October 19, 2016

The Quiet Desperation of ‘Certain Women’

                                           Writer/director Kelly Reichardt believes in the cumulative power of the subdued aesthetics. Her shot seems to be going on and on, showcasing nothing but desolate space. Nothing important seems to be happening in the characters’ lives; none of the startling epiphanies and no hope for transformations. But as I said, the muted visuals gradually accumulate a power to make us profoundly understand the internalized pain of  the written characters. The title plus the story line of Reichardt’s latest movie “Certain Women” (2016) may give some idea to the viewer. Of course, the film-maker’s intent was to comment on the strong, but undervalued women. But Reichardt is more interested in designing a refined visual language than hurriedly shove in her themes. The result is that she doesn’t weave just another feminist or girl-power cinema. “Certain Women” is certainly about the quiet desperation of four independent females trying to carve a place for themselves. These women face the terror of getting cold-shouldered. Something dramatic happens in each of the film’s chapters, although the director concentrates on the multitude of inexpressible sorrows than on the possibilities for drama. The film-maker keeps her camera on these dejected women, not only capturing their words, but also studying the space around them, their silences, and awkward pauses.    

                                          Based on the American writer Maile Melloy’s short story collection, “Certain Women” tells three very loosely connected tales of four women, living in the oft-forgotten American Midwestern region.  Each story is moody and very quiet. The four women live in and around the small town called ‘Livingston’, in Wyoming. The film opens with series of outdoor shots, presenting the vastness of the picturesque landscape before settling in on the main street of the small town and three majestic mountain ranges hovers in the background. But, despite the land’s vastness, the strong-willed women of the town aren’t able to find their footing. In the first story, personal injury lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) mulls over that “It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen … that would be so restful.” Laura has a raging, needy client Fuller (Jared Harris) who treats her more like a girlfriend & therapist than as a lawyer. He repeatedly ignores her legal advice on his lawsuit, but accepts with a simple ‘okay’ when an old male lawyer gives the same advice. Hence, Laura makes the aforementioned statement. In fact, that’s the only time the characters speak about their frustration. For most part, when reality chews them over, the women just grit their teeth and move forward.

                                        Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is a successful business woman with an unaffectionate teenage daughter and an unfaithful husband (James LeGros), who is having an affair with attorney Laura Wells. Gina plans to build an authentic household for her family using old sand-stones. The family is camping out in a tent, while laying the plans for their new home. Gina’s husband stands by her plans to ease some of his guilt. The search for sand-stones brings Gina to negotiate with an elderly widower Albert (Rene Auberjonois). His yard is piled with sandstone that belonged to a schoolhouse, torn down long ago. The negotiation incites Albert to launch into a hushed monologue, stating what it means for him to give away these sand-stones. In the negotiation, Gina gets slighted just like Laura got slighted while offering her counsel. May be the unmindful nature of Albert is due to his old age, but then he could just hate her for asking something of a symbolic value. It’s left ambiguous. The film’s final, long segment is set in town called Belfry, a four hour drive from Livingston. A preoccupied law school graduate Elizabeth Travis aka Beth (Kristen Stewart) travels twice a week between Livingston and Belfry to give evening classes for those interested in school law. A lonely ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), in search of some human contact, follows people into the class. She forms an instant connection with Beth and after each class they run down to a local diner. They both don’t make any big speeches, but Jamie’s measured gaze and warm smile conveys a yearning for connection with Beth. However, Beth is too exhausted to teach the class, let alone understand Jamie’s yearning.

                                          Director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy & Lucy”, “Old Joy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”) with her delicately restrained visuals and nebulous narrative is gradually turning out to be an auteur of sorts. She wonderfully studies helpless individuals (mostly women) who come to terms with life’s uncertainties. Most of her characters are lonely who look at each other from a vantage point, unable to help or at least make a connection. Her women characters are also not exemplary and working towards an agenda. The women aren’t representatives of something. They are just part of the whole human race with the same existential angst like us. By slowing down the time and listening to their haunting silences, Reichardt powerfully captures their inner pain. The beauty in her movie is that the women don’t bawl like a child. They just keep moving through the mundanity and disappointments.

