Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Time (Shi Gan) (2006)

Time heals, but in some cases, it destroys everything. South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk illustrates this with a tragic tale of two lovers and also takes the opportunity to sardonically criticize a contemporary trend. In "Time" (2006), however, he abandons the lyrical/experimental style of "3-Iron" (2004) and follows a conventional mystery/thriller structure with perhaps, much more dialog than any of his other films. Despite a more formalist approach this time, the director ensures that his product stands out nevertheless, and throws a curveball at his unsuspecting audiences with twists that transcend literalism and border on the metaphysical. 

Ji-woo's (Jung-woo Ha) girlfriend, Seh-hee (Ji-Yeon Park) is of the extremely jealous type. His amiable behaviour with other women becomes a reason for her to throw childish fits of jealousy. Far too possessive about her boyfriend, she becomes a nervous wreck, paranoid about losing him to some other. A lack of self-esteem about her own looks ("same boring face") burrows its way into her psyche, and in a rather drastic and irrational decision, she goes under the knife in order to get a new face, so as to secure her boyfriend's supposedly dampening interest in her. But at what cost?

With a primary focus on the central character of a whiny, and sometimes unreasonable and difficult woman, Kim Ki-duk examines aspects of jealousy, ennui and growing insecurities in a relationship. Given Seh-hee's temperament, it isn't unconvincing that she takes an impulsive decision and goes to extreme and practically stupid measures to achieve something that she herself isn't in full realization of. The doctor mentions clearly that it will take six months for full recovery. And hence, she disappears from Ji-Woo's life without a word and absconds for six months, comes back with a new face (Sung Hyun-ah), and tries to get close to him with a slightly altered name and identity.

Ji-Woo doesn't seem to be the flirtatious kind. He is simply a normal, handsome fellow who enjoys the attention he gets from other females and sometimes reciprocates by checking them out or engaging in amicable chats with them. His heart still lies with Seh-hee and this is apparent from the very tough time he faces without her. He gets drunk, mourns her disappearance and tries to console himself when another woman tries to seduce him, saying "we are all human". Heartbroken and lonely, he makes several unsuccessful attempts at dating.

Ambiguities abound, in Kim Ki-duk's strange narrative, but not with the intent of perplexing. A lot of events are cut short, information is withheld and an episode thread simply abandoned without explanations, creating more conundrums. For instance, a glass window suddenly breaks in a motel room where Ji-Woo is being seduced by a young girl. Later, a reunion with an old crush of Ji-Woo's goes awkwardly wrong for an unknown reason. Kim Ki-duk lets us fill the blanks in these areas, and the choice of keep things under the veil is a decision that works in rendering an even more mysterious aura to the story and even plugging potential holes.

It's Seh-hee's motivations that are puzzling, and the viewer is baffled just as Ji-Woo eventually is, about the intent of her actions. Seh-hee is possessive about Ji-Woo, doesn't want him to even look at other women and vice versa, and yet, gets herself a new face in the hope of rekindling their relationship. But doesn't this desire, belie her primary concern that Ji-Woo shouldn't get attracted to other women and be in love with Seh-hee forever?

This inconsistency is also in tune with the bizarre sequence involving a mask, used to a very unnerving effect. The new See-hee turns up with a mask of the old Seh-hee and asks Ji-woo to take it off, trying to explain to the best of her abilities why she did what she did. A bewildered Ji-woo is not surprisingly, freaked out when she says that her new self was jealous that he couldn't forget her old self! There is no way to reason with this behaviour. It doesn't make much sense, but knowing that we are dealing with an unreasonable character, anything is plausible.

In a genius move of writing, Kim Ki-duk introduces a diametric shift in the situation in the final half hour of the film and keeps things appropriately fuzzy, and thus manages to maintain an edge and prevents it from succumbing to predictability. If the intelligent final act makes you applaud the director's craft and command over his narrative, the shocking culmination will make your jaw drop.

