Sunday, September 27, 2020

Life's Little Disappointments

 The Disciple (2020) - Tamhane

Chaitanya Tamhane's follow up to his great debut, Court, is The Disciple, about an artist struggling with a life long self-doubt. It might be a more personal subject, but it's even more nuanced observation of life than his previous film. The Disciple shows Tamhane is wise far beyond his age portraying subjects such as ambition, devotion and pride as well as realizing life's crushing disappointments as we age.

Khayal, I am told, is a classical Indian singing style that puts emphasis on improvisation and micro-tonal changes. For devotees of this art, mastering it is an eternal quest. Young Sharad (Aditya Modak), practicing this Hindustani classical music is a vocation he was sort of born into - his father was a devotee of this music tradition even though he ultimately failed as a singer. Studying under his guru Alwar (Arun Dravid) and listening to lectures, given by legendary, reclusive singer Maai, who was guru to both his father (who secretly recorded her lectures) and Alwar. Maai was almost a yogi figure, preaching purity and discipline in body and mind to truly devote to the music. She never allowed recordings of her music nor had her images taped or photographed. Tamhane provides some great night tracking shot of Mumbai, of Sharad riding his motorbike in slow motion, listening to Maai's lectures on tape. Emphasizing the lonely road the young man has chosen. The year is 2006.

Sharad practices and practices while dealing with all the distractions of life - constant nagging of his grandmother, pressure to get a job, loneliness, lust, etc. He is not winning any awards at singing competitions, at least not yet.

Sharad now is a fat middle aged man with a mustache, still trying to get his music career off the ground. He teaches music at a school, still takes care of his now ailing guru, while seeing others, more talented than him passing him by, career-wise. One of his pupil's mother comes to the school asking him for his advice: should her son join a fusion band in his college? He tells them not to come back to school if the young man joins the band. Some TV singing competition shows a young woman's transformation from a homely classical singer to a Bollywood style pop sensation. Is purity of the music and personal pride that important? Even Maai's words get warped in his mind. She directly addresses to him that his guru loves him so he doesn't have hearts to tell him that he is not talented, just like his father.

In one flashback scene, meeting with a rare music collector who seems to have dirt on everybody crushes Sharad's idols, including his guru and even Maai, whom he recalls as a self-righteous, pretentious fraud.

The Disciple deals with any artist's nightmare - total devotion is hard to achieve while living in the real world. In the mean time, self-doubt eats you away slowly over the years. Modak gives a beautiful, heart breaking performance, transforming himself from a bright eyed young man to a defeated middle-aged schlub . Both Modak and Dravid are actual singers and the music in this film is truly glorious. Tamhane again, proves himself to be one of the brightest and most talented filmmakers working today.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Pushed Down the Road

 Nomadland (2020) - Zhao

In the film's prologue, it is stated that the high desert mining town of Empire, seized to exist after the company shutting down its operation during the 2008 economic meltdown. The town's residents were forced to relocate and it became a ghost town. It lost its postal zipcode status even. Welcome to the dark side of corporate America. 

Frances McDormand disappears into the role of a woman living in her van in Chloé Zhao's affecting humanist sketch(es) from the seldom seen Americana. These are people without homes, living in their cars, moving up and down the American West, taking menial jobs to support their hands-to-mouth living in the margin of society. Mcdormand is Fern, a widowed woman first seen in a large Amazon facilities sorting out the orders during Christmas time. She, like many other Americans, take part in seasonal jobs like working in Amazon warehouses.

Fern befriends with characters like Linda May and Swankie, who are playing fictional version of themselves and who are not far from themselves. They all have stories to tell. They are in fact living the original spirit of America, on the road, in their cars, rather than having a picket fences and lawn and dogs and family. The difference is that they are forced to be on the road, not for the romantic notion of free spirited of the American West.

Hitting the road is an American concept. More so than a German (Autobahn and all that) one. I mention this because of I remember the talk I had with the great Berlin School director Christian Petzold whose films often present people in transit. There’s even a paper written about the role of the fugitive family’s white Volvo in one of his movies (The State I am in). He told me that his characters hit the road not because of the notion of some misguided freedom and romanticism which the post war affluence brought- in films of Wim Wenders for instance, but because of financial hardship brought on by global economic downturn. 

I mean, there's quite a bit of romaticism too in Nomadland- because this land is just too god-damn beautiful wherever you go. Arizona's desert, Nothern California's Redwood Forests, Nevada, anywhere Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards point their camera at, there is poetry everywhere, even though in the next scene Fern and her colleagues are cleaning puke stains from the toilet seat of a public bathroom of the camp ground, shitting into the one gallon bucket inside their vans and scraping gunk off the grills of tourist trap chain restaurants. The cars of their choice is not Pontiac GTO from Two-Lane Blacktop or some gigantic RV, it’s modified non-descript van you see in construction sites.

There's a sort of love interest in there too for Fern, in the form of David Strathairn, who plays Dave, an aging dad and grandpa who's been running away from his sons and family but eventually goes back to the normal life.

Zhao is obviously very talented at getting unbelievably natural performances out of professional actors and non-professionals alike. McDormand's performance is undoubtedly immensely moving. Each stories of friendship and human connections are also extremely touching without being ever succumbing to cheap sentimentality. Too bad that music goes all extra gooey. With Zhao's documentary aesthetic of the film doesn't really need any soundtrack other than what mother nature provides, in my humble opinion.

Still, it seems Zhao is headed for greatness. Her ability to find an intimacy between a rock and a hard place is truly remarkable. I hope she keeps it up.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Prophetic Vision of Europe in Philosophical Terms

Malmkrog (2019) - Puiu Malmkrog Cristi Puiu, a director closely associated with the Romanian New Wave, of realist films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Aurora, take a very different approach with Malmkrog, a three hour twenty minute verbose chamber piece and a formalist cinematic daring-do that will certainly try patience of its viewers. Based on Russian philosopher's Vladimir Solovyov's texts in turn of the twentieth century, prior to WWI, Malmkrog's five main characters extensively engage in serious religious and political discussions in six chapters, named after the characters and István, the head of the servants in the wintry manor the film takes place in. 

There are three heady discussions they are engaging in: war and peace, grand vision of unified Europe and the existence of good and evil. It takes a dramatic turn and there is a big tonal shift after the second discussion. The last one-third of the film could be interpreted as a dream or imagined but Puiu decidedly leave it opaque. Malmkrog starts out in a large, opulent manor in the middle of a wintry forest. The structure is in pastel pink, giving it a whimsical fairytale look at its first impression. 

Inside, within very long takes in meticulous blocking, the actors crisscross the screen as they speak on and off screen. Camera pans slowly here and there, but otherwise it's stationary. Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), a wife of a Russian war general starts the film with her indignant support for military might. There is a good war and there is a bad peace, she exclaims. Her view is pitted against the youngest member of this wealthy, aristocratic group, Olga (Marina Palii). Olga is a good Christian and a staunch pacifist. And because of that, she becomes a target of constant belittling, albeit politely, especially by Nicolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), a former seminary student and the host of the manor they are gathered at. The group splits in either defending Olga or chiding her. Ingrida receives and reads a letter from her husband announcing victory over Ottoman soldiers on the frontline. In a letter, he justifies slaughtering the enemies in the most grotesque manner because they roast babies in front of their mothers in the villages they raided. She enforces her assertion that the war is necessary. Olga disagrees. With her faith, she could've turned those 'savages' around by praying. Near the end of discussion just before lunch, in an intense interrogation in defense of her position on pacifism, Olga faints. 

