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Ho woo shi jul (2009)
Into each life a little rain must fall
It's a given that the latest Hur Jin-ho film is going to be a bit of a romantic slow-burner, tracing the delicate path of attraction and flirtation and connecting it to the variable weather of the seasons (Christmas in August, April Snow). It's almost inevitable that this seasonal disruption is also going to signal a darker side to the tender relationships just recently established, with sickness, death, infidelity or simple incompatibility leading to trouble and break-up. You could call the films of Hur Jin-ho bittersweet, but the bitterness usually has a bit of a kick to it. With a title like "A Good Rain Knows", you can be sure that Hur Jin-ho's latest film follows the now familiar template.
The delicate relationship in its tentative first flower of spring is one that has been rekindled when Korean businessman Park Dong-ha arrives in Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China and re-encounters an old-flame, May, a Chinese girl who he once studied with in college, now working as a tour guide at a park dedicated to the poet Da-Fu while she works on a thesis for college. They both have different memories of just how close they used to be, Dong-ha believing that they were practically girlfriend and boyfriend, May denying that they even kissed. Nonetheless, Dong-ha is attracted to May, and there are signs in the affectionate friendship that develops that they may be able to restart a relationship that has been divided by time and distance.
This is all handled by the director with customary delicacy and a lyrical attention to the detail of attraction and romance. The seasons are of course evoked in it being spring when May and Dong-ha meet, the rain playing an important part in bringing them together and holding them slightly apart, the pleasure of anticipation and timing noted in references to Da-Fu's poem that "a good rain knows when to come". The sense of rebuilding is there also in Dong-ha's work, his company sending him over to sort out arrangements for the reconstruction work after the devastating Sichuan earthquake the previous year. Hur also uses the image of a bicycle to good effect, as a metaphor for relationships, learning to fall in love again being like learning to ride a bike again.
However cleverly evoked the gentle music, the gazing thoughtfully into the distance, the walks in the park and to the zoo to see the pandas (terrific panda footage though) all this is rather insipid stuff that brings to mind the director's airbrushed efforts in the earlier April Snow, with the two leads rather blandly perfect and not assisted in achieving any greater emotional depth here on account of them having to communicate in faltering broken English. What of course keeps the viewer interested if they are familiar with Hur Jin-ho is anticipating when the director is going to drop the bombshell that shatters this cozy little arrangement. And inevitably, it comes with a bang...
Such is the reliability (and slight predictability) of the element of crushing tragedy eventually arriving in a Hur Jin-ho film, that one is inclined to think there is something either of parody or even sadism about it all, that the director is enjoying the slow build-up, before delighting in sadistically sticking the knife in. This isn't the case however. What Hur is interested in is exploring the boundaries of love and romance. As the otherwise comedic element of Mr Nam observes to the naïve Dong-ho, "love does have borders" and Hur explores these limiting factors on idealistic love, the boundaries where it fails, crashes and burns. Rather than being destructive then, it's these boundaries that define love and give it meaning, where otherwise it would indeed be bland and insipid.
This is all very well. A Good Rain Knows is beautifully filmed (if a little too clean and bright), played out with sensitivity and no small amount of irony and humour a fine example of the director's work on this theme that will intrigue any viewer unfamiliar with his earlier films. For anyone else who has seen Christmas in August, One Fine Spring Day and in his last film Happiness (oh, the loaded irony in all those titles!) you will unfortunately have seen it all done before much better and with a great deal more bite than this.
Zubeidaa is the third of an unofficial trilogy of films created by Shyam Benegal in collaboration with writer Khalid Mohamed, but this colourful two and a half-hour film is a remarkable epic in its own right, worthy of being compared to Visconti at his finest and most extravagant.
The story of Zubeidaa commences with the flamboyant flourish of her red scarf falling out of the heavens onto her grave at her burial in 1982, and the remainder of the story of her life being told in flashback as it is uncovered by the son of her first marriage Riyad Masud (Rajit Kapoor), now a film journalist. The principal object of the search that will reveal much to him is a missing reel of 1952 film that Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor) completed before her father refused to let her undertake a career in the movies, physically removing her from the set. Her father has other ideas for his daughter, arranging a marriage to the son of a Pakistani businessman in order to form a closer alliance between the two families.
