The tale of Princess Kaguya

I have had a wavering relation to movies: growing up, I hated them. The idea of spending three hours immersed in someone else’s story in a dark room was claustrophobic. A little older, the stories began to seem alluring, may be because life was tiring and less entertaining ; writing your own story is exhausting and daunting after all. More likely it was because people introduced me to better movies than the ones available to me growing up.

After some gap in the late-blooming love, a gap fuelled by TV series addiction, this year I am trying to return to movies, albeit slowly. A Sunday at a time. To watch something gripping enough, I have been relying on dilapidated prints of old movies available on Youtube, so it was great to see that Netflix has finally brought some titles from Studio Ghibli to our living room. Studio Ghibli has been behind some of the most revered anime movies made in Japan from sublime directors like Miyazaki, and Japanese anime is a genre I have greatly enjoyed in the past.

When I sat down in front of the screen today, I was determined to watch an anime, particularly from Miyazaki. But scrolling through the title, the image of Princess Kaguya caught my eye. The water-colour hues in the background were so gentle and soothing, that I was immediately drawn to it.

The film is drawn from a folktale and is fantastical, but also very spiritual. A thumblina princess appears in front of a bamboo cutter, and transforms into a little child when he carries her home to his wife. The couple bring up the child as their own, but because of her initial appearance, the bamboo cutter is convinced that she is meant to be a noble princess. Lil’ bamboo (that’s how her friends call her) enjoys a carefree childhood with friends and Sutemaru, a boy, who would later personify all the happiness of this time. This idyllic world is shattered when the father takes her away to the capital and begins training her to be a princess. At her naming ceremony, she is christened Kaguya and the fame of her music and beauty reaches far and wide. Noblemen vie for her acceptance as she sends them on fool’s errands. All this while, she continues to pine for the idyllic home and forest she left behind. She prays to the moon, and threatened by a suitor’s advances, expresses a wish to not be on the earth. The moon takes her back on the next full moon night, as she desperately tries to cling on to the love on earth.

The story is a spiritual tale, and if you have any doubt about it, Buddha makes an appearance at the end as Kaguya struggles to disconnect from her parents. Kaguya spends her life in memory of a childhood, unhappy at the change and responsibility thrust upon her. The father continues to drive her towards what he thinks is her purpose, even though no one knows why is she on earth. Each of us is Kaguya, chasing a destiny which the world thinks is our way. But at the same time, we are lured by the carefree existence of childhood and keep wondering whether this pursuit is real and required. We want to escape to a past, even as parents and our well wishers push us to an imagined better future. And we end up ‘being’ in neither.

The brushstrokes used in the creation of the movie’s anime are ethereal. Like Kaguya, I wanted to freeze most frames, and seeing the message in front of me, couldn’t stop laughing at the irony of my behaviour. It is difficult to detach from the aesthetics and beauty of the world around, and all the heart desires is to possess. But possession doesn’t end the desire, which merely flies elsewhere. The lost love stories are so much more alluring than the ones that are found and become real.

I can’t ignore the triteness of my own words – how many times have they been said and written, perhaps even by myself. But they sound especially wise to me in the moment. If only, I can let go of the moment and still be blessed with the wisdom.

Solaris – two different visions

6422F61F-6F46-48DD-B0DF-8F006BB14A53

(A poster by Victo Ngai as seen on Chrome Yellow)

The Projector theatre in Singapore is currently doing a run of Tarkovsky’s movies – and I couldn’t resist the chance to watch Solaris a second time. There was a time when I was devouring everything from Tarkovsky – Stalker, Mirrors, Andrei Rublev, his writings on cinema. Since then, my attention span has gone through a significant contraction and I now stay drugged in the great melodrama of streaming television. A call for Solaris was also a call from the past. One I am glad I answered.

Before watching the movie, I picked up the original story from Stanislaw Lem, the Polish writer. I found a BBC audio rendition of it, which was a delight to hear. Lem’s Solaris was a scientific exploration of an alien existence. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting a celestial system Solaris. The Scientists on the space station are studying Solaris, particularly its deceptive ocean. When Kris, the psychologist arrives on the station, he meets only one of the three Scientists. One has killed himself and another refuses to come out to meet Kris. The third, Snow, is shifty, drunk and paranoid. By the next day, Kris begins to experience strange events when he wakes from his sleep to find his ex-Wife in his room. He kills this apparition by sending her into space, but another apparition returns. As he talks to the other Scientists, he realises that they have guests of their own and think that Solaris’ enigmatic ocean is reading their minds during sleep and conjuring images from their conscience. Kris begins to fall in love with his apparition, but at the same time works with the Scientists in defeating the ocean.

