Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Around the world in 24 films

Just a brief mention of some worthy newer films from around the world. Some of these films will surely end up in my year end best list.

Note: films arranged as per country.

El Camino du punto (2010, Argentina, Sebastián Díaz Morales)

The title's translation, The Way Between Two Points, perfectly sums the film which is about a character's journey from point A to point B. There are only a few minutes of dialog at the start and these dialogues are the weakest aspect of the film as the words needlessly try to give the story a higher worldly purpose. After the words are delivered, the film settles into a beautiful journey where we get both an overhead shot of the landscape that is to be covered and the ground level footage of the journey. The singular focus of the journey at all costs reminds a bit about The Limits of Control and Birdsong but El Camino du punto is free from any dramatic or religious baggage of those two other films.

Kill the Referee (2009, Belgium, Y.Hinant/E.Cardot/L.Delphine)

This Belgium soccer documentary does not have any narration or title cards to guide the audience but instead dives right into the action. Like the Zidane film, this documentary gives a completely different perspective to what one experiences when watching a soccer game. One gets to see the game from an on-field angle, but instead of a player's point of view, we see the game from a referee's angle.

This film is essential viewing for anyone who has ever seen a soccer game. And since the film is artistically shot and edited, it offers non-soccer fans plenty to chew on as well. The games shown in the film are from Euro 2008 and if a person is familiar with some of the players, then that enhances the experience. This film does an excellent job in showing us the human side of the refs and also some of the egos that operate in the game.

A Simple Rhythm (2010, Canada, Tess Girard)

A poetic and mesmerizing look at simple day to day rhythms that shape our lives. The film artfully layers images with sounds to create a calming and fascinating experiencing. In between the images are thoughtful interviews on a variety of subjects, ranging from music to mathematics.

Viva Riva! (2010, Congo co-production, Djo Munga)

In the TIFF write-up, Cameron Bailey noted:

Finally! An African feature film that merges the pleasures of Nollywood with sleek camerawork, satisfying genre thrills and a rare look inside the very heart of the continent. Viva Riva! is unprecedented: a story set in contemporary Democratic Republic of the Congo full of intrigue, music and a surprisingly frank approach to sex.

That is a perfect description as Viva Riva! molds elements of oil trafficking, corruption, violence and sex into an enjoyable film. In the fashion of Nollywood films, the villain is sinister and over the top while the hero, Riva, is a charming intelligent man who can have any woman he wants. Ofcourse, Riva falls for the one woman who will lead him into trouble but Nora is too seductive to resist. The camera ensures that Nora's beauty and Kinshasa's buzzing street life are captured nicely.

Valhalla Rising (2010, Denmark/UK, Nicolas Winding Refn)

The film starts off in an ancient time when men settled their disputes face to face in a bloody hand to hand combat. However, as the warrior crew enters a new land, the change in warfare tactics ensures that man will have to learn to adapt in order to survive. In the new land, arrows fired from unseen enemies lead to death meaning one could die at the hands of someone they do not even see.

A savage bloody film that is also one of the year's best.

Scheherazade Tell me a Story (2009, Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah)

The film uses a soap opera/talk show format to probe at deeper issues not only within Egyptian society but the rest of the Middle East especially regarding the treatment of women in households and at workplaces. It helps that the film is well acted and packed with more gorgeous women than one would find even in a Pedro Almodovar movie. Overall, a pleasurable film.

Steam of Life (2010, Finland, Joonas Berghäll/Mika Hotakainen)

A beautifully shot contemplative film that places the viewer in an awkward
position of a voyeur observing Finnish men pour their heart out while sitting in a variety of saunas. The film remarkably shows that any enclosed space can be transformed into a sauna, even a phone booth, and the calming effect of the steam is essential to allow men to tackle life's daily burdens.

Win/Win (2010, Holland, Jaap van Heusden)

This Dutch film about a stock exchange manages to find a calm balanced middle ground in between Ben Younger's Boiler Room and Aronofsky's Pi. In fact, the main character in Win/Win Ivan looks like a more laid back version of Max from Pi. Win/Win artfully shows that it is possible to find zen like moments even in a high octane stock market setting.