When the marriage eventually fails, despite the birth of a son, Zubeidaa's rather more free and outgoing friend Rose introduces Zubeidaa to a wealthy Raja Vijendra Singh, known as Victor, who falls madly in love with her beauty. Despite already being married to the more exotic and refined Mandira Devi (Rekha), and despite being a Muslim while Victor is a Hindu, Zubeidaa agrees to become the Maharaja's Junior Wife. The arrangement is inevitably not without difficulties, Zubeidaa feeling threatened by Victor's brother and increasingly marginalised as Victor embarks upon an election campaign to retain authority and represent the best interests of the people of his region, taking Mandy Didi (as she is known to Zubeidaa) along with him, the whole affair ultimately resulting in tragedy.
Zubeidaa is a vast and epic movie, colourfully filmed in widescreen with an eye for the opulence of the period, appropriately almost taking on the appearance of a near-fairytale for Zubeidaa's marriage to a wealthy Maharaja, breaking into lively song and dance arrangements with an impressive score by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire). There is much more to the film however than it being a beautifully photographed fantasy, the story dealing with Benegal's characteristic treatment of the diversity of Indian culture, politics, religion and tradition, showing where it clashes and complements in all its infinite variety and beauty.
The Making of the Mahatma (1996)
The road from South Africa to India
Gandhi's years as a barrister in South Africa aren't as well-known as his later years in his homeland, but he spent 21 years of his life there and is was while fighting against the open injustice there that he formed, tested and put into practice the principals of passive resistance, civil disobedience and dedication to the truth (Satyagraha). It's a period covered also in the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha, but sung in Sanskrit with a libretto taken from the Bhagavad Gita, relating Gandhi's work in South Africa to three other major like-minded public figures, Rabindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Glass's interpretation is rather more poetic and mythical, while Shyam Benegal's The Making of the Mahatma is a rather more straightforward and direct account of Mohandas Gandhi's actions in South Africa and his influence in winning important battles for the rights of Indian workers there.
The acting may be a little bit stiff and theatrical, the direction and editing of scenes mainly workmanlike and matter of fact, but it suits the period (the film covers 1893-1914 of Gandhi's life), and more importantly, its lack of high drama suits the passivity of the subject matter. That doesn't mean however that the film is anything less than compelling or involving, the viewer left in no doubt about the nature of the abuse, mistreatment and lack of rights or justice accorded to anyone in South Africa who isn't white and European. Even in his first two days first two days in the country. Gandhi is expelled from a Durban courtroom by the judge for wearing a turban that is traditional in his profession in India, attacked in public on a number of occasions, and physically ejected from a train for having the temerity to sit in the seat he has purchased rather than share the baggage wagon with the "coolies".
The nature of such bigotry, intolerance and violence that people are subjected to and the sheer injustice of a society that represses non-whites are clearly laid out in the film and is quite shocking. More than just matter-of-factly relating a series of events then, The Making of Mohandas purposefully charts the progress and experiences that would transform Gandhi into the figure who would become so important in achieving the independence of India. The experience of war in the Transvaal and the war with the Zulus have a significant impact, Ghandi coming to the conclusion that injustice can only be effected through non-violent protest and civil disobedience, giving the people a voice through the Indian Opinion newspaper, opposing and then burning registration cards, leading a march to highlight the injustice of poll taxes imposed on the Indian population and intolerance for their religious beliefs. The film moves well through these events, gaining in power and in impressiveness of spectacle that culminates with the New Castle March in 1913 of Gandhi's Satyagraha army.
Melodrama, particularly romantic melodrama, is pretty much a staple of Korean cinema, but even though there are a couple of domestic incidents in Paju that are to have tragic consequences that deeply scar the lives of two people, director Park Chan-OK handles the material with a great deal more restraint than you are accustomed to see in popular Korean movies.
