Monday, 25 May 2020

The Look of Silence [2014]

White Terror, through anti-communist genocides by fascist governments and repressive military juntas, have happened across the globe over the 20th century, from Spain and Greece to Chile and Argentina to Korea and Taiwan, and elsewhere. However, Nazi Germany aside, few countries have perhaps experienced the kind of grisly mass killings that happened in Indonesia upon the Suharto military dictatorship’s 1965 coup d'état. With The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer had made an intensely disturbing and provocative documentary on the killing squads, who still roam the streets with elan, proudly reliving and even enacting their ghastly massacres. It formed a daring diptych with its powerful companion piece The Look of Silence in their eerily complementary themes, styles and tones – the focus here was on the victims as opposed to the perpetrators, and hence, in place of the lurid portrayals and narrative flamboyance of the former, this was restrained, brutally straightforward and exuded deep suffering. Therefore, while it might’ve been shadowed by the former’s formal ingenuity, it was ethically less troubling and more profoundly affecting for me. The docu’s principle subject is Adi Rukum, a proletarian optometrist in his 40s, whose elder brother Ramli was barbarously tortured and murdered by death squad members, many of whom were their neighbours and some have even become high-ranking officials. Hoping, albeit in futility, to sense a shred of guilt and regret in those men, and hence perhaps get some sort of closure, he engages in candid interactions with them and their families. The quiet power, silent courage and pained conviction that this mild-mannered man displays, along with the sobering reiteration of man’s infinite capacity for evil, is bound to leave one shaken and haunted.

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Genre: Documentary/Political Documentary
Language: Indonesian
Country: Denmark

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Poetry [2010]

The most beguiling aspect of Lee Chang-dong’s delicately structured and profoundly evocative work Poetry is that it could’ve gone in diverse directions from its haunting opening sequence – darkly funny satire, somber crime drama, portrait of familial dysfunction, meditative character study, or quietly devastating exploration of ennui, loneliness and grief; it’s a proof of Lee’s prowess, therefore, that the film’s heartbreaking emotional core is laced with all these facets. It begins with the tranquil panoramic shot of a gently ebbing river, which seamlessly turns harrowing as the dead body of a girl is seen floating by. The narrative then shifts to the film’s protagonist Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee) – a 66-year old lady with a meagre income and diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s, who lives in a small town with her aloof and potentially delinquent teenage grandson Jong-wook (Lee David), and takes care of an aged and partially paralyzed wealthy man craving for his lost manhood. In order to escape her boredom and provide an outlet to her long suppressed creative side, she enrolls in a poetry course for adults, which opens a new vista for her dour existence. However, when the above mentioned girl’s tragic death – she was repeatedly raped and driven to suicide – is linked to her grandson and his batch-mates, and that the parents, in collusion with the school, are arranging funds to bury the case by paying the girl’s impoverished mother, this scathing depiction of gender violence, patriarchy and smug class bigotry formed a compelling and painful parallel strand to the Yang’s fleeting quest for freedom and self-expression. Yoon came back from retirement and gave a subtle yet magnificent turn in this richly layered and deeply melancholic film.

Director: Lee Chang-dong
Genre: Drama/Crime Drama
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea

Friday, 22 May 2020

Frantz [2016]

Loss, grief and internal reconciliations formed the dominant themes in François Ozon’s meditative anti-war melodrama Frantz – loosely adapted from Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby and structured along the classical form of a three-act play. The themes, therefore, might remind one of his magnificent Under the Sand; however, in place of the gutting and implosive ferocity of the latter, what we have here is a sedate, gently affecting and heavily underplayed quietude – which, in fact, might even leave one tad underwhelmed despite the emotionally dense context. In the excellent first act which is set in the ancient German town of Quedlinburg just after the end of the Great War, Anna (Paula Beer), who’s in mourning for her fiancé Frantz who’s fallen on the battlefield, and Frantz’s grief-stricken parents – the seemingly gruff father (Ernst Stötzner) who despises war and hatred, and the warm and caring mother (Marie Gruber) – develop a deeply affecting relationship with Adrien (Pierre Niney), a mild-mannered Frenchman who was apparently Frantz’s friend when the latter was in Paris; meanwhile, rabid nationalism is brewing around them in a precursor to the eventual rise of Nazism. The desolate middle act portrayed Anna’s visit to war ravaged Paris in search for Adrien, despite a dark secret that he’d confided to her while leaving Germany. And, in the rather placid final act their brief reconnect ends on a dour anti-climactic note. Hence, as may be guessed, each act was stronger than the one following it; and, while the elegant B/W photography added a layer of melancholy to the proceedings, interjection of splashes of colour felt avoidable. Manet’s bleak painting Le Suicidé, by the way, served as a manifestation of the curtailed emotions.

