Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Obaltan / Aimless Bullet

Obaltan / Aimless Bullet (1961, South Korea, directed by Yu Hyun-mok)

Over the last 2 decades, contemporary Korean films have become much more well known in North America and easily available in various formats be it theatrical releases, DVD/Blu-Ray or streaming.  The success of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong has ensured that their new films and works by other contemporary Korean directors have a good chance at getting North American distribution. On the other hand, Korean cinema from the 1950-60s isn’t as well-known or seen compared to other global cinema or even newer Korean films. Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic film The Housemaid is the best known film from this period and that managed to find an audience after a 2008 restoration by the Korean Film Archive in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and HFR-Digital Film laboratory. However, there are quite a few worthy Korean films from that 1960s period including Obaltan (Aimless Bullet), a film that is found on many all time best Korean films list and even topping some of those lists.

Aimless Bullet (also known as Stray Bullet) was not a commercial success upon its release in 1961 and was banned by the government due to its bleak depiction of events in South Korea. The post-war years in South Korea were tough on many fronts, especially economic growth, as the country tried to rebuild after the devastating Korean war. Yu Hyun-mok’s film brilliantly captures those hardships and struggles in a manner reminiscent of Italian neorealism. That is not a coincidence as director Yu Hyun-mok cited Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as an influence.

The film is shown from the perspective of Cheol-ho (Kim Jin-kyu) and his family, who are displaced North Koreans living in a Seoul Slum. Cheol-ho is an accounting clerk who can barely make ends meet, a point illustrated by his inability to pay for this persistent toothache. He has to provide for his mother, pregnant wife, daughter and younger siblings. Cheol-ho’s younger brother, Yong-ho (Choi Mu-ryong) is disabled by the war and has trouble finding a job despite being a decorated war veteran. Cheol-ho’s mother suffers from trauma and constantly shouts “Let’s go”, words which take on an ironic and painful meaning as the family has nowhere to go. The desperation of the family members to improve their lives leads them into a darker territory where they have to make some vital moral and ethical decisions.

Yu Hyun-mok expertly incorporates neorealism and genre elements, especially some film noir and crime elements (gangsters and a bank heist as an example). The film also tackles vital socioeconomic elements of Korean society in the Korean war’s aftermath which led to poverty, crime and general disillusionment. There is also a nod towards political elements such as the influence of US in the post-war rebuilding efforts. Some of the depiction of post-war society recalls early Akira Kurosawa, especially Drunken Angel (1948). Aimless Bullet also has some smart technical flourishes which provides a new entry point to assess Korean Cinema of the 1960s. However, it was not a film that I was aware of until it became available online a few years ago on the Korean Classic Film YouTube channel. This was a genuine discovery for me and I hope it can be the same for others.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Saeed Roustayi's Law of Tehran

Law of Tehran / Just 6.5 (2019, Iran, Saeed Roustayi)

In this high-octane thriller, detective Samad (Payman Maadi, A Separation) goes on a relentless hunt to track down drug kingpin Nasser (Navid Mohammadzadeh). Samad hopes that the arrest of Nasser will help control the escalating problem of drug addiction that is wrecking havoc in the city. However, Samad's quest for Nasser leads him down a path rife with corruption and shifting morality, one where Samad can’t trust anyone.

Anchored by award-winning performances from Payman Maadi and Navid Mohammadzade, Law of Tehran is unlike any Iranian film that has come out in recent years. The film seamlessly combines elements of Iranian cinema with genre elements of crime films. The end result is a pulsating film that deftly incorporates social commentary while pushing a police thriller/crime genre to new heights. Law of Tehran boasts some of the most creative police procedural scenes shown in a film while depicting the social problems of addiction, homelessness, crowded jail cells with unflinching reality.

The film was a smashing box-office success in Iran and winner of several Film Festival awards but its global travel was partially halted by cinematic shutdown in early 2020. Back then, the film went by the title of Just 6.5 but has now been released with the new title of Law of Tehran.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Two recent films by Michel Franco

New Order (2020, Mexico/France)
Sundown (2021, France/Mexico/Sweden)

Two recent films by Michel Franco take common associations of Mexican crime and beaches and turn them into multi-layered cinematic case studies.

In New Order, there are no beaches but crime is present. The film came out 2 years before the eat-the-rich films Triangle of Sadness (2022) and The Meal (2022). However, unlike those films, New Order takes the poor vs rich depiction and extends that into an actual revolution which morphs into a fascist society. No time period is highlighted in the film yet it feels like a time in the not so distant future. Given the way things have been unraveling in the world over last few years, the film may be considered a documentary one day. The brutal killings, torture and abuse shown in New Order are those that have taken place in countless countries around the world over the last few decades especially in several Latin American nations. Perhaps, there are already some parts of the world where things exist exactly like that shown in the film.