                                        The most affecting of the three segments in “Certain Women” was Jamie’s unrequited love. The lonely girl from the ranch is conscious about the unstable nature of her connection with Beth. The introverted girl comes up with a grand gesture of taking Beth on a horseback ride. But she doesn’t know that it is a gesture that’s lost on preoccupied Beth. Jamie follows it up with grander gesture, which only bewilders the other girl. The final scene between Jamie and Beth was very hard to look at because we see little escape of emotions in their hardened faces. In the ride back to town, we expect Jamie to break down ad cry aloud, but the sequence unfurls in a magnificent manner. The soft crash of her truck into a fenced cornfield may be indicating that it was only soft thud to her heart. Later observing the mundanity of her life in the farm, we can’t help shed a tear or two for ‘certain women’, subtly divided by class and kept at a distance. Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt precisely capture the rugged naturalism of the atmosphere. The way she keeps the frames still for an extra 10 or 20 seconds creates a larger world rather than fleeting snapshots. The understated performances are totally enthralling. Lily Gladstone makes an excellent debut as Jaime. Look at how she expresses hope, despair, shame, and agony. She takes the power of the restrained aesthetics to whole new, affecting level. 


                                       “Certain Women” (108 minutes) is a remarkable and ambiguous study of gritty and gumptious individuals, cold-shouldered and unheard by the alienated community. Since director Kelly Reichardt’s camera only watches and listens to the existential threat faced by the characters without ever escalating the dramatic quotient, it demands a contemplative mindset to watch.

October 17, 2016

Kaili Blues [2015] – A Jumbled Journey with a Formidable Visual Style

                                     Twenty-six year old Chinese film-maker Bi Gan’s feature-film debut “Kaili Blues” (‘Lu bian ye can’, 2015) has won numerous film festival accolades ever since its opening at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, winning ‘Best Emerging Director Prize’. For a cinephile who gets enticed by experiencing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakaul, Carlos Reygadas, Wim Wenders, Hsiao-hsien Hou, “Kaili Blues” is a movie he/she can’t miss. At a time, when the onslaught of big American movies had rendered majority of film-makers all over the world to weave geographically unremarkable & soulless movies, Bi Gan, with a negligible amount, has made a mesmerizing existential journey. The first time I watched this film, I was like “Did I dreamt that I watched a film about a Chinese guy who’s nearly floating on a strangely beautiful Chinese village?” It takes a very mundane story and wholly transforms into a meditative experience. What if you got caught in some other person’s unconstructed dream space (aka limbo), watching him wade through lost time and lost memory? Although my description might sound a bit pretentious, mere words fail to express the audacious and lyrical screen craft of Bi Gan.

                                      Andrei Tarkovksy once quoted philosopher Montaigne words, We [humans] do not move in one direction, rather do we wander back and forth” to ruminate that what we perceive as aliens are in fact our own descendants traveling back in time to visit us. French film artist Chris Marker [“Sans Soleil”] is called as an alien because his frames and camera movement has the strangely elusive characteristics. It’s as if alien has visited our Earth to closely observe human activities, transforming the mundane into divine. “Kaili Blues” has that ethereal quality. When the film plunges into its 41 minute one-take tracking shot, cruising through a lush countryside on wheels, foot, and water, director Bi Gan do seem like Tarkovsky’s ‘future human’ journeying into time immemorial. The sharp & enigmatic compositions (working with first-time cinematographer Wang Tianxing) – which look both familiar and preternatural -- are as inexpressible as the multitude of sorrows we have trapped inside ourselves. Critics have called the Bi Gan’s cinematic language as an amalgamation of realism and magical realism. The shifting perception in time and space as experienced by the central character Chen (Yongzhong Chen) diffuses both the elements of real world (like the rapid geographical & cultural transformation of the village) and that of a limbo state (like the visits made by ghosts from the past & future).

