Monday, 30 December 2013

Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer [1961]

Kobayashi’s monumental trilogy, which served as an incredibly powerful indictment on Japan’s role in WWII, in particular, and the utter futility of wars, in general, was brought to an unforgettable conclusion with A Soldier’s Prayer. While No Greater Love focused on Japan’s atrocities on China and the issue of class struggle, and Road to Eternity on the dehumanizing nature of armed forces, this, which was also the bleakest and the most harrowing of the lot – which is saying something, provided a look at the devastating aftermaths of war from physical as well as spiritual standpoints. With the Japanese Army decimated at the hands of the Allied Forces, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), along with a few comrades, embarks on an insanely exhausting odyssey on foot in order to get back to his wife, experiencing unlikely camaraderie, oppositions, tragedy, and guerilla attacks by Chinese rebels on the way which tests his resilience and brings forth his leadership instincts. When he finally surrenders to the Soviets having been utterly fed-up with the mindless violence, his life, which was already on the brink, starts going into a tailspin. He’s derided by the Soviets as “samurai bandit” and is deliberately taken for a cruel ride by the Japanese interpreter in the POW labour camp where he’s sent. The psychological meltdown that he suffers during the cathartic finale, in the middle of a barren, snow-field desert, on account of disillusionment, hopelessness and delusion, was therefore, both heartbreaking and symbolic of how the individual is crushed by the collective, and completes Kaji’s vicious circle. In keeping with the rest of the trilogy, the B/W cinematography, score and Nakadai’s performance were all marvelous.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Genre: Drama/War Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Japanese/Mandarin/Russian
Country: Japan

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Juste Avant la Nuit [1971]

Just Before Nightfall, with its premise of a philandering husband who ends up murdering his best friend’s wife he’s having an illicit affair on the sly with, had B- noir written all over it. However, Chabrol, in a smart reversal of expectations, turned this into the kind of morality exercise that Woody too would become enamored with. Consequently, instead of being a standard take on crime and punishment, it was more a study on guilt that ends up overshadowing the fear of getting caught. The film begins with committing of the crime in order to relegate the act to a secondary status – Charles (Michel Bouquet), the wealthy owner of an advertising firm, accidentally kills the wife of his long-time friend François (François Périer), during enactment of a violent fetish. However, he eventually starts suffering from strong pangs of guilty conscience that starts affecting his relationship with his wife (Stéphane Audran). In an intelligent psychological twist, when he confesses his dalliances and crime to his wife, she ironically reacts with calmness and understanding, and becomes concerned, instead, that he might end up confessing to the police and destroy their family in the process. Bouquet gave a startling portrayal of a man engulfed by the weight of the secret in his heart as he becomes increasingly desperate for the comeuppance that he feels he deserves. His empathetic reaction when an employee in his firm is caught stealing was revelatory in this regard. Both Audran and Périer were effective, while the malevolent twist in the climax seemed right out of a magician’s hat. Interestingly, the film had the same leads, and as a married couple too, as La Femme Infidele, which he made 2 years back, and formed the perfect complementary piece to it from a thematic standpoint.

Director: Claude Chabrol
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Crime Drama/Post-Noir
Language: French
Country: France

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Human Condition II: The Road to Eternity [1959]

