Two Days One Night -- The Triumph of Will Over Fear

                                               Belgian Film-making duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (known as ‘Dardenne Brothers’) are renowned for their nuanced exploration about hard times in the lives of marginalized people. They wear a humanist lens to see through people, who are often trapped within a cruel social system. The brothers have also created a distinctive aesthetic, called naturalism, to narrate their stories. Long takes (there are lots of walking), natural light, real decrepit locations, and ambient sound are few of their signature styles. Like the Japanese master Ozu’s works, their films are deceptively simple but intensely moving. The Dardennes’ early films sort of followed the classical neo-realism but in the recent works, they are following the path of Robert Bresson by using realism to awaken the characters’ spiritual and social conscience.

                                           The brothers’ last film “The Kid in the Bike” humanely explored the figurative resurrection of a small boy. Now they are back with another non-intervening, socialist-humanist drama “Two Days One Night” (2014). It’s an existential fable about a working-class woman, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) struggling to perform a Herculean task. Her task is to convince at least eight of her sixteen co-workers, over the week-end, to volunteer to give up their own bonuses so that she can keep her job. Sandra has been working at a solar-panel factory and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) is a restaurant kitchen worker. Their salaries are a must to pay off mortgages and to support their two small children.

                                          Sandra has just come out of clinical depression (she has been on sick leave), and this fuss over the job could sent her back to the near-suicidal state. Already she is popping up lot of pills and looks aloof. However, Sandra’s supportive husband gently pushes her to fight for the job. She drives and walks through the suburbs of Beligan town, pleading her case to the colleagues. She encounters various types of emotions. Many empathize with her situation but they can’t get on without this 1,000 euro bonus. Some chose to hate Sandra more than the mangement. But, they are not villains; they are merely rescuing themselves.

                                         Marion Cotillard has totally shed her glamorous star persona to give a very intense performance. Although her character sketch could easily disintegrate into a cliche, Cotillard delivers a complex acting that is as robust as Gena Rowlands’ in “A Women under Influence”. She vividly portrays her characters’ fragile state of mind, like awakening from a nightmare or tearfully turning up the volume up on the car. The directors designed Sandra to possess a great sense of pride within her vulnerability and disappointment. The job to Sandra is not just a means to eradicte family’s poverty, but also bestows self-respect and a sense of professional identity within her. 

                                         The Dardenne brothers’ handheld camera work has become steadier than their early films, and their frame now possesses lot of lights. Like, “The Kid in the Bike”, this is more accessible of the Belgian brothers’ work as they have perfectly balanced the material weight and the primary character’s transcendence. The Dardennes’ works, although doesn’t provide any easy answers, always insist upon a sense of solidarity among the working class. We see an employee scheming to drain Sandra’s hope; another one uses violence over Sandra’s cause. However, they are not portrayed as villains; they are just some brutish archetypes. The real villains as always remain hidden for most part of the movie. The Dardennes implicitly blames on the techniques of modern management, but also provides a subtle answer to this anguish, which is solidarity. The ending, where Sandra walks away with grace, looked sort of preordained. It eventually conveys the simple, old message that the ability to fighting is more important than winning itself.

                                         “Two Days One Night” (95 minutes) is graced with a purity of vision that belongs to European realist cinema. It is a triumphant and hopeful movie about a woman who rediscovers the fire within her.


The Dance of Reality -- An Exuberant Mix of Painful Reality and Fantasy

                                              If David Lynch exposes us to the incomprehensible, sickly and strange things that lay behind the so-called normality of life, the master of midnight movies, Mr. Alejandro Jodorowsky displays us the profound humanity that is positioned within the seemingly uncanny human nature. They are like both sides of the same coin. Alas, the 85 year old controversial director Alejandro has stayed away from movie-making for the last twenty three years. If you had been perplexed by his raw, provocative images in his films “El Topo”, “The Holy Mountain”, “Santa Sangre”, you might have also thought: where do these avant-garde images come from? “The Dance of Reality” (2013), a semi-autobiographical exploration of Jodorowsky’s painful childhood, tries to demonstrate the origin of those images, and the philosophy behind it.

                                             Like all his films, ‘The Dance of Reality’ couldn’t be easily categorized to a particular genre. Although the plot promises us a coming-of-age tale, Jodorwsky imbues enough surrealism and magical-realism to make the viewer think about Fellini’s “Amarcord”. The movie would mainly interest those who have already been familiar with his earlier works. ‘Dance of Reality’ could also be called Jodorowsky’s most gentle and elegant film, although we witness angry limbless mob, a wife urinating on husband to heal his infection, mother and her pre-teen son playing hide-and-seek after stripping naked, and some other grotesque surrealism.  

