Listen to Me Marlon [2015] – A Sumptuous Treat for Moviebuffs

                                          “Nobody is born evil. Most people are simply getting over bad emotional habits established in the first ten years of their life” says Marlon Brando in Stevan Riley’s unusual and stupendous first-hand documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” (2015). Like that relevatory quote, Riley’s work tries to be a eulogy for all trouble artists, rather than being a mundane & pitying portrait of Brando. Marlon was a very private person, although the tabloids and media liked to keep him on a spotlight. In his lifetime, he had rarely lowered his defenses to let others (even loved ones) learn about his innermost thoughts. And so, Riley’s documentary becomes a significant one since it is entirely based on Marlon’s private audio recordings.

                                          With the permission of Brando’s own estate, Riley has combed through 200 hours of the recordings to concoct a profound journey into the great actor’s psyche. Marlon preferred to speak his thoughts as he was dyslexic and has treated the audio records as a form of ‘self-hypnosis’ (he says ‘Listen to me Marlon’); a way to let go. But, Riley doesn’t stick with the one-dimensional autobiographical note. He cobbles together film clips, behind-the-scene footage, and early interviews to provide us multi-dimensional, and often misunderstood, notions of Marlon. The documentary opens with a strange, digitized 3D image of Brando’s head (which the actor made in the 1980’s) and this hologram makes lip movements to the audio recordings. It sort of gives the viewer an effect of Marlon talking from beyond the grave.

                                           The stylistic element of using the hologram becomes particularly relevant when Brando regards the unbridled power of human face in a performance (“Your face is the proscenium arch of the theater, thirty feet high”). The documentary is not told in a strict chronological sense, although it starts from Brando’s childhood to his move to New York, where he met Stella Adler, a legendary method-acting teacher (and her mentor is Stanislavsky). After many of the emotionally despairing incidents in his life, Brando goes back to his afflicted childhood. He elucidates the emotional stress of living with alcoholic and abusive parents. But, this isn’t a documentary where Marlon just goes on and on for the sake of his ardent fans.

                                          Riley astoundingly uses his directorial crafts to keep all the movie-lovers intrigued. The tapes suggest how Brando’s personal life was affected by the method-acting and Riley’s juxtaposes the clips of Brando spending time with paraplegics (to play a role of paraplegic army veteran in his debut feature-film “The Men”). Later, Marlon tells how angered he was at the sight of seeing his father beating on mother and used that anger to play a vital scene in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Riley plays up ‘Stanley Kowalski’s tantrum in front of Stella Dubois'). The director also uses the clips & images to insist on how Brando had to make over a public image, for the sake of money & fame. We hear Marlon reciting about the abusive behaviors of his alcoholic dad, which is laid in parallel with a made-up act for TV interview (where Marlon and his dad sit with a smile) – “We had an act we put on for each other. I played the loving son and they played the adoring parents”.

                                            Brando does some brutally honest assessment on his performances (“There are times I know I’d much better acting than in that scene" – referring to "I coulda been a contender” scene from “On the Waterfront”). He is also candid in his hate for certain directors (Coppola, Bertolucci), movies and scripts. “How can you do that to yourself? Haven’t you got any pride fucking left” says Brando to himself on his role on “Candy” (1968). Perhaps the most poignant part of the documentary is Marlon hoping for peace of mind. The footage of his time in Tahiti are played over, in which he seems to be perfectly at home. Riley also allows us to see Brando’s reflective & rebellious side, which was rarely given its due in media. Marlon’s stand on the civil rights movement, on the plight of Native Americans, on the insincere attitude of Hollywood studios enlightens us on his craving to bring about a social change.

                                            “Listen to me Marlon” is quite frank in a way we doesn’t expect it to be. Brando’s frankly talks about his numerous affairs, while being married – “Past a certain point, the penis has its own agenda… a lot of your decisions are made by your penis, not by your brain”. At times, Riley uses the audio to solemnly observe how contradictory Brando’s words turned out to be. After the birth of his first son, Christian, Brandon says “The day he was born, I said to myself ‘my father is never going to come near that child, because of the damage did to me”. Later in his life, Brando regrets for not being a good father (Christian was convicted on a manslaughter case; and Marlon's daughter Cheyenne committed suicide at the age of 25).  The actor reflects on how all his emotional malaise have raised from the first 10 years of his life and how he wasn’t able to redeem himself from that earlier damage.

                                         I was overwhelmed by a sense of wonder at the end of documentary as director Riley has only relied on Marlon’s voice & clippings (without using a single talking-head), and yet made it to be one of the most fascinating, biographical accounts of the legendary actor. There are times, when the narrating hologram plus the visuals of abandoned mansion or wind chimes becomes distracting, but for the greater part the documentary is a triumph of editing. Riley makes it more than an account on ‘greatest actor ever lived’; it’s also about a contemplative individual’s restless search for himself.  


