Thursday, December 23, 2021

Best Films of 2021

After a global shutdown in 2020, including that of Cinema, it was widely expected that a reopening would happen in 2021. Society did open in varying degrees in 2021, film festivals did happen in actual cinemas, but things were far from normal. Delayed 2020 movies were finally released in 2021 including many new productions. However, many cinemas remained closed in some countries and numerous film festivals took place in a hybrid manner (virtual + physical cinema) while some stayed completely online. As 2021 progressed, it became clear that big studios would still prevail and be able to dump their product whenever they wanted and in whatever fashion. Meanwhile, independent and foreign films suffered as they were not able to depend on film festival buzz to gain traction. To complicate matters, some distributors insisted on purity of cinema and only wanted to show their film in physical cinemas. That immediately put many cities out of reach, including my city. So as 2021 is about to end, it is crystal clear that it is becoming very very difficult to legally see quality cinema while there is no shortage of means to see Hollywood films.

Still, it was heartening to see that good films continued to be made even though it was tougher to see them. I am fortunate enough to have seen the following films due to my various film programming roles or through online film festivals (thank you Fantasia, TIFF, Festival du nouveau cinéma). I truly hope that some of these films are widely released in 2022.

Top 10 Films of 2021

1. The Great Indian Kitchen (2021, India, Jeo Baby)

As the title indicates, there is food in the movie which will cause one to get hungry. The food preparation and techniques are shown in incredible detail but it becomes apparent that the film is more than about food. And the kitchen is more than just a space to make food. The difference in roles of the husband and wife are emphasized as are the expectations of a woman in some segments of society. Even though this film is rooted in South India, aspects about marriage and treatment of women are applicable to many other patriarchal societies around the world. Credit to the director Jeo Baby of how this depiction is shown, by repetition of the same tasks, which definitely produced a visceral reaction in me.

2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021, Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

The first of the two Hamaguchi films released in 2021 is pure cinematic delight. The playful structure, including abrupt zooms, reminds of Hong Sang-soo’s cinema but the honesty and mature stories are a continuation of what he explored in his earlier Happy Hour (2015). Another lovely surprise is the inclusion of an element that reflects our current pandemic world.

3. Întregalde (2021, Romania, Radu Muntean)

There are no vampires in this contemplative film set in Transylvania yet there are elements of morality and ethics that are relevant to our world today. Those elements centre around doing good for others at the expense of one’s needs.

4. The World After Us (2021, France, Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas)

A charming Parisian film that balances the sweetness of romance with the bitterness of a writer’s struggles.

5. A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021, India, Payal Kapadia)

Payal Kapadia’s beautiful poetic film shows that despite decades of progress, many things haven’t changed in India (or the world in general). In fact, some things are regressing including basic human rights.

6. Fire in the Mountains (2021, India, Ajitpal Singh)

A remarkable film which derives its power with a smart mix of dry humour and plenty of heart. In the hands of another filmmaker, this could have been a completely dramatic film but Ajitpal incorporates many light hearted touches and that elevates the film.

7. Faya Dayi (2021, Ethiopia/USA/Qatar, Jessica Beshir)

An immersive, hypnotic and poetic journey to Harar! With a photographer's soul, Beshir lovingly captures the myths and rituals around Khat along with its growth, sale and consumption.

8. Aleph (2021, USA/Croatia/Qatar, Iva Radivojevic)

Smartly uses a Jorge Luis Borges short story as a spring board to explore diverse stories in Buenos Aires, Greeland, Kathmandu, New York City and the Sahara. Easily one of the most creative films of the year!

9. Pebbles (2021, India, P.S. Vinothraj)

The film depicts the harness of the main character in an unfiltered brutal manner especially how he treats his son and wife. There is another aspect to this film which may not be apparent early on. It has to do with the impact of climate change on the environment, leading to extreme heat and lack of water. If this point isn’t apparent at first, it is hammered home in the final scene of the film which in a beautiful manner shows how bad things truly are in some parts of the planet.

10. Ancient Soul (2021, Spain, Álvaro Gurrea)

As most of the world shifted to comfortable online remote working, Gurrea’s film shows us the brutal reality of dangers some people face in their jobs. Ancient Soul shows the life of Yono, a sulphur miner in Java, as he navigates his dangerous job while dealing with the complex questions around why his wife left him. The mine shots evokes Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death while some of the spiritual themes have a touch of Apichatpong’s style to them.

