October 9, 2015

The Aura – The Existential Stress of a Wallflower

                                                 After the release of astounding existential heist thriller “The Aura” aka “El Aura” (2005), the movie lovers were robbed off a rapidly budding talent in Argentinian & world cinema. Buenos Aires born film-maker Fabian Bielinsky, whose brief but gleaming career (“Nine Queens”, “El Aura”) came to end on June 28, 2006 due to his sudden death (heart attack) at the age of 47. Bielinsky attained the directorial chair only through hardships and unceasing apprenticeship (he directed his first movie nearly after two decades entering into the industry, in 1983). Nevertheless, Bielinsky with his two films have explored or portrayed themes & visuals, which some of the mainstream directors haven’t pursued throughout their career. His penchant for the definitive style of narrative construction is evident, especially in ‘Aura’ and by each of the re-watches of “El Aura”, a movie-buff is left to ponder over what kind of master narratives did Bielinsky’s mind held for us?

                                               The movie opens with a man lying on a white tile floor. He gradually grasps his surroundings, gets up and as the camera pulls back, we see he is in the lobby of a bank ATM. Later, we learn that the man has had an epileptic seizure. His name is Esteban Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) and we see him in his workshop, preparing the lifeless body of a fox (a taxidermist) for a museum in Buenos Aires. The loud music in the workshop drowns out the beckoning of his wife. Espinosa has a photographic memory and his favorite hobby is to design elaborate robbery fantasies, which he explains to a fellow taxidermist Sontag (Alejandro Awada), while waiting to get paid for his work. Sontag asks the loner Espinosa to accompany him on a hunting trip through the forests of southern Argentina. Espinosa immediately rejects the proposal, but when he returns home, he sees that his wife has left him and agrees to the hunting trip.

                                              Espinosa, the man experiencing an existential crisis, seems to have been affixed to a place. He is stuck inside himself and this lack of movement (literal as well as figurative) is wonderfully visualized in a earlier scene, where the side profile of Espinosa sitting in his bed (with the letter his wife has left), seamlessly morphs into him sitting in the airport lounge, then in the airplane and finally in the jeep, going to a forest resort. Since the local casino is gearing up for its last run, the town is riddled with guests and so Espinosa and Sontag are forced to stay in a backwoods cabin, managed by an elderly man Carlos Dietrich (Manuel Rodal). As Dietrich has gone on a trip, his young wife Diana (Dolores Fonzi) is in charge.

                                            The next day hunting doesn’t go as planned as Espinosa botches Sontag’s chance to hunt a deer. They both exchange some caustic remarks and later Sontag leaves due to a personal problem. Espinosa, the guy who doesn’t want to kill animals, wants to prove to his friend that he is a tough guy. Ultimately, he takes a shot, but unfortunately, he brings down some bystander. The accidental killing, however, opens up new possibilities in Espinosa’s life. Through a series of coincidences and unpredictable turns, Espinosa gets the chance to perform a real time, perfect heist. But, this isn’t a conventional gripping thriller as the protagonist is both an uninvolved onlooker and a chief player.

                                         Espinosa is the perfect ‘noir’ hero, besieged by loneliness and lack of ties. The film’s title indicates the trance state the protagonist experiences before the epileptic seizure. Espinosa explains this to Diana: “everything stands still and a door opens in your head and lets things in. There is nothing you can do to stop it. You're free: no options, no choice, nothing for you to decide. Things narrow and you surrender yourself”. Since noir heroes are defined by their downfalls, one gets a feeling that Espinosa has been in this trance state for a long time, waiting for the inevitable. Espinosa’ epilepsy isn’t some gimmick that is instilled to move forward the narrative.

                                          The theme of frozen time (or the state of ‘aura’) is repeatedly evoked in the narrative; through Espinosa’s vivid photographic memory or even in the moments when he points a gun at someone. There are many analogous sequences in the film, where time freezes and all that’s left for the protagonist is to surrender himself. Director Bielinsky diffuses this idea of getting stuck in time or place to other minor characters too. Diana and her brother Julio are in a state, where nothing is left for them to decide. One of the vicious thugs (Pablo Cedron) says “The first I saw you I said, ‘this isn’t going to work”, but he goes with Espinosa’s plan as if it is inevitable. The other old thug (Walter Reyno) is more afraid of moving out than a botched heist plan. 