Best of Enemies [2015] – An Engrossing Study on Intellectual Vanity

                                           Political and socioeconomic unrest reached over a boiling point in the American late 1960’s as the politicians were busy with the presidential nominating conventions. Civil Rights Movement, Sexual freedom and Vietnam War became the vital talking points for outstanding intellectuals. It was also the time when US politics and the theatrical aura of television shows amalgamated to give way for ‘Live’ political debates. Directors Morgan Neville (won an Oscar for the doc. “20 Feet from Stardom”) and Robert Gordon’s “Best of Enemies” (2015) fixes the series of Live-TV debates between political luminaries William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, as its condensing point to highlight how it has led to the modern, on-screen clamoring of political nitwits.

                                          “Best of Enemies” is also one of the most lamentable tales since Gordon and Neville sheds light onto the psyche of these two brilliant thinkers, their egos and existential crisis. The documentary commences with a quick introduction about the highly competitive American television news circuit during 1968 summer. Republican and Democratic Party conventions for the upcoming presidential elections were going on full-fledged, but the ABC television network suffered in the hands of its counterparts CBS and NBC due to its inability to provide the ‘gavel-to-gavel’ coverage. As the former President of NBC news clearly puts forth: “ABC was the third of the three networks. Would’ve have been fourth, but there were only three”.

                                        William Buckley, the prominent conservative political commentator was once asked, if there was anybody he wouldn’t share a stage with. Buckley said he would refuse to talk up with a communist, or Gore Vidal. The mutual antipathy between these two men suddenly gave ideas to the studio-heads of ABC and so they concocted 10 televised debates, which slowly turned into a ratings-grabbing, firebrand show. Both William Buckley and Gore Vidal had experienced resounding defeats and staggering successes in their lives. Buckley and Vidal were beaten down in their desire to run for political office (in the early 1960’s). However, Buckley became an eminent host of right-wing talk show ‘Firing Line’, while Vidal got busy with writing acclaimed works, including the scandalous, satirical novel "Myra Breckinridge”.

                                       Gore Vidal and Buckley’s animosity seems to have not just developed from their difference in opinion over political ideology or sexuality (Gore despite being called as gay literary icon, refused to identify himself as homosexual. In one of his famous remarks Gore said: “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person”). They just hated each other as a person. As one guy says in the doc., “Their confrontation is about lifestyle; what kind of people should we be?” Their mutual hatred reaches a culmination point at the Chicago’s Democratic convention as Vidal in the flow of the argument calls Buckley “a crypto-nazi”. To which, Buckley angrily hisses in live TV show saying “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered”.

                                     The strong words from Buckley are shocking even in this deplorable name-calling political climate. It’s considered as a great breach of conduct and Vidal has taken it as victory over his arch-rival. Directors Neville and Gordon makes it clear how this vital moment in the debate haunted the lives of both men, till their death, and how it forever changed the way politics is discussed on TV-shows. The highest ratings rewarded by the viewers at the end of Vidal-Buckley made TV networks to embrace verbal fisticuffs of political pundits. The 10 part televised debates has in an obscure manner played a leading role in transforming political talks to a theatrical performance. Today, in all democratic nations across several languages, we could see corporate & social media encouraging political demagogues (or even nitpickers) to tear down their opposers rather than discussing on mutual agendas.

Directors Robert Gordon (left) and Morgan Neville

                                       By perfectly staging the life events of Buckley and Vidal, before and after the debate, the directors were able to make us understand how these men were product of their own desperate era. But, what these men couldn’t understand then (which the director duos puts rightly in context) is that, they are going to become precursors of metamorphosing political landscape. Neville and Gordon were shrewd in their execution. They have impeccably created the political atmosphere of American 1960’s through perfectly placed historical footage. The sidelong commentary from former studio-heads, biographers and journalists highlights the importance of this rivalry within the contemporary realm and also allows for an uncanny reflection into the lives of Vidal-Buckley.

                                      “Best of Enemies” (87 minutes) is one the most entertaining & illuminating documentaries to showcase how broadcast media and two great minds turned political discourse into a blood-sport. 


Save the Green Planet [2003] – An Elegy for the ‘Violent Gene’ in Us

                                                 Genre-blending exercises are often seen as a risky venture as many would be ready to pounce on a movie for not following a distinct, identifiable path. Indian mainstream films often blend genres, but mostly to a migraine-inducing effect. Even in the best genre-blending Indian movies, melodrama or colorful songs serves as a much required connecting bridge to ease the audience. A mad-cap energy and unchecked ambition are eschewed out of these Indian masala films. Kamal Haasan’s “Abhay aka Aalavandhan” (2000) is one fine example for an Indian film that tried to coalesce endemic sub-genres with unlimited energy. It tried to be an action thriller (the kind we witness in Hong Kong films); a stoner/psychopath film (as in Hollywood); a romance; a psychological thriller; and also incorporated Bollywood-style songs. Of course, some worked and some seemed totally out of place, but these impulsive tonal swings are something we rarely experience in cinema. Korean film-makers, like their Indian counterparts try to make poly-generic films and over the decades, they have mastered this skill than Indian film-makers.

