Harmonium [2017] – A Haunting Dark Parable of Sin and Guilt

In the recent years, Japanese cinema is producing family dramas that don’t wholly treat family as the sacrosanct entity, and its old-age wisdom as the only means of preserving social order. Instead of making up the family units as the salient feature of onscreen Japanese quality, these contemporary dramas explore the inherent solitude and disorientation brooding upon the seemingly close family members. In that vein, Koji Fukada’s Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu, 2016) showcases us a family that appears secure and functional on the outside. But when looked closely they just remain as lone individuals, trying to bind themselves within the preconceived expectations of their familial/gender roles. Father Toshio (Kanji Furatachi) is the typical conservative patriarch who doesn’t verbalize his emotions. He seems to be caught up too much in his vision of strict dad that he shuns the role of a caring husband. Toshio has a profitable machinery workshop at the front of his house. Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), the family’s matriarch, hardly communicates with her husband and is determined to teach her energetic ten year old daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) to master the harmonium for an upcoming public performance at the school (she’s also sewing a bright red dress for Hotaru to wear at the performance).

Akie is a devout Christian who staunchly believes that with love one can bring out goodness within any individual. Hotaru, blessed with an inquisitive attitude, tells her parents about a spider species, in which the female allows the children to eat her. Akie reassures her daughter that the mother spider will go to heaven. Was spider’s sacrifice attributed to its maternal instinct? Or did the spider have any choice to safeguard itself? How much of this idealized family life is built upon one’s ability to take on unrelenting emotional burden without exhibiting dissatisfaction?  The spider question, of course, hints at the sorrow that's forthcoming to deluge the family. The breakdown or journey into the void starts with the arrival of Toshio’s old friend Mr. Yasaka (as usual, a bewitching Tadanobu Asano). Genteel, well-spoken, and perpetually dressed in a pure white-shirt, Yasaka sets off chaos that gradually gnaws at the family’s stable quotidian life. 

Director Koji Fukada mentions that the basic idea for Harmonium was written back in 2006, even before he made his debut feature in 2008. Although Fukada’s previous works Hospitalite (2010) and Au revoir L’Ete (2013) were heralded in film festivals, I haven’t had the chance to see those movies. The haunting nature of Harmonium surely proves why he is one of the interesting contemporary Japanese film-maker (the film won Jury Award in Un Certain Regard section of 2016 Cannes Film Festival). The story of a intruder disrupting a harmonious family has been a device used from Hitchcockian days (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943). But there’s something distinctive and timeless in the way Fukada studies this Japanese family, highlighting that solitude is indelible part of our human condition, irrespective of the multiple roles we play in family or society. The foremost brilliant aspect of Harmonium is the setting which elegantly ties up the family’s work life and home life. Spatially, it’s a very intriguing set-up, effortlessly entrapping us within the character’s private and public space.

Koji Fukada’s film-making sensibilities appear to be an effective commingling of the styles of cinematic masters Hitchcock, Michael Haneke, and Yasujiro Ozu. The collaborative environmental setup, carefully selected visual schemes, relaxed staging of family’s quotidian activities, the symmetrical shots lingering on certain gestures or objects to generate fear, and the quality of maintaining respectful distance between performers and camera (avoiding close-ups) meticulously immerses us into the realm of psychological terror. The narrative is perfectly divided into two parts: the first hour demonstrates the inevitable fatal blow hurled upon the family; and the second hour explores their heartbreaking recovery as fate brings upon more cruel twists. Stone-faced yet seductive, Yasaka and Toshio share a secret and woeful past. Yasaka has been released from prison after serving time for murder. Oddly, Toshio takes him in without any hesitation (the reason is predictable and conveyed later). Yasaka quickly bonds with little Hotaru, since he skillfully plays the harmonium. Although, Akie is initially wary about Yasaka, he slowly gains her trust. He later elaborately confesses his past crimes to Akie over a dinner at a restaurant, and it’s hinted that may be Akie is warming up to her husband’s friend a bit more than necessary. During a family outing, Akie and Yasaka look at red petals of a tree before hesitatingly stealing their first kiss. The seemingly simple love triangle turns sinister when Akie rejects Yasaka’s sexual advances. The ex-con’s hidden fury resurfaces and culminates with a distressing violent act. In the second-half of the narrative, Yaska is largely absent yet that itself is as distressing as his presence in the first-half. Toshio and Akie are stripped off their complacency and sense of love, and only left out with grief and desire for retaliation.