Lem’s story is focused on man’s attempt at communicating with an alien entity. The attempt seems futile because we expect communication to be in our own perception, our own language. When the alien communicates through a different mechanism (like manifesting our own conscience), we see it as hostile and want to destroy it.

While listening to the book, I remembered similar themes from Tarkovsky’s movie. However, when I began to watch it, I realised that I had forgotten the overwhelming emphasis on human connections that this adaptation had. The movie adds a long prologue in an idyllic country home where Kris remembers his mother and his ex-Wife. He spends an emotional evening with his father and aunt, as he purges some of the old memories in a bonfire.

In the space station, while the main plot points remain similar to the original story – much of Kris’ focus is on understanding his relation to his Wife Hari than in understanding the alien entity. He is annoyingly absorbed in his romance, connecting back with a woman whose death he feels responsible for. In a slight exaggeration to Lem’s story, Hari continues to die, and though she regenerates every time, each of her deaths casts another shadow of guilt on Kris.

Kris’s illusions illustrates how a lot of our relationships and people around us exist only in our own perceptions. Strangely, Kris never seems to doubt the authenticity of Hari’s love, but he is afraid of killing her again by leaving the planet. He has already done this in the real world when Hari commits suicide after he left to another city for his job.

The Scientists decide that they can counter these apparitions by telling the ocean their conscious thoughts instead of just their dreams. “Be careful what you wish for”. This to me is the convergence between Lem’s story and Tarkovsky”s adaptation where man tries to bring back the communication to his own terms, even though Solaris was offering it a chance to understand their own dreams and desires. It highlights again in the voice of Snaut, the futility of exploration when we are only looking for mirrors.

The original story returns Kris back to earth where he writes two reports – one that narrates reality and another which reports no anomalies at the space station. However, in the movie Tarkovsky leaves us with a doubt on whether the Scientists ever leave and whether even the idea of their victory and their return is a dream that the ocean throws back at them. Perhaps our entire reality is an illusion- a product of someone creating a virtual world with the thoughts in our own heads. A matrix. And in this one, Kris is happy to take the blue pill, but most of us go chasing down the rabbit hole.

Jagten (The Hunt)

Does a misunderstanding or misconception ever correct itself? In stories, misconceptions often place themselves at the center, sometimes spinning the entire tale around. Mostly, in the end, people speak up, and miraculously the fog lifts.
Not so in the crisp and stony reality from Thomas Vinterberg. In his movie, he marks out how it is not enough to be acquitted from a court trial, and certainly not enough to have done nothing wrong. Long after being cleared, doubts persist and hunt the accused – may be in reality or may be in his own mind.
Lucas, a nursery teacher at the center of this drama, is wrongfully accused of sexual conduct in front of a child. A child who is his best friend’s daughter and who he is very fond of. The small town discounts the many years in which it has know Lucas to be a charming, lovable person in face of a child’s thoughtless accusation. The paranoia of parents at the thought of sending their child to a potential predator everyday spirals out of control. Suddenly, all parents begin to see signs of molestation in their own children. The children work themselves up in a hysteria where they begin to remember an evening in Lucas’ basement alone with him.
The image remarks how immaterial it is that the basement does not exist. There are moments when, as a viewer I began to wonder if indeed it lies hidden elsewhere, even when I had been privy to the wrongfulness of the accusation from the very beginning. Mass perception has a way of becoming reality. Aided by the insecurity people have for their children, and in the unshakable (but really quite questionable) faith that children are always honest and innocent, this perception becomes wildly accepted, even by the band of brothers Lucas has grown up with.
This remarkable hold on rumor and the hazard it poses – this is what makes The hunt the best film I have watched this year. Mads Mikkelsen’s performance and the mood-landscape is a treat on top. Even though this film goes against the severe principles of Dogme, somehow the use of editing and cinematography adds to the stark reality and therefore appears to follow the Dogme in spirit.

