Styx [2019] – A Low-Key & Thought-Provoking High-Seas Adventure

Wolfgang Fischer’s minimalist and unnerving drama, Styx (2019) opens with the image of apes roaming the parking lots and buildings of a place that’s revealed to be Gibraltar, an impeccably urbanized artificial island in the Mediterranean sea (a British Overseas Territory). Despite the paradisaical views of the island, there’s an eerie strangeness in seeing these apes not in their natural environment. From the apes, director Fischer cuts to a traffic accident, the injured motorist treated by an emergency medic in the ambulance. This emergency doctor named Rike (a robust Susanne Wolff) happens to be the film’s protagonist, who forced to face death on a daily basis decides to go on a solo, recuperative voyage in her well-equipped yacht. Her destination is Ascension Island, a volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean, where Charles Darwin designed an artificial green ecosystem. As Rike seeks solace from human-engineered urban ‘paradise’ by fixing her sights on a human-engineered jungle ‘paradise’, trouble and distress comes her way, which pits Darwinian theme of ‘survival of the fittest’ against human compassion.

The documentary-like, dialogue-free narrative of Styx’s first-half could frustrate us. We see Rike filling her boat with supplies (abundant for a solo trek), effortlessly handling the yacht while keeping her cool throughout a fierce storm. The careful planning, ability to thrive in tough environments, and the high-end gadgets Rike surrounds herself with insinuates she could handle whatever comes her way. But what she confronts is utterly unexpected: dozens of emaciated refugees in a sinking, overloaded fishing trawler wailing for their rescue. With a yacht too small to help them and with a boat full of distressed people jumping into ocean to swim towards the yacht, the narrative turns into a morality play. The (friendly) Coast Guards, who speak English in different accents, repeatedly instruct Rike to keep her distance. But silence is the only answer they could offer when she asks when help will arrive.  

Among the group of migrants who swim towards Rike, only a boy (Gedion Wekesa Odour) boards her yacht. Being an emergency worker, she swiftly attends to the sick boy. And although Rike keeps her distance from the sinking ship, a growing sense of guilt gnaws at her. Moreover, when the boy convalesces she increasingly gets in conflict with him; he insists her to rescue his family members. Since the systems in place are utterly slow to act, can a single person make a difference? Or does her presence actually make matters worse by infusing false hope? Apart from equipping the lean drama with moral quandaries, Fischer and his co-writer Ika Kunzel subtly turns it into a striking political allegory. The moving, microcosmic image of the refugee boy begging the white European to ‘do something’ speaks of the uncomfortable silence of Western world in witnessing the muffled cries of the dispossessed (the titular sacred, mythological river also provokes thought on similar lines).

Styx was mostly filmed with a crew of eight in an 11-meter yacht. They have certainly braved the unpredictable quotient of open-water shoot, while also keeping intact the tension arising out of solo sea voyage. Cinematographer Benedict Nuenfels and director Fischer has done a commendable job in unfurling the story and its emotions without lot of expositions and dialogues. Susanne Wolff’s subtly emotive and physical performance has allowed the film-maker to preserve his narrative’s understated quality. There’s no backstory to Rike, but Wolff remarkably establishes the character’s motivation, her inner torment through few piercing looks. The abrupt, simplistic ending does dilutes the effect the film has on us. Nevertheless, Styx (94 minutes) is memorable for the thoughtful and compassionate way it deals the morally challenging and politically sensitive subject.  


Woman at War [2018] – A Moving and Layered Drama on the Dominant Problem of Our Times

Iceland film-maker Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War (2018) is about a dynamic, middle-aged woman’s relentless crusade to ‘save the world’, which doesn’t involve fighting aliens or rogue nation states in possession of nuclear weapons. She rather sabotages power lines in the beautiful and striking Reykjavik countryside, which carries electricity to an aluminium smelter plant. At the woman’s flat, there’s the portraits of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, leaders who sabotaged infrastructures that really got the attention of their colonizers. Yet, Woman at War couldn’t be labeled as a pamphleteering, propaganda film, narrowly focusing on the conundrum existing between climate change and economic growth. In fact, Benedikt Erlignsson’s interesting storytelling method goes beyond the ominous tone of an apocalyptic story and innovatively characterizes the inner conflicts of a determined monkey-wrencher that it’s hard to not succumb to its off-beat charms.

