27 August 2009

GOODBYE SOLO (Dir. Ramin Bahrani, 2008, US) - The Long Goodbye

William (Red West) and Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) become friends one night.

Sometimes I cannot help but pontificate (all credit to Woody Allen for conjuring up such lovable cinematic doublespeak) and I also tend to have a love and hate relationship with lists and canons yet part of me is feeling very tired this week so why not simply condense what would have been a lengthy essay on the Iranian American Ramin Bahrani’s new film ‘Goodbye Solo’ into a series of neat bullet points. So here are a few reasons or considerations (yes, this is a list) why ‘Goodbye Solo’ is perhaps the finest American film I have seen this year:

(I had to import this on DVD from stateside as I simply got tired of waiting – when and if Bahrani’s new film arrives in the UK remains unclear)

ELLIPTICAL

Bahrani has perfected a natural capacity to trust his characters and more importantly his actors. The refusal to give anything away leaves the spectator in a demanding position – why people behave and act in the way that they do is an aspect of reality which Bahrani deliberately leaves ambiguous, relying on the elucidation of a discontinuous, elliptical narrative style.

NEO REALISM

Ideologically and aesthetically ‘Goodbye Solo’ remains close to the traditions of neo realism. The humble struggles faced by the Senegalese Taxi Driver, ‘Solo’, (Souleymane Sy Savane) in the film is a continuation of neo realism’s edifying representation of the forgotten and dispossessed of our chaotic world. The young Argentine Poet, Fernando Birri was right to label it as the ‘cinema of the humble’.

The final moments of the film; Alex and Solo take a walk.

IRANIAN NEW WAVE

The poetic realism ingrained by the masters of Iranian cinema into the fabric of contemporary Art cinema has arguably influenced a generation of emerging American auteurs. The effortless and unpretentious cinematic language of Kiarostami, Panahi and Makhmalbaf rises and pulsates through cinema with an unclouded precision, urging us to respond with a similar artistic inclination. Bahrani does such a feat, carving out a space in American independent cinema which is reflected in the uncomplicated structure of William’s dilemma (Red West) in ‘Goodbye Solo’.

CHARACTER

You never question the authenticity of Bahrani’s characters. They are an organic part of our reality. Though they are invisible to us, race and age act as the plausible reasons why this is the case. Solo’s personal aspiration to elevate himself out of the underclass strata of American society is warily juxtaposed to the nothingness of William. Characters and their relationships with those around them is what propels the delicate narrative of ‘Goodbye Solo’.

MARGINAL

Would it be appropriate to declare Bahrani’s interest in the lives of those inhabiting the margins of American society as a noble trait in the authorial backdrop of his career as a neo realist? It’s the margins of society that can give cinematic reality a vitality and clarity absent from much of mainstream film making. A concerted and continuous interest in the marginal lives of those traditionally denied a voice is what makes Bahrani’s cinema so transparent especially when exploring the dilemma of having nothing to hold on to and to hope for. Yet for all the cynicism that marginal representations may bring, Bahrani is no defeatist. Similarly like De Sica, Kiarostami and The Dardennes, the cinema of Bahrani and in particular ‘Goodbye Solo’ is one that embraces the humanist spirit to resist, preserve and evolve.

One of the posters for the film.

OBSERVATIONAL

The sophisticated self reflexive nature of today’s post modern cinema means the notion of minimal intrusion has become all but impossible. It would be naïve and perhaps a little glib to suggest Bahrani’s style is somewhat invisible as he tends to deal in an absolute realism, yet the observational approach that characterises his body of work has an impressive lineage to documentary. The disjunctive flow of the film is accentuated in the opening shot of ‘Goodbye Solo’ in which we find ourselves in the immediate presence of our main characters, Solo and William. The rejection of zooms, tracking shots and any kind of noticeable camera movement would of course mean a deliberately, manufactured intrusion. Observing and not intervening makes the cinema of Bahrani altogether more real.

Bahrani's film is also a mystical and mysterious one.

APERTURE

Boetticher’s westerns are full of them and so is Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In The Mood for Love’. A glance, not a gaze, can be a powerful thing in cinema. Gazing is an aspect of the human condition that we tend to associate with voyeurism, especially in cinema. At the end of ‘Goodbye Solo’ as Solo and William prepare to go their separate ways, Bahrani constructs their separation through a series of carefully edited glances which fatefully turn into an extended, metaphysical stare. Everything seems to build up to this moment and as they turn to walk away from each other, aperture becomes the order of the day.

DIGITAL

The debate regarding digital vs. film continues to perplex film makers and critics alike. Though shooting on film is a complex Hollywood tradition, the advent of digital has opened up the parameters of independent cinema for a multitude of other voices that were simply standing on the sidelines. Bahrani continues to shoot in the digital format, allowing him to keep the budgets to a minimal for his films. I doubt he could have made the films he has so far had he been ruthlessly uncompromising when it came to the decision regarding digital vs. film. The most important thing is that Bahrani is making films.

UNSENTIMENTAL

Sentimentality can be a terrible affliction, a default for making up lost ground with the audience, a form of demagoguery even. For all its neo realist principles, the cinema of De Sica was a very sentimental one, echoing the manipulative chords of Chaplin. One could say the same about Spielberg – sentimentality that goes unchecked in his films usually tends to be the ones that are most manipulative and perhaps childlike in their final outcome. Sentimentalise an emotion and it loses its value, unveiling a fantasy construct. However, suppressing sentimentality is not an easy aspect of the film making process to control especially when working in the constraints of mainstream cinema. Of course, the same is not the case for independent film makers like Bahrani who suppresses sentimentality with envious confidence in a film like ‘Goodbye Solo’. The strategy is quite simple; less sentimentality equals more realism.

Souleymane Sy Savane as the Senegalese taxi driver, Solo, harbours a dream of becoming a flight attendant.

RACE

Tokenism continues to rear its ugly head in many aspects of Hollywood mainstream cinema with Black and Asian characters lingering in the background as reactionary fodder for superficial liberalism. It’s refreshing to see a black character being treated with such dignity and being given ample screen time. It’s not surprising that such an honest and realist representation of an African migrant living on the margins of America has emerged from an Iranian American film maker. Equally remarkable is the performance by Souleymane Sy Savane who was cast in the lead role, having had very little acting experience. It is a performance that blends together autobiographical traits of Savane’s own life and Bahrani’s realist screenplay, creating a character that longs to fit into society yet who also feels disappointed by the economic and class struggle.

Much has written about this film and it is likely to turn up on end of year lists. The website for the film has an excellent range of resources including detailed press notes and some valuable video links. I think Bahrani’s work has so far alluded the UK mainstream press for reasons to do with the poor distribution of his first two feature films; ‘Man Push Cart’ and ‘Chop Shop’. Though ‘Man Push Cart’ is available on DVD, ‘Chop Shop’ like ‘Goodbye Solo’ is still waiting to be picked up by a willing UK distributor.

