August 26, 2015

Devils on the Doorstep – Commoners Entangled by the Forces of History


                                            Chinese films depicting Sino-Japanese war often tend to be melodramatic, imbued party ideologists’ version of Japanese occupation in China. Movies portraying the bloodcurdling massacres perpetrated by Japanese army take a docudrama approach and admits in  lot of gore that are associated with the horror movie format. “City of Life and Death”, “Black Sun” and “Don’t Cry Nanking” are some of the Chinese films that portray the brutalities endured by Chinese masses during the WWII occupation, but these films only serve to educate Chinese audiences about the devils & enemies of past (Communist party’s account of the past) and often fails to generate a impact on global audiences. Jiang Wen’s “Devils on the Doorstep” (2000) is one of the rare Chinese films that replace the propagandized view for a humanistic view. It is a film which is not made for nationalist or educational purposes, but makes every viewer around the world to show immense respect for the innocent individuals (and mourn for their loss), who lost their lives during that deplorable period in Chinese history.

                                           And, of course “Devils on the Doorstep” was immediately banned (after winning Grand Jury Prize in 2000 Cannes Festival) in China and actor/film-maker Jiang Wen was shunned from directing films for seven years. Since the victims and perpetrators of that period are showcased as humans caught in the absurdity of war, it might not have appeased the Chinese censors. On the outset, the ‘devils’ in the film’s title might seem to indicate the ‘Japanese invaders’, but as the narrative progress, the meaning of ‘devils’ elusively changes. The tone (especially in the second-half) and the depiction of top military brass characters reminded me of Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece “Paths of Glory” (1957). The foremost shot of “Devils in the Doorstep” establishes how it differs from the typical ‘Japan Occupation’ flicks. The narrative is set in a remote village on the Chinese coast, known as ‘Rack-Armor Terrace’, and the year is 1945, few months before the end of WWII. The children of the village are waiting for the Japanese naval band that marches through (playing the famous warship march), whose captain liked to bestow candies on the hands of gleeful Chinese children.


                                          The Japanese soldiers, waiting for their turn to show bravery & heroism, don’t have much to do in this coastal village, except to March and demand chickens from the villagers. The average peasants aren’t plotting with Chinese republicans or communists to kill the Japanese ‘devils’. The innocent people are just content with their life and kow-tows, whenever the Japanese threaten them with a gun. Ma Dasan (Wen Jiang), the story’s protagonist, is one day interrupted during his surreptitious lovemaking session with Yu’er (Yihong Jiang), a widow with a 10 year old son. A stranger, whose face is masked by the darkness of the night, threatens Dasan at a gunpoint and drops two human-filled sacks at his doorstep. The stranger instructs to keep them healthy till he comes to collect them on the eve of Chinese New Year and also asks him to interrogate them.  


                                         The two men in the sacks are: Hanaya Kosabaru (Teruyuki Kagawa), a Japanese sergeant captured from a nearby outpost; and his Chinese translator Hanchen Dong (Yuan Ding). The village men gather under old patriarch (Zhijun Cong) decides that it is best to follow the stranger’s orders rather than turning them over to Japanese blockhouse in the village. The Japanese sergeant spews words with animalistic intensity and dares the villagers to kill him, while his Chinese counterpart translates incorrectly to imbue a genial feeling with the villagers. As winter is approaching, Ma Dasan and Yu’er, tie their prisoners with blankets, and keep them in the barn. The couple tends to their wounds and even smuggles in white flour (a rare thing to be found in the village) to make delicious dumplings. New Year’s Eve comes and goes, but the stranger who dropped these men doesn’t arrive.


