Soni [2019] – A Well-Crafted Indictment of a Highly Patriarchal Society

Indian film-maker Ivan Ayr’s slow-burn drama Soni (2019) impressively portrays two female police women’s day in day out battles against normalized discrimination and sexism. That kind of description may make it sound like a familiar set-up for sermonizing against the ills of patriarchy. But Soni is incredibly nuanced to give in to rhetoric. It’s packed with strong performances and raw energy that foregrounds the intensity of the situation to provide an immersing viewing experience. Set in the capital city Delhi, the film eventually pushes us to ponder over a hard reality: if these educated, empowered young women have to put up with such humiliations (or attacks on self-esteem) on a daily basis, think of the condition of women denied such things in this country; or in the whole-wide world (of course, someone well indoctrinated into the patriarchal dogma would argue that all these problems have risen because the women are educated and empowered).

Despite a little ungainly episodic structure, Soni gains its visceral energy through the long, tracking shots (mostly shot in single-takes) that effectively builds up the characters’ conflicted emotions while never losing sight of the vicious realities at its core. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan plays the titular character, a young police officer working on the dark alleyways of Delhi to expose sexual abuse and harassment, whose inclination to not take crap from people, especially from the verbally abusive men, often puts her at odds with the superiors. In the opening scene, Soni is seen riding a bicycle in the calm, nighttime streets of Delhi. She is followed by a man on bicycle, attempting to gain female attention in the most improper way. Soni asks him to stop it, but when he doesn’t seem to relent she beats him up before getting stopped by other police officers on the beat.

Soni works under the supervision of Kalpana (Saloni Batra). The camaraderie existing between them transcends the boundaries of workplace hierarchy. Kalpana is married to a police officer (Mohit Chauhan) higher-up in the chain, who belittles her at every chance he gets for showing leniency towards Soni. The situation shown in the opening scene repeats itself (with few minor changes) throughout Soni’s professional life. An inebriated man (a Navy officer, he claims) at regular traffic stop makes a pass at her which results in an altercation. She knocks on the restaurant restroom for women, only to find three men smoking weed. One of the men antagonizes her so much that she slaps him and the ensuing scuffle leaves Soni under more troubles. Is Soni too reckless for a police officer? That’s up for debate. But the men she confronts on duty feel they naturally have a higher authority to disrespect her. Their deep-seated misogyny always rears its head, irrespective of the uniform she wears.

Soni’s personal life also seems to be under strain as she refuses to take back her inept, irresponsible ex-husband, Naveen (Vikas Shukhla). Compared to Soni, Kalpana seems to be part of wealthy, peaceful household, living with her husband and mother-in-law. But at regular family gatherings, people insistently question about when she is going to have a child, attached with a warning that her biological clock may run out. Kalpana hears her favorite 13-year-old niece talk about an appalling thing that suggests how the disdainful attitude towards female cuts through class boundaries. And if all this sounds merely provocative, I can assure you that it isn’t, because Ivan Ayr’s narrative has an honesty and spontaneity to it that makes it feel unique and hard-hitting.

The script by Ivan Ayr and Kislay Kislay meticulously incorporates wide-reaching thematic layers within its narrow, visual perspective. The PM of the market-friendly democracy calls for its citizens to embrace science. The local government comes up with populist policies that in the name of providing safety to women actually segregate them. What’s the use of science and special taxis in a society which still hasn’t learned to treat women as their equal?The sexism is so internalized on a personal and systemic level that the narrative smartly avoids condemning just a set of people. Ayr and cinematographer David Bolen have done a good job in detailing the women’s lives through unobtrusive observations of their frustrations and internal struggles as they move between domestic and professional spaces. In one unbroken, tracking shot, the camera follows Soni through her regular patrol on a cold night. She sees men gathered around a fire carrying on with their casually misogynist chatter and wordlessly walks back, questioning the relevance of her job. Perhaps, the film wouldn’t possess such raw power if not for the two superb central performances. Both Ohlyan and Batra brilliantly express the emotional conflicts without a touch of dramatics.