Director Koji Fukada and DP Ken'ichi Negishi’s frames keep the relationship between lens and performers simple. Perpetually shot at the height of characters’ eye-line, Fukada maintains certain distance to avoid explaining the intent of the characters or a particular scene. This provides ample space for ambiguities and to examine ruthless ironies of fate. Even though Fukada’s use of color to exhibit characters’ layered emotions seem fascinating at first, the approach becomes a little too overbearing towards the end. In one particular scene, Mr. Fukada brilliantly employs color as a visual cue: when Yasaka takes away his crisp white shirt to reveal a red t-shirt, hinting at the fury he is going to unleash. While the director explores the familiar themes of complicity, sins of father, redemption and revenge, he also diffuses a potent commentary on circumscribed gender roles, which especially demands unfaltering willingness from women to sacrifice and surrender themselves.

The transition between Hitchcokian wicked charm of the first half (also reminds us of the recent brilliant thriller The Gift) and the utterly desolate Haneke-esque second-half is realized without much erratic change in tone. And, even at times the narrative loses its subtle touch in the later half, the astounding performances keeps things at a boiling point. The verbal showdown between Akie and Toshio over Hotaru’s predicament impressively conveys the dark emotions bubbling under the surface. Mariko Tsutsui was splendid in this scene as her saddened Akie finally realizes the huge unaddressed breach in her marriage with Toshio. Star actor Tadanobu Asano almost makes us believe in Yasaka’s poignance and humility. Asano never tries to explain Yasaka’s emotions or attitude at any given moment yet there’s always something unnerving about him. Kano Mahiro’s grown-up Hotaru and Taiga’s callow Takashi turns in strong performance which keeps on escalating the film’s devastating tone. 



Harmonium (120 minutes) is a deeply unsettling morality play that observes the gradual disintegration of a seemingly idyllic family. The absence of emotional catharsis and slow-burn nature of the narrative may frustrate some viewers, but I was deeply affected by its elegiac reflection on domestic disquiet. 

The Untamed [2017] – A Deeply Unsettling Mexican Erotic Horror

I am not a fan of Mexican film-maker Amat Escalante’s movies. He is so confrontational and puts shockingly literal images; provocative just for the sake of it. His works, for better or worse, definitely imprints the shock images to our memory. In the process, I feel he remains oddly distant from his characters whom he carefully realizes in the initial sequences. For example, take the penis on fire scene in his 2013 drug war film Heli. The torture is depicted in vivid details including the CGI fire imagery that it merely becomes a talking point and numbs us with jolts of shock. May be as French shock auteur Gaspar Noe says, “When you make movies, you want to play with audience. It’s part of the fun”, it’s all seamless merging of exploitation and art. Nevertheless, Amat Escalante or Gaspar Noe’s films seem only heavy-handed compared to the calculated explicit directness of David Crononberg or Alejandro Jodorowsky. But contrary to my expectations, Escalante’s latest film The Untamed (‘La Region Salvage’, 2017) offers a more subtly unnerving movie experience. It isn’t entirely devoid of the outre elements that define the director’s works. What’s interesting here is the fundamentally weird set-up which provides ample space to deal with sexual, cultural, and social issues, and moreover Escalante’s much-restrained style weaves a lot of lyrical, ponderous images.