 

Golden Age of mexican Cinema

The Singapore National Museum Cinematheque and Mexican embassy in the country is running a short program on Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. During this period, they are show-casing some moveis from Mexico made during the period 1936 to 1969, which is labeled as the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, when some of the finest movies came out of the country.
I have so far watched two movies during the program, and am hoping to catch another one tomorrow. So far it has been a refreshing experience. National museum has a cozy, but sufficiently spacious gallery theatre, which is a good place to watch movies (unlike the Singapore comercial theaters which are small, and often have poor screen quality). At the beginning of the movies, a cultural attache gives a brief introduction of the movie to be shown, which sets the context.

The first movie I watched Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (Let’s go with Pancho Villa) is also a movie that is said to be the beginning of the golden age, even though it did not do so well at the time of its initial release. Pancho Villa is the nickname of one of the decorated generals of Mexican Revolution (which began in 1910). He was dominant in Northern Mexico, looted and commanded trains, and was largely supported by the US in his revolutionary efforts.
The movie is about a group of 6 friends from a village who decide to join Villa’s revolutionary army. Through their lives, the director/writer Fernando de Fuentes depicts life in midst of a revolution. In this life, Fuentes shows us, there is a mad energy as people feel a sense of purpose, but there is also heartlessness, ruthlessness. While shooting at the enemy, sometime the boundary between enemy and your own men blurs, while at other times, people engage in mindless shooting at the Canteen, so that the pianist has to put up a sign “Don’t shoot the Piano Player”, and the waiters have to hide behind counters. Villa is shown to be a hard task-master, as one must be to lead a revolution of that size. It is ironical that sentiment can be side-tracked so immensely in a war which would have begun from concern for sentiment.
It is hard to believe that this movie was made as early as 1935. Technically, it does not go wrong anywhere – the mood is perfectly set with overwhelming scenes of trains loaded with revolutionaries, or forts being conquered, or men riding their horses in the grim landscape of mexican desert. If the movie was made in the 70’s, nothing could be improved, and it would have to wait till the 90’s to get better sound.

The second film I saw, La Perla, was made in 1947 by another celebrated Mexican film-maker Emilio Fernández. This simplistic film was based on a novella written by Steinbeck, who also co-wrote the screenplay for this visually appealing film. It is a story of a simple fisherman and his wife, who find a rare and big pearl. The pearl, which seems to them the means of freedom, invites a lot of attention from the villagers, and some unwanted hostility from rich men, who want to acquire the rare pearl and are willing to rob and murder for it. With a pearl, the simple life of the family is completely destroyed and they are forced to wander around in the neverlands of mexico without food and water, carrying a baby in their arms. The seed of hope becomes the harbinger of darkness, sometimes causing rift between the lovely couple. A very socialist fable, in my opinion, but beautifully brought to life, specially by the angelic Maria Elena Marques(plays the wife), who looks innocent and untarnished, almost like Mary.
This movie is visually very captivating. In the beginning of the film, wives wait at the shore, hoping for the tides to turn. The camera first focuses on two women looking towards the sea, and then pans out to encompass a much larger group. The sense of abatement is so strong in the first few shots that it carries throughout the movie, despite the ongoing action. Later, as the couple wander through deserts, the camera work again comes to the rescue of a film which might have bored the viewer by a seemingly endless and vindictive pursuit.
During one of the most important moments in the movie, there is a long underwater shot, which is near flawless. The entire shot shows Tino’s struggle under water. Then, when he finally cracks open the oyster and finds the pearl, his brief performance shows a peek into what is to come. That was one of the finest moments of the movie. It is only during the later half of the movie, especially during the pursuit that the movie became tedious and lost a little of the momentum that it had begun with.
This is the first film festival I have attended in Singapore, and it is disappointing since I had hoped to enjoy many more. Unfortunately, the movie culture in this city/country is minimal. Movies often arrive here late, and even in opening weeks or shows, few people are seen in the halls. There is a film society, of which now I have become a member, but even they screen only 2 movies in a month.
But it is a good start for me, and it was encouraging to see the participation for La perla’s screening today. Perhaps this will give some boost to the festivals.