                                          The Japanese soldier tries different tactics to announce his presence in the village to his fellow countrymen, who marches through routinely. Although these efforts fail, the villagers grow more anxious about the dangers of keeping these prisoners. Once again, under the decision of old patriarch, the men decide to kill the two, but it is easily said than done. The job falls in the hands of unlucky Dasan as the other village men volunteer to dig the pits. Dasan panics and hides the prisoners in the Great Wall. When the villagers discover what Dasan has done, they turn against him (except for Yu’er, who thinks that if Dasan kills them, it would curse the child on her belly). The men conjure up other plans to cast aside this prisoners’ problem (some of these plans veers into slapstick territory), but when Japanese Captain Inokichi Sakatsuka (Kenya Sawada) enters into the narrative, we witness a most disturbing & darkly comic final act.

Spoilers Ahead


                                           Wen Jiang’s protagonist differs immensely from the typical heroic figure we often see in these kinds of crisis films. Ma Dasan is a slightly irresponsible man with no family. He panics and runs away from problems, but these characteristics don’t make him an anti-hero. We could empathize with Ma Dasan and identify with his dilemmas. The villagers aren’t portrayed by adhering to the rules of ‘simple-minded stereotype’. They can be hypocrites too (look at their reactions when they learn that Dasan has botched the killing plan). Despite that nightmarish massacre scene towards the end, the Japanese aren’t shown as devils; they are just depicted as commoners who are ready to commit gruesome acts, in the name of loyalty and obedience.  There are times when we could empathize with Hanaya, especially when his false bravado drops in front of the villagers. Such subtle characterizations of the Chinese and Japanese tend to be humanistic rather than the usual good vs bad conflict.

                                        Although the events in the film unfold in simple monochrome, this vital & grim historical chapter is seen in a more rational & complex manner. Wen Jiang’s movie doesn’t try to reconstruct its judgement on the Japanese occupation of China. In fact, Jiang uses subtle ways to depict the brutality and bloodshed endured by the Chinese. The villagers are always remain alert towards the Japanese threat, but the director’s choice to imbue little perspective of Japanese side is what made his film to be banned in China. Jiang was accused of reviling Chinese and beautifying their old enemies, while few on Japanese side condemned the way Jiang presented the Japanese military. It is an irony that “Devils on the Doorstep” is misinterpreted for what it’s not, since one of the main themes of the film itself is ‘misinterpretation’.


                                      ‘Devils’ is associated with the ‘comedy’ genre and at times Jiang was condemned for diffusing humorous incidents within this grim historical chapter. This film was Jiang’s second directorial effort and so he couldn’t elegantly handle some of the wild tonal fluctuations (especially the assassin hiring sequences, which looked like boisterous comedy). However, we could note the fact that all the comic elements rise from a form of ‘misinterpretation’. Initially, the language barrier creates the humorous situations. Hanaya aks the Chinese translator to teach him some Chinese curse words. When the Japanese soldiers says those taught words with a fiery passion, Ma Dasan and Yu’er are stunned in an amusing manner, since the translator has only taught the Japanese sergeant to say: “Happy New Year Brother and Sister-in Law! You are my Grandfather and I’m you son!” In another scene, the captives teaches a child to say the Japanese words, which means “Japanese in the Great Wall”, when the child is about to go to receive his routine candy.  There is also a senile old man (Yu’er’s father-in-law) who fervently articulates: “Leave those turtle-fuckers to me! I’ll throttle them”.


                                          All these aforementioned lines evoke laughter, when used under particular circumstances. But, these same lines are said during that distressing finale, and now we are allowed to interpret the same words from the brutal viewpoint of Captain Sakatsuka. The captain views these words plus the laid-back attitude of the villagers as a blot on his military honor, and so incites his loyal compatriots to wield the sword on the common folks (including children & old people). The villagers throughout the film are afraid that their acts would be misinterpreted as ‘collaboration’ (either by Chinese fighters or Japanese invaders). The narrative brilliantly showcases how misunderstanding or misjudging takes countless forms and differs from each individual. Hanchang Dong’s role (the Chinese translator) during the Japanese occupation is misinterpreted and so is Dasan Ma’s final act. Director Wen Jiang during the final 10 minutes depicts the muddled and gleeful political nature of the misinterpretations. It shows how we humans are taught to misinterpret and how brutalities are justified through these misconceived ideals.