                                        Bielinsky’s script has got to be one of the original scripts in cinema. It is crafted with such attention to detail, which transcends the nature of some of the conventional crime cinema elements. The script evokes the dreamy, deeply psychological narrative approach of Antonoini’s or Christopher Nolan films (“Insomnia” & “Memento”). The vivid explanation of Espinosa’s psychological state imbues us the sensation to contemplate on the blurring line that separates reality from fantasy (just like in “Memento”). Bielinsky was also wonderfully inventive in moving forward the narrative. Two sequences were absolutely awe-inspiring for the way it was written and visualized on-screen: the botched heist involving Vega as Espinosa observes from a detached state; the scene in ‘El Eden’, where Espinosa makes a little conversation with the little girl, Vanina and learns a lot. Bielinsky was also able to keep the suspense till the end, even though on the outset, the narrative seems to be a simple setup.

                                       Director Bielinsky diffuses other themes like the treatment of women and the symbiosis between animal and human. The vital & minor characters seem to be men, who had ignored their life-partners or has beaten them down. The romantic potential between Diana and Espinosa is hinted at, but Bielinsky is clever enough to not go down that predictable route. For Diana, the prospect of a new relationship seems to be less intriguing than a life that liberates her from the chains of men.  The recurrent close-ups of the ominous dog symbolize the arousing animal side of the protagonist (or his transforming moral sense). The scene where the dog gives a baleful, accusatory look to Espinosa over what unfolded in the woods was one of the few moments that proclaim Bielinsky’s superior directorial abilities.

                                       Music is another strong point of the movie, which heightens the thrilling sensation particularly in two contrasting sequences: when Espinosa trembles with the rifle after sighting the deer; and when Espinosa calmly observes the shoot-up in factory, where people scatter like a deer in the forest.  Performances are all top-notch and Ricardo Darin is perfectly convincing as the damaged existential hero. Through limited dialogues, he conveys his characters’ dilemma & unrestrained fantasies. Look out for the sequence when the two thugs take Espinosa into the woods after discovering Dietrich’s cellphone; Darin conveys ingenuity, fear, detachment and deceitfulness within that brief scene.  

                                       “The Aura” (134 minutes) is an excellent existential noir and a superior atmospheric thriller. Beneath the film’s taut, simple narrative lie complex, unobtrusive themes and perceptions that perpetually seize us.


October 7, 2015

Riders of the Mist – A Celebration of a Resplendent, Multifaceted Tradition

                                          A carnival or a festival in a region could be viewed as an expression of the culture that encapsulates spectacular ceremonies & extravaganzas. The central element of the carnivals is to celebrate & recognize the cultural pluralism that is prevalent all over the world. India is a nation which is embellished by the words ‘Unity in diversity’. Despite being a land of pluralistic culture, there have been few evocative, pictorial works that observe this beauty and symbiosis in the diversity. Roopa Baruah’s “Riders of the Mist” (2015) is one of the rare Indian documentaries which honor a beautiful, unique tradition, conducted for the past 135 years in the Northeast Indian state, Assam. Like the Western carnivals, the anchor point of this Assamese tradition is bareback pony racing.

                                         The pony race are part of Upper Assam’s Jorhat district, held in the local gymkhana from 1877. The annual races are the much-awaited event, especially for the riders of Mishing tribe (second largest ethic group in North-east India). Mishing tribe is known for their affinity towards Brahmaputra River and has raised ponies for many generations (to assist them in transportation). Initially, the races were started in British rule for tea planters, who used their horses for work in tea estate. But, over the years, the race has turned into a heritage event that brings together distinct ethnic or cultural groups of Assam. The thoroughbreds were replaced with semi-feral country ponies (and organizers of races provides fund every year for the development of Mishing community).