Woman at War, which premiered during the International Critics’ Week at 2018 Cannes Film Festival, opens with Halla (a very brilliant Halldora Geirhardsdottir) using a bow and arrow to destroy the power tower, disrupting the operations of a aluminium factory. After outmaneuvering government helicopters and police force, Halla gets out of the countryside to Reykjavik with the help of an ‘alleged’ cousin (Johann Sigurdarson), a stoic sheep farmer. At the city, Halla plays the role of an elegant middle-aged woman where she works as a choir-director. Right when Halla’s actions draw more debate on media and among public, she gets a call from the adoption agency notifying her that she can now adopt a 4-year-old Ukrainian girl, orphaned by war (she put in the application years ago).

Halla has to choose between motherhood and industrial sabotage. Before taking a decision, she goes to meet her identical twin sister Asa, also mentioned as the back-up parent in the adoption application. Asa aspires to be a sage, who is about to go on a retreat to India. Both are selfless souls, mindful of the world’s problems. While Halla believes in actions that fixes the problems, Asa takes up an inward search and attempts to fix herself through meditation. Meanwhile, Halla types up a manifesto (in which she calls herself ‘Mountain Woman’) and tosses-up copies of it from the roof of a college building. The scathing words directed against the powers that be sets off an elaborate political propaganda, by the end of which she is written off as a terrorist and as the source of all economic troubles ailing Iceland. Subsequently, Halla intensifies the crusade by bringing down power lines with stolen Semtex explosives. In the ensuing chase, involving helicopters, surveillance drones, and police check-posts, Halla barely escapes from her pursuers. At the back of her mind, there’s still the dilemma of whether to ‘save’ humanity through her idealistic endeavors or to just save a kid and enrich her life.

Benedikt Erlingsson proved himself to be a film-maker with flair in his debut feature Of Horses and Men (2013). With Woman at War, he includes a puckish sense of humor and abusrdism which clearly doesn’t downplay the serious themes at play. Mr. Erlingsson breaks the fourth wall by using the musicians (not just the music) to comment on the actions. A trio of Icelandic musicians (drums, harmonium, and tuba) – which includes the composer David Thor Jonsson -- is seen throughout the film whom Halla only sees performing the music exclusively for her. They are the witnesses to the woman’s personal war. Halla occasionally cues the musicians, this magical interaction highlighting the woman’s inner emotions and the nature of her actions. When Halla hears the news about Ukrainian girl from the adoption agency, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers dressed in traditional attire also pop up in her world. When Halla eventually catches up a flight to Ukraine, the folk singers and Icelandic musicians play together, probably underlining the synergy of her life goals. On other occasions, the mere presence of musicians provides the foreboding feel; like when Halla reaches the airport, only to see the drummer sitting alone in the parking lot. The implication of this is made clear even before the drummer plays his score.

The shots of picturesque Icelandic landscapes (cinematography by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson) are always stunning to look at, and here the nature is one of the pivotal themes. Erlingsson pays tribute to nature by showing how it recuperates Halla (a beautiful shot of hot-springs) and grants her refuge. The director has thrown in lot of interesting visual gags and running jokes (one involving a hapless Spanish bicycle tourist). For the most part, it’s an entertaining directorial style, which similar to the works of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki balances between comedy and pain. The script written by Erlingsson and Olafur Egilsson superbly tackles the moral complexity of the central character and the big issues at its core. The writing deftly interrogates Halla’s emotions instead of projecting her simply as an eco-warrior; even her own sense of self-importance is questioned in the narrative flow. The contrasts in the narrative are beautifully orchestrated: for instance, a jolly-good last minute twist is followed up with a somber situation (of world drowning) and yet the chorus in the background emphasizes upon hope. In spite of setting off the tone of an action movie, the writing never confines itself to genre conventions. And it ends in a quietly affecting manner without striving to make grand statements or provide due catharsis. 

Overall, Woman at War (101 minutes) is a well-crafted, quirky adventure drama that also doubles up as a thought-provoking climate change movie. 


Zoology [2016] – A Strange Yet Endearing Tale of Personal Growth

“My view of modern society is quite pessimistic”, says the young Russian film-maker Ivan I. Tverdovsky, whose two feature films are about individuals being harshly persecuted by the society for being themselves and expressing their feelings. If the Russian helmer’s debut feature Corrections Class (2014) revolves around a pretty, differently-abled 11th grader Lena (has myopathy and bounded to a wheelchair), his sophomore effort Zoology (2016) tells the tale of shy, lonely fifty-something Natasha. Despite the protagonists’ difference in age and place in their society, director/writer Tverdovsky’s focus lies upon the individuals’ awakening and spurt of non-conformity that’s squashed down in a cruel, spiteful manner. The interesting aspect of Tverdovsky’s compact story lines is that it works as a specific commentary on Putin’s Russia, while on a broader note it also delivers a piercing critique on general perceptions of gender, sexuality, and darker human impulses.