"Time" is the kind of film that works on many levels thanks to its narrative full of layers that go deeper than those involved in any kind of surface surgery. Despite being a thriller at its core, laced with a doomed romance, soapy melodrama and wry humour, "Time" touches upon existential themes of identity and the loss of it, the relative insignificance of one individual in an ever-growing urban whole, given more emphasis in the haunting final frame. The plot and these themes also evoke memories of two Hiroshi Teshigahara classics, "The Man without a Map" (1968) and "The Face of Another" (1966).

For its central premise, the filmmaker taps the subject of his home country's growing obsession with cosmetic surgery. According to many recent news reports, Seoul in South Korea is a big hub, with an entire district devoted to plastic surgery clinics. If statistics are to be trusted, one in five Korean women opt for plastic surgery, to look younger in a race against time, or simply because they aren't happy with their natural features. Through his characters, who seem to take plastic surgery for granted as an easy tool for morphing into another person, Kim Ki-duk subtly attacks this narcissism in humans and advocates natural and inner beauty, stressing upon the obvious and simple fact of life, that beauty is only skin deep and no matter what you do to your surface, you are the same person within, and nothing can change that.

Kim Ki-duk's absorbing storytelling style, power-packed performances from the lead cast Jung-woo Ha and Sung Hyun-ah, and vivid cinematography are the assets of "Time". Beautiful, poetic images have always been a strong point of Kim Ki-duk films, and "Time" showcases a good number of symbolically rich images. On two separate occasions, both lead characters are shown kicking a huge tree, perhaps venting out their frustration against it because it seems to be eternal, standing the test of time, unfazed, while the rest of them continue to face the effects of the passage of time with their ups and downs. There is an extensive use of mirrors and distorted reflections, even characters filmed from behind glass objects. These distortions directly reflect an artificiality of these characters; that they have ended up becoming warped images of themselves.

A sculpture park by the beach is a location frequently used, and it has a variety of art pieces on display. In one scene, See-hee lies down next to the sculpture of a man and caresses it, insinuating that she gives a lot of weight to the superficial and perhaps, the artificial. One other such sculpture is that of two giant hands with a small staircase like construction that ascends towards the sky but ends abruptly with no concrete shape or destination. Several recurring images with characters sitting within these hands perhaps drive home the final word; that ultimately there are the hands of fate, and no matter what you do, you cannot mess with nature.

Score: 9/10

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

Practically everything about "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" is charged with eccentricity. Even the background score by Ennio Morricone, although at times tense and with a sense of urgency, is replete with a bouncing spring shoes sound that you would normally hear in some kids' cartoon! And then, although it does seem off-kilter and throws you off balance, the gradual introduction of the central character of this deliriously wicked film, makes the music a fitting component to its mood. It is a score that is tinged with a playful tone and oozes mockery, reflecting the traits of the central characters and the satirical nature of the script itself.

Italian filmmaker Elio Petri's film follows a top cop with pathological tendencies. The dapper looking man, presumably in his forties, known only as Il Dottore (Chief) (Gian Maria Volontè) enters the apartment of a lovely young lady, Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) and they exchange some very odd lines.

"How are you going to kill me this time?"
"I am going to slash your throat".

The woman appears to be a masochist. Within the next couple of minutes, the man slashes the throat of the young woman with a razor blade and there is blood all over. Just when you think you are watching another version of Claude Chabrol's excellent "Juste Avant la Nuit" (1971) with some giallo thrown in the mix, something very strange happens that catches your attention. The murderer takes a breath, and proceeds to leave behind some brazenly obvious clues that could implicate him in the crime. He prances all over the floor with bloody footprints, leaves fingerprints, leaves threads of his fine blue tie in her finger-nail, takes a shower, has a drink and then makes a phone call to report the crime!

It is shortly after this strange scene, that we learn that the protagonist is in fact, a very popular figure; the police chief of the city homicide squad, with a prolific career history behind him and a record number of murder cases solved to his credit. It is his last day as head of the homicide squad and he has been promoted to head the political division. But a man devoted to his duty that he is, he confidently goes to the crime scene to investigate the reported murder of the woman, with his replacement and subordinates by his side. All these head-scratching developments make you wonder where the film is going, but the title, eventual happenings and a sharp focus on the protagonist make us aware of what kind of a twisted beast we are dealing with.