                                       As the title beckons, “Riders of the Mist” starts on a misty morning along a riverine island of the majestic Brahmaputra River. The wild horses are being rounded up by the villagers to train them for the annual competition. Most of the participants in the race are third or fourth generation pony riders, who work in the fields or as laborers, rest of the year. Director Roopa tracks down the life of Deepak Bora and Heman Tai – men who have inherited the penchant for bareback racing from their forefathers. Deepak provides some vivid insights and intriguing myths about horses and their relationship with humans. The complex level of bonding these village men share with their semi-feral horses is absolutely astounding. For these jockeys, the festival sense slowly creeps in as they anticipate to win the coveted ‘Governor’s Cup’.

                                     However, the desire to win the cup doesn’t arise from reaping the economic benefits of a victory. In fact, as Deepak explains, ‘the winner gets an award and five sheets of tin roofing as donation’. Deepak goes on to say that if he win the race, he will give away his donation for temple. In another occasion, we hear another rider telling how the preparation for racing only costs them money. So, the bareback pony races are purely based on passion and that fiery passion is much evident in the eyes of these calm-faced young men. Deepak and Heman wasn’t the only third or fourth generation people involved in the racing; there are also young stewards in the Gymkhana club who have been observing & preserving the age-old tradition as their great-Grand fathers. 

                                   “Riders of the Mist” isn’t a simple sports documentary that traverses through the life of race participants to give us the winner. It wonderfully observes the symbiosis between humans and horses and between the humans, hailing from different socioeconomic class. The villagers’ preparation for the race and their various rituals & exciting myths might seem quirky for the uninitiated, but the film-maker is clever enough to observe the quirkiness that prevails inside the club. Oddities aside, the annual tradition seems to amalgamate the contemporary and age-old societies. Director Roopa’s restrained, nonjudgmental style depicts how passion flows in an unbridled manner, both inside and outside the opulent club. But, the documentary isn’t also just about the uniting of diverse people. There is the vital third element, which are the selfless animals itself.  

                                     Couple of stunning passages is documented in “Riders of the Mist” (cinematography by Vikram Srivastava) that shows the arrival & departure of the ponies. These visuals convey not only about the selfless lives of the animals, but also how they had played a significant role in our cultural & economic thriving. There are wonderful words that adorn the final images of the movie (as the horses swim back across the river) portray how these animals allow us to ‘share the moments of joy’. A vast life lesson is buried within the altruistic attitude of the horses. As the director Roopa delivers those words, the title ‘Riders of the Mist’, which seems to denote the literal images of the riders on their pones, diffuses a metaphorical sense on us. Editor Hemanti Sarkar (“English Vinglish”, Peepli Live”) has done a commendable job in bringing together the seemingly different elements of the tradition. A sequence towards the end, where the dance hall of the elite merges with the hut of a tribal man, is one such astounding example of the editing.

                                    “Riders of the Mist” (65 minutes) is one of the rare & best Indian documentaries that celebrates the nation’s indefatigable cultural pluralism. It is an outstanding glimpse into a custom held together by passion and altruism. 


October 6, 2015

A Girl at My Door – An Exploration of Female Loneliness & Repression

                                               One of the recurring themes in 21st century South Korean movies is bureaucratic negligence and the corruption in legal or justice system. A good deal of movies have come out in the past five years from Korean peninsula that depicts how the ‘system’ itself is an oppressor or abuser, just like a vicious perpetrator. “The Attorney”, “Way Back Home” and the gleefully gooey “Miracle in Cell no.7” are some of the few flicks with a lacerating view point on Korean bureaucratic and justice system. The most disturbing kind of negligence or ignorance is the ones witnessed in child or teen abuse cases. “Silenced” and “Han Gong-ju” were based on the real life sexual abuse incidents of minor girls. Both the movies depicted how the community’s politicians & prosecutors join hands to cover up the truth rather than punish the perpetrators. The chief problem in such movies has been the overtones of melodrama and caricatured characters. They all are shocking or disturbing in its portrayal, but subtlety is one vital thing that most of these Korean films are devoid of.

