Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Vanishing Waves (2012)


A neurological research scientist along with his able team set out to perform a bold experiment that would open new doors in scientific and technological advances. They intend to connect with the mind of a human subject, a comatose patient and try and gain access to the person's thoughts in the unconscious state. Why necessarily a comatose person? Since his/her brain activity is minimal and that would reduce the burden on the data processing, for the experiment is in a rudimentary stage.

A very familiar sounding premise, one would say, that immediately brings to mind Christopher Nolan's blockbuster, "Inception" (2010) and Tarsem Singh's Jennifer Lopez starrer, "The Cell" (2000), but any doubts about sameness and plagiarism are laid to rest as the plot thickens and enters darker territories that explore the moral debasement of protagonists with shades of grey, in this fascinating new film from Lithuanian filmmaker, Kristina Buozyte. She, along with Bruno Samper tap the basest of human instincts and take us to the innermost recesses of the psyche.

Scientist Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) volunteers to connect to the mind of a subject whose identity is unknown to him. The connection happens through some neural networks, the technological aspects of which, are of course, supposed to be taken at face value! With several wires connected to Lukas' bald head, he descends into a black monolith-like tank where he feels some sonic waves and witnesses random patterns. But before he knows it, he finds himself swimming in a vast sea in another world - the mind of the subject! But what are these things he sees? Are they the subject's thoughts? Dreams? Memories? Or a mix of everything?

In that outlandish universe, Lukas encounters a beautiful girl, Aurora (Jurga Jutaite) with whom he develops an instant sensory connection that leads to a wild, sexual liaison! Back to the real world, Lukas knows deep within that the experiment is a grand success. He indeed did experience something extremely tangible and tempting, almost sinful! A hunger for more makes him withhold his observations from his colleagues and things take a turn for the worse as Lukas makes new discoveries in his psychic odyssey.

Bruno Samper, credited as the writer and visual effects creative supervisor, and director Kristina Buozyte do take inspiration from older sources, but manage to create a fascinating as well as eerie dreamscape that genuinely feels like the product of a messed up, lonely mind, rather than a fantastical utopia. A vast open sea and not a soul around other than this couple can't help but remind of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972). There's a large house made of what looks like shredded paper; somewhat like a playhouse. The house tilts and rolls around like an amusement park ride as the couple indulge in a playful naked romp amid an operatic score, a strange kind of joy visible of their visages! At times there, the sun across the dark sea looks extra crimson and expands and contracts, as if it has a life of its own!

There is a lot to cheer for lovers of trippy visuals. The depiction of the inner world offers a variety of maddening images, many of which are sexually charged, including one shocking scene in which the bodies of several people involved in an orgy, literally fuse together in a Cronenberg-esque body horror moment! The colors change like a vivid kaleidoscope, with some moody scenes depicted with a red hue, and other cheerful moments in bright white. Food items look odd and grotesque with their dirty colors and ugly texture, and a happy dining dream moment turns into a bizarre nightmare. Images blur and sometimes characters find themselves in isolated theaters…!

Where Buozyte's film scores as compared to some earlier films dealing with a similar concept is in how the events are a result of twisted character motivations triggered by seduction. Buozyte accurately captures basic human instincts, desires and normal mental characteristics. The lead character Lukas is in a cold marital relationship, and that becomes clear at the outset. However, it is only natural that he has a reservation in sharing the lurid, erotic adventures with the mystery girl. It would put a stop to the experiments for ethical reasons, and hence deprive him of more chances at indulging in the torrid and tantalizing affair in the mind! An addiction that develops owing to sexual impulses hinders reason and sound judgement as Lukas chooses to lie to his fellow scientists. The mission of the experiment takes a backseat as he uses his gateway into the dream world for his own vested interests of lust.

