Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Just a few more foreign films I recommend:

Once Were Warriors: New Zealand. 1994. Directed by Lee Tamahori.

The The Wind Will Carry Us [Bad ma ra khahad bord]: Iran. 1999. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami.

Good Bye Lenin!: German. 2003. Directed by Wolfgang Becker.

After the Wedding [Efter brylluppet]: Danish. 2006. Directed by Susanne Bier.

Little Otik [Otesánek]: Czech. 2000. Directed by Jan Svankmajer.

Roadside Romeo again! (Indian, 2008, director=Jugal Hansraj)

Sweden: Persona; 1966; directed by Ingmar Bergman

In psychological terms, “persona” is that self which one projects to the outside world and shows to others. In Greek theatre, it was the mask an actor wore in order to play a role. And in cinema, “Persona” is the title of a psychodramatic masterpiece of deconstructivist post-modernism from the master Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Referred to by Bergman himself as a “poem in images,” “Persona” has had nearly as many interpretations of its messages or questions regarding personal identity and earthly existence as it has had viewers over the decades.

The film opens with a six- or seven-minute montage of seemingly arbitrary and sometimes disturbing images, all having to do with film: inner workings of a camera reel, an upside-down animation loop, a slaughtered sheep, a silent comedy, a nail driven through a palm. Credits are jarringly interspliced with still more images. Next, people who appear to be dead begin to move. A young boy gazes at a large-screen image of a woman’s face as it comes into and out of focus, trying to connect with it. The sequence resembles a bizarre dream stream of consciousness. At last, we’re introduced to a solid storyline revolving around 25-year-old, engaged Nurse Alma, a kindly, contented person with optimistic philosophies. Despite her concerns because she’s relatively new to the profession, she is willingly tasked with caring for a new psychiatric patient: Elisabet Vogler, a young actress who, in the middle of a stage performance, suddenly ceased to speak or move, and hasn’t yet recovered from this freeze.

The hospital’s doctor theorizes that Vogler’s problem is that she is trying to escape from real life, tired of putting on masks to play different parts and realizing that this is what everyone does in everyday life. Everyone in the world is an actor. Instead of acting genuinely, they create false personas—so perhaps it is better not to act at all than to act dishonestly. (Of course, according to existentialist philosophy, action is the one necessary objective of life.) She may be fearful of living, or she may be quietly laughing at and watching, judging, or amused by others.The doctor invites Alma to stay with Elisabet in her isolated island cottage, where Alma slowly starts to reveal to her listener—something she realizes she hasn’t truthfully had in a long time--her most personal secrets (a past affair, an abortion, her sexual encounter on the beach with a teenage boy.) As time passes Elisabet seems to absorb not only the words, tales, and confessions but also Alma herself, who wistfully wonders how easy it would be for them to become one another. Bergman is deliberately ambiguous as to whether the two women’s personalities—or personas--are exactly merging together, Elisabeth is transferring herself onto Alma, they are two sides of the same person, or what is happening, precisely. When Alma reads in her patient’s letter to the doctor that Elisabet is “studying” her, she becomes angry, and things start to fall apart—symbolized by a literal onscreen tearing of the film itself. One shot of Alma blurs, fades, and burns away.

Alma struggles to pull away from whatever state of abnormality she's getting herself into with this woman. She begs Elisabeth to speak just once, accusing her of fooling others by merely acting sane, while hiding malicious intentions. When blind Mr. Vogler appears at the house, Alma strangely pretends to be his wife, encouraged by the actress. The climax is a repeated scene, during which Alma delivers a monologue to Elisabet, telling the patient what she believes she knows about her life and feelings--mainly, that Elisabet detests her son because she was terrified of all the changes motherhood could bring to her life, that she had wished for a stillborn child, and now cannot bring herself to even be with him at all. We first see Vogler’s reactions to hearing this; the second time, the camera is on the speaker, Alma. In the end, Alma asserts her own identity and insists that she is not like Elisabet, but one half of each of their faces blends together onscreen to form one visage. (When Bergman first showed that photo to his two stars, each insisted that it was the other's face!) The two are later shown back in the hospital again, and then Elisabet on stage again in ‘Electra.’ Finally, we see them packing up and leaving the cottage, each apparently released to return to her own rightful life.

This film was made in the mid-1960s, amidst a period of turbulence and change throughout the entire world. Art of all kinds, from paintings to movies, underwent transformations and artists began to actually dissect and question their own modes of expression. “Persona” is an example of a product of this self-reflective, self-conscious media. It’s referred to by the term ‘deconstructivist,’ and indeed the illusion is created that the very celluloid of the movie itself is being torn apart (much like the fabric of society.) Artists, including Bergman, endeavored to make evident through their work their own awareness that what they were making was not real, but a sort of representation of reality, physically manipulated by its creators so that the viewer would see what the director wanted him or her to see. Of course the intention of art is to inspire some type of emotion, reaction, or feeling in its audience--and each individual will still naturally form his or her own ideas based upon what they’re being shown. However, reminders of the director’s ultimate control over his vision and the fact that it comes down to material objects are strongly present.

Over almost an hour and a half, the character of Alma changes a great deal as well, growing increasingly hostile and desperate, and causing us to wonder many times whether or not she’s indeed losing her mind or her own sense of self. For how can we be sure who anyone truly is, or what makes us who we are? Is it just the way we act? Does it have more to do with the psyche and inner life? Bergman allowed his imagination to run wild as he made Persona, as he tried to explore the infinitely complex intricacies of people and personalities. Seeming random images from outside of the plot—the inner workings of movie cameras, an actress being captured on film—are all, in fact, there for a reason. When Vogler watches recorded images of things that are real and did happen, such as a burning monk, they elicit emotional reactions from her because, although she’s merely staring at a screen or photograph, she knows that the events documented come straight from life itself—and had she witnessed these events the feelings would be even stronger. But for her, attempts at creating such reactions through acting and pretending have begun, for some mysterious reason, to lose their power.

