29 March 2011

AJEOSSI / THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (Dir. Lee Jeong-beom, 2010, South Korea) - Cinematic Agenda Setting

A predictable yet solidly well made revenge thriller, The Man From Nowhere, was 2010's highest grossing film in South Korea. This might not come as a surprise given the film’s mixture of sentimentality and violent discourse but what is perhaps more surprising is the fact such a populist film in South Korea has by passed cinema exhibition completely in the UK arriving instead straight to DVD. Now, one could easily formulate a simplistic argument stating why - the absence of a notable or well known South Korean cast and crew made it potentially unattractive to UK film distributors but this seems like a feeble position to adopt given the deluge of pretty shoddy Hollywood films currently besieging multiplexes across the country. If one was to compare it the Liam Nesson starrer Unknown a similar thriller in many ways and currently on release, The Man From Nowhere would arguably would win hands down given it’s polished cinematography, superior action choreography and an emotionally resonant revenge narrative. Of course, The Man From Nowhere does not have the presence of Liam Nesson who after the unexpected commercial success of Taken has suddenly been awarded box office kudos. Additionally, subtitles might be another reason and potential barrier for audiences who simply want to get lost in the spectacles of escapism.

A few years back, The Man From Nowhere, may have been granted a noteworthy distribution deal but discouragingly the UK film market tends to respond to marketable trends within world/global cinema and the interest in South Korean cinema is currently quite low when compared to the way in which it was represented at the height of the new wave. However, whilst it may have dropped down the cinema cultural agenda in the UK it does not necessarily mean the same has happened in South Korea - many new film makers continue to emerge alongside the now more familiar festival favourite auteurs. I think it would wrong to say that no such audience exists in the UK for South Korean cinema because a film like The Man From Nowhere bears many similarities with Hollywood genre cinema yet its blatant dismissal points to an inherent favouritism to American and European cinema in general.

A similar precedent is evident in the pages of many of the UK film magazines and journals which regularly report on European cinema but are somewhat suspicious and ignorant of Asian film industries and cinema - Indian cinema rarely ever gets a look in Sight and Sound, the bastion of so called inclusive film journalism. I will return to the way in which Indian cinema has been ignored and continues to do so in prestigious film journals like Sight and Sound in a later response but currently I am yet again disappointed and largely frustrated by the way in which our cinematic cultural sensibilities are being limited and contained to serve the purposes of elitist tastes, the despairing Hollywood hegemonic impulse and an altogether more suspicious and unexcused xenophobia lurking in the midst of many print publications. What I wanted to say was quite simple - The Man From Nowhere is a terrifically entertaining film and much superior to Hollywood and equally as gripping as European thrillers, only you will have to resign yourself to the dispiriting thought of watching South Korea's biggest film of 2010 on DVD.

25 March 2011

RANGO (Dir. Gore Verbinski, 2011, US) - Acid Animation

Depp as Rango - a nod to the Corbucci western Django starring Franco Nero as the coffin pulling outlaw.

Not only is this Johnny Depp's best film in a long while it is clearly one of the zaniest and most idiosyncratic animated features to have emerged from a Hollywood studio. But I wonder from all the adult humour and complex post modern riffs to endless spaghetti westerns if the studio had any kind of input at all given the involvement of actor Depp and director Verbinski - both have worked on the pirates films together before and one can sense from the sheer fun they had making this acidic animated western that this seemed like a project which had less boundaries and more creativity given the absence of Jerry Bruckheimer. As Captain Jack Sparrow Depp certainly has shifted more to the mainstream, expanding his fan base from the gothic, quirky hipsters of the Burton generation to the kiddie friendly franchise hungry Potter crowd. It was a leap that curiously left his maverick like star image somewhat intact given the accusations of selling out governed by the media. Depp has tended to remain at a distance from the glamour of Hollywood star elite and much of his career reflects choices that have gone against the grain - with some surprisingly disappointing critical failures including the recent The Tourist.