                                           The complicated questions Wen Jiang rises in the end is pretty evident. He isn’t content to finish the film with the brutal massacre of the village. The Chinese in the end take a cruel stand, while Japanese are in the sidelines as surrendered puppets, who has retained their so-called bravery and heroism.  Director Jiang explores how even when the roles have changed after the end of WWII, the brutalities and carnage flourished, only now with a different set of ideals. Eventually, both Ma Dasan (Chinese) and Hanaya (Japanese), who hail from the ranks of commoners & peasants, seems to have been caught in what’s known as ‘absurdity of war’ that are conceived by those with a warped sense of national identity. Wen Jiang’s visual styles behind the camera aren’t as adorable as his complex themes. He often thrusts with a close-up and follows every dialogues pronounced. But this little exhausting visceral mode doesn’t affect or distract our attention towards the characters and themes. The other minor flaw in the movie is that Jiang hasn’t penned well developed female characters (even Yu’er seems to be an under-written character).  


                                          “Devils on the Doorstep” (139 minutes) is one of the rare, humanistic treatment of the war trauma endured by Chinese during the Japanese occupation. The ironic and indignant portrayal about the madness & fatuity of warfare also makes it as one of the best anti-war films. 

Trailer



Devils on the Doorstep aka Guizi lai le -- IMDb

August 21, 2015

Harry and Tonto – A Perceptive & Unpretentious Road Movie


                                           Old men hitting the roads for a farewell or a rejuvenating journey are one thing Hollywood loves to do and most of the time gets it right. “Straight Story” (1999), “About Schmidt” (2003) and “Nebraska” (2013) are some of the road movies involving elderly people that made an everlasting impression on me. These kinds of road movies genuinely portray the inner turmoil faced by people of that age and at the same time avoid the chances of providing morbid diatribes. Also, the easygoing look at America in these films provides a valid counterpoint to anti-establishment road movies like “Easy Rider” (1969). Paul Mazursky’s “Harry and Tonto” (1974) charts a kind of farewell, cross-country journey made by 72 year old guy to meet his children. Harry’s celluloid journey seems to be the inspiration for those aforementioned road trips of Mr. Straight, Warren Schmidt and Woody Grant.  


                                        What makes Mazursky’s film more superior to other road movies is that this isn’t a contrived trip of self-discovery or a mission to find life’s pleasures. Harry has no great objective here; he just adapts to the highs and lows of life journey with the same unabashed nature. There is no heightened sense of melodrama or social protest or rambling on the American counterculture. “Harry and Tonto” opens with a montage of old people, sitting on the roadside benches or walking through the dirty streets of New York City. The story’s protagonist Harry (Art Carney) emerges as one among the crowd with his beloved companion, a cat named ‘Tonto’.  Harry, a widower and retired teacher is seeing the transformation of his Manhattan neighborhood for the worst. He has been mugged four times within a short span, and almost run over by a ‘big gray job’, which his good Polish friend Jacob Rivetowski (Herbert Berghof) calls as the vehicle of a ‘capitalist bastard’.




                                      He is nostalgic about the life he had or the moments he missed, like all of us. Harry is particularly irked about the eviction notice on his apartment (a parking lot is going to be raised there). Soon, Harry is forcibly evicted (carried to ground floor from his favorite chair) and he goes to live with his elder son Burt (Phil Burns) in a suburban neighborhood. His presence there obviously puts some kind of emotional strain on Burt’s wife Elaine. Also Burt has enough problems with his two young sons – Norman (Josh Mostel) and Burt Jr. Norman has taken a vow of silence and chosen macrobiotics, while Burt Jr. plainly hates Norman for that. The dinner conversation even digresses to the various types of drugs Burt Jr. has stuffed up his nose. Harry knows that he can’t forever share a room with his silent grandson on this calm neighborhood. He opts to make a cross-country journey to Chicago to meet his estranged daughter, Shirley (Ellen Burstyn). The resulting bittersweet journey is made of small wonderful moments, without ever getting mawkish.




