Under the Shadow [2016] – A Terrorizing Spirit Intensifies Maternal Anxiety

                                          I feel a horror film is more terrifying when it relies on the characters’ existential angst and the relevant societal upheaval. The web of paranoia and anxiety instilled in “Rosemary’s Baby” to modern horror movies like “The Devil’s Backbone”, “The Babadook”, “It Follows”, “The Witch”, has a profound social and personal context. It’s not that these films don’t rely on dreadful supernatural elements or jump scares, but the traditional scares are coated with an ambiguity so that we can peel off the surface to look at the realistic, relatable horrors. Whenever a horror movie mixes a ghost-like element without losing sight of the basic human or social reality, it gains both metaphorical as well as a moral force. London-based film-maker Babak Anvari’s Farsi language feature-film debut “Under the Shadow” (2016) draws terror from its protagonist’s stressed psyche and faltering societal values. You can perceive the monster seen in this film as some imagined creature of netherworld or in a larger sense you can contemplate it as an ugly truth about society. It stays smart, intriguing and entertaining, no matter what your choice of interpretation is.

                                           Director Anvari taps into his childhood memories for the narrative’s setting during the Iran-Iaq war. The film opens in 1988, close to a decade since Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and Tehran is in the firing line of Saddam Hussein’s missiles. Women are suffering under the strict social codes placed by the Iranian government and the political upheaval is threatening to suffocate the little freedom they enjoy. Our protagonist Shideh (Narges Rashidi) was a once-promising medical student who in the revolution days associated herself with left-wing activity. The medical college rejects her application to continue the studies, citing the radical past. By becoming a doctor, she wants to fulfill her mother’s dream who had recently passed away. Shideh has a smart doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and a precocious little daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The events happening in Shideh’s life is slowly pushing her into chaos and despair. Air raid sirens constantly go off in the middle of the night, Iraj is drafted off to the battlefront, Shideh’s relationship with daughter Dorsa starts to fracture and Dorsa has imaginary conversations. Surrounding the bigger chaos in her life is the smaller, casual oppression she faces day-to-day: the landlord disapproves of women driving a car and Shideh hides the VCR (& Jane Fonda workout tape) since it will be seized by the authorities. An evil spirit’s arrival into Shideh’s house is as frightening as the morality police’s threat to inflict harsh punishment on women not wearing a hijab.

                                           On paper, “Under the Shadow” might seem a bit derivative. As in traditional horror movies, the familiar folklore creature ‘Djinn’ haunts people at home (first through nightmares) by stealing their favorite objects. When Iraj goes to the battlefront he advises Shideh to go to his parents’ house as the big cities like Tehran are vital targets for Iraq’s missiles. Shideh stubbornly refuses, repeatedly assuring him that she can take for of their daughter. That’s when Dorsa favorite, cute doll Kimia goes missing. Dorsa claims, after believing in the tales of a traumatized, refugee boy Mehdi, that a malevolent spirit has taken her doll. Shideh’s neighbors also fearfully talks about the evil spirit, although she disapproves it as a superstition. As the friendly neighbors flee the apartment, Shideh’s thoughts are strained. The inability to gain Dorsa’s trust and the failure to save a neighbor’s life brings a calamitous blow on her desired identities of mother and doctor. Out of the corner of her eye, Shideh starts to see something sinister. We are pulled into the spine-chilling threats inflicted by supernatural creature, yet the character’s psychological uncertainty gives us the distance to be an observer.  Corporeal or non-corporeal, the alleged menace is pulling Shideh and Dorsa into a chasm.

Spoilers Ahead

                                                The staging of horror scenes takes references from benchmark horror cinema like “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Poltergeist”, and “Halloween” to J-horror features like “Ring”, “Dark Water”. Nevertheless, the references and jump scares doesn’t seem tiring since the strong characterization creates a palpable sense of fear. “Under the Shadow” has an unfamiliar, distinct setting but that doesn’t mean that there’s 360-degree turn from predictable horror conventions. A mute boy whispering ‘secrets’ to the central child character, the missing of beloved doll, the delirious fever and very near psychologizing are the oft-repeated horror movie conventions. But, director Anvari slowly imparts the tension by juxtaposing the social and political turmoil into the events to gather much-needed complexity. Even if the scary elements are familiar, the singular core idea connects us to the Shideh’s anxiety. As in Guillermo del Toro’s metaphorical horror film “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001), the primal spirit arrives alongside the realities of war. The unexploded war head perched on the flat above Shideh’s which brings wide cracks her ceiling only suggests the emotional explosions waiting to happen. It is a very appropriate and efficient manner to introduce the horror element. If the Sharia Law and the Iraq war is a catalyst or a shadow, then the personal insecurities, fears and distrust become the ‘djinn’ lurking in that shadow.

