The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

Das Rad: little film about rocks packs in history of human development and ecological themes

Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger, “Das Rad” / “The Wheel” aka “Rocks” (2003)

Made with a mix of stop-motion and computer-generated styles of animation plus puppets, this film presents a history of human development from the point of view of two piles of rocks. Big Pile fusses over the itches and cracks that lichen and moss growth is causing on his skin while his pal Little Pile amuses himself chucking pebbles at their neighbour across the rocky valley. All around them clouds whiz overhead, the colours of the sky speed from one shade of blue or grey to the next and vegetation zips up and down hill-sides and mountains faster than we can say “geologic time”. Little Pile starts playing with a vaguely circular-shaped rock and tries to figure out what it might be useful for. A human dressed in animal skins stops by to check out Little Pile’s pet rock and gets an inspiration from it. From then on the two stoners’ hill environment starts changing even faster: a dirt track appears next to Little Pile from which he acquires another plaything, a wheel. While he tries to explain to Big Pile how the humans have benefitted and progressed from having stone wheels to wooden wheels, buildings begin to sprout and spread from the valley below, a billboard appears before the duo and their very existence becomes threatened by the furiously upthrusting skyscrapers and concrete bridges charging towards them.

This is a very amusing and informative film about the transient nature of human existence and the effects human activity might have on the natural environment. The film might make more impact if it had been a bit longer and the characters of the rock piles a little more developed. Big Pile and Little Pile could have had a conversation about what the circular rock must have meant for the primitive human, that he was so enthused by its shape. They could have talked about the dirt track and wondered where it leads to and why humans use it so much. They could have lamented its passing and replacement by an asphalt road. Little Pile’s curiosity about his surroundings could have been contrasted more strongly with Big Pile’s concern with personal hygiene and lack of interest in what’s going on around him. Viewers might feel more concern and dread for them when roads, bridges and buildings start to encroach on the stoner dudes’ lives and they feel fear for the first time in their long lives.

The animation is well-done and seamless though Big Pile and Little Pile are barely distinguishable apart from general size and shape. Their landscape could have been made a bit simpler so that rapid changes that occur over it are more obvious and viewers would also get an idea of the impact humans make on their surroundings. Noise and air pollution barely registers and the odd traffic accident that might reshape Little Pile into something that makes Big Pile jealous (since the smaller rock pile is the one sitting closer to the asphalt road) would have been very appropriate. As it is, the film lacks a sub-plot that would involve our stony friends in some depth and make them less passive observers and more passive participants. The overall plot would not be greatly affected as Little Plot might in time forget about his cosmetic surgery and once humans and their structures are completely out of the picture, the un-dynamic duo can start fussing over their itches and scratches again; at the same time, the sub-plot would enhance the plot’s message that for all their stolidity, the two rock piles are indeed sensitive to human activity and can be very fragile. A paradoxical question arises: how impervious to human activity is the natural environment and how sensitve can it also be?

For such a little film starring two rocks, some mighty big issues are presented with gentle humour and a simple grace. A big plus is the choice of music with resonant acoustic percussion instruments used at the beginning and near the end of the film to suggest a simple, peaceful life for our rock friends, and orchestral flourishes for scenes featuring humans or frenetic human activity.

Night of the Hell Hamsters / Eel Girl: two efficient comedy horror film shorts

Paul Campion, “Night of the Hell Hamsters” (2005), “Eel Girl” (2008)

Film shorts are a flexible medium for telling particular kinds of stories or expressing ideas in ways not possible in full-length feature films, usually due to budget limitations or the idea not being substantial enough to sustain over 40 minutes of viewing time. The two shorts under review are respectively the first and second directorial features for British / New Zealand director Paul Campion who came to film-directing somewhat late in his life after a career of illustrating book covers and doing texture painting on films.

“Night of the Hell Hamsters” is an affectionate parody of and tribute to B-grade supernatural horror films that are usually aimed at a teenage audience. Julie (Stephanie Ratcliff) is babysitting for her neighbours on a dark and stormy night when her boyfriend Karl (Paul O’Neill) drops by with a Ouija board game. While playing with it at Julie’s insistence, the two accidentally summon up a demon from hell which for strange reasons of its own decides to inhabit the bodies of two pet hamsters. The zombie hamsters torment Julie and Karl with a wickedly twisted sense of humour that subjects the youngsters to laughably crude sexual jokes and, for Julie, misogynist taunting. The girl is forced to adopt vampire-slayer heroics to fight the rodents.

“Eel Girl” combines comedy, science fiction and horror in half the time Julie and the hamsters sort out their differences. A military officer drops in on two scientists at a naval science laboratory with an order to take one of them away for briefing. The man protests, saying that protocol requires at least two people to be working together in the same laboratory at any one time, but the guard subtly threatens him and the two leave together. The second scientist (Euan Dempsey) immediately switches his focus to a pet vanity project, perhaps secretly approved by his superiors, which is studying a female hybrid eel-human (Julia Rose). Behind a safety barrier, the creature signals interest in the scientist and the man, excited and nervous, throws caution aside to open the security door to touch and maybe kiss the girl.