                                  
                                 “Harry and Tonto” made a great impression on me mainly because of the way Art Carney subtly portrays his character, with some excellent, observant dialogues written by Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld. Mazursky is said to have offered the role of Harry to iconic actors like James Cagney and Laurence Olivier, but Carney’s voice and those little inflections shuns us from thinking any other actor on this role. While director Mazursky has done his best to avoid a lot of pitfalls that might plague this kind of road movie, there are still few melodramatic moments, which were transformed absolutely my Carney’s low-key performance. Apart from the soulful monologues (“You never feel somebody’s suffering; you only feel their death”), three sequences I thought Carney played the characters’ emotion to perfection: when Harry arrives to say a final goodbye to his friend Rivetowski; the poignant dance sequence with Jessie Stone, a sweet-heart from the past; and when Harry says goodbye to his 10 year-old companion Tonto in a reduced emotional state.




                                     Harry is characterized with the ideology that life is worth living or worth the experience, despite the mistakes we made or tragic events we went through. This naturalistic attitude of Harry is well realized throughout the film. Harry tries to understand the transformation that is going around him with a freshly acquired wisdom or perspective. He is obviously shocked or irked by certain behaviors of the youngsters (“Oh! This must be the Pepsi generation”). At one point, he even utters “Guess I am little too old to readjust my thinking”, but Harry isn’t too old-fashioned (despite being a teacher) to bring down lectures. He understands the absurdity of Norman’s stand, but he treats him with respect (“Is there any literature specifically relating to what you are doing?”). Harry knows that he is a lonely man and his soliloquies with Tonto convey that feeling, but at the same time, he also embraces the independence the life has given him. The self-respect this old man has for himself is the greatest life lesson we could adopt.

 


                                  
                                 Director Paul Mazursky makes naturalistic hero figure to come across a variety of elderly people, who are all beset by their own financial & health problems or kicking against the tides of life, like Harry. All these multifaceted characters (who occupy the screen space for a very brief time) convey the different kind of feelings when people reach a ripe age. Mazursky has also made Harry, staying true to his teacher or the early singing roots, to often eloquently relates his present circumstance with a song or literary verse. Mazursky marvelously uses his understated dialogues to create the right mood (solemn or humorous). The sequence between Harry and an Indian medicine man (Chief Dan George) in the holding cell is the perfect example for the writer & director’s restrained nature. Dan George’s solemn commentary on the television shows, baffling expression at the mention of Tonto (legendary fictional Native American character) and the yearning for an electric bender generates few chuckles. The comic parts in the film don’t rise from making fun of the characters, but rather through exhibiting the attitude of a character on a particular aspect of American society. The other little, wondrous vignettes I liked were Harry taking in the hitchhiking 16 year old, Ginger (Melanie Mayron); the episode with a elderly cat salesman driving around in a weird van; and Harry’s conversation with his bedraggled younger son in California.



                              “Harry and Tonto” (115 minutes) is a bittersweet journey of a tender & mirthful old man, who is always on the lookout for life’s magical moments. It must be watched for the nuanced & elegant performance of Art Carney. 

Trailer


August 18, 2015

The Engrossing Investigation of Korean Republic’s Notorious Serial Killer



Spoilers Ahead
                                            

                                           Serial killing has gained enough prominence in the industrialized modern society. Violence might be often quoted as ‘a means to an end’, but serial killing or the aimless predatory jubilance in killing makes an individual to question the pointlessness within an industrialized or mechanized economy. The horrifying fact about serial killers is that they are not monster with fangs; but just a normal inconspicuous human, who has all the social skill to blend with his environment.  American crime fiction writer James Ellroy states: “Serial killers are scary in the moment and as dismissible as an empty box of popcorn”. A majority of movies or novels based on real or fictionalized serial killers tend to charge up the popcorn factor by accumulating gruesome moments or unexpected twists.