                                         Director Bi Gan has worked at a gas station. He got a rock-buster license to be a miner. But, his stint as a wedding videographer and passion in poetry writing gave him the film-making intent. The long-wide pans, the ceremonious free movement of the camera, and the cyclical sense of time seems like a reminder of a poet approaching the cinematic language with a distinct eye. The film opens with an undisturbed movement of camera, observing the interiors of a cramped hospital room before slowly moving out onto the balcony. An old woman and a dog stand there in the balcony, brightly-lit by a fire pit. The old woman looks at the few bright lights in the distance and asks ‘is there some festival on today?’ to which the middle-aged man inside the hospital answers “It’s just another normal day”. This very first imagery passed off feeling of watching something unique (I can’t seem to express why’s that) and the moment just comes to an end without further development as a quotation from ‘Diamond Sutra’ appears on the black screen. “neither the past, the present nor the future mind can be found” says the quote, contemplating on how time cannot be understood.

                                            There’s a semblance of a plot development in the film’s first 30 minutes (which is when the film’s title is announced on-screen). Chen has an opened a clinic in Kaili, in an old house he inherited from his mother. The sub-tropical region Kaili is riddled with dilapidated housing complexes and foggy surroundings which gives the first hint of an unconstructed dreamy habitat. Chen has sporadic conversations with his partner, an elderly woman doctor (Daqing Zhao) who at one occasion tells him the tale of her former lover. Chen has a strained relationship with his younger brother Crazy Face (Lixun Xie) and he is endlessly bothered by Crazy Face’s careless treatment of 10 year old nephew Weiwei (Feiyang Luo). Through Crazy face’ resentment for his elder brother, we gather few facts about Chen’s previous life: he once led a street life and got incarcerated after being involved in a revenge plot with a local gang leader Monk; Chen’s wife had sought divorce after his imprisonment and had passed away before his release. Chen doesn’t Weiwei to grow up in the morbid environment where he and his younger brother grew. He asks Crazy Face to allow Weiwei to live with him. But, one day Weiwei goes missing and Chen learns that his brother had sent off the boy to Zhenyuan village, in the care of a old mobster boss. When Chen decides to make the trip to picturesque mountainous village (to retrieve Weiwei), elderly doctor gives him three sentimental keepsakes (a cassette, shirt, and a photo), to be delivered to her ailing former lover. The film’s visual beauty doubles up when Chen goes off on his quest, passing through a mystical town called ‘Dangmai’.

                                         Director Bi Gan’s interview to ‘The Playlist’ site marvelously interpreted the connection between Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979) and “Kaili Blues”. The title for a collection of poem mentioned in an earlier sequence (in a TV program) is ‘Roadside Picnic’, which was the name of Srtugatsky Brothers’ novella, on which ‘Stalker' was based. Bi Gan comments that he hated ‘Stalker’ the first time he watched it and wrote a critical essay on it during college, suddenly getting bumped by a thought “Why can’t films be like this?” In a way the Dangmai village reminds us of ‘The Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s film, an area in which the laws of space and time are invalid. The sense of seamlessness that comes along that one hell of a tracking shot is very much Tarkovsky-esque. And, unlike many of the modern one-shot marvels, the technical aspects of the camerawork don’t overshadow the enigmatic, fascinating themes of the film. In one scene, we see a man dipping his hand into a fish tank trying to catch one for his customer. The shiny fishes slip away from his hand, until one gets caught and dropped into an empty plastic tray as the camera gazes at the fish’s lifeless form. The characters in “Kaili Blues” are pretty much like the elusively gliding fishes. On one hand, Bi Gan shows some organic development of character & narrative (Chen’s redemptive journey into the past), while on the other hand there’s the inorganic developments, which gives you some palpable taste before fully vanishing in the thin air. Bi Gan doesn’t want to disperse a valid meaning or reason for those inorganic moments. They are like beautiful, little prose which has similar rhythms with no particular connection.

                                           In one majestic sequence, a beautiful young girl named Yangyang (Guo Ye), who wants to be a tour guide in Kaili takes a short boat ride from one side of the river to the other, reciting facts about Kaili she has read in a guidebook. By the time, the camera settles on the street-side pop concert after exploring the lay of the land and observing the inner lives of many characters, we are totally immersed in this mythical underworld. ‘Dangmai’ may be the visceral representation of a man’s memories and dreams. Or it could be just rich observation of the contradictions you see in the ever-evolving, contemporary Chinese society. “Memories pushed into the veins of my hands” says Bi Gan’s voice-over poem at one point as if Chen is ‘high on memories’. Who is the woman Chen meets in the barbershop and gives the cassette, he was meant to give it to the elderly doctor’s former lover? She may be a stranger, whom Chen has found to be attractive or she may be his own deceased wife, occupying this mythical space. Who is the young guy with the bike, taking Chen through Dangmai’s honeycomb structures? He may be a good kid named 'Weiwei’ or he may be ‘the Weiwei’.

