May 24, 2016

Painted Fire [2002] – An Entrancing Study of an Agonized and Unconfined Artist

                                               ‘Hey, it’s just art! Why do these artists drive themselves to a point of madness in order to create a mere piece of art? Isn’t art easy for those who have really got the talent?’ These are the questions and thoughts I once had and continue to hear from others. If there are great artist in this world, who can produce a majestic art and be satisfied with it, then you should envy those personalities. Most of the artists unceasingly self-criticizes & doubts their work, irrespective of the acclaim they receive. Their agony and inner-struggle takes a break only when they strive to germinate a satisfying art. The minute a artist finishes his work – be it a painter, writer, sculptor or a film-maker – an emptiness seeps into their heart and the all encompassing talent becomes an all consuming force. An art might bring us solace, energy and hope, but an artist, more often feels like walking on a tightrope. Korean film-maker Im Kwon-Taek’s visually and thematically rich “Painted Fire” (aka “Chi-hwa-seon”, 2002) chronicles the life of one such celebrated artist ‘Jang Seung-ub’, whose illustrious artistic fire paved way to powerful paintings, while also created hollering inner demons.

                                                Movies about painters often take two different kinds of approach by either showcasing the artists’ tortured & visionary sides or depict the artist’ significance from the perspective of tumultuous era they lived in. While films like “Pollock”, “Lust for Life” belongs to the first approach, a masterpiece likeTarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” belongs to the later. In “Painted Fire”, director Im Kwon-taek derives elements from both the approaches: it’s a focused character study of the painter, who hailed from a poor background; and through his social class, the film perceives the volatile times of Korea. The result is slightly confusing since the script includes five decades of the painters’ life alongside the chaos of 19th century Korea, from the peasants’ revolt to the invasion threat of Japanese. But, what makes “Painted Fire” a must watch, despite the perplexing jump in timelines, are the alluring visuals and Choi Min-shik’s zestful, fiery performance.     

                                              “Painted Fire” opens on the abode of some high-ranking Korean official in the 1880s, when the Koreans rebelled against corrupt government and foreign invasions. Sitting at the official’s grand house, Jang Seung-ub deeply contemplates as a long, white paper lies in front of him. An audience has calmly gathered around him, eager to see what his inner soul is going to express on the paper. He gradually starts drawing mountains, trees, birds and flowers. His deft movement of hands makes it seem so simple. The end product as usual amazes the rich personalities. Jang Seung-ub paints with such a desire that his representation of tree rustling with breeze instills a euphoric feeling on the people gazing at it (“It emanates divine strength as if ghosts were dancing around it”, says a man). While his artistic expression enamored people, his words tinged with slight arrogance & sarcasm, extracts polarizing reaction from the same people.  This opening sets up a stage to further explore how the celebrated painter’s genius spawns the inner torment and vice-versa. The sociopolitical chaos of Korea also instigates the painter’s cyclical emotions.

                                              Jang Seung-ub was an orphan, who was saved from being beaten to death by master Kim Byung-moon (Ahn Sung-ki), a patron of arts. The master was the first one to witness the boy’s fire of genius and he sends teenager Jang to work as apprentice for one of the Korean painter. After the artists’ death, Jang is sent to study at the house of a Chinese nobleman, where he is attracted towards the master’s ailing sister (Son Ye-jin). He has one or two interactions with her, but it is soon shown that there is no possibilities of a romantic relationship between them (due to Jang’s class status). Later, Jang stuns the aristocrats by impeccably copying an old Chinese master’s painting, which he has seen only one time. His copies of Chinese drawings become very popular and soon Jang embarks on a journey to create original works. Jang was given a prestigious pen name ‘Oh-won’ and his original works boasts deceptively simple, lush landscapes, but the paintings’ startling clarity possessed the noblemen. But Jang neither cared about the acclaim nor agreed to fit his artistic expression into a set of rules. He vehemently tried to not be a prisoner of his spectator’s expectations. In those beleaguered times, Jang found exuberance through carnality and drinks. The fire within draws in beautiful woman to him and also chucks them out. And, all he could give the women (apart from sexual pleasure) is a token of his creative spirit (a painting). Even when Jang gets a chance to be a part of Royal Painting Bureau, his rebellious spirit forces him to escape from the Royal Chamber to spend some time with friends at a run-down tavern.