A beach is present in Sundown but so is crime. Although, the crime takes place a lot later in the film. At first, the motives of the main character Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) appear vague and hard to understand until a few memories and snippets of dialogue indicate that his family fortune has been made in the meat processing industry: the killing of animals for profit was part of the Bennett family business handed down to Neil. He never questioned the business and became part of the empire, made money and lived a luxurious life. Yet, somewhere within his psyche he likely felt a sense of guilt and horror when watching animals get killed. Those buried feelings surface in the warm weather of Acapulco when Neil has easy access to beaches, cold beer and women. So instead of leaving Mexico with his family to visit his dying mother in UK, Neil finds an excuse to stay behind, do nothing but watch the sunset on the beach. The film is a mix of dry humour and satire yet the most visible signpost of this style is the character of Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Neil’s sister, who is aghast at her brother’s lack of empathy and concern. Her behaviour is clearly a sign for how one should interpret the film. As Neil continues to spend time on the Mexican beach, drinking a bucket of beer on a daily basis, his sister continues to manage the family business back in UK after the passing of their mother. Slowly it becomes clear to others around him that Neil has money and that sets in motion a series of criminal events.

Both New Order and Sundown depict class divide in Mexican society but with varying degrees of violence and tone. New Order shows a much starker version which dials up the crime while Sundown lets things quietly idle away saving the violence for the final third.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Best Films of 2022

I am putting up a Best Films of 2022 list more than 3 months into 2023. This delay highlights the accessibility of relevant films to view at my disposal. Without the aid of watching movies at film festivals, I am reduced to seeing what worthy films trickle down to a local cinema (not many) or the various streaming options (not that much better). Of course, I am still only looking at legal viewing options, a stubborn resistance which clearly denies me access to many movies available via unofficial internet channels. The various streaming, VOD and regular distribution channels may be drowning in content but most of it isn’t highly relevant. That doesn’t mean everything that plays on the film festival circuit is worthy either. Film festivals are also sometimes bloated with content that is short of quality. However, even a mid-range film festival movie offers something different than the banality of endless superhero sequels and algorithm driven movies.

Here are my Top 11 films of 2022:

1. Pacifiction (France/Spain/Gemany/Portugal, Albert Serra)

An intriguing and refreshing change of landscape, time period and topic from Albert Serra! Pacifiction is not a period piece but a contemporary slow burning tropical espionage film with no guns, no spilled blood but only conversations with a hint of danger. The stunning visuals and hypnotic music elevates the film and adds a layer of mystery reminiscent of Claire Denis’ L’Intrus.

2. Matter Out of Place (Austria, Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Geyrhalter continues his essential depiction of humans impact on our planet. This time, he focuses on the never ending collection of garbage filling our earth and bodies of water. The film recalls Edward Burtynsky’s collaborations with Jennifer Baichawal seen in Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Watermark (2013) and Anthropocene (2018).

3. My Imaginary Country (Chile/France, Patricio Guzmán)

“How is it possible that I am witnessing a second revolution in Chile?”

Guzmán’s surprising question is remarkable especially when one considers that he has once again documented Chile in a state of unrest almost 5 decades after his famous documentary The Battle of Chile (1975) which depicted the violence that unfolded after Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup. The ramifications from that military coup and dictatorship clearly played a part in a decades long eroding of Chilean society which led to the events in 2019 captured by Guzmán.

4. Gehraiyaan (India, Shakun Batra)

Gehraiyaan is a rare precious thing: a mature adult relationship Hindi language film. The gray palette and muted colours perfectly depict the mood of the film which indicates the dangers lurking beneath the surface. Brilliantly acted (Deepika Padukone is mesmerizing) with top notch production values and an infectious soulful track sung by Lothika Jha!

5. Rule 34 (Brazil/France, Júlia Murat)

Two earlier Júlia Murat films, Found Memories and Pendular, were not adequate preparation for what unfolds in Rule 34. Murat’s newest film pushes the concept of public vs private life to the brink and questions whether any objectivity can exist when the main character Simone (Sol Miranda) carries on living a dual life where her night time activities contradicts her daytime job. There are concepts of law, rules in society, acceptable behaviour, safety, criminality that also need to be unpacked after viewing this film. Sol Miranda has put in a brave and extraordinary performance and her expressions are priceless. This is evident in the film’s ending where the camera looks firmly at her face which goes through an entire range of emotions before her character decides what route she wants to take.

6. Urf/A.k.a (India, Geetika Narang Abbasi)

The film gives a fascinating insight into the Hindi language film industry by depicting the lives of actors who are lookalikes of legendary actors such as Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan. The honest look into these lookalike actor’s lives raises questions about identity and the God like status some Bollywood movie stars enjoy. As a result, Geetika Narang Abbasi's film provides a new entry point into perceiving Bollywood.

7. No Bears (Iran, Jafar Panahi)

Any new Panahi film feels like a miracle. He continues to push the boundaries of making cinema within strict restrictions and limitations. This time he travels to the Iranian border and shows how a film can be potentially directed remotely, an appropriate nod to our times where remote work has became a lot more commonplace across the globe.

8. EO (Poland/Italy, Jerzy Skolimowski)

Packed with incredible images and a hypnotic soundtrack, Skolimowski’s wonder of a film is a genuine cinematic treat!