Tree of life

After months of wait, I finally got to see Terrence Mallick’s new masterpiece – Tree of Life. It is never good to see a movie with too much expectation, and I had carefully avoided reading much about this work. So, when the movie unfolded into an orchestra of Universal creation, I was astounded. I was not expecting an hour of a musical journey taking me through the creation of life. That anyone could attempt such a feat in a movie was impressive.
Tree of Life brought together the dichotomy of a vast cosmos versus individual life. Many times, a cosmic order is used as a salve for personal tragedies. God has a much larger scheme, the Universe has a much larger scheme, your personal sorrows are small. But is it comforting to know that you are nothing in that much larger scheme, that you could suffer personal losses and the Universe will just move on? Would it not be more satisfactory if you were the center of the Universe and the world would come to a halt if there was a hitch in your journey? It is possible that much of human angst is caused by the knowledge of being miniscule. Perhaps this is what causes Jack O’brien’s (Sean Penn) angst and restless wanderings.


This film is a journey – into the memories of childhood, into the realm of Universal knowledge, and finally into the beyond. As a middle aged man, Jack O’brien remembers growing up in a small Texan town with two brothers. They have an idyllic childhood, spent in blissful afternoon excursions, looked upon by an angelic mother and a doting, though disciplinarian father. The brothers are happy in each others’ company. There is just one scene in which sibling rivalry is mildly indicated: a toddler Jack looks upon his baby brother with curiosity, expecting him to play with him and then goes to throw tantrums when he finds no response. Mallick has captured a whole range of emotions in such subtle, ethereal scenes. There is very little dialogue in the entire movie. People whisper to themselves, or sometimes it appears that only bits of conversations are overheard by the camera/viewer – none of the words are spoken for the benefit of the viewer. In the movie are the rebelliousness of growing up, an exploration of personal failure and how it changes a person as a father, and more overpowering – a deep sense of loss. When Jack’s younger brother dies at the age of 19, the whole family is thrown off, especially the mother, who wanders restlessly in the woods, seeking an answer from God. She asks: ‘They say he has gone to God, but was he not with God all the time?’ Her confusion, and sense of being wronged is deeply touching. Jack’s misery is more lasting, as he tries relentlessly to keep the memory of his brother alive. His mind continues to wander, until one day, in the afterlife, he meets his family again and smiles in the togetherness.
It is hard to know whether Mallick is pitching a war between personal losses and the vastness of continuous life, or if he is trying to find comfort in the continuity of life. It seems like he is still wondering, as am I. But I am sure I will look forward to the blu ray release in October – so that I can enjoy the magnificent scenes on my personal screen.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

In my film, time is shattered‘, says Resnais of his first full-length fictional film Hiroshima Mon Amour. I don’t think this statement is as true of this film as it is of Last year at Marienbad (where time seems to explode and be everywhere), but time does fold on itself in this poignant film of memory, loss, war and love.
A French woman is shooting for a film in Hiroshima, and a day before returning to Paris she meets a Japanese man in a cafe, whom she spends the night with. An intense affair develops, and in this intense love, the woman is transported to her first love – a German soldier whom she had met during German occupation of France. On the night of French liberation, the soldier was killed in her presence and his death and loss of love continued to haunt her. She was disgraced in her town (Nevers) for consorting with the enemy, and spent days locked in the cellar in a state of mental fever. In a while, she remembered only the pain and spent life in short, meaningless affairs – until, on meeting this man in Hiroshima she feels the intensity of love and is horrified at the thought of finally forgetting her first lover.
The horror of forgetting seems the central theme of the film. The necessity to remember disasters like the loss of love or bombing of a city, to keep it alive forever, are pictured both in the personal trauma and the scenes of horror from Hiroshima. Both disasters intermingle to make the trauma of Hiroshima very personal; it is no longer so distant as the destruction of a city. She cannot take a new lover, because it would mean that she could forget love and thus would also be able to forget this new love. And how could you forget love, forget Hiroshima, and move on?
There is something so beautiful and sad about Resnais’ movie in its clear black and white imagery. The impossibility of love and the burden of guilt is reflected in the still shots above. The manner in which the flashbacks become a part of the current conversation, and in the way the two lovers juxtapose is haunting, and yet something felt often on dreamy mornings when worlds intersect, and for while you do not know which is which.
It was so fascinating to hear the conversation of the lovers – I am looking now for the screenplay(translated) of the movie written by Resnais and Duras.

