June 24, 2016

Mountains May Depart [2015] – An Inadequate but Compelling Study on the Throes of Capitalism

                                       Ambitious Chinese film-maker Jia Zhangke’s “Mountains May Depart” opens with a high-angle long shot of what looks like a dance club. A group of young Chinese men and women are exuberantly dancing to the tune of “Go West” (Petshop boys’ version) as the camera zooms in slowly. The song promises a bright future, a new beginning; to be ‘together’ in a glorious consumerist, western capitalist society. The camera then zeroes-in on the central character Shen Tao (Zhao Tao), a fresh-faced independent woman, leading the dance celebrations. It is 1999 spring and the nation is celebrating the birth of new Chinese year. Consumerism, materialism, and thriving globalization have brought vigor to the Chinese culture and are subsequently and gradually followed by the growing disparity between poor and rich.

                                        The self-confident, scooter-riding Tao (from small inland Chinese town) is pursuing the modernization, keeping her Chinese identity intact. Her comfort in the ‘west’ only multiplies her feelings of love and innocence. She is surrounded by twin poles of men: childhood friend Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a worker in a local coal mine; and Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a rising capitalist. Both men love Tao. Liangzi is a soft-natured guy, whose future looks shaky due to job insecurity. Jinsheng is a crankier, aggressive guy, who’s interested in showing off his new status symbol – a red Volkswagen Jetta. May be Tao loves Liangzi, as he is her close friend and seems like her kindred spirit. But, Tao can’t dismiss Jinsheng’s raising status and the ‘joyful’, materialistic life he could offer. While showcasing Tao’s dilemma or pain of losing one for another, director Zhangke keeps the camera fixed on Zhao Tao’s empathy-generating, bereaved face.

                                       Eventually, guided by the new way of thinking she chooses the ‘right’ man for her, and the director’s execution is flawless that we won’t judge Tao for her decision. Tao regrets deeply when Liangzi leaves the town forever to be a migrant worker. She marries Jinsheng and few years later give birth to a son, whom Jinsheng insists to be named ‘Dollar’. Up to that point, the movie is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, and the first 45 or so minutes seems to be just a preface for the upcoming divides between peoples living in a consumerist society (the title “Mountains May Depart” appears after the end of first act). Now it is 2014. Liangzi’s stint as a mine worker has highly affected his health. He has a family (a caring wife and a toddler son) and so decides to cast aside the old stubborn attitude, regarding the decision of never moving back to his old hometown. After the move, Liangzi meets a friend to seek some help for the medical treatment. Alas, times are not good for any working men.

                                           Liangzi hears that Jinsheng has evolved into a big-shot, living in Shanghai and that he has divorced Tao. The expected dramatic arc, however, doesn’t happen after the meeting of old friends, Tao and Liangzi. Zhangke chooses to offer different perspective. Little later, the director broods over the displacement or disconnection of Tao’s son ‘Dollar’. This third act is set in the year 2025 and 19 year old ‘Dollar’ (Dong Zijian) is living with his free, irritable dad in Melbourne. He’s searching for his identity by learning Chinese language. He and his father communicate through ‘Google Translate’. The grand high-rise building and white, smooth interiors of the materialistic land seem as repressing as the emotionless beings inhabiting them. Dollar doesn’t remember his days spent with mother Tao and to keep his emotions intact, he develops a friendship/oedipal relationship with an divorced, older college professor Mia (Sylvia Chang).    

                                           Director/writer Jia Zhangke punctuates his directorial approach with deliberately confusing details (like the falling of aircraft from nowhere) or elucidating brief moments (like the image of ‘caged tiger’ hinting at outside forces beyond one’s control). He has a wonderful eye for framing the soulless, post-industrialist Chinese landscapes or the horizontal, empty spaces. Romance in the materializing/materialized society is the central theme of “Mountains May Depart”, although there’s no particular center or established narrative arc for the movie. Jia Zhangke in an interview (to mubi.com) states how he started this project, back in early 2000’s with no script, but went onto shoot some footage (with the camera having ratio of 1:1.33). The old footage was integrated briefly in the first act and Zhangke says that was one of the reasons for opting to shoot the preface in 4:3 aspect ratio. Zhangke’s approach gives a clear picture of where his focus or attention lays. The transition happening in homeland plus the effect it has on common people is the basic layer or foundation for his works. The characters, their conflicts, and a rounded-up narrative arc become secondary to his approach. The end result is a fragmentary cinema, which should be experienced only for its ambitious themes and restrained visual style. In fact, Zhangke’s themes in “Mountains May Depart” dominate characterization and narrative that the emotional attachment is very less. In his previous movie “A Touch of Sin”, Zhangke constructed string of tales, inspired from tabloid news stories. Anger or rage set the perfect tone for dramatizing the Chinese society, spiraling down into the blood-filled dysfunction. Here, Zhangke approaches with a tone of elegy, but his unconventional flourishes either wanders into melodramatic territory or remains impossibly dry.