25 August 2009

DVD ROUND UP 2: Future Noir, Bigelow and The Other

DARK CITY (Dir. Alex Proyas, 1998, US/Australia)
‘First there was darkness, then came the strangers…’

With ‘The Crow’ and ‘Dark City’, both wildly inventive future noirs, music video director turned film maker Alex Proyas thought it best to solicit his promising talents to the inherently frivolous nature of mainstream inclinations, resulting in the thoroughly average ‘I Robot’ and ‘Knowing’. Funnily enough, a film like ‘Dark City’ is kind of embarrassing for the Wachowski Brothers who were unduly credited with the originality and depth that they brought to the science fiction genre with a film like ‘The Matrix’. The cataclysmic failure of the two Matrix sequels and most recently the wacky ‘Speed Racer’ was enough for critics to throw the towel in and declare the Wachowski Brothers as post modern charlatans, amputating the essence of films like ‘Dark City’, Oshi’s ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and not forgetting the greatest story ever told – the Bible!

Made a year before ‘The Matrix’, I’m guessing The Wachowski Brothers must have had a peep at ‘Dark City’ as the film’s ultra moody future noir vision (which in turn is a pastiche of the cinematic architecture of the American science fiction genre) and idea of reality controlled by a master race of well dressed Aliens seemed to determine the aesthetic trajectories of ‘The Matrix’, another film that also finds its roots in film noir conventions and cyberpunk literature. Though it lacks a proper narrative and involving characterisation, ‘Dark City’ is a stunning film to look at it, referencing most vividly the sensibilities of a painter like Edward Hopper and returning to that most revered and imitated of paintings, ‘Nighthawks’, an image that seems to have provided the inspiration for an endless cycle of contemporary neo noir films including ‘Lost Highway’, ‘LA Confidential’ and Wim Wenders often overlooked ode to Los Angeles, ‘The End of Violence’. As for this idea of shadow play, well, we have Plato and his myth of the cave to thank for that. Once again, the high and low of culture cross breed in the most unlikely of cinematic places.

BLUE STEEL (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1990, US)
‘I want you to see it... the light... then nothing…’

Only a film maker with a feminist approach to cinema could have possibly conceived of an inspired opening title sequence in which the gun becomes a symbol of fetishist proportions. I guess it is a pretty obvious way to open a film that is going to be very much about the psychology of gun culture, and in this case, how it acts as an addiction for those who are consider them selves to be invincible in society. Kathryn Bigelow’s fourth film, ‘Blue Steel’ was released in 1990, produced by Oliver Stone when he still had a career as a notable film maker and starred Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead role of a New York rookie cop, Megan Turner. On the first night of her job, Megan Turner heroically or stupidly intervenes (depending on how you read it) in a robbery at a local store, shooting dead the assailant. What transpires is that when the assailant drops his gun, one of the bemused customers, a New York stock broker, Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) picks it up and leaves. Called in for questioning in regards to her apparent lack of restraint, Megan discovers that a gun was not retrieved from the scene of the crime. This immediately makes her into a suspect and virtual pariah amongst her fellow peers. Spurred on by the voice of God, Eugene begins killing innocent New Yorkers with the missing gun and also dedicates his cold blooded murders to that of Megan Turner by inscribing her name into the bullet casings. Megan is unaware that the man she has been dating is none other than Eugene Hunt – what ensues is an incredibly fascinating psychological mind game between Megan and Eugene.

Bigelow’s new film ‘The Hurt Locker’ has been garnering her some of the best reviews of her career. Though more critics and audiences are discovering her work, it’s not hard to explain why it has taken so long. She is one of the few women directors who have managed to subvert the conventions of traditional male dominated genres, producing arguably some of the best examples of the mainstream Hollywood action film including ‘Point Break’ and ‘Strange Days’. ‘Blue Steel’ is one of the few films that Bigelow was involved in writing and the character of Megan Turner is perhaps the most personal female character in her oeuvre. I keep returning to this film because it works considerably well on a number of levels and in my opinion is one of the most interesting American films of the 90s. At the same time, like the brilliant madness that inhabits Bigelow’s classic vampire tale ‘Near Dark’, ‘Blue Steel’ is a gripping mood piece which has the troubled protagonist and urban shadow of the city menacingly situated in the kingdom of film noir.

Between 1989 and 1991, Bigelow was married to James Cameron. You might find it odd that I have chosen to mention what appears to a trivial observation, however, it’s hard not to trace the autobiographical elements of a film maker’s personal life through the kinds of films they have made over their career. Film continues to act as a source of exorcism, a means of coming to terms with personal dilemmas and even working out such dilemmas in cinematic terms. Therefore, it’s hard not to see the bearded, egocentric character of Eugene Hunt as a direct reflection of Bigelow’s partner at the time and the fact that for Megan to reclaim her self respect, she has to inevitably gun down Eugene. Metaphorically speaking then, would it be right to read to the on screen termination of Eugene by Megan as a thinly veiled allusion to Bigelow’s stormy relationship with James Cameron? It certainly imbues the film with an added personal, authorial resonance. One thing’s for sure, the sexism Megan faces fitting into the male dominated culture of the New York police department can most definitely be interpreted as Bigelow vs. Hollywood.

Recommended Reading:

Yuppie devil: villainy in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel by Kevin L. Ferguson

Kathryn Bigelow: Director with a different take


Blurring the Boundaries: Auteurism & Kathryn Bigelow Brenda Wilson

Kathryn Bigelow’s Gen(d)re by Katherine Barscay

STARMAN (Dir. John Carpenter, 1984, US)
‘I send greetings…’

Kent Jones likes to say that John Carpenter is American cinema’s last genre film maker. It might actually be true. Lately Carpenter’s currency as a cultural commentator has been compromised by a lack of notable output and Hollywood’s over enthusiasm for grotesquely remaking his back catalogue of classic horror films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Fog’. Carpenter’s films make the idea of cultural trash and exploitation sound respectable. ‘Starman’ arrived in 1984, cashing in on the phenomenon of Spielberg’s syrupy fairy tale in suburbia ‘E.T’, a film that sentimentalised the alien whilst obliterating the allegorical notion of ‘the other’. Starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, ‘Starman’ is warm, affectionate and affable science fiction cinema that recalls the cautionary alien of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, faithfully working through genre conventions and suggesting that following an orthodoxy need not lead to accusations concerning competency. Needless to say that the establishment is depicted in a characteristically authoritarian radiance, complete with an ascendant general and a destructive military rule. The cold war subtext is none too subtle here, with Carpenter far more interested in charting the journey of the alien visitor so that the first contact scenario abruptly shifts into the road movie territory. Naturally exhibiting all the hallmarks of a John Carpenter genre special, ‘Star man’ is an exercise in narrative economy that juggles authorial expression with one eye clearly on emotional conviction. The final result is an understated, timid and unsentimental science fiction film.