                                              July Jung’s “A Girl at My Door” (aka “Dohee-ya”, 2014), on the outset, looks like another overly sentimental film on the theme of child abuse. The movie’s posters have the two of the most melancholic faces of Korean cinema -- Doona Bae & Sae-ron Kim – looking at viewers with a forlorn expression. The story line nudges you to think that it’s going to be another ‘fighting against the system’ movie, but “A Girl at My Door” surprises us at every turn. July Jung takes up the most tried and tested theme, in not only Korean cinema, but world cinema, and still breathes in an understated intrigue and beauty. There are few melodramatic touches, unnerving sexual overtones and tonal glitches, but the nuanced performances alongside the psychological examination of characters turns it into one of the vital works of modern Korean cinema.

                                           The movie opens with a woman driving to a seaside village that buzzes with a sound of cicadas and where sun hardly shines on the lush green fields. The woman is the newly assigned police chief, Young-nam (Doona Bae). On the side of the road, a young girl Do-Hee (Kim Sae-ron) plays with a frog and as Young-nam drives past a puddle, the girl is doused in rainwater. Young-nam gets out and they both stare at each other before Do-Hee dashes off into the field. The title then appears on the sun-drenched field (which reminds us of the opening symmetric shot of the field in “Memories of Murder”).  A fellow police officer takes Young-nam through the coastal village, which seems to be only populated by old people, except for Yong-Ha (Sae-byeok Song) and his gang of foreign workers.

                                          Yong-Ha is a hotheaded guy, who makes some passes on the young station chief, who subverts it with her melancholic face. A couple of villagers seem to be annoyed by Young-nam, bringing bottled water to the village, as if there is no clean water there. But, we later learn that the ‘water is actually an alcohol and she is drinking loads of it every night before going to sleep. Young-nam’s alcohol problem seems to have raised from her past humiliation. Her assignment to the village is subtly referenced as a punishment for‘misconduct’. The close-knit townsfolk and the quotidian police work do nothing to change her gloominess. Young-nam, however, is intrigued by the bedraggled 14 year old girl, Do-Hee, who is repeatedly beaten by her drunk step-father Yong-Ha and unruly, motorcycle driving grandmother.

                                         Do-Hee’s is often addressed by words like ‘bitch’, little whore’ and ‘mutt’ (even her classmates use those words). Do-Hee’s mother seems to have abandoned the girl and from then on she is bearing the Yong-Ha’s unrestrained rage. The girl shows up at Young-nam’s door couple of times, seeking respite from her dad’s beating. Young-nam repeatedly warns Yong-ha and gradually becomes a surrogate mother to Do-Hee. She makes Doo-Hee to stay with her during the vacation, cooks meals, takes her shopping and teaches few life lessons. As the young girl gradually blooms into pubescence, Young-nam’s troubled past resurfaces. Her quest to protect the girl is seen with a malicious intent by the townsfolk as well as the law officers.

Spoilers Ahead

                                        Although Jung’s story takes place in a Korean coastal village, the patriarchal mindset, bigotry and misogyny are common themes that could be universally experienced – urban or rural. Jung points out at the distressing aspects of traditional Korean culture and confronts it with mature, contemporary viewpoints. A variety of themes are scrutinized in the narrative including alcoholism, psychological impairments, child abuse, the plight of illegal immigrants and homosexuality. Some of the themes aren’t explored in a satisfactory manner, but Jung never offers any easy or sentimental resolutions to the problems presented.  One of the strongest aspects of the script is the way it circumvents the expectations of audiences and their perceptions. Based on certain Korean stereotypes, viewers may expect this film to be a condemnation on ‘the system’. Jung, more or less, observes the incidents rather than passing judgements. The idea of exploring ugliness beneath the serene rural setting isn’t something new to Korean cinema, but director Jung uses it in an effective way.

                                       The transgressive relationship between Do-Hee and Young-nam is handled in a sensitive manner. A little mistake would have made the relationship either controversial or cheap. Despite the presence of taboo cinematic subjects like child abuse & homosexuality, the film is mainly about loneliness & banishment of females in a patriarchal society. The tolerance of abuse and other psychological ills from the female perspective is also impeccably addressed. Movies on the taboo subjects often leave out the end result of abuses on the victims. Here, it shows how the young victims themselves become violent and manipulative as their abuser. A highly distressing scene happens latter in the film, where the victim uses the general perception to her advantage. A little earlier, before that scene, an interrogator asks Do-Hee “did she (Young-nam) adore you?” The young girl replies with a wide, elated eyes, although what she says is perceived from the wrong context. From that experience, Do-Hee learns an insidious idea of manipulation (the follow-up sequence in interrogation room is washed with irony).    

