Thursday, October 5, 2017

Syrian Refugee Crisis Aki Kaurismaki Style

The Other Side of Hope (2017) - Aki Kaurismaki
Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 6.22.09 AM
I find it odd that no major filmmakers are tacking the Syrian refugee crisis. Estimated 5 million people fled the war torn country since 2012 and the number easily doubles when you add up internally displaced refugees. I find it doubly odd that it is Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish master of deadpan comedy taking on the topical subject. First it was his French language film Le Havre, which dealt with immigration. With The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismaki lends a hand, with his light touch, on Aleppo, without sacrificing the seriousness of the situation. Surprisingly, the result is an affecting, optimistic look at human kindness and decency. It also turns out to be one of his finest films.

There are two strands of narrative at the start of the film. One about a Syrian refugee and the other, an aging, troubled traveling salesman figuring out his life. Somewhere their paths cross. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is first seen emerging from the mountain of coal in a cargo ship docked at a Helsinki harbor. As he seeks an asylum as a Syrian refugee from Aleppo at a police station, the unsympathetic police puts him in a waiting facility to be processed. There he meets an Iraqi refugee who's been in Finland for a while and seems to know the way around. Khaled is desperately looking for his sister who was separated on their way out of Syria. He likes Finland and wants to get a job and settle down. But first, he needs to not get deported. His Iraqi friend gives him some pointers, "Don't look so glum. Be cheerful. They deport sad looking ones."

Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged traveling man's shirt salesman, walks out on his wife, and embarks on a restaurant business with the money he won at a gambling table. It's a little dumpy restaurant/bar called Golden Pint. The owner seems very eager to get out the dodge, and leaves three disgruntled employees behind- a doorman, a waitress and a cook for Wikstrom to deal with.

In the mean time, Khaled flees from the refugee facility after judge deems that his situation is not dire enough and decides to deport him back to Aleppo. Khaled gets into a fistfight with Wikstrom at a parking lot where he was sleeping. And Wikstrom decides to hire him for his restaurant.

There are many Kaurismaki comedic moments and sight gags throughout the film. His brand of minimalist comedy is truly unique.His cultural references are all mixed up and wrong- Kati Outinen, one of Kaurismaki's regular, plays Wikstrom's client who says "I'm going to Mexico and dance Hula Hula." and Golden Pint crudely changes to Sushi restaurants to attract more customers, serving a spoonful of wasabi on each sushi. When they run out of fish, they use salted herring. It is priceless to see the defeat on the crew's faces as the customers leave in droves.

Khaled is pursued by Finnish nazis with nationalist slogans on their jacket. Kaurismaki encapsulates them in one utterance near the end of the film, showing that nazis, in any country, are ignorant assholes and absolutely need to be eradicated.

Extremely silly and endlessly charming, The Other Side of Hope reminds us that the complicated world we are living in doesn't need to be complicated. Through the Kaurismakian glass, the world is filled with decent people and it remains a hopeful place as long as people help each other out.

The Other Side of Hope plays as part of NYFF 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 10/5 and 10/10. Please visit FSLC website for tickets and more information.

Repressed No More

Thelma (2017) - Trier
Joachim Trier's new offering starts out rather ominously - Norwegian Liam Neeson named Trond (Henrik Rafaelson) goes out hunting with his young daughter Thelma in the snowy woods. But when they spot a deer, unbeknownst to the little girl, Liam Neeson dad aims his rifle at her. The tension builds up, but at the end, he can't do it. So we know, there must be something terribly wrong with our Thelma.

Now Thelma is a mousy, good Christian girl attending college in the city. Except for unusually nosy parents, seen calling everyday to check on her, She leads a very normal life as a Freshman at college. There are little vices around at every corner - the boys, alcohol and weed, the usual stuff. She has to fend off these temptations with daily prayers and atone her sinful thoughts. Thelma has an episode of a violent seizure at the school library. She doesn't remember having one when she was growing up and fear of being called back home, she hides the fact from her parents. This episode introduces her to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a dark beauty who came first to her aid. They fast become friends.

Weird things are happening around Thelma. Her dreams have become more vivid and she can't distinguish if they are hallucinations or her will to make happen. As she falls deeply in love with Anja, her seizure episodes also increases. Through the remnants of her medical history, she finds out that her conditions might be hereditary and her parents have been hiding things from her.

Trier and his writing partner Eskil Vogt wrote a beautiful script once again, this time applying their skill and grace to their first genre film - a Sci-fi thriller. But Thelma is much more than that. Instead of going the route of a typical teen superhero flick, Trier and Vogt portray being an adolescent in its truest form - frightening sexuality: massive confusion where you can't trust your feelings nor your body and the terror of being in love for the first time. Added here is a big middle finger to organized religion, combined with some show-stopping imagery that trier has ever created in his short but fruitful filmography- especially the snake scene and the underwater pool/lake scenes.