Honourable Mentions (alphabetical order):

Ahed’s Knee (2021, France/Israel/Germany, Nadav Lapid)

Azor (2021, Switzerland/France/Argentina, Andreas Fontana)

The City of Wild Beasts (2021, Colombia/Ecuador, Henry Eduardo Rincón Orozco)

Straight to VHS (2021, Uruguay, Emilio Silva Torres)

Taming the Garden (2021, Switzerland/Germany/Georgia/Holland, Salomé Jashi)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Best of Former Soviet Bloc films

Wonders in the Dark is having a “Former Soviet Bloc” film polling. The films can either be classics prior to the break-up of U.S.S.R or new contemporary works. That makes this a tough decision but here is my vote for the top 20 films.

1. Dekalog (1989/90, Poland, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
2. Underground (1995, Yugoslavia, Emir Kusturica)

3. Satantango (1994, Hungary, Béla Tarr)
4. Closely Watched Trains (1966, Czechoslovakia, Jirí Menzel)
5. Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Poland,  Andrzej Wajda)
6. Man Is Not A Bird (1965, Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev)
7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005, Romania, Cristi Puiu)
8. My Joy (2010, Ukraine, Sergey Loznitsa)
9. Revenge (1989, Kazakhstan, Ermek Shinarbaev)
10. Loves of a Blond (1965, Czechoslovakia, Milos Forman)
11. Daisies (1966, Czechoslovakia, Vera Chytilová)
12. Ikarie XB1 (1963, Czechoslovakia, Jindrich Polák)
13. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Romania, Cristian Mungiu)
14. Innocence Unprotected (1968, Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev)
15. Police, Adjective (2009, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)
16. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Hungary, Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky)
17. I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (2018, Romania, Radu Jude)
18. The Turin Horse (2011, Hungary, Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky)
19. Mirage (2004, Macedonia, Svetozar Ristovski)
20. Cabaret Balkan (1998, Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic)

On another note: this reminds me of a time long ago when I did a spotlight on Eastern European cinema and paired it with soccer.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Films of Aleksey Balabanov

Earlier this year, mubi featured a spotlight on the films of Aleksey Balabanov. I first encountered a film by Aleksey Balabanov back in 2009 with the release of Cargo 200. I saw the film without knowing anything about the topic let alone the meaning of the title but the film proved to be a jolting experience. 

Cargo 200

The title Cargo 200 refers to the coffins in which dead Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan were sent. Cargo 200 stayed with me because it was the first film that I had seen that showed the death toll from the Soviet perspective. Until that time, I had only seen American films about Afghanistan and what was missing from the cinematic landscape was the perspective of the Soviet soldiers and their families. Balabanov’s film filled a missing gap but I didn’t get to see any of his other films until this recent mubi spotlight.

Brother (1997, Russia)

Brother emits a similar raw gritty energy to that of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy while making terrific usage of location. Interestingly, the first Pusher film came out in 1996 just one year before Brother. That comparison to N.W. Refn is only on the surface because as it turns out, Brother’s shooting technique has rules which share some intentions with that of Dogme 95:

Balabanov was one of 13 signatories of a 1996 statement proposing a set of rules for filmmakers who were intent on making small-budget films without state assistance (hardly forthcoming in those years in any case): a shooting schedule limited to two or three weeks; filming exclusively on streets, in courtyards and in the apartments of friends and relatives; crews working gratis, with payment contingent upon any profit the film might make. — John Mackay, Senses of Cinema

In Brother, Danila (Sergey Bodrov) is a newly discharged ex-soldier who is back from the first Chechen war and immediately finds trouble in his village. With no clear job perspective, Danila heads off to St. Petersburg to look for his brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov). As it turns out, Viktor is seeped deep in crime and that works nicely for Danila who is able to put his cold blooded killing to good use. And whatever money Danila gets, he spends on music cassettes (yes, those good old walkman tapes).

After slaying all the dragons in St. Petersburg, it is only natural for Danila to move to a bigger city for a larger crime net. That opportunity comes courtesy of Brother 2 in 2000 when the brothers find themselves in Moscow. In the sequel, Danila also makes his way to Chicago.

The two Brother films nicely establish Aleksey Balabanov’s raw style and show that he isn’t afraid to depict sensitive topics like racism and ethnic conflict. Also, the scenes of the local market in Brother are refreshing and show the importance of using location in film. There are some market shots that made me think of Sergei Loznitsa’s cinema.

Considering that Sergey Bodrov’s character Danila returned from the first Chechen war, it isn’t surprising that Balabanov’s follow-up to Brother 2 is War (2002) set against the backdrop of Chechnya. These films are part of Balabanov's crime/violent movies but early in his career, he tackled Kafka with 1994’s Zamok, based on Kakfa’s The Castle.