The Untamed (2016) is an art-house erotic horror, in the vein of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) where a sleazy, nebulous creature is portrayed as a conduit for the characters’ repressed desires and fears. In the astounding opening series of shots, we glimpse at a meteorite [not exactly the kind of image we expect from a Mexican movie], followed by a naked girl being pleasured by a slithery tentacle. Then, she is seen bleeding from a cut on her side and slowly walking amidst thick fog towards her white motorcycle. In the interview to FilmComment (conducted by Chloe Lizotte), the director says he derives inspiration for his movies from isolated, random images that truly speaks to him. This series of images seem to have deliberately hidden some pieces to figure out the whole puzzle, yet what we witness intrigues us, channeling some ominous whisper to our heart and mind. The narrative abruptly cuts to a social-realist atmosphere. Alejandra aka Ale (Ruth Ramos) is seen lying alongside her husband Angel (Jesus Meza) in their bedroom. It’s early in the morning and the shot captures Ale’s face in vivid details as Angel grunts with pleasure during sexual intercourse. Ale lays detached from herself, gaining zero pleasure from her husband's act.

Ale works in a candy factory owned by her mother-in law and Angel works in construction with his macho buddies, deluged with views of homophobia and misogyny. The couple has two little boys and both Angel and Ale have to work to run the family. Veronica (Simone Bucio) – the girl seen in the opening scenes – meets a genial male physician Fabian (Eden Villavicencio) while treating herself of the injury. She says a dog has bitten her. Fabian happens to be Ale’s younger brother. He is a homosexual who interestingly has an affair with his sister’s husband Angel. Angel ridicules Fabian in the presence of Ale (repeatedly using the term ‘faggot’). However, the violent feeling Angel exhibits toward his own sexuality doesn’t make him neither a good husband nor a father. Meanwhile, Fabian develops a friendship with Veronica who also gives him a truly bizarre opportunity to explore his sexuality. We don’t know what Fabian encounters in the dense woods Veronica takes him to, but he seems happy. Nevertheless, brutally violent things happen and later Ale is seduced into the defiantly carnal world of Veronica.

Spoilers Ahead

Up until the one-hour mark, our worst fears about the narrative aren’t confirmed, although Escalante retains an unnerving, chilling quality to the proceedings. There are no standard horror-genre thrills and barring few trademark shocking scenes, the edgy tone constantly unsettles us. The good thing about the movie’s allegory is that it’s multi-faceted. The untamed tentacled being in the secluded farmhouse, deep inside the gorgeous forest, doesn’t just represent one thing, say disintegration of the marriage. Even the title ‘Untamed’ could be used to indicate the human characters as much as the creepy 'Lovecraftian' creature. The creature could stand-in for variety of social, cultural issues, starting from casual misogyny, homophobia, repressed sexual desires, collective hypocrisy, burdens of heterosexual marriage (especially for women) to violence, and addiction. Furthermore, Escalante’s tonal juggling between social-realist atmosphere and unsettling sci-fi/fantasy set-up works for the most part of the narrative. With most of the films when a hidden creature is revealed, the gathered fear wanes immediately. The Untamed, however, keeps alive the sense of dread, partly because it’s not painted with the usual brush of ‘monster’. The way this slimy extra-terrestrial thing induces carnal desires in humans mounts the sense of dread. Moreover, the uncannily carnal mystery surrounding the creature is preserved till the end (to put it simply, there are no answers to be found here). 

Yet Untamed doesn’t always rely on ambiguity and tends to leave everything to our (nasty) imagination. Oft there are cuts to shocking and very direct images of penetration, reminding us that it’s, of course, an Amat Escalante movie. Just when we think the inter-species coitus is rightly left out to only focus on how the desire for sex (in Ale & Veronica) becomes more of an addiction than offering feelings of gratification, there’s a prolonged shot of Ale shackled to the creature’s tentacles with one sliding into her mouth and other into her vagina. The sensuality the film-maker builds up simply mixes with such provocative scenes to somewhat create a bitter aftertaste. These deliberate attempts increases the disturbing quotient of the narrative, however, it also arguably dilutes some of its thematic power. 


