21 January 2010

STILL WALKING / ARUITEMO ARUITEMO (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008, Japan) – The politics of family

'Still Walking' has had somewhat of delayed UK release as it was made in 2008.

Family as a fundamental aspect of the melodrama resurfaces yet again in this new film by contemporary Japanese director, Hirokazu Kore-eda. So far whilst researching Indian cinema including popular, art and marginal examples, a common reoccurring thread of family as a wider social metaphor has emerged quite significantly. Though I was aware of how central the family has and continues to be for much of Indian cinema, one can extend this argument out to also include a large part of Asian cinema and in particular the Japanese family melodrama. It has become somewhat of a clique these days especially in Western society to refer to the family as having imploded under the dissolution of post-modernity yet look to the East and Asian cinema including India, Japan and China and it is striking how the idea of family as an institution remains firmly intact, an idea that is fought over regularly and contested in the realms of the melodrama.

Satyajit Ray’s ideological influences were identifiable in the iconic figure of Tagore yet the repeated centrality of family in his films can in many ways be traced to the seminal work of the Italian neo realists. If De Sica was continuous in his attempt to reconstitute family then this was not a culturally specific representation of post war reality. Family is a shared universal ideal and though one could argue foremost of De Sica’s break with the dominant modes of film making, it was the commonality in terms of family and its humanistic virtues that made Ray conclude the necessity of exploring the conflict between cultural traditions and modernity’s undermining of family as an essential cinematic sphere. Ozu, Naruse, Ray, Ghatak, Kurosawa and many of the so called liberal humanist film makers who produced most of their work in the post war era were essentially trading in a similar cultural preoccupation; how the family could be used to confront quotidian dilemmas – the most basic of human ideals including death, birth, gender, age, tradition, society and national identity.

‘Still Walking’ is the work of a real craftsman, a film that humbly returns to the spectre of Ozu with great affection and offers us the often repeated tale of the family in crisis. Hirokazu Kore-eda is perhaps closer in terms of style to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another Japanese director who also recently returned to the familiar genre trappings of the family melodrama. Many critics have remarked that this may in fact be Hirokazu Kore-eda’s best film to date. I have seen some of his earlier and popular films including ‘Afterlife’, ‘Maborosi’ and ‘Nobody Knows’ but like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, much of his work is now slowly being reappraised in terms of authorial stature. I think with ‘Still Walking’, Hirokazu Kore-eda may finally get the recognition he deserves.

The aging mother and father host a family reunion to commemorate the death of their son.

Similarly like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hideo Nakata, Hirokazu Kore-eda route into film was through television, ‘toiling away on the V-cinema production line’. His interest in observing the subject matter led to a series of documentaries that characterised the early phase of his career. Debuting in 1995 with 'Maborosi', Kore-eda’s first feature was well received at film festivals and outlined a preoccupation with suicide and death, two themes which continue to dominate much of his work. In their book titled ‘New Japanese film’, Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp situate Kore-eda amongst the new vanguard of Japanese directors:
‘Kore-eda suddenly saw himself launched into the limelight, lumped together with a group of fellow Japanese filmmakers that included Makoto Shinozaki, Shinji Aoyama, Nobuhiro Suwa, and the aforementioned Naomi Kawase. All of them arriving with their independently made debut features in the second half of the 1990s, the media and festivals were quick to pronounce these young hopefuls a ‘New Japanese New Wave.'
The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Cinema, Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, Stonebridge Press, 2005, pg 208

The commercial and critical success of Kore-eda’s next film ‘After Life’ was the one that mapped out thematic authorial concerns:
‘It is infused with numerous concerns and themes that the director has dealt with in his life and career as a filmmaker, the most central being a fascination with memory, the relationship between past and present, and the documentation or recording of events on camera.’
The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Cinema, Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, Stonebridge Press, 2005, pg 209