                                       The movie is also about the double standards we often take for the perceived betterment of society or family. Yong-Ha is often addressed as the man helping for the village’s economy, and so his pernicious exploits are turned a blind eye. Young-nam’s innocuous connection with Do-Hee is closely watched, when secrets about her sexuality are discovered. The interrogators are more interested in sexual abuse of the child, compared with the other forms of abuses she has faced.  Although the male characters aren’t as three-dimensional as females, the performances all are uniformly excellent. Kim Sae-ron has previously played couple of neglected child roles – in “A Brand New Life” & “The Man from Nowhere”, but her acting never takes the predictable route. Kim plays a more mature character than in her previous films as she subtly expresses the prolonged abuse of Do-Hee. Her eyes faultlessly convey the compassion and the inner vicious feeling. Doona Bae has the perfect melancholic face to play emotionally bruised characters. She is both convincing as an authoritative law officer and also as a defensive surrogate mother.  

                                      “A Girl at My Door” (120 minutes) takes one the bleakest subjects in cinema (child abuse) and refuses to travel in the regular or melodramatic ‘victim’ narrative. The movie’s feminine perspective and subtle revelations raises many thought-provoking questions.  


October 1, 2015

“Kuttram Kadithal” – A Subtle & Pertinent Social Drama

                                                 Theater-artist turned film-maker G Bramma’s Tamil movie “Kuttram Kadithal” (2015) bears an English title “The Punishment”, although the literal translation means ‘daring a crime’ (see Wikipedia page for the movie). The crime in the movie isn’t pertained to a particular individual, but the entire system – from education to media – that trains its people to either run away from truth or embrace half-truths. “Kuttram Kadithal” was screened at various film festivals, including Goa and Mumbai and went on to a National award for ‘Best Tamil Feature’ (although it was only recently released in theaters). The film has little thriller elements, but it is mostly a sublime, nonjudgmental character study about different people, hailing from various socioeconomic class.

                                               The movie opens in the house of a newly married couple. The assortment of personal photos on the cupboard plus their names – Merlin and Manikandan -- and religious icons refer to the fact that it’s a love marriage, while the slightly forlorn expression of Merlin (Radhika Prasidhha) states that their marriage didn’t have parents’ approval (in this case, Merlin’s mother – a devout Christian). When she sits in front of the mirror, before getting reading to start her day as the school teacher, Merlin is in a dilemma about following whose faith. She asks her husband (Sai Rajkumar) to place the sindoor on her forehead, a decision which shows that she is ready to embrace both faiths. Merlin, who is afraid of rat and a more sensitive woman, wears the mask of a strict teacher amongst the students.

                                           She goes as a substitute teacher for a lower class (5th standard) and sees a birthday girl crying. She discovers that a boy named ‘Chezhiyan’ (Ajay) from the same class has kissed the girl, on account of her birthday. The harmlessly jubilant boy makes a humorous remark when Merlin asks about his behavior. She gets infuriated by the remark and slaps the boy, who falls down and slips into an unconscious state. Merlin is asked to immediately leave the premises of school as the principal advises that it might become a large issue. The narrative moves between Merlin experiencing the crisis of faith and the boy’s mother, an auto-driver, who has lost her husband. The boy’s uncle, Udhayan (Pavel) – a headstrong man and the agitated school principal makes up for some of film’s most intriguing characters.

                                        “Kuttram Kadithal” is one of the most subtle and vividly detailed Tamil/Indian movies in the recent times. In an interview to Hindu, writer/director Bramma states how a film should not only have content, but also aesthetics that could appeal to universal audiences. Indian cinema is often pockmarked with movies that have relevant social messages, but savaged by film-makers with a hypocritical moralist stance. Bramma infuses effectual characterization rather than treat the actors as caricatures or set properties. Except for the portrayal of corporate media, the characters are multi-dimensional, each behaving in a manner that isn’t cinematic. 