                                                 Director/write Babak Anvari has seamlessly blended the political context with scary-film stuffs. He doesn’t shortchange the pure pleasures of horror genre for psychological explanations. The little cultural insights provoke us to make the psychological & political connection to the supernatural threat. The fate of Shideh’s prized Jane Fonda tape, the little cracks in the glass where the wind enters to infect the sanctity of the apartment could be perceived as a symbolism for oppressive authority. At some vital scenes, the political context is very specific. The minute the policeman sees Shideh (clutching Dorsa) on the streets running away from ‘djinn’, he is annoyed at the woman not wearing a head-cover rather than fearing for her safety. The detached look Shideh gives as she is let off with a strict warning (the usual punishment is whipping) conveys the feeling that under an uncooperative authority, women are left alone. The ‘djinn’ accentuates the fear of being a mother (with a desire to be independent) in a fractured society. Look at the evil spirit taking the form of a big, white bed-sheet with eye holes which tries to swallow the mother and daughter. Is it encircling them from attaining independence? But as I said, even if you don’t make these overt connections, you can just enjoy it as a well-told horror tale.

                                                 Anvari and his DP Kit Fraser have constructed some brilliant oft-kilter angels to signal Shideh’s descent into madness.  There’s the blurred, half-asleep, creepy point-of-view shot as Shideh catches the lurking spirit from the corner of her eye in the doorway. Although there are only four or five distinct spaces, the visuals become increasingly claustrophobic, perfectly reflecting the characters’ experience of the phenomena. Rashidi gives a flawless performance as Shideh, tracking down her characters’ slide from assertiveness to despair. The way she speaks the dialogues reflects the internalized frustration of Shideh. The child actor Avin (in her first role) looks convincingly terrified without ever annoying us. 


                                                   “Under the Shadow” (84 minutes) is one of the quality horror movies of the year. Despite sticking to some of the genre rules, the unusual backdrop plus the impactful social commentary immerses us in the fearful atmosphere. Even those who are not into scary flicks can give this one a try. 


All the Way [2016] – Blistering Politics Behind Closed Doors

                                          Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the 36th President of United States -- in Jay Roach’s adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s play “All the Way” (Cranston played LBJ in the stage too for which he won a Tony Award) -- with a verve that’s more than a brilliant imitation of the man. He takes us beneath the commanding stance of the President, seen in old TV news clips to embody the heavily weighing private hours. We see those deepening furrows as people see LBJ as ‘accidental president’ after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (in November 1963). We see his crafty side as he plays the political game with Southern politicians, while also navigating the Civil Rights Bill. We see the President’s impatience, rants, vulgarity, unbridled charisma, and firm nature. Cranston wears a perfect prosthetic, giving him the bushy, thick eyebrows, reducing hairline, and sharp nose, but what stands out in his performance as Lyndon B Johnson is the manner with which he adds meat (without being flaccid) to the bones of made-up LBJ figure. This performance is what makes “All the Way” (2016) an important & must-watch political drama, but on a little lamentable note, I must say that only Cranston’s presence makes it a memorable movie.  The other vital characters of the period lacks the shades or facets imbued on LBJ (Hoover’s obsession over Martin Luther King Jr. is the only pithy aspect) and despite a speedy narrative, none of the dramatization of the real events is dealt with a profundity.

                                     Jay Roach's “All the Way” is not a traditional biopic of LBJ, but more a study of American politics in the 1960s. On one hand, it reiterates the historical perspective by showing us the President, who doesn’t give a damn expect for the passing of Civil Rights bill; a President who doesn’t want to fine-tune American South population’s prejudice and he wants to bring South out of its scarred past. On the other hand, Jay Roach and Robert Schenkkan takes us behind the close doors to exhibit the conniving and threatening things the men in power performs to realize their grandiose public declarations. ‘Politics is war’ declares & believes LBJ, who is as recalcitrant as a freedom fighter and also engages in cajolery like a salesman. Some of the conversations (based on what’s said to be real transcripts) are so raw, arcane and racist that we get the slice-of-real-politics. It is well known that how Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a watershed moment in American race relations, but the drama surrounding the Act also suggests how the American political arena was gradually shifting into a more cunning phase. However, despite such scattered nuances, it is the stagey limitations of the narrative that halts it from being diffused with more depth. The film definitely works as a brief, shrewd history lesson for the uninitiated, while others may feel something is lacking in its presentation.  