Recommended Reading:

American Movie Classic: John Carpenter By Kent Jones

Senses of Cinema: John Carpenter Profile

Stalled auteurism: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars by Gabe Klinger

21 August 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009, US/Germany/France) - 'That's a bingo!'

A tribute to the 'men on a mission' genre; Eli Roth and Brad Pitt as 'The Basterds'.

The level of critical debate currently being generated by Tarantino’s latest postmodern bricolage of nerdy cinephile delights and obscurities could be deemed healthy for film journalism. It also seems to give the critics something to write about whilst they’re not busying themselves serving at the altar of high concept mediocrity. Tarantino has always maintained a distinguished, if not slightly obnoxious, knack for selling his movies regardless of being labeled as an underachiever. I’m not going to get into the debate about plagiarism and the seemingly lack of originality that is supposed to characterise his work as it would mean having to declare Tarantino’s cinematic sensibilities as an elaborate yet pleasurable conceit. No one doubts his knowledge of cinema, but ‘Inglourious Basterds’ takes place in a dimension called fandom. It’s a film that similarly like the 'Kill Bill' Volumes and 'Death Proof' deals exclusively in hyperbole. One gets the distinct impression with a director like Tarantino that he thinks he is the only one exploiting the unenthused reality of Hollywood cinema - very few of the film makers around him who we might collectively refer to as his contemporary peers do not have much of an idea of what constitutes cinema.

The interview with Tarantino in the latest issue of the Sight and Sound film journal has him candidly defending the merits of his latest pastiche, stating quite categorically that the reason critics still consider ‘Jackie Brown’ to be his most mature film to date is largely an insincere observation regarding the presence of older characters. Certainly, the world weary faces of Pam Grier and Robert Forster (both cult figures) contribute significantly, but when compared to Tarantino’s recent films; ‘Jackie Brown’ has an emotional depth to it which he seemed to have lost or traded in after his rapid ascension to the echelons of auteur worship. I still consider his debut feature, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ to be his best film - perhaps this is the only unpretentious Tarantino film. However, a viewing of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong heist film ‘City on Fire’ will certainly wash away the unchecked euphoria and hype surrounding a film like ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Rather than laying claim to having produced a consistent and notable body of work, the films of Tarantino are marked by a series of enterprising, dialogue driven moments.

Tarantino on the set of his new film at the Babelsberg studios, Germany.

The truth is that Tarantino doesn’t make films, he knows cinema and adores movies. The rest is merely window dressing. To be a fan of his work is simply a means of acquiring an attitude; appreciating ‘Pulp Fiction’ instantly makes one hip, cool and beatnik. Yet could one say the same about Godard and the 60s? I think a difference remains; Godard films were in the often repeated words of Truffaut able to say something about cinema and something about life. Unfortunately, Tarantino’s films struggle to say something, anything about life; he seems more interested in the fabric of cinema, deconstructing the film making process through a litany of obvious self reflexive devices and gushingly name checking film canons of personal favourites.

‘Inglourious Basterds’ opens with an extended interrogation sequence in the otherworldly interiors of a French farmhouse. This first chapter titled ‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’ refers explicitly to the universe of Sergio Leone and for those discernable cinephiles sets up quite nicely the prospect of a violent massacre. Tarantino’s ear for dialogue and German actor Christoph Waltz’s intimidating dialect makes this a memorably directed sequence in what is an overlong film. The opening sequence is so rich that by the time Tarantino introduces the notorious Basterds, I had genuinely lost interest. It seems to be the case that everything Tarantino wants to explore in the film he does with great distinction and pleasure in the opening sequence, subsequently the rest of the film becomes somewhat of a redundant afterthought.

Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa - 'The Jew Hunter'.

Much of the mainstream critical response has argued whether Tarantino should have been allowed to make a film in which the Jewish characters are turned into bloody thirsty savage’s hell bent on revenge, as their brutality equates them with the Nazis, thus making a mockery out of the holocaust and cannibalising historical fact. Though this may be true in some respects, I think it would be much wiser if critics would at least try to bear in mind those events and characters in the film are constructs of an imaginary history, one which takes place in the context of a bombastic pastiche. Like ‘Kill Bill 1 & 2’ and ‘Death proof’, this is just as hollow, just as empty and just as emotionally uninvolving. The demise of Tarantino continues in earnest, from one pointless film to another.

As is the case with most of Tarantino's films, repeated viewings unlocks multiple cinematic references. The IMDB trivia section for 'Inglourious Basterds' is steadily building up a range of such links, references and influences. I'm afraid the world of movie nerdom starts here.

20 August 2009

DVD ROUND UP 1; Boetticher, Blu Ray McQueen and Alan Moore

THE TALL T (Dir. Budd Boetticher, 1957, US)
‘Sometimes you don't have a choice…’

Last year saw the long awaited DVD release of a lavishly packaged box set of westerns directed by Budd Boetticher. Now considered to be the missing link between the cinema of John Ford and Sergio Leone, Boetticher was a professional bullfighter before he ventured forth into the arena of film making. The series of westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the 50s are considered to be the creative high point of a film making career that is duly explored with consideration and significance in a brilliant documentary that accompanies the box set. The documentary on Boetticher was produced by Eastwood, narrated by Ed Harris and features interviews with directors Tarantino, Taylor Hackford and Robert Towne. Most importantly, the words are provided by the pen of widely respected American film critic Dave Kehr. Released in 1957, The Tall T acts as a precursor to the ugly brutality of Peckinpah and Leone's west. It’s a minimalist western that takes a very simple premise and builds around it an intense relationship between two men who command an aging stoicism.

Not a shot is wasted in this wonderfully distilled genre film - Boetticher was a real economist in the way his films were shot and edited. Eastwood refers to it as a simple, unpretentious style and that is precisely what makes Boetticher's so different to the rest of the instantly forgettable films in the western genre. What is particularly revealing is the sparse use of framing - the violence that the characters harbour and eventually project is nothing compared to the violence enacted by the disturbing interplay of vicious glances. In the documentary, Boetticher says that it was the French that saved his reputation, salvaging the many films he had shot by transforming him into one of the first auteurs of the post war era.