Eili Harboe does a phenomenal job as a supremely confused young woman whose power has been repressed for so long. She gives achingly vulnerable performance as Thelma.

Thelma is first and foremost, a love story. It will make a handsome double feature with The Witch as a kind of female empowerment anthem. But instead of being cynical, something to fear and gaze at, girrrl power in Thelma is a sweet, positive and dare I say, life affirming affair.

Quiet Catharsis

Zama (2017) - Martel
Lucrecia Martel suggested in her introduction to her sold-out screening of the much anticipated follow-up to Headless Woman that we audience might want to take in Zama like a whiskey. Indeed, it's a heady, at times bitter, at times sweet hallucinatory trip to the heart of darkness, showing the white man's identity crisis and misguided manifest destiny in the colonial era Latin America.

The film is a historical period piece, based on the much praised Latin American classic literature by Antonio di Benedeto. It's a hugely ambitious undertaking for Martel with just 3 films under her belt. But if anything, Zama confirms Martel one of the greatest directors of our time. Her mastery over the medium both in complex narrative storytelling and technical ingenuity has grown to exceptional height with Zama.

Don Diego de Zama (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho with an impressive Romanesque nose), a magistrate stuck in some unnamed South American colonial town deep inland in the 18th century, is anxiously awaiting to hear from the Crown (of Spain), his new assignment to the city. Even though he is a man of certain position and been stationed there for a while, he can't ever seem to get ahead or get what he wants - the letter of transfer never materializes, his rival Ventura (Juan Minujín) is much better at kissing asses and the local society lady de Luenga (Lola Dueñas) flirts with him but wouldn't give in.

Zama doesn't fair well with the natives either- seen in the beginning peeping at nude women taking mud bath and getting caught. He also has a nagging native woman he had an invalid child with. And the thought of the existence of this child weighs in his conscience like a brick. His misplaced valor to protect three virginal sisters is always overshadowed by the overhanging threat of a mythical bandit named Vicuña Porto who is notorious for raping and pillaging.

After physically threatening Ventura over de Luenga, Zama is demoted and moved out of his semi-opulent living quarters to a squalor with rotting walls, just outskirts of a city. At the governor's insistence and a promise of recommendation letter to the Crown, he delivers a scathing review of a book written by a well-meaning, trusting young civil servant (the governor can't stand the thought of the young man wrote the book while on the job). But no matter how many favors, how many people he fucks over, Zama realizes that he won't be leaving the backwater town any time soon.

Fallen out of favor and aging, Zama reinvents himself as a guide to the band of soldiers in the late stages of colonization. As they advance inland, they are terrorized by the red body paint natives who populate the land. Fighting with the elements and among themselves (one of the soldiers claims to be the elusive Vicuña- is he really? Does it even matter?), Zama and the men get completely lost in the strange land.

There have been countless other films about the white men's delusion of grandeur- Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now! easily come to mind. With Zama, along with lyrical Jauja few years back, directed by fellow Argentine Lisandro Alonso, Martel captures the existentialist angst in the age of colonialism/ad infinitum in Latin America with astonishing efficiency and grace. Shooting digital for the first time, Martel and her Portuguese DP Rui Poças (Tabu, The Ornithologist, To Die Like a Man), create lush, bright palates that are intoxicating and hallucinatory.

Martel's mastery of the cinema medium as sensory medium first and foremost is nothing short of brilliant. She subjects us to painterly framing and exceptional sound design in every scene. Those of you who followed her trajectory closely through La Cienaga, Holy Girl and Headless Woman and have been admiring her artistry will be richly rewarded here - a carefully measured framing where people's faces are just off the frame, shallow depth of field, soft focus, the full use of background/foreground and the use of dialog fading in and out with internal monologue thrown in, just to name a few.

She also uses the Shepard Tone whenever there is a dramatic moment for Zama. The tone is an illusory aural phenomenon that creates continuously swelling sound which builds tension and suspense. All these are very simple methods and not radical experiments at all, but it's Martel's simple approach that makes everything so fresh and radical. As you watch Zama, you can't help but feeling that you are watching a true cinematic masterpiece.

Finding the Latin American identity, as European settlers and their offspring, has been the continuous source for great literature over 300 years. Throw in the idea of class, masculinity, racism, sense of belonging, you get a very complex picture of what makes up the theme of Zama.

As usual, in Martel's hands, what seems to be an extremely messy affair at first, the sense of cohesiveness emerges from the chaos, then the sense of warm comfort wraps around the whole experience. Even though Zama is a lost character who goes through traumatic experiences, there is sense of catharsis that is reached in the last moments of the film. That he finally found home, that he reached his el dorado, imagined or otherwise. Zama is a utterly brilliant film. See it on the big screen if you can.

After two soldout screenings, NYFF decided to add the third screening of Zama on the last day of the festival, 10/15. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.