                                              Bong Joon-ho is one such excellent poly-generic film-maker (“The Host”, “Snowpiercer”). But, Jang Joon-hwan’s “Save the Green Planet” (2003) is one of the most wildly veering, genres splicing Korean film that reached the same fate as “Abhay”.  The posters of the film would make you think of it as an offbeat sci-fi comedy. It could be a macabre comedy as the opening sequence suggests or a wacky romantic comedy, a police procedural, demented serial-killer movie, an alien conspiracy tale as the later acts hints at. “Save the Green Planet” incorporates all these types along with a rich sociopolitical subtext. The film opens with the voice-over of Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun) explaining to his acrobat girlfriend Soo-ni (Hwang Jeong-min) about the plan of masquerading aliens to take over Earth at the next Lunar eclipse (as we saw in Hollywood films “Invasion of Body Snatchers” or “They Live”). Lee is convinced that CEO of a renowned chemical company, Kang Man-shik (Baek Yun-shik) hails from “Andromeda”. He suspects Kang is the leader of aliens’ conspiracy to exploit Earth’s natural resources.

                                          Lee also believes that by kidnapping and torturing Kang, he could learn lot about the ‘royal genetic code’ and that through Kang, he could destroy the ‘Andromedan Prince’, who is about to arrive on Earth by the lunar eclipse. Lee and Soo-ni kidnaps a drunk, uncooperative Kang in his underground garage which lends for a wonderful blackly comic sequence. Lee is always armed with a pepper spray, a weird helmet and a garbage bag garb, which according to him are the best elements to defend and block alien brain waves. Kang’s head is first shaved as Lee believes hairs for the aliens are some sort of signaling device. The kidnapped CEO is placed in an underground lair of Lee’s isolated hillside home, which previously served as bathhouse for coal-miners. Lee works as a honey-bee farmer and in the leisure time, he either tortures Kang or designs mannequins for local shops.

                                        The bigwig Kang is also the son-in law of police chief and so the search for him becomes the first priority. An ingenious ex-detective Chu (Lee Jae-yong) and a disgruntled young detective work together secretly and make headway than the incompetent police force, which falls for contrived evidences from Lee. Gradually, it is revealed that it’s not the first time Lee has kidnapped someone. He had done prior experiments on other suspected aliens, although it produced no valuable results. For Lee, Kang looks like the perfect alien, since even under chains and after all the torture, Kang talks in a lofty, influential manner. Nevertheless, Kang remembers Lee, who before spewing alien-conspiracy tales worked in his chemical company. It is then we are filled with Lee’s backstory and what caused this alien invasion paranoia.

                                      Jang Joon-hwang exhibits relentless energy as a director, especially for a debut feature (unfortunately Jang only made one full length movie after this). The director is at his best in designing the dark humor sequences, in poking fun at the messianic complex of American heroes, and when Kang & Lee play their mind games. Jang’s directorial approach loses some energy when it veers to be an intelligent police procedural. The film starts off as an amalgamation of different genre approaches and appeared to rely on the question of ‘is he insane or not’? However, as the narrative progresses, there was genuine character development and multiple-layers associated with Korean sociopolitical climate are revealed. In fact, what tried to be a goofy, violent comedy transcends to pose contemplative questions on the human condition. It isn’t that the script is devoid of contrivances. It has the usual dose of Korean melodrama and an extended climax that tries too much to increase the ambiguity.  But, its manic originality is something we can’t banish as a nonsensical drill.

                                    The elegantly conveyed backstory, the film’s larger message and an impeccable production design definitely demands a second-viewing. Bullying is one of the primary themes explored in the film. Bullying of strong against weak and the man’s bullying nature towards the environment seems to have played a vital role in protagonist Lee’s transformation. Director Jang draws wonderful parallels from the exploitation experienced by Lee in the society with the industrial exploitation spear-headed by governments and corporates. Jang’s choice of Kangwon province as Lee’s abode is said to lend the socioeconomic significance to the tale. Kangwon, now a rich casino land, once was a coal-mining town. In the 1980’s when the government took forward its ‘improving economy’ agenda, the miners lost their jobs, which later resulted in protests and bloodshed. In the narrative, CEO Kang and insane Lee gradually transform to become symbols for the persistent struggle between rich and poor. In the cases of demented killers, the question of nature vs nurture is repeatedly raised. Here, Lee was badly exploited by both nature as well as nurture.

                                    “Save the Green Planet” (118 minutes) is a wildly innovative effort that tries to avoid clear-cut generic labeling. Not everything works here in this genre-blending flick, but it should be watched for its unbridled energy and fascinating emotional core.