THE GETAWAY (Dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1972, US)
‘Punch it, Baby!’
Rudy Butler: That's a walk-in bank. You don't have to be Dillinger for this one.
Carter 'Doc' McCoy: Dillinger got killed.
Rudy Butler: Not in a bank.
The emergence of Blu Ray as a rival to DVD has meant the chance for all the major studios to jump on the so called digital bandwagon and re release their back catalogue with the sole intent of making yet more money. In some cases, the differences between SD (Standard Disc means DVD) and Blu Ray can be striking but to date I have only come across what I would consider to be a handful of blu ray films that dramatically change the viewing experience. Such has been with the case with David Fincher's last two films to be given the Blu ray treatment; Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The classic 1972 Peckinpah crime thriller The Getaway has also been given the blu ray treatment. I was curious to see what the blu ray result would be like with a studio film from the 70s. The image to many of Peckinpah's films available on DVD are quite grainy when compared to the way in which films like The Godfather and Taxi Driver have been given the special privilege of a complete restoration. It was the clarity of the image and particularly the crispness of the colours that made me realise the digital benefits of blu ray but part of me is still skeptical about how home digital technology will ultimately affect the quality of the film making on display. I just finished watching Amir Naderi's Iranian new wave classic 'The Runner' on a jumpy VHS copy and though the sound and image were respectively unwatchable at times, the poetic realism of Naderi's film making shone through. At first I was excited by the prospect of blu ray but now I have become quite cynical about how the studios are simply forcing the concerned cinephile to re purchase films they already have on DVD.

The Getaway was a star vehicle for Steve McQueen who in 1972 was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. With a punchy screenplay by Walter Hill and a jazzy, ill fitting score from Quincy Jones, McQueen hand picked Peckinpah to direct this crime thriller. The Getaway is generally considered to be Peckinpah’s most commercial project and turned out to be the biggest hit of his career. Had Melville decided to make the transition to Hollywood, The Getaway is perhaps the closest he might have come to directing the kind of sparse, minimalist and existential crime films which had become synonymous with his name in European cinema. The character of Doc McCoy (McQueen) is somewhat of a precursor to Walter Hill's far superior homage to the universe of Melville, The Driver. The Getaway falls into the cycle of urban crime films that came about at the end of the 60s and early 70s, which typically featured a misogynist anti hero who has an inherent capacity for violence. The film struggles with its meandering narrative and the terrible miscasting of Ali McGraw as McCoy’s partner is a careful reminder that Peckinpah was merely a director for hire. A minor work from a major auteur but ruthlessly efficient film making nevertheless.

WATCHMEN (Dir. Zack Snyder, 2009, US)
‘I'm just the puppet who can see the strings…’

Zack Synder's adaptation of Alan Moore's cult graphic novel Watchmen arrived like a juggernaut, proclaiming itself to be the holy grail of comic books films but somehow managed to excuse its disappointing box office performance by falling back on that most tedious of excuses - it was just too dark, violent and arty for the mainstream audience of fan boys that it was aiming to coerce to turn this into yet another regressive and woefully uninspired franchise. Watchman had its defenders in cyberspace, disguising its emptiness by suggesting that we should interpret it as a political essay on the contemporary state of America. Ideas it may have, but none of them are really executed with any degree of confidence or artistry that one finds in the linear narrative pleasures of Nolan’s The Dark Knight. What one comes away with is the disconcerting, surrealist image of a giant blue penis indescribably glowing in the superficialities of a contrived and overly manufactured noirish mise en scene. Freudian metaphors abound.

19 August 2009

KAMINEY / SCOUNDRELS - PART II : On Line Resources

When it comes to researching and tracking down appropriate on line resources for American and European cinema it is a far easier task then finding valuable materials for contemporary Indian cinema - it is even harder when it comes to parallel Indian cinema. Here are a list of useful on line resources for 'Kaminey':

(VB refers to Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of Kaminey)

The official website for the film - useful for a look at the way in which the film has been marketed. It also features trailers and a section on the press - scans of articles, reviews and mostly celebrity gossip are available and have mostly been taken from Indian magazines and newspapers.

Very Very Fexy - Rediff's review of the film; a thumb's up.

Kaminey making a killing overseas - A box office report on how the film has opened in the foreign territories; it has apparently exceeded expectations and is looking set to become one of the biggest hits of the year.

Looks good but fffff..fisappoints - review by Khalid Mohamed on Aslibaat.

Kaminey Review on NDTV Movies website - a review by Anupama Chopra (wife of Vidhu Vinod Chopra) - another thumbs up.

We can never get rid of our dark side - a standard interview with VB on the making of the film.

Kaminey: Movie Review - another worthwhile review by journalist Nikhat Kazmi.


In Conversation with Vishal Bhardwaj - a comprehensive and lengthy conversation with VB on influences etc. Apparently, VB maintains a low profile and doesn't enjoy giving interviews.

The Film with a Soft Focus By Debojit Ghatak - More of a critical essay than a review but a good one nevertheless; (Indian Auteur website). The comments seem to have provoked a lot of debate - 'Kaminey' is turning into one of those love it or hate it films.

Upperstall film review - Another well written and informed review of the film.

The Making of Kaminey – This documentary was produced to coincide with the release of the film; appears in 3 parts and features interviews with the cast and crew.

Brothef-in-armf
By Just Another Film Buff - another excellent review of the film; check the comments which has generated a lot of interesting debate.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of on line resources. Please feel free to add any additional resources related to the film as a comment.

WIDER CONTEXTS and ON LINE FILM RESOURCES

Whenever I want to read around the latest Indian cinema release, I struggle to get access to worthwhile articles, essays and most importantly, reviews of the film. Currently, the IMDB reference for 'Kaminey' features no external reviews - of course, this has largely to do with distributors refusal to hold press screenings for many of the latest mainstream and art house Indian films. Occasionally, one or two creep in under the radar - these films tend to have been picked up by Hollywood distributors as continues to be the case with cross over festival favourites like Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair. Anyway, I do have a tendency to write a lot for certain films and sometimes I access a wide range of materials, most of which are on the Internet, so I think it might be worthwhile and perhaps constructive in the future to follow up a write up with a post on useful web links including reviews, any essays, video clips and interviews. Hopefully, this will prove beneficial in terms of helping to get to grips with the wider context and critical debate surrounding certain films.

18 August 2009

KAMINEY / SCOUNDRELS (Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj, 2009, India) - ‘It's like a wax museum with a pulse…’

Shahid Kapur is the son of Pankaj Kapur, a widely respected actor who was cast by Vishal Bhardwaj in 'Maqbool'.

Here is a question that seems to provoke a lot of debate even today; is it easier to dismantle and dismiss mainstream cinema whilst feverishly propagating the cause of art and world cinema? Such a situation tends to generate a cannablised cannon of films that subjectively interpret the longings of auteurs through personal, cinephile concerns. It’s relatively painless to push aside the contributions of mainstream cinema as an extension of hegemonic control; apolitical, one dimensional - simplifying reality so that a consensual and despairing adoption of commerce as the only goal remains vehemently naturalised in the cinematic processes. Cinephilia continues to mutate at an expediential rate, devouring old journalism and breeding a new space for a continuous conversational exchange and open dialogue on the nuances of a certain film, director or indigenous cinema. The pleasure of unguarded opinion and endless debate reigns infinitely supreme in the landscapes of the blogosphere.