                                     An emotionally resonant tone is set in the opening scene as the camera ambles past JFK’s blood soaked backseat of the limousine, sad faces in the hospital corridor to rest on a small room, occupied by weary Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird (Melissa Leo). The next few scenes convey how LBJ didn’t want to be perceived as ‘accidental president’ and was so dedicated to dismiss any such description by immediately announcing the Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. Writer Schenkken tidily punctuates each phase of Lyndon’s political journey between November 1963 and November 1964 through a confidential voice-over [“It’s only a matter of time before they haul me up into the light where their knives gleam” says LBJ], giving us a bearing of what kind of a man he is and where does he come from. Schenkken’s LBJ is neither a cynical politician nor a heroic as history book teaches us. The use of some of the very crude sexist remarks by LBJ to coax an ideal historical figure like Martin Luther King Jr. humorously notes on how political compromises are attained through ribald talks than well-meaning nudges.

                                    Like “Lincoln” the main story-line concerns the procedural, which makes President Johnson to lock horns with his mentor Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella) – whom he calls Uncle Dick (Senator Russell previously defeated the passing of Civil Rights Bill when President Harry Truman made an attempt). Johnson, the southern man, is well aware that the passing of the bill will make Southern Democrats to bolt away from him in the 1964 Presidential elections. Johnson wants the African-American votes and also knows that the passing of the bill is the ‘right thing’ to do. Mr. King knows Johnson could only deliver the bill as his Republican Party opposer Senator Barry Goldwater is not a supporter of civil rights. What follow is Johnson’s stern, calculative political strategies to win over the volatile situation and rein in the polarized Congress. Nevertheless, the overview of political power scattered in the film brings to mind the more intricate present political structure (and Mr. Goldwater’s campaign proclamations could be related with Mr. Donald Trump’s).

                                    There isn’t much juicy material for the other historical characters involved in the narrative, even though the actors transcend the limited room given to them. Anthony Mackie and Melissa Leo turns out a dignified performance, while the impeccable acting comes from Langella as Russell and Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover. The way Russell decries on Civil Rights bill while a black man shines on his shoes and the manner with which Hoover showcases his hypocrisy through the loathsome investigation of Martin Luther King makes up for the fascinating parts of the narrative, which otherwise reiterates history through a shallow perspective. The vital problem for me is the small time allocated to the arguments presented in Congress against and for the Civil Rights Act. The 1964 Democratic National Convention is also pieced only through archival footage. As I mentioned earlier, what transcends the limited quality one could expect from TV movie based on a stage play is Cranston’s steely presence. As he did in Jay Roach’s previous venture “Trumbo”, the renowned on-screen Meth-King once again makes a nuanced interior journey.      


                                     “All the Way” (132 minutes) deserves praise for zeroing-in on some of the still at-large disquiet in the American political stage. The generalist overview makes the film less emotionally involving, although Bryan Cranston as LBJ is superb throughout. 


They Look Like People [2015] – An Engrossing Indie Psychodrama

                                           New York based independent film-maker Perry Blackshear’s micro-budget psychological horror/thriller “They Look Like People” (2015) could be best experienced without being well-aware of the plot. Like recent small-budget horror movies “Absentia” and “Babadook”, Blackshear combines character-driven drama with few genre elements. So, if you are interested in watching a man’s extreme psychological experience (that’s devoid of blood lust) and don’t want to hear more details, just go in blind. And, within a short span of time, I had come across two debut feature films – “Krisha” & “Kaili Blues” -- from aspiring film-makers, who took over technical jobs and involved their friends & family in the production. Similarly, in “They Look Like People”, Blackshear takes over the cinematography, editing, and sound design jobs along with writing & direction. He booked a ticket for his LA-based actor friends to come to New York and prepared a script, derived from the difficult, personal experiences of some of his friends. Evan Dumouchel and Macleod Andrews who play the central characters also share ‘co-producer’ credits.