The first incident involves a baby in a domestic accident that occurs in similar circumstances to Lars von Trier's Antichrist (although thankfully, Paju doesn't go anywhere near that level of overwrought hysteria), and it's responsible for Kim Joong-shik (Lee Seon Gyon) leaving Seoul for a grim outlying suburb of the city called Paju. Attempting to start a new life for himself Joong-shik helps out a Christian church group and teaches a study group. He meets and marries Choi Eun-soo (Shim Yi Young), the elder sister of one of his students, Eun-mo (Seo Woo), but the family arrangement isn't a happy one, particularly for Eun-mo, who resents this new presence in her house, but all in not well either between Joong-shik and Eun-soo, the former still unable to shake off events that have happened in the past but there is another tragedy that will tear them further apart.
Essentially then, there are two lost souls here, carrying deep pain within them for the duration of the film, unable to deal with life and move on. Eun-mo is constantly running away from home, while Joong-shik becomes more radical in his political protests as an activist in a Task Force trying to prevent a housing redevelopment in Paju that will evict many of its inhabitants from their homes. Using such political undercurrents Park Chan-OK (Jealousy is my Middle Name) manages to simultaneously undercut the traditional melodrama while raising the high emotive content through other means, the non-linear narrative and passing between time-frames additionally adding to the complexity and preventing any simple judgements being reached about the characters and their motivations.
The young-actress Seo Woo looks a little inexperienced in places, but has undeniable qualities that contribute to the effectiveness of the director's technique. Demonstrating a delicate fragility she has at the same time an unpredictable edge of self-abandon to her character that has the potential to take Eun-mo, Joong-shik and indeed the film, anywhere. It's within these contradictions in her character, and the contradictions that the film plays with between melodrama and understated mood-piece that Paju functions most effectively and convincingly.
The Korean Region 3 DVD release benefits from an outstanding presentation, the film shown at a ratio of 1.85:1, which looks correct, not 2.35:1 as stated on the sleeve.
Pâku ando rabuhoteru (2007)
Simple but effective look at women's issues
Using a structure of three interlinked stories of women of different ages whose paths take them to a dilapidated love hotel, using them to explore various female issues, there's bound to be the feeling that the set-up of Asyl is somewhat contrived. Director Izuru Kumasaka manages however to make the outcomes somewhat less predictable by not having the women revealing and explaining too much, but rather opens the underlying emotions and issues through the memories that each of the experiences bring to the owner of the love hotel, Tsuyako. The three main issues that arise, which all have a particular female perspective, could be summed up as relating to fathers, fidelity and fertility, with perhaps family being the linking factor in all of them.
The issue of fathers comes up through a young runaway with dyed grey hair, who temporarily uses the love-hotel while she tries to work out her feelings about her father's new family, presumably after the break-up of their own (nothing is made too explicit here, there are no tearful scenes either of break-up or reconciliation). The question of marriage and fidelity within it comes up in the story of a woman who passes the love-hotel every day as she sets out on her regular power-walk, but one day loses an important notebook that records her obsession. The third story relates to a seemingly promiscuous young woman who visits the love-hotel with ever changing partners and a mysterious briefcase.
Even though there is a perhaps too neat wrapping up of each of the stories, what has gone on within the characters in these strange and unusual little stories is left incomplete, with much left unsaid and key moments playing-out off-screen. What fills in the gaps, in a less obvious way, is the background of the owner of the hotel, Tsuyako, and the way she reacts to each of the three women is connected to her own experience with her ex-husband. Loneliness certainly plays a large part in each of these stories too.
Asyl can be a frustrating experience, the film slow to reveal its intentions and then perhaps wrapping up the various threads a little too neatly, but the manner in which it keeps a firm structure and then subverts it to a large degree initially throwing the viewer off over who is the principal interest in the film, leaving much unexpressed openly, with plenty of quirks in characterisation works to its advantage, and ultimately does have something to say about the things that are important to women of all ages in regards to relationships and family.
Sensitive and balanced look at teenage angst
How To Become Myself tackles a number of familiar teenage issues relating to bullying, self-worth and identity and inevitably runs the risk of talking down to its audience, over-dramatising the issues, smothering them in platitudes and wrapping them up with a neat instructive moral Jun Ichikawa however is far too good a director to allow that to happen.