The Wind Journeys [2009] – A Meditative Trip Repleted with Stunning Aesthetics

                                             The South American rain-forest country Colombia is famous for its culturally-rich carnivals, among many other things. The ethnically diverse rural side of the nation – populated by natives, Spanish colonists and Africans brought as slaves – is said to place huge importance on music. The traveling musicians, called as ‘Troubadours’, are seen as valued member of the society. The accordion players and drummers are the only source of entertainment for the hard-working, impoverished farmers of rural Colombia. Music festivals like the famous ‘Vallenato Kings Festival’ (vallenato means ‘born in the valley’) would make the great peasant musicians and folk singers to gather in small Colombian villages for fierce instrumental duels. Colombian film-maker Ciro Guerra’s protagonist in his second feature-film “The Wind Journeys” (“Los viajes del viento”, 2009) is an aging troubadour/accordion player, who is literally and metaphorically at cross-roads in his life.

                                         “The Wind Journeys” has a simple, thin story-line: an elderly Vallenato musician, Igancio Carillo (Marciano Martinez) is on a quest to return his accordion to its rightful owner – Ignacio’s old master. Ignacio is accompanied by a young wanna-be musician Fermin Morales (Yull Nunez), who wants to be a famous wandering musician. Ignacio has no sweethearts waiting. In fact, he has recently buried his beloved wife and vowed to not play the accordion. The Morales in Fermin’s name is derived from his mother’s husband as he doesn’t know about real biological father, who is said to be some wandering musician. One is in search for solitude from his exhausted career, while the other is in search of a career to be in peace. So, its plot structure could make up for a typical ‘in search of a father/son figure’ movie, but “Wind Journeys” in many ways remain distinctive, thanks to Guerra’s subtle tones and ponderous rhythms plus the spectacular landscapes.

                                          The movie is said to have been filmed in nearly 80 locations around the less explored (cinematically) rural, northern coasts of Colombia (Guerra’s first movie “The Wandering Shadows” (2004) was a travelogue and so is his upcoming film “Embrace of the Serpent”, which was filmed in Amazon jungle). The cross country journey made by Ignacio and Fermin takes the viewers through remarkable and varied areas of snowy mountain ranges, lagoons and deserts. Director Guerra’s DoP Paulo Andres Perez employs sweeping wide shots to showcase the majestic glory of the land. The geographic locations itself plays an important role in the character transformations and renders a refined episodic quality to the proceedings. Ignacio battles in an accordion duel, while he also plays in the background for a life-claiming duel. Cattle rearers and poor farmers from the villages easily recognize as if he was local mayor or priest. We see brutish plantation owners asking musicians to play their favorite tunes, in the same manner a king uses jesters in their court. There are also unexpected, sublime moments, when Ignacio plays music from the heart.

                                       Guerra imbues the Latin American brand of magical realism in his script and images. Ignacio’s accordion is decorated with a pair of painted horns and a folktale behind the instrument is that it was received by Ignacio’s master as a prize for winning duel against the devil itself. The narration is filled with similar cultural tidbits, which makes the changing landscapes more magical. The mythical tales and wonderlands, however, don’t eschew the harsh lifestyle endured by the people. Guerra never ignores the characters’ woes and the society’s afflictions, but the folk sensibilities and local musical influences convey how elegant these people are in accepting life as it is. Guerra uses dialogues only to provide us some information about Ignacio’s troubled past and the present existential crisis. For the most part, as in a Herzog or Terrence Malick movie, the images speak a lot, while the characters find it hard to express themselves.

                                     The conversations aren’t written in a cinematic fashion and no definitive answers are provided in the end. Guerra doesn’t even film the customary goodbyes (typical in Western road movies) or goes for sentimental close-ups, when the two main characters are soothed by their companionship. Cynicism is kept at bay, especially when myth, customs and superstitions crisscross the journey. As the journey is punctuated by outbursts of violence and supernatural evocations, we expect the film-maker to adopt a cynical tone; the urge to comment on the absurdity of Ignacio’s quest. But, this absence of cynicism is what adds strength to the narrative’s contemplative, mysterious tone; it is what renders the amazement in seeing in a culture, not unhinged by sleek appliances. Most of the performers in the film are non-actors, playing their real-life parts (Martinez playing Ignacio was a real Vallenato musician).

                                    Great film-makers and critics often comment that cinema’s true ability is to make invisible things visible. “The Wind Journeys” (117 minutes) portrays emotions, customs and natural beauty that are otherwise invisible to our modern, misanthropic eyes. It would be a tedious affair for mainstream viewers, but a perfect journey for those seeking remarkably mature & restrained cinematic experience.


Kes [1969] – An Imaginative Lad’s Struggle against Drudgery and Preconceptions

                                            Only few directors in the world of cinema were able to produce astoundingly prolific works with consistency for a longer time in their career. British film-maker Ken Loach’s five decade directorial career is one rare example. From “Poor Cow” (1967) to “Jimmy’s Hall” (2014), Loach has been a champion filmmaker in raising thorny sociopolitical questions. Loach’s declamations against the established power also made to him be the most misrepresented and vilified of the British directors. Renowned Critics often annotate that every images within a film arrive with ideologies attached with them and that cinema is more than a means to offer distraction and pleasure. If you think  those words seem to speak the truth, then as a movie-buff, one can’t definitely exclude the works of this foremost political filmmaker.