In recent years, I have associated Russian cinema set in Caucasus with that of Kantemir Balagov (Closeness) but Aleksey Balabanov was there first.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Kiro Russo’s Bolivian Cinema

One of the most lovely cinematic debuts I came across in 2016 was that of Kiro Russo’s Viejo calavera (Dark Skull).

Dark Skull (2016)

The film shed a new light and perspective on the lives of Bolivian miners. While there are a handful of documentaries about Bolivian mines, there is a shortage of fictional films about the hard working people who work themselves into the ground in these dark places. Russo’s Dark Skull goes a long way in addressing that imbalance.

Dark Skull is a work of immense creativity that uses the darkened settings of the mines to play with light/darkness. The story follows Elder (Julio César Ticona) who starts working in the mines after the death of his father. Elder isn’t really interested in working in the mine and would rather hunt for his next alcoholic high. However, his father’s death changes the trajectory of his life leaving him with no choice but to work.

Kiro Russo’s film shows us the routines, rituals of the miners and how they try to make the best of their situation.

Dark Skull plays with the technique and impressively uses a Sergei Eisenstein montage to emphasize the machinery used in the mines. There is also a surprising presence of pulsating music which elevates the film.

After such an impressive debut, I looked forward to Russo’s next film and thankfully, it arrived few months ago at the Venice Film Festival.

El Gran Movimiento (The Great Movement) can be considered the next chapter in the life of Elder (played again by Julio Cezar Ticona) after he leaves the dark mines of Dark Skull for the city life of La Paz. The visual contrast between the two films is impressive. Dark Skull shows us the dimly light underground mines while El Gran Movimiento takes us to the dizzying high altitudes of La Paz. Instead of the rhythms of the mines, Russo now shows us the rituals and rhythms of the local market where Elder finds a job. 

The sights and noises of the market are astutely captured and overload the senses in a remarkable sequence near the end of the film, a montage like segment which now appears to be Russo’s cinematic signature. Another Russo signature looks to be the usage of pulsating music including an eye catching dance number that unexpectedly drops in the film. El Gran Movimiento takes on a very relevant contemporary urgency when Elder starts coughing near the end of the film. His disease is unknown as is the cure. While Elder is at the local clinic, we hear the news recounting case counts in other Bolivian cities. That is when we realize what Elder has. Immediately following that sequence, we see crowded streets and markets. An invisible clock hovers over the frame with the audience knowing that it is only a matter of time before everything will shut down. We don’t to get see the fate of the market but instead we get to see what happens with Elder when a faith healer is brought in to cure him.

Elder in El Gran Movimiento (2021)

It was a 5 year gap between Russo’s two films. I hope the wait for the next movie isn’t that long as he is clearly a creative director with a unique voice.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Best Latin American Films of all time

Wonders in the Dark is doing a Best Latin American Cinema list. Of all the Best of Cinema lists, this one is the toughest for me as Latin American Cinema is dear to my heart. Had I done this list 10 years ago, it would have been quite different. But I am going with emotion, to keep some Latin sentiment beating, in making this list.

Best 25 Latin American Films of all Time

1. Zama (2017, Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)

2. Black God, White Devil (1964, Brazil, Glauber Rocha)
3. Los Olvidados (1950, Mexico, Luis Buñuel)
4. The Official Story (1985, Argentina, Luis Puenzo)
5. The Battle of Chile (1975, Venezuela/France/Cuba, Patricio Guzmán)
6. Memories of Underdevelopment (1968, Cuba, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)
7. Extraordinary Stories (2008, Argentina, Mariano Llinás)
8. Pixote (1980, Brazil, Hector Babenco)
9. El Topo (1970, Mexico, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
10. Barren Lives (1963, Brazil, Nelson Pereira dos Santos)

11. Invasion (1969, Argentina, Hugo Santiago)
12. The Exterminating Angel (1962, Mexico, Luis Buñuel)
13. The Pearl Button (2015, Chile co-production, Patricio Guzmán)
14. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004, Argentina/Brazil co-production, Walter Salles)
15. Amores Perros (2000, Mexico, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
16. City of God (2002, Brazil co-production, Fernando Meirelles/Kátia Lund)
17. Liverpool (2008, Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)
18. Neigboring Sounds (2012, Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
19. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico/Spain, Guillermo del Toro)
20. Y tu mamá también (2001, Mexico,  Alfonso Cuarón)

21. Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Chile co-production, Patricio Guzmán)
22. Cocote (2017, Dominican Republic co-production, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias)
23. Jauja (2014, Argentina, Lisandro Alonso)
24. Bolivia (1999, Argentina/Holland, Israel Adrián Caetano)
25. Japón (2002, Mexico, Carlos Reygadas)

Top 10 by Country:

Argentina: 3
Brazil: 3
Mexico: 2
Cuba: 1
Chile: 1

I have assigned The Battle of Chile to Chile even though no Chilean funding was used due to obvious dictatorship related issues.

