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Review of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

My review of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as published in the Express Tribune:

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a nostalgic exploration of the magical, mysterious and the miraculous. It reminds me of stories I used to hear while I was growing up — stories about spirits, jinns and how our ancestors dealt with death. This was a time when the supernatural was a part of everyday life, when people cohabited with ghosts, prepared for their deaths with calm and understanding, in fact their entire relationship with death was completely different. No doubt this also had a lot to do with influences from various sub-continental religions. Buddhism, the predominant religion in Thailand, being one of them.

In the movie, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) brings his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) to his farm in rural Thailand, where he is preparing for his imminent death. He is suffering from kidney failure, and requires frequent dialysis. Boonmee has decided to leave everything to Jen. On the first night as they are having dinner, they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay. Both Boonmee and Jen deal with this situation quite well. Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), the only young person on the table, is a bit freaked out. Soon, they are joined by Boonmee’s son, who died ages ago and has now turned into a kind of creature of the forest. The conversation that ensues is intense and sets the mood for the rest of the film.

From time to time we see flashbacks from Boonmee’s previous lives, but without the obvious flashes and colour treatment that dumbed-down Hollywood movies would throw in. The movie begins with one: a parable in which a restless buffalo breaks free, only to find that there is nowhere that it really wants to go. Death, karma, human relationships and spirituality are the major themes of this brilliantly made movie. Finally, it is time for Boonmee to go, and Huay’s ghost leads him to the place where his spirit was perhaps first born. Here he recalls what would be his last dream, one of the future. This in itself is fascinating because uptill now we have only dealt with the past, and now at the time of death, we see the only vision of the future. Weerasethakul has chosen to illustrate the narrative of this dream using pictures, some of which are quite comical. Boonmee says that in his dream the people of the future shine a light at ‘past people’ which projects images of them onto a screen, and this causes the ‘past people’ to disappear. This light that they shine must be the camera, for the television certainly has a large part to play in the death of spirituality.

Uncle Boonmee... is beautifully shot by Yukontom Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and the way they have shown night-time in the lush Thai jungles deserves special mention. Often cinematographers use filters and cheat night scenes while actually shooting during day, which invariably looks fake. But here, it is most definitely night: blue and mysterious. To watch Uncle Boonmee… you’ll have to be calm, as it progresses rather slowly, and you will also have to embrace the fantastical. The glowing red eyes of the monkey-ghost can look ridiculous if watched through only ‘modern’ eyes. And it is such eyes who fail to see the spiritual world. The tragedy is that if you stop believing, it ceases to exist.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2011.

Enter the Void review

A review of Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void for the Express Tribune:

The first act of Gasper Noe’s extremely trippy movie Enter the Void is a lot like the visuals one sees at underground dance clubs. In fact, if I was doing visuals for such a club, I would definitely use parts of it.

If his 2002 film Irreversible starts off on a particularly disturbing note and keeps heading in a more positive direction, then Enter the Void is pretty much the opposite. Kind of, not really. We start off with a first-person look into the life of Oscar (played by Nathaniel Brown), a French orphan living in Tokyo who has just started dealing drugs. And we get a first-hand look into the effects of some of the drugs that Oscar is selling, and dabbling into as well.

The gimmick in Irreversible was the maddening rotating camera movement and backwards timeline, and in Void the first gimmick is the point-of-view camerawork. We see everything from Oscar’s eyes, with the screen actually going black when he blinks. It is him we see whenever he looks into the mirror. At one point Oscar tries something referred to as DMT, and we see visuals similar to, but a lot more advanced than, the iTunes visualiser.

Oscar’s beautiful younger sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) doesn’t approve of his lifestyle, and is seeing the decidedly dodgy owner of the strip club where she works. Then Oscar dies and, as his spirit leaves his body, we continue to see things from his point-of-view. Only now we are able to fly all over Tokyo, through space and time, when we go to the France of Oscar and Linda’s past, learning many disturbing things which explain how both siblings ended up the way they did. The camera miraculously floats through walls, over roofs, along alleys, up into the sky, wherever Oscar’s unfortunate spirit goes. Second gimmick.

Aleksadr Sokurov once gave an interview about his 99-minute single-take film Russian Ark. When he was asked about the Herculean accomplishment of shooting an entire feature-length film — especially one as visually rich as Russian Ark — in a single take, he responded by saying that that aspect of it was just a gimmick, the movie was much more than that. But I really don’t know if I can say the same for Enter the Void. Although initially the movie is visually stimulating, at some point the endless floating through walls begins to get annoying. There is plenty of production and post-production wizardry that has gone into this film, but the result gets tedious by the time you finally reach the 161st minute of it.

I don’t think that every movie needs to a life-changing experience,  and Noe touches on a lot of really interesting subjects in the movie, but Enter the Void somehow seems to suffer from a chronic lack of substance. Or, perhaps, from too much of it — there is so much going on with the flashbacks and the flying around, it’s hard to tell which. When a filmmaker uses such overpowering gimmicks, then it must be very tricky not to let them take over the most important aspect of the film: the storytelling. I feel Gasper Noe failed to do so.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.