                                           Veteran Korean director Im Kwon-taek is one of the very active and legendary figures of Korean cinema, who is dubbed as ‘father of Korean cinema’. “Painted Fire” (the director’s 95th film) was my first Kwon-taek film, for which he shared the ‘best director’ award at 2002 Cannes film festival (along with Paul Thomas Anderson for ‘Punch-Drunk Love’). As a prolific studio film-maker, Im made various genre films, starting from early 1960’s. He has admitted that he saw movies as an artistic medium only from the works he commenced during the mid 1970’s. From then on, he made more honored works like “Seopyeonje”, “Chunhyang”, etc. Although Im doesn't not have a unique directorial signature, he is a consistently skillful director whose narrative structure and beautiful visuals imbues an ultimately moving movie experience. In “Painted Fire”, director Im and cinematographer Jung Il-sung conjures up one astonishing visual after another, which keeps up with Jang’s paintings. Im also handles the central character very well. He doesn’t soften Jang Seung-ub’s drunken, lust-filled activities, but he is also careful to not reduce the characters’ inner torment into a caricature. Within the volatile times & tragic happenings, Im is able to weave a Zen-like calmness that makes to look beyond the artist’s passion and unworthy addictions. There are certainly few flaws in the narrative structure, especially in the way it fails to create a well-rounded female character. The director wants to connect Jang’s art and social class with the changing times, which haven’t been efficiently achieved. But, such flaws don’t bother us much, when witnessing the thundering performance of Choi Min-shik.

                                            Choi Min-shik and Gary Oldman are two of my most favorite actors, who have the incredible ability to bring out a characters’ inner agony and primal instincts. They both can channel in this mix of anger and agony to create extremely tormented personalities as well as bad guys (for eg., “Oldboy”, “I Saw the Devil”; “Leon”, “Immortal Beloved”, etc). These two great performers zest also reminds me of Toshiro Mifune. As Jang Seung-ub, Choi Min-shik brilliantly brings out the artists’ central paradox: he is so ambitious but hates the success & fame that comes from it; he applies his soul to create such images of infinite beauty, yet he submits to wild cravings. Despite Jang’s boorish manner towards women and the young helper, Choi finds enough room to instill empathy for his character (in the same vein, Timothy Spall’s portrayal of eccentric painter JMW Turner remains as startling as this). In one of the movie’s powerful scene, Jang unable to find inspiration for painting lets out a scream like an animal. That little moment perfectly conveyed the inner screams I experience, whenever my creative spirit is left unsatiated with mounting failures.

                                            “Painted Fire’s” historical elements and sufferings of the period are somewhat shown in simplistic manner, but many of Jang’s anguish-filled words leaves us a lot to contemplate about artistic creations. Why artists anguish themselves over restless perfectionism?  From where does this fire to create art come from and when does it vanish without a trace? What drives them to expand the boundaries of their art – Is it the spectators’ approval & denials or to transcend their own feelings of unworthiness? Of course, these aren’t easily answerable questions, but films like “Painted Fire” allows us to look at a existence filled with torment and self-doubt (like all our existence) which is transformed and enlivened by the unceasing pursuit for beautiful art. 



                                             “Painted Fire” (120 minutes) is a fascinating & blazing character study of a rebellious and hedonistic artist. It offers an emotionally overwhelming experience that doesn’t make us worry over some of its formulaic, artist-biopic conventions. 

May 20, 2016

An aka Sweet Red Bean Paste [2015] – An Ode to Life’s Simple Joys

                                                Japanese film-maker Naomi Kawase’s works often inspire extreme reactions from the viewers. Her introspective, poetic and very personal feature films were either praised as ‘awe-inspiring’ or ripped apart as ‘awful’. Nevertheless, her film have garnered honors and award in many film festivals, including Cannes (she served as Jury in Cannes alongside Speilberg when “Blue is the Warmest Color” was selected for ‘Palme d’Or’). She is one of my favorite modern Japanese film-maker and with “An” (aka “Sweet Red Bean Paste”, 2015) Kawase has directed her most accessible and unusually warm crowd-pleaser. “An”, based on the delicate novel by Durian Sukegawa (Kawase’s long time associate), opened last year Cannes’ ‘Un Certain Regard’ section. “An” also marks the first time for Kawase, in her two decade film-making career, to have chosen a material of another writer to adapt & direct. The plot of the movie pretty much has everything to be transformed into a standard ‘feel-good’ movie, but director Kawase’s contemplative stance gives us a more profound, bittersweet experience. It is about three simple souls finding their contentment in life, but the way it’s presented & performed urges us to make a thorough introspection.