Top 20 by Country:
Co-productions made this difficult which is why both Argentina and Brazil are tied at 5.5 because I couldn’t allocate The Motorcycle Diaries exclusively to one of these two nations. Hence, Mexico wins this round by increasing its total to 6.

Mexico: 6
Argentina: 5.5
Brazil: 5.5
Chile: 2
Cuba: 1

Top 25 by Country: 

Argentina narrowly wins the Copa courtesy of Liverpool (Alonso's version not Klopp's)  and Bolivia.

Argentina: 7.5
Mexico: 7
Brazil: 5.5
Chile: 3
Cuba: 1
Dominican Republic: 1

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Best Canadian Films of All Time

Wonders in the Dark is running a Best Canadian film poll where each participant is required to submit their top 15 Canadian films.

My Top 15 Canadian Films of All time

1. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019, Zacharias Kunuk)

The film documents a historical encounter in 1961 Baffin Island between a Canadian government agent and the Inuit leader Noah Piugattuk. The agent wants Piugattuk to send kids from the Inuit communities to schools in a city/town. The film shows a conversation with no violence but it is clear that the next encounter will involve force. Given the recent discovery of children’s remains buried around residential schools in Canada, it is clear that the implications of a ‘friendly conversation’ in Kunuk’s film extended beyond the confines of Baffin island and tragically impacted all parts of Canada.

2. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019, Kathleen Hepburn/Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers)

3. A Married Couple (1969, Allan King)

4. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001, Zacharias Kunuk)

5. Les Orders (1974, Michel Brault)
6. The Barbarian Invasions (2003, Denys Arcand)
7. The Sweet Hereafter (1997, Atom Egoyan)
8. Montreal Main (1972, Frank Vitale)
9. Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve)
10. Fire (1996, Deepa Mehta)
11. The Red Violin (1998, François Girard)
12. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013, Denis Côté)
13. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
14. Mon Oncle Antoine (1971, Claude Jutra)
15. The Forbidden Room (2015, Guy Maddin)

Honourable Mentions:

Bollywood Bound (2002, Nisha Pahuja)
I Killed My Mother (2009, Xavier Dolan)
My Winnipeg (2007, Guy Maddin)
The World Before Her (2012, Nisha Pahuja)
Waydowntown (2000, Gary Burns)

Monday, November 01, 2021

Female Assassin Movies

One of the most enduring action sub-genres has been that of an assassin movie. Each year, there are many examples of both male and female assassin movies that continue to be made no matter what the state of world is. There have been many female assassin movies made in different parts of the world so people could have started at a different place depending on their specific cinematic journey. One early starting point is Japanese cinema with Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973).

Lady Snowblood

For others, the starting point could be female assassins that exist in wuxia films. Wong Kar-wai explored this world in Ashes of Time (1994) while Hou Hsiao-Hsien covered this in his beautiful film The Assassin (2015).

The Assassin

The more famous of these wuxia films in North America is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

At the turn of the century, for some the starting point may have been Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-04), which in turn was inspired by Lady Snowblood among its many inspirations.

Kill Bill
However, for me the starting point for female assassin movies was France with Luc Besson’s Nikita / Le Femme Nikita (1990) starring Anne Parillaud. 
Of course, Besson also went on to direct one of the most brilliant male assassin movies a few years later with Léon: The Professional (1994) starring Jean Reno and a very young Natalie Portman making her acting debut. But Besson has returned to the world of female assassins more frequently and directed Lucy (2014, starring Scarlett Johansson) 

and the recent Anna (2019, starring Sasha Luss). 

He also co-wrote the script for Colombiana (2011) staring Zoe Saldana as a ruthless assassin going by the name of Cataleya.
Woman with one name or a nickname

Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana stand apart from other films in this sub-genre because the film’s title is not the woman’s name or her descriptor. Instead, Tarantino’s film title is the target of the killer. If the film had been called The Bride, it would have fit with other such films in this category such as Lady Snowblood (1973), Atomic Blonde (2017), The Villainess (2017), Red Sparrow (2018), Black Widow (2021).

Colombiana is a title pointing towards the killer’s origin location. If the film had been called Cataleya, then it would have been right at home with other one name titles such as Nikita (1990), Hanna (2011, directed by Joe Wright), Lucy (2014), Anna (2019), Ava (2020, directed by Tate Taylor), the recent Kate (2021, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan).

Common Framework

Back in the day, the story mattered when it came to these films. Now, the story isn’t relevant. The framework of these films is the same and the backstory is quickly dispensed with or told in flashbacks such as that in Kate.