                                           “All things were connected in web of pleasure and suffering” says Jodorowsky. The movie despite its episodic swirls of fantasy and digressions seems to narrate the truth behind this aforementioned statement. Jodorowsky endured an alienated childhood in the 1930’s, in the coastal town of Tocopila, situated at the end of Chilean desert. The Jodorowsky family has descended from Ukrainian Jews, who all are considered as outsiders in the country & town. The shy young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) is beleaguered by his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky—the director’s own son), who is a firebrand communist. Jaime dresses and sports a mustache like his hero ‘Stalin’.

                                            When we first see Alejandro he is wearing a long blonde wig. The wig is put on him by his buxom mother Sara (Pamela Flores), who thinks her late father’s sensitive spirit, is within her son. She talks like an Opera singer and tries to nurture the Alejandro by showing him the path of God. But, father Jaime, an atheist, is hell-bent on turning his shy son to be manlier. He starts by removing that girlish wig and later subjects the boy to various cruel punishments (he slaps him and makes the boy asks for more), forcing him to endure all those without shedding a tear. Jaime owns a shop; he is a fire-fighter and also a member of secret anarchist group. Beneath this monstrous facade, Jaime seems to be an anxious man-child. In the later episodes, Jodorowsky constructs new, weird worlds for his parents and shows his longing for a mollycoddling mother and redeemed father.

                                            In “The Dance of the Reality” mainly showcases the cycle of abuses that stems from a single oppressive culture. We could empathize with each & every character in the film, but at the same time they also actively participate in acts that insults or abuses other weaker groups. This main theme is masterfully established in a metaphoric scene on the beach (which Jodorowsky claimed in an interview that it happened for real). In this scene, the boy runs away from his father, who taunts him for being effeminate, and throws a rock at the sea. It weirdly causes the fishes to flop on land, bringing the seagulls to feast upon fish, and eventually the humans beat away seagulls to take the fish to market. Our sense of empathy travels from the boy to the impoverished coastal people. Each has to do that particular brutal act to have place in the society.

                                            This metaphorical scene is sort of repeatedly insisted in various scenarios. The father, a hardline communist, kicks at an amputee. We feel sorry for that amputee, but later that same guy shows what a fierce anti-Semite he is. The father solely takes water on his cart to disease-infected people, mainly to show his bravery and kindness. But, then the infected and starved people kill his donkeys, tied onto the cart, to feed. And, once again our sense of empathy gradually dissipates. On the other hand, Jodorowsky also indicates how abuses encourage the oppressed to oppress someone below them. On the outset, people of Chile or Tocopila are suffering under a fierce dictatorship. But, the local people sort of blame it on the Jews (“Even dressed as a fireman, a Jew is a Jew!” -- father Jaime imagines them saying). These insults changes Jaime to hide his identity, claiming that there is no God, and to act as a dictator within the family.  

                                           I think that through the ‘naked hide-and-seek’ scene, Jodorowsky tries to explore the awfulness behind the black face minstrel shows of west, conducted primarily by Jews. Until the civil-rights moment of the 1960’s, these minstrel shows presented grotesque stereotypes on African-Americans. The Jews of west, who themselves were persecuted minorities in those times, is said to have performed these ugly caricatures on another fiercely persecuted race. The mother’s message of becoming ‘invisible’ and ‘delving into darkness’ may reflect this mindset. All these mentioned sequences may only exhibit a bleak vision. But, Jodorowsky’s imagery doesn’t with end wickedness. In the most part of second-half the director portrays events which indicates that within such monstrous cruelty, there is a possibility for kindness and grace (the old carpenter episode and Jaime’s rescue confirms this vision). This vision of not dividing the world into good and bad is what makes Jodorowsky films more captivating.

                                           Jodorowsky who has stayed from film-making for more than two decades have come back with some exuberant images on-screen: a shot of one-hundred chairs; a strange white-faced guy dressed as ‘Queen of Cups’; a novelty dog competition; a macabre dream of Alejandro lying next to the charred corpse; the infected people walking though the desert; a theologist painted in Hindu religion symbols; red shoes; bedraggled amputees; and many other insightful images baffles us. Despite certain weirdness, the director never fails to generate real emotions, especially in the scenes where Jaime is redeemed.

