Onaayum Aatukuttiyum --- A Placid, Metaphorical Thriller

                                  Japanese master film-maker Akira Kurosawa subtly places human codes of behavior by ruthless animal passions.  Erratic Japanese art-house movie-maker Takeshi Kitano is best known for his long, tranquil shots and the violence jumps at the audience from those tranquil shots. Tamil director Myskin, in his own way has derived those styles (he has openly declared the influence of these East Asian masters) and is delivering some unique narrative traits and camera movements. After the disastrous, ludicrous film “Mugamoodi”, he has now redeemed himself with a dark, metaphorical, philosophical thriller titled “Onaayum Aatukutiyum” (Wolf & Lamb). 

                               Indian movies are less riddled with metaphors and more infested with buffoonery.  Serious cinema comes out only after recurring intervals of mindless comedies (we mostly name serious film-makers as ‘psychos’). So, for a movie-lover Myskin’s new film is a blessing. It engages us, stirs our thoughts and largely treats cinema as a poetic language. It also has a robust script and excellent characterization (even for the extras).

                               “Onaayum Aatukuttiyum” begins with the director’s trademark, top angle shot. A shot down guy runs into this shot, dropping down half dead. A medical college student Chandran (Sri), late at night, comes across the man with bullet injuries and hikes him up on his bike and travels to a hospital. The lethargic staffs refuse to treat and ask him to inform the police. Languor awaits him in the form of policemen and so he destines to save this man by taking him to his house. Chandran performs a minor surgery and revives (or redeems) the man. 

                                 When he wakes up in the morning the mysterious man is nowhere to be found. He has dropped out without a vestige. When CID officers knock at Chandran’s home, all hell breaks loose. He and his brothers are taken into custody and were excruciatingly enquired. The man, who Chandran helped, was known as ‘Wolf’ (Myskin), a paid killer who is wanted by the police for 14 murder cases. Few days later, Wolf resurfaces and tries to connect with Chandran. It leads to an inebriating chase, which also give us time to marvel at the metaphors. 

                                 Camerawork and music intensifies the film, while dialogues are a formality (except for narrating a woeful story). The background score by quintessential composer Ilayaraja is eccentric as well as restrained, confining itself perfectly to the story. You can’t imagine this film without the breathtaking, anxiety-infusing orchestrations. Cinematographer Balaji Ranga’s delineated outlook of nighttime Chennai is etched with grey and blacks. Myskin’s shot composition is more than perfect. Many wordless short stories are conveyed through those frames. 

                                 The close up shot (that includes a burning candle), where ‘wolf’ explains the reasons behind his actions is impeccable and a testimony to Myskin’s fervent acting skill.  As the bewildered medical student, Shri gives an engrossing performance. All the self-centred and selfless policemen are characterized very well.  “Onaayum Aatukuttiyum” has a wafer-thin storyline, but, the script makes up for it. The way Myskin narrates the back-story is unique and riveting, but the story isn’t. The villain and his henchmen’s antics stick out like a sore-thumb. The sword-fighting scene and characters bowing their heads in shame at mere insults are Myskin movie clichés.  However, the vigorous screenplay makes us overlook these clichés and flaws. 

                                   Myskin’s movies are purposefully bleak and cynical. They offer us a cityscape that is filled with predators. But, somehow his endings are hopeful and redeeming. The nefarious guys are given some chance to look back at their mistakes. The line between good and bad gets blurred at times. In this film too, we can’t ubiquitously categorize the internal characteristics of a person as wolf and lamb. It says even a murderer could redeem himself through a simple act. We might not like or oppose his view, but at least he has a view point.  

                                  Myskin, once again proves his mettle through this well-made slick thriller. “Onaayum Aatukuttiyum” is a breath of fresh air among Tamil cinema’s gagging gags. 


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai -- Funny, Violent and Vibrantly Original

                               American independent director Jim Jarmusch works on a level higher than the conventional Hollywood. He has once said that, he makes movies from the bits and pieces other film-makers would cut from their movies. Prison-break is the storyline of his "Down By Law" (1986) and wild-west in Johnny Deep starrer "Dead Man" (1995). However, the big moments are not shown onscreen. What happens are after the big sequence or what does the characters in a idle state? Those are the question Jarmusch' movies poses. He simply deconstructs the genres and conventional narratives and evolves a new narrative on his own. His movie might not be involving or too artistic, but he is one of those rare American directors, who create highly original narrative arcs.