The story often involves a young girl trained to be a killing machine because her parents were killed and she is orphaned and wants revenge. In these films, the girl turned killer woman is ruthless, cold-blooded, has an incredible ability to survive bullets, fights and can leap from buildings without ever getting a scratch. She is essentially a video game character come alive. On top of that, the female assassin can easily cross borders like a ghost, change her identity at the drop of a hat and never be caught unless the script demands it. Since these movies are all aware of other such films in the sub-genre, the goal of each subsequent movie is to increase the action, the gore and body count. At times, scenes from these movies are hard to distinguish. Segments from Anna, Kate and Red Sparrow could have been spliced together and one wouldn’t have noticed.

Like horror films, these assassin movies are churned out and follow a specific template. The only variation is the body count continues to increase as is the gruesome manner of killing. In the male assassin cinematic world, John Wick and its copycats will continue to be made while the same is true of the female assassin world. The recent news that a female spin-off of John Wick will be made called Ballerina isn’t a surprise. In a way, these assassin movies run in a parallel universe to the comic book hero movies yet are all part of the same studio roller coaster.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Korean Gangster films

In the late 1990s, it was difficult to come across many Korean films at the video stores. Bong Joon-ho hadn’t directed his first feature yet, Park Chan-Wook, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk weren’t well known directors and only had 2-3 features to their name. While distribution of Contemporary Korean films was almost non-existent, the situation with classic Korean cinema was worse. Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic film The Housemaid hadn’t been re-released while the Busan Film festival was still a few years away from showcasing many classic Korean films for the world. 2000 marked a shift in the release calendar of Korean Cinema although it took me a few years to notice due to slow distribution of the films. Bong Joon-ho’s first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite came out in 2000, the same year that Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area, Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle and Hong Sang-soo’s third feature Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.

Fast forward to 2019 when Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite Won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and then went onto win 6 Awards at the 2020 Academy Awards including winning the Best Film and Best Director Oscar. In a two decade span, Korean cinema has gone from strength to strength offering films in every genre, from pulsating thrillers to crime films, sugary romantic films, sci-fi, drama, comedy, relationship films, horror, zombie films and even their own take on a Western. While most in North America have only recently found their way to Korean Cinema, Hollywood has long been aware and that was evident when they remade the 2001 Korean film My Sassy Girl into a Hollywood version in 2008.

Of the various genres, Korean thrillers and crime films have stood out over time and made their mark on the film festival circuit. Early on, Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook grabbed the attention with their violent films. Kim Ki-duk started off with The Isle and Bad Guy (2001) but Park Chan-wook truly shot in the spotlight with his Vengeance trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance. Bong Joon-ho made his name with Memories of Murder (2003), an intense serial killer investigative film. However, back then I was still viewing these films in isolation without a proper working knowledge of Korean cinema. Therefore, the reference point of such Korean crime films was a combination of Japanese gangster films (such as those of Takashi Miike, Takeshi Kitano) and Hong Kong crime cinema especially that of John Woo’s cinema. Over time, many Korean crime films started to develop their own cinematic style and visual language. The quality improved greatly as did the output.

In the early 2000s, I could keep tabs on major Korean crime films, especially the gangster sub-genre. However, with the growing output over the last decade, it has been difficult to keep track of all the different Korean gangster movies. Therefore, this isn’t a comprehensive list and certainly not a Best all-time list of South Korean Gangster films. These are notes on some of the best Korean gangster films I have seen over the last decade.

Top 5 Korean Gangster Films (roughly in order of preference):

Breathless (2009, Yang Ik-June)

A hard hitting remarkable film that initially appears to be a run of the mill gangster film before unveiling its true strength.

The first 20 minutes appear to be routine stuff straight out of most Korean/Japanese gangster films: punching, swearing and some slapping. The person dishing out all these is Sang-Hoon (played by the director himself), one of the nastiest on screen personas ever seen on camera. The violence is put in context via a flashback when we observe a tragic episode in Sang-Hoon’s childhood where his mother and sister were accidentally killed in an episode of domestic violence. Sang-Hoon never forgave his father and after his father is released from prison, Sang-Hoon visits and beats him up frequently. Sang-Hoon’s kicks at his father usually occur at the end of night when a drunk Sang-Hoon ponders over his past. The father quietly accepts the beatings.

Sang-Hoon is a loner with no friends but one day he comes across a fiery teenage girl, Yeon-Hue, who refuses to take his abuse and fires back. The two form an unusual friendship and take comfort in each other’s presence, even though the two swear and put each other down. It turns out that another example of domestic abuse is taking shape in Yeon-Hue’s house, where her teenage brother is just starting to assert his “manliness” by taking his anger out on his sister. The abuse that Yeon-Hue suffers is two fold because her father is mentally disturbed (triggered most likely after his wife and Yeon-Hue’s mother’s death) and hurls profanity at his daughter frequently.