                                           In an interview director Jodorowsky claims that much of the events in first half are true, but those in the second-half, when the father takes off to kill the Chilean dictator are all a fiction. In the real life, Jaime was a passionate communist, who always only talked about killing the dictator (General Ibanez). The real Jaime never found the religion or sought redemption in a church. Jodorowsky confides, “I humanized my father”. In real life, Jaime seems to have only given painful memories for Jodorowsky. He also shockingly reveals that “my mother never touched me”. However, the film-maker seems to have attained wild imagination as a gift through all these afflictions. Those who are not familiar with the director’s work would definitely be freaked out (I think “El Topo” (1970) would be best place to start), but remember that Jodorowsky doesn’t break cinematic taboos solely for the shock value it inhibits. There’s a bizarre vision, truth or perspective behind those appalling sequences.

                                            “The Dance of Reality” (132 minutes) is a surrealistic auto-biographical tale that lets us into bizarre and wildly imaginative mind of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Its mystifying narrative and grotesque images may appeal only to niche audiences. For me, it’s a meditative spectacle. 


Lots of bizarre stuff, grotesque images, violence and nudity/sex.

Winter's Bone -- A Trenchant Portrayal of America that's Usually Neglected

                                        Mainstream American movies often pull in remote, backwoods people to contrive a grand slasher thriller. Naive, young, city-bred students go to Deep South and face a hostile community is the sort of storyline that has been dealt with lot of times in Hollywood. But, rarely do we have movies that show why these people dwell in such habitat amidst poverty; or why are they close-mouthed. Both the film-makers and movie-goers aren’t interested in confronting these subjects in a reflective manner. Director Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) doesn’t go Deep South, but is set among a similar impoverished, wrecked land, situated in the American Midwest. The Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri, on which the characters of this movie reside, doesn’t seem to share a piece of the American dream.

                                       The beautiful and harsh landscapes of these parts are repleted with discarded automobile parts, empty crates, and home appliances. The widespread poverty and bitter cold temperature consistently brings in despondence to residents. From the early 1970’s, drug related crimes in some part of Ozarks is said to have increased suddenly. Backwoods methamphetamine labs were touted as the best place to manufacture the illicit materials. The resulting criminal justice has only further ruined their communities. “Winter’s Bone”, however, isn’t a violent drug-opera. It is a slow-paced, emotionally complex character study. It deals its subject with tenderness and a sense of compassion.

                                      The movie’s protagonist is a tough-minded seventeen year old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence). Her mother is mentally impaired and nearly catatonic and so Ree takes care of her younger brother and sister. Her father, Jessup is a meth cooker, who has already been in prison and facing another stint. Ree knows to hunt, cook, skin squirrels, and prepares her siblings for the hard life. She is also a proud girl who dreams about joining in the army and doesn’t go around begging for food to neighbors. However, Ree is helped by a goodwill neighbor, who takes in her horse. A Sheriff soon brings in more grave news. He says that Ree’s father has put their family house and land as bond after his recent arrest.

                                      Now, Jess up has gone on the run and skipped the bail. If he doesn’t show up for the court-date, the family will lose what little they still have. Ree walks around to track down her father’s whereabouts. She meets her father’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes) and other distant cousins, but since they are all involved in some illegal activity, they are reluctant to let in on the secret about Ree’s father. Most of these people are deranged by drugs and cast over a scary presence, but Ree stubbornly hunts for the truth.

                                     Director Granik and Anne Rosellini have written the script based on Daniel Woodrell’s thin-plotted novel. They capture the characters of rural America with neither disdain nor judgement. The writers imbue enough logic behind certain grisly events, so that we don’t view these violent subjects as caricatures. At first characters like Merab and Teardrop seem like those rigorous hillbillies straight out of “Deliverance”, but later they turn out to be the persons Ree can really rely on. Granik has also showcased the vital role of women in such as aggressive and indifferent male-dominated world. The women in “Winter’s Bone” holds the key to open up the secrets. And, the film would have amounted to nothing if it wasn’t based on the experiences of a 17 year old ‘girl’.

                                    The girl here is not just brave and persistent, but also knows the limits of her bravery (When Ree says “You have always scared me” to Teardrop, he replies “that’s because you are smart”). She knows that a blind act of courage around gun-toting men isn’t going to bring out the truth. So, she is persistent enough to evoke compassion within those troubled individuals. Of course, the character sketch of Ree Dolly wouldn’t have worked perfectly if it wasn’t for Jennifer Lawrence. Although Lawrence is cherished for her later sugar-coated, eccentric roles, this is where she gives a truly remarkable performance. Initially, she wears that mask of self-command and gradually that mask disintegrates and let’s us to look at the volatile emotions of her character. As Ree, she displays exemplary inner strength but also desperately looking a guardian to take over her burgeoning responsibilities. Granik’s and Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree’s vulnerability also makes us not to view Ree as one-note young martyr.  