Art is made to generate or convey something; it’s an inherent method of communicating with others. Yet while it has much power to create feelings and thoughts in us, critics of Persona remind us that it does so despite our knowledge that it is not actually real. Bergman seems to find this phenomenon curious—the magic of cinema. He nonetheless studies and breaks it down, looking from all sides, and asking whether films can ever be truly adequate to capture those complexities of reality and of spirit.

Bergman is extremely fond of close-ups and extreme close-ups, showing the texture and details of skin, faces, eyes, etc. Certain shots, such as Alma and Elisabet gazing into the mirror or their combined countenance, have become iconic. As in many Scandinavian films, Bergman’s stark landscape of a cold, rocky beach on his island sets the ideal backdrop for a movie which, I was not very surprised to learn, was written from his hospital bed following one of a number of mental breakdowns. His clearly calculated framing is a form of that aforementioned manipulation by the artist, who forces us to see things just as he wishes, because we can’t change what he has recorded. He also appears to have liked centering characters in the frame and letting them stare directly into the audience’s eyes, and perhaps minds. This method is deliberately disconcerting and once again causes people to feel that they, too, are being involved and interrogated in this strange story, although they know inside that they’re merely watching a film that can be switched off at any moment they choose. But viewers are, obviously, supposed to involve themselves in an artistic experience rather than simply looking at it disconnectedly. As the characters grow closer to each other, so they are brought closer to the watcher.

Other scenes, such as the ones in which the two women are seeing one another asleep or sharing an odd and intimate nighttime encounter, are ambiguous and, like nearly everything else about this experimentally abstract movie, open to multiple interpretations. Are they only dreams? Are they sexual? Is Elisabeth a vampire of sorts, literally sucking blood from Alma’s arm near the end? Throughout the film that character has been silent and basically unresponsive, yet much was required of the actress (Liv Ullman) in the way of subtly changing expressions to successfully portray this enigmatic woman. The only word we know for certain that we hear Elisabet speak is, “Nothing.” (Otherwise, it’s possible that the nurse has in fact started to speak for her, somehow sensing or knowing or hearing her thoughts and/or verbalizing them on certain occasions.) Alma has begun to question everything in her well-planned and essentially happy life. She starts to ramble on to Elisabet about “everything and nothing.” Is the movie intended to be about everything—or nothing at all?

I first saw Persona in one of my high school Psychology classes, and it stuck with me. Rewatching it really does remind you why it is such a highly regarded, compelling, and enduring classic; one could almost go on forever analyzing it. Through research I learned more about the director, actors, and their interesting relationships, which add a whole new dimension to my understanding of the film. Bergman was attracted to and romantically involved with both Bibi Andersson (first) and then Liv Ullman, and was fascinated by the similarities he saw between them. “Persona” is an artistic, intellectual film that truly is mostly mental—it gets into your head, makes you think, and asks you to try and put it together into your own rendition of Bergman’s unsolvably mysterious motion picture.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mexico: Amores perros (Love’s a Bitch); 2000; directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Three storylines intertwine in this tale of very different people whose separate lives briefly collide at the scene of a car crash. To begin with, brothers Octavio and Ramiro live together with Ramiro’s wife, Susana, and their son. They’re a struggling and tense family. Ramiro is an angry, abusive cashier by day and thief by night, while Octavio is in love with Susana and harbors a desire to run away with her (though she'll need some convincing about the idea.) His chance arises when their friendly Rottweiler, Cofi, kills a dog fighter’s Pit Bull Terrier. Realizing Cofi’s potential as a fighting dog, Octavio enters the cruel, bloody world of that “sport,” and suddenly starts coming home with a lot of spending money. Meanwhile, he’s sleeping with Susana. However, he has to have his brother taken out after Ramiro threatens Cofi’s life unless he gets half of “their” dog’s winnings (and temporarily disappears with his wife and baby.) Troubles escalate further when Cofi is entered into a high-stakes fight against a German Shepherd Dog. The fight ends abruptly once Cofi is shot; Octavio rushes him to his new car, returns to stab the offender, Jarocho, and then sets off a wild car chase that ends in a horrible collision.

The second plotline follows Brazilian supermodel and media star Valeria, and her lover Daniel, who recently decided to ditch his wife and two daughters for her. Octavio’s car smashed into Valeria’s, leading to the eventual amputation of her badly mangled leg, and of course, to the termination of her highly successful contract with the perfume company Enchant. As time passes her relationship with Daniel becomes troubled as well. Throughout this trying period of Valeria’s life, she enjoys the faithful company of her beloved little dog, Richie, who gets lost for a long time underneath the floorboards of her new apartment after chasing a ball down a hole, but manages to survive again.

In the backdrop of both of the previous stories has been the activity of a mysterious and scruffy old man, who appears to live on the streets, push a cart about, have several mutts for friends…and also be a hired assassin. As it turns out, this man is known as El Chivo (real name Martin), and he abandoned his wife and daughter (Maru) long ago to head out and try to actively change the world. Now, having failed to do so, he has observed his wife’s funeral and watched his daughter living from afar, observing her life in photographs by sneaking into her bedroom. In the meantime, El Chivo rescues Cofi from the car crash and helps him recover from his injury. Sadly, Cofi’s dog-aggression had been encouraged for so long that the Rottweiler ended up killing all of El Chivo’s other canine friends when left alone with them. Distraught, El Chivo moves to shoot Cofi, but cannot bring himself to hurt the dog.