Breathless shows how a cycle of violence can continue beyond generations and that kids who witness violence in their youth can grow up and re-enact those same episodes onto others. While the film may not be the most pleasant to watch, it takes a brave stand in drawing a direct line from domestic abuse to gangster violence. There are some examples of youth joining the gang due to unemployment but the film emphasizes the cycle of violence aspect quite clearly.

There are many movies out there which have graphic scenes of violence and horror and the directors of such graphic films defend their works by emphasizing their movies are anti-violence and the violent scenes are meant to prove a point. But in most cases, these movies 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 is the only one I can think of that has a purpose for every scene of violence and abuse. This film should be shown to every teenage and adult male. And if after seeing this film, those males would still opt for a violent life, then there is no hope not only for those people but humanity in general. And to think that Ddongpari (Breathless) was a debut feature by Yang Ik-June!

A Dirty Carnival (2006, Ha Yu)

The gripping A Dirty Carnival starts off as a gangster flick but things get interesting when the gangster, Byeong-du, runs into his old school friend Min-ho. The two share memories in a cafe and head to a old reunion with other friends where Byeong-du meets his old school flame Hyeon-ju. The entire setup among the friends has shades of the reunion from Hong Sang-soo’s Women is the Future of Man and has a very easy flow to it. Min-ho wants to be a filmmaker and is struggling to get a realistic script written about gangsters. Byeong-du offers to help Min-ho etch out realistic gangster characters for his film by offering advice and introducing Min-ho to other gangsters. Trusting in their friendship, Byeong-du confides about his real life killings to Min-ho only for Min-ho to include the exact real life murder scenarios in his film as opposed to creating a work of fiction. When Min-ho’s gangster film becomes a hit, Byeong-du is under pressure from his gang members and boss to kill Min-ho lest all the crimes of Byeong-du are revealed to the rival gangs. Byeong-du finds himself in a tough bind and struggles to maintain both his friendship with Min-ho and relationship with Hyeon-ju.

A Dirty Carnival breathes new life into the over-worked gangster sub-genre by focussing more on the characters and their relationships. Even though there are some edgy and rough fight sequences involving bats and knives, they are put on the back burner when the film within a film element takes centerstage. During key moments in the film the background score is similar to the music one finds on a merry-go round carousel signifying the cyclic nature of business in the gangster world -- round and round the crime business goes and when one gangster gets off the high horse, another is waiting to take his place. There is no time to rest because if one stops, then they will surely get knocked off and crushed.

Rough Cut (2008, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut is a fascinating no holds barred action film that puts a new spin on the traditional gangster sub-genre. Some aspects of the film within a film story are similar to the extraordinary Korean film A Dirty Carnival but Rough Cut has gone in a far more gritty direction with good effect. Kim Ki-duk's screenplay is different from anything he done before, and that includes the gangster film Bad Guy that he directed early in his career. 

The Outlaws (2017, Kang Yoon-Seong)

A raw violent film based on real life events. The setting of the film differs from other films in the sub-genre as the film highlights turf wars between Chinese and Korean gangs set in Chinatown of Seoul’s Guro district. The core reason for the fights is how gangs extort money from helpless owners of shops in Chinatown. The cops are out to get the ruthless leaders and the film is packed with many elements of raw violence: hand to hand combat, knives, axes, limbs getting chopped. Remarkably, not a single bullet is fired in the film. It is safe to say some of the originality that made Rough Cut stand out has been incorporated in a slew of Korean films making it the new normal portrayal of incidents. What makes the film standout is the brilliant acting of Ma Dong-seok as a tough cop who likes to slap the truth out of criminals.

Ma Dong-seok in The Outlaws

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019, Lee Won-Tae)

As the title indicates, the film combines three different sub-genres of crime films in a seamless manner, with the devil representing the serial killer. Again, Ma Dong-seok steals the show but this time he is playing the hard punching gangster Jang Dong-soo. The chemistry between the live wire and erratic detective Kim Mu-Yeol (Jung Tae-seok) and Jang Dong-soo elevates the film as the two are forced to combine forces in order to hunt down the serial killer. The film perfectly showcases the strength of Korean Crime films and it isn’t a surprise that this will be remade into a Hollywood film, courtesy of Sylvester Stallone and his Balboa Productions.