For all its depiction of unwarranted pressure heaped upon working women, Soni doesn’t restrict itself as an acerbic social drama. The friendship between Soni and Kalpana radiates with compassion and humanity. Their solidarity and doggedness imbues the narrative with essential optimism, enunciating the need to stand the ground and not yield to the full force of sexism. Towards the end, Kalpana gifts Soni the memoir of author Amrita Pritam titled ‘Revenue Stamp’; named so due to the jibe that the writer’s life is so ‘inconsequential’ to be accommodated on the back of a revenue stamp. Similarly, Soni’s story-line could be confined to a very small piece of paper, but its observations are deeply thoughtful and far-reaching.


Who We Are Now [2017] – A Poignant and Layered Indie Drama

Actor-turned-director Matthew Newton’s starrier indie drama Who We Are Now (2017) revolves around an ex-con (splendidly played by Julianne Nicholson) with a chequered past, desperately trying to forge a new path in life. Parallels could be drawn between this story of rejection & ostracism and Matthew Newton’s controversial personal life, but at the same time the film-maker’s human concerns goes beyond serving his quest for personal catharsis. Matthew, son of the legendary Australian TV personality Bert Newton, has a history of alleged domestic violence, which was widely reported in his home country. In 2007, Newton pleaded guilty to physically assaulting his then-girlfriend, actress Brooke Satchwell (his conviction, however, was overturned on grounds of mental illness). Three-years later he was apprehended on physical assault case, the victim his fiance & actress Rachel Taylor.

More charges of assault followed Newton (for attacking a taxi driver in Sydney and a hotel clerk in Miami) but he avoided conviction in those cases, and by the year 2012, Newton has settled down in New York. After the release of his moderately successful and critically acclaimed indies – From Nowhere and Who We Are Now – Newton has addressed his quest to overcome mental health illness and problems with substance abuse. Although Newton’s privilege may have helped him escape conviction, he is still under public scrutiny for his past actions. Last year, the film-maker quitted a project involving actress Jessica Chastain when it faced severed backlash in social media, with Twitterati accusing Chastain of hypocrisy (who has vigorously campaigned against gender discrimination in Hollywood) for opting to work with Matthew Newton.

The reason why Who We Are Now doesn’t feel self-centered, despite Newton’s commentary on society’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ viewpoint, is because of the way he subtly ingrains real-world complexity. Through the tale of Beth (Julianne Nicholson), a woman recently released from prison after serving 10 years for manslaughter, Newton depicts the tough task of seeking redemption which he says couldn’t be attained through any divine miracle. He gracefully portrays the chaos and heartbreaks a redemption-seeking individual has to face. Moreover, the film-maker doesn’t champion his pariah protagonist while turning her rivals into one-note villains or her protectors into angels. Newton also smartly avoids the cynical attitude and closes his low-key drama with a resounding message of forgiveness and hopefulness.

The film opens with Beth’s unannounced arrival at the doorstep of her younger sister, Gabby (Jess Weixler). Gabby reluctantly invites Beth into her home. Once inside, Beth avoids the sullen looks of Gabby and her husband Sam (Scott Cohen) and waits to meet their 10-year-old son Alec (Logan Schuyler Smith). Beth gifts Alec a Jazz music CD and yearns to bask in the boy’s compassionate gaze which she doesn’t receive, as the boy is a bit confused by the aunt’s random visit. A sense of unrest envelopes the conversation between Beth and Gabby. Soon, we learn Alec is Beth’s son, raised by her sister for his entire life while she was serving a 10-year prison term. The relationship dynamics between the sisters has changed in the recent years as Gabby is determined to have sole custody of Alec. Beth is currently working at a nail salon and her prison record perpetually blocks her efforts to gain a decent job and to contest for shared custody.