Following that, a man comes to him requesting that he perform one more assassination, something he had no desire to continue doing. In the end, El Chivo kidnaps the target and traps him inside his temporary home with the man who’d claimed he was a cheat and wanted him dead—his half-brother and business partner. Believing that the first brother is a liar, Martin leaves them both tied up with a gun in between them on the floor, to determine their own fates. He and Cofi then leave, and he works up the courage to enter Maru’s home again and leave a message on her telephone, stating his existence and feelings, sorrows, and regrets. He still loves her and wants to see her again someday when he has the courage to do that. Pasting a photo of his old clean-shaven face over an image of his younger one in her bedroom, the old man sets down the frame and leaves once more. Meanwhile, Octavio has also been injured in the accident, but is still determined to run off with the now-angry Susana, who is more resistant than ever.

Love, in all its infinitely varied forms, is the one consistent theme that runs through each of these stories. (Its original Spanish title does the film a little more symbolic and thought-provoking justice than the American one, although the latter is neither untrue nor inapplicable.) Each of the main characters has at least one ‘perro.’ Dogs are generally often used as symbols of pure, perfect, unconditional love. Humans, on the other hand, and definitely in this film, are another story altogether. They can only aspire to what love means for dogs. Most characters here have some dubious morals at best. Susana might arguably be the best overall person in the entire thing. Octavio seems like a good man, and it’s easy at first to like him and hate Ramiro, yet for money Octavio subjects his loyal companion Cofi to brutal fights in which he kills other dogs. Could someone who truly loves his dog do that? He also has his brother beaten and killed--and regardless of how bad a man Ramiro was, or how deserving he may have seemed, or how good it feels to have him out of the picture, this can still raise further questions, objections, and doubts as to Octavio’s conscience, especially when compounded with some of his other actions. Interestingly enough the issue of murdering one’s own brother arose in the last film starring Bernal, and centered on that actor’s character then, too.

Valeria lies to the public about her love life--in reality, she’s with a man who’s been having an affair, cheating on his wife, and leaving her for the model. Apparently, Valeria has no problem with any of that, despite Daniel’s daughters; in fact, she openly disrespects his family and considers them stupid. And El Chivo/Martin was a complicated, conflicted person: an idealistic, opinionated, headstrong guerilla who believed in making positive changes in the world; a paid assassin who manipulated and tortured and took human life, but still respected it, and eventually wanted to end his business of killing; a man who had failed as a husband and father but deeply regrets it, and just can’t seem to find the strength to try and reconnect with the only family member he has left.

For all of their failings, those characters and others are not without their ability to love intensely, nor their willingness to do or to sacrifice anything for the sake of that love--be it for a woman (say, an in-law), a man, a cause (perhaps worldly justice), a wife, a daughter, or, indeed, a dog.

As a fanatical dog lover, I liked this movie partially due to their significant presence, but naturally found the fighting scenes very difficult to watch--more because of the knowledge that such hideously evil acts occur in real life than anything else. At least, I would very much hope that by the year 2000 no animals would have to be harmed in the making of a movie, even in countries that possibly don’t have a set-monitoring entity equivalent to the American Humane Association. Sadly, this cruelty persists in parts of the world. What I read on the IMDb, however, regarding the dogs being heavily sedated in order to appear dead, was hopefully a harmless truth.

The other technical and narrative aspects of the film were mostly superb as well and synthesized perfectly, from the basic staging of shots to the skillful interweaving of the three plotlines. In particular I felt that it was quite well cast and acted. Each performer (including the dogs) was very real and believable in his or her role, and seemed to have fully inhabited it. The characters felt alive. The slower, more subtle dramatic sequences were counterbalanced by moments of great suspense throughout, meaning that the issue of the film’s potentially being a tad overlong is not an unbearable fault.

India: Bombay; 1995; directed by Mani Ratnam

It’s literally love at first sight when Shekhar and Shaila set eyes upon one another. The hitch is that he is a Hindu, while she is a Muslim. Regardless, the journalist relentlessly pursues the young woman until she declares her eternal devotion to him as well. However, both of their families are outraged when Shekhar reveals his intent to marry Shaila Bano, forcing the couple to elope to Bombay (now known again as Mumbai.) There, they stay with Hindu landlords and several children who disrupt their attempts at intimacy. Finally, though, Shaila becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins Kabir and Kamal. Much happens during the ensuing years: Shekhar’s father and Shaila’s parents swallow their pride and come to stay with their children and grandchildren, although they’re not through bickering with each other. Shekhar is promoted from news editor to reporter. And when the twin boys are almost burned alive in a riot, it’s just the beginning of the vicious war that is breaking out between Muslims and Hindus.

The family’s happy life is turned asunder by the extreme violence, initially ignited by the demolition of holy mosques. The mixed family is caught in the middle of all this conflict, with two young boys confused as to their own religious identities. Ultimately, the love and loyalty of all the members of this united family prove stronger than any inclination toward violence against one another. Tragically, just as they are beginning to respect each other, the in-laws perish in a fire at their apartment building, and Shaila and Shekhar again become separated from their children. As they all search desperately, they see and experience the full, terrible extent of the senseless ongoing violence, which costs the lives of far too many kids and other innocents. At last, Shekhar, who has been delving into these religious differences through his work, has had enough of watching all of these people, including many he knows, kill each other. Gaining the attention of everyone in the street around him, he forces them all to look at the pointless carnage and destruction they’re causing and understand that they are simply allowing themselves to act as pawns in a politically motivated conflict. As his family is reunited once more, everyone drops their weapons, lets go of their anger, and makes peace.