Director: Francois Ozon
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/War Drama
Language: French/German
Country: France

Monday, 18 May 2020

Good Time [2017]

The wickedly engrossing crime thriller Good Time – brimming with manic energy, suffused with nihilism and packed with frenetic urban grunge – helped the Safdie Brothers leapfrog from the Indie circuit to prestige space, and also served as an apt preamble to their gleefully outrageous next film Uncut Gems. It rests on the fidgety shoulders of the smartly etched Connie – a small-time hoodlum who lives on the edges, has a disdain for authority, and is glibly oblivious of the repercussion of his self-serving choices on those around him – magnificently brought to life with chameleon-like brilliance by Robert Pattinson, and made further compelling by the filmmakers’ absolute refusal to either judge or denounce his broken moral code. Set largely over the course of a single day (and night) – but for the remarkably sedate opening and closing sequences – it burst into action when Connie impulsively drags his mentally disabled brother Nick (played by Benny himself) out of a therapy session which had just started going well. When a botched bank robbery leads to Nick’s arrest, he must find a way to get hold of a load of money by the next morning to secure the huge bail bond while also evading the cops. And thus begins a mad dash of crafty hustling, crazy conniving and old school survival that involve his emotionally unstable older girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a surprisingly level-head African-American teenage girl (Taliah Lennice Webster) who he briefly befriends, and a wounded guy (Buddy Duress) arrested for drug offence who he mistakenly gets out of police cover from a hospital. The film’s pulsating beat was amplified by the neon-lit visuals and the mesmeric electronic/synth score by Oneohtrix Point Never.

Director: Josh & Benny Safdie
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Ema [2019]

Ema – Chilean auteur extraordinaire Pablo Larraín’s third collaboration with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal after No and Neruda, and his second movie after Tony Manero where dance plays a striking role as a tool for both individual and political statement – is electrifying, scorching, crazy weird, deliriously subversive and filled with untrammeled energy. In its rousing expression of individual identity, woman’s agency, moral ambiguity, sexual fluidity and cinematic freeform, the film walked a razor’s edge – like a petrol bomb with a loose fuse – in balancing its bold stylistic splashes, narrative flamboyance, combustible emotional cocktail and sociopolitical provocation; in short, this was an audacious, no holds barred gamble by a supremely confident filmmaker, given that it could’ve easily gone crashing spectacularly. The narrative’s incendiary heroine is Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo in a ferociously brilliant turn) – a stunning enigma with shocking peroxide blond hair, unfathomable in her impulses, pyromaniac, anarchic, borderline sociopathic and with a passion for the reggaetón and hiphop danceform – and she’s desperate to get back Polo, a Colombian kid who she’d adopted with her older choreographer husband Gastón (Bernal), only for them to give him back for readoption after he burned Ema’s sister’s face. And, in order to achieve that, she embarks on a scintillating romp involving seducing Polo’s current adoptive parents – conventional family man father and seemingly staid mother but with a suppressed and simmering sensuality (Paola Giannini) – torching street lights along with her wildly rebellious friends, and indulging in defiant freestyle street dance. The dazzling shot compositions, pulsating score, euphoric dance sequences and the gritty graffiti-laced milieu of Valparaíso added to the film’s chaotic, scalding, liberating and hypnotic expression of anger, grief, desire, dissent and freedom.

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