Tuesday 28 June 2022

Happening (L'événement) [2021]

 Celebrated French writer and feminist Annie Earnaux’s oeuvre was a running fictionalized autobiography of her life and in turn analysis of France’s evolving sociopolitical landscapes. Happening captured a watershed and perhaps the most intensely personal chapter in her life – viz. her decision to have an illegal abortion as a young college student in 1960s France, despite crushing medical, legal and social obstacles, in order to be able to continue with her studies – which paved way for her to become what she became.  French-Lebanese filmmaker Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of this autofiction text therefore was, understandably, intimate, poignant, stark and harrowing in equal measures. And she made it especially claustrophobic through striking stylistic choices – a near-documentary flavour despite the seething emotional undercurrents (reminiscent of Mungiu’s masterful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; incidentally, both films had unsettling sequences on underground abortion); counterpointing of vibrant lighting with debilitating psychological turmoil; and, most notably, placing the camera uncomfortably close to her heroine almost throughout the film’s length, along the lines of the Dardennes’ The Son and Nemes’ Son of Saul. The tightly contained narrative followed Anne (played with stunning restraint by Anamaria Vartolomei) over 9 nightmarish weeks – a brilliant college student with a promising life ahead – as she realizes that she’s pregnant, her futile pleas to doctors, getting distanced from her buddies when they realize her radical intent, her inability to share her predicament with her working-class mother (Sandrine Bonnaire), and the ordeal that she must battle through alone in order to get an abortion. Excepting a sequence towards the end that felt gratuitous and therefore antithetical to the film’s austere palette, this was both a viscerally arresting and politically prescient film.

Director: Audrey Diwan

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Film a Clef

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 25 June 2022

Joji [2021]

 Dileesh Pothan’s Joji was as much a macabre and darkly funny crime thriller, as it was a commentary on patriarchy and masculinity, the arrogance of power and affluence, and the lust for wealth and violence. Either way it was a wickedly delicious work set during the pandemic, and filled with acrid familial fault lines, feuds and outright dysfunctions bordering on the comically grotesque… unsurprisingly, the director cited Shakespeare’s Macbeth as an inspiration. Kuttapan, the muscular, disdainful and domineering patriarch of a closely-knit family – comprising of the physically imposing and short-tempered eldest son Jomon (Baburaj) who’s closest to his father; the whimpering middle son Jaison (Joji Mundakayam) who feels trapped under his father’s iron-grip; the youngest son Joji (Fahadh Faasil) who’s a college dropout and detests his father’s contemptuous attitude towards him; Jaison’s taciturn wife Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad) who inwardly riles at her position as a voiceless housewife; and Jomon’s teenage son – living amidst his lush and sprawling estate in Kerala. Hence, when he suffers a near-fatal stroke, each of his sons react differently – Jomon is devastated and becomes increasingly erratic to the point of insulting the local clergy; Jaison hopes to finally have financial freedom; but it’s the seemingly meek and loafing Joji who decides to take matters into his own hands… and, as he does so, he displays a terrific capacity for smouldering fury, unpredictable ferocity, and calculated violence – with neither patricide nor fratricide being beyond his reach – and Bincy becomes an unlikely ally. Faasil, with his captivating turn as the sociopathic antagonist, led a cast full of compelling performances, in this spare, bleak and minimalist work punctuated with ironies, wry humour and a sparingly used moody score.