Lunch is served. They are back in another deep discourse. Edward (Ugo Broussot), a wealthy merchant and a gambler, espouses the grand vision of unified Europe. He says because Europeans are the most advanced, progressive, therefore they are superior civilization. And Russia can play a big role because of its proximity to Asia in fending off the influence of Asian nations. Then the discussion turns to the existence of good and evil with Nicolai chiding Olga with her interpretation of the bible verses. 

Of course, in accordance with the era and society, all dialogue is conducted in very proper French. Only other language spoken (very briefly) is German, when Nicolai cryptically whispers to Olga travel paths. Did he see what was coming? Is he planning an escape with the young believer? 

As the second discussion draws to a close, a drastic incident happens to break the otherwise tranquil gathering of the high society: a broken childish song that sounds like coming from a gramophone plays in loop all of sudden and all the servants disappear or not answer Nicolai's ringing bell. Panicked, our guests leave the room only to be gunned down from an unseen force. Next scene is a wide shot of the snowy landscape outside and people calling out Ingrida, who seems to be treading the snow away from the manor. Puiu keeps everything ambiguous from beginning to end. 

The next scene is business as usual. All the guests seem to be alive and well and carry on the subject on good and evil. How do we know that god is good? He can preach us to be good. But is he himself good inside? Olga is pushed to defend her positions. She seems composed but not able to speak anything remotely compelling. This dinner scene with five characters speaking back and forth, is a fine example of how you do coverage and make Bohemian Rhapsody's Oscar winning editing to shame. 

 I don't doubt that Malmkrog's script being as thick as Dostoevsky's Brother's Karamazov. It deals with dense, heady philosophical musings from another century. But context is everything. What these characters are discussing has relevance in pre-revolution, WW1 Europe as well as the age we are living in. 

Veering off the Solovyov's texts, Puiu reinforces its prophetic, dystopic view of Europe - decadent, spiritually hollow, hubristic, jingoistic and also on the cusp of violent upheaval. Puiu being Romanian, growing up in a country in the Soviet Bloc, Solovyov's texts are a good fit for him against anti-spiritualism associated with communism along with many other ills Europe and Russia are suffering right now. 

Malmkrog is a slog of a movie. But it’s truly one of a kind. If you are an adventurous spectator like me and stick to it, with a bit of background knowledge beforehand, the film is a very rewarding and satisfying cinematic experience. This will make a great double feature with Lázló Nemes's Sunset, as a frustrating yet richly rewarding cinematic history lesson and a prophetic vision of Europe.

A Quintessential Almodovar Plus Tilda Swinton in Short Form

The Human Voice Conceived as a short project during Covid lockdown, Pedro Almodovar's The Human Voice, based on Jean Cocteau's stage play, with its popping colors and its melodramatic theme, is a quintessential Almodovar film. It is also a great reflection on filmmaking in the face of a worldwide pandemic. And it's all Tilda. 

In his first English-language film, Almodovar puts his full trust in Tilda Swinton, who, over the years, has become a larger than life international movie icon, to carry the whole 30 minutes alone carrying on an imaginary conversation with herself. 

It starts with Swinton in various haute couture clothing walking around in what appears to be a big sound stage. The title sequence is made up of beautiful renderings of various tools, foreshadowing what's to come. Tilda is in her apartment, a bright colored, stylish multi room apartment that is the typical set-up for all of Almodovar's domestic melodramas. What is different this time is that we can see that these rooms are sets in the sound stage the film starts in. It reminds that everything we've seen in his films previously, however lived-in those rooms seemed, were elaborate sets, designed by Antxón Gómez, Almodovar's long time set designer, in the movie stages. 

It also reminds that his melodramas make you invest in his films to the degree that you suspend your belief that you are watching make-believe, that is, cinema. It doesn't really matter, because as soon as Swinton engages us in her tumultuous breakup story with her lover of four years, we are hooked once again, suspending our belief and being absorbed into the melodrama of her life. 

Swinton takes a quick trip to, of all places, a hardware store. She buys a large axe and puts it in her Gucci bag. When she gets home/stage, she tries to axe the man's black suit that is laid on her bed. Her border collie barks at all the violence. She shouts at the dog to shut up. She goes to a living room and picks up a ceramic tea set, which is obviously a movie set decoration and throws it out the balcony/stage floor. She then proceeds to take colorful pills and passes out on the bed. Then her phone rings. 

It's presumably her lover who she just broke up with three days ago. She carries on a long-winded conversation with him, cooing, pleading and yelling and apologizing into her air pod. It's a familiar scene of love and heartbreak. They had four years of a passionate, intoxicating relationship and now it's all over. They didn't even get to say a proper good-bye and she doesn't want to do that over the phone. But he is not even going to stop by to pick up his stuff. 

As film productions around the world slowly pick up again with limited crew and strict restrictions (daily testing for cast and crew, limited numbers on the set and in premises), this one-person show reflects the state of the film industry today very accurately. 

The Human Voice, in true Almodovar fashion, ends in satisfying conclusion: in flames, where the stage, the make-believe literally burns down. Hopefully, this isn't the first and last collaboration between Almodovar and Swinton, because this short film is an extremely enjoyable experience.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI Reminds Us MLK's Legacy Resonates Now, More than Ever

MLK/FBI (2020) - Pollard MLKFBI

Packed to the brim with historical documents and recently declassified materials, Sam Pollard, documentarian and editor of Spike Lee's films among many others (Mo' Better Blues, 4 Little Girls, Chisholm '72, Venus and Serena) brings us MLK/FBI, a searing indictment of government surveillance and a smear campaign on one of the most revered figures in American history. Based on David Garrow's book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis, where the author and King biographer accuses King of participating in a rape in a hotel room in 1964, based on the declassified, handwritten memo over FBI documents that is now on National Archive website.

With Trump's 'Law and Order' rhetoric rising amid nationwide protest against police violence and BLM movement during the worst pandemic in American history and the nation's top cop Bill Barr's threat to charge the racial justice protesters with sedition, MLK/FBI truly resonates now, more than ever.

Pollard gets it right by framing the film with King's rise as a leader of the Civil Rights movement from Birmingham, AL days, to March to Washington and his famous speech, to LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act into law, to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to his opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People's Campaign, to his assassination in 1968 against the backdrop of the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and the head of the bureau's Domestic Intelligence, Bill Sullivan, obsessing over 'the most dangerous negro in America' and figuring the way to 'neutralize' King.

Threatened by King's eminence as the leader of nationwide non-violence protests, Hoover, with RFK (then AG of New York and later the nation)'s blessings, ordered unprecedented surveillance on him, tapping his and his colleague's phones and bugging hotel rooms where he stayed. Hoover first wanted to tie him with the communists. Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer who served as King's advisor, has had a tie with the communist party. Media also played a big part creating the 'G-men' and FBI culture Hoover cultivated after his own image - a conservative Christian white jockey male. These government recruits were indoctrinated to see themselves as guardians of American way of life and perpetuate white dominance. Communists and their sympathizers were seen as direct threat to that racial hierarchy. It is amazing to see people still buy this belief, since we still witness this in this election cycle.

As the King is a communist narrative didn't bear any fruit, they then switched to more salacious material on his private life as these bugs turned up some goods on his extramarital affairs.

