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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 


Aruvi [2017] – A Biting Social Satire that Doubles Up as Intriguing Character Study



Sometimes the narrative tactic of withholding key information or spewing mid-way twists may seem entirely extraneous; an attempt to impart pseudo-ingenuity to the otherwise banal script. The reversals or twists should always arise out of the recognition of something that could have been interpreted before, but was not. And, good twists always happen to reveal a hidden and veritable layer of personality of the central character we failed to adjudge earlier; an organic role reversal that perfectly thwarts the audience expectations. Arun Prabhu’s much-expected satirical drama Aruvi (aka Waterfall or Stream) does benefit a lot from one such wonderful half-way twist that provokes a new insight on the film’s themes (without just being clever for the sake of it) and its titular character. Marvelously edited, ambitiously directed, Aruvi is a part dark satirical comedy and part character study of an ostracized young woman. It uses familiar conceits of Tamil/Indian mainstream cinema (like flashback narrative, vigilantism, etc) but somehow manages to push beyond the limitations of its familiar design. And, thanks to fine emotional core and pitch-perfect central performance from Aditi Balan, Aruvi despite all its bumpy narrative transitions and far-fetchedness, bestows a wholly engrossing movie experience.

The first time we see twenty-something Aruvi (Aditi Balan) she sits in a police station with a bloody face. The interrogators and media make it sound like she is the mastermind of a terrorist group. But then a poetic montage tracks down simple life of the free-spirited girl, from childhood to adulthood. As a child she grows up with her beloved parents in an idyllic, eco-friendly place that’s as pure as her inner spirit. Later, her father (a policeman) is transferred to the concrete jungles of Chennai; a confined atmosphere that’s eventually hinted to slowly defile Aruvi’s elan. In this sense, the protagonist comes off as personification of the persistently expanding degeneracy in the urban society. The vignettes tracing Aruvi’s adulthood is etched with playful and naturalistic details. These mundane and intimate moments in the life of middle-class adolescent gets closer to the character’s psyche without much fuss. And also, this distinct female gaze that’s spread throughout these vignettes may not actually seem ground-breaking, but certainly a rare thing in Tamil cinema which nauseatingly exhibits the virility of its so-called ‘stars’.


After such impeccably orchestrated scenes, the narrative takes a left turn as Aruvi due to unfortunate circumstances is forced to move out of her home. She takes refuge in squalid quarters and befriends Emily, an affectionate transgender. How this friendship came to be and the reason for Aruvi’s sudden ostracism isn’t immediately clear (although we think we know the reason for her parents’ outrage). Nevertheless, Aruvi and Emily share a beautiful friendship which gracefully distracts us from the deliberate lapses in the narrative. And it’s another rare thing to have a well-developed character like Emily, who would normally be reduced to a mere punchline. There’s less accentuation on the Emily’s gender and focuses more on the character’s compassionate gestures. But Aruvi do face some tough choices in her excruciating life. It all leads to the narrative’s central set-piece: a ridiculous reality show that wears its social consciousness out of convenience (and for TRP ratings), not out of strong conviction. Aruvi gains entry into the reality show whose apathetic director sniffs out a sensation out of her 'victim' story. But he, like the audience, doesn’t know the whole dimension of her story and it’s revealed in a quite spectacular manner.  

The film does suffer a little due to its erratic tone and few narrative missteps. The rage-filled first-half is replaced by a far more empathetic and emotional second-half. Initially, the characters within the reality-show set-up are portrayed in a caricaturized manner, as a means to highlight Aruvi’s righteous fury. The entire pre-interval portion exposing stark reality of the reality-show fairly indicates how high-minded ideals are conveniently turned into marketable, consumerist products. For the show’s director, everything from feminism to genuine exhibition of rage is a chance to escalate the ratings. So, most of these characters running the show, comes off as monsters hiding behind false exhibition of social consciousness. Interestingly, the second-half channels out a humanized perspective on these people, allowing them to evolve from their one-dimensional portrayal. The insensitive boy who cracks jokes on transgender or the politically well-connected brute express wholly different variety of emotions that’s unexpected from them. But then these emotional transitions don’t often go off smoothly and not always convincing. The light-hearted scenes in the early parts of second-half generate huge laughs, but it’s not very memorable or as deep as the other parts of the narrative.

Writer/director Arun Prabhu flawlessly balances the dark humor of the reality-show situation and righteous fury of protagonist, but such stream-lined approach is slightly missed out in the bluntly comedic and overtly emotional second-half. Moreover, the whole police-pursuit and media exaggeration of the situation doesn’t add anything new to the narrative (since Aruvi’s fate is revealed earlier, there’s not much suspense in the prolonged police operation). However, I didn’t feel Aruvi’s extended monologue that censures upon society’s rigid definition of ‘happy life’ as entirely preachy. Considering the manner the character is pushed around, the furious speech doesn’t seem artificial or unnecessary. And, there’s also some interesting dimensions in the prolonged emotional sequences towards the end. For the whole narrative, Aruvi peels off the indifferent and contrived perspectives of the characters. In one earlier instance, she dismisses the assistant director Peter’s idea for a script as ‘sappy’. Later, the ludicrous idea actually brings unexpected magic into the unadorned, hard reality of her lonely life (although it plucks too much at our heartstrings to get there).

For all its imperfections, Aruvi works thanks to Aditi Balan’s uniformly brilliant performance and Arun Prabhu’s ambitious writing. Recent Tamil films like Maangaram, Lens, 8 Thottakal, Kurangu Bommai, and Aramm – all released this year and works of first-time film-makers – slightly suffers from inconsistent film-form and character developments. Nevertheless, these new crop of film-makers are bold enough to tackle some of the burning issues of the highly industrialized and corrupted contemporary Tamil society. Although they employ some unsubtle or generic narrative tactics, these socially conscious dramas convey the generally repressed societal rage to regular theater-goers oft trained to watch moronic masala entertainments. Aruvi, the fresh addition to this growing list of intriguing Tamil social dramas, may not be the definitive masterpiece we are waiting for, but it impressively lends a distinct voice to the collective public outrage. Director Arun Prabhu, like his fellow debutant film-makers, excels when his compassionate gaze falls upon the outcasts and the preferably unheard souls of the social fabric or when the rage is channeled in eloquent, filmic terms. In such instances, he pushes out the boundaries of what constitutes Tamil mainstream cinema. Anyway, it’s not often we see the casual weekend moviegoers cheering and rooting for a socially and emotionally afflicted female protagonist. Eventually, in a film industry that’s overrun by relentlessly narcissistic star actors, hack directors, clueless producers, and distribution monopolies, it’s truly a welcome sight to behold content plus character-driven dramas like Aruvi (132 minutes). 

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