Lukas tastes blood with this girl in the dream and the moment he is asked to take a break for a few days from the experiment, all hell breaks loose and he exhibits some disturbing withdrawal symptoms! That's some genuinely clever writing that showcases the animalistic traits exhibited by Lukas and makes his character all the more real. Tender moments of romance sometimes take an obsessive turn and we are treated to a Gaspar Noe-esque ultraviolent moment!

The proceedings are quite arresting, thanks to the fabulous visuals, a sublime, electric score, and taut writing that offers some extraordinary, imaginative surreal sequences that leave the viewer wanting more, and waiting with bated breath, each time Lukas enters the black tank to disappear into the subject's mind. While some performances are flat, and Marius Jampolskis is a tad inconsistent, it is Jurga Jutaite that stands out with her diverse act. This is the performance to watch out for in this film. The final act leaves the viewer with some questions with visual clues thrown about. Thankfully the director chooses not to spoon-feed the audience as she takes the film to its bittersweet culmination.

Make sure you add "Vanishing Waves" to your watch list. It is the devil's temptation that begs for your indulgence and promises not to leave your mind for a while.

Score: 9/10

Friday, September 13, 2013

Interrogation (Przesluchanie) (1989)

Ryszard Bugajski's controversial but powerful prison drama, "Interrogation", although completed in 1982, got its first theatrical release in Poland in 1989 and then in the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. With its blatant anti-communist themes, in a story set in the early 50s during the latter years of the Stalin era, it was not surprisingly banned for almost 8 years by the then communist Polish government. Prior to the official release though, Bugajski himself struggled to get the film across to the public, even going to the extent of secretly helping out in leaking illegal VHS copies of the film! How ironic then, that the philosophy Bugajski followed in his actions to save the film reflect those of the brave and resilient lead character of his film. Tonia (Krystyna Janda) believes, from experience, that sometimes in life, it is better to just follow one's whim rather than follow the rational path. Sensibility and obedience are not always rewarded!

Tonia is a cabaret singer in the post WW-II era, during the final years of Stalin. Following a successful stage show, she gets completely drunk with two guys and when she wakes up the next morning, she finds herself in jail, taken as a political prisoner! Thrown amidst a sea of women, Tonia is clueless of her offense and reason behind the arrest! After a few days of trying to get in touch with the authorities to demand an explanation, she is finally allowed to meet with  Major Zawada (Janusz Gajos) who simply picks up on one of her joking remarks and starts making frivolous accusations, even those that have only to do with her personal life. It just so happens that Tonia is a party animal, loves to get drunk, and has had several one-night stands!

Flummoxed as to why her personal life should be an issue to the authorities, Tonia spends several days, months, years in prison and finds that no explanation is good enough, and the government is hell-bent on charging her anyway, by blowing some trivial affairs out of proportion and politicizing them, or simply by pinning false charges, no matter how much she claims her innocence!

"Interrogation" then unfolds in its gritty realism and chronicles one woman's struggle to survive in the troubled, grim prison world. While fellow cellmate women relent and give in to the demands of the authorities to sign false confessions admitting that they are spies and traitors, Tonia holds her own and refuses to sign any document. Bugajski doesn't sugarcoat anything. What is seen on screen is far from pleasant. Tonia is stripped, beaten, humiliated and subjected to other forms of torture. There is nary a sign of hope, but only despair. The claustrophobic prison environment is further enhanced by the too close for comfort close-ups of characters as their faces occupy the entire frame, and shy away from giving us a sense of the surroundings except for the interrogation room, the tiny prison cell and the bath chamber where subjects are tortured with hose pipes and flooding amidst rodents scurrying about, to make them confess. The proceedings are harrowing and intense, and in some cases, difficult to watch.

Bugajski adds some symbolism and shows rats and humans trapped in the same cell. In the bath torture chamber, two rats stay afloat and use a plank of wood in the rising water levels and jump away to their escape, while the human prisoner is still trapped, almost drowning! In another symbolic expression directly reflecting the theme of rising against all odds, a peasant woman in Tonia's cell, makes grains sprout into plants on the muddy window sill by nurturing them with spit and some meager amount of water they get. The plants grow taller amid the closed cell, despite being spat upon, very much like these resilient women, who do their best to keep standing despite being pushed down and patronized!