Spoilers Ahead

                                        The director repeatedly alludes to how the characters make decision from their previous experiences or from their socioeconomic perspective. The high principled head-master (a loving husband, an agonized father; he is seen following the rule of wearing helmet) immediately asks the teacher to run away rather than facing the consequences for her mistake or crime. He has taken this decision, which isn’t limited between right or wrong. The head-master fears his fellow people of the society, whom he thinks might do something rash, out of anger. His thought process might not be an exaggeration, but then this choice transcends the dimension of the crime and feeds off creatures that thrive on some sensation. Self-willed Udayan, in one earlier scene, stops a rich man in the car, who has knocked down a fragile old man, riding in a cycle. The rich man without a second thought hands over money as compensation and wants to run away from the situation. But, Udayan makes the rich guy to take the old man to hospital as compensation. Through this little sequence as well as Merlin’s fleeing, Bramma points out how the society has taught its people to run away from the erroneously perpetrated crimes by taking few shortcuts.

                                         Despite portraying Udhayan with a headstrong, the writer has shown good judgment in never making the character to do some dramatic things. Udhayan is also shown as a reasonable guy, who knows when to back off. The total lack of sexual education (or the way it is perceived even among adults) is also one of the chief plot elements. The words the Zoology teacher uses on the reproduction class to the giggling students makes up for one of the well-written dialogues in the film.  Apart from being a staunch societal drama, Bramma also weaves the movie as women’s journey through crisis of faith and as a tale of mothers. Mirror, the symbol of both physical and spiritual reflection, is used on couple of occasions by the director to showcase Merlin’s faith crisis. After the disastrous incident in school, Merlin goes to a Church and watches her face in a two-Wheeler rear-view mirror. Her bewildered face in the mirror is juxtaposed with the symbol of cross and in a fleeting moment, she comes to a decision that her current predicament is related to her previous choice of abandoning the faith. She immediately rubs off the sindoor on her forehead. Through her short trip, Merlin comes across different kinds of religious (Christianity) icons that also gradually stabilizes or makes her to do the right thing.

                                        In his landmark novel “Mother”, Maxim Gorky wrote “Mothers are hardly ever priced”. Director Bramma, apart from repeatedly referring to this novel, has designed the script to be a tale of working class women or mothers. The decision of head-master and his wife to protect Merlin seems to be a parental instinct; the struggles of Chezhiyan’s mother are distinctly portrayed; and the levelheaded policewoman is seen picking her son from karate class amidst her pressurized work. The other significantly commendable aspect of Bramma’s direction is the way the songs are amalgamated into the narrative. The great Tamil Poet Subramaniya Bharathiyar’s magnificent song “Chinnanchiru Kiliyae” was well orchestrated (music by Shankar Rangarajan) and an earlier song in the school impeccably brings the sense of being in an actual classroom. The movie has its own set of flaws like trying to be a thriller or the melodramatic contrivances towards the end.  A brief judgmental view of media doesn’t seem to fit into the movie’s environment. The director imbues the idea of media being a stalker with sinister intentions (as if yellow journalism is the only kind).  But, these few missteps don’t affect the subtlety of the movie’s social message.

                                   “Kuttram Kadithal” (120 minutes) is a skillfully designed social issue drama that might inspire Indian film-makers on how to tackle such subjects without getting into the preachy mode. 


When Marnie Was There – A Poetic Tale of Friendship, Loss and Mortality

                                                The world’s most beloved and highly imaginative animation studio, Japan’s Studio Ghibli, has recently announced its temporary break from anime productions. The retirement of anime masters Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata combined with the recent box-office misfortunes has made the studio to take such a decision. It is very sad news for fervent film buffs all over the world. “When Marnie Was There” (aka "Omoide na Mani", 2014) would remain as the latest Ghibli movie for quite some time (Marnie was also said to have performed poorly in Japanese box-office). Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Marnie” was based on the British novelist Joan G Robinson’s 1967 novel (“Howl’s Moving Castle” & “Secret World of Arrietty” were also based on British novels).

