Wednesday, September 19, 2012

CIFF 2012

The Calgary International Film Festival kicks off today, Sept 20, with the much anticipated opening gala of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and runs until Sunday, September 30. As usual, the line-up is stellar and contains a healthy dose of worthy International, Canadian & American films. Also, new this year is a spotlight on 3D which contains a dazzling list of titles. I am looking forward to discovering some new gems and will put up a final report at the end of the festival but for now, here are ten favourite films that I have already seen.

Found Memories (Argentina/Brazil/France, Júlia Murat) 

A mesmerizing film that deceptively appears as a contemplative piece but contains another layer beneath the surface. The film starts off by capturing daily rituals in a sleepy Brazilian town, routines which are slightly disrupted by the arrival of young Rita. Rita does not attempt to alter the lives of the residents too much and keeps to herself while photographing sites and the town folk. However, she does not realize that her presence is critical to the residents, something which is only apparent by the film’s end. The ending, which puts a completely different spin on the overall film perception, haunts long in the memory because it forces one to rethink the lives of the residents and why they have continued to stay in a place cut-off from the rest of the world.


The Bright Day (India, Mohit Takalkar)

Mohit Takalkar, an experienced theatrical director, makes his cinematic debut with a beautiful, poetic and hypnotic film. The story revolves around Shiv who leaves his home to travel across India in search of his identity. There have been many films made about characters who undergo a self-discovery journey in India but those films were from the perspective of a foreigner arriving in India. On the other hand, The Bright Day shows a born and bred Indian who leaves to travel within his country. This makes a world of difference as the film does not focus on a checklist of items that must be shown in a film about India but instead dives deeply to uncover the torment that the main protagonist experiences. The visuals are striking as is the use of background music to enhance the film’s mythical tale. Plus, there are some smart touches such as using the same actor Mohan Agashe to play different characters that highlights how Shiv perceives people around him.


Unfair World (Greece/Germany, Filippos Tsitos)

This smart Greek film shows how two cops efforts to save an innocent person leads to murder thereby forcing them to cover their tracks. Each frame is packed with absurd comedic moments which are slowly revealed as the camera movements act like a drawn out punch line. The film’s comedic style is reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki, Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) and the recent wave of Greek films directed by Giorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps) & Athina Rachel Tsangari’s (Attenberg). Appropriately, Unfair World stars Christos Stergioglou who played the father in Dogtooth. The film swept the top Greek Academy awards this year and is Greece’s foreign film submission to next year’s Academy Awards.


Teddy Bear (Denmark, Mads Matthiesen)

A charming and delightful film that depicts an award winning bodybuilder who not only lives with his mother but is afraid of her. Despite his hulk like appearance, he has no luck with love. So he decides to fly to Thailand to find a bride. This setup brings plenty of humor and credit to the director to allow events to follow naturally without any extra drama.


Mallamall (Canada/India, Lalita Krishna)

An excellent and timely Canadian documentary that looks at India's economic rise via the countless malls being constructed there. The film also highlights a Canadian connection crucial in developing these mega stores, something that is hardly ever seen in any newspaper headlines.


King Curling (Norway, Ole Endresen)

Finally, a well made curling film! This Norwegian film incorporates some of the competitive in your face humor from Dodgeball within a deadpan framework similar to that of fellow Scandinavians Bent Hamer (O’ Horten and Kitchen Stories) and Roy Anderson (Songs from the Second Floor, You, The Living).


Generation P (Russia/USA, Victor Ginzburg) 

This Russian film combines the fierce energy found in Night Watch, the Russian film based on Sergey Lukyanenko’s novel, with some of Mad Men’s creative advertising ideas and tops things off with a layer of religion, nationalism, philosophy and mythology. There are plenty of conspiracy ideas presented and even though not all those ideas are tied up at the end, there is plenty to chew on.


Barbara (Germany, Christian Petzold)

Christian Petzold’s pitch perfect film features an incredible performance from Nina Hoss in depicting life in East Germany. Hoss plays the titular character, a doctor, who is sent away from Berlin to the countryside as a punishment for seeking to leave for the West German side. The forced exile does not dampen her plans as she tries to still seek an escape to the West with her lover. However, her presence is closely monitored forcing her not to trust anyone and maintaining a distance from the hospital staff. But with time, she slowly starts to warm up to her job and starts to develop relationships which force her to rethink her situation. Petzold’s cool looking film is completely different to The Lives of Others because of its singular focus on Barbara and using her as a lens to examine others. The film is Germany’s submission to next year’s Academy Awards.


