Saturday, October 26, 2013

Love Exposure (2008)

So one day, an ambitious Sion Sono decided to enter his kitchen of madness to whip up a perfect recipe that would be lapped up by one and all; a dish made out of familiar ingredients, served in a generous portion to satiate individuals of varied tastes. Sono probably had a checklist in his hand that looked something like this.

1. A bizarre, convoluted plot told in a non-linear style - Check.
2. Dysfunctional families devoid of any sound individual -  Check.
3. Traumatic childhood; possibly abuse/sexual or otherwise at the hands of parents/stepparents - Check.
4. Aberrant, deviant sexuality - Check.
5. Hysteria and madness - Check.
6. Black comedy  - Check.
7. Plenty of over-the-top violence and gore - Check.
8. A dash of of almost bubble-gum teenage romance and a good amount of farcical humor to go along.

And voila! An eclectic potpourri, with a signature Sion Sono touch is ready to be savoured!

You've really got to to hand it to Sion Sono. Trust the mad doctor from Japan to come out with something thoroughly engaging and entertaining despite handling familiar topics in not-so-realistic situations and fusing them with contemporary issues plaguing today's young and the restless (read teens!), specifically due to the advancement of technology and visual media.

Going into plot details would serve no purpose in the scope of this review, for the beauty of the narrative of Sono's ambitious epic "Love Exposure" lies in letting the story unravel in its own layered glory. There is a lot to discover along the way, as Sono keeps throwing surprises at his audiences and makes us jump with joy in this fast paced, unremitting ride. At a long, almost four hours running time, Sono's screenplay packs in abundant material cleverly put together by some brilliant editing, a non-linear storytelling style that isn't quite original but works well in the framework of this film nonetheless. 

In an almost Tarantino-esque flair, the first few acts unfold in a flamboyant manner, with a racy background score, huge doses of violence accompanied by dark humour and a good amount of action too. All of the lead characters, who would later become part of a twisted love triangle of sorts, are introduced in this first hour and a half. These are all 17 year old vulnerable teens at the most crucial turns of their lives. A lot of disturbing, sexually charged plot points are touched upon, including child abuse and on a lighter note, a strong focus on a particular character's uncontrollable libido is a big part of this bold narrative! Somehow, these become the driving forces for how the characters would act or react in the rest of the story. 

Part of the winning aspects of Sono's giant package are the ironic twists of fate and an evident attack on the hypocrisies of the church that eventually bring about the fall of certain individuals in the film! This is a world where sinning becomes a way of life! With twisted characters come twisted moral values, and not unexpectedly, there is not a single character with any bit of morality or empathy left in him/her, owing to trauma or otherwise! But Sono accurately taps into the minds of vulnerable teens with young, rebellious blood pumping through their veins. At their most sensitive when attacked at their weakest points, they deviate and follow paths they shouldn't; like clinging to an infatuation, or developing theories and mindsets that aren't really reasonable. 

For example, Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) who throws about a lot of attitude, begins to hate all men (except Kurt Cobain!) and considers them enemy because of her father, steers clear of any male that comes by, and hence is open to lesbianism (!). Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), who is a normal child, resorts to acts of vandalism, robbery and voyeurism, merely to become a real sinner in the eyes of his father, a priest who, in a fit of a psychological breakdown, refuses to accept that any man is born without sin! And then there is Koike (Sakura Ando) who turns into a complete misanthrope, again owing to abuse at the hands of her father, and finds solace in a fraudulent cult by the name of "Zero Church", and takes it upon as a personal mission to convert Catholic families to the faith and ideologies of the cult!

With three such off-the-wall characters at its center, it would be foolish to expect anything sane or rational as regards to the plot development. Sure enough, what Sono takes us through is nothing short of insane! Sono keeps shifting the vantage point in the first half to give us a good look at the characters' motivations that decide their course of actions. Of course, all of them aren't the most sensible ways to look at things, a tad far-fetched too, but it is not unusual for human beings to behave illogically in this world anyway! 

