Sunday, November 06, 2011

Invisible Cinema

The following words stand out from Anthony Lane's article for the New Yorker:

There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaustive menu of it—pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion.

As Justine’s mother says of marriage, and as the movie tries to say of mortal life, so we should say of cinema: “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

His words may be applicable to those who live in New York City but they hold very little relevance outside New York. The truth is that for people living in North American cities aside from New York and to some extent LA or Toronto, home is the only logical option to watch foreign films. There are no choices for people in majority of North American cities to catch Melancholia or even The Turin Horse in their local cinema. I can confidently vouch for the latter because no Bela Tarr film has ever played in my city. As for Melancholia, it might eventually get here but it won't be until the summer of 2012, more than a year after its Cannes premier. Is that considered a valid choice? Not really especially if the film is going to be available officially in Europe via DVD or by digital pay options much earlier than that.

Talking about the pure experience of cinema is not relevant for people whose weekly cinematic choices are Spider Man 1: the 10th remake, Shrek 7, Transformers 5 or Harry Potter, the diaper years. If these are the only theatrical options that I have each week, then I rather not visit a cinema hall.

Thankfully, there are great films being made around the world every year even though access to such films is getting more and more restricted via traditional theatrical means. Even rental DVD is getting hard as local independent DVD stores across Canada are vanishing at a fast rate. Before anyone else blames Netflix, they need to have a look at the dismal selection of films available on Netflix Canada. As for digital/pay-for-view options, they mostly carry the same Hollywood titles that play in every Canadian multiplex. However, the foreign films are out there. The onus is now on each cinephile to look hard to find those precious films lurking in some region free DVD zone or via other digital means.

Here are just a few worthy films from the last few years that I was lucky enough to see via the film festival circuit. For the most part, these films are still invisible to the rest of the world. That is a shame because they demand to be seen:

Manuel di Ribera (2010, Chile, Pablo Carrera/Christopher Murray)

This visually stunning film is a fascinating mix of Lisandro Alonso and Bela Tarr yet is completely original. The lonely journeys of Manuel, conducted with the aid of boats, has touches of Alonso (from both Los Muertos & Liverpool) while the mostly grayish/dark environment and the drunken locals' distrust of Manuel feels similar to Tarr's The Outsider and Satantango. Also, the film brilliantly plays with the concept of reality by having two almost similar scenes of an event incorporated into the film -- one real and one imagined. The audience is left to figure out what the reality is.

The Intern (2010, Argentina, Clara Picasso)

Clara Picasso's sublime film cleverly uses a Buenos Aires hotel setting as a springboard to examine wider issues, such as male-female power games and the thin boundary that exists between private and public life. Not a single minute is wasted in the film's brisk 64 minutes. Almost at each 20 minute segment, the viewer has to track back to the previous segment to get a clue as to mystery or relationship tussle taking place on screen. The end result is an engaging film.

R (2010, Denmark, Tobias Lindholm/Michael Noer)

The tag 'dark film' is easily thrown around but in the case of R, the tag is entirely justified. The film makes the wonderful Un prophète look like a feel good happy film. Besides being completely savage, R is intelligent and that is demonstrated by a clever perspective shift two-thirds into the film which shows the similar hierarchies of two rival gangs.

Hunting & Zn (2010, Holland, Sander Burger)

This powerful Dutch film shows how a complicated relationship can be strained when lies and a pregnancy enters the equation. Like Maren Ade's brilliant Everyone Else, this film is bold enough to look at the nasty side that exists in all relationships and thereby causes the audience to get deeply involved with the film. As a warning, pregnant women or couples expecting a child might want to brace themselves for an emotionally challenging film.

Breathless (2009, South Korea, Yang Ik-June)

This debut feature by Yang Ik-June packs quite a punch and as per the title leaves one breathless. There are many movies which claim to be anti-violence but instead end up glorifying violence because the consequences of violence is never fully explored. On the other hand, Breathless clearly depicts the danger of a violent life, whether that life is in a household or in a gang. There is a consequence to every violent action and Yang Ik-June’s film has a purpose for every scene of violence and abuse.

The Happiest Girl in the World (2009, Romania co-production, Radu Jude)

Winning a free car is supposed to usher in new freedom for Delia Fratila. All she has to do is act in a 35 second car commercial and drive away with her new car. But things don’t turn out to be that simple. Her parents want to exchange the car for money to finance a better future and the commercial shoot turns out to be an artistic and physical challenge. Funny and engaging. Another vintage film from Romania.

Katalin Varga (2009, Romania co-production, Peter Strickland)

Devastating cinema! After Katalin is kicked out of her home along with her son, she undertakes a journey. The music points to a dark past and even a darker future. Indeed, there is some darkness for Katalin Varga is a revenge tale. But it is unlike any other revenge movie. In fact, it carves out its own rules for vengeance. That means no dramatic dialogues but instead we are treated to beautiful images and haunting music which conveys the hovering tension in the air.

Call If You Need Me (2009, Malaysia, James Lee)

A visually sharp film that combines the sensibilities of diverse film-makers such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Quentin Tarantino while still retaining a unique Malaysian flavour. Hou Hsiao-Hsien elevated a gangster film to an art form with Goodbye South Goodbye and James Lee does a very job in carrying on that tradition. Call if you Need me is about gangsters and kidnappings but there isn’t a single gun or drop of blood to be found on screen. All the violence is kept out of the frame and we are instead shown events that precede or succeed a violent act. The lack of violence allows audience to focus on the characters and their day to day lives, including their love interests and their choice of food and drugs.

Rough Cut (2008, Korea, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut has taken some aspects of the extraordinary Korean film Dirty Carnival and gone in a different direction with good effect. Dirty Carnival showed how gangsters complained about movies not having authentic fight scenes and in order to correct things, a local gangster (Byeong-du) helped his old college friend (Min-ho) to make an authentic gangster film by giving pointers to the actors and fight instructors. In Rough Cut, a once popular action star asks a local gangster to play a villain in his movies so that the actor can save his career. The gangster, who always dreamed of being an actor himself, agrees provided that all the fight scenes in the film are real and not staged. The end result is a no holds barred on screen contest where even the film’s director has no idea if the end result would hold true to his original script.

Wonderful Town (2007, Thailand, Aditya Assarat)

Wonderful Town is a tender love story between a Bangkok architect Ton, who comes to the southern Thai town Pakua Pak to work on a new beach resort, and Na, the owner of the hotel that Ton stays in. Everything in the film exists in harmony, be it the haunted house, the construction of the new resort, the empty hotel, the isolated beach or even a road-side garage. The town is empty, almost a ghost town, where everyone knows each other. Yet this loneliness never feels oppressive but just a natural cycle of life.

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.

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.

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.

Note: I have mentioned these films previously but I still get puzzled looks when I talk about these films to people. Since I have no power over these film's distribution, all I can do is repeat my words.

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