A movie on Rings of Saturn

Sebald’s already immortal book Rings of Saturn is being further etched into a visual medium. Grant Gee has made a movie on the book, Patience (After Sebald), which is premiering on January 28th. More on the movie can be seen here.
This picture, taken by Grant Gee, seems like a beautiful introduction to the walking journey Sebald took. I cannot wait to see the film, but getting my hands on the film will be a humongous task – it will certainly not come to India in any legal forms. (Sebald’s books hardly find their way here). I will have to find it online, which, something tells me will not happen soon.
My review of this beautiful book is here.

Film Noir

The past few weekends have been very busy and I have only found time for a few movies – I decided to make those films noir to get the maximum out of the time spent. I love the genre – mainly for its terribly stylish heroes and the very twisted plots. I also love the dark shots of cities and vintage cars zooming around. Of course some may like the femme fatale best but I am not inclined that way. However, when it came to Laura, the mysterious Otto Preminger movie, it was difficult not to get drawn towards the ‘dangerous’ lead character. While the detective was definitely the coolest and unaffected detective ever, it was Laura’s mysterious charms that were at the center of the story. By being the murdered character her enigma was no doubt heightened with the absence, but even in her presence, she seemed like an intriguing mix of helplessness and reserve.

The other noir movies watched lately – The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly. Big Sleep is worth a watch simply for the crisp dialogues and the crispier manner in which Bogart delivers them. No wonder he has women falling all over him – from shop assistants to cab drivers. The mystery is never cleared, which is a little annoying and I am considering delving into the Raymond Chandler book to find out what really was happening.
Kiss me deadly – really, I think its not nearly stylish and intriguing as the other two – and the final secret is definitely over the top – no sorry, way over the top. Femme Fatales are missing, and though our detective is very good looking, his dialogues do not come close to those of Bogart, or Dana Andrews or even Clifton Webb. And if it was to be viewed as the depiction of nuclear paranoia – the fear didn’t really present itself. It was more like having noir fun with the topic.

Moon

I often find it hard to appreciate science fiction. It seems useless to waste a couple of hours on watching some man’s boyhood fantasy finally being allowed indulgence. There is an abundance of automation and hi-tech gadgets. There are usually some aliens, trying to destroy the earth or America in the least (same difference huh?). There is high action, and equally high drama. Often, the hero comes – with a lot of Doctor D stuff and wham! Just in the last micro-second, the sun shines and everything is perfect.

But, like all genres, if the better of this one is picked out – there are many which classify as some of the finest movies ever made. Often, the speculative science is only a minor aspect of such movies. These movies put little focus on fantasy, and a lot more on personal, emotional, even philosophical aspects of certain situations. Take for instance Fahrenheit 451 which imagines a world where books are burnt – the story exclusively worries itself over the absence of books and the wooded individual which arises out of it. Or clockwork orange, which concerns itself with the perils of using brainwash as a possible remedy for fighting crime.

Another remarkable movie of the genre is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I regard as one of the most brilliant films I have seen. Everything in that movie is beautiful – the depiction of the slowness of life in space, its monotony, the perils of relying on a computer, however intelligent. The peril of artificial intelligence itself – the idea of Frankenstein replayed.

Moon by Duncan Jones, is a movie of similar beauty. It is unquestionably inspired from 2001 – even the description of the movie will give that away. Sam lives in a station on Moon, and helps send a material to earth which is required to solve earth’s power problem. His only companion is a computer GERTY – a slightly diminutive version of HAL, who keeps him company – even encourages him to talk out his problems. Sam is at the end of his 3-year stint on Moon, ready and desperate to go back to earth and his family, when he meets with an accident – one which changes everything.

I cannot talk a lot about the movie without giving the plot away, which I am reluctant to do, even though it is not at all a mysterious movie.

At the beginning of the movie, you can observe the effects of isolation on Sam. There is his desperate eagerness to see his wife’s video messages, his hallucinations about making love to her, the omnipresence of moon’s monotones. You look at all that and wonder what kind of a man signed up this contract, this extremely washed up life, with just a computer for company. As the movie unfolds, the expendability of this man becomes more pronounced, and cruel. It seems then the same classical retort on capitalism – a corporate giant laughing away to the bank while the worker slogs and leads a miserable life. There is, must be, a hidden socialist in all of us.

There are some good dialogues in the movie, though talk is kept to a minimum. Sam Rockwell is very convincing in all his moods, and Spacey’s voice as GERTY conveys the right distance and eeriness – you can’t shake off the mistrust.

Surely a sci-fi that I loved.