9. EAMI (Paraguay co-production, Paz Encina)

As per the film notes, “Eami means ‘forest’ in Ayoreo. It also means ‘world’”. Paz Encina highlights the deforestation and its impact on the indigenous Ayoreo-Totobiegosode community of the Chaco region in Paraguay. Her shape-shifting film is a beautiful audio-visual experience and one of the film highlights of 2022.

10. Stars at Noon (France/Panama/US, Claire Denis)

Claire Denis and co-writers Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius have taken the core of Denis Johnson’s novel The Stars at Noon about 1984 Nicagragua and adapted it to our current times with some tweaks which remove specific details of which country the film is set in. Tindersticks' soundtrack, a constant in Claire Denis films, enhances the mood and elevates proceedings.

11. Broker (South Korea, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Kore-eda continues his exploration of the dynamic two-way relationship between adults and children and what constitutes a family. The Korean setting of the film is missing the usual rhythm and emotional resonance found in Kore-eda’s Japanese films. Still, there is plenty to admire in this film especially the performance of Song Kang-ho.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Claire Denis' Stars at Noon

Stars at Noon (2022, France/Panama/USA, Claire Denis)

A hot humid Latin country in political turmoil. A sultry woman, Trish (Margaret Qualley),  doing anything for dollars so that she can escape to a more stable Latin nation. While Trish may be in the country at the wrong time but from the little we gather, some of her troubles may be her own doing. Trish wrote an article documenting the truth in Nicaragua and that landed her in hot water with those in charge. Her passport is taken away as is her ability to leave the country. In a few snippets of conversation, it becomes clear that Trish is not yet an established journalist but trying to find ways to sell her stories. However, the Nicaraguan article hampered her ability to find any more buyers for her articles, so she has to resort to do anything, including sleeping with strangers for money, in order to leave the country. As luck would have it, she encounters Daniel (Joe Alwyn) who has even more troubles circling him. The two get together, get in even more trouble, and come up with ways to get to the border so they can escape to Costa Rica.

Claire Denis and co-writers Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius have taken the core of Denis Johnson’s novel The Stars at Noon about 1984 Nicagragua and adapted it to our current pandemic times where masks are present and proof of vaccination is required to leave the border. Like our real world, mask compliance is always not 100% and not strictly enforced. The removal of specific details works in the film’s favour because some nations are always kept in turmoil due to constant interference by other nations. Tindersticks' soundtrack, a constant in Claire Denis films, enhances the mood and elevates proceedings. The film has a lingering pace and at times the jazzy music is a few beats ahead of events or at other times keeps pace with Trish and Daniel’s adventures.

Stars at Noon was one of two Claire Denis films in 2022 along with Avec amour et acharnement (Both Sides of the Blade). In both films, the female characters encounter men who are trouble for them. In this regard, the title of an earlier Denis film Trouble Every Day could easily apply to both films.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire (2023, India, 7 episode Series)

Trial by Fire (Netflix) is a gut-wrenching depiction of a real-life harrowing tragedy that could been completely avoided. A series of small negligent and dangerous practices by the Uphaar cinema owners and management led to a fire that caused the death of 59 people and injury to hundreds of others. As the series shows, the age group of the almost 900 people that attended that fatal film screening on June 13, 1997 ranged from a newborn baby to young children, teenagers, adults and seniors. All these people were taking part in the cinema viewing ritual that is commonplace in India, more so than in many other nations. Yet, as the series shows, the cinema was a caged trap that could have caused a tragedy on any given day.

The series also highlights the cost of justice that people have to go through, putting their whole life on hold to fight a system that favours the rich. This sadly is not only true of India but the rest of the world as well, including North America. Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy spent almost 25 years fighting a system that never delivered the justice they sought. The series is brilliantly acted, scripted and features an array of smart  technical flourishes that humanizes victims and some of whom inadvertently played a part in the fire.

On a personal note, I am familiar with Uphaar cinema as I used to attend this cinema growing up. I have a few memories of my grandfather taking me to see films here. I knew of the fire but didn’t know the full story until now.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Sidney Lumet's Network

The rage. The ever increasing rage that has been increasing across the world over the last decade. The rage increased its speed after the 2016 US presidential election and truly accelerated in 2020 at the start of the pandemic and hasn’t let up since then. Certain politicians, media, TV hosts encourage this rage and profit off it. Some of these politicians take that most fascist of approaches where they tell their fans that only they can solve all the problems of society, problems which are always the other party's fault. A lot of TV networks have long dispensed with news. Instead, they fill their air time with angry hosts giving out opinions and asking people to get angry, get very angry. Yet, this angry TV host first appeared in a scripted film, almost three decades ago.

Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a brilliantly acted, scripted and directed film. The film is labeled a satire yet given the rage of last few years, the film can be considered a documentary of our times. Over the last decade, certain TV networks have constantly ensured that their hosts are always ANGRY and promoted rage. The blueprint for these shows and their methods can be found in Lumet’s film which shows how an upcoming TV show programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) wants to program a show with Howard Beale (Peter Finch) for the sole reason that she believes Howard’s on-air anger will get their TV network more viewers and improve their market share. As Howard continues to let loose his anger on the show, people tune in and Diana is proven right. Things take a turn when Howard directs his anger at the wrong people thereby threatening a corporate deal. Howard is put in his place by the TV exec Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) who explains how the world works and Howard’s place in it. Of course, Arthur Jensen uses anger, immense anger, to get his message across thereby even scaring Howard. Jensen's anger is also in keeping with our times in showing that free speech is acceptable only when it is used against one's opponents.

Friday, December 16, 2022

World Cup 2022

The 2022 World Cup started with one game on Day 1 (Nov 20), then three games on Day 2, then 11 days of four games each. Then 4 days of 2 games each. Then, after 17 straight days of football, things paused on Dec 7th which was the first day since Nov 20 without a World Cup game (oh the horror). The Quarter-Finals kicked off on Fri, Dec 9 and then we had 2 days of four incredible games.

Then another 2 day gap with two historic semi-finals on Tue, Dec 13th and Wed, Dec 14th.

After another 2 day gap, the third-place game will take place on Sat, Dec 17th between Morocco and Croatia. Then one final game on Dec 18th to end it all.

Argentina vs France

An epic historic final.

Both Argentina and France going for their third World Cup title. However, the big story is around Messi, the greatest player of all time, going for his first World Cup title.

Messi has been in the final before when Argentina narrowly lost 1-0 to Germany in the Maracanã stadium in Brazil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This is his 2nd attempt at the title in what will be his final World Cup game.

The Argentine fans have been in incredible voice throughout the tournament turning the stadiums in Qatar into an atmosphere reminiscent of a Boca Juniors or River Plate game. If there was any ticker tape, the atmosphere would have felt like that famous 1978 World Cup in Argentina where Mario Kempes helped seal Argentina’s first World Cup win. Then 8 years later in 1986, Diego Maradona sealed Argentina’s second title with an epic display of individual brilliance. Messi has channeled that brilliance many times for Barcelona in the past but until last few years, that brilliance was only seen in flashes for Argentina. That was due to a weak supporting cast around Messi. However, the Copa America title win in 2021 changed that sentiment and narrative. Messi put on a brilliant display scoring 4 goals and had 5 assists as Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 in the final giving Messi his first international trophy with Argentina. That Copa America win marked Messi's third Copa America final. He and Argentina suffered two previous penalty shoot-out final defeats in 2015, 2016 to Chile. Argentina's 2021 Copa win fueled belief that Messi could finally lead Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title.

Argentina’s 2022 World Cup started off with an improbable 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, which snapped Argentina’s 36 game unbeaten streak. The game started with Messi putting Argentina in the lead through the penalty spot. Two quick goals by Saudi Arabia in the second threatened a mini crisis. Yet, Argentina and Messi grew in strength after that defeat and powered their way to the final.

Of course, the 2022 World Cup has had many shock stories. Japan's 2-1 wins over Spain and Germany were eye catching results. Morocco’s historic run marked the first time an African team made it to the semi-finals. Morocco’s wins also won them fans around the world and marked celebrations across the Arab world as well. Iran beat Wales 2-0 in a memorable game. South Korea narrowly edged out of their group with a late 2-1 win over Portugal, thus eliminating Uruguay on the final day on goal difference. Canada finally scored their first ever World Cup goal in brilliant fashion against Croatia but then lost 4-1. Tunisia scored a late 1-0 win over France in the final group game. Costa Rica were dreaming of an upset when they took a 2-1 lead over Germany and at one point, both Costa Rica and Japan were going through in a group which included Spain and Germany.

Croatia showed their resilience throughout the tournament. Croatia got to the semi-finals by only letting in 3 goals in 8.5 hours over football. They only scored 6 goals in that run and 4 of those came against Canada in one game. Without that 4-1 Canada win, Croatia scored only 2 goals and only let in 2 in 7 hours of football. Argentina and Messi finally dismantled Croatia 3-0 in the semis.

Morocco were equally resilient. They started their World Cup journey with a 0-0 draw with Croatia before a 2-0 win over Belgium turned things upside down in their group. They raced to a 2-0 lead over Canada but an own-goal just before half-time made it 2-1. Canada pushed Morocco to the edge in the second half and were millimetres from snatching a draw after Atiba Hutchinson’s header bounced off the goal. Until the semi-finals, only Canada had registered a goal against Morocco. However, Morocco were injured, bruised and exhausted going into their semi-final game and gave up a quick goal to France. Eventually, Morocco lost 2-0.

Now, Morocco and Croatia will meet again in the third place game which will surely feature goals and won’t end in 0-0. Morocco and Croatia’s runs also highlighted the tough group Canada had although Canada scored a goal against both teams. Canada should have beaten Belgium but lost 1-0. Belgium on the other hand were finally found out in this World Cup. On paper, Belgium has always had a solid team. But these games are not played on paper and for the longest time, Belgium managed to get some results which pushed them all the way to #2 in the World rankings.