The Son of Joseph [2017] – A Refreshingly Unconventional Meditation on Faith and Family

French-American film-maker Eugene Green has slowly evolved to be one of the contemporary cinema’s charming eccentrics. Mr. Green pursued a career as an educator in baroque theater and made his first feature – Toutes Les Nuits (2001) – at the age of fifty-four. Since then the film-maker has created an idiosyncratic body of work, bringing a strict formal approach (influenced by baroque art forms) to staging that’s accompanied by purposefully stilted acting and wry sense of humor.  With Eugene Green, we can use the term ‘avant-garde’ in a positive sense, not simply as a pejorative. Although defined by style and high culture, Green’s movies evoke interesting emotions and warmth which bestows a pleasant escape from the ugliness of modern realities. The director’s latest movie The Son of Joseph (Le fils de Joseph, 2017) returns to his recurring theme of broken family units, father-son relationship, and also designed as a quirky modern-day interpretation of the Christian imagery. Moreover, it happens to be the director’s most accessible and fun film.

Divided into five chapters (each title has deep Bible influences), The Son of Joseph tells the story of a dispossessed Parisian teenager, Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), who lives with his hard-working single-mother Marie (Natacha Regnier). Despite showering selfless love on her son, when Vincent questions about the identity of his father, Marie repeatedly insists that he has no father. Vincent intensely studies the wall-sized replica of Caravaggio’s 1603 painting ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ (God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his faith) and almost buys a knife at a store to release the pent-up frustration regarding his father. One afternoon, wilful Vincent goes through his mother’s belongings to find a letter to Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric) in which she mentions she has borne his child. In the grip of anger and curiosity, Vincent cooks up a pseudonym to meet his biological father. Oscar is a rich, successful publisher whose philandering behavior has consistently brought agony closer to him. Oscar’s elite literary society is painted in satirical brush, filled with obnoxious artists and totally clueless critics. Vincent hatches a revenge scheme upon Oscar, but completely bungles in execution. However, circumstances bring him to meet Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), Oscar’s brother, who instills a more genial paternal influence on the teenager.

Combining the droll formal sensibilities of Robert Bresson and the light-hearted playful touches of Luis Bunuel, Eugene Green’s film-making signature brilliantly and unpredictably conveys the otherwise familiar dramatic information. In an interview to ‘Film Comment’, Mr. Green says, “I also like to try and capture the energy that comes from absence or from absence after presence. So, for example if a character is going to enter the frame, I usually start with an empty frame and, for example a foot shot, a foot frame—I do a lot of foot frames. I often start on the ground and then the feet enter, so the spectator feels the distinction between the empty space where there’s no presence and the physical presence.” In Son of Joseph and in his five other feature films, the director often constructs a scene where the perspective is slightly removed from the main action unfolding on-screen. For example, Oscar’s delightful rendezvous with his tall secretary happens on the couch, while the camera stays on the ground (taking the perspective of Vincent’s hiding spot) and gazes at design of the sofa from under with its springs moving in tandem with the action above. The other predominant visual signature of Green is conveying information and changing emotions through minimally designed frames. From the cocktail party to Joseph-Marie dinner date, and the final revelation at the beach, Green’s simple yet erudite frames despite the lack of naturalistic feel, wonderfully outlines the character’s motivations and emotions.