                                              Even if you fail to interpret it as a journey into the self or lost space and time, you will be enamored by the mesmerizing exploration of the distinct Chinese culture. The actual residents of Guizhou province (called as ‘Miao’ – minority members of Chinese community) we see in the 41 minute single-shot lead a diversified life style (from traditional instrument players to young pop singers) as if the past and present lay side by side. The half-constructed buildings, the dilapidated structures, and the strong wooden buildings remain like the symbols of loss and change with respect to time. So, the lost time becomes the predominant theme in both the Chen’s journey into his soul and in his search for nephew in a distinct geographical land. The recurring visual motif of the hand-drawn clock (especially that magnificent closing shot) keeps on evoking the memories of the past. In a way, it’s understandable on why Bi Gan chooses magical realism or dreamscape for Chen’s redemptive or existential trip. Chen fears the dreams that are mixed with tragic past. At one point, he says “I'm glad this old house is going to be torn down. I always have dreams when I sleep here”. Dreams are haunting, unforgettable reminders of what he has lost. It affects Chen’s new desire to lead a mundane existence.  Alongside the elegant movements of the camera, Chen faces his past trauma and feelings of nostalgia (the children pop song must be connected with some memory) to get past the pressure of lost time. Now Chen discovers the other polarizing quality of dreams: to provide solace. Look at Chen’s calm, sleeping face when time travels back with the rapid movement of the train. May be this near-hallucinatory trip could make him to have an untroubled existence. 


                                               “Kaili Blues” (110 minutes) has a breathtakingly brilliant cinematic language which uniquely expresses the painful memories of a soul. Patient cinephiles will feast on the ruminative, dreamlike visuals of the young film-maker Bi Gan. It is definitely one of the great films I’ve seen this year so far.

October 14, 2016

My Discontent with the Tamil Film “Uriyadi”

                                            The making of Tamil independent film “Uriyadi” incites inspiration among young aspiring Tamil film-makers. The rise of Vijay Kumar, from IT employee to a film-maker says a lot about reliving one’s dreams. There’s a quite a good amount of commendable factor in Vijay Kumar’s debut feature “Uriyadi”. Although like many of the young Tamil film-makers the director has selected ‘college’ as the primary setting, he has actually tried to deal with a volatile subject. There are no heavy commericalization: like forced romance and bland comedy tracks. Some may call the acting a bit ‘amateurish’, but that doesn’t affect the feel of the movie. The four college students in the tale have a realistic character sketch. They are just like many other Indian Engineering college students, on the verge of graduation, without a single idea about their future. “Uriyadi” didn’t attain a big commercial success, although it was unanimously hailed by critics, cine personalities and viewers who missed it in the week-long run in theaters.  

                                        Some critics called it a ‘landmark work of the Tamil independent cinema’ (Mr. Baradwaj Rangan of Hindu hailed it as ‘gritty little film by a solid film-maker’), while few others thought of it as ‘bold cinema’. In twitter, many stated that the film reminded them of SasiKumar’s excellent ‘Subramaniapuram’ (2008). The ‘bold’ here means that the narrative lays plain the sleazy activities of local caste-based political bigshots. “Uriyadi” is set in the late 1990’s (when Vijay Kumar went to college), but the caste tension surrounding few colleges in the South Tamil Nadu region reminds us of the small newspaper articles we still come across. The similarity of small town politics, violence, debut feature, and four youngsters may have made some to compare it with ‘Subramaniapuram’. But let’s not insult Sasi Kumar that way, however poorer a film-maker he has become now. At its best [and if you can digest onslaught of violence], “Uriyadi” is a fairly watchable movie. And as usual, it is being applauded for all the wrong reasons. 

