production, Ognjen Svilicic): Rating 8/10

This is a tender film about a Bosnian father and son who cross the border into Croatia for the son's film audition. This is a multi-layered film which not only showcases a relationship between father and son but also addresses issues about exile and scars of a war. The movie also highlights how even if some people want to get on with their lives, others are ready to exploit them to make award winning documentaries/films. Wonderful performances as well.

Ahlaam (2005, Iraq, Mohamed Al Daradji): Rating 8/10

This is a first, an Iraqi film! The story mainly takes place in 2003 during the American invasion and bombing of Baghdad. We see a few people in a mental hospital and with the aid of flashbacks, their tale is told. The flashbacks lead to 1998 when Iraq is bogged down by sanctions. Life is not that great, with people suffering from poverty. Ahlaam is on the verge of marriage, Hassan is having doubts about being in the army because he doesn’t believe in serving Saddam, Mehdi is troubled because he won’t be able to go for higher studies because of his father’s past. These are ordinary people suffering from enough problems already. And then, things get worse in 2003 when the American bombs fall.

Ahlaam is not a happy movie, it can’t be. Things gets worse for the main character as the film moves along. First her marriage is ruined because her fiancée is taken by the Iraqi police. She is pushed to the ground which subsequently damages her mind. But over the years, her mental situation gets worse. The American invasion causes the looters to move into the mental hospital she and her fiancée are in. She escapes, but only to an unsafe deserted Baghdad. Her fate is unresolved at the end, but it is clear, it can’t be hopeful.

There will be plenty of American movies based in Iraq over the coming years, but none will give voice to the Iraqi people. The truth is the Iraqi people suffered under Saddam and now without him, things are worse for them. The looting, the uncertainty, the lack of electricity, no water and a hostile world are all a few men's doing. This is their legacy yet the men in power will never admit their mistake. A country which was already backward would never have been a threat. And now it is more backward, except for the oil.

Mukhsin (2006, Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad): Rating 8/10

Note: I pre-viewed this as part of the Calgary Pan-Asian Film festival back in Jan 2007.

I have to admit that I am starting to like Yasmin Ahmad’s refreshing approach to families and love stories. I adored her 2005 film Sepet which was just wonderful. Mukhsin is the third film in Ahman's trilogy about the character Orked. Sepet featured Orked's first teenage love, Gubra was about marriage and adulthood while Mukhsin rewinds the clock to the start of Orked's childhood. Plenty of tender moments and a touching cameo from the love-struck Sepet couple. And Orked's warm and effectionate family are all back!

Tambogrande: mangos, murder, mining (2006, Peru, Ernesto Cabellos & Stephanie Boyd): Rating 7/10

North American corporations are busy carving up South America and stealing those countries natural resources. If it were not for a few documentaries, most of these crimes would go by un-noticed. Tambogrande joins a list of previous such eye-opening films and highlights land crimes in the Tambogrande region of Peru where a Canadian company wants to start a mining pit. The region's history, the people's struggles, the political corruption that exists and the power of money are all documented. The film also shows that if people are not willing to stand up and fight for their rights, they will get rolled over. Sometimes, just sometimes, ordinary people can actually make a difference against big money.

Vanaja (2006, India, Rajnesh Domalpalli): Rating 8/10

This beautifully shot South Indian film centers around a hushed up crime. 15 year old Vanaja comes from a poor family. Through her father's help, she gets a job in the town's leading dance instructor's house. Also, as an added bonus Vanaja gets to pick up a few tips to improve her dance. We see this young woman grow on screen. When we first meet Vanaja, she is an innocent girl. But gradually, we see her confidence grow. But just as things are looking good for her, she is raped by the dance instructor's son. The crime is hushed up and the pregnant Vanaja disappears until she has given birth. She returns back to society but is faced with a few difficult decisions.

The film has won plenty of awards at film festival and it is easy to see why. The colorful visuals backed by a very strong performance from young Mamatha Bhukya make this film stand out.

The Bushmen's Secrets (2006, South Africa, Rehad Desai): Rating 8/10

This is a truly refreshing documentary on a topic hardly seen on screen. A long time ago man survived on herbal and natural remedies. But then the drug companies took over and produced a pill to cure every problem. After enough problems and side-affects started to appear, people yearned for simple herbal solutions. So the new money making idea was for drug companies to mass produce and sell herbal solutions. And such a scheme meant stealing generation old tribal knowledge and patenting it as their own.

Rehad Desai travels to the Kalahari desert to see how the bushmen survive the desert like conditions. He is told of a plant, Hoodia, a cactus which is eaten by the bushmen because it suppresses their appetite and gives them nourishment to help in long treks across the hot barren land. Something that suppresses the appetite? Well here is clearly a giant billion dollar plant! So what happens next? Corporations descend in, steal the plant legally or illegally and start counting the money. Desai has done a creditable job with this film in showing the various aspects of marketing such drugs and also depicting how the local governments are to blame as well.

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