The great social-realist film-makers Dardenne brothers have served as producers for the film. It’s strangely interesting since Green’s formal approach is totally opposite that of Dardennes’. In fact, Eugene Green’s rigorous deadpan style may drive most of the viewers up the wall. However, The Son of Joseph boasts some of the uncannily enjoyable touches that’s reminiscent of Wes Anderson's films. Usually, the director’s film wouldn’t have such a straightforward clarity in depicting a parable. But that’s what makes this film (comparatively thin with symbolism) a perfect introductory point to Green’s disparate oeuvre. Green states ‘his films are often about interruption of transmission’. And, so his narratives eventually try to bring back the flow of transmission. But, transmission of what? Love, empathy and wisdom between the alienated young and exasperated matured adults or vice-versa. It’s a wonder how The Son of Joseph and other Green’s films contains psychological complexity and deep emotions despite his camera pointedly stares at the character’s faces. The performers never come across as dismissible props and the frivolous tone doesn’t turn lifeless. The acting may not be realistic, cloaked with dense layer of artifice, but gradually this particular way of speech and stilted dynamics becomes in itself a lucid language, channeling the due emotions to us. From newcomer Victor Ezenfis to veteran actors Rongione and Amalric, they finely deal with the unbending material to squeeze in the right kind of touching emotions. 


The Son of Joseph (113 minutes) is an inventively off-beat and modernized take on the Nativity Story which grapples with the timeless themes of religious faith, familial harmony, paternity and inter-generational relationship. Like all of previous Eugene Green’s works, it would confer truly intriguing experience when watched with open-mind and plenty of patience. 

Stronger [2017] – An Impressive ‘True-Story’ Drama sans Sentimentality

David Gordon Green is one of the bewildering film-makers in American cinema. He has started his career with low-budget indie features – All the Real Girls, George Washington, and Undertow – which are all lyrical reflection on life in small-town America. He then gained mainstream success with stoner buddy-comedy Pineapple Express (2009). After the main-stream misfires like The Sitter and Your Highness, Green moved back to make festival-primed independent features like Prince Avalanche (remake of Iceland drama) and Joe (Nicolas Cage’ best role in the last decade). His career took another turn when he opted to direct political satire Our Brand is Crisis, a Sandra Bullock vehicle which received mixed reviews. With his latest modestly-budgeted drama Stronger (2017), Gordon Green has captivatingly mixed his sharp meditative gaze into an emotional true story which in the hands of a lesser film-maker would have been a monotonous melodrama. The director continues to frustrate audiences’ inclination to label him since his upcoming project includes the remake of John Carpenter’s cult classic Halloween (1978) and ‘Newsflash’, a drama on the famous CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.

Stronger tells the sad as well as uplifting tale of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of Boston Marathon Bombing (on April 15, 2013) who lost both his legs to the terrorist attack yet helped to correctly identify the culprits. The every-man Jeff’s gradual recovery from the personal trauma is one thoroughly inspiring story for those of us who struggle with myriad of adversities in life. The film was based on Jeff’s autobiography book of the same name. Stronger does sounds like strictly formulaic affair, designed to cheaply extract every bit of heightened emotions of the protagonist’s struggles. Some may wonder whether the movie uses the hero’s physically challenged status as a mere symbol to teach us an allegedly ‘inspirational’ lesson. Playwright and screenwriter John Pollono’s well fleshed-out script casts out such natural doubts. Mr. Pollono, who grew up near Chelmsford, Massachusetts (where Jeff Bauman is from), impeccably brings in a well-judged authenticity to the characters and their surroundings. This offers a very nuanced and intimate depiction of Jeff Bauman’s life and even when the narrative leaps to address the ‘inspiring triumph over adversity’ aspect of the story, it avoids unnecessary emotional grandstanding.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an affable, hard-drinking Bostonian man-child. He works the deli counter at Costco and naturally obsessed with the World Series. He vainly tries to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). She is fed-up with Jeff’s broken promises yet she is attracted to his spirited demeanor. To disprove her misgivings about him, Jeff decides to show up at Boston Marathon, where Erin is running. He stands at the finish line to cheer her, when a bomb detonates leading to amputation of both of his legs (3 died and 16 people lost their limbs in this sad incident). Director Green sensibly films the explosion from a distance (from Erin’s perspective) and fills in the gruesome details only later during a heart-wrenching emotional scene. Jeff’s injury rings through Erin’s mind, since the rare occasion he has managed to keep his promise brought upon worst thing possible. She waits in the hospital lobby alongside Jeff’s freewheeling buddies and overbearing alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson).