                                    In terms of intensity, Hawkes (as Ree’s uncle) and Dale Dickey (as clan chief’s wife) match up with Lawrence’s performance. Dale Dickey’s Merab somehow looks like the older version of Ree (the one Ree would become if she never worked her way out of this place). Beneath her hostile facial features, Merab hints at a suppressed admiration for Ree’s courage. In the final scene, Merab is the one who pays dues and finishes her man’s dirty work. The sparse story-telling method of Granik may definitely frustrate impatient viewers, but this kind of narrative possesses small moments that have an ability to astonish us. One such cherish-able little moment is Ree’s terrified appeal to her non-communicative mother. Director Granik doesn’t invite the melodrama, this type of tale inherently owns. She perfectly knows when to cut, leavening the tension. Although the landscape is familiar with violence, Granik approaches violence in a sensitive manner (attention is paid to the pain it brings), especially in the scene when Ree is beaten down.

                                    “Winter’s Bone” (101 minutes) is a powerful character study of a resilient girl trudging around a ragged, unrelenting landscape. It paints a depressing portrait of American Midwest (especially the Ozarks), but also provides enough hope for a better future.


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya -- Soul-Stirring 'Studio Ghibli' Anime

                                          Japanese anime studio ‘Studio Ghibli’ (founded in 1985) under the guiding hands of Hayao Miyazaki transformed animated feature as one of the highest form of art, while animation in rest of the world has been succumbed into a form of entertainment only for kids. But, with the retirement of Miyazaki and certain financial problems, the golden age of Studio Ghibli might be coming to an end. Recently it was suggested that the studio might take a break from making movies (after the release of “When Marnie was There”). Studio’s Ghibli's another prominent film-maker (& co-founder) Isao Takahata (aged 79) – known for works like “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday”, “Pom Poko” -- has also announced his retirement. All these news of dissolution and reality of retirements only makes the experience of watching Takahta’s ethereal “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013) more heart-breaking. It possesses the inventiveness and singular beauty we witnessed earlier in “Totoro”, “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”. 

                                        The 10th century Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (also known as “Princess Kaguya”) is considered to be one of the oldest stories in Japanese culture. It’s also got be one of the early sci-fi tales, detailing the life of a mysterious girl hailing from ‘Tsuki-no-Miyaki’ – The Capital of Moon. Under the hand-drawn animation, the story’s beauty becomes a marvel. The anime has a little different look from the usual Ghibli flicks. Director Takahata has chosen water-color aesthetic to encompass the tale’s exquisite imagery. Thematically the tale addresses Ghibli’s trademark theme: ongoing and everlasting battle between advanced civilization and nature. It depicts how a false sense of sophistication turns even honest feelings like love into hollow ceremony. Most importantly, the tale jubilantly contradicts from Disney’s or western fairy tales’ recurring storyline: every girl wants to be a princess.

                                       “Kaguya” commences with an old bamboo cutter discovering a miniature girl inside a glowing stalk of bamboo. Bamboo cutter’s wife mistakes the miniature girl for a doll, and in her hands she transforms into a healthy human baby. The childless old couples marvel at the child’s antics and call her as ‘princess’. However, the girl isn’t like ordinary human baby. Within days, the baby starts to walk and in months she starts running around with other children, singing songs. At every joyous or adventurous moment, she seems to spurt like a bamboo tree. Local children call her as “Little Bamboo”. The princess is an indomitable spirit, gleefully playing among the beautiful natural world of trees, rivers, and birds. Her special friend among the group is a boy named ‘Sutemaru’.

                                        One day, the bamboo cutter discovers gold in the shining bambbo stalk, and in another day he finds adorable silks. He takes this as a gift from heaven and tells her wife that they had to build a mansion in the town to give the real princess life for the girl. The princess is soon taken to the capital. She is overwhelmed by the wealth and palatial estate, but she greatly misses the vibrancy of life in the countryside. She is placed under a strict governess Lady Sagami. The lady teaches the ways of royal lady. At the coming-of-age ceremony, the princess is named ‘Kaguya’. From then on, she is hidden inside her chamber. She yearns for individuality, while in the outside world the news of her beauty spreads like wildfire. Noblemen treat her as a rare treasure that needs to be claimed. The story takes a surrealistic turn when Kaguya’s sadness becomes too much to bear.

