Saturday, May 25, 2024

Best Films of 2023

As Cannes 2024 is wrapping up, I still have to catch up with a few worthy Cannes 2023 films (Lisandro Alonso, Victor Erice) but I have seen enough 2023 films now to put together a list. I have previously mentioned the challenges of legally seeing newer 2023 films so won’t reiterate that here.

Without further ado, here are my best films of 2023:

1. Past Lives (USA/South Korea, Celine Song)

A tender emotionally beautiful film. Like a soothing piece of music.

2. La Chimera (Italy/France/Switzerland/Turkey, Alice Rohrwacher)

A warm shape shifting film that tugs at both the mind and heart.

3. Laapataa Ladies (India, Kiran Rao)

Kiran Rao and writers Biplab Goswami, Divyanidhi Sharma, Sneha Desai have done an outstanding job by seamlessly stitching socially relevant topics within the fabric of a humorous comedic film.

4. The Delinquents (Argentina/Luxembourg/Brazil/Chile, Rodrigo Moreno)

Takes the bank fraud at core of the 1949 Argentine film Apenas un delincuente and transforms it into a languid stroll through the countryside.

5. How to have Sex (UK/Greece/France/Belgium, Molly Manning Walker)

At first, this appears to be cut from the same cloth as Spring Breakers but the film digs deeper into how men can still circumvent consent in a post #MeToo world.

6. 12th Fail (India, Vidhu Vinod Chopra)

It is hard to believe that Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a major name in Indian Cinema, has made one of the best films of his career at the age of 70 (he is 71 now). 12th Fail is a film stripped of any fat and with a singular focus. The struggles of exams and getting a job in India have been documented in cinema before but Chopra has infused the film with plenty of hope.  Part of the reason for that could be that the film is based on the real life story of Manoj Kumar Sharma and Shraddha Joshi and highlights how that there was always a ray of hope around the corner for the main character despite many pitfalls.

7. Kho Gaye Hum Kahan (India, Arjun Varain Singh)

A highly relevant contemporary film that depicts impact of social media on current generation. The film is set in Mumbai but the scenarios and characters can be found in most internet-connected nations around the world.

8. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Vietnam/Singapore/France/Spain, Thien An Pham)

An earthy interpretation of Apichatpong’s spiritual cinema.

9. La Cancha (Canada, Mustafa Uzuner)

Mustafa Uzuner lovingly depicts how a community basketball court in Montreal can be a meditation on life and social connections. Pure cinema.

10. Io Capitano (Italy/Belgium/France, Matteo Garrone)

A film that goes beyond the headlines and depicts the perilous journey of its two characters from Senegal to Italy. Garrone also shows how communities spring up and sustain characters in cities/nations that find themselves at centre of migration.

11. Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World (Romania co-production, /Luxembourg/France/Croatia/Switzerland/UK, Radu Jude)

One of the funniest films of the year that manages to take a dig at lengths corporations go to manufacture/sustain their social image. The constant social media attention of main character means she wouldn’t be out of place with the characters in Kho Gaye Hum Kahan.

Honourable Mentions (in order of preference):

Mast Mein Rehne Ka (India, Vijay Maurya)

Samsara (Spain,  Lois Patiño) 

Blackberry (Canada, Matt Johnson)

The Settlers (Chile/Argentina/UK/Taiwan/Germany/Sweden/France/Denmark, Felipe Gálvez Haberle)

About Dry Grasses (Turkey/France/Germany/Sweden, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Worthy 2022 films seen in 2024:

Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (India, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Trenque Lauquen (Argentina/Germany, Laura Citarella)

The Beasts (Spain/France, Rodrigo Sorogoyen)

Showing Up (USA, Kelly Reichardt)

Sunday, May 19, 2024

20th Anniversary of Scribbles and Ramblings

The first entry on this blog was on May 10, 2004. Safe to say, it was a very different world 20 years ago. It wasn't a simpler time or crisis free world but lack of smart phones certainly helped in keeping the insanity down a few notches. However, instead of focusing on the political, social or economic differences over the last 2 decades, I want to focus on soccer differences because the first 4 points in this blog were about football/soccer:

1) Valencia crowned Liga Champions after an astonishing collapse by Real. Nothing fake about the win there -- pure hardwork.
2) Arsenal remained unbeaten after 37 games. Thanks to Reyes -- the Spanish connection.
3) Werder Bremen won the Bundesliga in the best possible manner, a 3-1 win away to defending champs, Bayern Munich. The result left no doubt about the best team in Germany.
4) Milan & Roma take dives. But will it be enough for Perugia?

La Liga / Spanish League

In 2004, Valencia won the Spanish League title, their last of 6 overall titles. Since 2004, only 3 teams have won La Liga:

Barcelona: 11
Real Madrid: 7
Atlético Madrid: 2

It is hard to see any team other than these 3 capable of winning the league although Girona gave it a go this year.

Premier League

Arsenal went through the entire 2004 Premier League season unbeaten, a feat that has not been repeated since then. Although, Arsenal have not won the League title since then either but tried their best in 2023 and 2024 and finished second against the financially doped Man City team. The influx of money that started with Chelsea in 2003 has only increased exponentially over last two decades and Man City are swimming in endless money. Safe to say, it is hard to imagine any other team winning the title again.

Over the last 20 years, title has been won by these teams:

Man City: 8
Chelsea: 5
Man Utd: 5
Liverpool: 1
Leicester City: 1

Bundesliga / German League

Werder Bremen won the Bundesliga in 2004, their last of 4 total titles. It is hard to imagine that given how Bayern Munich have dominated the last two decades including winning 11 straight titles. Bayern were finally stopped in 2024 after a historic unbeaten season by Bayer Leverkusen who finally won their first ever Bundesliga title.

Over last 20 years, Bayern have dominated the league:

Bayern Munich: 15
Borussia Dortmund: 2
VfB Stuttgart: 1
VfL Wolfsburg: 1
Bayer Leverkusen: 1

Serie A / Italian League

AC Milan won Serie A in 2004 and Roma finished second but Italian football went through major changes in 2006 with Calciopoli. The results of the investigations meant Juventus got relegated and there were points deduction for AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina. As a result, Inter Milan dominated initially by winning 5 straight titles from 2006-2010. Once Juventus were back to their old self, they won 9 straight Serie A titles from 2012-2020. The last few years have seen an actual title race even though Napoli dominated 2023 and Inter did the same in 2024.

Titles won by teams between 2004 - 2024:

Juventus: 9
Inter Milan: 7
AC Milan: 2
Napoli: 1
No title awarded in 2004-05 as Juventus had their title taken away due to Calciopoli.

20 Years on 

The last two decades of European football have been dominated by just a few teams winning their domestic league titles. This was covered in two earlier posts, one around the failed European Super League while the other post looked at how just fewer teams can actually win the Champions League. The actual on-field game has sped up and become exciting in some leagues but the lack of different winners means most competitions are predictable affairs.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Not Best Films of 2023 List

With each passing year, the theatrical and film distribution machinery gets even more broken and can only sustain, promote and release fewer films from the previous year. This results in the same few films named over and over again in majority of end-of-the-year best film lists. Such lists consist of few decent American studio films with some foreign films that won top prizes at A-list film festivals from the current or past year and an occasional Independent film. I am forced to depend on this broken machinery as I am unable to travel to film festivals like in the past. As a result, my end of the year film list is getting pushed further into the next year. Last year, I was able to make a list on April 1 2023 for my Top 2022 films. This year on April 1, I haven’t gotten close to making such a list as a lot of the films I want to see are out of reach.