                                         It’s as if the story behind the movie’s making and the subject it tries to explore itself makes the movie an excellent one. Many of the audiences who decried at those who didn’t like Ranjith’s “Kabali” said that ‘people didn’t get or don’t want to get the references to caste-based oppression & conflicts’. From a cinematic viewpoint, Ranjith has failed with “Kabali”. He might have great references to real life incidents or oppressions, but they are just that: ‘references’. References and verbally uttered messages won’t transcend a poorly crafted cinema. With “Uriyadi” the problem is not the direction or acting. The problem is how the film gets overly applauded because it deals with something related to caste-conflict. There’s no question of how effectively the film uses this conflict and what kind of profound statement the film-maker makes on this conflict. The message we derive from “Uriyadi” or the denouement offered in the film is shocking and disgusting. 

                                         “Uriyadi” tracks down degenerated behavior by the local bigwigs (involved in everything from liquor shops to prostitution), who are also embroiled in caste-based politics. The schemes surrounding the placement of a caste leader statue near the college campus and the ensuing drama are realistic and very much a burning problem, plaguing south Tamil Nadu. These local bigwigs’ reign comes to an end. How? By the increasingly degenerate behavior of the film’s four central characters – the final year engineering college students. As the narrative progresses towards the very bloody climax, the students comes a full circle, from being a careless, frolicky youngsters to heinous criminals. The moral compass of the narrative wavers so much that it vanishes out of this film. From a cinematic standpoint (unlike “Kabali”) “Uriyadi” seems solid. Mr. Baradwaj Rangan comments on how the furnace introduced earlier in a scene during the practical class (for engineering students) is re-purposed in a surprising way. There are many cinematically well-done surprises (and very good detailing too). But, the moral behavior is unbelievably erratic. 

                                         What does “Uriyadi” try to say? To be-head all these corrupted individuals, causing conflicts, in the name of caste? Looking at the activities of these sick caste-inflicted people, it seems to be the good solution. But we can’t actually condone youngsters involved in brutally killing the bad seeds of our society, can we? Even Bharathiyar (the great poet’s song is repeatedly played in the violent sequences) didn’t pen the righteous-fury inciting song to make youngsters carry a sickle for slashing the throat of ‘bad men’. Although the youngsters at the center of “Uriyadi” aren’t showcased like the regular ‘hero’ of Tamil cinema, through their violent activities they are gradually elevated to be the heroes. I have no problem with watching on-screen violence if it is justified. In a hard-hitting film like “Visaranai”, you need to feel the brunt of a police baton to feel the pain of the sufferers. But, here nothing in the character sketch tells that the youngsters are capable of committing such appalling murders. They don’t even have radical political ideologies to feel that they should kill without remorse or regret. In fact, they are apolitical, totally irresponsible and have their own, struggling family members. Even from a revenge perspective, the killings are done in a very meticulous manner like the ones did by paid-killers. In the end, we don’t get any profound solution or at least an observation of this unnerving rural caste-conflict. 

                                             Let’s hope that the Tamil independent film-making efforts flourishes in the next decade or so. But, let’s not promote “Uriyadi” for what it is not – ‘a solid political thriller’. In that respective, Mr. Gautaman Bhaskaran of ‘Hindustan Times’ is the only critic who got it right, “Uriyadi is a social debase story on caste-based conflict”. I agree to that. 

October 11, 2016

The Cinema of Manikandan – Wrong Desires, Short Cuts and Convoluted Destinies

Director M. Manikandan

                                              Indian movie-goers are generally trained to categorize films into ‘mass entertainers’ and ‘message movies’. The former category’s bad films are worshiped by stars’ fans, endlessly engaged in conflict about blockbuster figures, while the later category’s bad cinema is just accepted by people for turning theater into a classroom. The mass entertainers also boast little dose of message for the society, but it often gets lost in the grandeur of foreign location songs and blood-spattering action sequences. Samuthrakani’s “Appa” is one of the recent examples for a ‘message’ movie category. Although families loved the film (especially middle-aged people), the director just passed off a long sermon on parenting as a cinema. There’s nothing revelatory in terms of making that justifies existence of “Appa”. Why didn’t Mr. Samuthrakani gather up bunch of intellectuals and activists who are trying their best to change the educational policies and tap their views?  But why can’t film-maker deal with vital social issues without ever sermonizing? Such an effort demands the presence of a true film-maker, who doesn’t equate entertainment with the word ‘songs’ and message with ‘oral communication’. Tamil film-maker Mr. Manikandan is one of those rare film-makers who can get across the socially relevant issues in a most entertaining manner.  With just three movies under his belt, director, screenwriter and cinematographer Manikandan has carved out a distinct style that’s cinematically and thematically robust. 