Interviews with the Civil Rights luminaries and King confidantes Andrew Young, Clearance Jones and historian Beverley Gage as well as David Garrow and unseen James Comey, Pollard poses a difficult question on how we handle information on a private life of a public figure, when the source is from a place as prejudiced and biased as Hoover's FBI. 

Pollard also rightfully sheds a light on many uncomfortable truths. However a maligned Hoover is in history books, he was in charge of the FBI for 37 years until his death in 1972. He had ears of the so-called friends of the movement in the highest power - JFK, RFK and LBJ and conspired against King. LBJ and Hoover are even on tape discussing sordid private life of King and what to do about it.

It all came down to a boiling point after King received a Nobel Prize and Hoover called him a notorious liar. Johnson arranged the meeting with the two to diffuse the situation. There is footage of King emerging from the meeting saying the polite conversations he had with Hoover. However, obsessed Hoover played the black deviant card, which dates all the way back to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and sent a threatening letter guised as one of his black supporters with a tape recording of one his hotel room encounters to his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Emotional impact must have been immeasurable to King family. But there were so much work to be still done- Selma, The Voting Rights Act and protests against the Vietnam War.

Pollard is quick to note that general public was on the side of Hoover, not King. Even Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an influential black organization and integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, was not on board with King's stance against the war. He didn't have any business having an opinion. Sounds familiar?

MLK/FBI strongly resonates with what we are going through as a nation right now: Hoover's notion of racial hierarchy is still very much in place in law enforcement mindset as police unions endorsing a candidate whose rhetoric is nothing but racist, so as irrational fear of anything that sounds like 'communism' or 'socialism', putting way too much emphasis on personal lives of elected officials, the list goes on and on. But more importantly, it resonates that no other social movement since King and the Civil Rights Movement, we had a real possibility of a fundamental change in this country, than Black Lives Matter Movement. Those sordid FBI tapes on King are sealed until 2027. We can deal with Martin Luther King Jr. a man then and there. It's his victories over insurmountable odds that we need to take lessons from and be hopeful, not the smear campaign designed to take our eyes off the ball.

Dustin Chang is a freelanc

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Finding Inner Peace in Wondering

The Calming (2020) - Fang
The Calming

The Calming, like its title suggests, is a quiet contemplation of life and on our relationship with nature. Song Fang, who played the Chinese film student nanny role in Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, is a gifted director with gentle sensibilities who has a great eye for landscapes reflecting the mood of her protagonist. It turns out to be one of the best kinds of a 'woman wondering around in unknown places' cinema, one of my favorites, if there's such a genre.

Lin Tong (Qi Xi) is a Chinese filmmaker in Tokyo for an exhibition of her film. It's winter. It is revealed in conversation with her Japanese curator friend (played by Ichiyama Shozo, who produced many films of Jia Zhangke, who also serves as the film's producer) that she has broken up with her long time boyfriend. She tells him that she will visit to snowy Niigata, a prefecture in northern Japan, the setting for Snow Country, a classic modern Japanese literature by a famed writer Kawabata Yasunari. This is where Japanese people go to find a solace and tranquility. Qi's tall slender figure sticks out in the streets of Japan.

We are introduced to a magnificent view of the beautiful snow county, as the train takes her up north. Lin walks in the snowy streets, observes people in the streets, looking into the windows of shops, taking it all in.

Then we are in Mainland China. Lin has just moved to her new apartment in Beijing. She spends some time in her work - talking to colleagues and selecting slides for her next exhibition and such. She visits her elderly parents in the country. Her father's not doing well. The window from her parents’ house gives a view of a forest. She doesn't mention her breakup with her boyfriend when asked.

She travels to Hong Kong for her film, which is about a documentary on forests. She gives a talk afterword and makes a case for watching films in cinema vs gallery exhibitions. The impact is different, she says. While in Hong Kong, she stays with her friend who has a white husband and an adorable son. Their apartment with a rounding terrace again also offers spectacular view of lush mountains, spread out like a backs of green sea serpents in motion.

It's summer. She is back at her parents’ home. They take a stroll in a big park where she used to go as a child. The scenenery with the trees, lakes and bamboo forests are all very beautiful. They go down the memory lane, about Lin as a headstrong child, who'd defied her parents to go to the park at night in the rain and wonder around.

The Calming doesn't offer that much dialog. Lin is not very kin on showing much of her emotions either. Only one scene where we see Lin being emotional is her attending an opera. We see her in the audience, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. It is Handel's Alexander Balus. It's an aria where Cleopatra sings "Convey me to some peaceful shore" when she learned her husband and her father's death.

Taking place in different seasons and regions, shot by Lu Songye, the film is a lush cinematic experience. With Qi almost always in the frame looking afar in profile but never in close up, there's a constant visual dialog between our female protagonist and her surroundings.

The recent Harley Quinn film Birds of Prey was criticized for the actions of its female protagonist predicated on her breakup with her man in finding herself. I believe The Calming lends something bigger than man-woman tit-a-tat. It is rather, relieving of various pressures in life through constant movement. It's a very personal, semi-autobiographical film and doesn't hide that fact. As a quiet observational drama, it has a kinship with many HHH, Akerman, and Varda’s films. With The Calming, Song Fang emerges as a major female voice in filmmaking.

I am privileged to witness the rise of gentle cinema this year and couldn't be happier with masterpieces like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Bas Devos's Ghost Tropic and now, Song Fang's The Calming. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Fast Train to Hell

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) - Kaufman Ending Things The film starts out with Lucy/Lucia/Amy? (Jessie Buckly)'s narration. She's met her current boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) about 6-7 weeks ago (she doesn't exactly remember when?), but she is already contemplating dumping him. She agreed to go on a road trip to his parents who live in a rural farm. It's a long ride during the snowstorm. Does Jake hear her thoughts? He looks over frequently and asks if she said something. She likes him. He is shy, quiet, introverted but intelligent. She needs that. And they have a lot in common. She is a physicist and a poet and a painter and a waitress who needs to get back to the city to take her shift after the dinner at the farm. They have a lot of things to talk about - poetry, films, Cassavettes, David Foster Wallace... 

The awkward meeting with the eccentric parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette) who seem to be growing old and young as the night progresses, lending more to Jake's inner life. It seems pretty clear that Lucy and Jake are the same person and Lucy, however three dimensional she is, is a fantasy character of Jake, who himself might or might not be an old janitor at a high school which he was once a student of. Lucy is smart, assertive in her thoughts, a multi-talented brainiac who is pretty enough but not pretty-pretty - those girls in his high school who shunned him and bullied him. With talking animated pigs, dance sequences and Oklahoma!, 

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is filled with idiosyncratic moments very much like Kaufman's other films. But they can't overcome the film's overwhelming sense of existential dread. Kaufman's neuroses are in full display from traumatized, friendless high school years, consuming books and movies and becoming a reference of a person. Even Lucy, however quirky dreamgirl she is, is just a composite of whatever he got from books and painting and movies. It's a pity that we only see Lucy in the confined space the whole time. I do like Jessie Buckly the actress a lot. But she has given very little to express herself, unlike, say Clamentine from Kaufman scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Jake is a frustrated, extremely insecure man. Even his fantasy is considering dumping him. He sees all the niceties and family life lies. As he accepts a Nobel Prize, and give a speech from some cheesy Hollywood movies and sing a song from Oklahoma! on stage in front of his family and friends who are wearing heavy makeup, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is not Fellini's 8 1/2. It's not celebration of life. Life is a fast train to hell. I mean heck.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Communism to Tourism

Epicentro (2019) - Sauper
epicentro Hubert Sauper, known for his searing documentaries on the effect of globalization and legacy of colonialism on African continent, in Darwin's Nightmare and We Come as Friends, now turns his attention to the island nation of Cuba. But this time, instead of his journalistic, overtly expansive approach which was necessary to shed a light on the issues that no Western countries knew or cared about, Sauper takes more personal approach in Epicentro, perhaps because Cuba, the Caribbean island nation's reputation as America's longest running foe in such a close proximity, has been a known entity to most Westerners. This doesn't mean Epicentro lacks a bite on exposing and criticizing inhumane US policy on Cuba over the last 50 years and the new exploitation in the form of tourism. Blending cinema historionics and geopolitics Sauper creates something that feels pointy yet ethereal and deeply personal.