The plot also focuses on an idealistic, young public defender, Jess (Emma Roberts) who works for ‘Watchdogs’, a legal aid group. We see her counseling for a convicted 17-year-old Latina named Maria (Camila Perez) with very limited English-speaking skills, who might turn over a new leaf if she receives a scholarship to graduate high-school. It is through Maria’s fate Jess learns the inherent unfairness of the judicial system. She comes to learn that her supreme legal skills and good intentions aren’t gonna overcome the institutionalized apathy. But before that Jess’ indefatigable boss Carl (Jimmy Smits) offers her a full-time position. The legal problems of the poor might be the last thing in the mind of Jess’ well-to-do mother (Lea Thompson) who is dedicating her time to perfectly plan the wedding of Jess’ elder sister, Monica (Samantha Hill). It is obvious Jess’ mom isn’t going to be pleased if her daughter opts to work on pro-bono cases instead of securing a position in a law firm. Both Beth and Jess’ paths eventually crisscrosses, but their encounters are unexpectedly messier and stay away from offering easy way out of the disarrayed scenario.

Who We Are Now largely works due to the various shades Newton attributes to his characters. The film-maker earnestly conveys Beth’s efforts to turn her life around, while at the same time he doesn’t gloss over Beth’s feisty or self-destructive characteristics.  When it comes to Jess, her humanistic, idealistic values are tackled alongside her privileged background and false convictions on judicial mechanism. The boss character, gracefully played by Smits, feels like a guy carrying the weight of the world on his back and also a person who has a firm grasp on the hard realities. Zachary Quinto plays Beth’s love interest Peter, a disillusioned and PTSD-afflicted vet whose characterization glows with naturalism that mostly transcends the inherent dramatic qualities associated to it. Even the repugnant restaurant manager character played by Jason Biggs comes across as a three-dimensional human being. Some of the vignettes Newton constructs to spell out the systematic oppression faced by Beth don’t always work and the third-act character transitions seem a bit abrupt. Yet the ensemble of talented & familiar actors smooths over the unevenness in the narrative.

Julianne Nicholson, in her career-best performance as Beth, perfectly conveys the reality of her character’s situation without much dialogue. The profound grief she registers when her boy doesn’t even acknowledge her presence (in the opening scene) strongly specifies the true relation between Beth and Alec. Director Newton gets great help from Julianne whose nuanced expressions (especially the portrayal of Beth’s vulnerability) duly fills out the missing plot or character details. The actress is particularly great in scenes when she gradually calms down after losing herself to anger (for example, her verbal altercation with a colleague or when she directs her bottled ferocity towards Jess). In fact, the truth of her expressions naturally extinguishes the melodrama out of the material. I find Emma Roberts to be an annoying actress who repeatedly plays troubled, privileged b**ch. Only this time Newton’s sharp writing allows Emma to really internalize Jess’ conflicts and offer some deeply authentic emotions. With ‘From Nowhere’ and ‘Who We Are Now’, Matthew Newton is slowly evolving as a good, independent film-maker; his low-key direction (which doesn’t filter out the cacophony of the surroundings and uses overlapping dialogues in the style of Robert Altman) and writing driven by steady accumulation of details are the biggest strengths. 

Overall, Who WeAre Now (95 minutes) is a slightly unbalanced yet a superbly helmed and performed small-scale film about redemption, empathy, self-worth and forgiveness. 


Virus [2019] – A Riveting Epidemic Thriller

Penned by trio of screenwriters (Muhsin Parari, Sharfu & Suhas), Aashiq Abu’s Virus (2019) is a star-studded medical thriller that approaches the threat of a deadly epidemic disease from interestingly different perspectives, smartly avoiding the typical dramatics. Virus is based on May 2018 Kerala Nipah virus outbreak (in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts), which claimed 17 lives and the virus’ origin was traced to the fruit bats in the area. The narrative closely follows the painful losses while also acknowledging the sacrifice, compassion, professional integrity and intellect of the disparate set of individuals that proved to be crucial in containing the epidemic. Striking the right emotional chords and clinically observing the machinations of bureaucratic processes is not an easy task. But director Aashiq Abu does a commendable job, keeping our attention focused on the real, collective heroes adorned with a sense of dogged professionalism.