Copie Conforme review

I reviewed Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece Copie Conforme (Certified Copy) for the Express Tribune:

When I discovered that Abbas Kiarostami, one of my favourite Iranian directors, had directed a non-Iranian film, I was very excited, but at the same time full of dread. You see, I’ve been scarred by the painful experience of Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, the first non-Chinese film by a director whom I greatly admire. The film was a complete disaster, and thus my expectations of Copie Conforme (Certified Copy) were tainted by the trauma of that disappointment. My apologies, Mr Kiarostami, for ever doubting you…

This excellent film, starring Julliette Binoche as the volatile French single mother Elle, and William Shimell as the English writer James Miller, is beautifully shot in Tuscany and features dialogue in French, Italian and English. Miller is in Italy promoting his new book, titled Copie Conforme, when he meets Elle, who offers to give him a tour of a village called Lucignano. Now Tuscany is the land of Dante Alighieri, Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci, and the thesis of Miller’s book is that a copy of a work of art is just as much a work of art as the original. As the pair debate the idea of a fake being equivalent to the original itself, they themselves begin playing out a fake relationship. Knowing Kiarostami, the genius behind movies like The Wind Will Carry Us and A Taste of Cherry, is also commenting on how every relationship, and in fact everything we see in cinema is actually fake.

One of the most remarkable elements of the film is its pace. The director truly lets moments linger, allowing the audience to think about what is happening. And what is happening is quite intense. The characters in Copie Conforme are certainly not afraid of confrontation; they are driven by strong feelings and opinions. The pauses in Copie Conforme let us see, as the movie is indeed a visual feast. Veteran Italian cinematographer Luca Bigazzi has shown Tuscany as perhaps only an Italian could have, with images so rich that they saturate our senses. Great attention has also been given to colour, there is a predominant faded rosiness, a lot like the paintings by some of the masters of Tuscany themselves. And the way much of the dialogue has been shot, with the lead actors addressing the camera directly, one could say that Binoche and Shimell are also in a fake relationship with the audience.

Somewhere along the way, it becomes kind of confusing whether Miller is indeed Elle’s estranged ex-husband or not. Their fake relationship goes in directions where many unfortunate real relationships go, and because so much of their role-playing is based on truths, the line between reality and fantasy starts to blur. Such moments often make the best cinema, because after all, the construct behind the fantasy in films is also reality. Although this film moves relatively slowly compared to average Hollywood fare, it engages the audience philosophically and emotionally, and on those levels, Copie Conforme is nothing short of a rollercoaster ride.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 13th, 2011.

I Saw the Devil review

Here’s a review I did for the Ji-woon Kim movie I Saw the devil, as published on Express Tribune:

I Saw the Devil is the fourth Ji-woon Kim film I have seen and loved, and amazingly, each one is vastly different from the next.

A Tale of Two Sisters was a horror flick, A Bittersweet Life became one of my favourite action movies, and The Good, the Bad and the Weird was a hilarious comedy-western. Which brings us to I Saw the Devil, a nail-biting crime thriller. Kim’s versatility and his ability to excel in each genre he explores reminds me of my all-time favourite director Stanley Kubrick.

I believe this is the third consecutive Ji-woon Kim movie starring Byung-hun Lee, and here he plays Kim Soo-hyeon, an agent working for a South Korean intelligence agency. His fiancée is brutally murdered by a serial killer Kyung-chul (played by Choi Min-sik fromOldboy), and Soo-hyeon makes it his life’s purpose to track down the killer and exact a revenge that truly, and I mean truly, makes the killer feel the pain that he inflicted on his victims.

Every time Soo-hyeon catches Kyung-chul he tortures him, then proceeds to have him treated for the injuries that he has inflicted on him, so that he can feel the pain all over again the next time he catches him. Perversely, not only does Kyung-chul start enjoying this cat-and-mouse game with his hunter, but Soo-hyeon also begins to cross the line, slowly becoming a monster himself, The ensuing internal conflict the protagonist suffers after realising this makes the movie psychologically so much more interesting than a straight-up revenge thriller like, say, Taken. Indeed, the question is: how easy is it to become a ‘monster’? If a ‘normal’ person was pushed beyond a certain point, could he or she do something as horrible as what Soo-hyeon does?

Byung-hun Lee is absolutely brilliant in the film, reminiscent of his role in A Bittersweet Life. He is unbelievably tough and resilient, yet emotionally vulnerable. And Min-sik Choi plays his character superbly: he is menacing, chaotic, and a slave to his wanton desires. Anything is possible with Kyung-chul, he has no limits, and that is a reality that Soo-hyeon has to face and pay for dearly when he messes with him.

Along the way, Soo-hyeon also meets some pretty messed up friends of Kyung-chul’s and these encounters are some of the best parts of the movie, a darkly comic celebration of madness and murder. In fact, we go through a directory of psychopaths, and one begins to see that there is a kind of hierarchy amongst them, with Kyung-chul undoubtedly coming out on top. Oh yes, I Saw the Devil is certainly not for the faint-hearted, there is much blood-gushing severing of limbs that goes on throughout the movie. And I won’t say that it isn’t indulgent, because what else should a director do if not indulge his audience?

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 30th,  2011.