Two more games remain in this year's World Cup, which will also be the last to feature 32 teams. The next tournament in 2026 (co-hosted by USA, Mexico and Canada) will feature a staggering 48 teams. Will the extra teams and games rob some of the drama witnessed in the 2022 World Cup? Possibly if there are no more 4 team groups which provided plenty of drama for the final group games when teams were battling the clock to secure their passage in the round of 16. But before 2026, one final historic weekend remains.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Borders for humans and animals

Border (2009, Armenia/Holland, Harutyun Khachatryan)
A dialogue-less picture which lets the powerful images speak for themselves! The film shows that if people can’t trust an animal from the other side of the border, then how can they ever get along with humans from across the border. At the film’s start, a buffalo is found injured near the border. The people from across the border tend to the buffalo and bring it over on their side. However, the village people and even the farm animals treat the buffalo with suspicion. Seasons pass and the buffalo appears to be assimilated with the people’s daily activities. Still when something does go wrong, it is the buffalo that is blamed.

The buffalo ends up being a symbol of a refugee, a stranger who finds himself in a different community and tries to adapt. A few subtle images highlight the strains of the border on everyday life and the distrust that exists of those on the other side. Even the buffalo appears to feel the strain of that border and yearns to break free of the human created border.

The director has called the film a blend of documentary and “live-action film” but the film’s keen observances of everyday life erase the boundary between documentary and fiction. This film does not feel like scripted cinema at all but is a rich work where an animal is used to expose humanity's many faults, especially intolerance of a stranger.

Note: republished from a 2009 entry as this film came to mind while reading reviews of EO. Chances are most critics and people haven't heard of Border. The Big Animal isn't from a camel's perspective but it covers similar ground like Border as well.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Soccer Movies

My past Movie World Cups were about finding films from the different countries taking part in the Soccer World Cup. The films themselves weren’t about soccer. This time around for the 2022 World Cup, I have decided to compile a list about the best soccer/fútbol films I have seen. And like a soccer team formation, the films can be arranged in a starting 11 with each film occupying a different soccer position. As it turns out, the 11 films cover different aspects of the game and feature some of the best players to have played the game along with the struggles of a manager, the challenges that referees face and problems of being a fan. The films also cover other topics as children who dream of being progressional soccer players, fans with radical ideas to improve the game, manipulative family members who double as soccer agents and a ‘friendly’ soccer game between enemies. A complete football circle of life! That means, Diego Maradona, Pele, Messi, Zidane are present in the films. While Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t there, his look-alike is. Barcelona are there as are Real Madrid, Arsenal, Man United, Leeds United and many other national and club teams in snippets.

My favourite Soccer Films starting 11 line-up in preferential order:

1. Diego Maradona (2019, UK, Asif Kapadia)

This brilliant film came out just a year before Maradona’s tragic death in 2020 and forms a timely and perfect tribute to the greatest soccer player of all time (sorry, Pele, Messi but I have to tip the hat to Diego).

2. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006, France/Iceland, Douglas Gordon/Philippe Parreno)

Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait offers a rare chance to show what a real soccer game can’t do and that is observe what a soccer player, a great one at that, does for an entire 90 minutes. By using 17 cameras fixed on Zidane for the entire 90 minutes, the film shows the best and worst of Zidane and in that respect is a perfect testament to one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. A huge positive is the soundtrack by Mogwai which perfectly blends in with the action. At selected moments the soundtrack is turned off and we get to hear the crowd, either silent, talking or getting angry. Those moments of listening to the crowd and the long shots of Zidane, standing isolated like a lone warrior, are perfect.

3. Les arbitres/The Referees (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.

4. Bend it Like Beckham (2002, UK/Germany/USA, Gurinder Chadha)

This lovely film nicely layers its coming-of-age, cultural clash, female perspective elements around its soccer core.

5. The Damned United (2009, UK/USA, Tom Hooper)

A stellar film that gives a glimpse into the multiple challenges a soccer manager has to withstand in his day to day job. Even if one is not a soccer fan, then there is still plenty to enjoy in this accessible and polished film that mixes the real life case of Brian Clough’s turbulent 44 days of employment at Leeds United with a sprinkling of fiction.

6. Fever Pitch (1997, UK, David Evans) 

An essential soccer film based on Nick Hornby’s wonderful book about an Arsenal fan. Even though the film is centered around Hornby’s Arsenal obsession, most soccer fans (not only Arsenal fans) would probably fall into the categories shown in the film – optimistic and always pessimistic. The optimistic ones always believe their team will win, no matter who the opposition. And the pessimistic believe that their team is capable of always screwing up even when their opposition is a non-league team.

This movie shows what it means to be a soccer fan and serves to highlight the difficulties men have in trying to make women understand what this game means. Plenty of soccer relevance in this film as the film shows school football, a frustrated coach, soccer vs women debates, amateur & professional football and the crazy life of a soccer fan. Also, the movie covers the dangers of all standing sections in English stadiums in the past, something which may have added to the flavour of the game in the old days but also led to some grave consequences (racism, abuse, death and fights).