Sono gives us a sneek peak into the world of abuse of visual media, including hidden cameras, voyeurism, the art of capturing peek-a-panty photographs, also known as Tosatsu in the Japanese pornographic industry! Just when you think Sono is going the misogynist way by perhaps showcasing perverse manners of peeking up the girls' skirts, in a strangely ironic turn of events, the expert of the Tosatsu art has to put on a drag act and pose as a female to pull off a sticky situation he gets himself into! It is about here that the film turns from a perverse dark comedy into a farcical comedy of errors and the plot veers into further absurdity! But Sono keeps things under control and doesn't quite insult his viewers' intelligence as is normally the outcome of such angles in a story. 

Sono, in a clever move, also switches his filming device and transitions at intervals from a digital well lit frame to a grainy handheld home video footage style, perhaps to make the viewer feel ill at ease, as a voyeur peeking into the lives of his lead characters, in a film with voyeurism as its backbone! 

The camerawork is relentless, never languid, always on the move and sometimes disorienting, but it is hardly a drawback and in fact succeeds, owing to a fast paced, taut screenplay, razor-sharp editing and quirky dialog that you can't help but chuckle at! Sample this: "All perverts were created equal". Or "I am a pervert with least I am not a phony"! What catches us unawares is also the fusion of mood. For example, in a seemingly serious or even a disturbing scene, a sexually explicit gag is interspersed in a comic way! What tone was really intended then? One may, perhaps, never know.

For all its humongous length, Sono offers us plenty to take home. "Love Exposure" is like a giant TV soap opera combined with signature modern Asian cinema. It is like a different kind of a coming-of-age film and at times, a buddy movie too. From scheming characters to comedy stemming from confusion, to severed limbs (and other parts!) that give way to blood fountains that paint the walls around, lots of mayhem, chaos and a good amount of surrealism as well! Noteworthy is a situation and dialog homage to Hiroshi Teshigahara's masterpiece "Woman in the Dunes" (1964) that you might miss if you blink. A talented story-teller that he is, Sono never loses his grip on the narrative except in the final hour, perhaps, when things get a little shaky and Sono's palm starts to get slightly sweaty! It is here that "Love Exposure" also freewheels into Bollywood style melodrama (no kidding!) and the proceedings and a culmination that actually should've been magnificent and breathtaking (after an explosive, blood-soaked showdown in the final half hour) eventually, laughably fizzles out. 

Despite a half-baked wrap-up, Sono's film definitely oozes ambition and the effort invested deserves its due credit. Take some time out for this mind-numbing joyride, a film experience like no other, only when you have a full four hours to invest. Try not to take breaks other than the essential ones!

Score: 8/10


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Klopka (The Trap) (2007)

"How far are you willing to go to save your only child?"

Srdan Golubovic's "Klopka" (2007), on the surface, deals with a familiar premise explored in several films and stories in the past and its thematic crux asks the above age old question. But the Serbian filmmaker, despite some cliché-ridden situations, manages to make "Klopka", based on a novel by Nenad Teofilovic, a good cut above the rest.

A middle class man Mladen (Nebojsa Glogovac) and his wife Maridja (Natasa Ninkovic) are leading a decent life with their only son Nemanja (Marko Djurovic). They aren't extravagant but they are content. Nemanja does crib about not having a cell phone like his classmates do, but Mladen promises him that he will get him one; only he doesn't know when and how. Fate strikes its first blow and Nemanja is diagnosed with a terminal heart illness that could cause fatal seizures. Unless he undergoes a critical surgery in Berlin (that would cost the family a bomb, about 26,000 euros, not surprisingly), Nemanja could succumb to any next seizure that comes by! 

In a desperate bid to gather funds, Maridja places an ad in the newspaper to seek help for little Nemanja. Little do they know that the ad would invite people from various circles trying to take advantage of their situation!

In one such test of vulnerability, after careful deliberation, Mladen accepts a job of murdering a rich business executive. The mysterious stranger who approaches him to do the job guarantees he would provide the entire surgery expense as well as travel ticket charges! A tempted Mladen sets out to do the task. But do things go as they planned? Can Mladen save Nemanja?