                                              The 2025 consequence is loaded with profound meaning. It speaks of the negative consequences in a society, where humans solely take decisions based on globalized, consumerist mentality. Love and other basic human emotions or human relationships are driven by materialistic needs. It shows how money can’t save your love or bless you with new purpose in life. The experiences of young ‘Dollar’ in this segment is based upon numerous real life accounts, director Zhangke had heard from Chinese people, living overseas, totally disconnected from their identity. The other commendable aspect of this episode is how Zhangke laments for loss of identity through the loss of language; not through other decorated, hollow words like ‘race’, ‘socialism’ and ‘history’. The young Chinese people’s inability to learn their mother tongue alienates them from parents and this break down in communication even becomes a force of oppression (on the youngsters). The emotional (& sexual) awakening of ‘Dollar’ through his friendship with old tutor is a nice touch. It tells us how true feelings of love have brought up Dollar’s submerged thoughts about his birth mother, while the wealthy, confined society had made him bottle up the thoughts about mother. There might be deeper meaning, waiting to be unearthed in this episode, but at the same time this ‘future’ episode is also the emotionally uninvolving episode of the three. I don’t know if it is the performance or selection of actors or an overly melodramatic approach, my patience and attention devolved in this part of narrative. The emotions weren’t as deep as the themes.

                                                The meandering, dis-satisfactory ‘future’ sequences also make us cherish the marvelous, tear-jerking performance of Zhao Tao (wife of Jia Zhangke). Zhao Tao perfectly embodies director Zhangke’s idea to portray change in emotions in relation to rapid rise in economic development and technologies. Like other vital characters, her character too isn’t designed in a robust manner, but Zhao Tao transcends the flaws in characterizations & narrative in those first two episodes. The mid and close up shots, covering the agony in Tao’s face keeps us interested in her plight. She makes two vital, life-changing decisions based upon freshly gained bourgeois mentality. Tao’s choice of relationship and feelings of love are dictated by her materialistic pursuit. She chooses Jinsheng over Liangzi, and in 2014 Tao is facing the consequences for that. Later, when seven year old ‘Dollar’ visits Tao, she takes a look at the boy’s wealthy, materialistic surroundings (through the pictures in iPad) and decides to sacrifice her love for the ‘well being’ of Dollar. Once again, the idea of ‘well being’ is dictated by wealth; not love. So, the misery Tao inflicts upon her is done by own choice. On further contemplation, these choices should actually make a viewer hate her or at least judge her. But, thanks to Zhao Tao and Zhangke’s restrained approach that we actually end up sharing and even relating with her misfortune. Our lonely heroine, at last walks her dog to an industrialized, snow-falling landscape and repeats the same dance moves, we witnessed at the joyous first scene. Her moves seem to balance the liveliness and inherent sadness, and it gradually became hard for me to contain the tears. Tao’s dance promises us hope, but also laments for the lost joys (due to meaningless pursuit of materials), and the (Go West) song’s lyrics calling for ‘togetherness’ in the capitalist Western land only comes off as a parody. 


                                                “Mountains May Depart” (126 minutes) is a flawed, yet fascinating feature that keeps us in a wistful, thought-provoking mood to reflect on the dire effects of consumerism on our emotions and decisions. It would have been a masterpiece, only if it was more emotionally involving. 

June 23, 2016

My Favorite Movies from the Year I Fell to Earth

                                     “We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds” said the great movie critic Roger Ebert. The medium of cinema is one among the many things that helps us to break through the limitations either we voluntarily embrace or placed upon us. Cinema has and will continue to enlighten my thought process. Along with great literature, the cinematic art had made me ponder over my finite life period in this vast, infinite universe. It has provided me the much-needed comfort when loneliness and depression had persecuted my mind; or jerked me out of the comfort zone to understand and explore the unfamiliar. 