Road to Eternity, the second chapter in Kobayashi’s powerful trilogy, began where No Greater Love had left off, and was a disconsolate and gut-wrenching portrayal of the dehumanizing nature of the military which, with its harsh emphasis on discipline, regimentation, subordination and masculinity, stands in opposition to freedom of opinion and expression. Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), upon been conscripted in the army, is placed under suspicion for his Leftist sympathies. And, combined with his hardworking nature, refusal to kowtow to unfair authority, and instinctive protests against injustice, he becomes a polarizing figure, particularly among veterans who love venting their sadistic impulses on the recruits. When, upon being made a PFC, he tries segregating seniors from juniors, the hostility couldn’t more direct. Though it focused more on the brutal boot camp, the final third took us right into a warzone where, bereft of enough fortifications, experience, artillery and ammunition, the Japanese regiment faces massacre at the hands of the impregnable Soviet tanks. The film’s two most haunting moments were – the devastating moment where he expresses his wish to imprint in his mind the image of his wife while she’s in the naked, and the tragic death of a bespectacled fellow-recruit (Kunie Tanaka) incessantly harangued for being a weakling; his fleeting friendship with a sweet-looking nurse, which is nipped in its bud, added melancholic underpinnings to this somber drama. The stark, expressionistic B/W cinematography was astounding – the stunning first shot of a guard’s figure against the snowy night made the monochromatic aesthetics immediately clear – and so was the operatic soundtrack which reinforced the tonal shift from the previous film and the protagonist’s reluctant journey from pacifism to aggression.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Genre: War Drama/Political Drama
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Thursday, 26 December 2013

A Hijacking [2012]

A Hijacking, shot in cinéma vérité style, was a harrowing and captivating hostage thriller centered around the hijacking of a Danish cargo-ship by Somali pirates. This and Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, released within a year of each other, had similar premises; however, while the latter focused more on the ordeal of the titular Captain and the growing relationship between him and the pirate leader, here the approach was more matter-of-fact in comparison with the focus almost exclusively on the emotionally demanding ransom negotiation process. The story’s principal actors were Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), a good-natured cook aboard the ship whose plans of getting back to his wife soon is jeopardized to no end, and Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the shipping company with a steely-jawed demeanour whose ability to remain objective and focused is taken to its very limit; the smooth-taking spokesperson (Abdihakin Asgar) for the pirates who, ironically, refuses to be clubbed as one of them, played a key supporting role. Peter, against expert advice, decides to speak on behalf of the company, and, though guided by a professional, as days drift to weeks and weeks to months, his nerves, composure, psychological forte and the increasing need to expedite the otherwise painfully slow process, are tested beyond measure. Though he initially seemed an icy dollar-and-cents guy, humane layers of his persona slowly get revealed over the film’s course, and this easily was the film’s most striking feature. Consequently, and quite surprisingly, portions featuring him were easily the more memorable sections vis-à-vis those portraying the hostages.

Director: Tobias Lindholm
Genre: Thriller/Hostage Film
Language: Danish/English
Country: Denmark

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Sleeper [1973]

Sleeper may safely be considered as the final ‘early Woody’ since he first reached rarefied heights, and his abilities as a comic genius achieved full blossom, in his next film Love & Death. Like all his early films, this too was a campy film filled with slapstick, funny sight gags and thumbing of nose to the authorities; however, unlike them, this had minimum misfires, was uniformly hilarious, and combined sharp satirical observations into an otherwise light-hearted setting, thus displaying his fast increasing maturity as an artist and social commentator. When Miles Monroe (Woody), the nerdish and sex-obsessed owner of a health-food joint, dies on the operating table, his body is cryogenically frozen without his permission, only to be brought back to life by scientists 200 years later. He finds himself in a cold and detached police state, ruled with an iron fist by a never-seen dictator, where all lifestyle notions have been diametrically reversed, and automation is the order of the day. As he escapes in the disguise of a smart robot, he makes the acquaintance of Luna (Diane Keaton), a pretty but vacuous socialite, while trying to make his way to the underground camp striving to overthrow the regime. Featuring a jazz score with Woody himself on the clarinet, and deftly employing ‘white’ as the visual motif to symbolize the streamlined nature of life bereft of human emotions, the film combined various comedic elements, ranging from goofy slapstick, body humour and parody to pungent wisecracks and political satire, in order to touch upon a diverse range of topics that provided jabs both at the present and at the inevitable future.

Director: Woody Allen
Genre: Comedy/Sci-Fi/Social Satire/Slapstick
Language: English
Country: US