The celebration of mediocrity as something sacred means that one of the assumptions borne by mainstream cinema (many academics prefer the term popular cinema yet a film can only be deemed popular once it has successfully found an audience or achieved some sort of recognition with film critics, thus it seems inappropriate and misleading to use such a term of reference when discussing mainstream cinema) is an idea I would label as deadening superficiality; the severe constraints and limitations of working in the mainstream demands a unbridled subservience to genre conventions, false pleasures and a commercial cynicism that is indoctrinated over time. More relative is the fatalistic assumption that mainstream cinema is incapable of generating originality - such is the hostility of the criteria upon which judgment is passed that the results of a casual dismissal of all mainstream films is not subjective but collectively rampant and instantaneously final.

The cursed guitar case acts as somewhat of a McGuffin to keep the narrative moving along.

Sometimes, one can debate long and hard about having to pay to watch a mainstream film these days. Such was the crisis of conflict I recently faced when confronted with Tony Scott and Denzel Washington’s latest collaboration, 'The Taking of Pelham 123'. Not only did I know that this was a remake of a 70s heist film, but the bombastic, hyper kinetic visual flair that characterises a Tony Scott film tends to be associated with some of the worst attributes of mainstream Hollywood cinema - predictable, conventional, formulaic, repetitive, unoriginal are just some of the more familiar terms of reference critics like to cite when trying to dissect his work. Yet for all the hype and mediocrity that the film seemed to offer, part of me was compelled by a longing to trash the exploitative nature of mainstream cinema. However, another more emotional part of me was resigned to the escapist pleasures mainstream cinema can offer those who prefer to advocate the necessity of popular culture as a way of revealing the state of society.

''The Taking of Pelham 123' stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

Even though much of society depends on the unconscious acquiescence of political ideology, cinema is both a dual harbinger of empowerment and distraction. That mainstream cinema in its offering of entertainment as a core pleasure acts as a conservative mechanism for social control and a casual diversion from reality is a popular argument that continues to hold considerable favour with Marxist ideologues. As it turns out, 'Pelham 123' wasn’t too concerned when it came to transcending the limitations of the heist genre; instead it seemed readily preoccupied with reinforcing a familiar vein of conservatism in which the working class male is reminded of the impossibility to transcend the sharp social divisions of a city like New York. However, had the flawed working class male been elevated and granted an exalted position at the end then one would have equally criticised such a transformation as yet more wish fulfillment. 'Pelham 123' ends with the working class male returning home to his wife and children, a triumphant smile appears on the face of Denzel Washington. As he opens the gate, the freeze frame is used subversively to acknowledge and underline the way in which class struggle is a continuous one. An overarching liberal sentiment this maybe but it points to the regularity of narrative cinema - the resounding sense of closure is tinged by a vein of ideological ambiguity, unexpectedly reminding us of the inherent contradictions and creative tensions which characterise mainstream cinema today.

The vitriolic condemnation or perhaps criticism that has entombed Vishal Bhardwaj's latest offering, 'Kaminey', continues in earnest to gather an apocalyptic like momentum, disguising the subversive interruptions that are visible in the shiny wrapping deemed mainstream Indian cinema. Bhardwaj is far from an iconoclast unlike his contemporaries (Kashyap) - he would casually fall under the precipice of what Andrew Sarris termed the director as smuggler. The suggestion that some films are likely to be embraced by the mainstream critics regardless of their cultural worth and cinematic quality seems like an observation we tend to reserve for a post modern auteur like Tarantino. Yet it is also one that afflicts the status of Bhardwaj as an auteur and with Kaminey he has ventured into a territory that is often associated with Hollywood cinema - the post modern crime caper. It is those directors who are able to offer audiences new ways of looking at old genres that seems to characterise the most successful reworking of the masala film. (The super genre film is what Lalitha Gopalan likes to say - a term that seems to make better sense when discussing post modern cinema)

Priyanka Chopra as the fickle minded Sweety.

Of course, it is film makers like Vishal Bhardwaj who lend mainstream cinema an air of vibrancy and distinctiveness that is so often lacking from the end product. The consistent quality of his films leads many to make a connection with Indian art cinema but a closer look at the content of his films points to a director working in the commercial constraints of popular Indian cinema, also referred to as Bollywood - a term that seems to provoke outrage in the field of Indian art cinema as it connotes a derogatory meaning. Nevertheless, Bollywood is a form of expression that has been assimilated into the language of mainstream cinema as it is often used now as a marketing term. Like Indie, no one quite knows what the term means today other than acting as a marker of populist Indian cinema. It would be wrong to try and judge the merits and flaws of a film like 'Kaminey' if one was to embrace the idea that Vishal Bhardwaj is an auteur with inherent arthouse sensibilities and that his films attempt to articulate personal concerns. Vishal Bhardwaj is categorically a mainstream film maker, utilising major Bollywood film stars, exploiting the latest technology in terms of cinematography and editing, mixing genres, and expressing a fondness for music that has its origins in the traditions of Indian cinema as an institution. Films like 'Maqbool' and 'Omkara' (both are adaptations of famous plays by Shakespeare) certainly seem to depend on a shared cultural capital when it comes to the language and history of Indian cinema.

Arguably, the use of intertexuality as a cinematic mode of address is not only elitist in its esoteric referencing style but also discriminatory as the director works on the assumption that the audience has the so called cultural capital with which to engage in a post modern exchange of cinephilia appreciation. Perhaps it would be more suitable and appropriate to place Vishal Bhardwaj alongside contemporary mainstream Indian film makers like Ashutosh Ghowariker, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Omprakash Mehra. These are directors whose status as auteurs is constantly in doubt and fluctuates between the films they make, preciously straddling that middle ground between art cinema and the populist Bollywood blockbuster.

'Trainspotting' is considered Danny Boyle's breakthrough feature - an influence on 'Kaminey'?

When Danny Boyle achieved international acclaim for directing 'Slumdog Millionaire', much was made of the debt that the film owed to a matrix of films from Indian cinema. Boyle borrowed from the high and low of Indian cinema, referencing Mani Ratnam with 'Bombay', Kashyap with 'Black Friday', Amitabh Bachchan as the ultimate cinematic icon and even acknowledging the influence of that most tired of all narrative plot lines - the lost and found story which shaped the epic narratives of the 60s and 70s mainstream Indian cinema. Yet watching the opening sequence to 'Kaminey', I was instantly reminded of the way in which cinema is interconnected on a global scale and how an Indian film maker like Vishal Bhardwaj references none other than Danny Boyle. The immediate charge would be a seeming lack of originality yet I feel this is exactly the context in which Vishal Bhardwaj's latest film should be viewed and appreciated, as an extended and playful homage to the beguiling nature of masala cinema. Trainspotting is the film that Vishal Bhardwaj makes reference to in the opening sequence of 'Kaminey'. I’m not really a fan of Trainspotting but it is still one of the few British films that tried to suggest social realism may be a tradition but it does not have to be the only way in which to communicate with the spectator. Visceral cinema is not typically what comes to mind when thinking of British films yet self reflexive devices like the voice over, freeze frame, montage, hyper kinetic editing and neurotic camerawork that characterised 'Trainspotting' are all incorporated into the breathless style of 'Kaminey' and no better is that illustrated than in the fragmented opening sequence which boldly instructs the audience to abandon the reliance on narrative linearity.

