Friday, October 29, 2010


Harud/Autumn (2010) - Bashir
Kashmir, a hotbed of India-Pakistan territory dispute is the subject of Harud (Autumn). A young man, Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), is seen trying to cross the border over to Pakistan only to be captured and returned to his home, to his parents. The village is under watchful eyes of heavily armed occupying Indian Soldiers. Rafiq's brother is one of the thousands of young men who have gone missing since the military insurgence. His mother is still hopeful that her older son will turn up some day and attends rallies by APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons). His father, a traffic cop, having seen a lot of violence, is deteriorating fast due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Rafiq sleepwalks through the day with his friends who are dreaming about escaping from Kashmir. The jobs are scarce for young people and the news of cell phones arriving in town is quite possibly the most exciting thing they ever heard in quite some time.

Harud, directed by a Kashmir born actor turned director Aamir Bashir, is a quiet, understated drama that acutely presents what living under siege is like. Absence of soundtrack and sparse dialog adds to the gloomy, suffocating tone of the film. It's Shahnawaz Bhat's expressionless face that speaks volumes. There is no life left in that blank stare. We see a glimpse of emotion stirring up in Rafiq when he finds his brother's still camera. He has to bear witness to what's happening in Kashmir through the lens. Bashir meticulously builds up to the film's climax which coincides with Eid (a three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan) where a lamb needs to be sacrificed.

Subtlety is both the film's strengths and weaknesses: Harud never lets up its depressive mood and Bashir keeps it from falling into sappy stereotypical situations. With its unavoidable but artfully done ending, the film is a bit underwhelming. Given the heady subject matter, a little harder, grittier filmmaking would've been more suitable to make a bigger impact.

Harud plays on November 1st (7:30PM) at SVA Theater as a part of 2010 SAIFF.

Review at twitch

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

3D Time Capsule

Cave of Fogotten Dreams (2010) - Herzog
This History Channel funded Werner Herzog's foray into 3D filmmaking is a pretty straightforward documentary. Only it's in 3D. It is a rightful companion piece to Encounters at the End of the World where he explored otherworldly beauty of the world beneath the icy Antarctic Ocean. This time, it's the Chauvet cave of Southern France, home of the 32,000 year old cave drawings. Pristinely preserved by landslide covering up the entrance, the exquisite charcoal drawings of lively animals- lions, wooly rhinos, horses and bison had been untouched by natural elements and humans alike until the 1990s.

Just how he convinced French Cultural Ministry to give him the access for filming inside the fragile caves is a total mystery to me- another great addition to Herzog myth I'm sure. Armed with a custom made small 3D camera and with the crew of 3, he shows us under the dim, battery operated cold panel lights (because any other light will damage the delicate environment), the interior of the cave. The crystals glisten, unreal stalagmites and long extinct animal bones adorn the surroundings. But it's the drawings on uneven contour of the walls that are truly breathtaking. If it were shot traditionally, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams would still be an interesting documentary. At first, this 3D project has an air of excess but after a while, it becomes a fitting, not too obtrusive addition. With the help of Ernst Reijseger's gorgeous string arranged and choral score, Herzog lets you in the once in a lifetime experience in a truly unique way.

Whether it was because of its confounding environment or limited resources for Herzog to go all out with his usual operatic visuals- he and his crew were only allowed on 2 feet wide tracks laid upon the surface and 4 hours a day maximum shooting time in the caves, the film is much more introspective. Perhaps it's being in the presence of the transcending, awe-inspiring 30.000 year old charcoal drawings made a cerebral filmmaker like Herzog to turn spiritual? Or seeing god's face in Quaker Oats container in My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done count as earlier indication?

This little experiment (said to be the first and the last 3D film by him) confirms that Herzog does whatever he feels like, never following trend, but with astounding consistency. It fits within his body of work very smoothly. There are many Herzogian moments throughout the film to make diehard fans giggle- (un)intentionally hilarious interviews with kooky scientists and at one point, he says "mutant radioactive albino crocodiles" in his inimitable accent and it's intriguing enough to satisfy general movie going public.

Review at twitch

Related Links:


Reptile Cam + Crack Pipe + Soul Dancing + Wet Underpants = Bad Lieutenant
Herzog's Americana Continues...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Virtual Reality

The Image Threads (2010) - Vijay
What better country to make a film about the internet age than India, the largest IT labor exporting country? This serene, visual contemplation on the nature of the virtual world and finding one's identity in it starts with an ironic quote: "I had a dream about reality. It was such a relief to wake up." by a Polish aphorist Stanislaw J. Lec, which sets the tone of The Image Threads.

