Thursday, April 17, 2014

Film Atlas (Palestine): Paradise Now

Country: Palestine
Title: Paradise Now (2005)
Said and Khaled are best friends living within the Palestinian territories, working as auto mechanics. They are literally and figuratively spinning their wheels. Said’s malaise temporarily lifts while bantering with Suha, an attractive customer visiting from France. But before this relationship has time to bear fruit, Said and Khaled are informed by their local PLO cell that their applications for a suicide bombing mission have been accepted. This has been a long time dream much meditated by the two young men, especially Said, who wishes to redeem a traitorous act by his father. But while spending a last night at home Said sneaks out to visit Suha, and although wavering, can’t bring himself to tell her the truth.

The next day they shave, don suits, film short propaganda videos glorifying their ‘eminent martyrdom’ and are driven to a checkpoint where they will cross into Tel Aviv. But the plan goes awry; the two become separated and are unable to reach their target. Said considers blowing himself up on a bus, but balks at the sight of a child. Khaled returns to his infuriated handlers and promises to find Said before the situation deteriorates further. While scrambling about Nablus searching for his friend, Khaled meets Suha, who reasons him out of his plan. Said, on the other hand, bounces back from his crisis of conscience with ever greater resolve and agrees to a second mission. The film ends with Said riding a bus full of Israeli soldiers, moments before an unseen, unheard explosion.

The early 21st century saw a number of films attempting to humanize terrorists, religious fundamentalist or radical dissidents, but few had the psychological acumen and tonal grace of Paradise Now, without compromising the political implications of what remains an incredibly hot button issue. I figure that if at least a few people on both sides don’t accuse you of condoning atrocities or sympathizing with monsters than you’ve probably failed, but Paradise Now manages to successfully walk the fine line where it generously offends both sides. But it's never flippant. It's actually quite studious and well-considered; full of small character touches and dispassionate procedural details. Paradise Now gets under your skin, but treads carefully enough to avoid triggering knee-jerk responses, instead offering up characters with complicated motivations and opinions along with insight into the historical, environmental and psychological factors that inform their decisions.

Director Hany Abu-Assad, recently Oscar-nominated again for his new film Omar, is sensitive enough to sustain the dramatic impetus throughout the film, without feeling like he’s making a thriller. He’s helped by Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman who give brave, convincing performances, while Lubna Azabal, as Suha, far from functioning purely as romantic bait, sinks her teeth into the task of arguing common sense. What I like best is the contrast between Said and Khaled’s capacity to think and feel (their vulnerability in more than one sense) with their militant organization’s perfunctory and routine preparation rituals, nigh-wordlessly encapsulating the film’s thematic interest in the overlap between and limitations of individual choice and political agendas.

My Favorites:
Paradise Now
Divine Intervention

Major Directors:
Hany Abu-Assad, Elia Suleiman

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Film Atlas (Pakistan): Silent Waters

Country: Pakistan
Title: Silent Waters / Khamosh Pani (2003)
Ayesha and Saleem are mother and son living in Pakistan around 1979. Ayesha teaches compassionate interpretations of the Koran to local children and has a curious habit of avoiding the village well. Her son is a good-natured and relatively normal teen of middling prospects who’s in love with Zubeida, a progressive woman with career aspirations. Their lives change after the execution of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by hardline Islamic fundamentalist General Zia-ul-Haq who seized power in a military coup two years earlier. An increasing level of nationalist and religious fervor sweeps in, led by two ultraconservative strangers who preach intolerance and jihad. The predominantly apolitical villagers fight back with passive resistance and humor but many are bullied into line as the prevailing wind becomes clear. Saleem, searching for identity and meaning in his life, is drawn under their influence, eventually rebuffing Zubeida and his own mother after revelations about her affiliation with visiting Sikh pilgrims.

This debut film by Sabiha Sumar starts off as a pleasant formula-abiding romance, but soon becomes a great deal more interesting as it jettisons the love story in favor of confronting the issues, many still unresolved, that rocked Pakistan during its 1970s return to military rule. In particular, Sumar’s mature and delicate handling of the friction between local village life and national politics, moderate and extremist interpretations of Islam and Muslim and Sikh communities brings out the complexities and tensions of a difficult period, already burdened by a history of violence, oppression and reprisals and the still-bitter memories of the partitioning of India and Pakistan along religious lines and its consequent legacy of displacement and conflict. 