“Act I” of this musical extravangaza is a familiar romantic story of the “Romeo & Juliet” variety, told many times over the centuries in literature, theatre and song: the characters whose relationship is forbidden, the man and woman madly in love, but from opposing sides, whose families attempt to keep them apart. Shekhar and Shaila are archetypes of true ‘soul mates,’ two creatures who can't live without one another, and who also happen to be stuck with the mission of bringing two hateful groups together as one. “Act II” exemplifies another theme that is visited again and again in all forms: the uselessness and waste of war, the blindness of humans to their true brotherhood with all other humans, their allowance of any differences of faith or viewpoint to become insurmountable walls dividing “us” from “them” and thus leading to disrespect and harm towards the “others.” As is probably befitting a musical love story, “Bombay” has an uplifting and optimistic ending. It's also fairly standard for the first half of such a story to contain the brightest parts, while foreshadowing and starting to introduce future dangers and unraveling. The second act will typically have the darker overall tone, with hell eventually breaking loose in some form or other.

Being a big fan of musicals in general, I greatly enjoyed this film, which is the quintessential “masala” movie out of ‘Bollywood.’ (For instance, the second song, in which the main couple comes together at the old fort by the sea, is a prime example of picturisation.) And unlike the standard Broadway- or Hollywood-styled movie musical which may tend to jump rather rapidly from song to song, “Bombay” had more plot substance in between fewer song-and-dance sequences, making it seem more like a regular film which happened to contain some musical numbers inserted at strategic points to further the story and enhance its emotions.

Despite the occasional humorous feature (i.e., out-of-sync lip-synching or Michael Jackson-esque costumes on male dancers), “Bombay” was both lightheartedly entertaining and deadly serious. I find the type of singing and choreography (whether classical, contemporary, or blended), as well as the traditional costumes (worn more by the women) found in films such as this one to be quite beautiful. The two videos below are ones that I have long enjoyed not only for the comical “translations” (which are not to be taken seriously!), but also for the music videos themselves--two among the many things of which I was strongly reminded by the movie.

The only Indian (and possibly the only foreign-language) film that I currently own is a 2008 animated feature aptly called “Roadside Romeo,” a joint production of Walt Disney & Yash Raj Films that was created entirely in India and directed by Jugal Hansraj. I love this fun movie and would certainly recommend it to anyone else who enjoyed “Bombay,” because it is essentially a Bollywood musical that replaces human characters with anthropomorphic dogs. Like “Bombay,” the plot revolves around a male main character who falls instantly for his love interest, but must fight to be with her.

Romeo and Laila are basically the Shekhar and Shaila of this animated Indian adventure which pays homage to the 'Bollywood genre.'

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Japan: Dreams ; 1990; directed by Akira Kurosawa

In the first of this film’s eight segments, entitled “Sunshine through the Rain,” a young boy is warned not to wander into the woods to witness the wedding procession of the foxes. Of course, he fails to follow this warning, and upon his return is told that an angry fox came by to deliver the knife with which he’s now expected to kill himself. Only by seeking out the foxes in their home under a rainbow and begging for his life does he have a hope of surviving. But the foxes “don’t usually forgive.” So the boy sets out across a field of wildflowers towards the rainbow, carrying the knife…and like so many real dreams, the story ends there, without revealing the outcome.

In “The Peach Orchard,” Kurosawa himself is again represented as a child who follows a mysterious little girl with jingling bells outside of a tea house and is led to what used to be a large orchard of peach trees, which have all been cut down. The boy sees another huge gathering of elaborately costumed people who are in fact the spirits of the trees. Once they see that the boy is truly saddened by the loss of the orchard, and not simply because he likes to eat peaches, the spirits agree to show him the beauty that has been lost. After a ceremonial type of dance the entire orchard of beautiful peach blossoms returns. As the boy watches in wonder, the spirits disappear and he sees the young girl again behind some trees. Following her, he stands before a single tree and admires it. But soon, both the girl and the orchard are gone again, and he is gazing at one lone, small, blooming tree.

“The Tunnel” changes pace by being a dark dream about an adult man walking through a tunnel at night. A war veteran, he is deeply tormented and haunted by survivor’s guilt, symbolized by a snarling guard dog who comes twice to bark at him. The old captain first sees the ghost of one soldier who doesn’t yet know for certain that he died, and wishes to go back to his parents across the river, who he believes are expecting him. Next comes the entire platoon that the man commanded, still completely loyal and obedient to him. He expresses to them his disgust at the stupidity of war, and the pain he feels for having survived while they all perished, a fact for which he blames himself. Finally, he sends them back so that they can cross over to the other side and rest in peace.

In “Crows,” a young man (clearly an aspiring painter) observing a Van Gogh painting gallery steps inside the picture called “The Bridge at Arles.” He then goes on an adventure walking through various works by the artist, and landscapes so boldly colored that they look exactly like Van Gogh images made real. A French woman washing clothes near the bridge guides him toward the artist himself, whom the man finds painting in the middle of a farm field. The eccentric artist imparts some insights into his own compulsion to paint things, and then leaves the young man to wander about through his unusual world, at last seeing Van Gogh one more time at the crest of a hill. Crows then appear, and the scene transforms into the painting “Wheatfield with Crows.”