At first glance, Kore-eda’s latest film does seem like an effortlessly constructed tribute to the cinema of Ozu. Yet this thematic concern with memory can easily be found in the image of the son who we are told tragically drowned whilst saving the life another boy. This connection with the past affects both the aging mother and father in strikingly different ways and the sense of loss lingers profoundly in the family home. The reunion of a family is quite a common narrative device in the melodrama and here it is used to confront death. Kore-eda’s control over the pacing is masterly and none of his characters seem contrived, offering us a moving study of middle class Japanese suburbia. This is a very gentle and warm family melodrama that reminded me of Ray’s ‘Kanchenjungha’ whilst also expressing clearer links to many of Ozu’s best films including ‘Tokyo Story’ whilst the final moments in which the past and present magically collide suggest how inescapable family is to the shared cultural language of most nations. ‘Still walking’ is one of the most richly satisfying cinema experiences I have had in a while and it makes a pleasant feel good alternative to the currently over represented Reitman and Clooney collaboration, ‘Up in the air’.

13 January 2010

THE ROAD (Dir. John Hillcoat, US, 2009) - 'The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies...'

The end of the world in 'The Road'

In the current issue of the Sight and Sound film journal, the article on John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s supposedly unfilmable novel ‘The Road’ describes it as an American mainstream film that comes closest to imitating the austere landscapes of Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’; high praise indeed then for a film I was slightly sceptical about ever since the critical consensus deemed it merely a credible adaptation. The Sight and Sound review by Philip Kemp still didn’t have much to praise about the film. For a brief time, the shadow of 9-11 seemed to dismiss any sudden inclinations to envision the cinematic aesthetics of a new age American apocalypse yet films like ‘I am Legend’, ‘Terminator Salvation’, ‘28 Days Later’ and the up coming ‘Book of Eli’ (looks viciously formulaic) all seem to adhere to a routine and predictable imagery of the apocalypse. The end of the world has never looked so mundane. Thankfully, John Hillcoat’s previous films including the despairingly beautiful western ‘The Proposition’ all underline a vivid concern for photographing landscapes and creating textures in a brutally visceral style. In many ways, Hillcoat’s episodic narrative, elliptical flashbacks, and un-heroic central male character are just a few of the unconventional markers that transforms the film into somewhat of an oddity which sits between the mainstream and art house parameters. Of course, it is distinctly American in terms of the genre links to the road movie and the emphasis on the biblical subtext. Yet its unremitting bleakness is an uncompromising directorial choice that should be praised for refusing to surrender any of the narrative to grotesquely unnecessary Hollywood style situations in which death is sanitised.

Ultimately, like ‘The Proposition’, this is a terrifically sustained mood piece supported by another hypnotic score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and also featuring a punishing performance from Viggo Mortensen. Returning to this idea of depicting textures, Hillcoat’s aesthetics of apocalypse are manifested acutely in the most primitive of elements; fire, water, earth. The representations of dystopia are endless in American cinema and when compared to the relative absence of utopia in recent genre films, one has to conclude that audiences can certainly see how the future is not really an alternate reality, but is something real and palpable, part of the now. I saw this at a late screening and I was encouraged to see it was busy which suggests ‘The Road’ has been able to find a sizeable audience. I can clearly see this one becoming a strong cult film in the future.

5 January 2010


This follows on from the first set of links I posted last week. Unfortunately, like before, some of the video links are without subtitles and vary in terms of quality. I think this next point goes back to what Roy Stafford said, which is that in some cases when DVD's are available to purchase or can be ordered through a reliable website then it is better to pay the royalties. In many cases, many of these films are simply not accessible via VHS or DVD. In addition, I have also provided a link in terms of background reading for each of the films. Part three will hopefully appear next week.