                                         Nevertheless, we rarely come across films that try to picture the chaos experienced by the society due to such pointless murders. Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) & Shohei Immamura’s “Vengeance is Mine” (1979) are few ‘deep crime’ works that uses serial killings to look into the moral sordidness of modern society and the pervading public hysteria or private madness.  South Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003) belongs alongside the revered ‘deep-crime’ films. The Korean film is based on the series of unsolved sex murders that happened between 1986 and 1991 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Joon-ho’s visual compositions and narrative, on the surface, seems to follow the paradigm of serial killer flicks, but only with repeated viewings we can fully contemplate the director’s subtlety and the way he develops the complex themes.



The Absurdity of Incompetent Men & the Unbridled Social Changes



                                         The foremost surprise in “Memories of Murder” is its protagonist detective Park Doo-Man (Kang-ho Song), who is the exact opposite of what we expect in this kind of investigative thrillers. He is not just incompetent; he plants false evidences, tortures the suspects and meets a shaman to find out the killer’s face. Park’s obedient side-kick, Detective Yang-Koo (Kim Roi-ha) kicks like an action hero and leaves the thinking to his superiors. Apart from these two men, the police chief and the forensic department men also seems to be slothful creatures. The victims, mostly young girls, are found in ditch or in wheat fields, hands bound back, face covered by panties and neck revealing strangulation marks. The 1980’s Korea might not have had the modern, sophisticated methods, but then Park lack the basic detective skill, like securing a crime scene.




                                      The chaos in the crime scene in wonderfully exhibited by Joon-ho’s in a slow tracking shot (after finding the 2nd victim), where media people stamping through the crime scene before forensics’ guys. Park marks the foot-print left out by the killer, which is later rundown by a tractor, driven by a farmer. At one point, we wonder what characteristics got them these detective jobs. Park and Yong-joo was the product of the authoritative society that needs men to pack a punch rather than think. The mid 1980’s in Korea witnessed radical political & social transformation and there were massive demonstrations by university students demanding free elections from the military regime.




                                     The police chief asks for men during a night he is sure that the killer would strike, but he is answered that all men have gone to quell protests (and an innocent victim is killed that night). We also see Yang-goo’s effectiveness as a law official in one brief scene as he drags a university student by holding onto her hair. Policemen dragging the citizens into torture dungeons are a common thing in authoritative regimes. Although “Memories of Murder” isn’t a film about radical student protests or remorseful law-holders, in one vital scene, a fight ensues between Yang-koo and a group of students, which in a way disrupts the investigation and claims a life. The demand for a new, liberalized society plus the purposelessness of the killing only baffles Park & Yang-koo, and so they resort back to what they know: tortures & planting evidences.



The Unforeseeable Transformations



                                      On the surface, Bong Joon-ho’s works – “The Host” (monster movie), “Mother” (mystery/thriller) and “Snowpiercer” (action/thriller) – represents something generic, but these transformations or the ‘blurred line’ is what makes the director’s work more engaging.  The arrival of Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a smart detective from Seoul, brings some sensibility to the investigation. His calm & methodical approach is often mocked by Park, but provides crucial answers to the murders. Tae-yoon would be the perfect protagonist in a police procedural, but this being Joon-ho’s movie transformations always happen with the characters. Seo, the man who believes in the truth shown by documents (“documents never lie”), finds himself tested at a crucial point. The transformation, nevertheless, isn’t the typical good-to-bad sort of thing. Seo as well as the viewers finds themselves emotionally rattled during this transitional, final tunnel sequence, grasping for an elusive answer. The erratic behavior of Seo would be devastating for viewers as the general belief in the end is that chaos pervades over order.  



                                         Park initially comes off as a despicable guy and we wonder why the director chose him to be the protagonist. Although Seo is the face of the investigation, Park seems to be the face of 80’s Korean society. He boasts “My eyes can’t be fooled”, despite the fact that his intuition fails every time. Park’s only attempt to imitate Seo’s methodic approach becomes laughable (the sauna scene). However, as the narrative proceeds, Park comes to terms with his incompetence, arrogance and the largeness of the crime. The fate of Park’s side kick Yang-koo (there is a poetic shot of Park looking at Yang-koo’s cloth-covered shoe), the closeness of his nurse girlfriend  & death of Kwang-ho brings about changes in him, which makes us to see him with empathy.