Elio Petri's film is a delightfully quirky mashup of a darkly comic police procedural and a fascinating psychological study in perversity. The protagonist is a blunt man with power in his words and speech, an archetypal leader, who is respected, feared and in some cases, hated. He advocates repression and talks of cracking down on wild young revolutionaries. He walks with a pompous swagger, an air of arrogance and carries a perpetual expression of smugness and superiority, that's gleefully over the top.

So confident he is, of his reputation and command over the police department that in a curious move, he decides to put his power and influence to the test! And therefore the deliberate planting of clues and constant hints to put himself into the spotlight of the crime. This is a man who knows his police department and the state of affairs. He knows that he is an influential person and also a guiding light in the investigation and therefore, is above suspicion and hence, untouchable! He even goes so far as to fearlessly try and let himself be noticed at the crime scene by the only person, a neighbour, who may recognize him to have been present in the apartment building at the time of the murder.

So while they find the the chief's fingerprints, his footprints, a thread of a tie similar to the one he was wearing, he continues to be coolly ruled out by the investigators. The investigation reaches absurd proportions when the authorities start turning a blind eye to the most obvious of evidences, be it because of their incompetence, ignorance or simply, fear of their superior officer. Going a few steps further, he confesses to the commander that he had an affair with Augusta. The commander stops for a second, but then puffs his cigar and goes on to ask if it was 'good', instead of holding him as a possible suspect. 

The protagonist is the kind of quasi-fascist cop who takes delight in abusing his power, exercising control and spewing speeches like a fascist leader, and yet at the same time, denounces fascism in favour of democracy! It becomes apparent that the protagonist is playing the puppeteer and holding the strings of his entire police force. He is playing a wicked game, in which he pulls them down when they get warmer and practically leaks the answers when they seem lost, at the same time, daring them to even touch him in the process! 

With what intentions the protagonist plays his sick games is debatable. Whether it is to derive sadistic pleasure from watching his subordinates nonchalantly ignoring any possibility of his involvement in the crime, or whether it is to actually expose the corruption within his department and to prove to them empirically, that no one is really above suspicion. It could very well be a bit of both! The entire department itself is portrayed like some kind of a caricature of the Italian police force, given their draconian ways and homophobic inclinations.

The camerawork is as idiosyncratic as the protagonist. There are uncomfortable closeups, disorienting, hallucinatory shots, and fast camera movements, especially when paranoia begins to creep its way into the protagonist's psyche. His sweaty, exhausted visage practically leaps at us from the screen. With abrupt and almost seamless flashbacks interspersed within the narrative, Petri makes us aware of the kind of depraved relationship shared by the protagonist and Augusta.

She is a bonafide masochist full of twisted ideas that she is vocal about. She likes to be photographed in various poses of faked murders resembling crimes that her lover has solved in the past. He eggs her on and a mutually morbid bond is formed! In one excellent scene, she asks for condescending treatment and he gives it to her. In the process, he goes on to explain the foundations on which established authorities are built upon and mentions university professors and even station masters as examples! It is also in these flashbacks, that the protagonist's motivations for the murder come forth. The past merges with the present, when fantasies begin to take shape and a dead Augusta makes an appearance in some surreal moments, if only merely to further poke the protagonist into misusing his powers.

But somewhere beneath this thick, insensitive exterior that is drunk on power, is a vulnerability that is revealed, perhaps metaphorically making a universal statement about most fascist leaders. In the opening scene, just as the protagonist commits the murder, the camera appears to tremble for the next thirty seconds. Whether this is a technical goof or intentional on part of Petri to show the weaker side of the protagonist is open to interpretation.

"Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion", despite being an Academy Award winning film is an overlooked, forgotten masterwork that is now finally out of the dark with the recent Criterion restoration. This highly original piece of cinema has a sharp script, spectacular camerawork and an unconventional handling that is only enhanced by some great performances. Rendering a seductive charm to the proceedings is Bolkan who makes a good impression in her few scenes. 