                                Jarmusch's "Dead Man" -- deconstruction of Western genre -- attained the status of cult classic. It has also egressed as one of the most critically acclaimed American features of the '90s -- placing it with the likes of "Pulp Fiction" and "JFK." However, his delve into the gangster genre with "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999) didn't garner much attention. It is the story of an American button man, who perceives himself as living by the code of ancient Samurai. With "Ghost Dog", Jarmusch created a strange post-modern criminal underworld, where he mixes the two most popular rival gang communities -- the Italian mobsters and African-American gangstas.

                                  Ghost dog (Forest Whitaker) is the name of this hit-man and he carries around an 18th-century warrior manual called "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai." He reads them aloud, while the screen is filled with the passages from the manual. Ghost dog lives by samurai code in a rooftop shack among the pigeons. Except the Haitian ice cream vendor (who speaks no English) and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a bookish little girl, he has no friends.  He works for Louie (John Tormey), a small-time Italian mobster who once saved his life. One of his hits goes awry, when makes the mistake of carrying out a hit in front of the daughter of one of Louie's bosses. The mob bosses decide that he should be killed for his mistake and now he has a price on his head. When the situation comes to 'kill or be killed', Ghost Dog commences a campaign to wipe out his adversaries.      

                                    The story description might make it sound like a conventional gangster movie, but Jarmusch's absurdist, gallows humor and his minimalist mode makes it an experience, like nothing you have seen before. "Dead Man" was unloved at first and then later attained a cult status because redesigning the genre template and sprinkling it with his own incongruous ingredients. Similarly "Ghost Dog" comes across various eccentric styles (like hip-hop, samurai, mafia) and the film-maker's blend of warmth and cool-headed characters are likeable ones, with enough eccentricities  to keep us interesting. This is not the first time in a movie, where eastern codes are integrated with western codes. Spaghetti Western master 'Sergio Leone' made Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" as "A Fistful of Dollars." French auteur Jean Pierre Melville ("Le Samourai") and John Sturgess ("The Magnificent Seven") also made classic movies in the similar style.  

                                  The only un-samurai like quality in the movie is the lack of scenes to create dramatic dynamics. There is no intellectual conception, primal mystery or larger meaning like "Down by Law" and "Dead Man." The climax shoot-out and ending has affinity with conventional Hollywood. Jim Jarmusch is more an observer than an analyzer. So, in that way you can say that Ghost Dog's trip is more satisfying than his destination.

                                 All the performances are top-notch, but obviously the movie belongs to Forest Whitaker. The fantastically versatile actor is looks convincing as a professional killer and also as a soft-hearted man who likes to eat ice cream in the park. He has such a genial face, which can easily exhibit sorrow, anger and wisdom. Whitaker is amply supported by an excellent crew of supporting actors -- John Tormey, Gene Riffini, Victor Argo and Henry Silva -- who play mobsters in an impressively deadbeat manner.

                                   "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" is an inventive, urban crime fable which might be liked by the open-minded and art-house audiences. This is also the most easily accessible movie of Jarmusch's oeuvre.


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai -- IMDb

Cargo 200 -- Aesthetically Pleasing Morbid Thriller

                                What constitutes a horror genre movie? Zombies? Werewolf? Ghosts? or Vampires? These things can establish a good dreamy landscape for horror but they are not always necessary. A horror movie is the one which should infuse the viewer with sheer terror. He should feel that his thoughts were somehow contaminated. It should arouse different kind of emotions. For example, David Croneneberg's movies ("Fly", "Dead Ringers") showcase contamination of human body. Movies like "Psycho", "Deliverance" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" shows us group of people venturing into bizarre reality, where they come across nominally civilized men without an ounce of pity. These people represent the darkness of human psyche. These monsters thrive in an unnoticed, contaminated civilization stream. So, if you can accept that corruption and decay of a society is the truest horror, then Aleksey Balabanov's "Cargo 200" (2007) is one of the most terrifying and disturbing film. 