Bong Joon-Ho’s Visual Excellence and Changing Perspective



                                       Director Bong Jong-ho never allows us to settle with a single point-of-view. At first, from Park’s perspective we see the bodies, then from Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon’s point-of-view, we get to know about the killer’s choice of victim & method. For brief times, we even share the victim’s perspective. We see a woman doing her domestic chores. She seems to have read about the killer as she removes her red overcoat. We follow her torch trails into a dark field, on a rainy night. Eventually, we even get the killer’s perspective, as he stands among the trees in night, choosing between two women as they walk past each other. Towards the end, the killer picks up a high-school kid and goes through her belongings. We see a greased spoon, a geometry box etc and dread creeps into us, hoping that someone would turn up. The killer places his victim in a small hillock, facing the city. In the city, a siren goes off signaling the usual blackout. As the killer starts his gruesome act, the camera observes the shutters coming down in ships & lights gradually going off in the streets. The director places the shot as if the whole city is turning its back on this innocent girl.




                                     In the desolating final tunnel sequence, the suspect walks into the darkness as the viewers’ & detectives’ final hope is extinguished. Joon-ho captures the exhausted detectives from the inside of tunnel. The shot is ironic, since the detectives, whom we think would provide ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, itself stand & shrouded by elusiveness and grimness.  Some of the few other images that stayed in my mind includes: Seo standing over a large trash heap, in search of vital evidence (it indicates the enormity of the case, as in the reality, the investigations lead to more than 21,000 suspects); a perv wanking at the murder spot as the torch bobbing up and down from his mouth; forensics men removing the band-aid from the last victim (high school kid) and Seo covering up the girl. 




The Ending & Flawless Performances


                                        The closure of “Memories of Murder” may not be conventionally satisfying but it does get better & better in the repeated viewings. Park, after a long time, gets to the same place, where he found the first victim of vanished perpetrator. A little girl asks what he is seeing and also remembers another man looking at the same place. Park, in his final effort to know about the killer, asks what did he look-like, to which the girl replies “kind of plain. just ordinary”. And Park stares at us with some kind of realization. ‘What did he realize?’ is a question that has stirred debates, but the theory I liked the best was written in the IMDb discussion boards. It stated that Park has finally realized that he was just after a freak or monster or some kind of societal outcasts and at that moment, it finally dawns on him that the killer is a guy, whom you couldn’t easily pick in a crowd.




                                       The dynamics between Park and Seo (city vs rural) was excellently played between Kang-ho Song and Kim. The poker-faced dialogue deliveries & the casual brutality of Park were performed with a remarkable finesse. The director has allowed enough space for the minor characters to develop their presence. No-shik Park is fantastic in his portrayal of the exploited simple-minded Kwang-ho. His anxiety in avoiding the policemen and his eventual fate on the tracks are some of the most affecting portions of the narrative.



                                       “Memories of Murder” (128 minutes) is one of those perfect cinema that uses certain conventional elements to set a new bench-mark for the genre. It is a portrait of a transforming society that contemplates its fears, powerlessness and lack of trust. 

Trailer


August 13, 2015

I’m Not Scared – A Boy Peers into the Underside of Humanity


                                               A boy’s penchant for electrifying adventures often gives us a captivating movie experience. Modern film-makers like Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro have weaved nice whimsical tales from the thought-provoking child’s point of view. Gabriele Salvatores’ adventurous and poetic coming-of-age tale “I’m Not Scared” (2003) has the rare finesse in portraying a boy’s world. The film was based on Niccolo Ammaniti sensational Italian novel (Niccolo wrote the script for the movie). Deemed as a suspense story in the vein of Hitchcock classics, “I’m Not Scared” is set in the sun-drenched, idyllic village of Southern Italy – the setting which cinephile would have come across in Italian masterpieces like “Cinema Paradiso” & “Il Postino”.