Instead, I am doing something different. I am making a list of films that will not be making my best films of the year list.

Here are some films that will not be in my best films of 2023 list (in alphabetical order):

Afire (Germany, Christian Petzold)
American Fiction (USA, Cord Jefferson)
Anatomy of a Fall (France, Justine Triet)
Asteroid City (Germany/USA, Wes Anderson)
Barbie (USA/UK, Greta Gerwig)
Fallen leaves (Finland/Germany, Aki Kaurismäki)
The Holdovers (USA,  Alexander Payne)
Killers of the Flower Moon (USA, Martin Scorsese)
May December (USA, Todd Haynes)
Monster (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Napolean (USA/UK, Ridley Scott)
Oppenheimer (US/UK, Christopher Nolan)
Passages (France/Germany, Ira Sachs)
Perfect Days (Japan/Germany, Wim Wenders)
Poor Things (Ireland/UK/USA/Hungary, Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Zone of Interest (USA/UK/Poland, Jonathan Glazer)

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Ranking the Films of Hong Sang-soo

In 2011, I was foolish enough to think I could catch-up to all of Hong Sang-soo's films. I had that crazy belief after I saw 3 of his newest films in cinemas in 2010. However, I didn’t anticipate the prolific output of Hong Sang-soo where he went from a single film per year to as many as 3 in 2017 and multiple 2 films per year outputs (2018, 2021, 2022, 2023). As of Mar 2024, these are the 31 directed features to his name (not including shorts):

1. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996)
2. The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)
3. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000)
4. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002)
5. Woman Is the Future of Man (2004)
6. Tale of Cinema (2005)
7. Woman on the Beach (2006)
8. Night and Day (2008)
9. Like You Know It All (2009)
10. Hahaha (2010)
11. Oki’s Movie (2010)
12. The Day He Arrives (2011)
13. In Another Country (2012)
14. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013)
15. Our Sunhi (2013)
16. Hill of Freedom (2014)
17. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
18. Yourself and Yours (2016)
19. On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)
20. Claire’s Camera (2017)
21. The Day After (2017)
22. Grass (2018)
23. Hotel by the River (2018)
24. The Woman Who Ran (2020)
25. Introduction (2021)
26. In Front of Your Face (2021)
27. The Novelist’s Film (2022)
28. Walk Up (2022)
29. In Water (2023)
30. In Our Day (2023)
31. A Traveler’s Needs (2024)

In 2011, I had seen 5 of his 12 features to-date so I was 7 films behind. Now, I have seen 24/31 of his features so the gap is still amazingly at 7. One reason why this gap exists is because his films are not easily available via legal means. No single streaming service or traditional Blu-Ray/DVD distributor holds all the rights to his movies. Not attending film festivals also restricts my ability to view his new films. So in a sense, I will always be a few years behind in seeing his films and if his output remains at 2-3 films per year, chances are that gap will always stay at 5-7 films if not more.

Still, I am determined to close the gap after drawing inspiration from reading Dennis Lim’s excellent book on Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema. Lim uses that singular film as a basis to examine the various themes and styles found in Hong’s cinema. I will expand on some of these aspects in a future entry but for now, I want to list my Top 10 Hong Sang-soo films to place a marker to examine his future films against.

Top 10 Hong Sang-soo films

1. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
2. The Day He Arrives (2011)
3. Tale of Cinema (2005)
4. Like You Know It All (2009)
5. The Day After (2017)
6. In Front of Your Face (2021)
7. Woman Is the Future of Man (2004)
8. On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)
9. Night and Day (2008)
10. In Another Country (2012)

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Top Brazilian Films of All Time

The inspiration to make this list came after reading Filipe Furtado’s list of 10 Great Brazilian films.

These words by Filipe ring true with a slight change that UK can be replaced by majority of countries in the world: “Like many important filmographies of the global south, Brazilian cinema doesn’t circulate much in the UK, which can make the prospect of discovering it even more daunting.”

I have only seen 6 of 10 films in Filipe’s list but more telling is that I haven’t even heard of the remaining 4 films or seen any references to them in any film articles or books previously. Beyond these 4 films, there are numerous more worthy Brazilian films to be seen. That being said, I have decided to list my Top 10 knowing full well that this list will change over the years once I am able to see more vital Brazilian films.

Top 10 Brazilian Films

1. Black God, White Devil (1964, Glauber Rocha)
2. Limite (1931, Mario Peixoto)
3. Cabra Marcado para Morrer / Twenty Years Later (1984, Eduardo Coutinho)
4. Vidas Secas / Barren Lives (1963, Nelson Pereira dos Santos)
5. Pixote (1980, Hector Babenco)
6. Terra em Transe / Entranced Earth (1967, Glauber Rocha)
7. Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures (2005, Marcelo Gomes)
8. Neigboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
9. A Febre / The Fever (2019, Maya Da-Rin)
10. Noite Vazia / Men and Women (1964, Walter Hugo Khouri)

Honourable Mentions (10 more films):

Barravento (1962, Glauber Rocha)
The House of Sand (2005, Andrucha Waddington)
O Padre e a Moça / The Priest and the Girl (1965, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade)
Central Station (1998, Walter Salles)
City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles/Kátia Lund)
Carandiru (2003, Hector Babenco)
The Middle of the World (2003, Vicente Amorim)
Avenida Brasília Formosa (2010, Gabriel Mascaro)
O Pagador de Promessas / The Given Word (1962, Anselmo Duarte)
The Conspirators (1972, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Pemini Organisation

I hadn’t heard about the Pemini Organisation until I came across Powerhouse Films/Indicator Series Box-set of these 3 movies:

HUNTED (1972, Peter Crane)
ASSASSIN (1973, Peter Crane)
MOMENTS (1974, Peter Crane)

The name Pemini comes from the first 2 letters of the three friends: Peter Crane, Michael Sloan and Nigel Hodgson. Peter Crane directed all 3 films written by Michael Sloan. Incredibly, all 3 were very young when the organisation started making the films as Peter was 21 years, Nigel 22 and
Michael 24 years old.

Lone Wolf, Gun for hire

Assassin movies are now part of the global film landscape and every year we get a new harvest of films which depict solitary male or female characters going about killing their enemies. Majority of such contemporary assassin films focus on body count and gruesome manner characters are killed in. However, Pemini Organisation’s first 2 films get at the core of who an assassin is and what makes them tick.

At the start of Hunted, we don’t know the main character John Drummond (Edward Woodward) is looking to kill. Instead, he is looking to rent out an apartment. During the course of a conversation between Edward and the realtor Margaret (June Ritchie), it dawns on Margaret that he is looking to commit a crime. When she confronts him with this, John admits his intentions and make it sound like he randomly intends to shoot people down on the street. But as the two continue to talk, she realises that his killing act may not be as random as he made it out to be. The engaging and taut Hunted is powered by a very smart screenplay and lively performances of
Edward Woodward and June Ritchie.