7. Take the Ball, Pass the Ball (2018, Spain, Duncan McMath)

Based on Graham Hunter’s book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Take the Ball Pass the Ball looks at Barcelona’s team between 2008-12 when the arrival of Pep Guardiola transformed the way Barcelona played and revolutionized the overall game. The film is an ode to the beauty of the game. The football that was played by that Barcelona team between 2008-12 was some of the best the world has ever seen. Given how sterile the game has become now, it is incredible to think it wasn’t long ago that Guardiola’s Barcelona team produced many jaw-dropping moments. Perhaps, sometime in the future, another team will produce such football again. Until then, there are the highlights and this film.

8. The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972, West Germany/Austria, Wim Wenders)

Goalkeepers have often been considered eccentric lonely characters mostly due to their role where they are isolated for long periods of the time from the rest of the outfield players. Things are changing now with goalies being brought into the game a lot more but that wasn’t the case back in 1972. While the film isn’t about soccer, it does feature elements that are part of the game even today: the stress and tension both goalies and a penalty taker faces when each tries to beat the other.

9.  Victory (1981, UK/USA, Italy, John Huston)

It is still hard to believe that this movie exists and features the people it does. Real life soccer legends Pele, Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles are in the film as are Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow!

The story revolves around a ‘friendly’ soccer game between the German National team and a team of captured British Allied Prisoners of War in 1942. Max Von Sydow (who plays a German General, Karl Von Steiner) spots Colby (Caine) teaching soccer for the captured prisoners. Since Steiner was a former soccer player for the German National team, he recognizes Colby as a former professional player (Colby played for West Ham and England). He proposes a soccer game between Colby’s students and a collection of German soldiers/captains. After negotiating for extra food rations and better sports equipment, Colby agrees. When news of the games reaches the German high administration, they decide to use the game as a means of propaganda. The stakes are raised with the German National team playing not just against Colby’s boys but an allied World team of British colonies. The game would be held in Paris. The British hate the idea of the game, and decide to hatch a plan to let the entire team escape – they feel this is the only way they can make the Germans look bad.

What is interesting about this movie is that real soccer players were used, with the exception of Caine and Stallone. The soccer game footage is shot very well and the match is quite interesting.

10. Infinite Football (2018, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)

This documentary features Laurentiu Ginghina who has creative ways to reinterpret the game. Perhaps, somebody can get Ginghina to spend a few hours with Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.

11. Diamantino (2018, Portugal/France/Brazil, Gabriel Abrantes/Daniel Schmidt)

In the film, the World’s greatest soccer player Diamantino (clearly modelled on Cristiano Ronaldo) undergoes a major existential crisis on the eve of the World Cup final after he comes across a group of refugees. He wants to quit the game and give away his money much to the dismay of his evil twin sisters who have big plans for him including working with a far-right political party that wants to clone Diamantino and use his image to force Portugal to leave the EU.

This doesn’t even cover half of the events in the film which is packed with delirious characters including sinister villains and undercover agents while also including visions of gigantic cute puppies. There hasn’t and will never be a film like Diamantino, a mind-altering innovative film that smartly incorporates current burning political topics and multiple film genres including fantasy, satire, science-fiction and romance.

Formation for 11 movies 

If all the films had to be arranged in a soccer formation, the formation that naturally appears to form is 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3.

1. Goalkeeper: the film The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick takes the spot.

2. Defence: Fever Pitch, Victory, The Damned United

The first spot goes to Fever Pitch which is about George Graham’s defensive Arsenal team of 1989. Victory and The Damned United take the next spots due to their tough-tackling nature although Victory does feature Pele, one of the three best players to have ever played the game (the best of all time for many).

3. Midfield: Take the Ball, Pass the Ball, Bend it Like Beckham, Infinite Football, The Referees

Take the Ball easily takes one of the spots due to midfield duo of Xavi-Iniesta. Bend it like Beckham takes another spot due to Beckham’s ability to swing in crosses from the wings. Infinite Football is about creative ideas and midfield is about all creativity where those ideas would be most useful. The Referees is essentially about people outside of a team's formation but since all games start in the middle, this film takes the final midfield spot.

4. Attack: Diego Maradona, Diamantino, Zidane  

Diego and Diamantino (also Cristiano Ronaldo) take the front two spots with Zidane operating slightly behind them. In that sense, Zidane can pay behind the two attackers or move up in attack to form an unstoppable front three.

Substitutes named in no particular order:

Offside (2006, Iran, Jafar Panahi)

Fans are an essential part of the game and their presence in the stadium elevates a game’s atmosphere. This vital film from one of cinema’s master directors is about female fans not being able to get into the stadium to see a game due to national and cultural restrictions.

Forza Bastia (1978, France, Jacques Tati/Sophie Tatischeff)

Jacques Tati's last directed work was a football film, a 26 minute documentary, that he directed in 1978. However, the film only surfaced in 2001 thanks to his daughter Sophie Tatischeff. The film was shown at the Kicking + Screening Soccer Film Festival in Amsterdam 2011.