                                                His three films --Kaaka Muttai (aka ‘Crow’s Egg', 2015), Kuttrame Thandanai (aka ‘Crime Is Punishment, 2016), andAandavan Kattalai (aka ‘Deity’s Order’, 2016) – provokes questions on social issues to the audience without providing vigilantism as the only solution possible. He does write some powerful dialogue, but uttered by characters developed organically, so that those words become an effective jibe rather than a dull thud. Manikandan’s three films, all set in Chennai city, are about people occupying the lower rungs of social strata. In “Kaaka Muttai”, thanks to the globalized product – a pizza -- that knocks at the door of impoverished children, a desire is created. In “Kuttrame Thandanai”, the protagonists’ tunnel vision forces him to adopt narrow, non-ethical path to survive. In “Aandavan Kattalai”, the hero chooses an alleged short cut in search of a British visa takes him down the longest route. Although the genre, story and performers are totally different, in these three movies we can track down a beautiful narrative thread that tells us about our desires and dreams in this globalized world. 

                                              The kid brothers in ‘Kaaka Muttai’, the collection boy Ravichandran in “Kuttrame Thandanai”, and debt-ridden Gandhi are obsessed over or possess wrong desires to reach their alleged happiness. For ‘Kaaka Muttais’ it is a pizza; for Ravichandran, money for eye operation by whatever means possible; for Gandhi, a British Tourist visa. From a strict socioeconomic perspective, these are desires they can’t afford. It sets them off on a narrow path, where they come across different social institutions or different people who pelt figurative stones from above. Just when they are about to receive what they have desired, it dawns upon them on how wrong they were to have boasted such a desire and to have followed it up on a messy path. It is in the spirit of the saying: “Beware of your dreams, for they may come true”. In the pursuit of a wrong desire or an obsession, the protagonists do come to terms with what matters for them most in their life. 

                                            The plots do sound like heavy-handed morality plays, but on-screen, director Manikandan translates it into meaningful entertainers, conveying everything through his acute cinematic craft. The bureaucratic, societal, and self-inflicted blockades the protagonists faces in each movies were so organically portrayed. It’s truly a cinema of ‘how’ as opposed to the usual cinema of ‘what’. Hence, the narrative path provides clear insights on the nook and corners of social institutions, and how a human with a clear conscience processes it. Two slum-dwelling kids’ simple quest to eat a pizza at a nearby pizza shop, endorsed by their favorite actor, provokes the kids to process & question their place in this whole-wide world. While the director evokes the sensibilities of the lower middle-class and societal outcasts, he doesn’t try to install them as noble individuals. “Kaaka Muttai” comes so close, but doesn’t fall into the trap of glorifying the impoverished people and there is no bland villainization of the wealthy. 

                                           The beautiful aspect of his films is that he leaves it to audience to make up their mind. They may ruminated upon the globalization angle in “Kaaka Muttai”; would engage in debate about the nature of punishing conscience after watching “Kuttrame Thandanai”; or they may think about the exploitation of internal as well as external immigrants of our nation when perceiving the core of “Aandavan Kattalai”. But, at the same time an audience member can just see Manikandan’s films as feel-good comedy & crime/drama. Even if he/she doesn’t read too much of the relevant social issues addressed in the film, it would still come across as a thoroughly enjoyable movie experience. Manikandan isn’t shouting at the top of his lungs on TV interviews, decrying at viewers who failed to get his references and messages. He doesn’t comment that his film is a ‘higher art’ just because it talks about a social issue. He makes elegant cinema and it is up to us to take the meaning with entertainment or just the entertainment, based on whatever we seek out from a cinema. I don’t think Manikandan has made three subsequent masterpieces. There are little flaws and narrative threads that didn’t work out, but his sensibilities in crafting a great cinema is evolving from each work (his scripts should be lesson for young Tamil film-makers on how to instill refined layers without taking cinematic liberties  and employing moralistic rebukes). Here’s to a good Indian film-maker, who doesn’t treat cinema theater as a podium for preaching!