An IT professor named Hari, 'pimping (in his own words)' the information technology laborers to the US and Europe, narrates most of the film in philosophical monologue. He sometimes engages in conversations online with a virtual persona who might be either a sultry female model or a man in a mini-skirt or both. Other times he recalls his black magic priest grandfather.

At one point, parallels are drawn between internet virus and the Plague by a girl seductively treading around him, singing the nursery rhyme, Ring Around the Rosie. But the film's languid pace and beauty betrays the ominous subject. Shot in exotic Kerala locale, the film is nothing short of stunning- water stained walls, rusty water pipes, vegetation infused houses, ancient temples, lush jungles, dark caves, bearded yogis, beautiful girls in colorful costumes, sleek gizmos, wires, lights and wikipedia, all vying for your attention. Every frame is work of art. Director Vipin Vijay and his cinematographer Shehnard Jalal often distinguish, then blur the boundaries between the past and present, technology and nature, reality and fantasy, tangible and intangible.

Devoid of any visible narrative, The Image Thread is unlike any film I've ever seen. It is more like a visual essay than a film. To enjoy it, you have to give in to its luscious visuals to wash over you. Calming and hypnotic, it's literally the best films to meditate on.

The Image Threads plays on October 28th (7:30PM) at SVA Theater as a part of 2010 South Asian International Film Festival here in NY.

Link to SAIFF
Review at twitch

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Becket (1964) - Glenville
King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) promotes his saxon servant, confidant, bosom buddy Becket (Richard Burton) first to Chancellor, then to Archbishop of Canterbury- a brilliant chess move to quell his foes in his mind, only to get his heart broken when Becket unexpectedly devotes himself to God, not to him.

Burton exudes his brainiac hunk charisma. But it's O'Toole's lovelorn king who is so much fun to watch, as he tears new ones everywhere he goes. Verbal ping-pong match is not as intense here as in Lion in Winter but this is a great fun movie.

Mother Superior Jumped the Gun

Matka Joanna od Aniołów/Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) - Kawalerowicz
It's the 17th Century Poland. A young handsome priest was burned at a stake for having affair with Mother Joan at the remote convent. That the nuns there are possessed and priests there weren't able to exorcise demons out of the nuns. This is the backstory told to the new priest Joseph.

It's an eerie movie. Jerzy Kawalerowicz has very distinctive visual style with handheld camera movements, first person POVs to convey physical separation of the possessed. No tricks or special effects, no real overacting, but just unsettling in that Eastern European way. There are a lot of lovely scenes: a nun in love with dashing officer singing, tense self-flagellatings of Father Joseph and Mother Joan in a same room divided by drying habits and Father Joseph's encounter with his doppelganger rabbi- one suggesting the other that carnal desire is not from devils but humans, that there are only angels and humans.

Not a big standout Mother Joan of the Angels is, but its understated, visually interesting love story will linger in my head for a while.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Zen & Violence

NYC Japan Society's monthly film series Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House showcases some of the best classical films of Japanese cinema. Based on the Six Planes of Existence in Wheel of Life (Bhavacakra), the film series highlights five Planes, (excluding the Deva/God Realm, Blissful State) with five distinctive films representing each plane:

Ashura/Demigod Realm
is represented by Kihachi Okamoto's bloody samurai epic Sword of Doom (1966). Ashura is filled with jealousy, struggle and combat stemming from being envious of Deva Realm. As Tatsuya Nakadai's merciless swordman hacks away in a violent purgatory, the film is a perfect match.


Masaki Kobayashi
's stunning 1965 Cannes Palm d'Or winner Kwaidan is Manusya: the Human Realm plagued by passion, desire, doubt and pride.

Tiryag-yoni a.k.a. Animal Realm is reflected in Onibaba (1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo), a gritty tale of survival and animal lust in feudal era Japan.


Kon Ichikawa
's anti-war masterpiece Fires on the Plane (1959) represents Preta: Hungry Ghost Realm. Perhaps the most fitting one for its respective plane- the marooned Japanese soldiers in the Philippines walk the plain like zombies, slowly dying of starvation and resorting to cannibalism, looking for the salvation in something as insignificant as a distant bonfire.