But at the the center of Petri's film and standing tall, is the explosive performance of Gian Maria Volontè. It is a character that needed the energy, the hysteria, the pompousness as well as an uber cool persona to go along, and Volontè embodies all these characteristics to perfection and plays the part with gusto, especially in that jaw-dropping finale that ends with an apt quote from Franz Kafka's "The Trial" that drives home the essence of the film.

Score: 10/10


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Belezza) (2013)


"This is my life, and it's nothing".

In what is perhaps one of the greatest film beginnings ever, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino juxtaposes the distinct moods that his ironically titled, "The Great Beauty" promises to immerse the audience into. It is a golden, sun shiny day, and the camera glides around a historical site in the great city of Rome while a group of choir ladies croon an ethereal composition, exalting us into an almost divine stupor. A group of tourists are visiting the site. One of the tourists goes on to photograph the beautiful surroundings, and in the process, collapses and passes out, leaving us wondering if it was the sun that did it, or an overwhelming sense of fulfillment upon witnessing the miraculous sites around him.

Cut to a polar opposite mood, and right into the glitz and glamour of a dazzling, luxurious roof top party, complete with throbbing music, expensive liquor, gorgeous women and an eclectic bunch of party animals dancing away into the night. If the first scene puts you in a spiritual mood, the scene right after leaves you in high spirits, literally, as the camera gradually films the revelers upside down, and you are practically floating with the lot.

This is the lofty world of Jep Gambardella, an aging journalist and one-time novelist. Jep has always been the king of the high life. A party animal since his youth, Jep has been among the who's who and all the glitterati. But now at 65, he suddenly feels awakened to the emptiness and futility of his hedonistic lifestyle. He has always been aware, but now seems to be vocal about how he feels about all the plastic posers and wannabes around him. 

The kind of bunch he hangs out with has also made him somewhat of a misanthrope. He hasn't written a second novel in 40 years, for he lacked the inspiration and had been seeking the great beauty which he could never find. In a double whammy of sorts, Jep receives news that an old lover of his, Elisa had died and that it was found from her secret diary that she'd always loved him, 'til the end.

Jep finds himself at a strange crossroads in his vain existence, in the wake of these unexpected circumstances and changed thought processes. Thus begins his journey of self reflection, with pleasurable nostalgia acting as a welcome distraction from the depths of disillusionment. He ventures out into the streets of Rome, catches up with old friends, makes new ones and in the process, ends up discovering some of his own hidden emotional traits and a fresh approach to the meaning of life.

Sorrentino's film is a magnificent, colourful feast for the eyes and the ears, brimming with ideas and events that are entertaining as well as thought-provoking. The music, the cinematography and the strong, imaginative writing and its realization on screen are strong pillars of the film, all of which contribute to making it a sublime masterpiece. 

Amid all the grandiosity and pizazz, are embedded deeper subjects like nostalgia as a necessary diversion, gerascophobia (the fear of aging), mortality, loneliness, existential crisis, and escapism as a gateway to artistic inspiration. Toni Servillo successfully embodies the soul of Jep Gambardella in a sterling acting performance. Laced with wry humour and melancholy, "The Great Beauty" is a bittersweet, poetic tale, of a man's labyrinthine contemplation on life, intercut with memories, dreams and fantasies in a Fellini-esque canvas.

Score: 10/10


Jep, being a writer, always acknowledges that writers imagine things, they add fantastical elements to reality. "When you write, you give life to fantasies, imagination, lies." Similarly Jep's journey is filled with fantasies and oneiric elements often melded entirely with the real world making them an integral and homogenous part of his experiences. It is not made explicit as to what is real and what is imagined, but based on the sheer absurdity of a situation or the presence of an exaggerated scenario in an episode makes this distinction visible.

In one such sequence that surely feels imagined, a little girl is lost somewhere in one of the monuments of Rome, and her mother is looking for her. Jep soon comes across her in her hiding place. She looks up and asks him who he is. As Jep starts to speak, she interrupts and says "No. You're nobody". Jep attempts to respond but finds himself at a loss of words. He suddenly finds his bubble burst, by a little girl, no less. This could be a manifestation of his own existential crisis; a realization of how his life has been vacuous with no real meaning.