Saleem in particular makes an excellent avatar of the era’s confusion and frustration mixed with the universal experiences of teenage angst and direction-hunting. His gradual ‘awakening’ as he finds pride, purpose, friends and excitement is one of the more convincing portrayals of radicalization that I’ve seen. Credit goes to Sumar for seeing this trajectory through without resorting to redemptive or tragic clichés. The mother’s arc, an equally interesting navigation of identity issues, repressed memory and the struggle of Pakistani women, gets a somewhat less nuanced treatment and is cut short by a fate a bit too laced with irony. I also wished Silent Waters could have packed more visual punch despite its modest budget, but it’s emotional and thematic heft are invigorating, especially coming out of Pakistan’s typically light musical-romance-driven popular cinema.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Film Atlas (Norway): Oslo, August 31st

Country: Norway
Title: Oslo, August 31st / Oslo, 31. August (2011)
The film opens in Oslo on August 30th. Through a morning mist of images and narration we are introduced to Anders, a shy, genial intellectual in his thirties, walking through a forest and filling his pockets with rocks before trying to sink into a river. Today he’s on leave from rehab clinic, on his way to a job interview at a literary journal. He spends the day puttering about the city of his misspent youth, absorbing the vibrant liveliness that he can only relate to fitfully and, even then, only through memories tinged with painful nostalgia and regret. He makes contact with old friends, especially former drinking-buddy and intellectual sparring mate Thomas, who feels guilty about the ease with which he's settled into middle-class family life. 

Anders views himself as a failure. He isn’t pissed about it, but he seems at times on the verge of tears. He has survived years of addiction and recovery and there are still, theoretically, a few bridges he hasn’t burned, but the idea of reintegrating into life and starting over again is more than he can bear. He sabotages the actually rather plum job opportunity he is on the verge of landing in favor of remaining adrift. At times he seems mildly cheered by the freedom of his resignation. Towards dark he falls into a familiar pattern: he finds a nightclub, has some drinks, meets a girl. They dance, drive a motorcycle through the night blooming fire-extinguisher clouds behind them and go skinny-dipping at a closed park pool in the early dawn. It’s nice to see Anders smiling and there’s a flash of hope in the girl’s smile back, but for Anders this is only a bittersweet no-hard-feelings last wave to Oslo. He isn’t looking for a chance to begin again.  

I was planning to write about a frosty established classic like Nine Lives (1957), Zero Kelvin (1995) or the brilliantly-ahead-of-its-time 1959 romantic thriller The Chasers (one of the great unsong Nordic films). And then I thought about trying to defend the too-eccentric-for-any-but-Scandinavians-to-adore claymation adventure Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, in which an inventor, a hedgehog and a magpie enter a Formula One racing grudge match. But in the year or so since I’ve seen Oslo August 31st, it has persistently swirled about inside my mind. I hate to resort to a cliché like ‘achingly beautiful’, but this film is what the phrase was born to describe. 

Oslo August 31st is a sumptuous, note-perfect mood piece whose quietly stirring images, delicately fluid tracking shots and closely-observed dialog put you through the emotional wringer. Sophomore director Joachim Trier makes every scene count, but gives his lead room to breathe. There’s a moment where Anders just sits back and listens to the sounds of traffic and conversations around him that is deeper and more arresting than many a famous monologue. There's a montage of the city as Anders reflects on his parent's influence on him that is so full of love, yet suffused with sadness. There’s a lengthy painfully-realistic conversation between two friends who still care for each other, but can’t really help each other, that broke my heart. Anders Danielsen Lie (playing Anders) puts his whole soul into the performance and it shows and at times it hurts. His malaise, disillusionment and despair are only the tail end of a short, full, well-examined life marked (and scarred) by heights and depths etched into his expressions but already dropping off the edge of memory. It’s the human condition distilled to 95 minutes. This is also that rare remake that exceeds the original, but to say the title of the original would be to say too much.