Zoology (Zoologiya) is one weird dramedy which amalgamates Soviet cinema’s social realist tone (aka ‘Russian miserablism’) with Cronenbergian body horror elements. The result is a well-balanced contemporary fable, boasting strong emotional anchor to support the tale’s unorthodox idea. The film opens with 55 year old Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) standing still at the center of whitish atmosphere. It’s as if she is dead and floating on the clouds to reach heaven. But no, she is just standing within the confines of her drab administrative office, overlooking the sea and overcast sky. Natasha is the procurement manager at a zoo and as she stands motionless, her chatty colleagues gorge upon the latest juiciest piece of gossip. Unexpectedly, Natasha faints and falls to the floor. It seems our middle-aged protagonist expresses more emotions when she looks at caged animals. She is the butt of her rumor-mongering co-workers’ jokes (their idea of bullying includes filling her desk drawer with pack of rats). Moreover, Natasha’s compliance is fiercely sought by the boss, especially when it comes to buying sub-standard foods for the animals she loves.

Life is drab at home too. Natasha hides her smoking habit from religiously orthodox, domineering mother (Irina Chipizhenko) and their relationship is painted in shades of grey. After the earlier fainting episode, Natasha experiences great deal of pain in the back and discovers that she has grown a tail. She goes to a doctor, who orders her to take an X-ray. The doctor and Natasha treat the tail growth with matter of fact-ness, similar to the Kafka’s matter of-fact presentation of the bizarre events in ‘Metamorphosis’. Despite the initial pain and inconvenience of the tail, Natasha soon finds that this physical anomaly has its boons too. She finds a way to use her phallic tail to pleasure herself in a scene in the bathtub. Most importantly, the appendage puts her under the gaze of Petya (Dmitri Groshev), a handsome young radiographer. He is actually attracted to Natasha because of the tail. His unwavering attention brings upon an emotional and sexual awakening, as Natasha tries new hairdo, cut short her long skirts, and goes wild on a dance floor. Meanwhile, rumors float amidst the residents of sea-side town about a shape-shifting devil which has possessed a local woman. Gradually, Natasha’s desire for self-empowerment is threatened by society’s penchant for mundanity and conformity. ‘What if a woman grows a tail?’ might be the central bizarre question that sets off the narrative. But eventually, Zoology uses the improbable occurrence to understatedly put forth this question: what if a woman seeks a new lease of life? That’s what makes Natasha’s life journey believable, memorable, and irrevocably sad.

Similar to contemporary Hungarian film-maker Gyorgy Palfi’s weird stories of transition, Tverdovsky's unique and strange intentions in Zoology explores the imposed limits of human desires and interconnectedness. The narrative also boasts the quiet confidence to make it work on a sociopolitical level too (as an allegory on the absurdities and disillusionment in Putin’s regime; Palfi’s movies also doubles up as allegory on life in authoritarian Hungary). Director Tverdovsky fascinatingly makes the limits not just figurative, but literal. Natasha’s life near the sea hints at her existence at the edge. The sea clearly shows she has nowhere to go, and the only transition possible is internal or physical. The caged animals in the provincial town’s small zoo further highlight her grim isolation.

Tverdovsky’s film-making style is as muted as Natasha’s initial mindset. Earlier, he frames her in static shots, making her look unassuming and small; she's yet another colorless object in the drab surroundings. Tverdovsky shifts to handheld camera and observational documentary approach, when Natasha slowly discovers her own sense of self. In the scene Petya guides her up the slope to playfully slide down using a large aluminum basin, the camera gets closer to Natasha to intimately catch her belated adolescent blossoming. One of the great achievements of the movie is the effortless way it evokes nervous laughter and emotional discomfort at the same time (for eg, the ‘zoo cage’ scene). At some point, it becomes clear that Zoology is not headed for upbeat ending. Yet the empathy it shows for the ostracized protagonist persuades viewers to watch it till the end. And, Natalya Pavlenkova perfectly wears the physical oddity and provides deeper understanding of her livelier character. Regardless of whether one can dissect the story’s obscure metaphors or not, Natalya’s performance adds a poignant touch to the proceedings.

Zoology (90 minutes) uses an uncanny element to neatly explore a repressed woman’s emotional upheaval. Utilizing absurdist humor and stark realism in equal measures, it showcases the cost of being ‘different’. 