Upon hearing the news of Elisa's death, Jep's mind drifts further and goes back in the beautiful past on a rocky beach where he first met Elisa. This wouldn't be the first time Jep would recall this. It is clear he has always reminisced about his first love. In a sleepy state, he mostly imagines that he sees the same sea where he met Elisa on his ceiling, as he lies down looking up. Along with such pleasant memories there are also manifestations of a guilty conscience. Moments after he learns of Elisa's death, there's rain and thunder outside, where a nun cackles with a devilish laughter, in a mocking way. Just as Jep appears at the scene, he sees two other nuns glancing at him with scorn.

Jep feels a sense of nostalgia, a lost innocence, purity and honesty when he sees kids playing with the nuns in the garden. He longs for that emotional fulfillment in simple joys of life. Later in the film when his editor Dadina (Giovanna Vignola) calls him 'Little Jep', it takes him by surprise but he is certainly moved by the gesture. He misses the tender love which had been obscured by all the fake affected relationships around him.

Years of being in the company of the people he doesn't find any real connection with, but for his buddy Romano (Carlo Verdone) and his dwarf editor Dadina, Jep has lost faith in real, selfless bonds. This has turned Jep into a cynic who cannot really make real friends anymore. This could be one of the reasons he goes back to meet old friends of his after several years. One of them has a 40 year old daughter, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) who aspires to be a stripper in her father's  nightclub.

Her father requests Jep to talk her out of it and perhaps, encourage her to find a husband and settle down. When Jep tries to do it and explains that family is a beautiful thing, he gets an answer from Ramona that echoes his own. "I am not cut out for beautiful things". Jep finally meets a person who matches his wavelength. Ramona and Jep connect well but their time together is short-lived.

"Everything around me is dying". Somewhere along Jep's journey, circumstances also force him to confront his own mortality. A psychologically troubled Andrea (Luca Marinelli), the son of Viola (Pamela Villoresi), one of Jep's friends, takes his own life after being haunted by the writings of Proust, who says death is around the corner. In an absurd sequence, Jep delivers a long monologue about the etiquette of a funeral, saying it's actually like a stage event. Ramona tries on several dresses for the funeral, during which Jep explains that one should never weep in a funeral for this steals the show from the family of the deceased.

But in a dramatic deviation, Jep begins to weep uncontrollably at the funeral, especially when no one comes forward to pick up the coffin when Andrea's friends are called upon and Jep and his gang volunteer to do the deed. While Jep is already aware of the inevitability of death, perhaps it dawns upon him, that even he may die lonely and friendless with no one around to take his coffin out. 

Part of his sorrow possibly stems from a guilt of not having done enough to help Andrea, despite Viola's requests. This is one poignant moment that brings out Jep's concealed fragility and serves as a sharp contrast to an earlier scene in which he accuses a socialite, Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) of judging and criticizing others to cover her own fragility and inadequacy. In another seemingly random scene that connects well to this emotional state of Jep, an old woman grabs Jep's hand in a cafe and asks "Who will look after you now?"

Some very subtle instances and other more prominent ones dwell upon mortality in connection with aspects like an inherent humanistic trait of clinging on to the past and lamenting the loss of past glory. While ultimately this facet gives Jep the inspiration he needs, we see some other fleeting characters like old aristocratic personalities, royal princesses, has-beens reduced to playing cards in darkly lit room while their beautiful heritage sites are locked away and preserved with the keys handed over to a trustworthy young person. The monuments serve as a reminder of their glorious past, a bygone era.

Ditto for a forgotten pair of a Count and a Countess who are now reduced to being hired for elite lunches and dinners, yet refuse to assume the identities of another family because they were at war for centuries! Later when they come home, they listen to recordings, presumably from museums that remind them of their roots and move them to tears. A now older, but famous French actress Fanny Ardant makes a blink and miss appearance as she strolls the streets through the night and bumps into Jep who almost doesn't recognize her, but eventually does. They smile at each other and she walks away.