It is a remarkable film that shows the excitement in Bastia leading up to their first leg of the 1978 UEFA Cup final against PSV Eindhoven. Tati's focus is on the dedicated and loyal fans, showing their pre-game rituals along with their tension and anxiety during the game. There are some amazing sounds captured of the game itself which was played out on a water logged pitch and ended 0-0. Overall, this film is a great treasure not only of football's history but of cinema itself.

For the record, PSV won the second leg 3-0 to win the 1978 UEFA Cup.

Rudo y Cursi (2009, Mexico/USA, Carlos Cuarón)

Rudo y Cursi may feel like a Hollywood film in its treatment but the film redeems itself in the penalty shot near the end where the ironic fates of soccer and life in general are respected. The ending can only be written by someone who understands that, in soccer, games can end just as they start.

The Referee (2013, Italy/Argentina, Paolo Zucca)

An over the top black and white film that captures the eccentric nature of soccer along with that of a corrupted referee (which according to fans still haunts the game today).
The Miracle of Bern (2003, Germany, Sönke Wortmann)

The film introduces a fictional element in depicting West Germany’s first World Cup triumph in the 1954 World Cup.

Mean Machine (2001, UK/USA, Barry Skolnick)

Gregory's girl (1981, UK, Bill Forsyth)

My Name is Joe (1998, UK/Germany/France/Spain, Ken Loach)

The Acid House (1998, UK, Paul McGuigan)

Three different shorts which tackle themes of revenge, violence vs non-violence and pure drunken stupor! All the main characters in the three shorts could have been following the same game (the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup) and yet each go about their life differently. Not all soccer fans are drunken hooligans or immature adults as the media shows. Some of them are, but the rest are average blokes just trying to watch a game.

Historias de fútbol / Football Stories (1997, Chile, Andrés Wood)

The film is divided into three short stories titled First half, Second Half and Overtime. All three segments demonstrate love of football with the “First half” showing the professional game and issues such as bribing and betting. The “Second half” presents a pure love for the game that can only be found at the youth level. “Overtime” looks at the obsessive addiction to the game that men develop. Yet, “Overtime” is also the most mature segment and shows that lust for a woman can make a man forget about the game. Soccer may be an obsession and sole focus for a single man but as a man grows up and discovers other loves, soccer is integrated into their daily lives along with their job and relationships and is no longer their only focus. Well in theory at least.

A normal soccer match goes down in skill as the game goes into overtime because the tiring legs prevent too many genuine creative chances. However, Football Stories is strongest in the "Overtime" segment and is weakest in the "Second half.”

Goal! The Dream Begins (2005, UK/USA, Danny Cannon/Michael Winterbottom)

A rags to riches story about a Mexican kid who moves from LA to play for Newcastle United. Given the recent influx of cash in Newcastle, perhaps this movie may end up being a precursor to real life. Even though the film contains many clichéd elements, it has a good heart and a few worthy scenarios such as having a soccer manager clearly modelled after Arsène Wenger.

The Worker’s Cup (2017, Qatar/UK, Adam Sobel)

The topic is entirely appropriate given the setting of Qatar as the 2022 World Cup host. The documentary features the workers who helped build the stadiums that will host the games.

Das Spiel (2020, Switzerland, Roman Hodel)

Worthy short film (17 minutes) from the perspective of a referee in charge of an intense soccer game.

Messi (2014, Spain, Álex de la Iglesia)
Hip Hip Hurray (1984, India, Prakash Jha)
The Second Game (2014, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)
The Football Factory (2004, USA/UK, Nick Love)
The Cup (1999, Bhutan/Australia, Khyentse Norbu)
Cup Final (1991, Israel, Eran Riklis)
Garrincha - Alegria do Povo (1963, Brazil, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade)
Green Street Hooligans (2005, UK/USA, Lexi Alexander)
Heleno (2011, Brazil, José Henrique Fonseca)
Shaolin Soccer (2001, Hong Kong/China, Stephen Chow)
Looking for Eric (2009, UK/France, Italy/Belgium/Spain, Ken Loach)

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Triangle of Sadness equals award happiness

 Triangle of Sadness (2022, Ruben Östlund)

In contemporary European soccer, some league titles are decided even before a ball is kicked. The Cannes Film festival appears to be headed that way as well, especially when it comes to awarding the Palme d’Or to Ruben Östlund. Now, it is true that over the years some directors would always get their films programmed in Cannes Competition regardless of merit. Think Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti or Paolo Sorrentino. And some would never get in Competition. Until this year, Claire Denis used to fall in this category. Getting a film in Competition is one thing but winning the top Cannes prize is another matter altogether as a Jury decides who gets the Palme d’Or. That is why it is baffling Ruben Östlund has now won back-to-back Palme d’Or for The Square and Triangle of Sadness, two films that are weaker than his two earlier films Force Majeure and Play.

Force Majeure perfectly balanced its comedic scenarios with astute human observances. It was a dry wit film, which I placed in my Top 20 Scandinavian films list, that allowed the time and space for all its ideas to fully come through. On the other hand, The Square felt an attempt to take the witty vignette’s of Roy Andersson’s cinema and pushing the boundaries slightly until the scenario shifted out of comedy into shock. While The Square had some moments that sparkled, overall the film felt incoherent where the individual parts didn’t fit together.