(1960), a theatrical, surreal depiction of Hell by the father of Japanese horror Nobuo Nakagawa is Naraka, a rebirth based on strong states of hatred cultivated in previous lives.

It's a rare opportunity to see these classic Japanese films on the big screen. This is an event not to be missed!

The Japan Society's Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House kicks off with Kwaidan on October 15th at 7:30 PM, and continues through February 18th, 2011. For tickets and more information please visit Japan society


Cat People (1942) - Tourneur
Another Tourneur atmospheric slice of cinematic pulp that is way too beautiful, sophisticated and mysterious for what the genre really deserves. Amazing how much he can accomplish with so little. The settings- dark alley, architecture firm office, indoor swimming pool are ripe for showcasing delicious noirish lighting. The eerie mood permeates into the thin premise and elevates it to something more than a ludicrous story about the supernatural. I'd love to get the Val Lewton box set for Christmas.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fantastic World

Marwencol (2010) - Malmberg
Mark Horgancamp in the rural upstate New York is a cross btwn Robert Crumb and Henry Darger, but more personable and less creepy than the two. After severely beaten and left brain damaged outside a local bar, Hogancamp lost his past memories. He only can remember bits and pieces from his belongings and photographs. He was a raging alcoholic and once married to an attractive blond and if his cryptic drawings were any evidence, was a very talented artist. Since his hands are not steady enough to draw anymore, he starts building an elaborate Belgian WWII town named Marwencol filled with figurines of GIs, Nazi officers and barbie dolls. There he projects his fantasies and anger through his alter-ego(a GI doll with a mean scar on his face who owns a bar) and populate the town with dolls named after real people around him. He develops countless war scenarios, takes photographs and documents the on-going dramas of his makeshift Belgian town in his backyard.

Malmberg's documentary is tender and intimate. Horgancamp is never treated or seen as a freak but a genuine folk artist with great imagination. Discovered by a local photographer by chance, Hogancamp gets to share his world with the rest of the world in a gallery show in New York City while we get to learn the reason behind the attack on him. After the beating, even though alcohol doesn't have a hold on him anymore, certain things that makes him himself didn't change.

It's really great for me to see a creative person at work on screen. It really soothes me.

There is an exhibition of Horgancamp's photos of Marwencol at Esopus Space in New York City, a block down from my job. If you are around the area, please check it out.

Marwencol website

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

War Zombies

Fires on the Plain (1959) - Ichikawa
Tamura is in limbo. He has TB but neither the makeshift hospital nor his infantry unit wants to have him back. They are simply out of resources and have too many mouths to feed. Setting is the Pacific theatre in the Philippines, 1945. Tamura wanders on, witnessing misery upon misery of the Japanese soldiers, far removed from honor, dignity and machismo- often portrayed in war films.

There are smoke rising here and there in the distance. Demoralized ragtag of Japanese foot soldiers are never sure whether they are from the native farmers or the yanks. They are famished and starting to die left and right. Then they turn on each other.

With the beautiful, stark black and white photography, Kon Ichikawa succeeds in making a classic zombie movie: ghosts of the war wandering around in rainy, foggy purgatory looking for their salvation in tiny inconsequential things like a bonfire in the field. A powerful film.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Culture Crash

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) - Oshima
I remember watching this as a teenager on VHS. It was cool to see David Bowie buried up to his neck in the ground. I didn't fully understand what it was about though. Now Criterion put out a swanky 2 disc set of Mr. Lawrence, I decided to revisit it.

Oshima examines the dynamics among military machismo, homosexuality, beauty, sadism and generosity in the lush green setting of WWII Japanese internment camp in Java. Bowie is the case of perfect casting here as an object of desire. Young Ryuichi Sakamoto(also did a synth heavy score for the film) is also memorable as stoic Japanese officer who gets undone by a mere pair of kisses on the cheeks. But the standout is undoubtedly cherubic Takeshi Kitano as sgt. Hara. He is likable, terrifying and all too human all at once.

There are some odd choices, like flashback sequences with maj. Collier(Bowie) and his little brother - guilt of leaving his brother to the school bullies scarred him. Not a bad exposition but it's an awkward fit to put in the later part of the film. The swelling music gets irritating at times too. Oshima drives home the message that there are no right side in the war a bit too often. But he doesn't lose the sight on human desire and goodness of human heart. I really like this film.