While no killing is shown in the Hunted, Assassin takes that lone gun character and brings him to life in the form of a character (played perfectly by Ian Hendry) hired by organisations to kill select targets. The film shows the daily mechanics, preparation and process an assassin goes through to stalk and hunt their victim for money. Yet, the film isn’t confined to the solitary character but shows the people who pull the strings behind the killing. The film shows how a target is selected, a killer or a team is hired and how loose ends are tied up. Assassin lays out the template that so many films have used over the decades most notably Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010).

Ghosts in the hotel halls

Moments is a change of topic and pace from the previous two Pemini films. Peter Samuelson (Keith Michell) goes to a hotel in Eastbourne (South Coast of England) and reminiscences of his childhood when he spent time in the hotel. Peter visits during the offseason when majority of the hotel is empty. However, he is isn’t there for any fun trip but instead plans to end his life by turning his gun inwards. In this regard, the film is still tied to Hunted, albeit in a different manner of gun usage. But a knock on the door by a young woman Chrissy (Angharad Rees) gives him pause.

The depiction of the vast empty hotel with its empty halls bring to mind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. However, Moments was released 6 years before The Shining (1980). Given the difference in tone of the films, it is hard to know if the hotel and its hallway shots inspired Kubrick’s film. The last shots in Moments show the Grand hotel in
Eastbourne from an aerial distance with the hotel getting further away as the credits roll. This finale and many other moments end up making the hotel a character in itself, something echoed by The Shining as well.

The Pemini Organisation (1972-74)

In an essay accompanying the boxset, Peter Crane mentions the financial difficulties of making and distributing these films. The organisation ended in 1974 and didn’t make any more films. That is a pity given the impressive quality of these films. Assassin is the brilliant standout film from the trio but all 3 films are far superior than majority of the Hollywood studio films that take over cinemas on a weekly basis.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Pablo Trapero's Cinema

This spotlight came about due to the discovery that Netflix Canada has several of Pablo Trapero’s films. Last year there were 5 Trapero films but as of current writing, there are now 7 films. That is an impressive number considering that Trapero has directed 9 features to date. The only 2 films from these 9 that are not on Netflix yet are his last 2 features: The Quietude and The Clan. 

Mundo Grúa / Crane World (1999)
El bonaerense (2002)
Rolling Family (2004)
Born and Bred (2006)
Leonera / Lion’s Den (2008)
Carancho (2010)
Elefante blanco / White Elephant (2012)
The Clan (2015)
The Quietude (2018)

New Argentine Cinema

Pablo Trapero was a key part of the New Argentine Cinema that started to emerge in the late 1990s, not only in terms of style but also in terms of recognition. In Demetrios Matheou’s The Faber Book of New South American Cinema, Matheou mentions the following:

“It was Trapero’s debut, Mundo Grúa (Crane World, 1999), completed when he was twenty-seven, that won the best director prize at the inaugural Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI), a festival that quickly became a champion of New Argentine Cinema. It was Mundo Grúa, with further prizes in Rotterdam and Venice, that alerted the wider film community that Argentina might have something to offer the Latin American party that was only then turning up the amps.” page 259, The Faber Book of New South American Cinema, Demetrios Matheou

The unique perspective of these New Argentine films such as Trapero’s Mundo Grúa (Crane World, 1999) broke away from the conventional cinematic mould that existed previously. Crane World was filmed in grainy black and white, had extended takes, used non-professional actors and depicted events in a vérité manner. This style echoed Italian neo-realist cinema and also incorporated Argentina’s social and economic realities. The economic crisis of 1998-02 impacted Argentine society drastically and these New Argentine films, including Trapero’s debut, embraced the harsh reality and stitched it within their framework to depict youth and workers struggling to make ends meet.

Crane World follows the life and travels of Rulo (Luis Margani) as he attempts to earn a living by taking up whatever jobs he can find. Rulo tries his luck as a crane operator but he is let go from his job after his boss has concerns about Rulo’s health. Rulo drifts to the Argentine countryside to find a job in the construction industry but things don’t work out there because of other workers' dispute with the owners over a missing lunch. Rulo’s charming and easy going personality certainly help him overcome any hardships, be it with his job or with his son. Over the course of the film, it is uncovered that Rulo was once in a band and this revelation helps open some new doors for him.

Trapero continues this vérité style in his second feature El bonaerense which builds on the themes of employment and tough social/economic conditions depicted in his first film. El bonaerense expands its scope to depict corruption in the police force which is made worse by the tightening financial situation each character finds himself in. The dog-eat-dog world means that everyone is trying to get their share by whatever means possible.

Social Realism and Family

“Poet of the everyday: Pablo Trapero”, Demetrios Matheou, The Faber Book of New South American Cinema

Demetrios Matheou perfectly highlights Trapero's cinematic style with just these four words "Poet of the everyday".

All of Trapero’s 9 features to date shed light on topics that impact citizens in their day-to-day lives. The social, political, economic and political topics that his films cover are those that keep people up at night, be it finding a job, keeping a family/relationship together or holding on to a house. Trapero’s usage of non-actors also adds to this realistic portrayal of an everyday citizen. Trapero has illustrated different topics and film genres but all these 9 films are united in their aspect of family, be it a real family or a family born out of community/association/circumstances.

Rolling Family (2004) is a variation of a road family movie and balances keen observations of family dynamics with a pinch of comedy. Born and Bred (2006) examines the impact of guilt on a father (Santiago played by Guillermo Pfening) as he leaves his city life to work in the rugged cold Patagonian landscape. The Patagonian landscape and the isolated life echoes Carlos Sorin’s movies and can be considered a precursor to Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) albeit with a difference as Alonso’s film dove further south into Tierra del Fuego.

Leonera / Lion’s Den (2008) shows a family dissolving before it can even materialize. In the film, Julia (Martina Gusmán) is framed for her boyfriend’s murder even though she discovers his dead body. In prison, she learns of her pregnancy and that discovery lands her in a ward for pregnant and young mothers. As per the film, a child born in prison has to be given away to a relative or a destination chosen by the court at the age of 4. Julia fights to secure a better life for her son. The Indian film Jawan (2023) shows an imprisoned woman giving birth in prison and raising her son but this topic was covered by Trapero much earlier.

Carancho (2010) switches gears and highlights the fraudulent injury insurance practises some people undertake to make some money. The film underscores the desperate economic plight of people that they are willing to put their bones on the line for some cash. White Elephant (2012) is a fascinating intersection of socialism, capitalism and the role of religion in brokering a deal between social good vs private property development.

On the surface, The Clan (2015) deals with extortion and mafia like tactic of a family who seek to profit from kidnapping children of rich people. But underneath the surface is the structure and framework of The Dirty War and disappearances that took place in Argentina. Therefore, it isn’t a surprise that for his next film, Trapero addresses the Argentina dictatorship. The Quietude (2018) starts off as a film about complicated family relationships and sibling rivalry. However, it is clear early on that the large estate the family lives in played a part in the death of the family patriarch. The whispers and hushed talks finally surface in the film’s final third when harsh truths about the dictatorship are addressed head-on.