                                            Ken Loach’s much admired naturalistic style reached its fullest form of expression in his second feature-film “Kes” (1969). The film was based on Barry Hines’ novel “A Kestrel for a Knave”, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Loach and television producer Tony Garnett (Loach’s earlier TV dramas were produced by Garnett). The story basically fits into the ‘coming-of-age’ sub-genre, told with a dash of Neorealism. The film’s protagonist is a gangly and wise teenage boy Billy Casper (David Bradley), hailing from a Yorkshire working family. His town named ‘Barnsley’ is a mining town, where social and economic oppression always sends the working class into the abyss of emotional despair. Billy is more intelligent, smart and respectful than what his teachers and family members think of. Billy, owing to his background, is always perceived as a thief, and so he doesn’t care to nick things when it is convenient. He is repeatedly bullied & exploited by the social system in place.

                                         The film starts with Billy woken up early in the morning by the ramblings of his elder brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher) who has to go for his shift in the pit. Jud has skipped school to be just another laborer in the coal pits and things aren’t looking the same for Billy too. The boys’ mother (Lynn Perrie) is either preoccupied with her unskilled job or about her new boyfriend. It’s been long time since the father has disappeared from the scene. Billy’s not much interested in studies and the teachers’ pompous presence doesn’t do anything to change his view. He is often bullied by his classmates (with ill-words aimed at his parents) and by his elder brother. Billy’s meandering imagination finds an objective when he sees a beautiful kestrel and its nest in a nearby farm. He gets (or stoles) a manuscript on falconry and is intrigued by the ways to train a kestrel Hawk. Billy later takes a kestrel from its nest, names it “Kes”, spending most of his time in training the bird. He soon becomes some sort of expert on falconry and the birds’ presence seems to flutter at the gloominess surrounding him.

                                      “Kes” is a very simple but a highly rewarding coming of age cinema ever made. Loach’s great quality of being a profound humanist benefits in bringing out carefully observed nuances in the characters. The director subtly notes at how individuals could be disoriented by an oppressive social system, which expects one to do the same thing as his fore-bearer. Unlike Loach’s later works like “Raining Stones”, “Looking Eric”, etc, “Kes” doesn’t really have a figure of villainy. Jud, Billy’s brother, could be considered as antagonist by some. His burning anger and drunken slurs make him a despicable character, but Loach tries to humanize by showing the madness he goes to go through by working in the pits. Jud’s wrath in the end, directed towards Billy is not because his younger brother has stolen money belonged to him, but for the reason that the money could have made him to take a week off from the pits (“Sixteen quid! I could have had a lousy week off work for that” says Jud). 

                                         “This Sporting Life” (1963), “The Loneliness of Long Distance Runner” (1962) were some other exemplary socially conscious ‘Kitchen-sink’ dramas, but what “Kes” makes excellent from the lot is its profound central performance and the way Loach blends in humor into the proceedings. One of the most talked about scene in “Kes” is the football sequence, where a puffed up coach (played by Brian Glover) fancies himself to be a ace League player and bullies the students to make his side score goals. On the outset, the sequence might seem to be there to provide laughs, but the manner in which Billy is treated during and after the game points at the absence of basic human decency in an institution that deems to uphold social values. The same point is insisted a little grimly when ill-tempered headmaster Gryce punish students with a cane. But, as always Loach’s members of establishment aren’t always the uninterested lot. There’s Mr. Farthing who seems to resonate the viewer’s voice and comes close to recognizing Billy’s true potential. The couple of scenes, when Billy talks to Farthing on what’s troubling him sum up the underlying emotional crisis of Billy and why the boy associates himself with a kestrel hawk (“Teachers, sir. They’re not bothered about us. They’re always looking at their watches to see how long is left of the session”).

                                        Billy’s understanding about the nature of kestrel hawk (“Hawks can’t be tamed. They are manned. That’s what makes it great”) tell us a lot about his aspirations or expectations. He respects the hawk for what it is and he expects the same from the society that always puts on the lens of preconceived ideas. The author and script writer Barry Hines’ choice for ‘kestrel hawk’ as the titular bird is not without reason. ‘Kestrel hawks are perceived to occupy lower social classes, with eagle inhabiting the top place. So, Kes becomes a true companion for the boy, who is forced to be stay at the lower rungs of socioeconomic class. If you are aware of Loach’s work, then the ending might be easily predictable. Others might be affected by the abrupt, downcast climax. In fact, many critics complain that this downward spiral towards pessimism as the fundamental flaw in the director’s works, however realistic it might be.