Plot synopses on various pages describe "Klopka" as a psychological thriller or a noir film. Frankly, although plot wise the film may seem to be such, it is actually a film that beneath its familiar, thriller exterior is a remarkably accurate depiction of life in the post-Milošević Serbian society. This was the transition phase when the middle class struggled to survive in their meagre paying State jobs, while some others moved on and got involved in shady practises, thus making a meteoric rise to a wealthy existence. What resulted was a wide gap between the rich and the poor.  The cost for Nemanja's surgery was an impossible to achieve amount for some, and for others it was just peanuts, even as insignificant as to spend on useless decoration items! This is highlighted in a shattering moment when Maridja, a school teacher takes up a job as a private tutor in a rich girl's house while the rich girl shows off a frame hanging on her plush mansion's wall which costs a little more than the amount quoted by the doctor for Nemanja's surgery!

Also highlighted in some key scenes, are other traits of the period, including shielding nefarious activities with claims of acts of patriotism. And in what is perhaps the only comical moment in the film, a clerk at a foreign owned bank, along with his other co-workers is seen putting on a fake smile, even when acknowledging the loan applicants' predicament, for fear of being taken to task if they don't smile when doing their financial dealings! It goes to show how these employees were at the mercy of their foreign based employers who made their way into a society that needed revival. 

These themes and a backdrop against which the story is set make "Klopka" stand out to a large extent. Despite treading familiar areas in the first forty minutes into the film, before the viewer could write off the story as being done to death, "Klopka" manages not to sink into predictable territory by introducing a good amount of surprising twists, some of them quite ironic and tragic. There are moments when the narrative does brink on the edge of contrivance, but there's nothing too extremely far-fetched or difficult to digest so as to take away from the film. It is near impossible not to feel a slight jab when Mladen, who strikes a pleasant acquaintance with Jelena (Anica Dobra), who comes to the same park with her child where Mladen takes Nemanja, has to face her in one of the most difficult and awkward moments in their lives that threatens to make one of them lose face and change things forever. 

Golubovic gives his film a rather gritty, realistic feel by capturing a grim, scarcely populated suburban neighbourhood using minimal filming techniques like handheld camera, a slightly grainy texture and a bluish tinge to the picture. The sound is mostly ambient and diegetic and the music is sparse except for a melancholic score that plays during important moments in the film. 

In spite of a rather sensitive theme at its centre, "Klopka" refrains from going into the melodramatic territory. It is the performances of Natasa Ninkovic and Nebojsa Glogovac that go a long way in holding the film together. The latter, in fact, delivers an understated, complex performance as a vulnerable husband torn between morals and duty to his family. It is a commendable display of a moral dilemma and it is very convincingly done. Mladen who appears retrained and composed for the most part exhibits fleeting instances of volatile emotion. It is only towards the end that he breaks down, exposing his weak, helpless human side, in a powerful scene in which he echoes the feeling that most of us experience at some point in our life and can instantly identify with; a feeling that is very much the essence of the story being told. The scene in question is a poignant, tearful moment, in which he pours out to his wife: "As a child, I wished and imagined life to be like a film which you could rewind and start over".  Didn't we all?

Score: 8/10

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

City of Life and Death (2009)

During the Second Sino-Japanese War fought between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army captured the city of Nanking (also known as Nanjing), the former capital of the Republic of China, towards the end of 1937. Widespread destruction and pillage followed. Thousands of Chinese captives, including civilians and soldiers were subjected to mass killing and torture, while their women and children were mercilessly raped and brutalized! All this happened over a period of a whole six weeks, as a result of the Imperial Army's sweeping victory over the Chinese army that made monsters out of men! Just because China lost the war, Japan thought they could have their way with the loot of the war, humans included! The incident later came to be known as the "Nanking Massacre" or the "Rape of Nanking".

Chinese director Lu Chuan, in his third feature film, tries to chronicle a part of this infamous massacre that is a near unfathomable act of meaningless killings and rape that can easily rival the Holocaust! And he does it with such audacity and ingenuity, in a manner akin to an observer, that it does not come across as a propaganda film, but still manages to leave the viewer emotionally hit to a great degree. The opening scenes drive home the point that what you would witness in the next couple of hours wouldn't be pleasing in the least. The sharp monochrome shots of a destroyed city speak volumes; the sad, dirge-like score evokes a sense of all round devastation, death and loss. The Japanese Imperial army, in a harrowing battle, defeat the Chinese army and capture Nanking. A battle so intense in its presentation, the images and the sound design so well formed, it almost seems like those rifles shoot us, rather than those soldiers who succumb to a bullet coming out of nowhere!