Overall sentiment

Pablo Trapero has built an insightful and worthy body of work with just 9 features. He has examined different social, cultural, economic and political aspects of Argentine society with unflinching honesty. He is aided by a collection of talented actors and film crew. One notable mention goes to Martina Gusmán, married to Trapero since 2000, since she has stared in 5 of these films. Gusmán has a small role in Born and Bred (2006) but is the main force in Lion’s Den (2008). Her character is an excellent foil to Ricardo Darín’s character in Carancho and her character in White Elephant (2012) is the calm voice in the middle of the two opposing views of Jérémie Renier's and Ricardo Darín’s characters. Martina Gusmán truly steals the spotlight in The Quietude (2018) as her expressions and body language perfectly depict the tense rivalry and relationship of her character Mia with her sister Eugenia (played excellently by Bérénice Bejo). Both Martina Gusmán and Bérénice Bejo appear like twins and their appearance and expressions nicely layer the film’s tension.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The Films of Roy Andersson

This is a combination of two previous posts related to the following four films from Roy Andersson:

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
You, The Living (2007)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)
About Endlessness (2019)

The first three films in the above list are part of his “Living Trilogy” while About Endlessness feels like an epilogue to the trilogy. All four films contain similar style and themes such as usage of deadpan humour and an existentialist theme.

Singing songs en route to Godot

Songs from the Second Floor is a cinematic twist on Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. In the famous play, two characters quietly wait for Godot because they believe Godot will make everything better and provide happiness. In Songs from the Second Floor, characters are always in motion looking for happiness but since they move ever so slowly, their motion can be considered as a painful never ending waiting period. For example, the lives of some characters are taken up by an almost never ending traffic jam which leads them to complain about spending 8 hours stuck in traffic, while on other occasions, the traffic gridlock is shown to exist across multiple days. There are empty streets all around the one gridlocked main street but no one seems to be driving on the other side streets. Instead, everyone just stays trapped in one street, moving a few yards, every few minutes and never arriving to their destination on time. An officer on the way to a millionaire general’s 100th birthday comes up with this wisdom:

“Life is Time and time is a stretch of road. That makes life a journey, a trip.” He goes on to add that heritage, tradition and history are maps and compasses that accompany a person on their journey. As the cars inch their way slowly down the never ending road, people have the illusion of getting closer to their end goal.

Another line that is often repeated in the film is “Beloved be the one who sits down.” Since everyone is always in motion, sitting down to rest appears to be a dream, a goal.

The persistent sentiment in Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living feature characters who are exhausted and tired of their lives. In Songs from the Second Floor, Kalle (Lars Nordh) repeatedly shouts that he cannot take it anymore and in his desperation to better his life, he burns his own shop down hoping to collect the insurance money. In You, the Living, a psychologist admits he cannot continue in his job because he cannot stand listening to people complain. Characters in the film come off as carrying a huge burden on their shoulders. This extra baggage is demonstrated near the end of Songs.. when characters are shown pulling tons of luggage en route to possibly heaven where their souls will get the rest they failed to get on earth.

They, the dead

Death is a persistent element present in the “Living Trilogy” either in the form of the walking dead (zombies, ghosts) or characters on verge of dying or those that actually pass away in
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. There are many characters who have had enough of their lives and are contemplating suicide. In many cases, it appears that death is walking side by side with these people seeking to collect the worn out and tired physical body of the living beings.

Songs from the Second Floor depicts an end of the world scenario where inhabitants are on the verge of extinction, so it is not surprising to see death hovering over the inhabitants. And just to make sure that death does not miss a single person, a fleet of bombers heads towards the city at the end of You, the Living so that no person is forced to continue living their miserable life. As depressing as the topic of death sounds, Andersson’s films are anything but a downer. In fact, they are packed with plenty of dry/dark humour and absurd situations which may not induce a full out laugh but a disbelieving smile and a shake of the head. Each frame contains enough fascinating action in both the foreground and background which ensures no misery is taken too seriously. In one scene in Songs from the Second Floor, Kalle is upset about his burned down shop but in the background, a procession of office employees walk flagellating themselves. The same employees are then found walking in the background when in the foreground an officer is philosophizing about the meaning of life. In You, the Living an elderly man narrates how he lost a huge chunk of his money but his sad story does not garner too much attention as the man is being humped by a woman in a viking hat who is moaning with pleasure.

Jokes completed 7 years later

Each film in the “Living Trilogy” is spaced out by 7 years and stand as separate films but they are tied together with the same dry humour style and are a study of miserable characters in a city on the verge of extinction. In the first two films of the trilogy, some jokes that start off in the first film are visually depicted in the second film. For example, in Songs from the Second Floor a business meeting is interrupted when an employee points to a neighboring building that is moving. The moving building is never shown but in You, the Living a moving house is shown, which may have been mistaken for the moving building in the first film.

The traffic congestion from the first film is still found in the second film You, the Living.

In Songs.. characters are shown to be escaping the city with their luggage. One interpretation of that escape is that it refers to people carrying their baggage as they head to heaven. Another explanation is provided by the ending of You, the Living when fighter airplanes are seen heading towards the city. The aerial shot of the planes indicate they are going to bomb the city into destruction, which would mean that the luggage scene in Songs.. is an attempt by the residents to escape their city before it is destroyed.

The misery of the characters in the first film continues in the second film as well.


About Endlessness, released 5 years after A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, appears to be an epilogue to the “Living Trilogy” but has a more bleaker look due to the greyish palette complete with overcast skies.

The opening sequence stands out as two characters fly over a city in ruins. That is just one of a series of vignettes in the film which doesn’t interleave characters like the “Living Trilogy”. Instead, some segments are linked together by an unseen female narrator’s voice-over such as “I saw a man…”. There is the expected deadpan, some gags, inclusion of religious elements and some attempts to tackle contemporary issues. Although, one of the contemporary segments about honour killing doesn’t have the intended impact and stands out as tone-deaf.

The “Living Trilogy” and About Endlessness were released over a long duration of 19 years. The world changed significantly over these two decades yet Andersson has largely maintained a similar style over this duration with a few tweaks. Unfortunately, I find the last two films weaker in comparison to Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living. That could be more due to the high bar by those two earlier films or perhaps my changing perspective.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Films of Elio Petri

Elio Petri’s name doesn’t come up when the top names of Italian cinema are mentioned. Such a roll call often features titles by Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica, Visconti, Rossellini and Ermanno Olmi, directors whose films are often canonized. These other directors may not feature on many lists but a few of their uncompromising political titles are often cited: Pontecorvo, Francesco Rosi, Pasolini, Bellocchio, Bertolucci and Elio Petri. Until recently, I had only seen just two of Petri’s films: Inspection of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The 10th Victim. A closer look at Petri’s films was long overdue so grouping the previously seen Inspection of a Citizen Above Suspicion with 5 other films to form the following mini-spotlight:

I giorni contati / His Days Are Numbered (1962)
A ciascuno il suo / We Still Kill the Old Way (1967)
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)
The Working Class Goes to Heaven / Lulu the Tool (1971)
Property Is No Longer a Theft (1973)
Todo Modo / One Way or Another (1976)


Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is the best known of all of Petri’s film due to its Oscar win. It feels highly relevant today given the topic of corruption and abuse of power. Dottore (Gian Maria Volontè) is a corrupt police officer who commits murder. He starts to leave clues pointing towards his crimes yet he evades getting arrested. This is due to the corrupt system of power that exists around and above him in the hierarchy. No matter how brazen he gets, no matter how open his crimes are, he won’t be charged until those in power decide he is no longer of use to them. The topic rings true in our current times as we have a plethora of politicians who lie (take your pick) and are guilty, yet they continue to get away with it.


