Sunday, 28 September 2014

Vive L'Amour [1994]

Though the bustling capital of Taiwan has been a key personality in Tsai’s filmography, his 1st 3 films, viz. Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L’Amour and The River, specifically earned the nomenclature of ‘Taipei Trilogy’. Despite the mushy-sounding title, this was a rather anti-romantic film courtesy it’s stark tone, stylistic choice that was minimalist to the point of being nearly skeletal in terms of emotional or aesthetic ornamentations, and long takes which are bound to make the characters’ loneliness, intense urban alienation, disillusionment, extreme ennui and lack of any direction utterly palpable. The curious slice of life tale comprised of 3 human characters – Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a young and suicidal gay salesman, May Lin (Yang Kuei-Mei), a beautiful real-estate agent, and Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), a dandy street hawker; and an inanimate one in the form of a lavish duplex apartment. When Ah-jung starts following May, she, on an impulse, takes him along to the empty flat she has the keys to, and the two engage in casual sex. In parallel, Hsiao, who’d got hold of a key to the place, plans to indulge himself in the luxurious flat before slashing his wrist in a failed attempt to kill himself. Over the remainder of the film, the three characters keep frequenting the empty apartment which becomes a symbol of their emptiness and a place to escape their mundane lives. In one bravura moment near the end, a bizarre and idiosyncratic, but quietly poignant ménage à trois gets staged. The final scene, where May’s deep-set despair finally breaks through her façade, was striking for its stripped-down display of emotion.

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Mandarin
Country: Taiwan

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Post Mortem [2010]

Post Mortem formed the middle chapter of ‘No Redemption Trilogy’, Pablo Larrain’s bravura, intensely bleak and disturbing examination of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. While Tony Manero focused on the disconcerting directions life took under Pinochet through sociopathic extremes of an obsessed dancer, and No chronicled the unprecedented referendum that led to Pinochet’s ouster, this film took one back to his overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government through a bloody military coup. The protagonist, Mario (a memorably deadpan Alfredo Castro), is a lonely, introverted, apolitical middle-aged civil servant who works as an assistant to the head pathologist in a Santiago mortuary. The only spark in his otherwise dull, drab and uneventful life is his neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers), an attractive but anorexic cabaret dancer, out of favour with her boss for not being voluptuous, he’s completely besotted with. When he finally garners the courage to approach the lady and possibly develop a relationship with her, they get embroiled in the brutal and momentous 1973 crackdown that leaves the city in utter disarray and chaos – her home is ransacked and her family disappears for being vocal supporters of the Socialist government, whereas he gets sucked into a morbid vortex on account of the piling corpses and, in a grim rejoinder, to transcribe the cooked up post-mortem of Allende whose murder Pinochet’s henchmen want to paint as suicide. The stark and dreary tone, lack of background score, grainy visuals, and deliberate pacing, did a good job at highlighting the tragic and macabre storyline – uneasy attempts at a much delayed romantic life against the horrific political backdrop, leading to an ugly but logical end to the personal tale.

Director: Pablo Larrain
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Political Drama
Language: Spanish
Country: Chile

Monday, 22 September 2014

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [1979]

It’s no wonder that two mesmerizing spy films that readily come to mind were both based during the Cold War era and were adaptations of John Le Carre’s books, viz. Martin Ritt’s bleak, fatalist and deeply existentialist The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and John Irvin’s 7-part mini-series made for BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Dreary, slow-burning, character-driven, decidedly droll with subtle doses of dark humour, wry cynicism and irony strewn throughout, un-glamorized yet convoluted, and filled with existentialist touches, it made for a fabulous chamber drama on the cold machinations of dapper-suited, middle-aged gentlemen in claustrophobic rooms concealed from the people at large. When veteran spy Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), upon being sent behind the Iron Curtain by Control (Alexander Knox), the ageing head of British Intelligence, in order to find out the identity of an alleged Moscow mole planted at the very top of Circus, gets caught on enemy territory, the ensuing scandal leads to Control’s ouster and replacement with the unctuous Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge). The sudden appearance of discredited spy Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), however, rejuvenates suspicions of a double agent, and leads to return from retirement of Control’s former deputy George Smiley (Alex Guinness) in order to flush the person out. The leisurely pace, wintry atmosphere, gradual development of suspense, a sharply written script that seamlessly traversed between the political and the personal in the form of Smiley’s barely concealed marital life, and desolate portrayal of the cold lies, betrayals and paranoia that the era as well as cloak and dagger business remind one of. Fine performances abound, but Guinness’ measured yet magnetic turn as the weary, cynical and brilliant protagonist remains a cornerstone in TV history.

Director: John Irvin
Genre: Drama/Spy Drama/TV Mini-Series
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Goodbye, Dragon Inn [2003]

Rarely has a film captured loneliness, urban alienation, ennui and quiet nostalgia with such melancholia and wry humour, and with so few movements or words, as did Tsai’s gorgeous and minimalist masterwork Goodbye, Dragon Inn. It was also a rapturous evocation of the joy of watching cinema, and a poignant commentary on the death of mammoth movie places and certain genres on account of them being rendered economically unviable and out-of-favour due to modernization and changing tastes. It focused on the last movie screening, that of King Hu’s cult classic Dragon Inn, in an old-fashioned theatre in Taipei before it closes down forever. The narrative was timed at approximately the same length as the Hu film, and dealt on the few oddball people populating the theatre, the decrepit condition of the place whose days of grandeur are long past, and the movie-within-movie that formed a study in contrast to the Tsai film. A gay guy trying in futility to strike companionship, bored fellows incessantly smoking in the dingy corridors, people trying to escape their mundane lives, a crippled lady who, having sold the last few tickets, is hobbling along the byzantine corridors looking for the projectionist, and two aged men, who were part of the Hu film, watching it in silent rapture, and upon becoming aware of each other being taken down the memory lanes – these were some of the idiosyncratically etched characters the last show is catering to. The seedy interiors were brilliantly captured by the dazzling color photography, while the sparse style, with long takes, whimsical interludes, and hardly any spoken words except those emanating from the film being screened, hypnotically portrayed irony, dark humour and a somber sense of loss.

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy
Language: Taiwanese/Mandarin
Country: Taiwan

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ballad of a Soldier [1959]

Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is often clubbed with Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying as companion pieces not only because the 2 Russian films had strong anti-war stances, deeply humanist tones, deftly lyrical storytelling and primarily focused on personal tales, but also because both, released 2 years of one another, became smashing international successes in the art-house circles. Alexei (Vladimir Ivashov), the film’s 19-year old protagonist and a soldier deployed on the Eastern Front during WWII, suddenly gets elevated to the stature of a hero when he, out of a mix of luck and fear, ends up single-handedly destroying 2 German tanks. As a reward he gets the unlikely leave of 6 days in order to visit his mother and repair the house’s roof. However, as it eventually turns out, the naïve young guy, as a result of his inherent goodness, ends up spending most of his limited travel time indulging in humanist luxuries – accompanying a crippled and embittered veteran who’s afraid to go back to his wife, ensuring the precious gift of 2 soap cakes get delivered to a fellow-soldier’s impoverished family, helping other passengers when the train they’re traveling in gets bombed, and most notably, falling in love with the beautiful and callow fellow-traveler Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko). As a result of all these unplanned delays, at the end he has just enough time to see his mother for a few minutes before getting back to the front never to return. Filled with the little joys and sadness of everyday life, beautifully shot in glorious B/W, and shorn of formal or political indulgences, it provided a heart-warming meditation on the horrors and devastation of war through the eventful odyssey.

Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Genre: Drama/War Drama
Language: Russian
Country: Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union)