Honourable mention:

A Company Man (2012, Lim Sang-yoon)

A film about hitmen and assassins who dress up in their crisp suits/dresses and go to work like everyday people waiting to get daily assignments. Their front office looks like any other office with its cubicles, stacks of papers, printers and window offices. But the bland front office is a cover for a world of hitmen with their own set of rules and codes. The characters are cut from the cloth of many previously seen cinematic creations in Korean, Japanese and Hong Kong Cinema. Interestingly, the unique coded world of the assassins can be seen a precursor to John Wick with one difference: A Company Man takes place in the day while John Wick talks place during neon-lit nights and in shadows.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Best Films of 2020

The previous Best Films of 2020 list included some 2019 titles as I had still had to catch up with quite a few 2020 titles. Therefore, an update is in order with a list that only includes 2020 films.

Best Films of 2020

1. Milestone (India, Ivan Ayr)
2. The Salt in our Waters (Bangladesh/France, Rezwan Shahriar Sumit)
3. The Disciple (India, Chaitanya Tamhane)
4. Undine (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)
5. The Alien (Iran, Nader Saeivar)
6. There is no Evil (Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)
7. Piedra Sola (Argentina/Mexico/Qatar/UK, Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf)
8. Exil (Germany/Belgium/Kosovo, Visar Morina)
9. Da 5 Bloods (2020, USA, Spike Lee)
10. Fauna (Mexico/Canada, Nicolás Pereda)

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

City Hall (USA, Frederick Wiseman)
Days (Taiwan, Tsai Ming-liang)
Days of Cannabalism (France/South Africa/Holland, Teboho Edkins)
Gulabo Sitabo (India, Shoojit Sircar)
Let Him Go (USA, Thomas Bezucha)
A Machine to Live In (USA, Yoni Goldstein/Meredith Zielke)
Mangrove (UK, Steve McQueen)
Nothing but the Sun (Paraguay/Argentina/Switzerland, Arami Ullon)
Notturno (Italy/France/Germany, Gianfranco Rosi)
Window Boy Would also Like to Have a Submarine (Uruguay/Argentina/Brazil/Holland/ Philippines, Alex Piperno)

Monday, October 04, 2021

Top Italian films of All Time

Wonders in the Dark is having a Greatest Italian Films of All time poll. Each participant is expected to only submit a top 20, either in ranked order or alphabetical.

It is quite tough to narrow this list down to only 20 Italian films or to arrange them in order of preference. Other than my top 2, the remaining films can change based on month or year. For now, I will put this down and revisit this list in the future to see how this order changes.

Top 20 Italian Films

1. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)
2. Hands over the City (1963, Francesco Rosi)
3. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
4. Il Posto (1961, Ermanno Olmi)
5. L’Eclisse (1962, Michelangelo Antonioni)
6. La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
7. Il Sorpasso (1962, Dino Risi)
8. 8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)
9. La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini)
10. L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
11. Fists in the Pocket (1965, Marco Bellocchio)
12. Cinema Paradiso (1988, Giuseppe Tornatore)
13. Rocco and His Brothers (1960, Luchino Visconti)
14. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
15. Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)
16. I Fidanzati (1963, Ermanno Olmi)
17. Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica)
18. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)
19. Salvatore Giuliano (1962, Francesco Rosi)
20. Mid-August Lunch (2008, Gianni Di Gregorio)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Films of Kôji Fukada

Hospitalité (2010)
Harmonium (2016)
A Girl Missing (2019)
The Real Thing (2020)

Harmonium is Kôji Fukada’s fifth film but one that thrust him in the spotlight after it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2016. Prior to that, Fukada’s films were often found at Film Festivals around the world so his name wasn’t unknown. Yet, Harmonium showed a distinct change and ruthlessness that wasn’t the case with his earlier films especially Hospitalité which has some common elements.

In both Harmonium and Hospitalité, a stranger arrives to live in a household and ends up upending the family dynamics of that household. One reason that the stranger is able to impact the family is because he is able to exploit vulnerabilities which highlight that the family is one in name only but otherwise a collection of individuals.

In Hospitalité, the stranger is Kagawa (Kanji Furutachi) who arrives to a house where a couple run a printing press owned by Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi) and his wife Nitsuki (Kiki Sugino). Kagawa first manages to get a job at the printing press, then manages to stay at the house before eventually taking things over like a gangster.

Kôji Fukada's smart inspired bit of casting is highlighted by Kanji Furutachi who played the stranger in Hospitalité but plays the house owner in Harmonium.

In Harmonium, Toshio (Furutachi) offers Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) a job and accommodation in his house without telling his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui). The difference is that unlike Hospitalité, Yasaka isn’t a complete stranger. He and Toshio shared a past which is something that Toshio neglects to inform Akie about. At first, Akie isn’t comfortable with Yasaka’s presence but gradually warms up, especially after Yasaka teaches Akie’s daughter how to play the harmonium. However, Yasaka starts making too many inroads in Toshio’s family, an act that threatens to derail Toshio’s perfect family.