Corruption and power in the police are at the core of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion but in We Still Kill the Old Way, the focus of these topics is instead on the mafia and how their methods of intimidation, fear and power impact ordinary citizens. We Still Kill the Old Way is a fascinating film that shows a professor (a subtle contemplative Gian Maria Volontè) succumbing to a femme fatale and blindly walking into a trap laid by the mafia. The professor ignores all the signs around him and doesn't fathom the mafia's hold on society.

Socialism vs Capitalism

The Working Class Goes to Heaven (or Lulu the Tool) perfectly highlights differences between Socialism and Capitalism. In the film, as the workers go to the factory, union members/leaders with megaphones shout at them to rise up against the system. The union members highlight that the workers go to work in darkness and emerge in darkness, wasting precious hours of sunlight working at the assembly lines of the factory. The main worker in the film, Lulu (a brilliant Gian Maria Volontè), is known for his fast production rates which others can’t meet. Lulu works and works, ignoring the words of the union outside. However, his views change when he hurts himself on the same machines he worked tirelessly on. Now, he becomes an advocate for worker rights.

The words spoken in this 1971 film ring even more true in our current times when there are reports of people working themselves into the ground on assembly lines of Amazon and other big box stores. The gap between rich and poor has increased in the 5 decades since this film and capitalism is literally burning up the planet. Safe to say, until the planet is destroyed, Petri’s film will always be relevant.

Private property is a core tenant of capitalism and that is the topic of Property is No Longer Theft, a film buzzing with ideas about wealth, property, theft, ownership. Total (Flavio Bucci) targets the Butcher (Ugo Tognazzi) in a cat-mouse game of theft, but Total doesn't steal major items of financial value but instead targets smaller items of sentimental value. To complicate matters, Total has an allergic reaction to money even though he works at a bank. His character’s depiction and actions add another layer of debate around the entire capitalist nature of society. The film is modelled in a similar manner to Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion but lacks the latter’s dramatic power.

Meaning of life

His Days Are Numbered is centered around Cesare (Salvo Randone) who has an existential crisis when he observes a death on his way home. Cesare ponders to think what it means to live and work. He quits his job and wanders around town, seeking answers to meaning of life and happiness. This film covers similar ground as that of Kurosawa’s Ikiru and also forms an extension piece to The Working Class Goes to Heaven. Any of the characters in The Working Class Goes to Heaven could easily find themselves in Cesare’s shoes.

Power Structure of a Society

Up until 1976’s Todo Modo, Elio Petri examined a variety of topics ranging from corruption, crime, political and financials systems, working rights but the films zeroed in on individual characters or a few characters who are cogs in the system. In Todo Modo, Petri casts his net wider and examines the entire power structure of a nation and people who pull the strings from the top political party, church, banks down to individuals carrying out the will of the system. This brilliant examination is based on Leonardo Sciascia’s novel of the same name which in turn was inspired by Italy’s ruling party at the time.

Todo Modo’s premise feels apocalyptic, sci-fi and shows a society where an epidemic is killing people. In order to avoid sickness, prominent members of society gather in an underground bunker to save themselves while working out a plan to restructure society. The film’s open political depiction clearly means this isn’t a film for everyone and also it isn’t surprising that it caused controversy upon its release in Italy. The film builds on themes and topics Petri covered in his career and feels like a cinematic culmination for Petri. The film has notable performances by Gian Maria Volonté and Marcello Mastroianni.

Other Reading

Larry Portis’ detailed examined of Elio Petri’s films is a must-read.
Part 1
and Part 2.

Michael Pattison on Investigation at Mubi.

Paul Costianes on Petri.

Friday, December 08, 2023

The Greatest Films of All Time

I have avoided putting up a Greatest Films of All Time list up previously because I have always felt such a list is a slippery task because of two reasons: 

1) it is not possible for me or any person to have seen enough of the vast quantity of quality films from around the world to make a credible list 

2) views of film change over time so such a list would only be a snapshot in time 

There are some exceptions to item #1. The late Allan Fish was one person I knew who made a dent in the huge quantity and quality of films from around the world. His top 3000 films list is a wonder. Despite having seen over 10,000 films, Allan was always on the lookout for gems from around the world as he knew there were always great films to be found and documented his findings in his "The Fish Obscuro" reviews. His cinematic quests were (are) in contrast to the vast amount of North American critics who are happy to view and place only English language Hollywood films in their top 10 film lists annually and call it a year. In terms of North American critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum is an exception as he is well versed in foreign films and is always willing to seek out classic films or revisit films for a different perspective as documented by his “Global Discoveries” Cinema Scope columns. Everyone has blind spots in their film viewing but not everyone is willing to take steps to rectify those like Allan did or Jonathan still does. 

There are still a vast amount of classic films to view and consider worthy of a canon entry. The recent 101 Hidden Gems from Sight & Sound serves as a reminder of the vast amount of films that are rarely seen. Majority of the films in this list still don’t have proper distribution. In contrast, Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of all Time list contains films that have been mostly accessible in various formats, starting from theatrical screenings to VHS Tapes to DVDs to Blu-Rays and streaming. This accessibility creates a recursive loop which allows more people to view these films thereby ensuring that these films will always be in the Greatest Films of all time lists due to higher number of mentions. 

I am well aware of my blind spots and know that there are a lot more films to be seen. However, I am finally ready to put down a snapshot in time of my 10 Greatest Films list. This list will, and should, change over time but for now, this is it.

Top 10 Greatest Films of all Time

1. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Italy/Algeria, Gillo Pontecorvo)
2. Taste of Cherry (1997, Iran/France, Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Le mani sulla città (Hands over the City, 1963, Italy/France, Francesco Rosi)
4. In the Mood for Love (2000, Hong Kong/France, Wong Kar-wai)
5. Modern Times (1936, USA, Charles Chaplin)
6. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959, India, Satyajit Ray)
7. Pickpocket (1959, France, Robert Bresson)
8. Ikiru (1952, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)
9. Tokyo Story (1953, Japan, Yasujirô Ozu)
10. Zama (2017, Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)

Honourable mention of dozen films that were once in the Top 10 (arranged in year of release):

Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Vittorio De Sica)
Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Seven Samurai (1954, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)
The Seventh Seal (1957, Sweden, Ingmar Bergman)
Il Posto (1961, Italy, Ermanno Olmi)
Black God, White Devil (1964, Brazil, Glauber Rocha)
Play Time (1967, France/Italy, Jacques Tati)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, UK/USA, Stanley Kubrick)
Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread, 1970, India, Mani Kaul)
Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1986, India, John Abraham)
Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000, Taiwan, Edward Yang)
The Time That Remains (2009, Palestine co-production, Elia Sulieman)

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Vittorio De Sica and Commedia all'italiana

Vittorio De Sica’s name looms large both in Italian and Global cinema due to his remarkable works of neorealism especially the essential Bicycle Thieves (1948). However, he did direct other type of films especially Commedia all'italiana or “Italian-style comedy”. This comedic style isn’t a straight-forward comedy but instead depicts social topics through a comedic lens. In a way, such a style feels like an extension of what De Sica managed with his more famous works of neorealism. 