Being an ensemble piece, Virus takes time setting its characters and atmosphere. A junior doctor of Kozhikode named Abid Rahman (Sreenath Bhasi) starts his shift; he and his colleagues are all involved in bringing some order to the chaos of emergency unit. A stretcher brings in an extremely agitated and delirious woman named Akhila (Rima Kallingal) who being a nurse herself insists she tested negative for dengue fever and that she’s afflicted by something more dangerous. Abid reassures her and gives her the proper medical attention. Soon patients with similar symptoms turn up in Kozhikode hospitals, suddenly turning the situation into a full-blown emergency. Kozhikode District Collector Paul Abraham (Tovino Thomas) and Kerala Health Minister Prameela (Revathi) gather health officials and hospital orderlies to figure out the methods to curb the spread of disease, and also to figure out the virus’ source.

The doctors assert that the patients have contracted Nipah, for which there’s neither vaccination nor treatment, and the fatality rate is nearly 75 percent. The government quickly jumps into action asking the people to remain in the confines of their home and quarantining the reported patients. Dr. Suresh (Kunchacko Boban) and Dr. Annu (Parvathy) separately conduct their inquiries to trace down the ‘index’ patient Zakariya and the possible ways the spread of the virus occurred. Meanwhile, conspiracies theories emerge as the paranoia surrounding viral outbreak make some officials to think of weaponized attack or bio-terrorism. And through all this thrilling yet incredibly realistic elements, director Abu also poignantly looks at the plight of the patients and their loved ones.

Virus deals with a fresh and intriguing subject, not previously covered in Indian cinema. It’s depiction of an emergency medical crisis (with strong grounding in real science and true events) is deeply unsettling and frightful at times. Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak (1995) and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) have previously worked with such vast canvas, tracking down a similar primitive and more complex antagonist. Apart from the loud background score and few redundant subplots, ‘Virus’ is made with meticulous precision. In movies with such a large ensemble cast and one where such a large, intricate story is detailed, individual characters would get lost and fail to create considerable emotional impact although the viewer’s intellect would be consistently engaged. Here, the writers have done a brilliant job, instilling more depth to certain characters while also ratcheting up the tensions. Characters like Anjali (Darshana Rajendran)-Vishnu (Asif Ali) and Abid-Sara (Madonna Sebastian) come across as somewhat one-dimensional even though we feel for the tragedies they encounter.

The social aspects of the outbreak are well addressed through the character of Babu (Joju George), an attendant at the govt. medical hospital who protests against the management for not making him a permanent employee. He agrees to his services in the quarantine ward in exchange of a promise for permanent job. The risks he took alongside the selfless ambulance drivers and sanitary workers are given due attention as much as the tiring and round-the-clock work done at the bureaucratic levels. Abu and his writers’ ability to conjure poignant yet nuanced character moments could be seen when a relieved Babu goes to shop to buy his son a new backpack; or when Akhila’s husband dejectedly looks at the fumes emerging from the crematorium (and also in the memorable, heart-wrenching epilogue). Abu deftly manages the multiple story lines and keeps it just engaging enough on a human level without relying much on melodrama. Even the final speech delivered by the health minister doesn’t go for political chest-thumping, but simply conveys the message of compassion and caring in the face of incomprehensible maladies.

Overall, Virus (152 minutes) is an impeccably written and directed ensemble piece which emphasizes on the power of human will and restraint in the midst of terrifying spread of a lethal disease. 


Trapped (Season 2) – A Phenomenal Icelandic Crime Series

Trapped (2015--), created by the internationally successful Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, was hailed as the best crime television series to come out of Iceland, joining the ranks of its great Nordic counterparts like The Killing, The Bridge, etc. The first season of Trapped was set in a snowy small-town named Siglufjordur, situated alongside a fjord. The remote town is surrounded by snow-dusted mountains on all sides, a location that’s uniquely atmospheric than the usual Reykjavik-set Iceland fictions. The other fascinating factor of Trapped is the casting of Olafur Darri Olafsson in the central police chief role, Andri Olafsson, jokingly addressed as 'grizzly bear' by his smart investigating partner, Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjansdottir). The bearded, bulky, and lumbering Olafsson, often garbed in a dark-colored parka, greatly impresses us with his ability to underplay and display of restraint. The actor is very good at making us feel his emotional torment and trauma that lurks behind Andri's stoic facade.