Everything stems from a conversation that Juri has with her classmate Hinako on their last day of graduation from middle-school. Juri has been observing the vagaries of the unpredictable flow of popularity between her classmates as the years progress, with nerdy kids suddenly becoming cool and popular, while other normal outgoing girls start to become withdrawn, picked-upon and ostracised. Juri knows it's a balancing act and has to work hard to keep on the right side of friends, but finds it difficult all the same. Hinako is one of those girls however who has found it too much to deal with and has decided to move on to a different school. Considerate of the challenges her friend must face, even though she has her own difficulties to deal with both in school and in her family life, Juri anonymously sends e-mails and texts to Hinako to help her re-establish herself in her new life, while at the same time using the experience for a writing project.
While there certainly seem to be some concessions towards its younger audience, Juri in the process devising a kind of set of rules for survival through these difficult adolescent years, the director playing around with the screen format to for split screen effects and text message inserts, Ichikawa never resorts to platitudes, despite fears that might be generated by the film's English title. Certainly achievement of this aim is the film's object, but the director never allows the viewer to be fooled into thinking that following a set of rules is ideal or even easily achievable. The rules Juri devises are a good guideline that can make the path smoother, but even those are no guarantee that through them you'll be happy with yourself or even come to an understand who you really are something that Juri herself, for all her seemingly perfect understanding of the world, comes to realise.
While these are indeed familiar issues, it's rare to see them treated so well, so realistically and with such sensitivity in the cinematic medium. Ichikawa, who similarly navigated the inexpressible sentiments of loss and loneliness in Tony Takitani though delicate camera movements and desaturated colouration, similarly allows mood, music and situation to express more than false drama or over-explanation, getting to the heart of the characters involved and the little dramas writ large that are their lives.
The purpose of 8 is to address the agreement of 191 governments to halve world poverty by 2015. These are defined under the following Millennium Development Goals: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger; Achieve Universal Primary Education; Promote Gender Equality; Reduce Child Mortality; Improve Maternal Health; Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases; Ensure Environmental Sustainability; Global Partnership for Development. At the halfway point towards meeting those goals, the problem doesn't appear to have drastically altered, and eight filmmakers of international renown have been gathered to examine just how serious the position is.
The best films in 8 tend to be those that get the point across through simple human stories rather than by adhering too closely to the rather dry themes and statistics. Such is how Gael García Bernal deals with the subject from the surprising location of Iceland in "The Letter", capturing with simplicity and beautiful cinematography a discussion between a father and his young son, who is working on a school project about the Nepal region, about the impact of the failure of a nation to achieve basic Primary Education. Jane Campion also rises to the challenge in "The Water Diary" in relation to Environmental Sustainability, showing the tough decisions that have to be made in a small outback community waiting desperately for the rains, building their hopes, fears, disappointments and indeed tears into a fantastical dream. Jan Kounen also finds a mythical aspect to the human condition in his Peruvian Amazon story (one of many similar stories showcased in Amnesty International's short documentary 'Poverty of Justice' seen in accompaniment to the film) of the difficulties and dangers of mortality facing women giving birth in remote regions. The mix of documentary reconstruction and traditional storytelling through native song and dance in "The Story of Panshin Beka" is given additional force through some striking black-and-white cinematography.
Tipping the balance either one way or the other towards a higher average of good sections over bad is Abderrahmane Sissako's opening piece. Sissako's brilliance in the area of inventive politically-charged film-making is not in doubt after his last feature Bamako, and "Tiya's Dream" is beautifully filmed, showing the situation facing real people in African nations, but he makes his point rather too calculatedly and deliberately referential through a school lesson on... the 8 goals of the Millennium Development Goal. Borderline also is Gaspar Noé's "SIDA", which at least has the benefit of the director's customary power and directness, relating of the case of a man dying from AIDS in his own words with only edgy, colour-saturated portraiture cinematography and a pounding heartbeat, and making it still rather intense.
Those missing the mark completely for me are Mira Nair's segment "How Can It Be?" and Gus Van Sant's "Mansion On The Hill", Nair taking on Gender Equality towards freedom of expression of a Muslim wanting a divorce from her husband to live with another man. Even if it means she may be making a wrong decision towards her blameless husband and son, she deserves the choice to make her own mistakes. Gus Van Sant, for his part, simply seems to have missed the brief entirely and just given the producers some left-over footage of teenage skateboarders for them to put TV advertisement boldface facts, figures and slogans on the Child Mortality.