Three films seen as part of this spotlight:

The Last Judgement (1962)
Il Boom (1963)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

The Last Judgement (1962)

This Naples set film starts off with a voice coming from heavens that the Last Judgement will begin at 6 pm. At first, some dismiss the voice as that of a new advertisement, a stunt, but as the voice keeps booming, it causes anxiety and concern in people. The reason for that is that no one is clean enough to escape judgement. The film focuses on a few sets of characters and follows their lives. Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Lino Ventura, and even Vittorio De Sica himself star in the film.

Other than the booming voice, there isn’t anything memorable in this film. Even the switch from black and white to colour near the end fails to liven events up. The presence of Jack Palance and Anouk Aimée is a surprise.

Il Boom (1963)

Alberto Sordi puts in a virtuoso performance as Giovanni Alberti, a building contractor who is drowning in debt due to some risky deals going sour. Giovanni made some money during the economic boom years in Italian society during the 1950s (hence the title) but he didn’t read the writing on the wall and made some risky bets. Giovanni hasn’t adapted to the times and continues selling building schemes in the same manner. Yet, other investors and banks are now wiser and aren’t willing invest in his building schemes or loan him money. On top of that, Giovanni has kept the full extent of their debt from his wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale) who continues to live and expect a rich lifestyle full of expensive items and late night parties.

Giovanni Alberti continues to get desperate and is willing to do anything to turn his fortunes around. He gets such a chance after a rich business owner’s wife (Mrs. Bausetti played by Elena Nicolai) offers him a chance to wipe out his debt overnight. At first, Giovanni thinks that Mrs. Bausetti wants to sleep with him. But amusingly it turns out that she wants his eye instead as her husband Mr. Bausetti (Ettore Geri) only has one good eye and wears a patch on the other one. Acquiring a healthy body part as part of a financial trade is an illegal activity so this deal has to stay secret between the Bausettis and Giovanni. This deal leads Giovanni to evaluate what he really wants and what is the cost of his happiness.

Il Boom is an energetic smart satire that is a perfect example of Commedia all’italiana and shows how this style can blend social commentary with some amusing moments. The film contains some of the same vibrant energy as Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso (The Easy life, 1962), another shining example of Commedia all’italiana. 

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni plays three different characters in three shorts set in three different Italian cities: Naples, Milan and Rome. It is the first short set in Naples that is the best of the trio.

In the first segment,  Loren plays Adelina who sells illegal cigarettes to make ends meet and support her family, Carmine (Marcello Mastroianni) and their child. She fails to pay a fine which is a jailable offence. When the police come to arrest her, they find out she is pregnant. As per Italian law, women cannot be sent to prison when they are pregnant or within six months after a pregnancy. So after the police see the doctor’s certificate validating her pregnancy, they announce that they will be back in a year. But when the police come back in a year, she is pregnant yet again. This starts a comic cycle where she keeps getting pregnant to avoid jail. Their family grows to seven children staying in the same tiny residence. Carmine is exhausted from all the children and the constant sexual requirements he has to fulfill. Safe to say, such a topic makes for some amusing moments and both actors are lively.

The second segment features Sophia Loren playing a rich woman from Milan who is on the road with her lover Renzo (Marcello Mastroianni). The entire segment is set on the road which seems fitting as the growth of car ownership in the 1960s led to cars playing a significant part in cinema. The comedy in this segment is a bit subtle with the humour mostly in between the lines until the end.

The third segment is set in Rome and features Loren playing a seductive prostitute who is tempting both Mastroianni’s character and her neighbour who is a young man studying to be a priest. It is this short’s images that are more commonly found on the film’s poster yet it is this segment that is the weakest of the trio.


Vittoria De Sica’s name will always be associated with neorealism and films such as Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. but he did direct many other kinds of notable films such as the romantic comedy Marriage Italian-Style and the social Italian comedies known as Commedia all’italiana. Of the three films seen as part of Commedia all’italiana, Il Boom is clearly the best of the trio and shows how De Sica’s neorealist style can be married with comedic moments to produce an enjoyable insightful film. The Last Judgement is forgettable while Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow has some memorable moments due to the stellar duo of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Brief Look at Palestinian Cinema

This isn’t a comprehensive look at Palestinian cinema but instead pulls together the top 7 Palestinian films that were included in the Best films from the Arab World list.

Top 7 (roughly in order of preference):

1. The Time That Remains (2009, Elia Sulieman)

Elia Sulieman’s films have been compared to the works of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati due to his character’s deadpan expressions in absurd scenarios. However, there is nothing funny or absurd for most of Sulieman’s brilliant film The Time That Remains. That is because the film deals with the tragic expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 (‘nakba’), an event that created fissures and divisions in the Middle East, none of which have ever been healed and have gotten worse in the seven decades since. For the longest time, most of the world believed a general lie that Palestinians left peacefully of their own accord in 1948 but that has been proven to be a lie. Sulieman’s film shows that lie but doesn’t dive into details. Instead, a few scenes show the forceful surrender and forced departure of Palestinians. Events cover a few decades and centre around Fuad Sulieman (played brilliantly by Saleh Bakri) and what happen to his family/friends. The director enters the frame in the film’s final third as the grown up version of Fuad’s son. Some of the director’s trademark humour attempts to enter the frame in the final 20 minutes but that can’t hide the tragedy of what has unfolded since 1948.

2. Salt of This Sea (2007, Annemarie Jacir)

Tick Tock. 1948. Silence. A minute later, chaos. Many Palestinians left or were forced to leave their homes in 1948 with the hopes of returning one day but their ownership documents are meaningless because legally now their homes belong to someone else. So what happens when all the surviving members of 1948 are gone? Annemarie Jacir attempts to examine such questions by showing an example of a third generation exile who keeps the memories of pre-1948 alive. In the film, Soraya (Suheir Hammad) leaves her home in Brooklyn to visit her grandfather’s land and retrieve his money. However, the bank can no longer hand over the money because in their eyes that old Palestinian branch no longer exists. So Soraya decides to rob the bank along with two accomplices. What follows is a road movie but in this case, the road passes through non-existent towns and streets because the old Palestinian towns are either renamed or in ruins. What remains of the original towns? Only their memories. The film contains some scenarios that are hard to believe but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Jacir has scripted these scenes to provide a space for a dialogue that is hardly present in the Western world. A dialogue about happened in 1948, what will happen when the original generation of 1948 has perished and what happens when even the memories of that generation are gone. 

3. Pomegranates and Myrrh (2008, Najma Najjar)

Like Salt of the Sea, the film uses an individual family’s example to raise issues that are hardly talked about. In the film, soldiers arrive at a Palestinian Arab family’s home and annex the land as part of a security pretext. The soldiers provide no proof but show their guns. The elder son Zaid (Ashraf Farah) retaliates and is arrested. The family, including Zaid’s bride Kamar (Yasmine Elmasri, has to make trips to the court to get him released while providing documentation of their land. In the meantime, settlers arrive with their own guns and attempt to occupy that land.