Sauper narrates briefly about the title of the film in the beginning. He calls Cuba the Epicenter of 3 dystopian chapters of history, the ingredients of building a modern empire - slave trade, colonization and globalization of power. You'd think it would be one of those third world poverty porn. but Epicentro is nothing but. Sauper's usual guerrilla style camera follows a handful subjects - mostly children whom he calls 'little prophets', as they go on about their daily lives - at school, at home, playing in the streets, taking dance lessons, etc. The most striking parts of these children are how vividly conscious about Cuba's place in the world as the sole remaining Communist regime (North Korea is something else entirely at this point) and proud to be standing up to the world's superpower up north for so long. Yes, there are elements of brainwashing, as they are constantly reminded in school and on the streets and on TV of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's revolutionary rhetoric. But is that talk of self-reliance, cemented by decades of crippling economic sanctions, a bad thing? Whether it was Spaniards or Teddy Roosebelt, it was colonialism through and through. American invasion of Cuba in 1898 is based on the fake footage of USS Maine blowing up in which US government created in the bathtub with blowing cigar smoke and toy ships. Every Cuban knows this - the fact Sauper hits again and again throughout the film. Their literacy rate is staggering 96 percent.

First world arrogance is in full display - an American photographer snaps shots of the locals without any consent. They are used to this. Kids pose for him. He goes into their courtyards, snapping copious amount of pictures, through the windows even. Kids ask him for something in return. He gives the kid a pen, turns to the camera and say, "they should be honored to be photographed by me." An old German tango dancer, who is in Havana for 2 weeks, wants to show off his tango in school in front of kids doing ballet lessons. A teacher lets him, while kids snicker in the background.

Talking with the cadre of ex-pats and locals, Sauper juxtaposes the folly and absurdism of tourism industry. It is revealed that the director is a son of innkeepers in small Austrian resort town. In conversation, his friend says there are two types of people - there are normal human beings and there are tourists. There are luxury hotels that only American and European tourists stay. One of the main subject, Leonelli, a beautiful and bright little girl wants Sauper to sneak her and her friends in to the hotel so they can use the pool on the roof. They have a plan. Sauper will pretend they are his kids.

The director's whiteness and his camera adds another dimension to the film. Sure he has been invested in other parts of the world and their people. He speaks their language. But ultimately, he is a foreigner. How do you reconcile that he is there making a film? How much of a blending in really make you a 'normal people' instead of a 'tourist'?

Sauper ties the idea of modern day Cuba, full of intact 50s archetypes - cars, buildings as fiction that provides false narrative for tourists and of cinema: how they resemble, by way of presenting fiction, tourism. Cinema is all make believe anyway.

Unlike his other documentaries, Epicentro is filled with sense of joy and buoyancy. The flow of tying ideas together - past/present, reality/fiction, normal person/tourist, seems natural and even spontaneous. These ideas are imbued in the presence of Oona Chaplin, a Hollywood actress and a granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and daughter of Geraldine. She enacts scenes with Leonelli, sings impromptu Spanish songs with her guitar, an attends the screening of a Chaplin film to the delight of kids.

Epicentro is an intimate, fluid, ethereal film while still being sharp edged in condemnation of the globalization and colonial history. It's one of the truly great documentaries of 2020.

Epicentro launches in Virtual Cinemas on August 28.

Solidarity in Humanity

Ghost Tropic (2019) - Devos
Ghost Tropic
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Flemish director Bas Devos' debut Violet had made an indelible impression on me back in 2015 when I caught it in New Directors/New Films series. With his painterly frames and quiet yet effective use of sound design made it one of the most memorable debut films in recent memory. Ghost Tropic, his new film, not only is just as beautiful and lyrical as Violet, it also quietly reinforces solidarity and comfort in humanity, not as so much words, but rather in images.

It starts with a static shot of an ordinary living room. Devos holds it for a good 3 minutes. Lights change and day becomes night. In a hushed small voice, the narrator, our nameless heroine, wonders if this lived in space would have as much meaning to a stranger or if we would be ashamed of it. By the end of the film, we realize that we are left with a collective memories of human connection.

Our heroine (Saadia Bentaïeb), a middle aged cleaning lady of the Middle-Eastern origin, at a large corporate building, is first seen laughing at a bad joke of a colleague. Their shift is over and they are packing up to go home for the night. The Brussels city streets are understandably deserted. She stops at an illuminated advertisement for a tropical vacation. You can almost hear the sound of tropics. She boards an almost empty train and falls asleep with the sound of tropical bird singing. Then she misses her stop.

So begins the all night adventure of the cleaning lady. This might not sound like much for a film, but with each encounters and imbued images, Devos builds layers of nuanced nightscape of urban loneliness, isolation but also seldom seen human connections among menial workers. The result is lyrical, fleeting sense of worker solidarity without ever delving into being preachy or corny.

Being left at the end of the train line, on the other side of the city, the lady calls her son, Bilal, hoping he will pick her up. But it's very deep in the night. All she can do is leaving him a message. In order to get cash from the bank machine, possibly for a cab ride, she gets into the shopping mall, by the grace of a sympathetic night watchman there. But then she realizes she doesn't have any money in the bank. The night watchman tells her where the bus station is and they bid farewell. But unfortunately, the bus is out of service.

She finds a homeless man on the street, slumped over and not breathing. His dog barks, cautiously. She calls 911. Who's going to care for the dog? A young medic says he will just tie him on the pole nearby until the homeless man gets back. She is worried about the dog being cold, but has to move on.

The lady gets some hot tea from a convenience store. A young woman clerk takes a pity on her and lets her stay a while, since it's cold outside, but only until closing time. The clerk ends up giving the lady a ride home in her car. They talk briefly about their lives. Nothing special. Just a chat: a dead husband. A divorce. Missing him vs. not missing him. And so on.

The lady spots her teenage daughter on the street with bunch of her young friends. She gets off the car and exchange goodbyes with the clerk.

Her daughter has her own life, the lady sees from a distance.

She stops in at an empty house where she used to clean for a family. Yet it seems someone's living there secretly. There are toys lined up on the floor. A young Arab man from the inside the house notices her looking through the window. He brings his finger to his lips. Does she report it or keep this encounter a secret?

And so on and so on. The midnight adventure of a cleaning lady continues. With each encounter and human interaction fleeting. You feel the warmth of their exchange just as of the mint tea she is drinking. You can feel the hot breath of a night watchman as he exhales his vanilla flavored electric cigarette. There is even room for a small miracle involving the dog which was left behind.