'Kaminey' is equally a film about the city of Mumbai and the use of locations are in a way familiar from the cinema of Ram Gopal Varma yet the technically accomplished cinematography and choice of discontinuous camera shots gives the narrative an inspired potency. Unlike the past, today when a mainstream Indian film tries to imitate the visual look of a Hollywood biggie, it is able to compete on a comparatively assured level of technical excellence.
'According to Manmohan Shetty, who runs a film processing business, AdLabs, a sea change occured in 1978 when Kodak introduced a negative film that could be processed at high ambient temperatures improving colour resolution. At about the same time, professionally trained technicians in editing, cinematography and lighting began entering the commercial industry from film institutes in Pune and Chennai, vastly improving the quality of film production'

Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.
This cross fertilisation between British and Indian sensibilities reveals the globalised nature of film making today and at least in terms of style I would argue that Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting' seems to act as the clearest and most explicit point of intertextual reference for Kaminey, even though in terms of its genre and narrative the film harks back to the spirit of the super-genre masala film. It is the playfulness which makes 'Kaminey' such an exhilarating cinematic experience yet it would equally valid to put forward a counter argument that criticizes postmodern cinema as meaninglessly vacant.

The double role - one has a lisp, the other a stutter.

Though this may be true of some Hollywood high concept vehicles, the lack of an explicit ideological perspective seems to be best symbolised by a failure like Michael Bay's 'The Island' which wrongly interprets Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism (product placement dominates) into cinematic terms and all even without a hint of irony or intellectual point of reference. The much brutalized and discussed notions of style over substance and dumbing down have become synonymous with postmodern cinema but these negative features can be restrictive when appraising the work of contemporary film makers and their relationship to post modern values. Post modernism is a relatively new phenomenon to Indian film makers and though a new generation of middle class, cine literate directors like Rohan Sippy, Farhan Akhtar and Omprakash Mehra represent a continuation of the mainstream masala film, today’s youth oriented cinema like that of Tarantino openly plagiarizes, re-appropriates and quotes liberally from what is a back catalogue of populist cinema. This also partially explains the recent trend in remakes that have plagued the Indian mainstream including much derided reworkings of Amitabh classics like 'Sholay' and 'Don'.

'Om Shanti Om' is a clever postmodern pastiche of Bollywood's greatest masala moments.

Simultaneously, the last few years have seen a steady array of high profile, well financed and commercially successful post modern masala films that function primarily through this idea of a shared cultural cinematic capital. Perhaps the most popular and superficially engaging of these films has been Farah Khan's 'Om Shanti Om'. A virtual tribute to the masala film of the 1970s, 'Om Shanti Om' features a song in which Shah Rukh Khan and his heroine celebratory dance their way through a time warp of classic songs. With the aid of digital technology, Farah Khan juxtaposes the contemporary figure of Shah Rukh Khan alongside iconic stars like Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor - this obsessive and cinephile referencing goes to prove how a film like 'Om Shanti Om' epitomises the post modern style. Frederic Jameson defined pastiche as a stylistic mask with little or no depth, imitating the past without any kind of serious intention or underlying meaning. Such an empty definition of post modern pastiche seems appropriate in the case of 'Om Shanti Om' as it offers the full masala package but fails in really suggesting anything of ideological significance. Perhaps it is easy to simplify films like 'Om Shanti Om', reducing them to an eclectic pastiche of cinematic ideas and intertextual references.

The post modern soundtrack to 'Kaminey' was also composed by Vishal Bhardwaj.

'Kaminey' also falls into this blank label of pastiche but what differentiates it from other similarly inspired masala crime films is a technical finesse and pulsating energy - this doesn’t so much allow it to transcend the limitations of genre, it rather evolves into a nostalgic homage of Vishal Bhardwaj's cinephile concerns. In 'Kaminey', Shahid Kapur plays a double role as twin brothers – one has a lisp, the other a stutter and though they were not separated at birth, the reasons for their estrangement from one another is only revealed at the end in a typically 70s style including a clawing sentimentality and monochrome cinematography. Such are the wider mythological and religious dimensions attached to the double role motif, its inclusion in the film provides one of the film’s strongest post modern signatures. The narrative arc of the downtrodden struggling to rise out of poverty is another convention of the masala film – Amitabh’s on screen persona of Vijay finds itself resurfacing to haunt the specter of Charlie who also believes that taking the ‘shortcut’ in life will bring empowerment yet his entanglement with the underworld of politicians and gangsters unveils the traditional idea of moral redemption.

A cult film like Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ continues to be held in high regard for its intelligent capacity to embody many of the traits of today’s postmodern society. This is why:
A glum silence falls. Guys look at each other.

TYLER
I see in fight club the strongest and
smartest men who have ever lived --
an entire generation pumping gas and
waiting tables; or they're slaves
with white collars.
(more)

TYLER (cont)
Advertisements have them chasing cars
and clothes, working jobs they hate
so they can buy shit they don't need.
We are the middle children of
history, with no purpose or place.
We have no great war, or great
depression. The great war is a
spiritual war. The great depression
is our lives. We were raised by
television to believe that we'd be
millionaires and movie gods and rock
stars -- but we won't. And we're
learning that fact. And we're very,
very pissed-off.

The crowd erupts into a DEAFENING CHORUS of agreement. Jack looks at the blazing excitement in the eyes of the crowd.
'Fight Club', (Dir. David Fincher, 1999, US)
Screenplay by Jim Uhls

What the demagoguery of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) underlines is the universal failure of ideology, what many postmodern writers refer to as the rejection of ‘metanarrative’ – large scale theories and ideologies like communism, capitalism, science, religion which have seemingly failed to eradicate poverty, abolish the vast economic and class divisions and give a sense of purpose to the lives of most people. In today’s postmodern world, no absolute truths exist anymore and Durden’s criticism of the false needs engineered by capitalist consumer culture represents one of the most radical political critiques that have emerged from the realms of mainstream American cinema. Postmodern cinema in which we typically encounter a nightmarish dystopia may seem like the future but is in fact the present as this idea of living in age of uncertainty is most truthful when considering how suspiciously we view authority and mistrust institutions.