This sounds like wildly scripted fiction but it is not. Events in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem captured by cell phones show that this has been going on for a long time but never talked about and no action is taken.

The film keeps the drama at the human level with Kamar yearning to find her own identity and stay sane while Zaid is behind bars. However, even though the film maintains focus on Kamar and Zaid and their collapsing relationship, it is hard not to draw comparisons with this individual family’s case with that of the larger Palestinian Arab community that went through similar or worse ordeals.

4. It Must be Heaven (2019, Elia Suleiman)

Elia Suleiman reprises his mostly silent character who travels from Palestine to Paris and New York. At the film’s start, he quietly observes the regular routines in his neighbourhood whether it is his neighbour stealing lemons from his tree or neighbours fighting or steely confrontations with gang members at a restaurant. Deciding he wants a change of scenery, he packs his bags for Paris and then New York but he finds that no matter where he goes, he encounters reminders of his homeland. Suleiman’s last feature The Time That Remains contained little humour. So he makes up for it by packing this film with delightful vignettes that feature a mix of deadpan or slapstick comedy and offers a meditative look at questions of identity and human behaviour.

In his previous three features (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) Suleiman character doesn’t speak a word. But in this film, he finally speaks. When asked where he is from, he first says “Nazareth” and then clarifies “I am Palestinian”. His character has aged in the more than 23 years since his first feature. The decision to speak isn’t the only change as in the film’s final scene, his character has a slight change of expression, something which wasn’t present previously. Is the change in expression a sign of hope that maybe things will get better? Although, that hope is hard to come by given events since the film premiered at Cannes in 2019.

5. Rana’s Wedding (2002, Hany Abu-Assad)

Clara Khoury plays the lead role in Rana's Wedding and has to overcome the challenges of checkpoints that play a troublesome role in her wedding decisions. The camera gives us a glimpse of life in the ancient city of Jerusalem and how even the simplistic tasks become complicated under occupation. Rana's Wedding does justice to the beauty of Jerusalem and shows it in all its splendour.

6. Between Heaven and Earth (2019, Najwa Najjar)

A beautiful film shows the difficulty of a couple in getting a divorce as the strains of occupation put up new obstacles and uncover a mysterious past.

7. Divine Intervention (2002, Elia Suleiman)

Suleiman’s uses his trademark style to highlights absurd scenarios related to borders and checkpoints. There are some delightful references such as the red balloon free to roam across the border and the action sequence straight out of a comic book. 

Honourable mention: 

Wajib (2017, Annemarie Jacir)

Monday, November 13, 2023

The films of Bong Joon-ho

The idea of revisiting Bong Joon-ho’s films came while reading Karen Han’s book on the director, Dissident Cinema. I realized that I hadn’t seen Bong Joon-ho’s first feature while missed some of his short films. A revisit would also give the chance to reconsider some of Bong’s films in a different light.

All of these features and shorts were viewed/revisited as part of the spotlight:

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Memories of Murder (2003)
The Host (2006)
Mother (2009)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Okja (2017)
Parasite (2019)

Short films: 

White Man (1994)
Incoherence (1994)
Influenza (2004)
Shaking Tokyo
as part of Tokyo! (2008) anthology

There is a 3 year gap in between the release of all his first four features. That increased to 4 years for the next 2 features before decreasing to 2 years between Okja and Parasite. His next film, Mickey 17, will be released in 2024, a 5 year gap which can be attributed to post-Parasite success and pandemic.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Karen Han recounts an incident in Dissident Cinema where Bong Joon-ho told an audience to not see this movie:

“This is a very stupid black comedy movie”, he told the crowd just before screening a clip for the 2020 BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. “Please don’t see the whole movie.”

Bong Joon-Ho spoke the above in 2020, after the release and global acclaim of Parasite so his sentiment is understandable. Barking Dogs Never Bite is uneven in tone and some distance off the quality of his other 6 features yet is still worth viewing as it depicts some themes, stylistic flourishes that Bong Joon-ho would explore in all his subsequent features. Items that we now expect from a Bong Joon-ho film are present from the start in Barking Dogs Never Bite  such as dark humour, class differences, social commentary and even the relevance of a basement.

Although, unlike his subsequent movies, Bong pushes the boundaries of acceptable events on cinema from the start as the film depicts a character who tries to kill a neighbour’s dog for persistent barking. The man tries to throw the dog from the roof of his building but can’t carry out his attempt so instead he locks the dog in a cabinet in the basement of the building. However, it turns out that this was not the dog who was barking persistently so he goes back to get the dog out but it is too late. This isn’t the only ironic aspect in the film as later on his girlfriend buys a dog and he is forced to take care of their dog. The basement is featured prominently in this film as a place for secrets (a story of a ghost haunting the building pipes) and division between rich and poor. The security guard hides in the basement and makes his stew/soup with dead dogs because he can’t afford to procure any other meat unlike the well off middle class residents of the office tower.

Memories of Murder (2003) 

This film is a huge jump in production and execution from Bong Joon-ho’s first feature. Viewing the film in 2023 takes on a different context than when I first saw the film almost two decades ago. Back then, the film was open-ended as the real life serial killer on whom the film is based wasn’t caught. However, in the last few years, the killer has been identified and it turns out that he has been in jail since 1994.

DNA evidence identified the real-life killer. Interestingly, DNA evidence plays a key part in the film as it emerges that South Korea doesn't have such technology (film is set in late 1980s) and the detectives have to send off paperwork and evidence to US to get proof which turns out to be time consuming and not conclusive.

Memories of Murder
can be considered the baseline film for what we now expect from a Bong Joon-ho film: dark humour, presence of Song Kang-Ho (he would go onto star in Bong’s The Host, Snowpiercer and famously in Parasite), sideways sweeping camera pans (quite familiar to those used in The Host), precision to detail, nail-biting suspense, thrills and social/political commentary.

The Host (2006) 

Bong Joon-Ho’s 3rd film is a brilliant multi-layered film that serves as a precursor to Parasite in terms of placing a family at the core of the film’s plot. The family in The Host is at odds with each other and is never seen together in the same room yet the family still come together to save one of their own from the monster. Unlike in Parasite, the family in The Host never eats at the same dinner table but Bong Joon-ho creatively depicts a fantasy sequence where the family is shown eating together emphasizing the family’s dreams and aspirations.

Political, social and economic commentary is present throughout as the film starts off by depicting an American scientist who orders his Korean assistant to dump chemicals down the drain which results in the creation of the monster who terrorizes the city. This sequence was inspired by a real life scenario: 

The first of these is based on an incident that occurred in 2000, when Albert McFarland, the U.S. military mortician at the Yongsan camp, ordered two assistants to dump about 80 liters of formaldehyde into a sewage system that drains into the Han River.

The usage of chemicals on the citizens, Agent Yellow, late in the film is a reference to the real life Agent Orange used by the US in Vietnam. The entire US-Korean military association feels similar to that explored by Shin Godzilla (2016) a decade later which isn’t surprising given the presence of the US military in both South Korea and Japan after the 1950s. The Host also depicts propaganda, lies and a government cover-up around a virus which at the time of film’s release may have been a reference to SARS but seeing this film in current times clearly feels like eerily similar to what the last few years have been about (2020-2023). In terms of themes, the film evokes aspect of Steven Spielberg’s films in terms of emotional association with the monster who terrorizes the city.

Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-ho’s previous two films, Memories of Murder, The Host, have more darkness on screen than Mother but Mother dives into a deeper moral, ethnical darkness. The film strips away unneeded characters and scenarios and focuses on only the singular event at hand. As a result, the twists that arrive are more acutely felt as viewers have gotten to spend a lot more time with the film’s main two characters, Mother (Kim Hye-ja) and Son (Won Bin). There are some moments of dark comedy which help lessen the full impact of the material.

The film is bookended by two moments of levity. The film starts out with a dance that the Mother (Kim Hye-ja) does alone in the field and ends with her dancing along with a group in a bus. In the finale, as the Mother joins the group to dance, the sunlight bounces around making it hard to follow her but she is slowly absorbed as part of the group, indistinguishable from the others. Both dances are forms of liberation for the Mother but each feels different given the film’s context. The dance in the field feels like freedom as The Mother has accomplished her goal yet the one at the end follows a revelation that causes a bit of shame in her.

On another note: The cool jazzy end sequence feels like something that Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) depicted in his film as well but in the case of Burning, the sequence turned into seductive territory.

Snowpiercer (2013) 

I wasn’t a fan of this film when I first saw it a decade ago although my original reservations were associated with the content of the graphic novel itself regarding the class division structured via train compartments. This dystopian material felt akin to that depicted in many other sci-fi novels, especially Christopher Priest’s Inverted World where society lives in a gigantic wheel that slowly moves across the planet on train tracks.

However, I gained a new appreciation for Snowpiercer with this repeat viewing as the film feels more relevant than before. This timely relevance has to do one key change in the film’s story from the graphic novel related to how the ice age in the film begins. In the movie, a failed attempt by humans to solve climate change plunges the world into an ice age. This scenario feels more realistic as in current times, it is clear that there is no appetite in the world to solve climate change so the film’s doomed attempt to inject aerosols into the air as a last resort feels like something that we are heading towards.

There are a few other timely aspects in Snowpiercer such as the content of the protein bars. The protein bars in the film consist of cockroaches which alludes to our contemporary world. Until a few years ago, one could find insect protein bars in North America and people were encouraged to eat them as crickets and other insects were hailed as a sustainable protein supply.

Song Kang-Ho is brilliant in his role while Chris Pine and Tilda Swinton stand out. John Hurt and Ed Harris are playing roles they have done for their entire careers. In fact, Ed Harris plays his role as expected, delivering his lines in a calm calculated manner.

There are other aspects of the graphic novel that the film has changed such as the revolution where the rebels want to move to the front of the train. This change allows a dramatic arc which can be neatly packed in the film’s running time. The filmmakers nicely show the left to right progression through the train cars, which is aided by the camerawork and production values. There are some comedic flourishes throughout the film such as the relay race to bring an olympic like flame to shatter the darkness in one of the train cars and allow the rebels to overcome their foes in a bloody battle.

Okja (2017) 

Okja is the closest that Bong Joon-Ho comes to a Steven Spielberg film (specifically E.T.) in terms of depiction of an emotional bond between a human and animal. The Host hinted towards this but due to the destructive nature of the creature, the bond wasn’t realized but Okja is able to accomplish this as the super pig in the film is cute and its fate is at the mercy of decisions made by humans. Of course, Bong Joon-ho isn’t content to explore a simplistic human-animal relationship but layers the film with aspects such as capitalism, corporate structure and the military-industrial complex of US and Korea. Capitalism plays a key part in the film and that ends up being the saviour, not the environmental activists or any other traditional heroes. A gold pig, which was handed down to Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) by her grandfather, is the trading chip that helps in saving the super pig.

Mistranslation plays a key part in the film as K (Steven Yeun) doesn’t translate Mija’s word properly. Following that mistranslation, K tells Mija to learn English as it will "open new doors". However, this sequence isn’t properly translated into English as K’s words refer a Korean joke that wouldn’t have translated into English as per the director. This mistranslation takes on a new light given Bong Joon-Ho’s 2020 Golden Globe speech: 

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

If the little girl knew English, events would have taken on a different interpretation and understanding. Interestingly, if the audience understood Korean, then one can get the original Korean joke while understanding the different English translation.

Note: the start of the film is filmed at the Britannia mine just outside of Squamish, BC. I wasn’t aware of this aspect on the first viewing as I hadn’t visited the mine then.

Parasite (2019)

This film feels like the cumulation of all the cinematic themes/styles that Bong Joon-Ho explored in his career so far: dark humour, thrills, mystery, twists, social/economic/political commentary. Parasite is brilliantly constructed, executed and is completely accessible. The film is an easy entry point for anyone wanting to see their first Bong Joon-ho or even foreign film. His earlier films such as Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer contain some elements that may put off people not wanting to see a serial killer, monster or violent film. Parasite perfectly blends different genres together without making one genre stand-out thereby making it easier for people to view without being too shocked (some may still be due to a few scenes).

A few notes on the short films:

White man (1994)

Bong Joon-ho’s first released short film film feels like watching him find his voice by using elements from another director’s vault. In the film, a man finds a severed finger, which feels akin to the discovery of the severed ear in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The man uses the severed finger as part of his day-to-day life which combines elements of dark humour and a commentary on aspects of middle-class vs lower income strata of society.

Incoherence (1994) 

This short film consists of 4 segments with the first 3 segments following different male characters. The fourth and final segment brings the men together and depicts the power they wield in society. The entire film oozes in social commentary and highlights corruption, double standards and hypocrisy. The humour is much more straight forward  and in-your-face than in Bong’s other films.

Influenza (2004) 

The visual language of this short is different from Bong Joon-ho’s features. The entire film is constructed from CCTV footage and the crime is far more brazen than those explored in his other films. Yet, there is a very thoughtful commentary on society at work and the impact of money and jobs on people. Also, the dark humour is there, albeit a bit more darker than those in some of his features.

Shaking Tokyo part of the feature film Tokyo! (2008)

This short stands apart from Bong Joon-ho’s other films in terms of tone and style. The film is a sweet boy meets girl tale with Bong Joon-ho’s own tailored twist. The main character is a self proclaimed hikikomori who has not stepped outside his house in 10 years and not made eye contact with another human for 11 years. That changes when he makes eye contact with a pizza delivery girl. The hikikomori is finally forced to leave his home to find the girl and learns that he isn’t the only one who stayed locked up in his home. The hikikomori learns that good things happen when one leaves their surroundings and interacts with others. Love literary shakes Tokyo up!

In a way, this short gives a vision of a futuristic 2020 pandemic world where humans stayed indoors and did not make contact with other humans.

Ranking all Features and Shorts in order of preference:

1. Memories of Murder (2003)

After a repeat viewing, this film still holds on as the best Bong Joon-ho film. 

2. Parasite (2019) 

A very close second. The most perfect distillation of Bong’s style. 

3. The Host (2006)
4. Mother (2009)
5. Snowpiercer (2013)
6. Okja (2017)
7. Influenza (2004)
8. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
9. Incoherence (1994)
10. Shaking Tokyo (2008)
11. White Man (1994)