                                        In “Kes”, the dispirited closure is expected as an unjust severity from the film’s first frame is elusively entwined. Despite its resolute, observational direction and splendid cinematography, the reason for Kes’ burgeoning impact is David Bradley’s utter lack of self-consciousness in portraying Billy Casper. Bradley’s debut could be fittingly compared with the emblematic performance of Jean-Pierre Leaud in Truffaut’s “400 Blows” (1959). His delicate and detailed gestures while training the hawk are enthralling to look at. But, whats more impressive is that Bradley has a comfortable screen presence, even when his character does nothing but just observe his surroundings.

                                      “Kes” (110 minutes) is a heartbreaking and contemplative coming-of-age masterpiece that imbues a poetic sense of topography and character. Its brand of social realism is what continues to inspire contemporary British film-makers like Andrea Arnold, Shane Meadows, etc. 

Himizu [2011] – Angst-Ridden Teen in a Blighted Society

                                                 Critics fondly call Japanese film-maker Sion Sono, a punk auteur of the 21st century cinema. Of course that tag doesn’t do full justice to a film-maker, who has in the two decades provided extensive and varied body of works that range from bloody guerrilla-style films (“Hazard”, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?") to surrealistic tales of abuse (“Suicide Club”, “Strange Circus”) to epics and biting psychological character studies (“Love Exposure”, Cold Fish”). Nevertheless, Sono’s works are definitely not for all. His penchant for framing assortments of perversity and anarchist behavior would rattle viewers not interested in darkening subject matters. Sono’s 2011 movie “Himizu” may not be his best, but it’s definitely one of the boldest works, where Sono was able to expand on his trademark themes as well as able to diffuse several new stressful themes. It was also one of the director’s most compassionate works with less violence and perversity.

                                               “Himizu” was based on a manga series of the same name from 2001-02. The manga series portrayed the grim story of a middle-school boy Sumida. Sono updated the script by setting Sumida’s restless spirit against the backdrop of ferocious 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” was adapted in similar manner from David Benioff’s novel). The initial shots set in the aftermath of earthquake lend a post-apocalyptic feeling and in the course of the narrative, Sono along with existential crisis of a teen was able to tell wider societal implications of the disaster.  The 14 year old protagonist Sumida (Shota Sometani) lives in a decrepit lakeside shack with an alcoholic mother. In the evening, after school, Sumida rents out boats for tourists, but the humongous disaster has curbed the business prospects. Only a warm community of homeless men and women gather around Sumida’s house (including an elderly man named Yoruno who claims to be a company CEO, lost everything to earthquake). 

                                             Sumida’s father is a deadbeat, who often beats the boy for money and repeatedly states, how great it would be if Sumida had drowned when he was meant to, so that he could have claimed the insurance money. The exuberant teacher at the junior-high class asks Sumida to have a ‘dream’, but the boy replies ‘A boat shack’s fine; Ordinary is the best’. In fact Sumida’s aim is to live like ‘himizu’ – an indigenous shrew mole of Japan. Apart from the homeless, the only person cares about Sumida’s well being is a self-confessed stalker classmate, Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), who was written all the words Sumida has uttered in school and pasted it in her room. One day, the boy’s mother runs off with a stranger, leaving a note ‘have a nice life’. Later, Sumida is brutally beaten by Yakuza gang, to whom his father owes a lot of money. All this physical and emotional tortures pushes Sumida to embrace a homicidal madness. As the boy struggles to find a way from the doomed future, he encounters soulmates, fully consumed by the societal madness.

                                          As usual, director Sono seamlessly establishes the cruelty of the world Sumida inhabits through impeccable visual palettes (littered with rubble and muddy riverbanks) and painfully real human characters. Sono takes the post-tsunami devastation images of Japan and subtly uses it as a symbol for a repressed society that is barely holding itself together.The repeated abuse of the younger people might be viewed as over-the-top (Chazawa’s parents has built a gallows for the girl to hang), but these abuses could be taken as a metaphor for how elderly statesmen of the government have abused the general public’s trust in them (like smothering the implications of a nuclear disaster). Sono’s vision of school only seems to provide that common, useless platitudes like ‘I’m a flower, one of a kind’, whereas the students are thrown at immeasurable societal challenges.

                                      “Himizu” is diffused with Sono’s thematic trademarks as well as differs a lot from the previous works. The extraordinary surrealism, heightened approach towards perverseness and violence depicted in Sono’s ‘Hate Trilogy’ (“Love Exposure”, “Cold Fish” & “Guilty of Romance”) has been replaced with a sense of optimism and more grounded characters. The number of selfless characters in “Himizu” provides tough fight to the gang of abusers. Despite her eccentricity, Chazawas comes off as the altruistic character capable of transcending the Japanese psyche with a distinguished better future. Child-like Yoruno (played to perfection by Tetsu Watanabe) represents a older generation that seeks redemption for the sins of past. While, Sumida is beaten up by the Yakuza member, Yoruno chimes in and asks to be beaten for the debt owed. He also makes a statement “It’s only six million! You beat up a little boy for that amount”, which insists on the triviality of the conflict, compared with the larger environmental threats.