The second season of Trapped also centers on Andri, who has now taken a detective position in Reykjavik (capital city), having separated from his wife Agnes (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) in the previous season. Grim circumstances, however, brings Andri back to his hometown, Siglufjordur. It all starts with an old man’s attempt to assassinate the Minister of Industries, Halla (Solveig Arnarsdottir) through self-immolation, right in front of her office at Reykjavik. The old man happens to be the minister’s twin brother, Gisli, a poor and embittered farm owner from Siglufjordur with whom Halla has broken contact years ago.  

The question of motive pushes Andri towards the small town, and he carries out the investigation with his former partners Hinrika, now the police chief, and the slightly clumsy yet very lovable Asgeir (Ingvar Sigurdsson). Is Gisli involved with the extreme right-wing group called ‘Hammer of Thor’ which doesn’t want billionaire Muslims to start an aluminum plant in their town, the contract soon to be signed by Halla with the approval of town’s mayor Hafdis (Johanna Vigdis Arnardottir). Or does it have to do with Gisli’s rage over the rampant pollution caused by the already present chemical plant in the town. Or maybe, this has something to do with family dispute. Just a day into the investigation, the town is shocked by the cold-blooded murder of Gisli’s brother-in-law, Finnur, who is a top-level worker in the chemical plant.

Without giving too much away, the 2nd season of deals with themes that are very contemporary: rise of extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant attitude, economic uncertainty, increasing rift between the younger and older generations, etc. Of course, Trapped similar to any series based on a small-town also delves into darker family secrets and structures its narrative around biblical themes like sins of father (or sins of parents). Andri’s personal life as expected has moved from bad to worse. His elder, teenage daughter Thorhildur (Elva Maria Birgisdottir) has stayed back in town, under the care of her aunt, and she spends all her time with boyfriend, Aron. She’s dead set in hating her dad and avoids speaking to him. 
Trapped is written by a team of writers, the most interesting contribution I found in the list is that of crime novelist Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Last Rituals, My Soul to Take). I have been recently reading the crime novels of Arnaldur Indridason, Ragnar Jonasson and the literary works of Jon Kalman Stefansson and Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness. Watching Trapped I once again felt how the Icelanders meticulously turn the unimaginably beautiful yet ruthless and intimidating nature into one of their chief characters. From the last season’s blizzard to this season’s early chase of a suspect in the mountains and the final edge-of-the-seat hunt for the murderer, Trapped takes us on a journey through the distinct Icelandic landscapes. The very vastness of the atmosphere seems to contribute to the characters’ existential angst. 

Some of the narrative turns presented in the second season are easily predictable, yet it keeps us guessing over who might actually be the killer and his/her primary motive. Once again the rapport shared between each characters are superbly established, particularly the friendship shared between Hinrika and Andri. Hinrika brilliantly played by Illmur is my second favorite character in the series after Andri. Although she has no children of her own, she’s like the matriarchal figure to characters exhibiting the traits of man-child. 

Nordic noirs work best because it uses the crime to discuss the issues plaguing a society in many interesting ways. I mean these are some of the nations that year-after-year holds top positions in the world happiness index; where pre-meditated murders are an anomaly. But it’s interesting to perceive these countries’ deeply troubling issues from a deeply humane viewpoint. 

Overall, the second season of Trapped explores the icy depths of human nature and contemporary hot topic social, environmental problems with thrilling plot twists. 


Dark Figure of Crime [2018] – A Gripping Serial-Killer Thriller with Minimal Bloodshed and Impactful Performances

South-Korean film-makers are adept at making crime-thrillers that brims with intensity and potent performances. Kim Tae-gyoon’s Dark Figure of Crime (2018) belongs to such a long list of watchable Korean crime-thrillers, although it doesn’t rise to a position to be in the hall of fame alongside movies like ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘The Chaser’ or ‘Mother’. It starts off from an unconventional point, slowly builds the intrigue through a mental chess game that’s nearly devoid of blood violence, and ends with a conventional, cathartic ending. The one good thing about Dark Figure of Crime is that (for the most part) it avoids unnecessary dramatics. Only around the one-hour mark we see a cold-blooded murder committed on-screen, even though the film is actually about a serial killer, who has committed number of murders that has gone unreported or discovered. And unlike a lot of Korean and Hollywood serial-killer thrillers, director Kim Tae-gyoon doesn’t make a spectacle out of the killer’s sadism and keeps his narrative focused on the detective, who is committed to seek justice for the alleged victims.