Gallants (2009, Hong Kong, Clement Sze-Kit Cheng/Chi-kin Kwok)

A homage to the 1970’s Shaw Brothers films, complete with amazing fight sequences, memorable characters and over the top hilarious situations. Even if one is not familiar with older kung-fu movies, this film stands on its own. Knowing about the Shaw Brothers films will just enhance the experience. There are some moments when the action stalls but the film has many high energy moments. The homage would have been perfect if the film title was something which captured the story’s spirit such as “Gates of Law” or if the title used a variation of the words “Dragon”, “Tiger” or “kick”.

Ocean of an Old Man (2008, India, Rajesh Shera)

Simple. Beautiful. Meditative. Haunting. Tragic.

The old man in the title is played by Tom Alter, easily recognizable to Bollywood fans because he always played an evil villain in Indian films, and was almost always an evil British general in period films. In Rajesh Shera's film, Alter's character plays a school teacher who is devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter in 2004's tsunami. Unfortunately, he can never forget his loss as he has to cross the same ocean everyday to teach his students. To make matters worse, he has to listen to the ocean waves crashing onto the shore and rocks every night while in the day, his students paintings and stories revolve only around the ocean.

There isn’t much dialogue in the film but that does not matter because the beautiful images and fascinating sounds convey the tragedy and gravity of the situation. Also, the sound track is smartly turned off when the sounds of the ocean fill the screen. The minimalist style might frustrate some viewers but patient viewers will be rewarded with an absolute gem of a film.

Peepli Live (2010, India, Anusha Rizvi)

A smart satire that uses the real life story about farmer suicides to poke fun at the mercenary Indian satellite tv channels preoccupied with ratings. However, Peepli Live does feel like two films in one. The film starts off in the village but then lets the media circus take things over. At times, the two stories (farmer suicide, tv ratings circus) compete with each other and eventually the farmer story is brushed aside. Also, there are some moments where the film un-necessarily goes over the top (such as the mention of Saif Ali Khan's grade 8 kiss) when a more subtle approach would have sufficed.

Overall, it does feel like a lost opportunity to make a truly great film. That being said, the ending is perfect when the camera shows us images without any words.

Gorbaciòf (2010, Italy, Stefano Incerti)

The sound of Gorbaciòf's proud walk on the streets and the sound of money stay long in the memory after the film ends. Many films show bundles of money but not many films actually let the sound of crisp notes being counted filter through to the audience. Gorbaciòf counts money everyday both in his day job and at night with his bribe money. The dangerous combination of taking bribes and gambling is never a safe bet for a trouble free life but Gorbaciòf's problems multiply when he falls for a Chinese woman who does not speak any Italian. Gorbaciòf wants to be the woman's knight in shining armour and in order to ensure a better life for her, he needs more money. That need leads him down a slippery yet predictable slope. The love angle is the film's weakest aspect and if it were not for the love story, Incerti's film would be one of the year's best films.

On another note: the male leads in The American, Gorbaciòf and The Robber are all related with their dangerous ways of life. It is not surprizing that the ending of all three films finds these three very different men (an American, Austrian and an Italian) in the exact same situation looking through the glass towards a better future.

The Tiger Factory (2010, Malaysia/Japan, Woo Ming Jin)

The film follows a young girl, Ping, in her attempt to gather money to illegally leave Malaysia for Japan. Ping's life is controlled by her aunt who witholds her passport and pays for men to get Ping pregnant so that the aunt can sell the baby. The story sounds bleak but thanks to the cinematography and lighting, the film does not feel gloomy and instead makes for a fascinating viewing. The style evokes the Dardennes, albeit with a bit of lightness.

Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009, Malaysia/South Korea, Woo Ming Jin)

This is one of the most visually beautiful films of the year!! The film is about two love tales on opposite ends of the age spectrum. One story shows how a young boy is forced to take his family's fortune into account before deciding upon marriage while the other story shows if love is not truly acknowledged, then even at old age, it continues to torment and bite. In between these two stories, there are many remakarable shots which show the fishing business and every day life, plus there is plenty of humor shown in a subtle manner.

