Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Inheritance [1962]

Kobayashi followed up his monumental magnum opus ‘The Human Condition’ trilogy, and preceded his renowned Samurai film Harakiri, with The Inheritance – no wonder, it got lost in the process. Dark, tense, nihilistic, filled with wry but pungent humour, and set in contemporary urban Japan, this superb film provided a grotesque picture of incessant greed, jealousy, self-centeredness, lust, corruption, and propensity for deceit and violence that remains cloaked under fragile veneers of civility and decency. An aged business tycoon (So Yamamura), upon learning of being afflicted with a terminal disease, decides to re-draft his will wherein 1/3rd of his immense fortunes would go to his much younger wife (Misako Watanabe), a cold and scheming femme fatale, and the balance to his three illegitimate children. He employs his subordinates, an unctuous lawyer, a couple of unreliable associates (one of them played by Tatsuya Nakadai), and his coy secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi), to locate his children and decide if they are worthy of the endowments. As can be expected in a situation such as this, they start finding ways of getting hold of the wealth themselves, while at the same time trying to hoodwink and out-smart one another in the process. Yasuko, for most parts, seemed to be the only decent character, but as the excellent opening montage had given indications and her convenient moving-in with the dying man, despite his failing potency, furthered that, she might just have the necessary guile to win this nefarious and twisted race to the finish. The sparkling and expressionistic B/W cinematography, and the brilliant but low-key jazz score, added sensual dimensions to this bleak, noirish and delicious morality play.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Post-Noir
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Take Aim at the Police Van [1960]

A Nikkatsu Noir, qualified as such by Criterion because this was one of many such low-budget crime thrillers produced by Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio during the 50s and 60s in order to compete with American and French films in the box-office, Take Aim at the Police Van was one of Suzuki’s earlier films, even though he’d made over a dozen films by then. Though not considered among his best works, this crisp, kinetic, moody and unpredictable little film did pack in enough wallop to make this an entertaining ride. The story begins with what the title makes amply clear – a police van, carrying a bunch of criminals and led by prison guard Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima), is ambushed by unknown assailants that lead to couple of murders, the escape of a small-time hoodlum who’d been anticipating the ambush and suspension for the prison guard. Tamon, unable to digest the disgrace, takes the onus of connecting the dots and solving the crime, and this leads him right into the middle of the netherworld of murderous gangsters engaged in flesh trade, and a dangerous affair with the powerful and beautiful femme fatale Yuko (Misako Watanabe). The film proceeded as a mix of gangster, noir and whodunit, as Tamon gets deeper into Tokyo’s seedy underbelly. The dour-faced Mizushima, with Marlowe’s grit and relentlessness but without the acerbic cynicism, led this slight but solid, deftly photographed caper to its violent climax, with enough twists and turns to keep the viewers thoroughly engaged. The film also provided an interesting exposition on Suzuki’s formative years on his way to becoming a daring filmmaker.

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Gangster/Post-Noir
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel [2014]

The Grand Budapest Hotel, given its setting, backdrop, timeline and formal device, can be an interesting study on how it might have shaped in the hands of an East European filmmaker – I Served the King of England, Jiri Menzel’s searing adaptation of Hrabal’s brilliant novel, and Istvan Szabo’s Bupadespt Tales and 25 Fireman Street, in particular, provide potent cases of “what if” analyses. In Wes Anderson’s hands, it was filled with his customary penchant for whimsical humour, idiosyncrasy, farce and exquisite aesthetic detailing; simultaneously, the picaresque and allegorical story was shorn off its potential for socio-political statement and satire. It begins with a writer speaking about his visits to the titular hotel and his chance acquaintance with the hotel’s aged and reclusive owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) from whom he learns about his unbelievable journey from being a lobby boy to its owner. The narrative then shifted to circa 1932 when Zero (Tony Revolori), an illegal immigrant to the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, gets the menial job in the opulent and luxurious hotel, and becomes, progressively, a devoted pupil, partner-in-crime and friend of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s popular (particularly amongst the aged female guests) and larger-than-life concierge. Gustave gets embroiled in a spectacular tale of mystery and deceit, following the death of one of his patrons (Tilda Swinton), which occupied the rest of the engaging, if overly labyrinthine, story. Fiennes gave a marvelous deadpan comic turn, and was aided by the stellar ensemble cast which also comprised of Adrien Brody, Willem Defoe, Edward Norton, Mathiew Amalric, Harvey Keitel, Billy Murray, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law et al.