The most subversive mainstream American film of the 90s?

Though we don’t encounter someone as politically radical as Durden in ‘Kaminey’, it is a film that lives and breathes in the uncertainty and anxiety of a contemporary urban Mumbai society. Unlike Durden, Charlie is the apolitical capitalist and though he achieves his ultimate goal, his fondness for the shortcut comes out of India’s rapid economic progress. Not only is the police corrupt and the politicians are gangsters in disguise, this concept of uncertainty that characterises postmodernism finds expression in the widespread and systematic failure of major institutions like the police, education, governmental politics and the media. Ironically enough and quite typical of the masala film, it is the forces of tradition including family which seem to act as the clearest ideological route and resolution for characters like Charlie and Guddu.

The Tarantino scripted 'True Romance' features an apocalyptic shoot out at the end.

The final moments and the need for explicit closure is where ‘Kaminey’ finally shows a lack of inspiration. Yet once again, Vishal Bhardwaj lifts the final crazed shoot out and massacre straight from the ending to the Tarantino scripted ‘True Romance’. However, this is where it gets a little complicated when discussing intertextual references in today’s cinema as we all know that Tarantino borrowed heavily from the final shoot out in Peckinpah’s ‘Wild Bunch’ and also ‘Badlands’ for the central idea of the two lovers on the run. However, unlike Malick’s ‘Badlands’ that is marked by a subdued and open ending, the cynically constructed ending to 'Kaminey' is much closer in tone to Tony Scott’s ‘True Romance’ in which we are relieved to find our anti heroes alive and well in the milieu of an exotic beach with the mocking image of a sunset hovering in the background. In the end, 'Kaminey' has to embrace closure and give us the happy ending or else this wouldn’t be Vishal Bhardwaj‘s unashamed tribute to the legacy of the masala film.

The film was marketed with a distinctly masala flavour to it.

The film has been heavily promoted with the standard set of trailers and collective fanfare that tends to envelop such high profile media savvy projects. This is another UTV production and it might be useful to begin considering the tensions between authorial preoccupations and the institutional stamp a studio like UTV brings to the films they finance and market. Featuring a noteworthy performance from Shahid Kapur and his best performance to date, Vishal Bhardwaj’s use of Amol Gupte (the writer behind ‘Taare Zameen Paare’) as the twisted Mumbai slum patriarch turned politician Bhope Bhau is inspired casting. I wasn’t too sure about Priyanka Chopra as I always get the impression that she tries too hard but one of the creative tensions of working in the parameters of a mainstream film like ‘Kaminey’ demands compromises in all departments especially casting.

Writer Lalitha Gopalan says that Indian cinema and Bollywood in particular is a cinema of interruptions. Unlike the linearity of Hollywood narrative, mainstream Indian films are regularly interrupted by a series of musical numbers and additionally the half time intermission means that most films actually have two openings and two endings, which of course is quite true and points to the discontinuous nature of Bollywood narrative. Only a handful of directors including Bhardwaj are adept enough to integrate the songs into the narrative so that this idea of interruption is far less noticeable to audiences unfamiliar with Bollywood cinema. The quality of the soundtrack is on par with the level of subversive energy that characterises many of Bhardwaj's musical compositions - especially infectious is the 'Dhan Te Nan' track which ironically savages and remixes the highly iconic 70s masala soundtracks.
'There is no doubt we learn a great deal from vigilant readings of cinema's hegemonic influence that reveal its power to affirm ethnic stereotyping, sexism and jingoism, and caution is against being taken in by its dazzling surface. But all too often we tend to play little attention to questions of pleasure'

Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.
Kaminey is superior entertainment, reflecting the collective concerns and preoccupations of a progressive, liberal and westernized group of young Bollywood film makers who are rejoicing in the art of exploring guilty cinematic pleasures. I shouldn’t but I am going to end this analysis with a contradictory statement; 'Kaminey' maybe a postmodern film but it is a pleasurable one at that.

References.

Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.

Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader. Edited by Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell, Pluto Press, 2003.

Bollywood Cinema: Temple of Desires. Vijay Mishra, Routledge, 2001.

14 August 2009

TOKYO SONATA (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008, Japan/Netherlands/Hong Kong) - Family Horror

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (right) actively discourages rehearsals as he feels it takes the spontaneity out of performance.

Though ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is only the third Kiyoshi Kurosawa film that I have had the chance to see, his output as a director is considerably prolific, so it might be presumptuous of me to conclude that this is his best work to date. Perhaps then it is more appropriate to say that ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is one of the finest Japanese films I have come across in a while. Between 1996 and 1998, Kurosawa made twelve films, dividing his time between television and cinema – he says that film makers in Japan compared to the rest of the world especially Hollywood are not as highly paid, thus trying to embrace the sensible ethos of making one film every two years is a near impossibility. I guess this then explains why he is so prolific.

This reminded me of an argument that Martin Scorsese demonstrated when he produced his memorable study of American cinema; under contract Hollywood studio directors like John Ford and Michael Curtiz would make at least three or four films a year so they naturally got to know their craft quite quickly but were also able to develop a real command of a certain film genre. The same could be said of Kurosawa who spent much of his early career in the arena of V-Cinema, directing straight to video horror and crime films. I would agree with the argument that working in the same genre several times over can exhaust all creative possibilities but it also makes one aware of the those subtle differences and nuances which characterises films that are able to transcend their genre limitations. Such has been the case with Kurosawa’s horror output, much of which was swept up in the wave of J-horror films in the 90s.

In 2008, ‘Tokyo Sonata’ was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes, ratifying Kurosawa’s distinction as a notable Japanese film maker. Such was the encouraging widespread, consensual reception Kurosawa received for his new film, the Cannes award seemed to only come about as a result of the film maker’s shift into a new genre that he never tackled before; the melodrama and traditional Japanese family narrative. I think it might have damaged the arty reputation of the Jury Prize had they awarded it to a Japanese horror film but a film like ‘Tokyo Sonata’ fits into that tradition of internationally renowned Japanese film makers like Ozu and Mizoguchi. Such snoobish prejudices continue to exist when it comes to culturally inferior?! genres like horror, crime and science fiction, which are routinely overlooked when awards are announced at film festivals. ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is a worthy companion piece to Laurent Cantent’s ‘Time Out’, which also explored the humiliation of unemployment.

The emotional bond between mother and son is strong.

Though Kurosawa’s latest film has been embraced by critics as a melodrama, it is hard not to view it as another horror film. In the 60s, when Hitchcock made ‘Psycho’, the shift from the horror that unfolds in the traditional mythical spaces of woods and fields to the claustrophobic interiors of the everyday domestic space also provided a complex critique of the destruction of the family. This thematic shift remained with the horror genre up until the eighties when parody and pastiche took over. Similarly, Kurosawa is able to uncover a similar horror in the domestic space and the image of the family which is not that far removed from anxieties of suburban malcontent that one encounters in films like ‘Blue Velvet’ and even ‘American Beauty’.