                                       I was born on June 23rd, 1987. And, what else would a cinephile (with a blog would) think on his birthday other than come up with a new movie list for his small circle of readers? So, here are my 23 favorite movies from the year I arrived at Earth:

1.        Nayakan     [director: Mani Ratnam]

2.       Full Metal Jacket    [dir: Full Metal Jacket]

3.     The Last Emperor   [dir: Bernado Bertolucci]

4.     Withnail and I      [dir: Bruce Robinson]

5.     Empire of the Sun   [dir: Steven Spielberg]

6.    The Untouchables   [dir: Brian De Palma]

7.    Goodbye, Children  [dir: Louis Malle]

8.    The Cyclist     [dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf] 

9.    Wings of Desire   [dir: Wim Wenders]

10.   Matewan      [dir: John Sayles]

11.   Red Sorghum      [dir: Zhang Yimou] 

12.   House of Games   [dir: David Mamet]

13.   Pelle the Conqueror    [dir: Bille August]
(Pelle the Conqueror had its world-wide release and got screened at Cannes only in 1988. It got released in Sweden and Denmark during Christmas 1987. My love for this movie had me to include it in this list, taking into account its domestic release date).

14.    The Dead     [dir: John Huston]

15.    Blind Chance    [dir: Krystzof Kieslowski]

16.   Broadcast News   [dir: James L. Brooks]

17.   Hope and Glory    [dir: John Boorman, Lasse Hallstrom]

18.   Ten Little Indians    [dir: Stanislav Govorukhin]

(Russian adaptation of Agathe Christie’s famous novel)

19. Where Is the Friend’s Home?    [dir: Abbas Kiariostami] 

20.  Babette’s Feast   [dir: Gabriel Axel]

21. The Princess Bride   [dir. Rob Reiner]

22. Predator   [dir: John McTiernan] 

23.  Planes, Trains & Automobiles    [dir: John Hughes]

June 20, 2016

Dead of Night [1945] – An Essential British Horror Classic

                                                 Horror anthologies are hard to pull off. All it needs is one insipid story to lose viewers’ interest and the whole framework would look like a charade. Apart from Amicus horror anthologies (“Tales from the Crypt”, “Vault of Horror”, “Asylum”) and George Romero’s “Creepshow” there hasn’t been many good horror anthologies with the ability to sustain a sense of dread from first to last. Recently, interlocking tales of highway terror “Southbound” (a little Twilight Zone-esque) turned out a better, cohesive narrative. But, I think this sub-genre’s one and only masterpiece is the British movie “Dead of Night” (1945), made by the famous Ealing Studios. Its format of compilation was also unique for its time as four different directors (Alberto Calvacanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, and Robert Hamer) were employed for different segments. Each segment stands as a testament to the film-maker’s strengths, who later went on to make many British classics. Although the stories may seem out-dated (one or two is weak) the directors’ visual approach (diffusing atmosphere of chaos & fear) to create haunting mood may serve as fine lesson for young film-makers.

                                                 Ealing Studios is one of the great production houses in the history of cinema. The studio introduced many influential British directors (or at least gave an elevated platform for the great British film-makers) and made plenty of meaningful entertainment movies, unlike the humongous Hollywood studios of the era.  During the World War II, Ealing studios made quite a lot propaganda films, but decided to break the routine when Britsh Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted its ban on horror films. The real world horror was slowly reaching for a threshold point that the board allowed to produce harrowing movies. Ealing Studios gathered around some of the excellent British actors of the time – Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Basil Radford – along with four good directors. Of the four, Robert Hamer made his directorial debut with “Haunted Mirror” segment. Hamer went on to director some excellent works like “It Always Rains on Sunday”, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, “School for Scoundrels”, etc.

                                               Unlike many horror/supernatural anthologies, “Dead of Night” (1945) had a good linking narrative rather than be a simple, hollow framing device.  The film opens with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arriving to a beautiful country cottage in Kent. He has a sense of deja vu, the minute he takes a turn in the road and sees the house in full view. Craig is guided inside by host Elliott Foley (Roland Culver) and meets other different types of British inhabitants in the cottage: Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychoanalyst who approaches everything with rationality; Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), a race driver; cheery 14 year old Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes); an independent woman Joan Cortland (Googie Withers); and Foley’s mother (Mary Merall). Walter watches every one of them with a bemused look which is easily adjudged by DR. Van Straaten. Walter says that he had been to this cottage and met every one of them in his recurring dream, although he had never heard about or seen these people in his reality.