MOVIE MAHAL (Nasreen Munni Kabir)

In many ways the series of short documentaries written and produced by Nasreen Munni Kabir for Channel Four in the 1980s was one of my earliest introductions to Indian cinema. Each of the documentaries covered a particular area of popular Indian cinema and was linked to a landmark or key Indian film. I can see that this upload has been taken from an old VHS print and the quality does vary considerably but I am not sure why this has not been made available on DVD as it seems to be an excellent resource and introduction to popular Indian cinema:

1. Movie Mahal - Between The Lines

2. Movie Mahal - Heroines

3. Movie Mahal - Hero Worship

4. Movie Mahal - Take Two

5. Sukumar Ray - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1987
Ray's last documentary; an affectionate look at his father. (Be weary of the subtitles for this one)

6. Nishant (Night's End) - Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1975
Personally, I don't think Benegal has made an angrier film. Cinematography by Nihalani.

7. Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (Mother of 1084) - Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1998
This film deals directly with the Naxalite movement of the late 60s and 70s. It stars Jaya Bhaduri in the lead role.

8. Rabindranath Tagore - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1961
Essential if one wants to grasp the origins of Ray's intellect.

9. Ray: Life and Work of Satyajit Ray - Dir. Goutam Ghosh, 1999
Documentary on Ray by Bengali film maker Goutam Ghosh.

10. Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds) - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1980
The second film of the Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne films - characters created by Ray's grandfather.

11. Ghattashraddha (The Ritual) - Dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1977
A Kannada art film; looking forward to this one, visually it looks incredible.

12. Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River) - Dir. Anup Singh, 2002
Blending fiction and documentary, this is an exploration of Ritwik Ghatak.

13. Sonar Kella (The Fortress) - Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1974
This proves the breadth of Ray's body of work.

14. Ardh Satya (Half Truth) Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983
Nihalani's masterpiece - still unavailable in the UK.

1 January 2010

CALCUTTA 71 (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1972, India) - 'Calcutta was passing through a terrible time...'

The original poster used to advertise 'Calcutta 71'.

Conviction is a virtual necessity of any kind of political cinema especially the one that claims to magnify the ills and sickness of society. Out of the Bengali triumvirate including Ray and Ghatak, Mrinal Sen was by far the most radical, advocating a leftist Naxalite inspired ideology whilst borrowing liberally from European modernists like Godard and Brecht. Unlike the classicist style of Ray and Ghatak’s epic tradition, Sen’s response to the turmoil of contemporary Bengali politics in Calcutta during the 1970s was consolidated in the immediacy of revolutionary ideals and articulated through a distinctive ‘third cinema’ approach. Released in 1972, ‘Calcutta 71’, was the second film in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy and it is generally regarded by critics as one of the greatest achievements of the New Indian cinema movement. Another element separating Sen from both Ray and Ghatak was his anti illusionary mode – sustaining the aesthetics of realism were subordinate to the political content and most importantly, the dissemination of ideas. Like Godard and Eisenstein, Sen stripped away the classical form and traditions of cinema, revelling in a reflexive prism of Brecht inspired agitprop methods. Ray and Ghatak may have certainly laid the foundation for a new, personally engaged cinema but Mrinal Sen was instrumental in outlining a specific doctrine. Such a politically inspired cinematic doctrine was issued in the form of a manifesto by both Sen and Arun Kaul in 1968 arguing for ‘a state sponsored alternative to commercial cinema’.

The 1933 episode details the poverty of a poor Bengali family living in the slums.