                                               The movie opens on one of the often repeated, symbolic meaning offering, Japanese setting: Cherry Blossom. The flourishing and the vanishing of blossom is a fitting reminder of our own mortality. In one such booming day, 76 year old Tokue (Kirin Kiki) sees the small dorayaki shop (a popular Japanese confectionery) and its sign requesting for ‘part-time help’. The shop’s chef and manager is the sad & reluctant middle-aged Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase). His predominant customers are giggling school girls. When Torue asks for the part-time work, he gently rejects, doubting her ability to handle the physical strain. The next time she visits the shop, the old lady leaves with him the incredible sample of ‘an’. The red bean paste or ‘an’ is the soul of ‘dorayaki’, which Sentaro gets from a bulk order. Soon, Tokue arrives at the shop early in the morning and shows unbelievable attention & live for every single ingredient to prepare the bean paste. Sentaro’s soulless routine is disrupted by gentle Tokue’s lively presence.

                                              The elderly Tokue, despite all her inner emotional pains, moves like a bundle of energy. There’s heartiness in the way she greets birds, trees and people. She is content be under the warm sun and shining moon. Tokue’s culinary talents make customers of all age to flock the shop. Through Tokue’s sweet paste, Sentaro sees a way out of his heavy debt. There’s also the charming school girl Wakana (Kyara Uchida – Kiki’s grandchild), who is a regular customer for Sentaro and he often gives her the ‘rejects’ to take it to home. Wakana lives with her single, inattentive mother and kind of sees Sentaro as the ‘father figure’. Wakana is also enamored by Tokue’s culinary skill as well as her spiritual perspectives. As the lonely souls of Sentaro and Wakana learn to behold the wonders of nature and live in the present, the diseased thought of the society scrutinizes Tokue’s disease. The banishment Tokue faced all her life comes back with full strength.

                                               “An” is as light-hearted as the pancakes Sentaro make and as sentimental as the bean paste carefully made by Tokue. And, yes it also gets a little didactic towards the end, but it never veers into melodrama or soap-opera. Director/writer Kawase’s impeccable meditative pauses and musings add a layer of weight and context. Although, Kawase’s story is built on delightful gastronomical premise, her trademark themes are very much present in it. At its core, “An” turns out be a tale of people understanding and embracing the communion between nature and human (director’s pet theme: “I don’t see myself as someone who lives in the nature but someone who’s only living because of the nature”, said Kawase in an interview). While Kawase’s shots of yellow sky, sun-shine filtered through branches, cherry blossoms and changing seasons reflects her favorite imagery, she also finds a robust human core in portraying the relationship between Sentaro and Tokue. Kawase’s precise direction effectively helps in the film’s second-half, when it moves away from the ‘feel-good’ path and starts encompassing or revoking the characters’ personal histories. Some may find the tonal change in the later half (to bittersweet) to be deviating, but I felt Kawase has perfectly & unsentimentally zeroed-in on the themes of social ostracism. There’s couple of monologues that manipulate our tear-ducts, but we can’t also ignore the positively infectious wisdom in those passages.

Spoilers Ahead

                                             Tokue, Sentaro and Wakano, who represent the three different generations, lack a vital figure in their life – child, mother and father respectively. But, thankfully “An” doesn’t take the cliched path by making these characters co-exist as one happy family in the end. The film simply reminds us to look into ourselves and understand our place in this beautiful (and vile too) world. Tokue passes on this significant wisdom to the afflicted middle-aged man and young girl, and in passing out this wisdom, she feels a comfort too. The film has a rarely heard sociopolitical side, which the director brings out without a note of exploitation. The narrative implicitly indicts the way Japan had cruelly alienated its people, afflicted by leprosy (and other disfiguring diseases). Tokue’s admiring quality in talking & laughing with nature and its beings takes a new meaning, when we find out about her ‘pariah’ status (Tokue lives in the quarantined compound from her girlhood). Earlier, in the cooking session, when Tokue communicates with beans, it just seemed like a silly exercise to make the character likeable, but in the end upon reflection those earlier moments pervades in our mind with a lyrical effect. After getting to know about her seclusion, Tokue’s happy relationship with natural world looked divine.

                                        The three central performances are as spectacular as Kawase’s visual treatment. 72 year Kirin Kiki (“Still Walking”) approaches her character with empathy and intuition. The whole presence of her brings a warmth and sweetness or sadness to the proceedings that all Kawase needs to show is little restraint in framing her. Kiki is pretty much the cherry blossom impersonated – a symbol of love, joy and spiritual awareness. Hearing Kiki’s soothing voice during the final monologue easily manipulated by tear-ducts, but the film’s most genuine tear-jerking moment is visualized with pure silence. Take the scene when Tokue understands that her presence in the shop isn’t going to bring the customers. She sadly looks and briefly smiles, when every possible customer passes by the shop. Sentaro asks her to ‘take the day off’ and a moment of epiphany flashes through Tokue’s face that’s very painful to watch. In that small moment, Kiki conveys Tokue’s apprehension of how all the good thigs have come to an end. She slowly removes her apron, puts on the overcoat, takes the bag and with a smile says ‘see you later’. As Sentaro observes her from the shop window, we see Tokue saying goodbye (she waves her hand) to the cherry tree and the birds. It’s hard to withhold the tears when Tokue moves away from the frame. Partly because that bitter-sweet face of Kiki reminded me of my affectionate grandmother and partly because of the way Tokue handles the sadness and finds a beauty to wave her hands at. Mastatoshi as Sentaro also shows superb restraint. 