Aging, mortality, and a desperation to hold on to a youth fast fading is one of the major themes explored in "The Great Beauty". And therefore we see an outlandish sequence of a cosmetologist in a freaky looking clinic giving some plastic old people botox injections in return for hefty sums of money. A one of a kind exhibition displays photographs of a man showcasing his day-wise aging, for he has continued his dad's legacy of taking one photograph per day throughout his life.

These experiences coupled with Jep's own drifting away into his days of yore, particularly that amorous experience on an island, further convinces him that nostalgia is indeed a great thing that connects you with your roots; makes you feel young, happy and human! Romano spells out this aspect in one of his theatrical plays: "What's wrong with feeling nostalgic? It's the only distraction left for those who've no faith in the future!"

A 104 year, decrepit old nun, Sister Maria, also known as the Saint (Giusi Merli in an excellent performance; the actress is actually 50!) visits Rome and Jep finds an opportunity to interact with an eccentric cardinal, in relation to his struggle with faith and spirituality. His hopes of finding answers are thwarted when the cardinal is more interested in enjoying the feast instead, and showing off his own culinary skills. In a very funny sequence, when Jep is blunt about his views on the church, the cardinal who is also known to be a great exorcist, exorcises Jep before he drives away!

"Do you know why I eat only roots? Because roots are important". It is only in these words of Sister Maria that Jep finally seems to find an answer and a direction. In a moment of epiphany, Flamingos gathered around on Jep's terrace to rest while migrating, fly away when Sister Maria blows in the air. Jep realizes, the time has come to migrate to the next state of his being with a new realization. But in the final pivotal scene, whether this realization sways towards his cynical side or towards an optimism, is debatable. Here is where the interpretations fork without any definite conclusion.

Jep does acknowledge that everything ends with death. But first there was life; a life of emotion and fear, silence and sentiment. Only it is hidden beneath layers added over the years of all the 'blah blah blah'....probably in a self-deprecating reference to his own grandiose life. This scene is interspersed with flashes of memory with his first love on an island and a parallel scene of Sister Maria's monumental achievement of climbing St. John's Basilica's Scala Sancta on her knees, in a very freaky sequence. These flashes of memory are what he perhaps refers to as 'haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty' that are hidden beneath the 'embarrassment of being in this world', his present.

And after all, 'it's just a trick'! In a cynical worldview, it would seem that he embraces his empty existence in a positive light as a glamorous distraction from human misery. Jep's friend Arturo makes a giraffe disappear with his trick. A little girl throws paints on a canvas and rubs them around and creates a modern art masterpiece. A woman head butts on a stone wall, but turns out she uses protective foam. Artists deal with the art of deception. The trick is to play with reality and use imagination. Writers do it too, as Jep admits earlier in the film. Distortion is the key. The past is gone, it is beyond and provides only 'inconstant flashes of beauty', and he doesn't deal with what's beyond.

And therefore with a sense of complacency, Jep's novel begins. The 'blah blah' that he grows weary and conscious of, suddenly seems to have a positivity to it. Paralleled with Sister Maria's feat, is Jep's achievement of changing his lens of looking at things. The film is book-ended by these two similar ideas, the beginning having a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's "Journey to the end of the night": "Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It's a novel, just a fictitious narrative." Jep's extravagant existence was his deception, his escapism.

But on the other hand, could the trick he is referring to, be just the opposite? To overlook the 'blah, blah', and behold what lies beneath the surface? It is true that Jep remarks "I don't deal with what lies beyond". But could it be possible that while he presently does not deal with what lies beyond, a changed, reformed Jep really wishes to put in an effort (think Sister Maria's effort and achievement again) to dig beneath and unearth the emotion, the sentiment, and make those inconstant flashes more whole?

There's a third, meta way to look at it. Maybe Paolo Sorrentino is playing with the audience here. If the obvious conclusion doesn't suit some positive thinking audiences, perhaps they could deceive themselves and choose the other optimistic interpretation of the ending! Whatever the case, we can only hope that Jep Gambardella, who we have come to like so much by the end of the film despite the cynical old man that he is, finds his peace.