In addition, Mrinal Sen’s breakthrough feature ‘Bhuvan Shome’, released in 1969, was also strategic in helping to urge the Indian government to offer greater financial support to those filmmakers struggling to be heard. Ghatak and Ray may have shared an identifiable humanism in the struggles faced by their characters yet such a sentiment was absent from the fiercely Marxist cinema of Sen who repeatedly resorted to the dissolution of the fourth wall. Of course, the danger with such strong willed political cinema is that it is typically weighed down by a polemicist tone. However, Sen avoids falling into this trap by offering us five episodes in the form of clear cut political allegories on one common theme, that of poverty. To underline how poverty shapes the psyche of Indian society and Bengali culture, Sen refuses to remain fixed in a contemporary context and shifts across a number of decades. The original running time of the film when it was first released in 1972 is 132 minutes. However, the version I watched was considerably shorter and the opening episode of a young radicalised Bengali revolutionary was also missing. The original brochure produced for the release of the film provides one of the best summaries of the complex set of political ideas that Sen explores:

http://mrinalsen.org/calcutta_71.htm (click on image for full scale version) - all credit goes to http://mrinalsen.org/ - a website on Sen maintained by his son, Kunal Sen)

Sen like Ghatak was involved with the Indian People Theatre Association and it is here that he discovered the work of Brecht, realising the possibilities of utilising art as a tool for the propagation of ideas and instigating wider change in society. Ray continues to be judged as an apolitical film maker when compared to both Sen and Ghatak. The problem with this kind of judgement is that any film maker who is placed alongside as Sen is likely to be accused of ideological abandonment. Obviously, the great weakness with a film like 'Calcutta 71' is the lack of emotional involvement. Parallel film maker Shyam Benegal argues that Sen's later work is much more engaging and rounded when compared to his seventies films which he says left him cold. Of course, much of this criticism is related to the effects of Brechtian devices which are supposed to frustrate and agitate the spectator to think seriously about the ideas being explored. The film itself becomes more fragmented as we get nearer to the turbulent seventies and this reflected in the use of montage - Sen acknowledging the influence of Eisenstein. It is in the final episode in which Sen cuts between a group of middle class intellectuals and the young radical who is being chased by the establishment that the film most resembles the Godardian impulse of the late sixties.

1971 saw the release of both Sen and Ray's first films in what would be parallel trilogies on the social and political crisis facing the middle classes of Calcutta in the seventies and much of the ideological debate was filtered through an emerging, disillusioned Bengali youth. Ray's political anger may have remained in check for a long time but with 'Pratidwandi' (The Adversary) he silenced many of his critics by choosing to endorse Sen's notion that it was the collective responsibility of cinema to respond, inform and agitate the audience. Personally, Ray's 'Calcutta trilogy' is a far greater achievement than Sen's three films and though 'Seemabaddha' (Company Limited, 71) is the weak link, it is 'Jana Aranya' (The Middleman, 75) that proves to be one of the strongest and most sophisticated Indian films of this era.

Both 'Pratidwandi' and 'Interview' were released in the same year - 1971, marking the start of their respective trilogies on the urban reality of Calcutta.

In an interview conducted by Udayan Gupta for the Jump Cut film journal, 1976, this is what Mrinal Sen had to say about why he felt compelled to make 'Calcutta 71':
MS: I made CALCUTTA-71 when Calcutta was passing through a terrible time. People were getting killed every day. The most militant faction of the Communist Party—the Naxalites—had rejected all forms of parliamentary politics. At the same time they had a host of differences with the other two Communist Party factions. These, in turn, led to many interparty clashes. Invariably all of the factions ignored the main issue of mobilizing forces against the vested interests—the establishment.

This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.

The natural and historically continuous co existence between poverty and exploitation was not the story of Calcutta in the 70s, it extended from a 'third cinema' perspective outlined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Thus, one can conclude that a film like 'Calcutta 71' shares a much greater affinity with the 'Cinema Novo' movement of the 60s whilst a highly politicised film maker like Mrinal Sen was closer to the work of Glauber Rocha who also believed that 'third cinema' was the way forward in terms of resisting all forms of hegemony whilst criticising the derisory gap between rich and poor, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Whilst Ray's cinema was never as fatalistic or disillusioning as that of Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, the greatest achievement of 'Calcutta 71' remains in it's uncompromising political content and how like many of Godard's films of the late 60s and early 70s it has become somewhat of a very significant historical document and powerful record of the times.