Wim Wenders, unsurprisingly ends up being the most problematic, the director's film-making talent still obvious, but increasingly buried in heavy-handed messages. "Person to Person" is likewise admirable in its intent, but fails in its execution. He attempts to offer a corrective to the traditionally dry, preachy editorialising of news reports and documentaries on the subject of the Third World, by showing that direct action between the people in these countries can have an impact without the need for government intervention. It's a sharply filmed and edited piece and admirable also for its concision in explaining just how this can be achieved, but it doesn't manage to avoid sounding preachy and didactic itself.
While there is certainly then some minor brilliance evident throughout individual segments of 8 and some strong points made on the grave consequences for the world should there be a failure to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the Wenders segment, ending as it does with footage of Bono chanting from the stage, does give the impression of the whole exercise being one of well-meaning good intentions, but one that by its very nature will inevitably end up preaching only to the converted who are willing to pay to go and see it, but which is no more likely to spur those with the power to effect change to honour those commitments they have made.
What lies beneath and beyond
Ditching is the debut film from Factotum, a collective known primarily in Northern Ireland for their free newspaper publication of essays, comment and review, 'The Vacuum'. Expanding into film-making and making use of local acting talent, it's not surprising then that their interest remains firmly within the province, but what is impressive is not only how the filmmakers manage to create a film language that is specifically their own, avoiding the tired old familiar subject of Northern Ireland cinema, drama and television - the troubles but they also even manage to avoid conventional cinema narrative and resist any attempts to "decode" symbolism in a subject that just seems to be demanding a deeper reading.
Specifically, it's the placing of the film within what seems to be a post-apocalyptic Northern Ireland with sick and troubled characters roaming a deserted countryside of ruined buildings that would seem to indicate some kind of agenda or commentary on the current state of affairs. It's in this strange environment that two such travellers, John (Lalor Roddy) and Maeve (Mary Lindsay), seek answers. They turn to Paul (Jonathan Harden), a mapmaker and passport manufacturer with troubled memories, to guide them and help them avoid the various tribes and dangers that are at large in the countryside - tribes with strange rituals and rivalry that exists between the sparse population of the provincial counties. The film simply follows this small group as they make their way through this strange landscape. John however is seriously ill, his condition unspecified, and he is deteriorating rapidly, but on the journey they encounter a member of one of the tribes in the province, Alan (Paul Garret), who may be able to set them in the right direction.
It's tempting to draw comparisons with Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf or Albert Serra's Honor de cavalleria in the film's emphasis on a civilisation left with nothing else but the land and the ruins of society around them, desperately looking for answers, but not really knowing what questions to ask. But Ditching avoids any attempt to associate it with contemporary art-house cinema, and it would be a mistake to take the film either too seriously or indeed too lightly in this respect. There may be some commentary on local issues, on the depopulation of the countryside, the ailing condition of the farming industry, but no obvious parallels are drawn. More likely, you could associate the post-apocalyptic circumstances of the film's setting with a post-troubles Northern Ireland, the inhabitants suddenly finding that their sense of who they are as defined by old religious and cultural divides no longer holds meaning. In Time of the Wolf, Michael Haneke similarly stripped his characters and society of the trappings of class, civilisation and any semblance of laws, rules and conventional morality in order to examine what lies beneath the surface of humanity and found that people aren't really all that nice in Ditching the filmmakers use the post-apocalyptic setting to similarly strip away the beliefs and traditions that Northern Ireland people have held onto for decades and underneath they find... culchies.
Culchies - provincial minded but fundamentally decent country-people who act and speak strangely, are superstitious and afraid of the world outside, fearing what lies outside their little community, believing the cities to be inhabited by cannibals, where some locals have ventured and never come back. And, in many ways, there is something convincing about this worldview or to be more precise, it's not so much a worldview as a very narrow provincial viewpoint, one whose meaning will probably elude anyone not from Ulster, but it would appear to be an accurate one nonetheless.