                                               At first he couldn’t recall what happened in his dream, but gradually it comes to him. He predicts some women will come to the house asking for money. Every one laughs at this, but Grainger’s wife (Jude Kelly) enters the narrative asking him for change. Later, Walter also states that this dream will fully turn into a nightmare (a violent one), but the reason for it he doesn’t know. While, other guests brood over Walter’s deja vu and claims, Dr. Van Straaten stands firm and attests there must be some rational explanation. One by one from Grainger, the guests start to relate their own encounter with supernatural presence. The man of science is sidelined despite his usage of psychiatric terms. At last the doctor too narrates his own bizarre experience from a non-paranormal perspective, and it is perhaps the most haunting tale of the series. The dark tales eventually lead to well-designed hallucinogenic trip and a fine twist.

                                              No titles are embedded to divulge the title of the stories, but they have been called as: Hearse Driver (narrated by Grainger), Christmas Story (Sally O’Hara), The Haunted Mirror (Cortland), The Golfing Story (Foley) and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy (Doctor). The basic framing story of Walter Craig is skillfully directed by Basil Dearden (“Sapphire”, “Victim”) drawing in the audience to a unique, intriguing situation. The wraparound segment also got to be one of the best nightmare sequences in cinema.  Dearden also directed the first story ‘Hearse Driver’, which sets the perfect uncanny, haunting atmosphere. Based on E.F. Benson’s short story, the ‘Hearse Driver’ is a nice precursor to the ‘Final Destination' films. The second story narrated by 14 year old looks slight and as many complains ‘weak’. Nevertheless, it is delicately shot (by Calvacanti) with expressionistic images of shadows, to further the macabre atmosphere. The third story about upper-class English couple and their mirror was directed by debutant Robert Hamer, which must have influenced numerous horror stories in creating fear through multiple reflections.  Foley narrates the 4th story stating it’s about his two golfer friends. Directed by Charles Crichton (“The Lavender Hill Mob”, “Hue and Cry”, etc), this story is considered to be the weakest link, since it is a supernatural comedy. While the other three guests before Foley narrate events that have created a everlasting impact on them, Foley just wants to cast off the dark mood by coming up with totally unreal tale of risque comedy. Horror movie aficionados may dismiss this story, but Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne combo provides a good comic relief. It also sets up stage for Dr. Van Straaten to come out of his firm beliefs and narrates the most memorable episode of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere. Directed by Alberto Calvacanti and elevated by Redgrave’s stupendous performance, this final tale has provided many visual references and inspirations to later generations of film-makers (the end image of the tale may have cast a spell on Hitchcock while making “Psycho”).

                                                 Each of the stories are written and directed by different people, but they all marvelously conjoin to not make us feel it as collection of disparate tales. To put it simply, these tales may have its lowest points but they never make us tired. Thematically, all the stories (including Craig’s linking story) talk about some kind of repression and fear of psychological imbalance. The accident, haunted room, mirror and dummy seems to be a representation of emotional repression (some are sexual in nature). The unraveling of fractured realities in each story may really have a rational explanation. All the four craftsmen in the film, not only create the unnerving atmosphere, but also have distinctly handled these recurring themes. The distressing, obscure ending still possesses the ability to incite debates. There might not be single production sheen added to the picture, but the knowledgeable performers keep it engrossing enough (also it is important to judge the performance and its production value, considering the obvious fact that it was made in 1945).

                                                “Dead of Night” (103 minutes) is a highly influential and entertaining horror anthology picture. It contains one of the greatest single episodes in any horror anthology. And, each vignette stands on its own and is perfectly entwined to the main thread.  


June 16, 2016

Prisoner of the Mountains [1996] – A Simple Tale on the Commonality of Human Condition

                                                 Russian film-maker Sergei Bodrov’s humanistic fable “Prisoner of the Mountains” (1996) is based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story “Prisoner of the Caucasus”. Caucasus, a barren landscape alternately swept by breeze and bitter winds. The people enduring the hardscrabble life in the region have also held on to generations of conflicts, commenced by Russian colonizers and other oppressive forces. The region’s marvelous chants, tunes and balalaika masquerades bloody battles and eye-for-eye hatred. Director Bodrov updates Tolstoy tale to be set in a remote Muslim village (in the 1990's), not far from the disputed regions of Chechnya, fighting for total autonomy from the Russian Federation. “Prisoner of the Mountains” is a simple, universal tale about the absurdities of war. The narrative is neither provocative nor unique, but never fails to stir our heart & mind in its 99 minutes running time. I recommend this movie for two reasons: for the way it rejects to sugar-coat the conflict's brutality (which could be perceived as a critique on colonizers); and for witnessing the screen presence of beautiful 13 year old amateur actress Susanna Mekhralieva (her placid face could annihilate all the murderous, evil thoughts).