Jeff’s playful personality that deeply conceals his inner angst is marvelously expressed in the scene he gains consciousness. After learning his legs are amputated, he cracks a joke referring his predicament to Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan. Jeff also discloses that he saw the bomber. In the following days, the terrorists are hunted down and Jeff’s status is elevated to that of local hero or celebrity. Using the distinctly American tone of exaggeration, Jeff’s circle of friends and relatives claim ‘the world has turned its attention on him’. Jeff, however, understands that the newfound fame is gonna pass or turn stale and what’s possibly permanent is him being confined to a wheelchair. But everyone, except Erin, brags about Jeff’s next TV interview. During the games, he waves the flag and reduced to mere symbol of something grand. Like the motivational chant ‘Boston Strong’ that became rallying cry for Boston’s unity and resilience, Jeff Bauman is provided with monosyllabic purpose. The community, despite showcasing deep empathy to Jeff, unknowingly forces a role upon him. People try to weave a meaning out of a senseless crime by parading Jeff through the jam-packed stadiums (“Am I a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”, he questions an jubilant admirer). This unwanted burden placed upon him makes Jeff to sink more into depression and embrace alcoholism. What’s more regretful is how Jeff gradually becomes oblivious to Erin’s selfless struggle as she cares for his betterment round the clock.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the very committed American actors working today and it shows in his diverse choice of roles, irrespective the project’s budget scale. With such an actor whose priorities lies in rehearsals and donning the character, rather than salary and luxurious accommodations, a breath of fresh air is diffused into the project. The technical crew too is much talented and experienced, including the veteran cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Loving Vincent, etc). Gordon Green says in an interview that, “Everyone had a voice in it. I am not a director who says, ‘This is how it is, and this is where the shot is’. I try and make it a playful place and to make the process as authentic as possible." Director Green’s perspective keenly closes in the distance between Bauman and viewers. By employing intimate close-ups repeatedly, he emphasizes on the protagonist’s agonized perspective without escalating it to melodramatic proportions. In one spectacular scene, when nurses change Jeff Bauman’s leg dressings, the camera keeps Gyllenhaal’s face in the foreground and blurs the procedure going on. While the close-up shot continues to register Jeff’s painful expressions, Erin enters the frame, stands by his side and offers him support. Without much fuss, the painfully authentic scene notifies the dynamics between the tow characters’ relationship. Such pared down yet acute aesthetic sense gives ‘Stronger’ a profound emotional dimension to stand out amidst numerous inspirational true-story dramas. The narrative does take few missteps, like the extended scene when strangers out-pour their love towards Jake (pulls too much at the heartstrings) or the way it offers a light-hearted finality (for the sake of pleasing the crowd). But these are very minor flaws in a film that organically produces its emotions.

In narratives like these, characters supporting the protagonist are often relegated to be ciphers rather than be fully-realized personalities. Green and Pollono don’t make that mistake with the characterization of Erin Hurley. Writer Pollono acknowledges the difficulties of romantic relationship between Erin and Jeff, giving due space to Erin’s own trauma in constantly keeping up the role of a care-giver. When these characters hit the rock bottom, Green depicts it in a raw manner, wholly trapping us in the prickling reality. This rawness combined with the lack of narrative and emotional shortcuts genuinely earns our joyful tears, later when these individuals overcome their incredible odds. Moreover, Gyllenhaal and Maslany’s powerful and textured performance keeps our eyes glued to the screen. While Gyllenhaal’s tough physical performance and measured emotional outbursts would instantly gain applauds, Maslany’s calming presence was equally cherishable. 



Stronger (118 minutes) showcases how commingling of talented film-maker, writer, and performers could actually turn a remarkable ‘true story’ into a sensitive and emotionally subtle drama without adding layers of manipulative, Oscar-baiting melodrama. The final destination of ‘inspirational’ films like Stronger won’t be a big surprise, but it’s totally worthwhile to observe how it gets there.