Gorgeously shot on full frame, the strength of the film is, again, in its delicate images. It's in shots of glistening plastic chairs, empty streets, a glow of a mobile phone, flickering distant headlights of traffic. I've seen some gorgeous nighttime cinematography in my time but nothing imbues more urban loneliness and isolation than images presented in Ghost Tropic. It's up there with Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit and Nan Goldin's nighttime photography. Yet there is unmistakable warmth in those images too.

Devos created something magical here with Ghost Tropic. Quietly enchanting and delicate in its beauty, the film lingers in your mind long after its initial viewing.

Ghost Tropic opens virtually on 8/28 via Cinema Guild

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Interview: Hubert Sauper on His Intimate New Documentary, EPICENTRO

3 - EPICENTRO director's photo courtesy of Heinrich Böll Stiftung
Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper, known for his scathing documentaries on devastating effects of post-colonial, globalized world - Darwin's Nightmare (Tanzania) and We Come as Friends (South Sudan), changes his direction and focuses his attention on Cuba this time with Epicentro. While the island nation has been a constant subject for cinema for a long time, Sauper's film blends in the commentary on globalization and cinema history through the voices of extremely articulate and bright children. The result is a engrossing, intimate documentary that is poetic and playful as well as biting. This 2020 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner is seeing its virtual opening in the US on 8/28.

I caught him as he was traveling by rail in France. Even with bad reception and constant background noise, I was able to ask him questions about his filmmaking and the world wide pandemic we are experiencing right now.

It’s a crazy time we are living in. I was thinking that this worldwide pandemic seems like a good subject for Hubert Sauper, since you make films about globalization of the world. What do you make of the current state of the world?

Hubert Sauper: It is a crazy situation because the last three years I’ve been making this film about the beginning of cinema and Covid seems to be the end of cinema.

Yeah this is very much true.

The New York premier of the film was the night before the city shut down. I was locked out of New York and it was really crazy situation. So what do I think of it? I don’t really know what to think of this situation. Even what I talk about Epicentro, for us it was a poetic and fantastic way to communicate life and the quintessence of cinema is not just moving images but it’s a collective work and collective experience.


It’s a collective journey. And now it is questioned right? That’s the crazy thing. The thing is Covid doesn’t care about any of this human endeavor. So I really don’t know. There’s so much emphasis on where it comes from and every politician is using it as their gain. Again the reason why it was communicated so quickly was moving images that spread around the world. That’s the power of images.

I get the feeling that if any filmmaker could tackle this, you would be the one who can interpret the situation from a globalization angle.

One of the things I thought in the beginning of it was that I saw two patterns and posted two screenshots on my facebook page –One was a graph showing the spread of covid and the other of the international air traffic. It’s from a website called flight rada. And they were identical. It was almost synchronized. You click on flights and the Covid bubbles of the destinations of those flights blowing up. It is a global phenomenon. It’s very simple as that.

So you made two films on the effects of Colonial past and globalization in Africa (Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come as Friends), but this time it’s Cuba. Why Cuba?

I was interested in figuring out the ground zero of moving images where it became super powerful and important. And it led me to ‘Remember the Maine’ and I built it upon that. It was defacto of moving image industry and business were born. Cinema was just like any other technology. And it was used to drum up the support for the war.

I’m not saying your last films were not personal but Epicentro comes across as much more personal and intimate than your other work. Is there any personal relationship with Cuba?

Well, I’m not alone in saying that I love Cuba. I’m not the only one who is fascinated by Cuba. One of the things I am particularly fascinated by it is that it is a society that is very much isolated and extremely well educated. The roles it plays in political geopolitical arena, repeatedly is also extremely interesting. On top of that, it’s the Cubans’ reflections on the world that is so acute. Whenever I talked with and listened to them, it was a jaw dropping experience. Those little kids, Chigas, that I interacted daily--

The little prophets (the kids in Epicentro are credited as that on the credit roll).

Yes, they became friends for life! I talk with them on the phone constantly. Maybe it feels more personal because for three years of being there and making this kind of film, there’s no way not to be over-contact with your subjects and they are all over the place.

‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ was the question I wake up with every morning. You will have a café latte, which cost 3 times the average day salary of a person there. That alone is a great justification. That alone is cynical way of saying that Cuba is a paradise. It is a paradise if you have means. All these questions and paradoxes exist in Cuba. And that’s what interested me. I don’t have answers for these. I just ask questions.

I was thinking about that while watching the film. I mean, as a white European filmmaker making a film about colonialism and tourism in Cuba, how do you reconcile with that paradox? I find out from the movie that you were a son of an innkeeper in Austrian resort town.

How do I come to terms with the paradox of life? What I am saying is that the chief of Green Peace has flown more on airplane around the globe while talking about air traffic and its emissions. How do you…I mean… at best I am saying I’m a filmmaker and I’m not gonna apologize for making a film, you know?


But of course there are situations that are very critical, for example, we are filming the photographer, poring in somebody’s backyard almost pushing the kids around to stay in focus and I am just another idiot behind the camera at that moment filming this other guy exploiting someone’s privacy. There is no difference between me and that guy in the eyes of Cuban people.

Yeah there is.

And there were about 30-40 people around us when we were there. My point is that the next day I showed them the footage and they were laughing about that footage. It was around my neighborhood where I was living and I asked them permission to shoot in advance and everything.

I was privileged to be paid by European Union to hang out in Cuba for two years.

Two years did you say?

I lived there for 3 years yes. 2 years teaching a class in film school so I could get a legal status and lodging, but all in all three years. I had a studio set up so I was writing, shooting and editing at the same time there. I’d shoot in the day and come back to the flat and edit at night.

Did you have a lot of footage to work with?

Yeah it was physically about a hundred to one.


Right. About 200 hours of footage to make one movie.

It’s ok. I shot a lot of characters. But it’s complex process. How do you portray the psychology of empire. There are a lot of characters saying similar things but you try to get some different angles some are more eloquent than others and some are more interesting as characters. The characters are…I don’t know how to say it, sometimes it takes a form of casting. Sometimes it’s more true…. You are a cinema person. You write for cinema right?

So, I can tell you one thing which sets apart. You remember a group of children at night. One kid says I wanna chew down the other one while telling the story of Cuba, remember that?


That was the moment, I met Lionelli for the first time in my life. Lionelli was among 10 kids who were mostly bigger than herself. She made herself to be heard. And we follow her after that: her figuring out herself in school and blah blah. But she was such a character and always wanted to be in front of the camera, she became my friend. And she became one of the figures in the film.

I love the scene where she asks you to sneak her and her friends in to the fancy hotel pool so she can swim.

“I need to pee.” As soon as she went into the pool. (laughs)

Why you like it is because at that point of the movie, you already know her and you realize that she has something to say and you feel that relationship. How do you say? Disobedience. Cuban Revolution is romanticized because of its disobedient spirit against the powerful. It’s her disobedient nature, going to the pool when she is not allowed to and pissing in the pool, I see the exact the same spirit.
By the way, I took a cab to the train station and she is all over Paris now (on the movie posters -Epicentro came out last week in Paris). It’s a kind of miracle. She wants to be a movie star and she wants to visit Paris. And she has done that now.

I really like your approach in Epicentro in weaving cinema history with Cuba. It is kind of epitomized by the presence of Oona Chaplin. The Grand daughter of Charlie and daughter of Geraldine. How did you get Oona to be involved?