“Mt Fuji in Red” & “The Weeping Demon” both deal with nuclear devestation. In the first, nuclear power plants explode as Mt Fuji erupts, causing mass chaos and precipitating a sort of apocalypse for Japan (at least.) Most of the small country’s population throw themselves into the sea to escape slow, horrific deaths. We see five people left: a woman with her young daughter and infant, an older, knowledgeable man, and the younger one representing the director. The older man, now obviously full of regret, was involved with the power plants and identifies the poisonous colored clouds of deadly ions, and the mutations they each cause. The woman is infuriated at the foolishness of believing that this could be controlled without ever leading to such a catastrophe, and that her children will never even get to live their lives thanks to the disaster. Knowing that he situation is hopeless, the older man departs into the ocean, and the younger one pitifully removes his jacket and tries to waft away the red cloud that is enveloping them while guarding the woman, who in turns attempts to shield her kids. Of course these last futile efforts to cling to life will be in vain.

In the second follow-up dream, a lone stranger wanders through a wasteland and encounters a humanoid creature in rags that was once human but has now become an ugly single-horned demon. The demon shows the man giant mutant dandelions and other strange plants that are the only things that now grow there. It explains how all of this total destruction of nature came to pass—once again, through the stupidity, arrogance, and carelessness of mankind—and that other 2-and 3-horned demons may soon kill him. The demon doesn’t want to die, but the other ones are doomed to immortality, suffering forever in this hideous land of their own creation, paying for their sins. The human is taken to see the other demons, all writhing and screaming in unspeakable agony. But the first demon’s horn is becoming more painful as well, and it begins to chase the man, asking if he’d like to be a demon too.

The last dream, “Village of the Watermills,” takes place in an opposite kind of setting: a gorgeous place full of healthy plant life and clear streams. The younger man wandering through sees children placing flowers on a rock as a memorial for another visitor who once died there. He then speaks to an elderly man who’s assembling a new wheel for a watermill. The old man—the last representation of Kuroawa—tells him all about life in his idyllic little ‘Watermill Village’ (aka ‘The Village.’) Its people live in perfect harmony with nature and reject modern technologies and conveniences, believing that nature is still more miraculous and amazing than anything manmade. The elderly man states that humans lose sight of what is most truly important: clean air and water. In thinking that they can make life easier and better, they wind up harming the earth and thus themselves. The old man then attends the village’s funeral march for an old woman (his first love.) Because of their lifestyles, these people typically live to be at least 100, so their funerals are usually celebrations of the deceased’s life and a way of thanking them for all their hard work. Clearly inspired by this society’s wisdom, the young man leaves a flower on the rock, and crosses back over the bridge that brought him into the village.

Each segment has its own theme or moral, but they’re all somewhat related. The first dream is like an odd fable, and its lesson seems to pertain to respecting and treating nature properly--heeding good advice and keeping away from where you don’t belong. The second, also focused on a child (the ‘Kurosawa’ figure generally seems to grow up and old throughout the film), more plainly communicates about Mother Nature. Both of these raise the question of how many second chances people will get after their offenses against her.

“The Tunnel” addresses the subject of war--a most unnatural phenomenon, in the director’s view, and something weighing heavily on the collective Japanese psyche following WWII. “Crows” is a surreal journey through yet another uniquely designed dreamscape, meditating on the motivations of artists and their drive to capture pieces of the world in a certain way.

The two nuclear-themed dreams (or nightmares rather) are closely linked to each other and, of course, to the traumatizing memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, ideas are present about humans disrespecting and trying to assume control powerful forces of nature for their own ends; forgetting their true place as just another part of the earth, they believe themselves above the rest of the animals, plants, and elements. This dire mistake backfires, and they bring about their own demise though abuse. Even Japanese monster movies such as ‘Gojira’ (Godzilla) were ultimately intended as warnings about the misuse of scientific discovery and nuclear weaponry. The country's status as a world leader with regard to technology and industry might help explain the apparent fascination with science and science fiction.

Major global issues apparently concerned Kurosawa near the end of his life. In the last dream he leaves the viewers on a peaceful, hopeful note, trying to impart some significant but simple and badly needed messages, particularly to the younger generations--the future caretakers of the planet that sustains and gives life to all things.

Artistic and abstract, and steeped in the culture of Japan (which is a curious admixture of the very traditional and the very modernized), “Dreams” is utterly different from what American audiences are used to—not to mention that Martin Scorsese is likely the only cast member they’d be apt to recognize. However, once they overcome this initial ‘shock,’ they would find a series of engaging short plots that should speak to any human being, each one generally being at least as strong as the last. If I had to choose favorites, they would probably be the fourth, fifth, and eighth segments of the film, but it's a tough call. I’m always very receptive to anything with a pro-environmentalist, nature-exalting basis, and “Dreams” contains much remarkable scenery and dialogue along those lines--some of the most eloquent and compelling I’ve seen since ‘Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.’ And the two dreams regarding nuclear power pack quite an impact (at times almost nearing the terrible poignancy of the animated ‘When the Wind Blows.’) “Dreams” on the whole is about as stirringly beautiful a piece of art as Kurosawa could have hoped to leave for posterity.