Bugajski also incorporates the Kubrickian long-hallway shots in several instances throughout, showcasing the prison interiors. A noteworthy aspect of Bugajski's screenwriting is the inherent pessimism depicted in some of the dream sequences. At least on two separate occasions, Tonia passes out and drifts into a dream, the splice between dream and reality being quite unclear, but the former distinguished by a muffled soundtrack that could be a distorted version of one of Tonia's own musical performances. In each of these dreams, Tonia seems to find a means to escape, but the dreams always end with a subconsciously induced roadblock, either due to her own awareness of her situation or by a symbolic manifestation of reaching a dead end, sometimes in the form of the door of her own home that never opens in spite of her relentless knocking!

Despite the gut-punching intensity of the proceedings and a taut screenplay that hooks the viewer, Bugajski introduces some cinematic clichés towards the latter half and also in the form of one major character, Lieutenant Morawski (Adam Ferency in an excellent performance), who appears to be the only prison official with a shred of sentiment in him, while all others are merciless, sadist, one-dimensional beasts who only know how to exercise their power and unleash their atrocities in the cruelest of manners. Morawski, then becomes the sole sympathizer, but it is not clear if it is his inherent awareness of human values and his actions, a result of the helplessness in the face of the government he is employed with, or if it is a result of his falling in love with Tonia!

Krystyna Janda's awe-inspiring performance makes Tonia's predicament all the more believable and it is impossible not to feel her frustration and angst. She delivers with utmost conviction, especially in the scenes towards the end and in one particularly well-written sequence (detailing which may spoil it for the viewer) that is the only scene in the entire film that offers a light moment laced with humour. It is an acting job par excellence, an act one can't easily forget.

"Interrogation" is one of those great films that sadly remained obscure owing to their troubled release history, thanks to the controversy surrounding its subject matter. Nevertheless, it is never too late to reach out for it and spread the word.

Score: 9/10


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Yumeji (1991)

Cult Japanese filmmaker, Seijun Suzuki collaborated with producer Genjiro Arato once again, to come up with a third film almost 10 years after 1981's "Kagero-Za". This three-film set is what later came to be known as the Taisho Roman Trilogy of films, all being surrealist psychological dramas with elements of the supernatural, set in the Taisho period.

"Yumeji" (1991) takes the philosophy of the first two films to a new level by building its unreal story around a character from real life. This is a semi-fictional (more fiction, than fact, quite obviously!) account of real life Japanese artist/painter and poet, Takesiha Yumeji. Thus "Yumeji" becomes a unique hybrid; a surrealist psychological thriller cum biopic!

Regardless of whether there are similarities with the actual life of the artist Yumeji or not, screenwriter Yozo Tanaka has spun a rather interesting yarn revolving around the eponymous central character. After a soulful title track in the credits that sets a melancholic as well as a sad-ghost-story mood, "Yumeji" begins on a shockingly off-kilter note with a sequence of images and scenes that are disorienting enough to make you feel ill at ease. It is almost like an overdone nightmare sequence, with Yumeji (portrayed by Japanese glam rock artist Kenji Sawada) who at first seems to be chasing a woman in red, perched upon a tree, and then ends up in a chair with a long pistol, while a faceless man with a top hat rambles some words about seeing the woman’s face, and asks Yumeji to shoot him!