                                      Sono’s has the ability to transform a seemingly random encounter into a sequence that resonate his favorite societal themes. In one inventive, gutsy scene we see pair of inexperienced burglars hiding from the house owner, a neo-Nazi who watches the news report on Fukushima disaster implicating the government officials. The person in TV states how Japanese always use the excuse ‘that they’d come too far’. The same excuse in a subtle manner is used by all the characters over the course of narrative (the burglars goes too far by not just robbing but also killing the neo-Nazi). In another scene, a perplexed young man is caught before he tries to stab a man, singing on stage. He asks “Who Am I?” which is a question that haunts Sumida’s mind (referred in the poem he recites) and confronted by an entire society in the aftermath of disaster. “Himizu” drew a lot of attention for its public stabbing sequences, especially after the recent confession of ‘Charleston Church Shooting’ suspect Dylan Roof stated that ‘Himizu’s’ teen protagonist inspired him to commit the act (Roof’s website had Sumida’s words “Even if my life is worth a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society").

                                             Sono’s work, nevertheless, doesn’t encourage violence to get rid of angst. In fact, the film insists on love, hope for such endlessly abused people. The public stabbing spree witnessed numerous times by Sumida actually happened in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. The incident on Akihabara left 10 injured and seven dead (all are pedestrians) and similar kind of incidents happened in Hiratsuka Train station, Tokyo supermarkets, etc. A Japanese Criminal-sociology specialist commented on a ‘Seattle Times’ article that "the number of isolated young people in society is increasing. Many people feel that the competitiveness of Japanese society has made them outsiders.” Sono accumulates these harrowing real-life incidents to strengthen his viewpoint on the pressures faced by Japanese teens (in the film, the youngster stabbing in the bus  shouts "Don't I have a choice?"). He subtly notes the irony in the speech of the schoolteacher, who persists on individuality as well as the need for all to have singular vision to build the nation. The mid-part where Sumida wanders through the city with a misguided idea of activism does seem a little too long & repetitive. But, the ending is one of the best in Sono’s films. As Keiko persistently shouts “Sumida! Don’t give up!” to the salvation-seeking young man, we feel how compassionate, hopeful and unpredictable this Japanese punk auteur could be.

                                    “Himizu” (130 minutes) is a bold, stinging examination of existential and moral crisis faced by an embittered youth and a devastated society.


Urga [1991] – A Poetic Docu-Drama on Cultural Clash

                                           Russian film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Urga” aka “Close to Eden” (1991) is one of those non-narrative movies that moves at a glacial pace and riddled unrelatable characters, but still manages to bestow us an indelible movie experience. This carefree docu-drama tries to explore the vanishing or largely vanished lifestyle of inner Mongolians, who herd sheep and horses with their family in a stunningly beautiful landscape. The exhilarated freedom, the robust family values and fear over the modern technological changes are subtly addressed in this tale of Mongolian nomads. An ‘Urga’ refers to a long stick with a lasso at the end, which the Mongols use it to catch away the adrift sheep and horses. When Mongolian couples make love out in the field, they plant it in the ground to warn others. “Territory of Love” is another English title given to the movie, which is a more apt one, especially after considering that “Urga” is all about sublimely depicting how the nomads’ beloved territory is impinged upon, in the name of technological & cultural advancement.

                                            The PG rated “Urga” starts with a sequence that makes us question the PG rating for a moment or two. We see a rider on a white horse holding the Urga, chasing another rider on a black horse. The rider on the black horse, who is a woman, falls onto the grass and tries to run away, while the man in the white horse catches up with her. He forcefully embraces the woman, but she manages to push him back to escape towards her ‘yurt’ (round tent). Later, we see the woman, with blood oozing from her nose, sitting in the same tent with the man who chased her. As we gradually observe this man and woman, we get to understand the statement ‘appearances can be deceiving’. Gombo (Bayaertu) and Pagma (Badema) are radiantly happy couples, living with three adorable children and an elderly grandmother.

                                           The rape-like scenario has arisen because Pagma, the city girl who has embraced the ways of her husband's nomadic life, wants to respect the Chinese law of three children (for ethnic minorities; Chinese should follow one- child policy, which was ended recently). Gombo, who was enamored by the tales about Mongolian king Genghis Khan, wants to have a fourth child (Genghis Khan was born as a fourth child). Pagma remains wise to the ways of contraception and insists her husband to buy condoms the next time he goes to city. We also get to observe the positively infectious, pastoral lifestyle of the family, whose yurt consists of few modern artifacts like a Swiss knife, a portable stereo, generator, a baseball cap, and an accordion. The family is often visited by drunk uncle Bayartou, riding on a horse, giving them some random gifts. Bayartou has no home and family as we see his belongings – umbrella, a suitcase—hitched onto the horse’s saddle.