I Wish (Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda has come up with another masterful work that looks at two young siblings who are forced to live across Japan due to their parent’s separation. It is always amazing to see how Koreeda manages to bring out such rich performances from his child actors. His style ensures that the acting is natural and the film maintains a perfect emotional tone without resorting to melodrama.


The Dynamiter (USA, Matthew Gordon) 

The film follows a young teenager Robbie who is forced to fend for himself and his younger brother in a harsh and unforgiving environment after the mother leaves the family. It is a steep learning curve for 14 year old Robbie as he finds himself as man of the house and at first, his actions and behavior land him in some trouble. But his teacher gives Robbie a chance to atone for his stealing and poor grades by asking Robbie to write an essay that will allow him to graduate. Robbie tries his best but his task is made harder by the arrival of an elder brother who is not the role mode that Robbie once thought. Full credit to director Matthew Gordon for maintaining a sense of hope in depicting the kids which makes for a fascinating character study. The Dynamiter is a visually stunning award winning film that belongs to the same category of New Realist American cinema such as Ballast and Wendy and Lucy, films that show a true slice of American life by focusing on characters completely absent from the big Hollywood productions.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Samurai Trilogy

Criterion's release of Hiroshi Inagaki's The Samurai Trilogy this past summer is certainly a worthy event. While there have been many Samurai films, Inagaki's films stand out because of Toshiro Mifune's performance and the source material of the films. The films are based on Musashi Miyamoto's highly influential The Book of Five Rings. William Scott Wilson, who has written a biography of Miyamoto Musashi, sums up the interest in the book:

Since Musashi engaged in more than sixty duels during his lifetime and was never defeated, it may not be surprising that The Book of Five Rings is fundamentally a book about conflict and victory. It has long been revered not only by swordsmen but also by practitioners of karate, aikido, and other martial arts. However, The Book of Five Rings has found a much broader readership in recent years. Since its first English translation, its study has been touted as the equivalent of an MBA in Japanese business strategy—a competitive art, to be sure. At least one Japanese major-league pitcher keeps the book by his bedside for constant reference. Anyone whose life involves conflict may benefit from studying the techniques laid out in this slender volume.

Wilson also outlines some of the key principles in the book.

At the end of the first chapter of The Book of Five Rings, Musashi sums up his rules for understanding his style and putting it into practice:

1. Think in honest and direct terms.
2. Forge yourself in the Way.
3. Touch upon all the arts.
4. Know the Ways of all occupations.
5. Know the advantages and disadvantages of everything.
6. Develop a discerning eye in all matters.
7. Understand what cannot be seen by the eye.
8. Pay attention even to small things.
9. Do not involve yourself with the impractical.

Four other key points Musashi emphasizes in the book are as follows.

The Way of Swordsmanship Is to Win
Fluidity of Mind
The Everyday Mind

The films shown the spiritual growth in Musashi Miyamoto from a strong fighter to a pure samurai, a warrior who does not merely use his sword as a “murderous weapon” as referred to early in the second film in the trilogy. Along the way, Musashi also sheds some of his arrogance and his violent nature to adopt a more thoughtful approach in life and also towards his opponents. At the start of the trilogy, he would never back down from a fight but by the third film, he has become wiser and even instructs that sometimes it is better to run away so that one can win in the future “Lose today, win tomorrow.” The films do not show any blood but spend more time looking at characters' lives and their preparations leading to a climatic battle, which is over in a flash. As a result, the films don't glorify violence and are instead engaging character studies.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir is a director one encounters very early in their cinephilia journey, with The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) most likely a first stop given that many consider the magnificent 1939 film as one of the greatest films of all time. In my case, The Rules of the Game is the only Renoir film to have played in local cinemas multiple times over the last decade. However, Renoir directed many other worthy films that I missed and so a spotlight was due in order to play catch-up. The following eight were chosen with 5 of the films part of a Renoir box-set.