With Rango, Depp invokes the spirit of his earlier on screen persona - the one most closely aligned with the bohemian and rebellious sixties gonzo journalist Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing. Borrowing the plot largely from the man with no name films and Once upon a time in the west, Leone's twisted and nightmarish vision of the west is particularly noticeable especially in the control of water, a plot point referring to the central yet enigmatic conflict between characters in Once upon a time in the west. Incidentally, the film opens with a direct homage to Hunter S Thompson and in many ways it is a wacky, off kilter precedent sustained throughout the rest of the narrative in which Depp's frenetic chameleon dashes around being chased by some of the unsavouriest and funniest supporting cast one is likely to encounter in a Hollywood produced animated feature. I'm not sure if this one was really intended for kids as it operates on quite a sophisticated level of intertextuality, referencing with great fun films such as Apocalypse Now and in particular the ride of the Valkyries dawn raid sequence. I guess this makes Rango a rarity as it is an animated feature designed by adults aimed at adults, making no qualms about its unhindered, chaotic and very breathless spirit - it's hard to resist.

24 March 2011

PARTITION (Dir. Ken McMullen, 1987, UK) - 'What have you done to my world?!'

Commissioned by Channel 4 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the partitioning of India, Partition is more political theatre than cinema. Reassuringly, some of the finest British leftist promulgators were involved in the task of adapting writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story ‘Toba Tekh Singh’. Produced by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe, directed by Ken McMullen and starring some excellent actors including Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Zia Mohyeddin, Second Run Films have been impressive in their release of the DVD which contains a wealth of extras including a new interview with Tariq Ali on the making of the film. Tariq Ali argues that back in the eighties Channel Four were more willing to commission films such as Partition regardless of the political content. Perhaps this is true in light of today’s Americanised scheduling and the predominance of reality shows. European and alternative cinema has more or less been banished from terrestrial television and rarely do new writers and directors get an autonomous opportunity to be creative anymore. Manto is regarded as one of South Asia’s finest short story writers and whilst much of his work is still not as well known as it should be in the west, his critical reputation and importance to the discourse on the trauma of partition offers both a historical record and autobiographical account of his personal experiences. This is not a mainstream exploration but one of the few experimental accounts that has originated from British cinema on the question and legacy of partition. In effect it should be viewed as a commemoration of the millions of lives that were lost during the horror of partition. Much of the setting in Manto’s short story takes place in a lunatic asylum in Lahore on the eve of partition which would mark the end of British rule, grant independence for India and lead to the establishment of Pakistan as a new Muslim nation. However, at that critical point in history not even Gandhi, Jinnah or Nehru could have foreseen the levels of carnage and loss of human life partition would incur from a catastrophic imperial decision concerning power, control and the economic state of South Asia.

Much of the film taps into this vein of imperial sabotage and resentment secretly harboured by the British towards the Indian people as a whole. At one point the British are criticised for deliberating undermining social progress during their rule by refusing to promote literacy to the rural population as this would have likely accelerated the end of imperial rule. Partition is a highly ideological piece of work with much of the political reasoning articulated through the use of direct camera address in which subjugation, guilt, perversion and hegemony are accentuated as markers of a colonial discourse often repressed in historical attempts to reconstruct the past. Manto was only 42 when he died due to the cirrhosis of the liver as a result of alcoholism and the film is dedicated to his memory. Much of his work has been translated into English now and I have ordered a collection of his short stories as I am interested in pursuing Manto as a writer to investigate what else he had to say about India and partition. What is clear though is that Manto was critical of all politicians and seemed very sceptical about India’s independence and whether or not this would actually lead to self liberation for the ordinary Indian – in many ways it was his vitriolic and outspoken voice that made him such a controversial figure amongst the intelligentsia. In one of the interviews on the DVD, Tariq Ali reads out Manto’s self penned epitaph as sign of the writer’s arrogance. Such is the boldness of the epitaph; it actually sums up pretty well the spirit of Manto:
“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God”
Here is one of the key sequences from the film in which Saeed Jaffrey's character in the lunatic asylum externalises the horrors of partition unfolding around them:

18 March 2011

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (Dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, US) - ‘I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.’