Oona is a very close friend. She spent a part of her childhood in Cuba because her father’s refugee status. When Lionelli was watching Chaplin movie in the film, I hadn’t thought of Onna yet. That scene triggered me to call her. I sent her the footage to LA where she was working on Avatar movie. And she saw the footage and fell in love with the kids. So I said come on over and she did.

Wow, that’s awesome.

It shows that she is not only beautiful and talented, but a very free person. I think she enjoyed to be involved in it too. It was kind of a miracle too, having Oona coming out of nowhere watching her grandpa on the screen with the children on the rooftop in Cuba. It wasn’t in the script that I wrote originally. By the way, my first trip for Epicentro was not necessarily about Havana. It was the idea of Utopia and birth of cinema.

Well, I enjoyed the film a lot. I think it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. But this pandemic is still raging. So stay safe and hopefully you can make a film about the Covid experience, maybe?

I think I’m gonna be OK, if we can keep this magic called cinema, going.

Epicentro opens virtually on 8/28. Please check Kino Lorber website for more info.

Sunday, August 23, 2020


Nuestro Tiempo (2018) - Reygardas
My initial thoughts were right about Carlos Reygadas it turns out. I don't like to disregard a movie as pretentious. It implies that I didn't understand the film and am attempting to disparage it. But even from the beginning, starting with Japon, his first film, with all the critics going gaga over it, I didn't buy it. I didn't buy his supposed talent, his vision and questioned his intentions behind his stunts. Behind every single one of his movie except maybe Silent Light. Why do we need to see graphic sex scenes performed by non-actors? Why do we need to see animal abuse? Why do we need any of these? With each of his film, the experience felt like nothing more than exploitation. Visceral provocation has its place in films. But with nothing more than making its not so subtle points, I thought these scenes were beyond excessive and uncalled for. Just because of the strength of Silent Light, his serene contemplation of faith by way of Dreyer which I liked very much, I've decided to give him another try.

It's a 3 hour domestric drama starring Reygadas himself, his actress wife and his children in his ranch in rural Mexico. The beginning thirty minutes, involving children and teenagers playing in mudflats shot in anamorphic lens flare glories, are stunningly beautiful, if not creepy - like gliding over their nubile bodies which made me very uncomfortable, doesn't factor into the rest of the film at all. Our Time is definitely not about their offsprings. It concerns an open marriage of Jose (Reygadas), a renowned poet and rancher of bulls and his beautiful wife Esther (Natalia López) and a gringo horse breaker named Phil (Phil Burgers). Jose suspects that Esther is having an affair with Phil who is moving from job to job wherever he's service is needed.

It is not quite clear if Jose arranged his unfulfilled wife's affair with Phil from the beginning. But numerous narrations suggest he has something to do with the arrangement. But it doesn't make him compulsively checking Esther's phone for chats and passive aggressively confronting Esther about her lying. Our Time could've gone to the route of one of those cliché blinding jealousy movies or about an obsession. What Reygadas is doing here or not doing here is far worse - Time after time we hear Jose and Esther's narration (both their thoughts and reciting their letters to each other) over beautiful images - most notably over the extended shot of Mexico City at night from a plane as it descends through the fog, but what they are totally unreliable since their thoughts and their actions are completely different.

There is no causality for any of Esther's actions. Is she a nympho? Why is Jose encouraging her to have sex with other men? If he is for open marriage for satisfying Esther and not jealous, why is he still peeping while Esther is having very graphic sex with other men?

None of these makes much sense. It's not vascillation for some kind of resolution at the end emotionally or physically, it's going on like that forever. But is it about communication breakdown between a husband and wife? They talk but they can't articulate themselves? They tussle, throw chairs and still nothing gets resolved.

I read some interviews with Reygadas where he defends the reason for using his family. It's bullshit. Out of convenience, really? Our Time is perhaps the most egregiously self-indulging movie I've ever seen. It's Scenes from a Marriage only on the most superficial level. Even though I give benefit of the doubt in their trying that they are sincere in representing their relationship, I find them and their petit bourgeois life in the rural Mexico so uninteresting and boring.

He also said that it's not about masculinity that only American audiences would think that. It features bull ranch, bulls making horrendous sounds day and night, a bull gores a mule to death and a bull fight ends in the death of a bull at the end of the film. How does one interpret that any other way? This is movie is bullshit. Reygadas is bullshit.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Blood on the Dance Floor

All That Jazz (1979) - Fosse
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There isn't much of a story in Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. It shows Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a chain smoking, heavy drinking, drug addled, womanizing, hard working Broadway choreographer and movie director getting ready for a new project and pushing himself too far and dying in the hospital. Fosse, who directed, choreographed and co-wrote, this is as self-reflexive as it gets, closely resembling Fellini's 8 1/2. From the beginning mass audition scene to the ending Ben Vereen number, the film is spectacular display of dancing talents. It also oozes that unmistakable 70s New York vibe. Scheider is phenomenal, so is Anne Reinking who plays Gideon's understanding ex-wife, Erzsebet Foldi who plays his daughter, Leland Palmer, his dancer mistress and Deborah Geffner, his one night stand. Sweaty, garish, energetic and brilliant, All That Jazz is all show and extremely proud of itself. Good times.

Monday, August 3, 2020

5 Best Japanese Films of the Decade

This list reflects my tastes and preferences only. Please keep that in mind. Not in any order. Please suggest some good Japanese films from the last decade.

Japanese Girls Never Die (2016) - Matsui
With its intentionally jumbled chronology, Japanese Girls Never Die goes on to tell the story of Haruko (Aoi Yu), an aimless 27 year old who works at an office and still lives at home. Then there is an accidental graffiti artists and an anarchic High School girl gang on a crime spree, beating up unsuspecting men subplots. In series of flash forward, we learn Haruko hooking up with a grocery store clerk/childhood playmate, Soga (Ishizaki Huey). She has to deal with daily sexism at work place - hearing male superiors shit talking 35-year old, unmarried female co-worker and constantly being asked whether she has a boyfriend, then told she won't have problems getting married because how she looks. They even say to her point blank that they'd rather hire a 18 yr old girl with no experience rather than a male applicant with experience because they have to dole out more money for a male workers.

Then she goes missing. Yukio and Manabu, two 20 yr olds working dead end jobs and Aina (Takahata Mitsuki), a slightly pumped up version of cutesy Japanese girl decked with a blinged out cell phone and a gaggle of flush toys on her car dashboard, start stenciling Haruko's face from the police missing sign all over the neighborhood walls. The image goes viral and gets tied into the violent crimes perpetrated by the girl gang. In her absence, Haruko becomes a unwitting heroine of a movement.

Japanese Girls Never Die is a strong indictment of the society where girls are subjugated and sexualized at an early age. It's a structurally daring, thought provoking work. Aoi Yu, the baby faced star of millennial classics like All About Lily Chou-Chou and Hana and Alice does a great job, carrying the burden of being twenty something female in society where self-worth is hard to come by. It's crazy to think that Aoi is old and therefore can easily be discarded. What kind of world is this? Even though it's more than a decade apart from each other, it would make a great double feature with Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Bright Future.

0.5mm (2014) - Ando
Clocking just over 3 hours, 0.5 mm tells a sprawling journey of a young caretaker of elderly people (director Ando Momoko's little sister, Sakura) as she travels through Japan. It's a comical, tender and deadly honest look at aging Japan and its seemingly unbridgeable generation gap.