                                            The film commences in a dark underground place, where water is dripping and the words ‘I’m not scared’ is written with chalk on the rocky wall. The shot dissolves to a bucolic wheat field, where a lone black crow appears as some sort of ominous omen for the events that are to unfold. A group of 10 year old are joyously racing across the wheat field. As the kids reach their final point, a bully of the group humiliates an overweight girl, and our protagonist Michele (Giuseppe Christiano) steps in to take a dangerous dare. They get to an abandoned, dilapidated house and Michele is dared to walk on a beam, dangling high above the ground. This incident pretty much establishes the nature of Michele, who steps up when things go haywire. As the kids head-back to home, Michele’s little sister Maria (Giulia Matturo) says she has lost her glass. Michele asks her to wait near the field and goes to that broken-down house, where the spectacles lie atop a sheet metal.




                                          He moves the sheet to find a deep hole and expects to finds, as in adventure stories, a cave full of treasure. But, what he sees shocks him: a small human foot. Michele is baffled by what he saw in the hole and takes his sister on bicycle to home, welcomed by a frustrated mom (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). However, the kids are elated to see their father Pino’s (Dino Abbrescia) truck. Pino looks like a ideal, loving father: arm-wrestles with Michele and promises to stay with the children for few days. The next day, out of curiosity, Michele goes to that deserted place with deep hole and removes the lid. But, there is no foot, only a sack is lying on the ground. He brings his head a little forward, trying to get a full view of the hole. And, all of a sudden, a little unwashed, chained, blonde boy with eyes closed and hands forward comes to Michele’s view. Startled by what he found, Michele’s immediately closes the lid and runs. We could feel the thudding of his heart as Michele crashes his bicycle on a small rock and goes flying. He lies there unconscious for quite some time.




                                     Michele still doesn’t know what to make of this shocking discovery and when he arrives at home, his father gives him an earful for wandering around. At night, under covers, Michele relates the presence of the ‘boy in hole’ to a fantasy tale (about blonde evil twin) he has read. He gradually gathers his courage and goes back to the hole, where the blonde boy, hiding under the sack, asks for water, then for something to eat. Next day, Michele asks the village’s shop-keeper “If someone’s hungry, what can they buy with 500 liras?” A friendship develops between the two ten year old boys and Michele is very careful to avoid the shady young man (his playmate Skull’s elder brother), who now and then, stops by to take a look at the blonde boy. Michele still finds it hard to grasp why someone would put a boy inside a hole. The blonde boy thinks that he is in the hole because he is dead. One evening, Michele finds out who the blonde boy is, when his parents, their neighbors and friends are calmly watching over the news.




                                     Although “I’m Not Scared” falls under the crime/thriller genre, it neither boasts incredible revelations nor infuses dangerously silly villains to charge up the boys’ adventure. The answer to why the blonde boy is in the hole is revealed very earlier in the movie, as Michele searches for a pot to fill with water in the abandoned house. The clues to, who the blonde boy is, lies around Michele, but he is little too innocent to grasp it. Questions might arise on how a 10 year old could be so innocent, but the rural, ‘cut-off-from-modern-technology’ setting (it is important to note that the movie is set in the late 1970’s) provides some answer to the boys’ behavior.  So, the film would have a great impact on us, if it is seen as a coming-of-age tale with taut thriller elements.



Spoilers Ahead




                                  As revealed by few cinephiles in the ‘IMDb discussion boards’, the kidnapping motive of the villagers materialized due to segregation that existed between Northern and Southern Italy in the 70’s.  The southerners is said to have experienced extreme poverty, starting from the end of World War II, and the crisis reached a threshold point by the 1970’s. That’s when few of the southeners devised plans for kidnapping wealthy Northerners with Swiss bank accounts. A series of kidnappings during that period even made the Italian government to pass legislation for preventing rich victims from paying up the ransoms. The justice system imposed heavy punishment on the kidnappers and quick arrests were made (which somehow explains why everything goes bad for the kidnappers). These facts could shed some light on the villagers’ insensitive and ambiguous attitude towards the boy.     