                                          On one instance, the uncle gives the picture of Sylvester Stallone (from “Rambo”) to Gombo’s family, who doesn’t own a TV or have seen a movie, and humorously states that he is his brother, living in America. Although the family doesn’t believe Bayartou, we later see Stallone joining the modern artifacts (hangs inside the yurt). Quite unexpectedly, on one fine morning, a Russian truck driver named Sergei (Vladimir Gostyukhin) meets up with Gombo. The burly Russian road worker sleeps while driving the truck, which plunges half-way into the lake. A wealth of details is imbued upon us as Sergei meets Gombo’s family for the dinner. Gombo and Sergei strike up a mirthful camaraderie, which is never exploited for dramatic encounters. The next day, Gombo goes with Sergei with his two horses on a mission to buy a TV and condoms (as per Pagma’s instruction).

                                          Director Mikhalkov made “Urga” after the collapse of Soviet Union with the help of renowned French producer Michel Seydoux. The movie is seen to be a departure point for Mikhalkov (who later went onto make Oscar winning “Burnt by the Sun” and other acclaimed works like “The Barber of Siberia”, “12”, etc), who had in his earlier part of career made period films. In “Urga”, Mikhalkov advocates for mankind’s reunion with nature, and prefers wilderness, tribal rituals in favor of contemporary lifestyle and modern civilization (which is said to have drawn lot of criticism in his homeland). However, Mikhalkov doesn’t make these generalizations in a bland manner. The director starts on a simple yet astounding anthropological level. His excellent directorial skills are evident in the manner he captures the feel and rhythms of the couple’s life, their daily chores and their hospitality towards guests (the slaughter and skinning of the sheep would surely rattle animal-lovers and vegetarians). The nuanced cultural revelations of the Mongols leave us with as much exhilaration as we witnessed about Eskimos in Robert Flaherty’s seminal documentary “Nanook of the North”.

Spoilers Ahead

                                        Sergei’s character initially seems to inhibit all the Russian stereotypical manners. Steel teeth, army background, tattoos, overjoyed nature, assumed superiority and horrified gaze towards Mongolian traditions are all the expected Russian elements diffused by the director. As Sergei strikes a mild friendship with Gombo, and when the duo makes way for the city, we also expect the narrative to travel like a buddy comedy. But, unexpectedly Mikhalkov offers a more humanistic side of Sergei rather than wallowing in stereotype. The depressed weeping of Sergei’s wife, Marina and the silent desolation of his girl child represents how hard it is for the Russian to survive as a stranger in the city. We could understand the kinship between Gombo and Sergei, who both are victims of a harsh economic reality and industrialization. Mikhalkov also doesn’t shy away from observing at Sergei’s superior, hypocritical attitude (evident in Sergei’s tale of sacrifices and in his grandeur vision about Russian forces and fields).

                                          The subtle notions that Mikhalkov imbues in the narrative when Gombo travels for the city might be lost on quite a lot viewers. Mikhalkov and writer Roustam Ibraguimbekov aren’t interested in making a traditional movie out of a much unknown culture. Gombo’s bewildering misadventures in the city are never pitched up to make it a straightforward, feelgood drama. The incongruous journey of Gombo (trotting on horse through paved streets); his nervous reaction in the medical shop, filled with women employers; and his eagerness to eat sugar plums or to buy baseball cap, TV, cycle, etc. seems to insist how rapidly his culture is diminishing and how people are attracted by various symbols of cultural imperialism. The nuanced details about Gombo’s experiences are all wonderfully amalgamated in the poetic dream sequence. In the dream, Gombo’s guilt over embracing modern artifacts acts up as he sees Genghis Khan and his army thunderously arriving to punish (“What’s this iron shit you ride? Where’s your horse”).

                                   The reflective as well as comical dream sequence is then followed by more brilliant scene. In it, we see Gombo’s family consumed by the modern civilization: the grandmother single-mindedly pops out the bubble paper from television box; Gombo uses his ‘urga’ as aerial and they all watch news report about the meeting of Gorbachev and Ronal Reagan. The camera gazes at every family member’s face and all we see is an expression of emptiness and doubt. Slowly, Pagma goes out of the tent and we see her on TV screen, smiling and holding a yurd as if commenting that their life in this pastoral landscape is more interesting and less chaotic than the modern civilization possession by television, which is full of haphazard, unwanted things. The puzzling form of the film comes in the form of its ‘epilogue’, where an adult male voice says “This is how I, the fourth child of Gombo was born. They called me Taimoudjine like Genghis Khan in his childhood”. The man’s voice also suggests at the transformation of the steppe and his livelihood. The city’s setting, the television programs hints that the film is set in the present (that is in late 1980s) and so the epilogue narration of Gombo’s fourth child means that it’s a voice coming 20 years later from the present. Or else Mikhalkov just blurs the idea of time to note how all the existing cultures and beautiful valleys are changed or annihilated for the sake of obscure human advancement.

                                   “Urga” (119 minutes) is a subtle, bittersweet commentary on the dilemma of a indigenous family, caught between the reluctance of moving forward with times and notion of holding back their identity. The rich life led by these nomads portrays how calm life could be, unburdened by the western values & objects.