Sawa (Ando Sakura), is a comely caretaker of an bedridden old man- she changes his diapers, cleans his fluid tubes and feeds him every day. The man obviously hasn't long to live. Sawa expertly handles it all. One day, the man's daughter asks him if she's willing to sleep with the dying man- that it is his dying wish, and assuring her that he is quite flaccid. Breaking the agency protocols for a large sum of money and compassion, Sawa agrees to go through with it. But it only ends in a disaster that costs the old man's life. Something breaks in Sawa and she takes off on the road.

Without any money, she witnesses an eccentric elderly man (Inoue Tatsuo) who's compulsively going around town stealing bicycles and puncturing tires. She blackmails him into pressing herself into his life as his live-in caretaker. There are many funny moments in this prolonged segment as Sawa flirts and disinfects his desires, fights off a sleazy scammer of elderly people, until he decides to go to the fancy retirement home, leaving Sawa his long, worn-out winter coat and his beloved old vintage sport car which has been sitting in his garage.

Sawa moves on to another elderly man, a former professor (Tsugawa Masahiro), who pretends to go to teach every morning, but instead hangs out in the mall all day and spends his time looking at dirty magazines instead. No challenge is small for Sawa, as she pushes herself into the professor's life, guising herself as a former student and admirer of the professor, she forms an uneasy alliance with his older housekeeper and caretaker of his bedridden wife. Sawa insists upon taking care of the wife, who must have been a cultured woman, as she sings arias in the middle of the night. The professor was a navy captain in the war. He reflects contemporary Japan's directionlessness. With the collective will of the people, they could've moved a mountain 0.5mm if they wanted, back then. Just like his wife, he too, slowly loses his mind to aging.

Sawa travels to a small fishing village where she meets a slovenly mute boy whom she's known before and follows him to a shack where his brutish scavenger father lives. The boy turns out to be a girl underneath all the baggy clothing and Sawa and her father has several physical altercations.

With these encounters, Ando takes a current snapshot of Japan, where elderly population problem needs to be dealt with. That they need to be respected and seen with compassion. She also vilifies the post war generation who lacks compassion. They are passing responsibilities of taking care of elderly on to the directionless younger generation. In the center of 0.5mm is brave, ferocious, magnificent Sakura Ando. Not afraid of the physicality and wackiness of her character but also conveys deep compassion and understanding Sawa has for her elderly counterparts. With 30 percent of Japan's population over the age of 65, it's no surprise that Japanese cinema is the first to tackle growing elderly population problems. Biting, uncompromising and deeply poignant, 0.5mm is an impactful film mostly because its untethered, sprawling narrative. There are certain new breed of Japanese indie-filmmakers who totally ignore the typical 3-act narrative structure- Sono Sion, Aoyama Shinji come to mind. I see Ando is also the cut of the same cloth. There is a sense of freedom, freshness to their storytelling.

Asako I & II
(2018) - Hamaguchi
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Asako (Karata Erika), a passive young girl eyes a tall, good-looking boy, Baku (Higashide Masahiro) at a gallery. With the sound and smell of firecrackers set by rowdy school boys still ringering in the air, they kiss and hook up, just like that. They become a young couple very much in love. Asako's dependency on Baku is total. But always aloof, he disappears for days on end without explanation. Her friends warn her that he will break her heart one day. And one day, Baku goes out for errand and never comes back. At this point, I am expecting some existential, poetic drama along the lines of Maborosi or Before We Vanish. But I'm wrong.

It's been five years. Asako relocated from Osaka to Tokyo, has an stage actress roomate and works at a coffee shop. While delivering coffee at a coporate conference at the building across, she is shocked by a presence of Baku. But it's not him. His name is Ryohei (Higashide again in a double role) who works for a sake sales company. In turn, Ryohei is extremely intrigued by Asako who seem to have an extreme aversion to his presence. It's her shy but clear, direct stares that draws him in. After multiple attempts with the help of his Chekov quoting, English speaking colleague as a wingman, they hook up. It takes a long time for Asako to finally get over her first love and fall in love again to another man, a very different man who is down to earth and real.

Then Baku shows up in Asako's life again. Now a famous model, he turns Asako's life upside down.

Based on Shibasaki Tomoka's novel Netemo sametemo - Waking and Dreaming, the film tackles on letting go of the first love from a woman's point of view in a very unique way. Hamaguchi has a great sensitivity dealing with delicate subject and make his actors shine. Young Karata embodies depth and mystery of a young woman coming out of her shell without compromising her core self, while Higashide shines in dual roles with great empathy and maturity. All the supporting roles are also great and well drawn out. It is refreshing to see a Japanese film that is modern and direct and not trying to be overtly Ozu-y or arthouse poetic or genre-y, yet very Japanese. I very much appreciate Hamaguchi Rusuke's work.

It Feels So Good
(2019) - Arai
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'What would you do in the face of impending doom?' is the question posed on Kenji (Emoto Tasuku, Your Bird Can Sing) and Naoko (Takiuchi Kumi, Greatful Dead) in It Feels So Good. Writer/director Arai Haruhiko's new film, based on a novel of the same name by two time Naoki Literary Prize winning novelist Shiraishi Kazufumi, written right after Fukushima nuclear meltdown, sees a couple in the precipice of another major natural disaster in Japan.

It starts out with Kenji, unemployed thirty something divorcee seen on a riverbank, fishing half-heartedly, then getting a phone call from his unseen dad informing him that his cousin, Naoko, is getting married. Would he be able to come down from Tokyo and attend?

Naoko is getting married to an older career military man, who is in charge of disaster relief missions, in five days. He is involved in some National Security briefings right now. It turns out Kenji and Naoko share a past: they both were young and very much in love. Naoko even kept graphic photo album full of their sex acts taken by themselves. They tried every position, and everywhere. They used to explore every inch of each other's body. The memories of their affair come flooding back and they can't keep their hands off each other. They will continue to have sex until the day Naoko's fiance returns.

Arai makes sure that we see Kenji and Naoko and them only. We are invited into the couple's intimate bubble. No one else is seen and only heard occasionally on the phone. They go out to restaurants and street festivals, but the camera is only concentrated on them. But mostly, we see them having sex in his old mother's house, her parents house and her big empty new home which she will move in with her husband after the wedding.

Emoto and Takiuchi give commited, brave performances as lovers against socital norms and impending natural disasters. They have great chemistry together.

It is slowly revealed why they are not together. Kenji got someone pregnant and had to marry. Naoko only wants to marry the military man because she wants to have a baby. Obviously they have made some bad choices in their lives, they realize. Incest among cousins is looked down upon in Japanese society. But Japan is also a few countries which allow the first cosins to marry. There is a talk of inevitable eruption of Mt. Fuji, the sacred mountain of Japan. They reminisce about how they made love in front of the large picture of the caldera of Mt. Fuji, swearing their love into the volcano, as if sacrificing themselves to the mountain gods. They even took a picture to commemorate that night. Would they go their separate ways when Naoko's fiance returns?

It Feels So Good's theme is letting all your inhibitions go and live your life the way you want to, because it will all end anyway. Living in a country where natural disaster is way too common and people lead perpetually suspended in temporary existence, Ken and Naoko realize, it's now or never. From their point of view, their behavior might come across as nihilistic, but they are portrayed with much warmth and humanity by Emoto and Takiuchi. If we are to die tomorrow, who are we to judge how others led their lives? Intimate, natural and helplessly romantic, It Feels So Good is one of the best contemporary Japanese film I've seen.