                                  The chief elements to admire in the film are the characterizations, the two boys’ performance and the sumptuous mise en scene. The very first scene, when Michele chooses to help his sister, over winning the race and how he saves another girl from humiliation perfectly foreshadows how Michele would act at the time of a crisis. Writer Ammaniti wonderfully mixes the compassionate, self-respectful nature of Michele with that of his innocent childhood beliefs: in ogres or witches. Ammaniti imbues the child’s belief in preternatural things to the perspective of blonde boy, Filippo too, as he asks to Michele “Are you my guardian angel?” The kidnapping event and the resulting discovery just serves as a kind of wrecking ball that derails the boy’s trust on adult world. Ammaniti and director Salvatores also subtly stage the scene, when father Pino brings home the ‘Gondola’ (boat). It is presented as the adults’ yearning for a materialistic life and an escape from the poverty-stricken surroundings.




                                Both Maria and Michele have never seen a gondola and asks what it is, while in a later scene, Filippo talks on general terms about ‘veliero’ (a sail ship -- a portrait of it is seen when Filippo’s mother is appealing to kidnappers on TV). These simple, unnoticeable scenes imply the contrast between the isolated life of Michele and bourgeois upbringing of Filippo. The mother, Anna’s frustrated and world-weary attitude is also borne from this yearning for better life. She talks about going to beach after all this is over and at one point, urges Michele to promise her that ‘he will get out of this town when he grows up’. The other kidnappers are also not vilified in the way Hollywood movies tend to do. Pino’s pompous friend Sergio seems to be a family man, despite choosing to murder the boy. Felice, the bully, just seems to be wearing the roughneck attitude to conceal his inner weakness.




                                   The most intriguing and sublime scene in the movie happens when Michele trades the secret about Filippo to his friend, in exchange for a toy truck. Later, when Michele is in the hole with Filippo, he is caught by Felice, beaten and put into the car. Michele stares into the front of car as his friend sits with head bowed. The betrayal (for a car ride) rankles Michele as he plays with the truck for one last time, and puts it down by also thinking about the way he has betrayed Filippo for a mere toy truck . With only eye contacts and little gestures, director Salvatores have amazingly assembled this sequence. Similar to classic Hollywood films, “To Kill a Mocking Bird” & “The Night of the Hunter”, “Stand by Me”, “I’m Not Scared” too travels through a plot, where innocent children encounter the darker side of humanity. But still, the dazzling camera movements and golden landscape diffuses a unique atmosphere, which grips our attention till the end.




                                    Salvatores and cinematographer Italo Petriccione bathes the breathtaking wheat field in the amber-cyan palette (reminded me of Spanish auteur Victor Erice’ films and Del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone"). Michele’s final journey to save Filippo is awesomely visualized as we see various nocturnal animals, coming to the surface, indicating the dangers lying ahead. The ‘hole’ is symbolically represented as something evil. And, every time Michele looks into the hole and learns something about Filippo, he loses his allusions about the outside world. At one point, Michele promises Filippo that he would back next day, before he is betrayed to Felice. Later, he promises his father not to seek Filippo anymore. The next day, he wanders between the fields contemplating and tearing-up inside on the two promises he had made the day before. On the horizon, we gradually see a ‘combine’ harvesting the fields, indicating an end of season as well as the termination of Michele’s childhood.  All the child actors give a spectacular, uninhibited performance. The climax tends to be a bit dramatic and sentimental, but the final image has a great painterly quality to it.  


                                   “I’m Not Scared” (105 minutes) is a genuinely thrilling and emotionally satisfying coming-of-age tale with a unique atmosphere and authentic performances. 

Trailer



I'm Not Scared aka Io non ho Paura -- IMDb

Roger Ebert's Review