                                             If we can understand our connection with the natural world; if we can learn to value ourselves and not try to fix a target to be someone or try to achieve someone’s idea of happiness, then living would no longer be a struggle. That’s the simple wisdom, Kawase conveys in “An” (113 minutes) through profound visuals and relatable emotions. 

May 17, 2016

The Wall aka Die Wand [2012] – Existential Musings in an Mesmerizing Locale

                                           “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” says the American philosopher & naturalist Henry David Thoreau, when he made an experiment of simple living at Walden pond. Thoreau’s social experiment and spiritual discovery, as elucidated in “Walden” gives us an instant to escape for an idyllic land of solitude. In this digital age, we might have had a fleeting desire to distance ourselves from material pleasures and to find, communicate with our inner self. It is said that only in solitude our inner freedom can grow. But, even if we attain that level of freedom, will it be a destination or just another milestone in life, making us to contemplate ‘what next?’ In Julian Polsler’s Austrian-German production “The Wall” (aka ‘Die Wand’, 2012) a middle-aged, unnamed woman begins a journey of solitude and freedom in a Walden-like environment. The only trouble is that she can’t go back to the society to seek some form of connection. That luxury is cut off from her because she is trapped inside an invisible wall, doomed to live alone in the resplendent Austrian Alps.

                                          Based on the 1963 novel by Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer, Julian Polsler’s movie is rife with symbolism and screams for metaphorical readings. It never offers conventional narrative delights and reflects on the human condition for an extended period of time that may irk viewers, expecting some kind of resolution. Those who are interested with the themes of isolation, memory, and human’s relation to time & nature could connect with the glacially paced narrative. The visual tone is consistent and the stunning landscapes are a delight to behold. Martina Gedeck’s (“The Lives of Others”) performance as the disconnected is riveting. However, the script and direction falters in the latter part of the woman’s emotional journey. The abundant explanations given in the voice-over do truly elucidate upon the woman’s feelings about isolation, but something blocks us off from really connecting to those expressed feelings. I’d have had a more cathartic experience, if director Polsler had more imaginatively used the silence and less of the redundant words.

                                            The film is mostly narrated in flashbacks as the unnamed woman in a remote alpine hunting lodge, writes on few bits of paper to recollect the strange incidents that has trapped as well as offered her a freedom. On one fine day in May, Gedeck’s nameless woman arrives with an older couple to the hinterlands, exuding postcard beauty, for a weekend. An upbeat song plays in the radio, which was written by the film’s director (thanks to the user who noted it in the IMDb discussion boards) and the song’s English title as noted in the end credits is ‘Freedom is a Journey’. So, as the car cruises through the open road, it’s alluded that she is going to have all the liberty, available in the world. But, when we see the disoriented look in the face of woman, writing the journal by diving into old memories, we wonder ‘Is this how true freedom looks like?’ The elderly couple, who had brought her to the lodge set off to a nearby village, leaving their beloved dog Luchs.

                                             In the morning, she is surprised to see that the couple hasn’t returned yet, and so decides to visit the village. The dog runs before her and at the turn she hears the dog, yelping in pain, as if it has hit something. Everything looks as usual, but at one point in the narrow road, she is blocked off by an invisible wall. With confused looks, she tries to reach her neighbor’s cottage, but once again the invisible wall halts her and the cottage’s occupants remain inanimate, frozen in an immovable realm. As the woman can’t find a way out of this strange confinement, she arms herself with hope and learns to live alone in the wilderness. The beguiling Alps winds up its clock, while she cultivates, harvests, hunts, chops wood, and ruminates upon her feelings, human nature and nature. Although, the woman is shunned from human connection, she is bestowed with the companionship of a pregnant cow, a stray cat and the loyal friend Luchs.