My Favorites:
Oslo August 31st
The Chasers (1959)
Kon-Tiki (1950)
Insomnia (1997)
Nine Lives
Zero Kelvin
Kitchen Stories
Ice Palace
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix

Major Directors:
Joachim Trier

Monday, April 14, 2014

Film Atlas (North Korea): The Flower Girl

Country: North Korea
Title: The Flower Girl / Kotpanum Chonio (1972)
The flower girl of the title, Koppun, roams about bucolic hillsides picking azaleas and singing about selling them to afford her mother’s medicine. At home she is beaten and berated by the family’s cruel landlady, while unsuccessfully trying to shield her blind sister, Sun Hi, from the realities of their plight. Their income is further reduced following the unjust arrest of her older brother. Koppun finally saves enough for the all-important medicine just in time for her mom to die, leaving the sisters orphaned. Koppun, thinking things can’t get any worse, wears out three pairs of straw sandals on the 175 kilometer journey to her brother’s jail only to be informed by a guard of his death. She almost hurls herself from a precipice in despair, but determines to carry on for the sake of Sun Hi. But in her absence the landlady grew sick and delusional with guilt, and her henchmen superstitiously blame the blind girl, believing her possessed by her mother’s angry spirit, and lure her into the snowy mountains to die of exposure. Koppun finally snaps and has to be bound and gagged by the remorseless enemies of the people before the tide abruptly turns: her brother (escaped from prison) and sister (rescued by a kindly hermit) miraculously show up alive and they rally their fellow peasants to rescue Koppun, throw off the shackles of Japanese occupation and build a new society free of corruption, capitalism, and exploitation.

While The Flower Girl isn’t actually good, it is interesting. There are few examples of cinema under North Korea’s notoriously restrictive regime, and this one provides some insight into the now stone dead genre of Revolutionary Opera, which was once the sole theatrical option for almost a billion people. China’s “Eight Model Operas” (including the much more polished and entertaining Maoist ballet The Red Detachment of Women) from the Cultural Revolution are more famous, but North Korea produced five of their own, ostensibly written by supreme leader Kim Il-Sung himself, of which The Flower Girl was the most cherished. Revolutionary opera broke with traditional opera styles like Peking and Cantonese, and focused on pro-communist themes and proletariat collective heroes, often forgoing romance completely.

Flower Girl’s adaptation of its source opera is more melodramatic than melodious, with short solo musical numbers doled out at irregular intervals. The libretto consist of simplistic emotional sentiments (although is that really so different from opera and even pop music anywhere?) that, though repetitive and predictable, are sung soulfully and with talent by lead actress Hong Yong-hee. She was rewarded by appeared on the 1 won North Korean banknote until it was made obsolete by hyperinflation in 2009. However, despite the sympathetic central performance, the story of an innocent young girl toiling and suffering until final redemption is a little too familiar and far too drawn out. The propagandistic agenda busts in at the last minute too jarringly for even the most receptive audience to find convincing. However, it is interesting to note that, until the final act, this could almost be a film from anywhere. In individualism-oriented America  Koppun would either be saved by a dashing lover or by her own pluck and resourcefulness and in your typically dour European art film she’d simply be left to die tragically. Perhaps it’s just a minor tweak of political convention that The Flower Girl instead ends with her being blissfully whisked away by a spontaneous nationalist peasant revolt. At least, as the film descends deeper into mediocrity and narrative nonsense, the camerawork actually gets more interesting, with some vintage in-camera split-screen and several touching snow-laden tableaux.

Since I'm sure when else I'd be able to bring it up, I can't resist mentioning some 'alternative viewing' that, though less representative of North Korea's play at critical recognition, is arguably a lot more fun: Pulgasari. Pulgasari is a schlocky monster movie with a backstory as strange as the film itself. South Korea's A-list director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife were kidnapped by North Korean dictator and self-professed fan Kim Jong-Il in 1978 and, after four years in prison, were forced to make a series of propaganda films to promote North Korea abroad. Before he escaped to Vienna Song-ok created 7 films, including the rarely-seen Kaiju (giant monster) sci-fi parable that is Pulgasari. It tells of a dying prisoner who uses the last of his rice ration to mold a dinosaur doll that, after being given life by a drop of blood, begins ravenously munching metal. Like capitalism, Pulgasari grows rapidly and helps overturn fuedalism, but continues consuming well beyond its country's resources and finally turns on the working class it once swore to protect. An important lesson for us all.