                                       “Kaguya” depicts the spiritual emptiness imposed by parents on child, telling them that it’s only for their betterment. It presents how the elders force their cultural notions or false sense of happiness on the spirited children (as Kaguya tells towards the end:"The happiness you wanted for me was hard to bear"). The tragedy inherent with the tale is that the rebellious Kaguya goes along with her parents’ plan because of the love she feels for them. The obstinate father (bamboo cutter) also does these deeds out of love for his daughter. The story also indicts at the community’s very narrow-minded idea on female happiness. Although, it is a 10th century tale, these two themes may never seem outdated.

                                        The preternatural roots of Kaguya are revealed subtly in the films’ last thirty minutes. If you don’t know little something about the origin story or medieval Japan’s culture, then you couldn’t fully get the tale’s nuances. Still this last act is far away from being confusing and only adds poignancy. The animation in this last act has some striking sequences, especially the arrival of moon people with their troops, playing upbeat music looked magical, powerful, and so heart-wrenching (the dream of flight sequence is also outstanding). Takahata’s gradual shifts in visual style give an endearing experience. The muted colors and the fragile images gel finely with the tale’s main theme of loss. The impressionistic images of black lines in a dreamy sequence of escape wonderfully highlights the frantic emotions of our protagonist.

                                       “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (137 minutes) possess refined metaphors, thought-provoking observations, and breath-taking images like every other Japanese anime feature. It serves as a plaintive critique on society’s age-old idea of what constitutes to a girl’s happiness. 


The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete -- An Unadorned Tale of Ghetto Despair

                                            The children growing up on the bleak, dysfunctional, wrong streets encounter defeat and disappointment more than love. So, at some point they start to hit back with hate and frustration. Alas, it now becomes a cycle, where inevitably defeated people beat each other to pulp. George Tillman Jr.’ s “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete" (2013) portrays such a tough situation in the precarious housing projects of Brooklyn. The title clearly keeps our expectations in looking for a happy ending. But, throughout the movie, friendship and dreams finely bouts with the defeat.

                                          When we first look at Mister (Skylan Brooks) he is clearly frustrated. The scrawny 13 year old inner-city kid tearfully holds an exam paper with ‘F’ which might lead him to stay another year on eight-grade. Tears once again wells up, when Mister finds some harsh words written on the school’s bathroom wall about his mom. Mister’s mom (Jennifer Hudson) is a junkie and a prostitute, who rather than spending hustled money on food, buys more drugs and gets tattoos. However, Mister holds some hope. He fishes out a card from his school locker, which calls for casting on a local TV show for child actors. Mister seems to be a movie buff and acting sort of allows him to focus away from the terrible reality.

                                          The summer has just got started and many terrible things are waiting to happen. Mister is dogged by skinny 11 year old Korean-American Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose mother is also a heroin-addicted prostitute. Pete looks more desperate and lost than Mister. Soon, Mister’s mother is arrested by the police and the two kids efficiently escape from the hands of Child Services (only worse fate awaits at the foster center). But, now they have to fend for themselves for may be the whole hot, sticky summer. The terrifying new situation may indicate the predictable despair of the title, but Mister doesn’t easily surrender to his fate. Along with Pete, he rejects to travel through that downward spiral.

                                         The script (by Michael Starburry) affords plenty of opportunities to extract sentimentality, but for the most part it resists those melodramatic ways. There are underwritten roles and predictable elements, but the script doesn’t offer any easy resolutions in the end. The weakest part in script could be Mister’s relationship with former neighbor Alice. Good-hearted neighbor with big smile and insipid words of encouragement doesn’t seem to be a part of this movie.

                                         Director George Tillman Jr. finely probes into the emotional effect on kids, who are left to cope on their own without any financial resources. Despite the pessimistic title, Tillman keeps the proceedings less woeful than movies like “Precious”. However, the director’s greatest achievement seems to be the extraction of remarkably restraint performances from two child actors. Both the kids are natural, going for credibility rather than cuteness. Skylan Brooks imbues the moments of grace amid all the desolation. His imitations from films like “Trading Places” and “Fargo” are delivered with a great zeal. In one of the film’s incisive moments, Brooks uses his crafty acting skills to concoct a story for getting groceries from a white store clerk for free. Perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of Brooks’ acting is that he showcases his characters’ sadness, anger, and confusion without being maudlin. Although, Dizon (from “Bad Words”) doesn’t have many acting challenges, he is very good at expressing the despair.