                                            I haven’t read the original novel, but the existential dimensions of the narrative is somewhere between Stephen King and Kafka. The film moves best when the woman like Robinson Crusoe wanders through the mountains, connoting inexplicable situation. The philosophical musings about the animal and human self within her is well etched. She has the moral qualms about hunting & killing for food. When she hunts a deer, she can’t get rid of the disgust (the haunting shot of dying deer stays with us long after the movie’s end), and that same human feeling stops the woman from shooting a beautiful fox. As the nameless woman says in the journal that it would be better if she stop thinking like a human being. Like all of us, she too is bestowed with memory, fear, grief, mercy, and other humane feelings. But, does it stop or burdens the human race to gain the ultimate freedom or an ideal sense of solitude? Similar kind of questions hangs in that brooding atmosphere, which has haunted our sages for all the ages.

                                         It is also important to ask the questions of ‘why’ & ‘what’ regarding the sudden rise of an invisible wall. There’s no reference to sci-fi or mystery in the narrative and so it’s good to not expect a tidied-up resolution. Is her existence, a metaphor for the loneliness of our very own beautiful earth? Is her lonely existence, an exploration of depression and abandonment? Does her existence is symbolization for the microcosm of humanity? Is it about the ‘walls’ we erect around ourselves to ironically search for ‘freedom’? Or is it about our desire for seeking something ‘meaningful’ in life, but our inability to express that ‘meaningful’ thing'? We can interpret it any way (and I would have definitely failed to rise many questions) and each path would provide an abundance food for thought. In the tale, we see the positive force in the little pleasures life throws at us. A supper after a hard day’s work, a birth of life, warm sunlight brushing our face, lying on the soft bed of grass, the loyal companionship of dog, the bleating of a cow is what gives the woman a much-needed solace. Seen from this perspective, the message is clear. While we desperately cling on for a meaning, confront darkness, and seek unavailable pleasures, love provides the ultimate relief. But, then we can never escape from the dark, empty side of humanity. The woman learns (in the end) about the pains, a fellow human life is capable of imparting. As the savage man hacks at the woman’s beloved companions, it becomes a symbol for the nether side of being human – a stark desire to destroy all our small victories & simple pleasures.

                                         Director Julian Polsler imbues a bitter-sweet quality in framing the beautiful stillness of nature. He patiently allows setting in the appeal and anxiety of such a scenario. But, the isolation of the woman doesn’t fully settle into our heart & mind. The journal manuscript is ponderous, but those words aren’t accompanied by imaginative or magnetic visuals to pull ourselves in. The manuscript reading type of narrative is a good device for a novel, but in the visual medium it tires us after a period of time. Gedeck’s raw and steely performance is also affected by tiring narrative course. However, the fine philosophical questions even this partly good narrative poses at us would definitely kindle the urge to search and read the classic book. 


                                          “The Wall” (108 minutes) is a fine introspective tale of loneliness, depression and the manifold uncertainties we encounter in life. Some of the ineffectual narrative strands, however, hold off the film from being the masterpiece it could have been. 

May 12, 2016

Brooklyn [2015] – An Insightful & Deep Emotional Journey


                                                I always have unceasing questions about life or my existence that pushes me to think of the term 'realist'. When all my unstoppable questions meet an immovable personal tragedy, I gradually become the skeptic of higher range. A healthy amount of skepticism is necessary to survive in this world, but the skepticism I am talking about gives a tsunami of doubtful feelings, which eventually has the danger of making me retreat into a cocoon. But, I often encounter people who are the precise opposite of me; people who wade through life carrying abundant nutrients for soul: hope and self-respect. Sometimes they too devolve into worst forms of narcissism and make me think that they are not much of a realist. However, those people help me reinstate hope, when coping with life’s quiet emptiness. I don’t know if I am right, but I now think that in life there are no perfect happy beginnings or endings. A luminous light shines through, when grasping in the dark to untangle from life’s complications. We may never find a solution for those complications, but the vital thing is to be ready to face that light; to cherish it in our memory for it may provide a path through this darkness. John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” (2015) might be referenced as a triangle love story of a simple, beautiful Irish girl. But, that’s not the right description. “Brooklyn” is about a person, learning to treasure that ‘light’ while confronting a life of hardships and scorching dilemma. She not only allows the hopeful luminescence to slip through her life’s complications, but elegantly shares it with a soulmate.

                                                Based on Colm Toibin’s novel, “Brooklyn” was adapted to screen by another novelist Nick Hornby. On the outset, this story has everything to veer into a formulaic territory: an impoverished town during World War II; the journey of an immigrant; the search for American dream; predictable romances; death of a loved one and so on. But, the emotionally attuned sense of direction & writing plus the surefooted lead performance from Saoirse Ronan makes it one of the most emotionally affecting movies of recent times. “Brooklyn” is pretty much a fairy tale in its depiction of geography and immigrant experience, although through the Irish girl’s emotional journey, we are able to grasp intimate epiphanies which could be interrelated with our own existence. The movie begins on a bleak early morning, where our heroine Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is frowned upon in God’s abode, and ends on a street pavement in one fine morning, where Eilis is all ready to receive and give love.