The Spy Gone North [2018] – A Labyrinthine, Slow-Burn Espionage Drama

South Korean cinema, in recent times, has gained a reputation for wielding intriguing political dramas. While the political discourse discussed in Korean films isn’t exactly profound or that it transcends the inherent dramatic structure, unlike the seminal, inimitable political cinema of Francesco Rosi or Costa-Gavras, the Korean film-makers doesn’t often fall for falsely reassuring cliches. And although Cold War has come to an end, the sociopolitical conflicts in the Korean peninsula is still set around the rivalry between two (equally corrupted) ideological systems as the climate of Cold war distrust still looms over the countries. This has led to plethora of high-stakes political films, where unsuspecting civilians are shown to be at the receiving end of the subtle political exploits between North and South Korea. Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North (‘Gongjak’, 2018) is similarly a ‘behind-the-doors’ look at how the ‘powers that be’ on both sides keep in touch with each other.

The Spy Gone North is a fictionalized account of real-life South Korean agent from the 1990s known as ‘Black Venus’, who was tasked to obtain intelligence on North Korea's nuclear weapons development. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) makes contact with a nuclear physicist who worked in Yongbyon reactor (hub of North Korea’s nuclear program) and learns that the North is very close to refining weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon. To receive more information on the project, NIS section chief (Cho Jin-woong) selects Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min), a former South Korean military officer, to infiltrate North Korea’s political high-command. The mission begins with Park traveling to Beijing to befriend Ri Myung-un (Lee Sing-min) of the North Korea’s External Economic Commission (a Pyongyang elite who has direct connection with Kim Jong-il). Park’s military past isn’t glossed over, but he presents himself as an embittered man discharged due to his alcoholic and gambling problems. An import/export front company is covertly set up by NIS on behalf of Park and he transforms himself into a zealous businessman seeking trade deals with the North.

Unlike the Bond films, Park doesn’t easily get close to the North Korean political elites. He diligently waits for months before he receives an invitation to meet Ri Myung-un. Even then an intimidating security official of North (Ju Ji-hoon) keeps Park under constant surveillance. The incremental advancement in the business relationship and friendship between Park and Ri forms the crux of the narrative, and plays a pivotal role in the twisted political games later. The initial surveillance and counter-surveillance operations unfold in a fascinatingly detailed fashion without unnecessarily stoking the thriller quotient. Once Park through Ri gets to meet North’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il (Gi Ju-bong), he proposes a esoteric arrangement involving advertising shoots (an excuse to explore whole of North Korea). The North officials believe this might be the first step in dethawing the mutual animosities between the two Koreas. However, Park’s mission runs into trouble when his section chief is commanded by his superior to meddle with their nation’s elections. The line dividing the good from bad turns murkier as the narrative increasingly moves into ‘John le Carre’ territory.

Yoon’s film is much more than a ‘spy-on-mission’ thriller. Its absorbing narrative chronicles the role of intelligence service in political manipulation; and how the deceptive tactics of the powerful (in the name of ‘national security’) can sway public opinion. Yoon shows how a shadow government (involving intelligence missions) operates behind the elected government, where values of democracy are sacrificed at the altar of power. Both allegedly enemy nations try to take advantage of the political scenarios and sway the public sentiment, whereas in secret they engage with symbiotic deals to extend their hold on power. Acquiring nuclear power and broadcasting national security threats become diverting maneuvers from confronting the much real problems of penury and enmeshed institutional corruption.  Amidst such crafty as well as clusterf**k situations, Yoon slowly develops the transformation of Park and Ri. Both the men are idealists working for the ‘greater good’. However, as the narrative progresses the men uphold basic human values; the empathy they show for each other triumphs the climate of distrustfulness. Of course, few conventional dramatic sequences are employed to depict Park and Ri’s burgeoning friendship, yet there’s enough poignancy to this narrative arc (both Hwang and Lee has done a phenomenal job in playing these characters).

Writer/director Yoon has done a neat job of conceiving two-plus hours spy feature without any violent shoot-outs. He wrings tension out of the misanthropic realpolitik decisions. Some of the set-pieces are fraught with anticipation: for instance the sequence showcasing Park’s first visit to Pyongyang. Gu Ju-bong who played North Korean Supreme leader in this particular scene did a terrific job. He perfectly captures the strangely menacing quality of the leader that’s free from caricature. The frigid, market scene was also effectively staged, offering us the rare (dramatic) peak into North Korea’s deep-seated, chronic poverty. 
Overall, The Spy Gone North (137 minutes) is an unexpectedly moving and hard-hitting political drama which boldly depicts the destabilizing forces that perpetually shape the conflicts between two Koreas.