                                       “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” (108 minutes) is a raw coming-of-age story set in an unrelenting, bleak world. But, there is enough hope and resilience to outweigh the defeat faced at every turn.


Blancanieves -- An Invigorating and Stark Retelling of a Renowned Fable

                                               The prospect of seeing a live-action re-imagination of fairy tales nowadays gives the viewer a daunting feeling. The recent Hollywood offerings like “Hansel & Gretel”, “Red Riding Hood”, “Snow White and Huntsmen”, and “Mirror Mirror” ransacked those classic fables to quench the thirst of Hollywood’s money-demanding machinery. But, rarely do we see director like Pablo Berger, who not only has the guts to ground a fairytale with reality, but also chooses a different, risky mode to retell the story. Spanish film-maker Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” (2012) is the sensual reiteration of Grimm fairy tale, “Snow White”. It’s filmed as a black-and-white silent film, using the camera effects and tricks of that era. “Blancanieves” doesn’t get pulled down by the commercial hoopla and stays authentic in re-creating the glories of the silent-era days.

                                              The 2011 five Oscar winner “The Artist” proved to modern audiences that they can love black and white film with no dialogues. “The Artist” paid a perfect and affectionate homage to the silent cinema, but when it was touted as heavy-weight contender in the Oscars, it fittingly earned the title ‘over-rated’. Perhaps that happens all the time, when Oscars choose heart-warming, sentimental flicks over an enigmatic, thought-provoking movie. “Blancanieves” possesses the cuteness and corny visual elements of silent movies, but at the same time faintly imbues the grim imagery of Luis Bunuel or Todd Browning. In short, it finely balances between Disney sweetness and Grimm’s bitterness.

                                            The film is set in the province of Seville, in the 1920’s. In this energetic retelling, a revered matador, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is fatally wounded at the end of a bullfight. Te accident is witnessed by the matador’s beloved, pregnant wife (Inma Cuesta), frightening her to go into labor and dies in her childbirth. She leaves behind a beautiful daughter named Carmen, but the child is disowned by the now quadriplegic father Villalta. The heartbroken, wheel-chair stuck former matador marries a scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu).

                                          At the age of seven, Carmen’s (played by Sofia Oria and Macarena Garcia) grandmother passes away and she is now forced live with her domineering step-mother. Encarna keeps Carmen away from her father. Carmen stays in a dingy coal cellar and forced to perform menial tasks. However, fate unites Carmen with her father. Apart from finding love, Carmen also learns few secrets about the art of bullfighting. The series of twists in “Snow White” stays the same, although the stepmother doesn’t have a mirror and doesn’t turn into a witch. However, her personality has a kinky side (like putting a dog collar and leash on her lover’s neck). The movie’s take on ‘prince charming’ and its portrayal of the dwarfs is also quite different from what one usually expects.  

                                       The dark turns, offbeat undertones, and a feminist take makes “Blancanieves” more engrossing than a glossy Hollywood fairy-tale retelling. Of course, the same elements could deem the movie unsuitable for kids. It’s not as outrageous as Czech film-maker Jan Svankmaker’s “Alice” (1988, a surrealistic adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland”), but there is a bit of black humor (involving step-mother), little violence, and a bittersweet, ponderous finale. But, still many have pointed out that “Blancanieves” isn’t as dark as the original ‘Grimm’ story.

                                      Director Pablo Berger gives us a pure cinema by conveying a lot through exquisite framing and facial expressions. Like a true silent-era film-maker, her doesn’t rely heavily on the title cards, but finely advertises the actor’s various emotional through rich use of close-ups. Apart from concentration on the various ranges of facial expressions, Berger also sets up wider shots of the barren landscape and the towering mansion, displaying the solemnity hovering over Carmen’s world. The speedy montage in the early bull-fghting sequence and the passage of many years expressed by fluttering of a bedsheets in a laundry line (where the child Carmen becomes a young lady) were all some of the splendidly edited scenes.

                                        The finale sort of chucks out the word ‘happily’ and embraces the ‘live ever after’ word. It is unforgettable and un-gimmicky, but it’s also the movie’s little flaw. There is nothing wrong with the ending itself, but the events unfold before the final act doesn’t prepare the viewer for ‘Grimm’ tale ending. Despite, the aforementioned black-humor, when the amnesiac Carmen joins the dwarfs’ troupe the movie’s dramatic quotient steps-up a bit, showing all signs of a Disney ending. Thematically, the ‘prince charming’ interpretation was wonderful and insightful, but the obscure change would appall a viewer expecting something pleasurable like “The Artist”.