It is the horror of being unemployed and the desperation involved in concealing such a humiliation that acts as the plausible sociological phenomenon at the axis of the films narrative. What comes to the fore are the horrors of contemporary Japanese society – the family in crisis metaphor allows Kurosawa to ruminate over a familiar litany of socially engineered illnesses including apathy, alienation, loneliness and separation. One of the funniest moments occurs just as the film unexpectedly threatens to transform into a peculiar fantasy. Having been challenged by his wife, Megumi Sasaki (Kyôko Koizumi), for engineering an extended conceit to hide the shame of having lost his job, the father and head of the family, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) is forced to obtain casual employment from a recruitment agency. Working as a cleaner in a shopping centre, one day Ryuhei and Megumi accidentally bump into one another. Paralysed by the horror of having lost his sense of identity and elevated professional status, dressed in a nondescript crimson boiler suit Ryuhei comes face to face with Megumi, the lonely and repressed house wife for whom aspirations are forbidden.

Kenji harbours a desire to learn the piano.

They freeze, looking over one another – the sense of dread in the facial expressions of both is familiar to us as spectators, emerging from the conventions of the horror film. Though Ryuhei feels humiliated, what he runs away from is not his wife, but a terrifying reflection of the mundane transparency and unhappiness that life today brings for an individual like Megumi. For the first time, Ryuhei also sees that his wife is the true victim and saviour of the family – this ideological perspective offers one of the most familiar interpretations of the mother in the structure of the family but it is also by the far the truest. Here is where the film’s status as a melodrama is perhaps the clearest – sympathetically extenuated through the figure of the mother who literally spends her time washing, cooking and cleaning. How ironic it is then that Megumi’s trip to the shopping centre is not by choice but purely by chance.

How ever empty the domestic space maybe in the interiors of the Sasaki family house, Kurosawa offsets a thematic interest in loneliness and repression by depicting the characters with a sense of warmth and empathy. Unlike Cantent’s ‘Time Out’ which seems far more interested in male anxieties, Kurosawa’s film rejects ambiguity for clearer motivation. The youngest member of the family, Kenji (Inowaki Kai), harbours a prodigious musical instinct that is satisfyingly taken to its fruition in the final piano recital. When Megumi confronts Kenji about his secret piano lessons, she actively encourages him to pursue those ambitions as much of her life has been filled with repressing her own inner aspirations. Megumi is equally supportive of her oldest son, Takashi (Yû Koyanagi), who signs up to join the American military so that he can supposedly help protect Japan from her enemies.

Kurosawa hints at another social crisis here, that rising global unemployment is liable to attract young graduates to the military as it superficially seems to provide a sense of purpose and direction to those who feel society has little to offer them which isn’t ideologically and morally bankrupt. Though Takashi’s decision to stay in Iraq may feel a little far fetched, it seems to fit in with the healing and redemptive role that Megumi plays in the family. Unlike the politicised new wave directors of the 1960s (Nagisha Oshima and Shohei Immamura) who opposed the 1960 security treaty between the US and Japan through their films and were not afraid of advocating dissent, prominent Japanese film makers today including Kitano, Nakata and Kurosawa are respectively apolitical.

After being made unemployed Ryuhei is transformed into a virtual zombie.

A note about the style then that is identifiable across the work of Kurosawa. It is a daunting task for any writer or critic to trace a series of thematic motifs or recognisable concerns as it is a seriously vast oeuvre that radically shifts across genres and formats. Koji Yakusho is definitely one key collaborator with whom Kurosawa has made many of his best films and is even given an odd cameo in ‘Tokyo Sonata’ as a demented burglar. In terms of narrative expectations, the final third of the film takes a disorientating turn and perhaps this is where Kurosawa really polarises the spectator. This major disruption in the narrative could possibly be explained in terms of Megumi’s wish to ‘start over’ her life – it’s as if Megumi wills the burglar into existence. What is most interesting here is that once Megumi forcibly abandon’s the domestic space in which she has become effectively imprisoned, it is the catalyst for the premature implosion of the family.

The following is an excerpt taken from an interview with Kurosawa:
DB: You do something very subtle in the film. In Tokyo, one of the key elements of life in the city is that there are so many people everywhere, and yet in Cure you use a lot of empty space – empty rooms, scenes where there are one or two, maybe three people. It almost creates the sense of a ghost city. Did you do that consciously?

KUROSAWA: Yes, my films are characterized by rooms that are too large and streets that are too empty. In fact, the rooms are very small and the streets very crowded in Tokyo. I’m not 100 percent sure why I prefer this ghost town effect. I think perhaps it has something to do with my understanding that many of us, although we may live in physically crowded areas, existentially we often find ourselves alone and adrift in empty space. And I think that’s why I tend to prefer this style.
- 'Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film' by Chris Desjardins, 2005, I.B Tauris, Pg 213

This idea of existentialism and empty space may sound pretentious when contextualised in art cinema today but it is inherently evident in the understated emptiness of the frame that repeats itself in the sparse and minimalist style of a film like ‘Tokyo Sonata’. Yet this ‘ghost town effect’ seems most appropriate when considering how Kurosawa uses the city of Tokyo. Here are the opening shots to the film that illustrates the significance of the domestic space in establishing the symbolic significance of the family as well as signposting the melodrama genre – at the same time as the camera pans across the empty space, such a creepy mood is not far from the repertoire of the horror genre which I am guessing Kurosawa is unconsciously referencing.

Empty Spaces

1. Most of the narrative unfolds within the confined domestic space of the home. (Oddly enough, I didn't find it a claustrophobic film). Such a slow pan from left to right is also commonly found in the horror films of Kurosawa.



2. Though this opening shot may appear benign, the camera surveys the domestic space to underline an emptiness - the house seems too still for a family. Also the added touch of the newspaper gently floating off the table and across the room is quite an eerie image. One could even argue that these are transitional shots and establishing shots typically found in a melodrama that focuses on the family as a theme/narrative.



3. Megumi, the house wife and mother, is the first character that we are introduced to (not formally though) - this tells us how significantly she will come to dominate this particular domestic space.



4. The staring into space or gaze into nowhere or perhaps somewhere beyond the frame links to Kurosawa's interest in existentialism - this also hints at the anxiety facing Megumi's character as she too like all the other members of the family will face their own personal crisis.



I never got a chance to watch 'Tokyo Sonata' on the big screen but its release on DVD and Blu Ray has been widely promoted for a Japanese art film. With Kitano having sadly lost his way, Kiyoshi Kurosawa may end up becoming another festival favourite. I am hoping the rest of his films are as superlative as this one.