                                            Ghibli’s trademark coming-of-age themes, rich natural world, positively infectious spirit and bitter-sweetness encompasses “When Marnie Was There”, although the movie might not measure up to the studio’s evergreen classics “Princess Mononoke”, “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”. “Marnie” was a minimal work, even when compared with Ghibli’s recent endeavors like “The Wind Rises” and “Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (one of the gorgeous hand-drawn anime ever made). Nevertheless, “Marnie” could be enjoyed on its own terms and I have always felt that an above average Ghibli work is superior to Hollywood animation studio masterpieces. Director Yonebashi has deftly adapted a Western children’s book, imbuing Japanese context and little of adult psychology.

                                           The anime begins with 12 year old Anna Sasaki woefully sitting under the shade of tree, watching over the jubilant kids running around the playground. Her artistic talent is well evident from the picture she has drawn of the playground. But, her portrait more or less shows the playing area as some sort of grey, desolate place. Anna proclaims “In the world there’s an invisible magical circle; these people are inside, and I’m outside”. Her quest to get into an inner magical circle is makes up for the movie’s narrative. Anna, the asthmatic child on the cusp of puberty, has only recently confronted with this hopeless feeling as she discovered some terrible document about her foster mother. Anna’s worried guardian Yoriko insists that the girl call her ‘mother’, but Anna only thinks of her as an aunt.

                                        On the doctor’s insistence, Anna is sent to Yoriko’s relative in the countryside. The fresh air might provide cure to her ailing disease and calm the shredding emotions. She stays up with Oiwas, who reminds us of the genial elderly couple of Ozu films. Oiwas’ own children are living in cities and they are very happy to receive Anna. They also give Anna her own space. Anna wanders around the beautiful coastal town and mostly avoids people. Anna’s love for sketching draws her close to an astounding, dilapidated, British-style manor. Known as “Marsh House”, the majestic building is situated on the other side of a cove.  Anna repeatedly dreams about the building and in her dreams, she sees a young blonde girl in high window having her hair brushed by a governess. One day, Anna even meets the mysterious girl named “Marnie”. Both the girls have blue eyes and a tormented childhood. As the girls strongly bond with the feeling of friendship, questions arise about the identity of Marnie.

                                      The explanation of the mystery behind the existence of Marnie may not satisfy us, compared to the mystery itself. The backstory is too melodramatic that makes reminisces us of mopey YA novels, but these flaws are transcended by the creation of an exquisitely beautiful landscape, whose luminescence can’t be sometimes explained by mere words. The richly textured image of Anna rowing the boat, while Marnie stands on the bow, her blonde hair fluttering, is something only the Ghibli geniuses could think of. There are many such virtuoso moments, which make us forget the dab resolutions and lack of complex catharsis.  Like previous Ghibli movies, the protagonist goes through the subtly hinted phase of sexual awakening or has a pre-adoslescent crush (Anna was flustered when she sees Marnie dancing with a boy). Similar to “Spirited Away”, Anna stumbles into some sort of secret realm (although not as elaborate as the Miyazaki classic) in which there are no outright villains. If there is an antagonist in the anime, it would be the passage of time and haunting, entombed memories.

                                   Apart from the visually poetic images of moonlit marsh landscapes, the other captivating vision is the evocation of that Gothic mansion. The initial interplay between Anna and Marnie were really heartfelt; two fragile souls reaching out to each other for affection. Director Yonebashi adeptly diffuses some of the Japanese elements: like the presence of enigmatic, reticent fisherman, Toichi; the good-natured Oiwa hand-carved owl sculptures (in Japanese culture, owls are the symbol of luck and provide protection from hardships), etc. The standards for liking “Marnie” might be defined by viewers’ patience and attention, and their ability to overlook few melodramatic contrivances.

                                 “When Marnie Was There” (103 minutes) is a must watch for the cinephiles, who love the works of Studio Ghibli. It is a lyrical adventure story that explores lush landscapes as well as haunted memories.