                                         “Blancanieves” (104 minutes) offers a transfixing movie experience. This silent ‘Snow White’ tale with a delectable black-and-white cinematography achieves a lot more than the other recent, CGI-laden fairy tale re-telling. 


The King of Masks -- A Heartbreaking Fable with a Sentimental Touch

                                                 "The world is a cold place, but we can bring warmth to it” says a character in Wu Tian-Ming’s “The King of Masks” (1996). The movie’s plot unfolds to stay true to these words, although it goes to melodramatic heights. From a critical point of view, manipulative melodramas might be seen as an ineffective way of truly addressing a subject or theme, whose sole existence is based on to provide emotional catharsis for the viewer. But, few melodramas could really work its way in genuinely melting our hearts (cultural backdrop, superficial performance or deft direction could do that trick). In that manner, “King of Maks” is more than a cutesy, aphoristic tale. It is a graceful story about a little girl looking for home and love.

                                                The movie is set in the Siachun Province during the 1930’s. A Great Depression heavily hit the rural economy during this period. The Western countries forced its agricultural goods on China, while the rural farmers heavily suffered from the resulting massive price fall. Poverty-stricken rural people sold their own female children rather than deal with the burdens of raising a woman in a strictly patriarchal society. In this sorrowful era, we meet street performer Master Wang (Zhu Xu) aka ‘King of Masks’. His main act involves the magical dexterity of instantaneously switching between various elaborate masks. Known as ‘Bian Lian’, the art of face-changing is one of the ancient Chinese dramatic arts.

                                               The secret behind the art is only passed down to the next of kin. A rich and famous Opera singer named Master Liang, captivated by Master Wang’s street performance, asks to lean the old man’s tricks. Wang rejects the idea saying that he will only pass it to his heir (“While my talents may be meager, only a son may inherit them” says Wang). He also graciously rejects Liang’s offer to perform along with his Siachun Opera. But, Wang has no heirs. His only child seems to have died at a young age, many years ago. He lives in a small riverboat and performs in the little towns along riverbanks. King of Masks now feels that he has to pass on his secrets.

                                              As girls are not allowed to practice performance arts in that era, Master Wang sets out to buy a boy in the black market. A destitute farmer sells him a seven year old boy named ‘Doggie’ (Zhou Ren-Ying). Wang is very happy as he has got a grandson to teach his arts. He also sees the boy as a means to cope with his loneliness and familial losses. Alas, the boy turns out to be a girl. The little girl, who has endured humiliations in the past, resiliently stays with the old man. She begs to be his cook and all she hopes for is a little compassion and a place to call ‘home’.

                                            Director Wu Tian-Ming was away from China for nearly seven years when he received an offer to make this movie. During 1989, he visited United States and in that time Tienanmen Square massacre took place in China. He criticized government’s attack on students and so his return to China was jeopardized. He eventually returned to his country in 1995. Although, Tian-Ming stayed away from camera for quite some years, he shows a keen eye for vivid color and perfectly anchors the emotional relationship between Master Wang and Doggie. The little girl’s face could be the radiant force from which the movie could easily ride on, but the director also attempts to make us understand the old man’s desperate, emotional state.

                                          The director enunciates how art is trampled by cultural changes and materialism. We could draw parallels to contemporary period on how the male children are still greatly prized in patriarchal society, while female children are of little value. The movie doesn’t call for sexual equality but finely demonstrates this social defect. In one of movie’s poignant scene, Doggie picks up a goddess statue on Wang’s boat and asks why he worships her, pointing out the difference between reality and religious ideals.

                                          ‘Heartbreaking’ may seem like a mundane word to describe the excellent performances. It’s really hard to avoid the lump in the throat when Doggie desperately cries: ‘Grandpa! Grandpa!’ Zhou Ren-Ying is simply amazing as Doggie. The director is said to have auditioned hundreds of little girls before casting Zhou. In real life, Zhou was abandoned by her parents at the age of 3 and was sold to an acrobatic troupe. May be that’s why the haunted look we witness on Zhou’s face looks very real. After the film’s release she is said to have reunited with her parents, but she haven’t pursued a career in films. Zhu Xu is outstanding as the old man, wonderfully juggling his emotions like a true face-changer. Despite such performances and deft direction, the movie’s flaw rests in its third or final act. In this part, little subtleties are replaced with outright manipulation of emotions.

                                          “The King of Masks” (101 minutes) gives a poignant, life-affirming movie experience. The human aspect of this story possesses an irresistible universal appeal.