The two films may share a common key element of a disruptive stranger but they are vastly different in tone and execution. The tone in Hospitalité is uneven, a mix of absurd comedy and drama. After Kagawa takes over the house and printing press, things get comical even though the inclusion of a few scenes and glances indicate a calculated plan. On the other hand, Harmonium removes any humour and ventures into a darker territory. The film is packed with plenty of jaw-dropping scenarios which question the complex relationships each family member shares with another. The film’s original title Fuchi ni tatsu translates to “on the brink”, words that perfectly describe the mental state of the characters as they navigate through their daily lives.

Harmonium is a kick in the guts, sharp, relentless and is an ingenious twist on the traditional Japanese family drama. Naturally, after a film like Harmonium, my expectations were high from Fukada’s next film. As it turns out, it wasn’t one film but two that arrived in quick succession.

A Girl Missing

As the title indicates, A Girl Missing is about a kidnapping. But unlike other movies that deal with such topics, the movie isn’t about the kidnapper or victim but instead about a character (Ichiko played brilliantly by Mariko Tsutsui) who chooses not to act. In the film, Ichiko recognizes the kidnapper but doesn’t divulge that information to the police as she fears it might implicate her. However, Ichiko’s secret is revealed and unravels her reputation and relationship. She is angered and driven to thoughts of revenge. The film falls a few steps short of what Harmonium shows. While Harmonium shows the execution of dangerous thoughts, A Girl Missing shows how such thoughts can simmer inside a character and force them to take matters in their own hands. The film can be considered the idea that is realized in action by Harmonium.

The Real Thing
On the other hand, The Real Thing is a reset, a reset of themes and ideas. Based on a manga, the film is about two characters who are clearly wrong for each other. When the two are together, bad things happen. Yet, they can’t stay away or instead the universe can’t keep them away. The Real Thing is 3 hours 52 minutes long but it originally ran as a 10 part mini-TV series. The TV series format is apparent even in the almost 4 hour film as events repeat, progress in a predictable format. The tone of the film is devoid of any melodrama which results in the material presented with a dryness that mixes absurd, comedic and dark scenarios.  The almost 4 hour version was supposed to play at Cannes 2020 but since the Festival was postponed due to the Pandemic, the film was announced as an Official Cannes Selection. The film did have a festival run in Fall of 2020 including showing at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Overall, even though there are elements to admire in A Girl Missing and The Real Thing, neither film can match the heights of Harmonium which feels like a perfect calibration of all the elements found in his movies. Still, there is no doubt about Kôji Fukada's stellar credentials as a director. The varying treatment between Hospitalité and Harmonium shows the evolution of a filmmaker from a good director into a great one. It is still early to know if the adaptation of a manga will be a new direction for Fukada or how it fits in his filmography. Oddly, there is a quote from Fukada that the Japanese film industry needs to stop depending on manga adaptions which feels ironic given that he has done one himself. So this adaptation may be a one-off only but I am looking forward to see what he does next.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Just Like That

Just like That (2019, India,  Kislay)

The mother is a revered character in Indian cinema and society (‘Mother India’), someone who is selfless and devoted to her husband and family. This portrayal has hardly been challenged in Indian cinema, especially Bollywood films which depict mothers as always standing by their husband/sons/families and often these films resort to depicting mothers as overly melodramatic characters speaking cliched dialogues. This is why Kislay’s debut feature Just Like That is refreshing. The main character, Mrs. Sharma, is a 74 year-old woman who has recently become widowed. She is expected to live like other widows before her but she defies expectations. Mrs. Sharma wants to be independent, dares to open her first bank account, wants to go shopping at the mall, eat ice-cream, learn sewing and wants to live by herself in the upstairs portion of her son’s house. Her independence isn’t taken well, not by the son, daughter-in-law, neighbours and other family members. The film doesn’t just focus on Mrs. Sharma and the camera quietly captures intimate moments showing other family members and highlights problems caused by the patriarchal structure of society.

Such problems aren’t only restricted to India but impact all nations in varying measures. In this structure, women (young, married or widowed) are always expected to follow protocol but men are given leeway to behave as they please. Well Mrs. Sharma isn’t having any of that! For her entire life, including over 5 decades of married life, she followed protocol. Now at the age of 74, she is standing up for herself. Of course, her revolution isn’t loud or grand but consists of many tiny gestures; the kind of tiny gestures that are rare to find in cinema. This attention to detail is just one of the aspects that makes this one of the best films of last year.