1. La fille de l’eau (1925)
2. Nana (1926)
3. Bondu Saved from Drowning (1932)
4. La Grande Illusion (1937)
5. La Marseillaise (1938)
6. The River (1951)
7. The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959)
8. The Elusive Corporal (1962)

Renoir is a rare director who worked in three transitions of cinema, from silent films to talkies (both black and white) to color. Each new transition comes with its own set of technical challenges but also allows a director to treat cinema as an open canvas to freely explore new ideas and techniques. In this regard, Renoir made excellent use of each cinematic mode to keenly explore behavior of characters in different rungs of French society, from the lower to upper classes, from revolutionaries to politicians, from artists to the wealthy aristocrats. Remarkably, Jean Renoir’s first color film, The River, set in India shows that he was able to carry his sharp observations into a different culture. The River is based on Rumer Godden’s experiences which explain the intimate nature of the material but a huge credit goes to Renoir for properly balancing the Indian cultural observations with a tender touch. The film appears to have been made by someone who has lived and grown up in India for years not by a foreign director such as Renoir.

This spotlight was certainly a true pleasure and reaffirmed why Jean Renoir is one of the greatest directors in Cinema. However, I still missed out on some truly worthy Renoir films going by Sam Juliano’s comments where he rates Une Partie De Campagne and La Chienne as Renoir’s great films to go along with The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion. Also, Sam has high praise for La Bete Humaine as well.

Note: the only reason I saw Bondu Saved From Drowning was because of the film’s appearance on the comedy countdown at Wonders in the Dark, where Ed Howard has an excellent essay outlining the film perfectly.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mrinal Sen's The Absence Trilogy

Mrinal Sen’s The Absence Trilogy consists of Ekdin Pratidin (1979), Kharij (1982) and Ekdin Achanak (1989). The films are separated by almost a decade and made in two different languages, with the first two in Bengali and the third in Hindi. Yet, the three films are linked together. In the Seagull published book The Absence Trilogy, which consists all three screenplays, Somnath Zutshi examines the underlying connection in the trilogy.

The first is that each of these films attempts to examine the effects, on a group, of one member suddenly going missing, whether temporarily or permanently. The second is that in each of these three films, we see the past haunting the present. And the conjunction of the two consists in this: it is precisely in the manifestation of the absence, that is, in the gap that has been left behind by the one who is not there, that we see the shadow of the past fall. -- Somnath Zutshi, The Absence Trilogy

The three films examine different states of an absence, with the first film Ekdin Pratidin looking at a temporary absence when the oldest daughter in a family goes missing for one night only to return back in the early hours of the morning. The absence in the other two films are permanent and leave the family to deal with consequences of losing a key member in their lives. In Ekdin Achanak, as implied by the title (Suddenly, One Day) the father walks out of his home one day never to return. His body is never found but no one in his family believes that he will ever come back. So even though his absence is assumed to be permanent, the lack of a dead body ensures that a complete closure will never take place for the family. On the other hand, a couple find the dead body of their young servant in Kharij forcing them to deal with the consequences of the death and any responsibility they might have had.

The absence halts the lives of the families in all three films, forcing them to abandon their daily routines to examine either the past or their current situation. In Ekdin Achanak, the family has no idea why the father left so they spend their energy pouring over past incidents to search for a clue. They chase down a dead end or two, such as assuming the father ran off with a younger student, but in the end have no more insight into his absence. At the end of the film, an entire year has gone by since the father’s disappearance yet the family is still stuck in the past despite their best efforts to move on. One can assume their lives will never truly move beyond the day when the father left. On the other hand, even though the daughter returns in Ekdin Pratidin, the family will never recover their dignity and peace of mind. As indicated in the film, if a son had gone missing for the night, then not much fuss would have taken place but a girl coming late at night puts her character into question. This differential treatment of a female is not restricted to Indian culture but many nations around the world use a different judgement scale towards men and women. In many cultures, men are free to do as they please, including staying out of the house for late hours, but if a girl does that, then she is harshly punished or judged.

The trilogy offers a fascinating case study of human behavior and depicts how people are often busy trying to make ends meet without having much time for reflection or analysis of their situation. However, a critical event forces them to freeze time and truly examine their lives and relationships.

1) Ekdin Pratidin: The entire film in 10 parts.

2) Kharij / The Case is Closed

No online links for the film but the critical scene of Palan’s death can be found here.

3) Ekdin Achanak: Entire film.

Bengali Cinema

This The Absence Trilogy is part 1 of a multi-part spotlight looking at Bengali Cinema.