Director: Dileesh Pothan

Genre: Crime Drama/Family Drama

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Saturday 18 June 2022

Întregalde [2021]

 Radu Muntean’s excellent new film Întregalde had all the quintessential hallmarks of Romanian New Wave – the kind championed by Muntean himself in his memorable Tuesday, After Christmas from a decade back – viz. narrative sparseness, ultra-realism, formal rigour, voluble script, bone-dry humour, lack of non-diagetic sounds, long and unobtrusive single takes, and near real-time filming. He expertly infused these with atmosphere, tenseness and brewing suspense that made it akin to a slow-burn thriller, in striking juxtaposition to the deliberately paced and darkly satirical human drama. The film began with an exquisite mise-en-scène wherein a terrific tracking shot – with a gently roving camera moving through a crowded space – took us amidst the volunteers of a philanthropic social service group, who’re embarking on trips to small villages to distribute essential items to the destitute on the occasion of Christmas. The narrative then zooms in to three of them – Maria (Maria Popistaşu), Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu) and Dan (Alex Bogdan) – who’re travelling together in an off-roader vehicle to the titular Transylvanian village. On the way they pick up an elderly and possibly senile man called Kante (Luca Sabin) who suggests a short-cut to their destination, and that’s when their lucks take a nose-dive. As things go south in an uninhabited and bitingly cold environ, incommunicado to the outside world, their temper, morality and sense of charity undergo nerve-racking pressure tests. Sabin, an amateur actor and apparently an actual resident of the eponymous village, was extraordinary as the wiry, garrulous and unpredictable man stuck in a time warp – portrayed through audacious single takes where he blabbers endlessly – and served as the fillip to the gripping narrative, and in turn the three edgy, brilliantly enacted volunteers.

Director: Radu Muntean

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: Romanian

Country: Romania

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Hit the Road [2021]

 Panah Panahi proved that he’s his father’s son in his debut film Hit the Road. Even if it’ll take him some time to fill the great Jafar Panahi’s shoes and emulate his voice – and it did feel slight and tad unmoored on occasions, and the cuteness went overboard at times – this charming, effervescent, and funny road movie – a quintessential American genre that, ironically, has paved way for a number of Iranian gems too – displayed in no uncertain terms Panahi Jr.’s storytelling mettle, willingness to use narrative as a springboard rather than an end in itself, and – like his defiant father who’s never tempered his dissent nor his distinctive chuckle – the gall and temerity to tackle politically uncomfortable topics, albeit under the guise of a playful and unassuming exterior, that may not please the authorities. Gray-haired vivacious mom (Pantea Panahiha), gruff but adorable father (Hassan Madjooni) with a broken leg in cast, brooding and taciturn elder son (Amin Simiar), and one of the most energetic, precocious and chatty 6-year-old kids (Rayan Sarlak) imaginable, are on a cross-country road trip in their old and dusty station wagon. They drive, sing, smoke, argue, fight, reflect, reminisce and bond as part of their seemingly aimless journey – through some stunning and excellently photographed Iranian landscapes – while the real reason for their trip, and therefore their possible destination, gradually emerge. That, in turn, provided context to the interpersonal undercurrents that were regularly alluded to until the disclosures happened, and which added interesting emotional dynamics to this tender, bittersweet and featherweight comedy. There were a few interesting asides too, especially a hilarious one involving a motorcyclist who’s compelled to take a brief ride with the family.

Director: Panah Panahi

Genre: Drama/Road Movie

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Wednesday 8 June 2022

In Front of Your Face [2021]

 Hong Sang-soo, poet of the understated and the quotidian, crafted a disarmingly sublime work – delicately laced with melancholy, regrets, old memories, and impermanence – in his 26th feature, and second in 2021, In Front of Your Face. And its striking self-reflexive flourishes and sly infusions of wry, deadpan, self-deprecating humour made it an archetypal work in his prolific but understated canon. The protagonist here is Sangok (Lee Hye-young) – a middle-aged woman and one-time actress – who’s come back to Korea after many years in the US. The gently unfolding narrative captured small yet surprisingly profound moments over 1 ½ days – bittersweet reconciliation with her younger sister (Jo Yoon-hee) who clearly loves her but was left deeply hurt upon her sudden disappearance from their lives many years back; a quiet cigarette under a bridge during a walk in the gardens; bafflement at seeing Seoul’s urbanization (euphemism for relentless construction of skyscrapers) and gentrification during her absence; an elegiac visit to the house where she’d grown up; and a customary extended session of rambling conversations over endless glasses of soju at a lonely café where a garrulous and effusive filmmaker (Kwon Hae-hyo) is desperate for her to come out of her self-imposed retirement in order to star in his next movie. The film, in itself, was captivating in its evocative portrayals, formal sparseness, humane character and Hong’s continued exploration of Seoul’s locales, taverns and back-alleys. And these attributes were made even more fascinating by the fact that the lead actress – a former star in the country during the 80s – was the daughter of legendary filmmaker Lee Man-hee, with whom Hong’s mother Jeon Ok-soon – who was a movie producer – had collaborated on five films.