The film’s English term (coined by criminologists) refers to the number of crime that goes unreported for various reasons. The narrative opens with narcotics division officer Hyung-min (Kim Yoon-seok) getting acquainted with a source (a cheeky young man) while working on a case. The source's name is Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon), who gets arrested in the same spot as a suspect in a Homicide case. From jail, Tae-oh calls Hyung-min to confess where he has concealed the key evidence related to his girlfriend’s murder. The detective unearths the evidence at the exact place the killer said, which becomes a embarrassment for prosecution side since the evidence they presented were totally fabricated. Yet, Tae-oh is convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years. Why would the man just for the sake of shaming the homicide detectives provide real evidence that leads to his conviction?

Right before calling det. Hyung-min, Tae-oh might have laid out his plans. On phone, he says there are six more bodies; men and women he murdered in cold-blood, then he chopped up the body parts, and dumped it in different sites. Tae-oh also provides great amount of details related to his alleged crimes that Hyung-min can’t dismiss it as the ravings of a mad-man seeking publicity. Hyung-min gets a transfer to homicide department, and despite the warning of his superior to not investigate cold cases, he keeps visiting Tae-oh at prison. Tae-oh draws the details of where he buried a corpse, and the hand-made map perfectly points the detective to a decade-old missing person case. Hyung-min even unearths set of human bones. But then it seems the statue of limitations for the case is over, and Tae-oh plays the fool, saying the confession is coerced from him.

The one step forward, two steps backward scenario continues as Tae-oh throws clues to murders he supposedly committed, but recants before the prosecutor and judge. A former detective (now a parking attendant) who was similarly played like this by a murderer warns Hyung-min that this is simply a strategy to arouse the cries of persecution so that the judiciary body would doubt the veracity of his conviction in the original (first) case (“He’ll get you to investigate crimes B and C for which he knows there won’t be enough evidence, then he’ll use his acquittals to cast doubt on his original conviction”). Meanwhile, Hyung-min provides Tae-oh money and gifts to sift through the half-lies or pierce through his clown act to extract something, which will help him collect some real evidence, all the while knowing that he is risking his professional career through these acts of bribery.

It is fascinating how the English title of the film allows room for interpretations. Apart from the official meaning of the term, it can represent the central dark figure skillfully using the benefit of doubt and legal loopholes; or it could suggest the inescapable shadow that keeps those left behind in a mood of painful uncertainty. Although this is pitched as a psychological thriller about a cop trying to outwit an intelligent sociopath, the writing takes a concise look at people living in trauma. The protagonist, det. Hyung-min has a traumatic past, but at the same time his righteousness doesn’t blind him to understand how the police hierarchy works. Kim Yoon-seok who plays the detective casually takes in the setbacks without engaging in polemical speeches about justice.

Mr. Kim’s brilliantly understated performance works perfectly in tandem with Ju Ji-hoon’s blustery presence (who recently played protagonist role in the TV series ‘Kingdom’). Ji-hoon can also be quietly threatening when the moment calls for (particularly in the scene he directs a quizzical look at the detective in the courtroom after winning a case). Eventually, as I mentioned earlier, it is director Kim Tae-gyoon’s focus on the very real costs of the killer’s actions that distinguishes the movie from bunch of serial-killer thrillers. The simple aesthetic construction and a predictable (yet satisfying to an extent) final act may not grant it a masterpiece status within the sub-genre (like ‘Zodiac’ or ‘Memories of Murder’). Nevertheless, it’s good to see a serial-killer feature that isn't obsessed with delivering gory delights in order to create suspense and tension.