The dialogue for Sweet Smell of Success by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets is some of the most acerbic one is likely to come across in a mainstream Hollywood film especially one from the tail end of the 1950s. Whilst Lancaster and Curtis head up the main cast, this gorgeous slice of newspaper noir exudes an urban intelligence that makes it both distinctively independent and ideologically inquisitive. Shot in New York, the sense of the gutter is immediately evoked through the introduction of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis in his best role) literally on the sidewalks stalking the early morning papers so he can get a hungry eye glimpse at the sacred words of his master – the woundingly destructive J. J. Hunsecker (Lancaster upping the stakes of Machiavellian machinations). Hunsecker a villainous figure takes on all the poisonous and lethal charms of the iconographic marker of noirish immorality – the femme fatale. Whilst a sentimental love story between two kids from opposing ends of the New York social spectrum motivates the narrative, this in fact one of the great cinematic critiques of power. If Hunsecker stands for the corruption of American power – here utilised to retain a sickening incestuous hold over his sister then Falco’s venal, parasitic press agent offers an ideological counterpoint, prefiguring today’s celebrity obsessed media in which Falco would triumph glowingly. When Hunsecker’s class prejudices and snobbery are repeatedly underlined in a series of grotesque spectacles we expect some kind of triumphant fight back from the underdog but this never transpires – it has to come from within and such a defiance and rejection of Hunsecker’s lethal grip is made eventually by his repressed sister who becomes yet another victim of her brother’s vampirism. Along with The Ladykillers, this is one of director Alexander Mackendrick’s best loved films and the timeless script has become a real benchmark and one can still detect its influence even today – the contemporary American scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin and even Quentin Tarantino come to mind. The constant mood of cynicism and urban fatalism is to be expected of such a high class noir but like Force of Evil with which it shares a considerable thematic parallel, the film is very critical of the media’s role in shaping the cultural accents of society. Both Hunsecker and Falco are servants of the media and whilst they both attempt to exude power as though it is an exclusive possession, it is a delusion that ultimately reveals them to be part of an empty, morally bankrupt spectacle of power. It all makes for one of the creative peaks of 1950s American cinema. Here's the Criterion Collection trailer for the new re-release of the film on Blu Ray:

14 March 2011

WINSTANLEY (Dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1975, UK) - 'There shall be no buying and selling...'

It was pretty dispiriting to read a couple of reviews from mainstream publications that rubbished such an extraordinary and unique British film. I approached Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley from an entirely neutral perspective and whilst I had heard good things about it I knew absolutely nothing about the real life figure of Gerrard Winstanley. The BFI invest a lot of time and effort into the DVD’s and now Blu Ray discs they release each year. In many ways, their careful academic approach echoes Criterion in America and on the strength of their booklets alone, they exceed many of their nearest competitors. The special features on the Winstanley Blu Ray disc are exhaustive and rich including a definitive documentary on the making of the film, a newly recorded interview with Brownlow and Mollo and an early short from Kevin Brownlow. Released in 1975, Winstanley is a magnificent film which I am finding difficult to discuss without becoming ideologically discursive. As the 1970s are slowly rescued from the bonfire of British cinema, it is becoming apparent how important the decade was in terms of producing some of the toughest, idiosyncratic and romantic British films of the last fifty years; Get Carter, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, to name but a few. Brownlow and Mollo only ever made two feature films together (the first being It Happened Here in 1966)– a disappointing fact given Brownlow’s comments in the interview included on the disc in which he criticises the British film industry for failing to nurture and support their talent which is not surprising given their choice of political subjects. Winstanley is a rarity, a socialist manifesto that takes place in a rural England of 1649 but through its call for equality pays tribute to a familiar class struggle. Here’s a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum who contributes in his regularly brilliant way to the notes for the film included in the booklet:
‘There’s really not much to be said for Winstanley, except that it’s the most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell (which it resembles in no other respect) and the best pre-twentieth century historical film I can recall since The Rise of Louis XIV [Rossellini] or Straub’s Bach film [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena]. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help it. Mysteriously beautiful films which tell one something about the past are rare commodities, and one certainly doesn’t expect to find anything as idiosyncratic as this one in the English cinema.’