                                                Eilis has grown up in hard times of World War II in an impoverished province Enniscorthy, situated in the south-east of Ireland. Although, it is early 50’s, the economical depression of the nation keeps everyone on the edge. Eilis is underemployed at a local bakery store, owned by a stinging crone Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). Eilis lives with her widowed mother and caring elder sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who works in a book-keeping office. Although Rose is bogged down by familial and economical pressures, she wants her sister to live the dream. With the help of local Parish, Rose gets sponsorship for Eilis to move to Brooklyn. She stays at a Catholic boarding house, run by well-meaning matron Ms. Kehoe (Julie Waters), and occupied by clucking, but amiable young girls. Eilis finds a job attending customers at supermarket store ‘Bertocci’s’. However, a bout of homesickness hits her as she is unable to intermingle freely with the happy go lucky persons of this big city. The letter from sister makes Eilis to shut herself from human contact. Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who had placed Eilis in the boarding house and found the job tries to reinstate some kind of normalcy and hope in her life.

                                               Father Flood offers comforting words about homesickness: “It will make you feel wretched, and then it will move onto somebody else”. Father pays tuition for Eilis to learn book-keeping to envision a career that isn’t pertained to departmental store. Soon, Eilis also finds a person who brightens her mood. She meets a nice, and little clumsy Italian plumber Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) at a dance hall. He doesn’t sweep her off her feat because they both are level-headed in contemplating the possibility of romance. There’s an air of authenticity to the way they speak to each other that we yearn for them to fall in love. Eilis is unsure whether she loves Tony, although she appreciates his companionship. But, love transforms her or may be the transformation makes Eilis to perceive what love is. She even begins to assert herself as a sexual being. Nevertheless, a tragedy occurs which demands the girl to make one heart-wrenching decision after another. The problems and the outcomes might seem simple & maudlin but there’s a profundity here that makes each nuanced expressions an arrow, piercing our heart.

Spoilers Ahead

                                              Much of the joy in experiencing “Brooklyn” lies on how much we see ourselves in the emotional trajectory of Eilis Lacey. You can call her as a dull girl with little imagination to be a protagonist. But, I think she is dull and not perfect like every one of us. Although I and the character of Eilis are separated by gender, geography, time, and reality, I am able to sense and understand her inner anguish & dilemmas. The beauty of Nick Hornby’s script (and may be Toibin’s novel too) is making us feel that it could be our own life story. We all might have felt deluge of homesickness, promising love, the yearning to belong to a place, and the conflict between making a selfish and sacrificial decision. A lot of viewers might have stopped feeling for Eilis when she kind of falls for Jim Farell (Domhnall Gleeson). There is a hesitance within Eilis when she falls for Tony, but no so much when she laughs with Jim. It makes us doubt her selfishness (although it is understandable). If you see Eilis’ story as a weightless object floating through space, then Hornby, Crowley and Ronan work together to imbue a gravitational pull and depth to this object. All you had to do is let yourself pulled in by the story and patiently peel back its layers to understand about love and life. While analyzing Eilis’ alleged hesitance in NY chapter when Tony proposes love, we need to realize that she is a miserable, homesick girl, who never had the taken big life decisions. Eilis arrives at Brooklyn because Rose makes her believe that a better life awaits her; she remains as a passive character when talking with lady on the boat and in the boarding house.

                                               Eilis never sees the subtle control and manipulation, others place upon her. Of course, love is a subtle form of manipulation, which can positively affect us. It is love that shows her path of hope to break free from passiveness and to understand the nether side of manipulation and control placed on her life. When she comes back to Ireland, Eilis’mother basically shoehorns her to fill in Rose’s place. The promise she had made for love allows ascertaining this subtle manipulation. However, Eilis likes the attention she gets on her homeland. Among the inexperienced peers, she attains uniqueness.  She can actively see through the affectionate gestures of Jim. But, it isn’t about Eilis choosing Tony or Jim; it is about her choosing the right kind of life she wants. If Eilis in the ‘Brooklyn’ part of story shown to withhold a clear perception of love, then the whole of ‘Irish’ act would become obsolete. It is the uncertainty about choosing the right love and life that lends us empathy in perceiving Eilis. The active, free choice she makes at the end might come off as preordained, happy ending in some other romantic movie, but here it is genuine and even tear-jerking. May be Eilis should have been honest to Jim or at least with her wrecked mother. But, then how many of us are always honest in our youthful life, while waltzing through landmine of inner conflicts? In movies, love is thought to be a proven scientific theory. It’s not a set of formulas which says ‘If you do all this, you will get this result’. The success of love or life is based on the series of difficult choices & sacrifices, one has to make freely from deep inside once heart. “Brooklyn”, within its fairy-tale atmosphere and ideas, realistically broods upon love that survives on top of societal expectations and conventions.