A Story of Yonosuke
(2013) - Okita
From reading a brief synopsis online of A Story of Yonosuke, and with its 2 1/2 hour plus runtime, and the fact it is a period piece (taking place in 1987), I was fully expecting a Being There or Forest Gump type parable steeped in a socio-political survey on Japan's economic boom and its downturn in recent years. In a way the film is a parable, but in the subtlest terms.

It's a winsome tale about an affable young man named Yonosuke (a funny sounding name, I was told), who is not mentally handicapped nor an ethereal butler who may or may not exist. Rather, he is a regular guy who still manages to touch many lives with his gentle, optimistic nature.

Even though the film's periodic details are astutely recreated and observed, it is not the nostalgia piece where someone would say, "Yes, I remember the Yomiuri Giants winning the world series that year". As you delve into Yonosuke's life, it makes you forget the film's artificial backdrop soon enough.

Yonosuke, a college freshman from Nagasaki, is played by Kora Kengo (Norwegian Wood, Woodsman and the Rain). His sharp features and intensity are diffused by his big fuzzy hair and goofy smile. He is an ordinary, good natured kid whom everyone wishes would be their best friend. Yonosuke first befriends Kuramochi (Ikematsu Sosuke) and Yui (Asakura Aki) (they later become a couple), when they stumble into the school's samba club in an orientation week. They become an inseparable trio. After getting infatuated with an older, alluring 'party girl' Chiharu (Ito Ayumi), Yonosuke unloads his feelings about her on the reluctant ears of Kato (Ayano Go), a reserved man Yonosuke mistakes for someone he knows. They also become best friends. Then he meets Shoko (Yoshitaka Yuriko), a rich industrialist's daughter, who is always chaperoned by a driver and waited by a maid. Their class differences provide many comedic moments in the film. A wide-eyed naif, Shoko falls for good natured Yonosuke right away. She even follows him to Nagasaki for the summer break at a moment's notice, bewildering him and his rightfully suspicious parents. Their courtship is perhaps the most beguiling part of the film: awkward, funny, tender and uplifting- as should any first love be remembered by.

"When I die, would anyone cry?" wonders Yonosuke at his grandma's funeral. It's a question all of us ask ourselves at some point in our lives. "No, everyone will laugh when they think of you." Shoko tells him. And this they do. Throughout the film, director Okita Shuichi unhurriedly inserts people from Yonosuke's life reminiscing about their time with him after some 16 years, without sacrificing the film's gentle narrative flow and without corny sentimentality. Their chance encounters with Yonosuke enriched their lives immeasurably and they feel privileged to have known him.

I take the film as a reminder that beauty and kindness is in all of us, in this time of economic hardship/post-Fukushima Japan. It's a warm hearted, hopeful film subtly realized by Okita and its spirit is beautifully embodied by Kora.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

This is a Woman's World

A Portuguesa (2018) - Gomes
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Rita Azevedo Gomes's The Portuguese Woman is a quietly radical feminist film in the highest order. The director's formalist approach here produces a stunningly beautiful images of an unnamed, young Portuguese woman (Clara Riedenstein), a Botticelli-an beauty with fiery hair, as she persevere more than a decade for her husband, Lord Von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), also known as the Lord of Chains (wink wink), to come home from endless war against a bishop of Trent. Mainly situating the camera on Riedenstein with shallow depth of field and playfully manipulating foreground and background, Gomes creates the Portuguese woman's own world in extreme details and full of life that is devoid of the usual drab domesticity of women in waiting depicted in films.

Soon after arriving in a ramshackled castle on the top of the hill, Von Ketten says farewell to his young wife, to go off to war in Italy. As a young, newly wedded woman in a rugged foreign land, the unnamed Portuguese woman seems to be resigned to the fate that is dealt for her. But instead stewing in misery, she sets out to make the new environment home, away from her life near the sea back in Portugal. The contrast can not be clearer - she is a realist, saying excessive love is a dream, not reasoning. While men endlessly toil in valorization of war and honor, she flirts with life's ups and and downs as if everything has equal value, even life and death. It is told like a moral tale in singing, by Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven, who appears throughout the film, twirls around in modern dresses, singing in different languages.

While Von Ketten is wasting away from his wounds in countless battles, the woman delves in many hobbies, bears and brings up two children, flirts with her visiting handsome cousin who studies in Bologna, raises an wolf cub. She might seem lonely and tired of waiting for the man she loves, but she leads a full life.

There are certain filmmakers who uses the static, meticulously framed, tableau style approach. Here, Gomes uses to create frame-within-a-frame, a hidden world. Each shot with its carefully arranged colors and props, resemble renaissance paintings. Radical in its approach, subtle in its messages, sublime in its presentation, A Portuguesa is a stunning film about a woman's world full of life.

Monday, July 20, 2020

A Generation Under Siege

Sacrifice (2020) - Tsuboi
The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 11th of March 2011, which took the lives of 15,000, seared deeply into collective Japanese psyche. There have been films dealing with the aftermath of the disaster and manifested into popular culture in myriad of ways since then. But after less than a decade since the incident that affected millions of lives, its full psychological impact is still to be seen. Tsuboi Taku, who as a film student, worked on set of Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Journey to the Shore, as a second AD, makes a strong debut feature with Sacrifice, an understated, atmospheric thriller/murder mystery concerning the aftermath of such monumental tragedy and its effects on young people. Here he shows a great deal of potential as a writer/director.

The devastating earthquake and ensuing Tsunami happened 7 years ago when Midori (Gomi Michiko) was in middle school. She was known as Ap, her Sanskrit name back then. She belonged to a cult called Sacred Tide where its members believed a great tidal wave would purify the earth once again. She was a special child because of her ability to predict the future, as she did about the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. But she escaped from the cult, in the hopes to have a normal life.

Now Midori is a college student and there's serial cat killer on the loose near the campus. The killer also claimed the life of Sora, her friend from her cult days. Toko (Handa Miki), an inquisitive fellow student, is determined to track down the killer and she suspects a quiet outcast named Okita (Aoki Yuzu) after she finds photos of gruesome cat killings in his possession. Toko is dating a good-natured senior Masaya (Fujita Kosuke), who is busy job hunting.

The cult is disbanded now but it morphed into a black-ops style private military firm, actively recruiting students on campus and scaring the general populace with their camo outfit and close to the skin haircuts. They want Midori back for her clairvoyant ability.

After Okita rescues Midori from threats made by a military man, they team up to find the killer. Okita suspects the cat killings are related to the date of the disaster, 3/11, that the killings won't stop until there are 311 victims that it is somewhat ritualistic in nature.

Reflecting the mood of the nation ailing from economic downturn and natural disasters, Sacrifice touches upon the collective anxiety of the young generation: students are faced with grim prospects of depressed job market after they graduate. They openly joke about their lack of interpersonal skills at job interviews. Some find the private military firm an attractive alternative even though the news of captured Japanese solders overseas constantly blaring on TV.

The film's visual style - large public places, an abandoned factory, the use of wide shots and effective framing, all for the benefit of generating eerie and atmospheric tone, are reminiscent of seasoned contemporaries - Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Tsukamoto Shinya and Ishii Gakuryu, just name a few. Sometimes the run-on exposition heavy dialog feels a little too much for the young cast to handle and wish he could've relied on his visuals to do the talking. But overall, Sacrifice is a brooding examination of a generation under siege by the catastrophe which they still struggle to understand its full impact.

Sacrifice exclusively streams as part of Japan Cuts 2020, July 17 - July 30. Please visit Japan Society website for tickets.