5 March 2011

PADATIK / THE GUERRILLA FIGHTER (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1973, India) - 'Go to war...'

The opening titles sets up Calcutta as a city on the verge of collapse.
'PADATIK has something to do with the contemporary political scene...To my mind, I tried to analyze the political situation the way I felt it would be done. It could have been clearer but I felt that even this should be done. We had arrived at a point when the Left movement was lying low and the leftist parties were in disarray, losing perspective, and isolated, at a time when there was a need for unceasing self-criticism.'

The final part of Bengali film maker Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy expands upon the prescient 1970s dilemma of the Naxalite inspired Bengali youth evident in both Calcutta 71 and Interview to make the questions surroundings political activism a central ideological debate. Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary), a study of the Calcutta youth appeared in 1971 as almost a thinly veiled response to accusations of apolitical abstention and whilst both Ray and Sen shared the young actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, their views on cinema, politics and ideology were in stark opposition to one another. Satyajit Ray was very openly critical of the New Indian cinema manifesto and particularly criticised film makers like Mrinal Sen for over indulging in the empty ideological, stylistic and aesthetic posturing of European new wave cinema including most notably Jean Luc Godard and Alain Resnais.

Dhritiman Chatterjee as Sumit; a radical political activist and the face of 70s Bengali youth.

Writer and academic Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s latest publication ‘Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency’ (2008, Indiana University Press) has been somewhat completely overlooked by most of the major film journals in the UK. It is one of the best written and ideologically sustained accounts of the relationship between Indian cinema and the wider context. Chapter 9 titled ‘The Indian Emergency – Aesthetics of State Control’ offers a remarkably alternative reading of the development of film policy during the 70s, discussing in detail the re-shaping of the FFC and the lively culture wars between Ray, Sen and Kumar Shahani. The Centre for the Study of Culture and Society has the full chapter available to download as a PDF file for free of charge (thank you) and I think to engage much more fully with the ideological questions being raised in such a politically radical film as Padatik, and elitist as it sounds, one must have a better understanding of the wider political, economic, historical and social situation of Calcutta and Bengal in the turbulent 1970s.
Chapter 9 the Indian Emergency - Aesthetics of State Control By Ashish Rajadhyaksha, 2008

What Padatik offers is both a historical document on the political mindset of the burgeoning Bengali youth and a personal struggle from the film maker Mrinal Sen to make sense of Marxist revolutionary ideology and ascertain whether or not it is a misguided enterprise. The plot is as elliptical as many of the film’s made by the nouvelle vague, concentrating on Sumit, an uncertain member of a left wing political party, probably Marxist and harbouring strong Naxalite sentiments, who escaping from police custody goes into hiding. Interestingly, both Pratidwandi and Padatik may differ in their approach but they both attempt to deal with the same political questions – does the subscription to an ideological cause necessarily make one revolutionary? In the case of Pratidwandi, Ray comes to a conclusion that was at odds with the political reality of the time and whilst Sen’s ending is also tinged with a degree of Utopian totality, Sen’s representation of Bengali youth is fixed in a reality that sees the oppressed father and patriarch of the family instruct his son to continue fighting the system. Another interesting point to note is that Pratidwandi and Padatik are not just linked by the presence of Dhritiman but both make significant symbolic use of a funeral; Pratidwandi opens with the death of Siddhartha’s father and his funeral whilst Padatik closes with the death of Sumit’s mother and her funeral – the affects of political unrest are delineated starkly and the cost is measured in the loss of family.

The closing moments; father and son in a poignant exchange of political discourse.

Shot by Sen regular K K Mahajan who like Raoul Coutard became pivotal to the visual look of the new wave cinema, Padatik is surely one of Sen's most radical works and deserves its place amongst films from the Bengali 70s era such as Pratidwandi. Even in the final shot, Sen reverts to using the freeze frame and holds on the angry face of Sumit but unlike claims for interpreting this ambiguously or hinting at an uncertain future, it is a self reflexive pause that extols rather than criticises revolutionary struggle. It is such an honesty that makes Padatik feel alive in today's world of political re-awakening.