I’ve been a fan of Japanese culture and entertainment, a good deal of which is pretty whimsical, dreamlike, and magical itself, for a long time (which has some roots in my Pokémon obsession, but started even earlier than that.) I like some anime, manga, and various genres of Japanese film, plus others inspired by or based on them--from the horror movies to samurai/martial arts subjects, or dramas. Japan's animation is a revered art form that is now extremely popular worldwide. One good psychological anime thriller I saw recently is “Perfect Blue” (1998; directed by Satoshi Kon.) I love all of Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli's films as well, most particularly the wildly imaginative “Princess Mononoke” (‘Mononoke-hime’) from ’97, "Ponyo" ('Gake no ue no Ponyo') from 2008, and "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" ('Kaze no Tani no Naushika') from 1984. Like much of his and other Japanese work, these also convey strong points about loving, protecting, and preserving our environment. They endorse respect and awe for natural forces by employing fantastical, mythic representations of them. And, of course, there's more anti-war sentiment to be found in the tragically realistic 1988 WWII drama, "Grave of the Fireflies" ('Hotaru no haka')--out of Studio Ghibli but not Miyazaki-directed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

China: Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao); 1999; directed by Yimou Zhang

Thirteen-year-old Wei Minzhi is brought in to replace Teacher Gao for a month in a very poor Chinese village’s elementary school. The girl, the only qualified person available to take on the job, is expected to control and teach the class, consisting of fewer than 30 students up through grade four. Because families often require their children to work, schools in such poverty-stricken areas tend to lose students rapidly. If Teacher Gao returns from caring for his ill mother to find the entire class intact, and “not one less,” then Minzhi will receive a bonus in addition to her regular pay. It becomes clear that the young girl will do absolutely anything to ensure this outcome. First, one female student is recruited by a much larger school as an athlete, but Minzhi is assured that because this is a good thing, it will not count against her. But soon afterward, the class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, leaves the class for the city, in a desperate effort to make some money for his family.

Wei Minzhi then sets the other students’ sights on bringing him back. They calculate the amount of money necessary to get Minzhi to the city to search for the boy, and then attempt to raise it by working all day long to move huge stacks of bricks. This mission does not go as well as they hoped, so Minzhi ends up trying to sneak aboard a bus into the city, and finally, begins a lengthy, hot trek down the road alone. At last she is given a ride. In the city, she enlists the help of another young girl who had been with Zhang Huike at the station and then could not find him. Forcing this girl to assist her, Minzhi is able to set up an announcement to be broadcast to the city, telling her student where to come find her. When this fails, Minzhi is forced to pay the girl, then is left alone to try other methods. She spends hours writing up fliers, but after being told that they are hopeless, she takes a man’s advice and seeks out the manager of the local TV station.

Repeatedly turned away and told that she will never be allowed into the station, Minzhi persists and relentlessly waits outside the gates, asking every man she sees whether he is the station manager. Meanwhile, Zhang Huike has been begging for food, finally taken in by a restaurant owner in exchange for ceasing to annoy her customers. The station manager hears about the determined young girl who’s been waiting to see him, and kindly invites her in and offers to help her by having her on a show as their guest. Here she is allowed to tell the audience about the village school and plead for Zhang Huike to return. Luckily, he watches her tearful message at the café, and does come back. The happy ending sees the TV crew driving the two children back to the school, interviewing them. The entire village now celebrates the fact that many people who witnessed Wei Minzhi’s touching story have decided to help them, and all of the students and Teacher Wei write joyful words on the blackboard using their newly donated colorful chalk.

The struggles of the impoverished are certainly this film’s most glaring, prominent, and important theme. And as many a film proves, it's through the innocent eyes of children that these subjects can perhaps be most effectively showcased. Such a large fraction of the Chinese population now lives this way that to let them go ignored while other certain specific areas of the country flourish is atrocious, and is definitely horrible in the director’s eyes. The tremendous gap existing between the few rich and the many poor people is made apparent simply by comparing the scenes of the city versus those of the countryside. It is not even the most affluent type of city, yet the differences in the residents’ clothes, dwellings, and lifestyles are startling. The poor wear the same clothes over and over, attend class in a small, dirty, ramshackle building, and must constantly struggle just for enough to subsist on. The girl who tried to help find Zhang Huike was doing difficult manual labor for what converted to a mere few dollars a week. For most of us here in America it is probably next to impossible to even imagine having to face that sort of life, but millions in China and elsewhere all over the world do so every day of their lives. Movies such as this one are a large part of what brings the sad reality to people in far more privileged places.

Also evident is the director’s undisguised criticism of the Chinese “Communist” government. People must rely on the kindness and generosity of one another, because clearly, their rulers have little concern for their well-being. The blatant hypocrisy came through early on, when Minzhi sang the song she’d learned in praise of leader Mao. Later on, after the children recited the national anthem around the flagpole, Minzhi--consciously or not--displayed some wisdom and reflected the director's own apparent thoughts by changing the plan and having the class learn a different song that dealt with nature.

Sympathizing with Wei Minzhi is all too easy. Here is a 13-year-old put in charge of a whole class, who at first seems understandably out-of-place, shy, and unsure. However, in time her true personality shows itself: She can be decisive, take-charge, and even bossy when the situation calls for it. She is simply another person desperate for money—but she also is compassionate and obviously becomes attached to these students. Her naïve innocence and thus her complete, single-minded, dogged determination during the search for Zhang Huike was very moving. Undaunted by the discouraging, negative attitudes she encountered in the city from people who are much more advantaged than she is, that girl moved logically from one plan to the next, refusing to give up on the goal she couldn’t envision failing to reach.