The first ten odd minutes are filled with such visual as well as verbal randomness. Conversations between characters don't make much sense and scenes and backdrops change at the drop of a hat. There are talks of Yumeji eloping with his lady love, his artworks appear on a pillar of a train station as he touches it (!),  and eventually, instead of eloping, he ends up having sex with another woman in a ramshackle dwelling. The woman herself is an animated, clown-like woman while Yumeji is an eccentric, flamboyant, moody playboy who breaks into a song or a poem and sometimes, suddenly gets hysterical or acts like a buffoon! After the jarring beginning, the plot starts to take shape in an isolated location in Kanagawa, where Yumeji encounters different women, and comes face to face with a murderer being hunted by the police and various ghosts and apparitions, including the spirit of the person whose widow he seduces!

In the tradition of the first two films of the trilogy, in "Yumeji", the lines between dream and reality are blurred. What is real and what is imagined (either within or outside of a dream), is left to the viewer to interpret. Suzuki unleashes his trademark idiosyncrasies of filming style and editing, and invites you to have a ball with the madness on the screen…if you are ready for it! With beautiful cinematography by Junichi Fujisawa (although it doesn't match up to the radiating brilliance of the first two films, which were cinematographed by Kazue Nagatsuka), we are subjected to a colorful canvas of a dream universe on celluloid with a bizarre story at its center that lends some food for thought despite its incoherent nature. 

As the story proceeds, it is not just the backdrops and scenes that shift, it is also the mood and tempo of the narrative! While at times, "Yumeji" appears to be an enigmatic horror story with some creepy images and a haunting background score to go along, halfway through, it changes tone and turns into a slapstick comedy with a mad bunch of characters resorting to absurd lunacy. The bunch also includes the murderer on a horse, carrying a scythe in a great slow motion sequence with nary a sound apart from the galloping of the horse, that does not sync with the slow speed of the scene! This scene is a testament of how Suzuki wants to just let his imagination run wild with his scene composition and not adhere to convention in the least!

After an intriguing first third, it is the sequences in the second third of the film that seem to ramble on aimlessly and border on the tedium. But before one could write off the film as yet another exercise in a boisterous display of self-indulgence and pretense, Suzuki brings things back on track in the last third with an interesting twist and a new direction to interpret the story thus far! It is at this juncture that several questions could make way into an enthusiastic viewer's mind. A sudden change of events and the inclusion of some key scenes make us question Yumeji's psyche and his art inspirations. Did his art manifest in his dreams/hallucinations, or did they in fact give him inspiration to produce new art? As he struggles with his own personality and its variations, and also the insecurities stemming from the presence of his peers/competitors, Yumeji makes a rapid descent into insanity…or does he?

To expect any concrete answer out of "Yumeji" is absurd (no pun intended!). The idea is to give in to Suzuki's wild imagination and enjoy it in its hallucinatory glory. There is some sublime music to go along too. Watch out for the clever little scene with a glass replication of what seems to be falling rain drops, with a forlorn looking Tomoyo (Tomoyo Mariya) in a bridal gown, against Shigeru Umebayashi's haunting music piece "Yumeji's theme" that was later used as the central theme in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" (2000).

"Yumeji" doesn't break new grounds stylistically, nor does it surpass the first film of the set "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), which still remains the best of the three, but it certainly provides for a solid film experience.

Score: 8/10

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Kagero-Za (1981)

Cult Japanese director Seijun Suzuki follows up his excellent "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), a surreal odyssey in the realms of the unknown, with "Kagero-Za" (1981), which is yet another bizarre fantasy/fable, based on Yōzō Tanaka's screenplay of the Kyōka Izumi novel.

While Suzuki succeeded in creating a feverish dream atmosphere with the right audio-visual elements and an intriguing series of episodes in the life of the protagonist in the first film of his Taisho Roman Trilogy, he lets down with this somewhat tepid follow-up when it comes to recreating the same magical appeal. It is not, however, entirely Suzuki's fault, for he tries his best to tap the script which itself is a little deficient and uninteresting.