                                Rejected by both the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, "Cargo 200" was set in 1984, in the former Soviet Union. Yuri Andropov, the general secretary of the Communist party died in that year and the colossal union of communism is slowly grinding to a halt. A war is going on Afghanistan and the coffins (code named "Cargo 200") are coming every day. It is also the time where university professors lurched in the dark understanding very little, pro-capitalist students gathered at seedy underground clubs and listened to domestic rock and armed security forces continued their ruthless activities in a swaggering manner.


                                The film starts with a conversation between Artem (Leonid Gromov) -- Leningrad professor of Scientific Atheism -- and his colonel brother Mikhail (Yuri Stepanov), in Mikhail's house (in a giant industrial town named 'Leninisk'). The brothers talk about the impending visit to meet their mother, the arrival of military coffins and the decaying society,. The colonel's daughter Liza arrives with her boy friend Valery (Leonid Bichevin). Later that evening, when Valery was partying with Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova) -- daughter of Leninisk 's communist party secretary -- Artem's car breaks down in an isolated place. Artem sees a shack in the distance and walks over there to ask for some help. On the way, he meets a laconic guy in a blue shirt (Alexey Poluyan), who wordlessly indicates the squalid farmhouse. At that point, we don't know what macabre things this blue-shirt guy is gonna do.

                                The proprietor of the farm house is Alexei, who is also selling illegal grain alcohol. He offers a drink to the professor and coerces him to talk about communism and atheism. Artem belittles Alexei's faith in God. They drink a lot in front of Alexei's stoic wife Tonya. Eventually Alexei's Vietnamese servant Sunka fixes the car. Artem, who couldn't drive his car in the drunken state returns to his brother's house. After Artem's exit, the alcoholic Valery comes with Angelika to buy some Vodka and passes out. Tonya hides Angelika in a shed to protect her from the advances of her husband. However, the evil lurks out of the dark in the form of psychopath, Zhurov (blue-shirt guy). He kills Sunka, violates Angelika with a vodka bottle, hand-cuffs her to the motorcycle side car and takes her to a squalid apartment to meet his half-wit mother. Without getting into details, what follows is a disturbing, albeit, a brilliantly observed degradation of a society.

                                 Director Balabanov's tone blends in moral inscrutability with a cynical black humor. Like Kubrick, he contextualizes the ensuing terror against the political, moral and religious background. Haneke's "Funny Games", where two psychos tortures and threatens a family with ruthless games shows little violence on screen. But the aftermath will make us dumb-stricken. Similarly, "Cargo 200" shows little amount of blood, but the outrageous actions of Zhurov makes us feel that we are watching some kind of deranged performance-art piece. The surrealism and dark irony employed by Balabanov brings us closer to the monstrous dehumanized system. Apart from the excellent narrative, another fantastic feature of the film is the gorgeous cinematography, punctuated by astounding shots of the giant industry complex. 

                                  "Cargo 200" portrays the collapse of a system, which is based on rigid faith in science and rationality. It is a system, which worked incessantly for the betterment of mankind. In the years leading to the breakup of Soviet Union, the oblivious men only worked for the slumbering system. So, the shots of giant industrial complex showcase the impersonal system. The performances are top-notch and the characterizations of rich and unnerving. I particularly liked the characterization of Artem, who is actively encouraged by the Soviet state for his philosophical framework, but doesn't have the guts to act against the sheer force of terror. Artem represents a group of people, present in all kind of systems -- a guy, who almost sees everything but neither feels nor understands. 

                                   The naturalistic style makes "Cargo 200", a very uncomfortable movie to watch, but Balabanov's turbulent truth is compelling and very hard to neglect. Watch it with an open mind. 


Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) -- IMDb

Mountain Patrol : Kekexili -- Mythic Beauty Mingled with Awful Savagery

                                 Saving the world from mankind, or even trying to, is an ungratifying job. So, what good is the job of a animal preservationist? He lives alone in a desolate expanse of mountains, claws through dust, risks his life to save animal from poachers. Chinese adventure saga "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" (2004) takes the story of a conservationist, fighting against poachers — who had nearly wiped out the Tibetan antelope. The movie takes place in Chinese-controlled Tibet, in a vast, arid area of plateau, and it is based on a true story (happened in the mid 1990's). The plot synopsis might make you believe that it is a dull docu-drama, but "Kekexili", filmed in an inhospitable locale, is a gritty and tightly paced man. The movie pits man against nature and man against man. It's landscape exhibits a ferocious intensity that could be only seen in a Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog movie ("Aguirre", "Fitzcarraldo","Days of Heaven", "New World").

                                 We are told that, the Tibetan antelopes are killed by poachers for their pelts, reducing antelope population from 1 million to about 10,000. The Chinese government doesn't care much, at least until the arrival of  a young Beijing journalist named Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), who amalgamates himself with the mountain patrol. The mountain patrol is like a nongovernmental vigilante group (they do not have the power to arrest anyone), whose members are recruited from villages surrounding the "Kekexili" reserve. To stop these illegal hunting, they take matters into their own hands. At the start of the film, the poachers kidnap a member of mountain patrol and execute him.

                                The Beijing reporter befriends the wizened and charismatic patrol leader, Ri tai (Duobuji), by convincing him that the publicity will be good for his cause (to declare the expanse as a natural reserve). Ri tai invites the journalist to accompany his patrol of volunteers for the nightmarish journey, in which they have face harsh weather conditions and gun-toting poachers. Soon, Ga Yu discovers that thwarting poachers is not just a job. It's a war. They have to leave their women behind, and braving the chilly, arid climes, only to show up in front of vast expanses of antelope carcasses. Gu is shocked, when he sees the patrolmen selling antelope pelts (they'd confiscated from the poachers), who actually has no little money or authority.

                                   Shot in "Kekexili" and co-produced by National Geographic Society, director Lu Chan mixes crisp images of icy mountains and a star-crowded sky with barren landscapes. Like Zhang Yimou, Lu Chan is a rare Chinese film-maker, who takes on a noncommittal-observational mode in narrating this story. The poachers here, are not working for some corrupt businessman. They are just scrambling Chinese and Tibetan peasants, who try to save themselves from poverty by way of the West's thriving market for fur. The film can be categorized as "ethnographic film-making", since it takes us to locations few of us are likely to visit and introduces us to estranged cultures (where they feed the corpse to vultures). Cinematographer Cao Yu takes full benefit of the awesome Tibetan landscape and also perfectly captures the nightmarish moments. Patrol man trapped by quick sand, a vast land littered with hundreds of antelopes are just few examples of the gorgeous camera work.

                                    As Ri Tai, Duobuji finds a way to make his activities seem a innate expression of the character's personality. Whether his action of sending an elderly poacher off on a trek that may kill him or the way he deals with his under-lings, his heart is philosophically opposed to the other. The supporting actors are mostly non-professional actors. Many members of the crew (including Lu Chan) were hospitalized for altitude sickness. Some of the uncompromising images might disturb sensitive viewers. However, these scenes and images are necessary, since we need to know, what the 'mountain patrol' is fighting for. Many detractors name the movie as Chinese propaganda (the Chinese eventually declared this area as 'animal reserve'). They argue that it is a way of showing, what good has come out of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. While there is some truth in that view, "Mountain Patrol" remains mostly as an epic story of white-knuckle tension and provides us with an window to peer through a harsh, unearthly beauty.

                                   "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" is a harrowing tale of brave Tibetan souls. It is morally complex, grimly realistic and richly panoramic. 


Kekexili (Mountain Patrol) -- IMDb

John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled” – An Analysis

                             “Hard-Boiled” (1992) was John Woo’s most visually stylistic work – his last film before his departure to the USA. Some may see it as his port-folio film for Hollywood. As neither purely Hong Kong nor yet Hollywood, “Hard-Boiled” can tell us a lot about the distinctive characteristics of Woo’s film-making. The film draws its structure from combinations of film noir, gangster films and what used to be known as “pulp novels” or violent thrillers. In this movie, Woo showcases his credentials as a director in this genre, particularly in the climatic hospital shootout.