                                              There’s a wonderful interpretation made in an article, published in ‘’ which alluded that the entire love story and its conflicts is a metaphor for ‘immigrant experience’ ('How the love story in "Brooklyn" a metaphor for immigrant experience'). The underlying theme in Eilis’ inner conflict is choosing between love in home and away from home. This theme is crisply explained by the author of article. The film also touches upon humans’ desire to belong to a place. When we gain as much as wisdom and worldly experience as possible away from home and then return back, the place we called ‘home’ will look different. We might gain solace and respect, but the old life at home becomes an elusive thing. When Eilis walks on the beach with Jim, she says "I wish it had been like this before I went. Before Rose died”. It’s the paradox every modern individual, going away from home in search of a job faces. All we need learn is how kindness and love could make turn any place into home.  That’s another beautiful thing about the film; it isn’t designed to be an one kind of story. The absence of moralizing approach or absence from spewing out a prescribed path for success or happiness makes us feel at home.

                                            Socioeconomic & sociopolitical conditions of Brooklyn or Ireland are sensibly avoided because this is very much a personal story. The US war in Korea is never mentioned and economic depression plus the class-based oppression in Ireland are only mentioned in passing. Brooding over those topics would have only added extra melodrama, and no way place a role or adds depth to Eilis’ decisions. Director Crowley and cinematographer Yves Belanger draw upon an impressive & deeply nostalgic 50’s settings. Of all their lyrical frames, my most favorite one is the final visuals when Eilis stands under warm sunlight, waiting for Tony. It is not just an image that provides relief for the movie viewers; it’s an image that reassures us about true love; it’s an image thriving with life. As Eilias, Saoirse Ronan has given her best performance yet. The close-ups of her face resembles that of a renaissance era painting, allowing us to catch even the smallest of expressions passing through the face. Emory Cohen is also splendid as Tony, whose evocation of’ James Dean’ kind tenderness & vulnerability is a marvel to behold. 


                                              “Brooklyn” (111 minutes) is an amazingly restrained and profound personal story that feels congruent to our times and thought process. It is the kind of film, where a simple advice in a dance class (“Secret is to as though you know what you’re doing”) while calmly contemplated could very well seem like a vital life lesson. 

May 11, 2016

Compulsion [1959] – An Absorbing Study of a Dark, Remorseless Deed

                                           Our world is frightened by ‘evil’ kids. The word ‘juvenile delinquents’ is seen as a ponderous term to describe something dark and distressing. Part of the reason for why we and our media get intrigued by youngster committing soulless act is because it allegedly confirms our inner fears that the young generation is corrupted by the meaningless advances of nature. We the adults could easily embrace the idea that the current generation of teenagers are monsters, dallying with murderous intent. It’s not just us, but it’s what the previous generation (our parents) thought of us too. The 1924 case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Leob made the older generation of the era to think that the good world they have known is beginning to end. The vile social experiment done by 19 year old Leopold & Leob definitely make us cringe and coerces us to blame it all on the corrupt nature of modern teenagers. But, what we fail to contemplate is the inherent flawed layers of our society that perpetually breeds the indifference or twisted sense of superiority over the fellow human beings. By cursing the so-called modernity, the old generation tries to severe evil as an outside entity, having no connection with their society. 

                                            The 1924 was the era in America (before Great Depression) when illicit alcohol and rejoicing prosperity were the talking points. But, the meaningless crime of Leopold & Leob gave the American public and media to chew upon an outrageous act in a civilized society. The boy’s homosexuality, Jazz, booze and Nietzche’s ‘Ubermensch’ were brought under scrutiny to find concrete reason for the killing of a harmless 14 year old boy Robert Franks (newspaper called the case ‘crime of the century’). The murdering duo admitted that the killing was a social experiment to demonstrate their intellectual superiority, before being caught by carelessness. From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”, the Leopold & Leob case had a great influence in cinema. In 1956, Meyer Levin wrote a novel based on his personal knowledge of the case, which was adapted to screen by Richard Murphy and efficiently directed by Richard Fleischer (“Soylent Green”, “Boston Strangler”). And, although Fleischer’s “Compulsion” (1959) never proclaims that it is based on the 1924 murder case (the names of Leopold and Leob are changed to Judd Steiner and Arthur Strauss respectively), the narrative vividly follows the real-life events.