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea

Sunday 5 June 2022

The Souvenir Part II [2021]

 If “art imitated life (and vice-versa)” in Joanna Hogg’s nakedly autobiographical film The Souvenir, that was twice over in her superb, intimate, nuanced, delicately composed and wonderfully metatextual sequel. Where the former film was about its heroine’s debilitating affair with an enigmatic man – based on the director’s remembrance of her own days as a young woman – the complex interplay of “real” and “reel” were taken a step further as the protagonist here decides to make a film to remember, interpret and understand that tragic relationship, along the lines of what Hogg already did in the earlier one; therefore, like Kiarostami’s sublime masterwork Through the Olive Trees, the protagonist – who herself is a stand-in for the filmmaker – directs an actress who’s a stand-in for her in the film-within-film. And yet, despite the formal ingenuity, the work itself brimmed with disarming simplicity, poignant reminiscences, affecting mix of emotions – joy, melancholy and pathos – and fine evocation of an artist’s startling coming-of-age as a woman and an artist through her art. It took off where the earlier one ended, with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) trying to recover – at the charming countryside estate of her parents (played by Tilda Swinton, Byrne’s real-life mother, and James Spencer Ashworth) – from the crushing impact of her boyfriend’s addiction and demise. And, as part of this recovery process, she first tries to understand who he really was, and thereafter deconstruct her own memories of him and their relationship through her graduation film – a memoir, instead of a social-realist documentary that she’d initially planned for – against her professors’ wishes. Multiple moments of self-deprecating humour and bold stylistic splashes were adroitly blended into this otherwise sombre, muted and self-reflexive gem.

Director: Joanna Hogg

Genre: Drama/Film a Clef

Language: English

Country: UK

Thursday 2 June 2022

Unclenching the Fists [2021]

 Ada (Milana Aguzarova), a deeply conflicted, vulnerable and troubled young Muslim woman – the protagonist in Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching the Fists – is haunted by the past and oppressed by the present; she’s inextricably bound to her overbearing family, while furiously desirous of breaking free; she wants to explore her womanhood, but is held back by fear, shame and denial of agency. These complex dualities formed the crux of this bleak, lyrical and defiantly feminist film that, through its claustrophobic story, covered a woman’s aching cry for liberation amidst political violence, societal alienation and stifling patriarchy. Ada lives with her domineering, over-protective father (Alik Karaev) who she’s desperate to escape from, and her younger brother who’s disturbingly close to her, in the desolate former mining town of Mizur in Russia’s North Ossetia region. She pines for her elder brother (Soslan Khugaev), who’s relocated for work, to return and take her away, while also torn by the amorous overtures of a goofy loafer. Her social construct was further complicated by allusions to the Chechen-Russian conflict, and the 2004 Beslan school hostage tragedy in particular where the siege by Chechen rebels was crushed by the state with brutal iron-fist, leading to 333 deaths, including that of 186 children. Ada was one of the students who survived the bloody massacre; however, she still carries the painful physical scars and debilitating psychological trauma which has made it profoundly difficult for her to have physical intimacy with anyone. Aguzarova gave a stunningly assured, courageous and ferocious turn in this bold directorial work by the second student of celebrated filmmaker Alexander Sokurov – after her batchmate Kantemir Balagov who made Beanpole two years back – to achieve international recognition.

Director: Kira Kovalenko

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Family Drama

Language: Ossetian

Country: Russia