Like its predecessor "Kagero-Za" tells of the strange events in the life of the protagonist, this time a playwright by the name of Matsuzaki (Yusaku Matsuda). The events mostly involve a romantic/sexual encounter with Shinako (Michiyo Okuso) who dresses up in Japanese traditional wear, picks flowers from a cemetery and believes that souls of women can be trapped in bladder cherries! Then there is the omnipresent wealthy businessman and bird-hunter, Tamawaki (Katsuo Nakamura) who may have had two wives, one of them being a German who dyes her hair black and darkens her eyes to look like a Japanese woman, but the moonlight reveals her true self! Tamawaki seems to follow Matsuzaki everywhere he goes and is possibly manipulating the events in his life. Things take a weirder angle, as ghostly presences of the dead seem to appear, and love letters written in someone's dreams are sent to our protagonist in real life! Add to that, some absurd situations like a full-fledged party thrown by Tamawaki, replete with hired girls dancing to upbeat music, to celebrate the passing of his wife!

A lot is, of course, left to interpretation (if one should be so interested), for not everything in Suzuki's fantastical universe makes much sense, placed in the logical perspective. Throw real life logic out the window and think only from a half-asleep dream perspective and then one wouldn't be taken aback by the events in the film. Much of what is shown is supposed to be taken at face value as a given. With that goal in mind, Suzuki subjects the viewer to a good number of dreamscapes, full of bizarre oddities that are awe-inspiring. 

Spatial inconsistencies, idiosyncratic editing techniques, randomness of dialog, little of which makes any real sense, sudden switching to slow motion and back, are all in abundance. We see a character jump cut from one backdrop to another, when the scene is supposed to happen in a single location. Camera zooms in and out in a fraction of a second. A cartoonish device is employed as well, in which a character appears in a scene in a flash, as if teleported from elsewhere, when his input is required in the scene! Recurring, outlandish images are aplenty but none as scary and nightmarish as those seen in the preceding film.

Rather than being a trippy nightmare, with a goose-bumpy score, unlike its predecessor, "Kagero-Za" takes a more comical angle, although it deals with a lot of serious stuff too. Like a lovers' suicide pact, for example, which also has an uncalled for, emotional angle to it. There is a lot of emphasis on traditional Japanese culture here, including a score mostly comprised of Japanese traditional folk music (with some exceptional moments of Jazz!) and at least two elaborate performances including one especially disturbing, but loud and excruciatingly long Noh theatre-ish act by kids enacting a play with evidently adult themes!

This sequence overstays its welcome along with other things like the introduction of the disgustingly lewd and bawdy vagabond Wada (played by Yoshio Harada, who in fact was one of the best things about "Zigeunerweisen"), and his subplot revolving around hollow dolls which reveal the inner self of the individual they represent. However, embedded within the cavities are some miniature raunchy clay sculptures! This angle of Wada and the dolls with holes lacks any real appeal, even from the surrealist perspective, but somehow finds a way in the main narrative! It is about here that the proceedings nose-dive into a rabbit hole and the narrative balances itself on edge, dangerously close to the line of mediocrity. This final act also includes the aforementioned kids' theatre play that tries to reiterate the actual plot of the film, only to confuse the viewer further!

With recurring motifs, a few extraordinary images that would make sense only in the subconscious dream world, and some gorgeous cinematography by Kazue Nagatsuka, Suzuki tries to salvage the material at hand, but somehow falls short of evoking the same kind of a nervous joy and excitement that resulted after a viewing session of his "Zigeunerweisen". Perhaps the acting leaves a little to be desired as well, and the fact that there is a single narrative thread that attempts to come full circle with a definite conclusion in "Kagero-Za", rather than a series of snippets of memories, dreams and happenings in the life of one individual. The narrative trudges along, and lacks the right amount of dynamics and ingenuity to sustain the length of the film and make it fuller, except when Suzuki intersperses it with occasional off-the-wall imagery that help to bring the viewer right back in tune.

"Kagero-Za" (1981) is a decent offering from Suzuki; patchy, but pleasing to a substantial degree. Sadly, it just doesn't match up to the standard set by its predecessor.

Score: 7/10