                                            Director Blackshear cites Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” as his inspiration to make this film. Jeff Nichols’ film dealt with the story of a family man who thinks that an apocalyptic storm is coming. He gives into his schizophrenic visions to starts building a bunker near his house. Michael Shannon’s protagonist knows that he might be going crazy, but at the same time he doesn't easily yield to his paranoia. This conflicted personality is resonated in the actions of Blackshear’s protagonist Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews). The film opens on one of Wyatt’s recurring nightmare: he lies sideways facing his partner, whose face is cloaked in dark, resembling a phantom. Wyatt shows up in New York City at the doorstep of his old friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel). Wyatt’s long relationship with a girl has recently come to an end. And, after considering Wyatt’s damaged looks, Christian allows him to stay few days in his one bedroom flat. At night, Wyatt gets a call on his broken phone. A cryptic, mechanical voice tells him that the people around him are monsters and he’s one of the gifted ones to see this truth. The voice also warns him about a impending war between the monster species and humans.

                                       Wyatt wants to save his friend Christian before the monsters take over him too. But, Wyatt is not the only one who’s hearing voices. Christian hears a different kind of voice – a motivational audio. He is working on a big, marketing firm and desires to gain a positive, dominating attitude. He feels that the soothing, encouraging female voice he hears in the earphone gives him the boost to become a hunk. Like Wyatt, Christian has also recently broke-up with his long time girlfriend, but he has worked up courage to ask out his boss Mara (Margaret Drake). Both have a tenuous grasp on reality: one listens to nightmares; the other to affirming messages. While Christian has got a better leash to control his internal struggles, Wyatt becomes a great danger to those around him. He gathers arsenal for the alleged doomsday war -- from axes, knives, and nail guns to sulfuric acid. Will Wyatt and Christian pair up to ‘save’ humanity from demonic invaders? Or will they come clean without succumbing to their rocky emotions? 

                                        “They Look Like People” works, thanks largely to the two central performances and due to the engaging chemistry between Andrews and Dumouchel. The insecurity, self-doubt, the fear of getting cold-shouldered, loneliness, and the frailty are expressed with wonderful nuance. Their argument over sock war, singing together an old song, and playful, mundane conversations are very relatable and poignant. The friendship between Wyatt and Christian adds a brilliant emotional weight, which escalates the tension at the narrative’s breaking point. MacLeod Andrews plays a typical ‘wacko’ role, but he imbues his character with a humanity that makes us feel for him, even when he’s slipping into erratic behavior. He marvelously showcases the pain of trying to be normal as the hallucinations threaten to discern his reality. A small mistake from the actor playing Christian would have turned him into an insipid, annoying character. But, Dumouchel does an amazing job in juxtaposing Christian’s earnest and silly behavior. A minor study of narcissism and over-ambition could be found in the way Christian’s character is written.

                                          Director/writer Peter Blackshear doesn’t pretend to circumvent the genre trappings. He just makes the characters stronger and engaging so as to ratchet the tensions even from a predictable narrative arc. Despite a definitive conclusion and message, he’s able to withhold enough ambiguities. Wyatt is shown to be internally bruised without providing details of what ‘really’ happened. We find ourselves within Wyatt’s nightmarish visions despite the suggestions of schizophrenic behavior. We don’t whose car Wyatt has stolen (in the end) and what happened to Margaret. The director might have portrayed those afflicted with mental instability in a respectful manner, but still some may find fault in the depiction of schizophrenic behavior. The faults could, obviously, be overlooked since this film is an examination of trust and friendship rather than study of mental illness. It’s about two fragile souls, constantly under attack. It’s about an emotionally unstable individual grasping that the powerful weapon to eradicate his internal struggle is trust and friendship; not the arsenal of acid & knives (“It’s really scary to trust you right now. But that's what this is, so... trust me. Because I trust you”, says Christian to Wyatt in the film’s most vital moment). The emotional bruises we experience in this film are so real that we can relate it with our own existential quandaries. Technically, the film couldn’t shed that amateurish, home-made look, but it’s a minor quibble (the climax is filmed in a vibrant manner which is absent in many better-budgeted horror films).


                                               “They Look Like People” (80 minutes) is an unsettling and poignant tale of people with fractured mindscapes. The enriching humane elements add depth & unusual interest to its oft-explored horror-movie material. 


The Quiet Desperation of ‘Certain Women’

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


My Discontent with the Tamil Film “Uriyadi”

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

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

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

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

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

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