Kinatay (2009, Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)

The first 20-30 min of Kinatay perfectly capture the sights and sounds of the street life. After that, the camera moves inside a van and this is where the negative publicity regarding the film starts. Although it is hard to understand what all the fuss is about because there is nothing graphic or gory that is shown but instead we mostly listen to sounds of the horrible butchering and only see a tiny glimpse of the murder weapon. The briefly lit scenes allows viewers to fill in the horror themselves using the audio cues. Maybe in a theater, these audio cues are magnified thereby causing a claustorphobic effect.

Still, the film is powerful in how it goes about showing what it does and it is hard to be not shook up by the ending. I can see why Mendoza was awarded the best director for this film in Cannes 2009.

Lola (2009, Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)

Lola is a touching film regarding two grandmothers and how they go about dealing with their lives while finding themselves as opponents in a criminal case. One woman is seeking justice for her grandson’s murder, while the other is trying to save her grandson from going to jail for murdering the other woman’s grandson. The film switches perspective from one grandmother to the other and this method highlights many relevant points such as the true price of justice for people who are trying to make ends meet.

Manilla Skies (2009, Philippines/USA, Raymond Red)

The start gives a false impression of being another film depicting the frustration of being jobless in a major Asian city but the story then takes a dramatic turn towards a heist and an even more unexpected turn towards a plane hijacking. The cyclic nature of the ending, when one of the final scenes is neatly tied with the opening shot, depicts a beautiful pattern to the story. The lead performance is amazing and the film grows in strength as it moves along. Also, the dark/grayish visuals perfectly echo the gloomy mood of the character's situation. Amazingly, the film is inspired by a true story.

Essential Killing (2010, Poland co-production, Jerzy Skolimowski)

Like in Valhalla Rising, the male lead in Essential Killing never speaks a single word. Yet, Vincent Gallo's character does not need to talk as his expressions of pain and anguish perfectly convey his inner feelings. Gallo plays a taliban fighter who is captured in Afghanistan but finds himself on the run in a frozen European country side after a series of events lead to his escape. From then on, the film alternates between chase scenarios as the dogs/soldiers close down on Gallo's character and survival scenes where his character does anything just to survive in the brutal cold. It is understandable to see why Gallo won best actor in Venice for this film as his raw performance shows how much can be conveyed without needless dramatic dialogues.

Between Two Worlds (2009, Sri Lanka, Vimukthi Jayasundara)

This Sri Lankan film is a good example of what Bresson mentioned in his book, Notes on the Cinematographer, in the Sight and Hearing section:

”What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear."

”If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. (And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.) One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.

”If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colours.

Between Two Worlds has a beautiful visual and aural language while the story has a nice fable and mythical element to it. There are some scenes which fluidly mesh the imagined and real with a smooth easy manner. The only minor complaint is that some scenes appear staged, drawing attention to themselves and thereby weakening the dramatic effect of the situation. Two such examples are the youthful mob at the film's start and the dance by the river near the end.

Guest (2010, Spain, José Luis Guerín)

Guest is José Luis Guerín's travelogue of his year long film festival circuit tour from September 2007 till September 2008 with his film In the City of Sylvia. Even though Guest starts and ends at the Venice Film Festival, Guest is not a documentary about film festivals. Instead, it is a truly global film that gives a glimpse into everyday life in open public squares in various places such as Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Hong Kong. Places that do not have open squares are not covered by his film which naturally means that Canada and the US are not shown on the screen. For example, Guerín was in Vancouver in 2007 to premier In the City of Sylvia but Vancouver does not get a single shot in the film. Basically, any place that did not have adequate public space would not have allowed Guerín to interact with the locals and get their views. Guerín freely filmed everything around him and was not shy to keep his camera rolling. As a result, we get to witness some fascinating parallels regarding religion in diverse places such as Brazil and Hong Kong. Guest takes about 20 minutes to spring to life but once it awakens, it has plenty of interesting stories to share.