If The Square felt like a step down for Östlund, then his latest feels like hitting the bottom of the barrel. Triangle of Sadness has constructed a feature film by combining many vignettes which follow the same characters from start to finish. However, each scenario comes across completely manufactured to produce a reaction. Packed with clichés, the pseudo political commentary and attempts to poke fun at elites and class structure don’t always land because one can see the entire setup for miles. There is even a scene with an overflowing toilet, likely a nod to Parasite. If Östlund thought including such a scene would be a good omen for a Cannes win, he was proved right. At this rate, I fully expect that Östlund will complete his Cannes hat-trick with his next film which is on a plane (departing away from the ship in Triangle of Sadness) and examines what passengers do without in-flight entertainment.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Best Films from Rest of Asia Poll

Wonders in the Dark is having their "Rest of Asia" film poll. The countries covered are South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Laos, North Korea, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

There is a wealth of rich cinematic works from these countries and a Top 20 is not enough to do justice especially since it is easy to make a list consisting entirely of films from South Korea and Philippines. Lav Diaz could easily take over half of this list on his own. However, this list is a bit more inclusive and consists of films from 9 out of the possible 18 countries eligible for the poll.

Top 20 Films from the Rest of Asia Poll

1. Manila in the Claws of Light (1975, Philippines, Lino Brocka)
2. Tropical Malady (2004, Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
3. The Housemaid (1960, South Korea,  Kim Ki-young)
4. Memories of Murder (2003, South Korea, Bong Joon Ho)
5. Insiang (1976, Philippines, Lino Brocka)
6. Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004, Philippines, Lav Diaz)
7. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
8. Tirador (Slingshot, 2007, Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)
9. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
10. Sepet (2004, Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad)
11. Made in Bangladesh (2019, Bangladesh, Rubaiyat Hossain)
12. The Missing Picture (2013, Cambodia, Rithy Panh)
13. ILO ILO (2013, Singapore, Anthony Chen)
14. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993, Vietnam, Anh Hung Tran)
15. Between Two Worlds (2009, Sri Lanka, Vimukthi Jayasundara)
16. The Salt in our Waters (2020, Bangladesh, Rezwan Shahriar Sumit)
17. Burning (2018, South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)
18. Wonderful Town (2007, Thailand, Aditya Assarat)
19. From What is Before (2014, Philippines, Lav Diaz)
20. Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009, Malaysia, Woo Ming Jin)

Top 20 via country breakdown:
Philippines: 5
South Korea: 4
Thailand: 3
Bangladesh: 2
Malaysia: 2
Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka: 1

Monday, August 22, 2022

Fear and Loathing in Small Town, Everywhere

Two Eastern European films that compliment each other even though they are separated by two decades:

Big Animal (2000, Poland, Jerzy Stuhr)
Fear (2020, Bulgaria, Ivaylo Hristov)

In Big Animal, a circus departs a Polish town and forgets a camel behind. As the camel wanders around town, Zygmunt (played by the director Jerzy Stuhr) decides to take the camel home.

Zygmunt and his wife Marysia (Anna Dymna) decide to adopt the camel as they have no kids of their own so they are happy to give the camel a home. There is a warmth to the couple’s behaviour and at first, the couple’s kind act is considered favourable by the locals. 

However, gradually the locals prejudice comes out. They distrust the ‘foreign animal’ and consider it a burden to their town. The town blames everything bad on the camel. They shun the couple and even make Zygmunt stand a court trail.

Big Animal, based on a story by Kazimierz Orlos with screenplay co-written by Krzysztof Kieslowski, is a not so subtle allegory about how a close minded town treats a foreigner. In the end, the camel mysteriously disappears. The couple is heart-broken and they travel to visit a zoo in a bigger city, happy to witness a camel there. The couple’s smile and body language observed at the zoo indicates that their perspective has been changed forever and no matter what they do, they will stay open-hearted.

The disappeared camel makes a surprising entry near the end of Ivaylo Hristov’s Fear, which isn’t a subtle film at all. Bamba (Michael Flemming) is an African refugee who arrives on the Bulgarian border. He wants to go to Germany but ends up getting stuck in a small Bulgarian border town where he encounters Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva). 

At first, Svetla is hostile towards Bamba but she reluctantly helps him and then develops an understanding with him. On the other hand, the town locals are openly racist towards Bamba and don’t hide their hatred. When the locals find out that Svetla is helping Bamba, they attack her as well. 

In the end, Svetla and Bamba decide they don’t want to live in Bulgaria and plan to go to Africa. As the couple wander off into the snowy landscape, the black and white film gets a splash of colour when a camel casually walks across the screen.

The presence of the camel in Fear brilliantly ties the film with Big Animal. Of course, this isn’t the only connection. The hatred of the locals and the words they speak in Fear mirror those spoken in Big Animal with regards to the camel. Such hatred towards foreigners isn’t isolated to small European towns but sadly exists everywhere in the world. The last few years has exposed this hatred across small towns in North America.