The simple and almost documentary-like style of filming works perfectly for this movie, given the extremely realistic subject matter and simple lives being depicted (and hopefully respected by the audience.) Nothing about the look, feel, or message is flashy and superficial. All of the actors, in this spirit of neo-realism, are non-professionals. Natural scenery, bright sunlight & outdoor lighting, and a natural soundtrack of animal sounds, cars, etc. are found throughout much of the film. Very little music is used; the score is mainly reserved for particularly poignant moments, such as the students sharing their first Coca Cola, Minzhi’s long walk toward the city, or the explanation of Teacher Gao’s lessons on the significance of conserving their chalk--and hence why all of their limited resources are so precious. Ironically, as is very often the case around the world, natural beauty surrounds groups of people living in poor conditions with barely enough to survive, help their families, and possibly educate their children. “Not One Less” is an excellent, powerful film whose very positive ending should be an example for all—only if others care and are charitable can so many lives be changed for the better.

Monday, February 22, 2010

France: La Femme Nikita (Nikita); 1990; directed by Luc Besson

Following a disastrous attempt at a drugstore robbery, strung out druggie Nikita is sentenced to death for killing a police officer. However, instead of being killed, the chaotically violent young woman is officially labeled dead and sent off to be trained as a government assassin and spy. “Uncle Bob,” who comes to have an interesting sort of fondness for her, saw the potential in Nikita so long as her outbursts of aggressive wildness could be controlled and channeled into a useful outlet. This observation saved her.

Nikita undergoes her training at a top-secret facility, both in fighting and in matters of femininity. Once she has proven herself in her first major mission—at a high-class restaurant, deliberately set up to force her to use her skills and resourcefulness to escape—Nikita must re-enter the world as an apparently average person. By that point, her humanity is all too clear, and she is already a highly sympathetic character. As she fixes up her new apartment and commences her new life as a supposed nurse, we can see her transformation into a much better-adjusted person. Nikita falls in love with Marco, a supermarket cashier with nautical dreams, who moves in with her and tolerates her secretiveness regarding her past.

Of course, every time Nikita settles too comfortably into this newfound happiness, that past returns in the form of a phone call, directing her on missions of increasing risk and difficulty. “Uncle Bob’s” gift to the couple of a Venice vacation is merely a setup for one of these, and Nikita must hide everything from Marco, aiming a gun through the bathroom window while he tries to hold a sincere conversation with her.

The climax arrives with the announcement of the embassy mission. Their password is changed to something unknown, and a “cleaner” is sent in, determined to finish the mission at any cost. Ultimately, Nikita succeeds in obtaining the necessary materials, though much suspenseful action and high-speed danger ensues first. Meanwhile, Marco has long since discovered the reason behind Nikita’s secrecy and now has to deal with losing his love. He is paid a visit by her “uncle,” who’s concerned that she must be tracked down. Marco, however, is able to hand over what he requires. He then implores him to leave Nikita alone, reasoning that she has taken more than enough lives for them by now to repay her debt. This logic seems to satisfy Bob, who should surely be well disposed to the notion of freeing her.

 While certainly an exciting, entertaining and fast-paced thriller, “Nikita” is more than that. This intelligent and very well-constructed movie is something of a study of the main character’s abnormally fascinating psyche. Nikita’s initial disturbances and issues are demonstrated outwardly when she lashes out in displays of extremely antisocial behavior. As the plot progresses she is given a second chance at life, and by the end, one can conclude that despite everything she has been through, she has probably been cured of all that at last.

At its beginning, “Point of No Return” honestly seemed hardly worthwhile, like a rushed rehashing of the events in “Nikita.” Eventually it does diverge more significantly from its source and has its own merits, but on the whole, the one thing I can say that I rather preferred in the remake over Besson’s quite brilliant original is the elaboration on the ending. To see her walking away in the rain as she’s declared dead for a second time really helps you to literally feel her sense of freedom from what was essentially ownership. Though it’s bittersweet, she is once again being reborn out of a life of violence--and this time, she owns herself again. So that was a nice bit of semi-hopeful closure. On the other hand, Besson’s femme fatale seemed a much more compassionate type of character than the one portrayed by Bridget Fonda.

I personally liked “La Femme Nikita” very much. It brings to mind other, later movies featuring the “beautiful but deadly female warrior” archetype, such as “Kill Bill,” in which the Bride is thwarted in her attempt to escape the role of assassin and lead a “normal,” peaceful life of personal fulfillment. While it appears impossible for them to inhabit both roles of their double lives, she—like Nikita—does emerge as a victorious survivor. As a character, Nikita was played in an often delightfully eccentric manner, almost like a dangerous, mercurial and uninhibited child. At times she recalled, for me, Allison the ‘basket case’ from “The Breakfast Club.”

Everything from the excellent score to the cinematographic “look”of this movie (courtesy of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast) suited it perfectly. During the first half and much of the second, the predominantly low-key, bluish lighting and color palette leant the ideal threatening, ‘underground’ atmosphere. Whenever it brightened, the contrast served to juxtapose the two sides of Nikita’s life and personality—dark versus light. Sets, camera movements, etc. also heighten the suspense and drama of her world. In my view, “Nikita” is most deserving of its status among Besson’s most resounding international hits.

France is an important country to discuss in any film class because its own Lumiere brothers are credited with having given birth to cinema itself through showings of their documentary (‘reality’) films in the 1890s. Following them came Georges Melies, whose films such as "A Trip to the Moon" were, conversely, imaginative flights of fantasy utilizing elaborate sets. By the late 1920s, Abel Gance was being even more experimental with various innovative film techniques, resulting in products such as his epic "Napoleon," about the famous Emperor.