                               The film, moreover, fuses Hollywood action blockbuster and the detective genre with the buddy film and martial arts genre. Its violence must be understood in the socio-political context of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Hong Kong’s return to China – a situation over which the Hong Kong population had no controls, fueling anxieties and pent up frustrations. “Hard-Boiled” also sets out an additional response to Hong Kong’s return to China, namely relocation, echoing Woo’s own professional hopes of survival.

                               This theme is announced in the early tea-house scene, where hard-boiled cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) asks his partner Ah-Lung, “Have you ever considered emigrating?” Immediately thereafter, police launches a raid. Tequila losses his partner in this raid against a gun-smuggling ring headed by mobster Johnny Wong, who hides guns in birdcages and stashes his arsenal in a vault in the Maple hospital morgue. Driven to avenge, Ah-Lung’s death, Tequila encounters his counterpart Tony (Tony Leung), who only wanted to be an ordinary cop yet is employed as an undercover triad killer. After confrontations where they nearly kill each other, Tony and Tequila finally work together to defeat Johnny.

                             The themes of justice, revenge and doubling are established in the tea house fight. When Tequila shoots, the blood spurts over his own whitened face, underlining the viciousness of his own killing. In this and other instances, Tequila shows his resentment at being a cog in a big organization, expressing his own will against higher orders. Tequila’s alienation from the system is typical of Woo’s heroes. However, relationships of loyalty are crucial in Woo’s films.

                            Appearances deceive in “Hard-Boiled”: there are images of melancholia and loss underneath the violent kinetic surface. Ostensibly a ruthless assassin, Tony grieves for the people he kills, especially his former gangland boos Mr. Hoi, whom he respected. As a remorseful token for each killing, Tony makes paper cranes –symbols of transient life – which he hangs in his yacht and drops into water. Meanwhile, his opposite number, Tequila, writes and plays a song for every cop who is killed. Even Johnny’s ferocious henchman Mad Dog is guided by moral principles and challenges Johnny’s senseless killing of innocent bystanders at the hospital, reminding him that he is only after the cops and that there are certain lines one cannot across.

                           The pairing of Tequila and Tony has an intimacy that goes beyond buddy genre norms. In a gun-pointing sequence during a warehouse shootout, Tequila and Tony look into each other’s eyes; their aggressive gazes give way to something more like brotherly tenderness. In the hospital sequence, Woo uses a slow motion Steadicam point of view shot when Tony takes Tequila hostage as a ruse to fool Johnny’s men, underlining their teamwork.

                            As Tony and Tequila run down the hospital corridor, Woo positions them on opposite sides, making them continually cross places to underscore the doubling motif. At the climactic moment, Tony realizes – like Tequila before him – that he has a killed a cop by mistake. Here, Woo’s dramatic slow-motion emphasizes Tony’s shocked, belated reaction, with the camera dallying towards his collapsing victim and then back to Tony.

                            The sidelining of women in these male-bonding relationships is shown with Teresa, Tequila’s colleague and estranged girlfriend, who forms triangular relationships with the men. Despite sidelining female characters, Woo’s films are known to appeal to (some) women. This may be because they combine violent action with sentimentality and melodrama. This is not to say that women don’t also enjoy undiluted violent spectacle, but that Woo’s films offer certain pleasure to which women traditionally have been known to respond.

                           Additionally, Woo’s heroes have protective and caring attitudes to one another. This kind of male ‘mothering’ also appears in the relationship between Mr. White (Harvey Kietel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in “Reservoir Dogs”, a film indebted to Woo. That kind of motif, in Hard-Boiled, culminates at the hospital scene, where Tequila and Teresa try to save the countless babies left in the maternity ward. 

                           In contrast to Woo’s Hollywood movies, heroes may die in Woo’s Hong Kong films. Tony redeems himself for his killings by sacrificing himself for Tequila. He is resurrected before the end credits. His yacht sails off into the horizon, with a voiceover repeating his wish to move to the North Pole. It matches the movement of spatial translation across the film and coincidentally matches the relocation motif of Woo, laying down the future possibilities of his emigration to USA (However, his measly successful Hollywood career is a whole other story).