Director: Wes Anderson
Genre: Comedy/Ensemble Film/Mystery
Language: English
Country: UK

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Good Men, Good Women [1995]

Good Men, Good Women, the concluding chapter in Hou’s acclaimed trilogy on Taiwan’s checkered history during and after WWII, was the least formally demanding vis-à-vis A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, though not short of defining formal elements. This was a poignant, enthralling and loosely structured film that seamlessly traversed across two chronologically disparate narrative lines, with past and present, life and death, reality and dreams, turmoil both without and within, intermingling to provide a rich tapestry on the complexity of understanding historical events and the ripple effects they create. The ‘present’ deals with a beautiful, emotionally disturbed actress (Annie Shizuka Inoh), who’s been offered the role in a film on the turbulent White Terror days, being sent intimate entries from her personal diary by an anonymous stalker which brings back memories of her drug-addiction days and her volatile relationship with a now deceased gangster (Jack Kao); the ‘past’ chronicles episodes from the life of Chiang Bi-yu (also played by Inoh), her venture into mainland China with her Leftist intellectual husband Chung Hao-tung (Lim Giong) and their friends in order to join the Resistance against Japan, their almost getting killed on charges of being Japanese spies, and later, after the end of WWII, their return to Taiwan only to face the political purges upon enactment of martial law during the White Terror, their arrest for their political affiliations, and Chung’s execution by the State. The rambling present was brilliant juxtaposed by the tighter past, and the result was tragic yet beautiful, as the personal became indistinguishable from the political. The ravishing use of closed spaces, lighting, long-takes, moments of silence alternated with haunting score, made this aesthetically stunning as well.

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Political Drama
Language: Taiwanese/Mandarin/Japanese/Cantonese
Country: Taiwan

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Turtles Can Fly [2004]

Turtles Can Fly, directed by Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, provided a tragic picture of the absurdities, ironies and heartbreaks that are thrust upon any society by a state of war. The film derived its strength from its simplicity and flaws, and from the fact that it comprised of local, non-professional actors, with most of them being kids. Set in a small, impoverished and neglected Kurdish village and refugee camp at the Iraqi-Turkish border, the film precluded the events leading up to US invasion of Iraq in what is referred to as the 2nd Gulf War. Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), known so for his love of technology, is a gangly, enterprising and orphaned 13-year old guy and the self-anointed leader of all the kids there. Apart from trying to fix up make-shift satellite dishes, he also directs his fellow orphaned kids for sweeping off of landmines there which are then sold in the black market. Two events, occurring nearly in parallel, take centre-stage in the story – he manages to procure a dish antenna from Baghdad so that the villagers can keep track of the news of Bush’s anticipated invasion of the country in what ends up changing all their lives forever; meanwhile he finds himself falling for Agrin (Avaz Latif), a young, melancholic, soft-spoken and orphaned refugee girl, who’s moved in to the camp with her disabled but protective brother Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) and a toddler she always carries with her. Her sad face, soft nature and reticent nature towards others mask the haunting memories of a devastating past that has left her scarred forever. Past, present and future, thus, seamlessly coalesced to make this a deeply humanistic tale, more so given all the war-mongering around us.

Director: Bahman Ghobadi
Genre: Drama/War Drama
Language: Kurdish
Country: Iran/Iraq