These initial 30-40 minutes display the attack and counterattack in all its chaotic glory and the viewer is at once confounded about what is going on! Imagine then, how confused the soldier must be on the battlefield with all that ammo whizzing past, aiming to take him down any second! Nevertheless, it reaches its sad end, after bringing back memories of the chilling Normandy attack sequence in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). What follows is the chronicling of the aftermath, that brought out the worst in the Japanese Imperial Army. It is these parts that are the most difficult to watch, but Lu Chuan is relentless in his approach. There is not a moment's respite! He doesn't sugarcoat anything and documents the events as they happened. There is minimal dialog, only when required. It is mostly about images, not pleasant ones, of course. Lu Chuan literally takes the viewer in the middle of the massacre, making him/her a mute spectator as atrocity after atrocity is unleashed on the captives!

He just shoves our faces through a periscope which points back in time to that era of horror and makes us watch what we wish to look away from, despite being in our comfortable shelter and vantage point! We watch, as the Japanese soldiers go on a mass killing spree. They execute Chinese soldiers and civilians and hang their severed heads all around! They don't spare even the refugee camps, and just break in and pick women to rape. Children aren't spared either! Their victory makes them feel all-powerful. A propaganda film? Fictionalization? Not at all! Just a depiction of the truth; a bitter one, of course! As much as it would beggar the imagination that something like that could ever happen, it indeed has. And history is witness.

Lu Chuan also uses a documentary approach to his storytelling and refrains from creating a singular protagonist or protagonists that stand out. Any character development is, in fact, non-existent. Chuan tactfully uses this approach and yet makes the film mighty effective, for despite not getting to really know any of the characters closely, we can't help but feel their pain! We are made to empathize with the entire humanity and not some specific individuals. There is no single entity or hero to root for!

As a matter of fact, we find ourselves rooting for the entire Chinese population that pile up into dead bodies in scores. We keep hoping  for a miracle but no such thing ever happens. While we never get very well acquainted with them, it is difficult to shake the image of Mrs. Tang's (Qin Lan) sorrowful face from our memory, as tears well up when Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) decides to stay back! At the same time one can't help but feel that somewhere beneath the iron exterior of Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo) there beats a heart of gold. This is where Chuan scores the most, and while there is a mention of a documentary approach, rest assured, the film builds on aesthetics of a polished and accomplished work of cinema, the stark black and white reminiscent of "Schindler's List" (1993) and not a newsreel footage!

"City of Life and Death" is virtually plotless and aptly so. There is no beginning, nor a definite end to the film. There is just this two-hour chronicling of a painful six-week period in the life of Chinese civilians. So where is the room for a plot? Despite this, and although not an easy watch at all, the carnage and the savagery needed to be showcased to remind us of this violent chapter in history. In fact, we are shown quite an abridged version of what happened. Several other heinous, unspeakable acts committed, especially on children, are documented in history but not depicted in the film. Chuan perhaps decided to spare us a lifetime of misery by doing that!

But is there any hope for humanity in the midst of a war-stricken environment where power hungry nations continue to play with their guns like they were toys? Chuan is one of the hopefuls who, after subjecting us to something so utterly bleak, so as to deprive us of sleep, yet accurately portraying war in all its senselessness, treats us to an ending that is soul-crushing and bittersweet. It doesn't lead to a complete reassurance anyway, for what's done is done. There is no turning back time, but there are lessons to be learnt. The medium of cinema is one of the most powerful and most accessible. And it is films like "City of Life and Death" that teach us these lessons in their own resonating and impactful way so as to remain etched in memory forever. It is good to forget a dark past, but at the same time it is important not to forget the mistakes made, with the hope of preventing events of cataclysmic proportions such as these.

Score: 10/10