                                                 Flamboyant Russian army sergeant Sacha (Oleg Menshikov) and a new army recruit Vanya (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) along with other Russian soldiers cruise through Caucasus region in a tank. The small group is ambushed by local rebels. In an ensuing, not-so-well staged gun fight sequence Sacha and Vanya are taken as prisoners by rebels. Normally they would also be killed at gunpoint, but their capture is meant to be used as bargaining tool by the village patriarch Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze). He wants to exchange the two Russian soldiers for his son, who is held in the nearby Russian camp. Sacha is an abrasive man looking for the right moment to cut out their captor’s throat, while Vanya reaches out to the people and is enamored by the place & its culture. Vanya, the military novice, also develops a mutual friendship with village patriarch’s young daughter Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva). Although the broad strokes of the plot seem predictable, director Bodrov imbues little details that thrive in an unpredictable manner.

                                               The two Russian prisoners are held in a livestock barn and watched over by old villager, whose tongue was cut out by the Russian soldiers. The exchange between Russian soldiers and the villager moves with a light sense of humor. It seems like both the parties have warmed up to each other, but then comes an unpredictable moment where we are proven wrong. In another scene, the Russian soldiers observe the village men’s party, when suddenly young Vanya is ordered to fight with a local champion – a big, boisterous fellow. The little moment that ensues next isn’t what we expect to happen. There are many such significant as well as insignificant details that keep up our interest in the narrative despite the predictable framework. Director/writer Sergei Bodrov and co-writer Arif Aliev are highly critical the colonizing stance of the Russians in Caucasus region (Bodrov never clearly states that his film is about Chechnyan rebellion). The villagers are often represented as ‘bandits’, ‘non-Russians’, etc. Sacha and other high command Russian soldiers repeatedly warn about the violent, savagery attitude of Chechen community, while the Russians perpetually inflict all sorts of violence on the people. It is a common trait among all the colonizers to instill false, negative traits upon the colonized subjects. This misconstrued negative identity is what feeds off the enmity. The stark contrast in the final activities of Sacha and Abdul-Murat closely scrutinizes these false identities created by colonizer.

                                              Sergei Bodrov first introduces us the peaceful, mountainous village in wide-shots and at times offers brief glimpses of the local cultures. The framing of Russian soldiers, their tanks and weapons often represents the negative impact it has created in the villagers’ way of life. Abdul Murat’s quest to win back his son is depicted as a last resort. Here, Abdul uses the same violence of his colonizer to make them understand. The little subplot involving Mamed, a Chechen working as police officer for the Russians, and his father talks about the conflict of a different kind: one between colonized subject and the opposer. The disconnect existing between Vanya and Sacha’s Russian identity is also subtly depicted. Vanya feels no connection with the colonizing ideology and at some point tells his dream about coming back to the same place, but not as a captor. Sacha simply comments“This is war. We have to kill all of them”. The way Sacha bellows while shooting a gun and cries when hearing the patriotic march song speaks of his ingrained Russian identity or belief in colonizing ideas. Vanya is more humanistic and his hands are good at repairing watches or making wooden birds than holding guns. Despite such nuances, what stop “Prisoner of the Mountains” from being a great movie is its erratic tone and the aforementioned broad, predictable framework. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended for its celebration of compassion over brutality. The other significant reason to watch the film is for its casually rendered performances. Sergei Bodrov Jr. offers a very natural and relaxed performance as Vanya. He went onto offer fantastic lead performance in Aleksey Balabanov’s “Brat”, but unfortunately died on an avalanche accident in 2002. The non-professional village actors don’t give any false moment in their performances. The girl Susanna, in her only movie role, exudes an alluring innocence that sticks with us long after watching the movie.

                                            “Prisoner of the Mountains” (99 minutes) is a well-told, bittersweet tale on ethnic hatred and conflicts. It is insightful and treats every character with compassion, unlike the grandiose as well as hollow American propaganda pictures.