Woman without a Piano (2009, Spain, Javier Rebollo)

A sublime film that uses a low key treatment in depicting a single night's events. The camera quietly follows Carmen around and the events that unfold around her are hilarious and sad at the same time. The film is set in Madrid and in some alleys we see situations which Pedro Almovodar uses in his films but Woman without a Piano is an art film through and through, with a pinch of comedy.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Joe's film is a visual treat like his previous works but instead of the two part structure found in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee is a single flowing work that manages to blend the two worlds of humans and spirits. This is his most accessible work and also his most openly political. In Blissfully Yours one could faintly hear the tank fire going on in the distance but the soldiers were not shown. However, in Uncle Boonmee we get to see futuristic pictures (really the present) of army actions. As enchanting as the film is, it pales slightly to the hypnotic beauty of Tropical Malady and Syndromes... Still even a Joe lite work is better than most current world cinema.

Four Lions (2010, UK, Christopher Morris)

A well made and acted film from the two writers of the witty In the Loop. Four Lions tries to use the same humour style of In the Loop with mixed results. The humour style of In the Loop made sense because it dealt with the circus like world of politics where a single sentence can be endlessly interpreted and rehashed. However, that style is more difficult to pull off with a topic of terrorism and suicide bombers. In that regard, one can watch Four Lions in a state of shocked horror and find it entirely offensive. The film is also brave in its treatment of the subject, especially since neither of the writers or director is Muslim.

Spoiler note:*****

Credit must go to the film-makers for remarkably maintaining the same consistent tone throughout even after the characters start dying whereas it would have been easier for the film to have taken on a more serious tone after the first accidental death.

Monogamy (2010, USA, Dana Adam Shapiro)

A fascinating modern day treatment of Antonioni’s Blow Up. Blow Up was made during the free love decade where the main character had no problem getting any woman he wanted so solving the murder mystery became a more important challenge for him. But in modern times, free love isn’t that readily available. And the presence of email and text messaging has changed the nature of relationships by limiting face to face hook ups. As a result, Theo’s (Chris Messina) “free love” is reduced to a voyeuristic kick. Things are complicated by the fact that Theo is on the verge of getting married and already he feels the walls closing in on him.

The acting is stellar, especially in the scene where Theo’s fiancée catches him looking at pics of another girl. The ending is not as dramatic as we are led to believe. The true identity of Theo's subject is quite clear but maybe the ending was supposed to emphasize that Theo was so blinded by the little details in the photos he took that he missed the obvious bigger picture.

Top 5 in order of preference:

1) Kill the Referee
2) Ocean of an Old Man
3) Woman on Fire Looks for Water
4) Valhalla Rising
5) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

I cannot praise Kill the Referee enough. The fact that the film is about soccer is also its biggest handicap because that would mean limited release and certainly no press coverage in North America. I have read rumours that UEFA might have had the final say on what could make the final cut but regardless of the truth, what is presented on screen is fascinating enough. The footage allows the audience to identify some of the egos, heroes and villains that operate in the game.


ank said...

I've seen Vimuktti Jayasundara's Between two worlds and I found it fascinating. There are a few inspirations from old masters like Tarkovsky, but this young maker from Paris has been able to hold his own. Regarding Sachin's view on some scenes looking contrived I do not disagree much, but my friend Rajesh Shera's Ocean of an old man is also not free from that - I found he was so much in love with the beauty of the shots he had taken, he couldn't get rid of them even when they looked contrived and didn't really help the film proceed.

Sachin said...

Thanks for your comment.

Yes Between Two Worlds is fascinating and I look forward to Jayasundara's next film. Although I should first see his previous feature The Forsaken Land. Have you seen that?

True many scenes in Ocean of an Old Man linger on longer than they should and there are some repeated shots of the ocean which keep emphasizing the tragedy even though the tragedy is pretty well laid out. Still, I found the overall effect quite engrossing.