Here is a list of some other French films I would recommend, ranging from the 1930s to the past decade:

  • Delicatessen (1991)-Director: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • Jules et Jim (1962)-Director: Francois Truffaut
  • The Rules of the Game [La Regle du jeu] (1939)-Director: Jean Renoir
  • A Very Long Engagement [Un long dimanche de fiançailles] (2004)-Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg] (1964)-Director: Jacques Demy 
  • Le salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear] (1953)-Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
  • Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain [The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain] (2001)-Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her [2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle] (1967)-Director: Jean-Luc Godard
  • L'Enfant Sauvage [The Wild Child] (1970)-Director: Francois Truffaut
  • La Belle et la Bete [Beauty & the Beast] (1946)-Director: Jean Cocteau
  • Indochine (1992)-Director: Régis Wargnier
  • Baxter (1989)-Director: Jérôme Boivin

Spain: Bad Education (La mala educación); 2004; directed by Pedro Almodovar

This film’s plot starts out straightforward enough. Enrique is a temporarily struggling young filmmaker who receives a surprise visit from an old friend whom he does not physically recognize. This, we later learn, is significant. Ignacio, who now wishes to be known as Angel, is in turn a struggling young actor, and has come to see his old friend bearing a script he has written, in which he wants to play a specific role (‘Zahara.’) The script reveals secrets of the two men’s past: They became friends at a Catholic boarding school and began to discover sexuality in one another’s company. Ignacio was, however, lusted after by the priest, Father Manolo. Upon finding the two boys locked in a stall together one night, simply because they could not sleep and feared being caught out of bed, Manolo took the opportunity to expel Enrique, despite promising Ignacio otherwise when the boy “sold himself” to him.

Years later, Ignacio returns to Manolo’s life, disguised as his own sister, blackmailing the priest with his threats of publishing the tale of what happened during his childhood. Manolo pretends not to feel threatened but is not fooled by the disguise. Still later, we see Ignacio, aka Angel, re-involving himself in Enrique’s life. However, things take an enormous twist when the suspicious Enrique visits Ignacio’s mother and discovers that Ignacio has, in fact, been dead for years. Father Manolo, now called Mr. Berenguer, observes the shooting of the sad and dramatic climax of “Ignacio”’s and Enrique’s ultimately successful film, in which Zahara is killed while issuing a threat in exactly the same manner Ignacio had. We begin to gather why “Angel” had been so intent on playing that role; it is that of his dead brother, and Zahara happened to be Ignacio’s identity the last time he saw Enrique, passed out on a motel bed.

He then reveals to Enrique the entire story, explaining who this current “Ignacio/Angel” really is and why he was unrecognizable. As it now turns out, Ignacio’s brother Juan is the one who’s been assuming his identity all along and finally publicizing their story. Ignacio had become a transsexual and heroin addict as an adult, and waited endlessly for large sums of money from Manolo. Meanwhile, Juan and Ignacio’s former instructor had become infatuated with each other. The Father spent a lot of time with the brothers, but when he was alone in Ignacio’s apartment with Juan, they engaged in their intimate relationship. Finally, the two decided that they could never get on with their life as long as Ignacio was alive, and Juan gave Berenguer a deadly dosage to deliver to his brother in place of his usual drugs. Ignacio then shot up and fell dead onto his typewriter.

The two got away with the murder, but did not remain together, allowing Juan to eventually decide to come back in his brother’s place (the movie’s starting point.)  This “working backwards” structure essentially makes the story a mystery. The complex truth is hidden until certain revelations occur for Enrique and the audience. In the end, much is still unknown or uncertain. One can assume that the enigmatic Juan, who has multiple faces and goes by different names at different times, must have experienced guilt over the murder of his brother and came back to finish getting revenge. What started as a fairly simple and easily followed story grew into a more difficult puzzle, the challenge increased through the use of different actors in the same roles and many jumps back and forth through time.

One of the film’s most prominent themes is, obviously, sexuality—but mainly in a physical sense. Despite the steamy relationship between Juan and Manolo, and the definite tension between Enrique and both brothers, no real love story developed here. Ignacio may have had feelings for Enrique, and vice versa, but if so, little ever came of them. Mostly there was pure physical attraction and desire. Drug addiction factored in as well.

 Another important theme to pick up on is the abuse of innocent children by authority figures, entrusted by families with the care and education of their kids. Many would assume a priest, or any holy man, to be a model of goodness and purity. Alas, this “loosely autobiographical” movie borrows that plot element from well known real-life occurrences. Even before being killed, Ignacio believed that Manolo had ruined his life and was determined to make the child molester pay. Perhaps remorse and a feeling of being haunted by his past actions drove Manolo to finally confess the truth. The “movie-scene-within-a-movie-scene” created by “The Visit” was reminiscent of the “play within a play” scene from “Hamlet.” Seeing it acted out, even though it wasn’t the precise manner of Ignacio’s death, appeared to precipitate his revelation to Enrique.

 But he was not, as it seemed all along, the only villain. Juan clearly had a thin grasp on morality which allowed him to kill his own brother, justifying it flimsily. In the end he also kills the former priest, seemingly his final attempt to redeem himself.

“Bad Education” would likely be of particular interest to Spanish cinema fans and/or the GLBT community, but I think that it can also make an interesting and thought-provoking viewing experience for most other people. With its deceptively simple beginning and increasingly unconventional, non-linear narrative structure, the film effectively blurs the lines among characters and time periods, and between reality and the movies. Scenes we had perceived as objective reality may have been part of a character’s own film, and therefore we’re never quite certain through whose perspective we are getting this story, how many versions there are, or precisely what the whole truth is. Viewers probably have to retrace their steps backward through what they’ve seen, and perhaps watch more than once, in order to finally piece it all together and gather their interpretation of this fine, intriguing film.