                                       Of all Nietzche’s ideas, his concept of ‘Ubermensch’ (‘Superhuman’, explained in his book ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’) has received a lot of criticism as the embodiment of amorality. From the racial twist added by Nazis to the Superman’s archenemy ‘Lex Luthor’, Nietzche’s thoughts were often interpreted to call for the enslavement of weak and domination of intellectual superiors. Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) shows similar clumsiness in grasping the ‘Superhuman’ concept and revels in superior detachment. Judd is a talented a ornithologist, scion of rich Chicago family and a introvert with repressed rage. His odd, extroverted, wealthy friend Artie (Bradford Dillman) also believes in their superiority and he wants to take it further. They both are pursuing law studies in a reputed university. Despite the homoerotic overtones, the relationship between Judd and Artie doesn’t divulge the idea of romantic love. Artie wants to prove the idea of their superiority. And, so the due start with a petty crime of robbing fraternity houses. When Artie drives Judd’s car, he sees a gesticulating drunk in the middle of the road, he wants to commit a murder, just for the fun of doing and getting away from it.

                                       Judd refuses to commit the murder, but Artie’s dominating mindset provokes Judd to prove his intellectually superiority theories. A little later, a 14 year old boy is brutally murdered. Judd and Artie’s fellow classmate (and budding reporter) Sid Brooks (Martin Milner) helps the police for positive identification of Kessler and Sid finds glasses along the body, which doesn’t belong to Kessler. It soon becomes clear that it was Judd, who had lost his glasses while disposing of the young boy’s corpse after kidnapping and killing him (with the help of Artie). It isn’t long before District Attorney Mr. Horn’s (E.G. Marshall) scrutinizing eyes falls on the young, rich boys with a water-tight alibi. Of course, Mr. Horn breaks through their intellect and in comes the famous lawyer Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) as defense attorney. While Wilk without ignoring the suffering of victim and the grieving family, puts on trial the furious demands of public, capital punishment and the legal system.

                                       The narration of “Compulsion” is divided into three parts: the first concentrating on odd, symbiotic as well as envious friendship between Artie and Judd, while the second is designed as cat-and-mouse game between Attorney Horn and the two delinquents, and final part belongs to Wilk, who meditates upon the issue of capital punishment. But, the script handles all these transitions in a slightly impromptu manner that emotional impact for a viewer lessens with each part. Richard Brooks’ true crime masterpiece “In Cold Blood” (the movie’s seamless editing is unforgettable) faced a similar kind of challenge to portray events before the murder and the societal frenzy, legal proceedings post-murder. Due to strict production codes, back in the 1950’s, director Fleischer weren’t able to portray the gruesome reality experienced by Paul Kessler and there wasn’t also a chance to show the boy’s corpse. Martin Milner, who plays Sid, effectively enacts the emotional shock of seeing the corpse of brutally murdered boy, but when compared to the visceral impact of “In Cold Blood”, in relation to the murder of innocent family and the subsequent hanging of perpetrators, “Compulsion” remains less remarkable.  Apparently the engrossing, anti-capital punishment speech made by Wilks doesn’t disregard the suffering of Kessler and his family, but I think this film hasn’t made the leap to be the most powerful film it could have been.

                                     Director Richard Fleischer effectively stages the movie’s key sequences. Consider the scene, when Mr. Horn explains how the glasses could only belong to Judd. Mr. Horn places the glasses on a table, waits for Judd’s response and there Fleischer uses a static shot, where the passage of time is gracefully defined. Later, we learn in passing that Judd has agreed about losing the glass. Although, the sole presence of such shots is to save time, considering the lengthy procedure involved with the murder trial, it is established effectively. After Wilks delivering his emotional closing speech, district attorney Horn slowly rises from his seat, and waits until Wilks takes his seat. It’s a simple gesture of respect or commendation from one attorney to the other. “Compulsion” isn’t without the hints of melodrama, but director Fleischer for the most part restraints from loud emotions or childish gestures. Welles’ final monologue about the capital punishment doesn’t come off heavy-handed. He makes his points with a grace that’s missing nowadays in courtroom dramas (shouting and pounding fists have become a regular element). One of the important reasons to watch this film is to experience the acting performances of three leads. Stockwell, Dillman and Welles shared ‘Best Actor Award’ at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, whose performances smooths out some of the irregular transitions in the script.


                                           “Compulsion” (108 minutes) is an intriguing character study and social drama that ponders over a purposeless, malevolent crime. It isn’t extremely powerful like the other classics of ‘True Crime’, but a must watch for Welles fans and for those meditating upon the nature of evil.