My Favorites:
The Flower Girl

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Film Atlas (Nigeria): Sitanda

Country: Nigeria
Title: Sitanda (2006)
Sitanda opens with Amanzee leaving his wife, Ann, to get soaked by the rain while he walks indoors umbrella in hand. Amanzee has been fired from his job and blames this and all of his misfortunes on having married an “outcast.” After being cruelly humiliated Ann she takes refuge at her parent’s home, but they chastise her for only visiting when she has a problem. She soon reconciles with her ill father and he tells her the history behind how their family got labeled as outcasts. It all happened when their ancestor, Sitanda, was kidnapped by a rival tribe and forced into slavery. The ensuing flashback occupies most of the runtime, involving us in the romance of Sitanda and a slavegirl named Sermu. Political intrigue, hardships, a music and dance number and a fight scene or two must be endured before the climax, where Sitanda discovers he is actually the rightful prince but gives up his royalty to marry Sermu, thus becomes an outcast. In the present day, Amanzee talks with his best friend, who gives him some sage advice about taking responsibility. The couple realizes that love is something that must be worked at and preserved and they tearfully reunite.

Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, was essentially nonexistent in 1990. By 2000 they were churning out several thousand films a year, more than any other country except India. Nollywood movies mix genre and soap conventions with contemporary African issues to create extremely popular direct-to-video films for the West African market. They are not known for their quality, especially in terms of production values: the shooting schedule is often under a week, with poor-to-absent sound design and lighting, few retakes and scripts that recycle perennial crime and romance plots. Despite this, their grassroots energy and socially-aware regionalism lends them an appeal that distinguishes them from glossy Hollywood productions.

I was initially planning to dodge the whole Nollywood experience and choose a 'serious' Nigerian film designed for international consumption, but that would've been cheating. Part of the problem was that I knew it would take a while to find a Nollywood film that I could, in good conscience, recommend. Sitanda still suffers from the typical low-production hazards (terrible sound balancing, under-lit night scenes, plenty of stilted or overwrought amateurs in the supporting cast, the same obnoxious stock noise to indicate every minor surprise), but it's on a higher technical level than most. The set designs, location scouting, story structuring and shot variety are especially notable. More importantly, the plot-heavy script actually worked for me. It tackles a wealth of themes underpinned by sensible character motivations, juggles two stories across vastly disparate time periods and genres, manages to sell both a legendary and contemporary romance and finishes strong with a catchy theme song to cap it off. There are still some head-scratchers, though, like Sitanda telling Sermu his name and explaining that it means “greatness” only to have her respond with a shake of the head and embarrassed smile when, in the next scene, her best friend ask her, “Do you even know his name?” Oh well. Nollywood icon Izu Ojukwu isn’t about to break out onto the international stage, but he brings a great deal more artistic ambition to the directing chair than his peers and his formidable talent under makeshift conditions shines through. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Film Atlas (Nicaragua): Alsino and the Condor

Country: Nicaragua
Film: Alsino and the Condor / Alsino y el cóndor (1983)
Alsino is a ten-year-old living with his grandmother in abject poverty somewhere in the interior of Nicaragua, near to the rebel strongholds occupying the mountains. The Condor is a helicopter, piloted by American military 'consultant' Frank (Dean Stockwell) in charge of exterminating communist guerillas. Alsino and Frank meet when the military establishes a staging area near Alsino's village. The boy is a relatively typical child, but he dreams of flying and talks abstractly of his ambitions with his first girlfriend. When Frank takes Alsino on a helicopter ride, the American imagines Alsino will be awed and grateful, but little understands that his advice, to study hard and come to America, is not only condescending, but completely impossible. Soon after, Alsino, unsatisfied with mechanical flight, tries to launch into the sky from a tree. He injures himself and becomes a hunchback for life. He leaves home and learns to survive in the wild, eventually taking up with an itinerant bird salesman, who cares for him but only pays a pittance. 

Alsino moves on after learning that the man dislocates the wings of his birds to keep them from flying away. He later meets the rebels, who offer him his first real sense of family, home and identity. Meanwhile Frank has become increasingly angry, drunk and frustrated by his failure to make either tactical or ideological inroads, and green-lights saturation bombing despite acknowledging the heavy civilian toll. A friendly fire incident leads to a catastrophic loss of life and the rebels, with Alsino astride the shoulders of a fellow freedom fighter (perhaps really flying now for the first time), enter the village victoriously.