Coincidentally, another film opened at the 9th Belfast Film Festival where Ditching also premiered, a film that also took a look at a post-troubles Northern Ireland and it did it in a very different manner indeed. According to Cherrybomb, conveniently wiping out any trace of underlying characteristics or historical past, the new generation in Northern Ireland is a much more cultivated, sophisticated global community, one not really all that different from anywhere else in the UK. Ditching seems to be much more perceptive and honest in its observations, its low-key grainy digital photography dwelling inconspicuously on the sodden-damp earth of the land, its premise and presentation in the rhythmic music and evocative set design stripping away any false veneer and finding underneath essential qualities that are thoroughly Northern Irish in its humour, in its attitude, in its simplicity and its quiet contemplation - not seeking to ingratiate or impress, just simply getting on with it.
La maison des bois (1971)
A TV series like no other
Set in the French countryside during the Great War of 1914-18 Pialat's extraordinary seven episode TV serial extends the themes of his debut feature L'Enfance Nue, the director however having much more freedom and time to explore the nature of childhood and the impact on children abandoned by their parents. The series focuses on the experiences of three children (including even Michel Tarrazon, the young star of the earlier movie) living out in the country with gamekeeper Albert and Maman Jeanne on the country estate of a Marquis. The gamekeeper and his wife have their own older children, Marcel and Marguerite, but the three boys have been sent there by their parents who have been caught up in the war, the fathers called up to the front, the mothers simply unable to look after them in the present climate.
Pialat would claim that La Maison des Bois was his best work, and it's not difficult to see why he would think so, the director having unprecedented freedom to direct his vision - so unlike anything else in conventional French cinema let alone television shows of the period - over an inexperienced crew, and indulge his technique over 6 hours of long naturalistic takes where very little of importance seems to happen. It's certainly a bit rough around the edges in a lot of places, but simple and unostentatious, always finding the truth in the moment. Long sections of entire episodes are given over to extended scenes of picnics or of the family and children bathing outdoors in a bathtub, and particularly children playing, the director managing to capture in them the rhythms of life and the warmth of family relationships. When the real drama of the war and family loss does intrude into their lives, it is then done with subtlety and has all the more impact, the pain seeming to be felt by real people with real lives.
The theme of lost children is consequently also extended out to those young boys sent to die in the trenches, Pialat achieving the full import of the situation on the community without actually having to go to the front, contrasting for example the picnic on Episode 3 with a bivouac in Episode 4, and in a sinister war game played by the children that is a premonition of the death to come. Even the joy of the Armistice at the star of Episode 6 is tempered with the incredibly poignant and sad scenes of the children's return to Paris. Pialat's later films would delve deeper into life, love, death and relationships but they are all here to some extent in La Maison des Bois, with the same sense of complete authenticity, but seen very much here from the perspective of a young child.
Socially relevant but heavy-handed
Abdellatif Kechiche's L'Esquive focuses on the less than glamorous lifestyles of the kids in the Parisian suburban 'banlieue'. Its low-budget, shaky hand-held gives the impression of realism, as does the ghetto-speak delivered by the young mostly non-professional actors, but I doubt that most impoverished, minority race Paris suburban youths consider rehearsing 18th century plays as their preferred outdoor leisure activity.
That might give some indication of just how heavy-handed L'Esquive is, a school production of Marivaux's 'Games of Love and Chance' being shoehorned in to draw parallels on how social divisions and prejudice are not just tolerated, but actively enforced by the society and the authorities to the extent that those repressed come to believe that they aren't deserving of anything more. The use of language meanwhile is used to compare and contrast those social divisions and attitudes, showing in the process that essentially, people are pretty much the same regardless. Just in case you don't get it though, a police squad swoops down at the kids at one point to make sure they know their place and don't get any ideas above their station.
It's a relevant subject and one of particular social significance at the time the film was made, leading the Césars to shower it with awards for tackling such edgy material. Any good social points the film has to make however are negated by its storytelling and film-making deficiencies. In addition to being heavy-handed, it's tedious in the extreme - a banal, badly-acted story of attraction between profoundly irritating ghetto kids bickering at the tops of their voices for what feels like an interminable two-hours.