Confessions -- A Revenge Thriller with Psychological Insights

                                             You have got to prepare yourself for sharp tonal changes, if you are going to watch Japanese film-maker Tetsuya Nakashima’ (“Memories of Matsuko”, “Kamikaze Girls”) flicks. He presents dark, psychological dramas with visuals that are stunning and innovative (reminiscent of his past career as music video director). Nakashima’s primary characters are emotional wrecks, one way or another. So, the narrative shift that comes off with the characters’ state of mind may often disorient the viewers, but his dazzling images and idiosyncratic approach may give his works a cult status. Nakashima’s commercial and critical hit “Confessions” (aka “Kokuhaku”, 2010) is more subtle than his previous works. It portrays the overpowering fear, the Japanese society possesses over its younger generation.   

                                           The lack of understanding the teenagers (or teen angst) is one of the most universal themes used in movies. However, Japanese cinema takes a unique approach to deal with this universal theme. “Battle Royale”, “Suicide Club” brought intriguing and dark ideas about the lack of connection between grown-ups and teenagers. “Confessions”, based on the stylistic novel by Minato Kanae, is one such anarchic, psychological thriller, where redemption and mercy doesn’t exist. The film starts with a prolonged monologue scene, where a seventh-grade teacher, Yuko Moriguchi's (Takako Matsu) dispassionately addresses her class. The rowdy students become more jubilant when the teacher announces that she’s going to quit. As a farewell speech, she wants to talks about the value of life.

                                            Alas, this isn’t an inspirational speech. As she is talking to the class, the students ignore her as usual, drinking the distributed milk cartons or chatting and texting. Moriguchi recollects how her 4-year old girl died in drowning accident. However, she informs the students that her child’s death is not an accident, but a murder. And, declares that the murder is committed by two students in the class. She names them ‘A’ and ‘B’, and goes on to describe their actions. She also explains (with examples), how atrocious crimes committed by teens goes unpunished under the Japanese law system. The students are easily identified as Moriguchi gives their character sketch.

                                         One student is a science prodigy, Shuya (Yukito Nishii), who has started killing animals at a very early age. He is a loner and has never got love from the parents. He is also a good manipulator and seems to lack a conscience. Student B, Naoki (Kaoru Fujiwara) lives with overprotective mother and has no friends. He is little naive and comes up with a deadly scheme of hurting 4-year child to impress his newly found friend Shuya. Moriguchi couldn’t prove the students’ guilt and even if it’s proven there would be no fitting punishment. At the end of her farewell speech, Moriguchi coolly announces that the milk cartons drunk by A and B have been tainted with her husband’s HIV infected blood. However, this isn’t her revenge; it’s only a first step in attaining her vengeance. The rest of the film unfolds from the multiple perspectives, taking us back and forth.

                                        Nakashima’s directorial abilities are at peak level in the daring, 25 minute opening monologue. It’s a little risky to open a commercial film with such a lengthy lecture, but the director perfectly maintains the air of suspense. The shuffling script makes many thought-provoking observations on bullying and emotional strength of teens. The character depictions are believable to a level, and each confession brings us closer to the characters, helping us to understand the reasons behind this cruel behavior. In terms of bleakness and chaos, the film surely ranks alongside Park Chan Wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy”.

                                        From a visual perspective, Nakashima has fully departed from his riotously colorful palettes of previous works. Gray skies, blue and gray shades in the classroom, and various types of dark shades reminisces the works of David Fincher. Although Nakashima has changed his color schemes, he once again integrates his trademark stylish, slow-motion shots and ethereal musical score. Some of these cuts provide a subdued beauty, while some serves as a distraction. Moriguchi taks about the importance of life and redemption, but she eschews the themes of hope by her brutal actions. This might make the viewer to see her character as contradictory. But, Moriguchi’s lecture on life, redemption, and optimism only seems to be a means (or a deception) to take the final stab at the culprits (the fina line “Just Kidding” seems to echo this belief).  

                                       The twists and turns after the initial confession become overwhelming at a point. The final act craftily does the ‘pulling rung under your feet’ thing, but it also exhausts the empathy we initially possess for Moriguchi. The way she psychologically exploits the teenagers (especially the innocent misfit Mizuki) makes us detest her motives, but may be it’s also intended. These behaviours may reflect on how the vengeful feelings may turn an individual into a monster.

                                       “Confessions” (106 minutes) is a gripping thriller, set in the abstracted, empathy deficient adolescent world. It’s cynical, dark subject matter, and flashy, devastating images may not suit for all viewers, but it sure gave me an exhilarating movie experience.