Nicaragua doesn't really have a film industry and Alsino and the Condor suffers from technical, logistical and budgetary constraints (awkward cuts have to disguise unfeasible scenes like an important helicopter crash and leave the story a bit piecemeal at times), but it doesn't have a shortage of ambition. Director Miguel Littin (a Chilean best known for his debut feature The Jackal of Nahueltoro) isn't shy about his politics, which are certain to rub many the wrong way (he explicitly condemns American interference, highlighting their atrocities without mentioning those committed on the other side), but he's making a valid case for Nicaragua's right to self-determination. 

The film's characterization of Frank, who gets several major scenes even at the expense of Alsino's story arc, actually shows a degree of unexpected compassion: Franks cares about the country, democracy, the need for education, etc. He wants to make a difference and is disgusted by his fellow career soldiers, some of whom are little better than mercenaries. Like Alsino he is ultimately a mere pawn in the hands of larger political forces, but unlike Alsino (who consciously rejects victimhood by instinctually refusing to be exploited, even if independence sinks him into further poverty), Frank faithfully plays his part in the game of nations with fatal results. Sadly, American actor Dean Stockwell being top-billed is exactly like the type of cultural imperialism that Littin would rage against, but perhaps it's a reflection of Alsino's somewhat shaky position as a central character, occasionally overwhelmed by his allegorical double duty as a stand-in for Nicaragua's political awakening. That said, I actually like the motif of flight (the disappointment of the mechanical helicopter, the failed leap from the tree, the clipped feathers of the bird man, etc.) as a multifaceted metaphor for aspiring towards freedom despite ceaseless resistance. These themes transcend the film's borderline belabored politics and give the film its much-needed emotional drive.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Film Atlas (New Zealand): Utu

Country: New Zealand
Title: Utu (1983)
Maori warrior Te Wheke (based on Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki) fights alongside the British army in the 1870’s, but discovers firsthand that the military has burned down his native village and killed his family. He determines to seek “utu,” or vengeance, by raising his own army and conducting raids on the English occupiers. In need of supplies, Te Wheke attacks the homestead of level-headed farmer Williamson, killing his wife and destroying his home in the course of a masterly siege. Williamson, left for dead, loses his sanity, swears a private vendetta of his own and manufactures a series of custom firearms that culminates in a rapid-reload 4-barreled shotgun. Meanwhile, idealistic greenhorn Lt. Scott is given tentative permission to use unconventional tactics to hunt down Te Wheke’s rebel forces, but is hampered by inexperience, ignorance of the terrain and a growing crush on a Maori POW. He is soon relieved by the sadistic aristocratic Colonel Elliot who gathers an irresistible army at a fortified camp in the hinterlands. The stage is set for a four-way final battle to settle all scores.

Geoff Murphy never attained the same fame as his fellow kiwi directors Jane Campion and Peter Jackson (for whom he served as second-unit director on the Lord of the Rings trilogy), but his early works have a cult following of their own. Murphy, like early Jackson and Sam Raimi, favors a wide-angle lens, swift action that rides light on exposition and shocking yet often amusingly over-the-top gore. Utu is an ambitious work, an epic revisionist-history take on the multi-decade New Zealand wars that encompasses colonialism, revenge, honor, action, romance and tongue-in-cheek humor with a modest, though record-setting in New Zealand, budget. He makes excellent use of the resources at his disposal: New Zealand’s famously breathtaking landscapes, full-bodied performances from an underrated cast and a script that shows not only a great deal of ingenuity, but also a willingness to have fun while tackling knotty subjects. For example, he parlays a clever prisoner escape scene into both a colonial polemic and banter-filled flirtation and manages to substitute a head-spinning deconstruction of the interplay of justice and vengeance in place of the token bloody climax I was expected, without robbing me of a final few sweeping shootout set pieces.

My Favorites:
Lord of the Rings
Heavenly Creatures
Once Were Warriors
Smash Palace
The Piano
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

Major Directors:
Jane Campion, Roger Donaldson, Peter Jackson, Geoff Murphy