The first film is straightforward story-telling with jokes, clichés and some errors in continuity and logic which may be either deliberate or accidental. There’s no indication that the hamsters attack the sleeping children being babysat. The two actors playing Julie and Karl carry the entire film capably which is as well as the tension dissipates quickly after the hamsters turn demonic and the only thing of interest to viewers is to see how Julie atones for her innocent mistake in summoning the demon. On the whole, the film is well-made as it should be but, by itself, it says little about the director’s talent and ambition.

“Eel Girl” is a more serious proposition, more elegant and efficient in style, that builds up and sustains the suspense right up to the moment when the hybrid performs her own version of oral sex. Dialogue is completely non-existent after the officer leads away one scientist and the remaining characters communicate their feelings through their body language alone. Close-ups of the second scientist’s face and his behaviour (licking his lips, fiddling with his clothes, clenching his fists) and the quick editing involved reveal his anxiety and maintain the growing tension. There may be some very interesting ideas hinted at in this short: defence scientists using taxpayer money to engage in ethically dubious activities winked at by senior brass;  men’s attempts to control nature and women for selfish purposes; and humanity’s presumption in manipulating and splicing DNA material from different species to achieve a certain result, only to get something completely unexpected that threatens to become a disaster. The very limited setting – a darkened, cramped room and a dirty grey-green chamber dominated by a tub filled to the brim with thick black gunk provide the scene – helps to give the film a sinister atmosphere that enhances the tension.

Rose’s make-up which covers her whole body (she appears nude) makes her look cold and alien, and the actor herself moves in a slow, steady and studied way as though to suggest her monster is studying the scientist as he studies her. The film’s make-up budget obviously didn’t extend to cutting all of Rose’s hair off so that she could look more eel-like and maybe even a bit obscene with a shiny bald head but that’s a cosmetic detail that probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall plot build-up. The special effects used in the film’s climax don’t look completely realistic – viewers can easily see computer enhancement has been used – and I would have liked to see the monster’s second set of jaws in her throat working themselves forward as she opens her mouth. (I’m assuming the eel that inspired the film short was a moray eel.) The climax would have looked a lot more natural and gruesome.

For a five-minute film, “Eel Girl” is a punchy effort that packs in good acting, sustained tension, black comedy and a dark atmosphere. For once the lack of a back-story to the monster and how the naval laboratory acquired her invites viewer speculation about what the film could be saying in the way of a theme. There may be no theme at all and viewers can read whatever they wish into the film. It’s a huge improvement on “Night of the Hell Hamsters” and if Campion can build on this achievement – at this time of writing, he was working on a full-length movie and had a few other movie projects on the boil – he’ll go a long way indeed: upward that is, not downward as that foolish second scientist did.

 

 

 

The Space Voyage: space adventure propaganda piece for kids is a little subversive

Vasily Zhuravlov, “The Space Voyage” / “Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella” (1936)

In the 1930s, the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, usually known by its abbreviation Komsomol, suggested that a film be made to encourage interest in space exploration among young people and this film, which  features as a main character a boy who is a Komsomol member, was the result. Director Zhuravlov had been itching to make this film since the mid-1920s anyway though possibly without the child character. Shot as a silent film with not very many title cards, the film is fairly easy to follow even though on Youtube.com it has no English-language subtitles. An aged scientist, Professor Sedykh (S Komarov), and his assistant Marina (K Moskalenko) decide to blast off into space in their rocket along with a teenage passenger, Andriusha (V Gaponenko) after Sedykh has been in trouble with fellow scientist and bureaucrat Professor Karin (V Kovrigin), the latter having been irate over finding a sleeping rabbit in a small rocket. The unlikely trio fly straight to the moon where they don spacesuits and happily leap about in close to zero-gravity conditions, taking in the sights and exploring the caves they find. Sedykh nearly gets crushed by a rock but apart from that mishap, the three have a good time and send a signal to Earth that they have landed on the moon. That basically is all there is in the way of a plot.

The glory of the film is in its sets and some aspects of the script: Zhuravlov consulted the then-famous rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the script and other aspects of the film’s production. The scenes in the film in which Sedykh, Marina and Andriusha float and fly about in the spaceship were probably inspired by a suggestion that once a spaceship escapes the pull of Earth’s gravity, its occupants might experience weightlessness. The camera shows the threesome bouncing off walls and windows, and even adopts a first-person viewpoint of flying with quick edits of swaying and swinging aerial shots: hmm, those three need a fair bit of practice to stop crashing into sensitive levers and steering wheels. The scenes on the moon in which the astronauts jump from rock to rock are all animated (with stop-motion animation) to a high quality and look very realistic for the period in which the film was made. Spacesuits have oxygen tubes and tanks attached to them, indicating the level of research and care Zhuravlov took in making the film appear authentic.

The sets themselves will take viewers’ breath away: even the cameraman must have been in awe at the size and clean streamling of the spaceship, around which workers scurry and little trucks drive, and there’s an excellent “virtual tour” shot in which the camera pans slowly around the ship itself while in the hangar. The ship’s interiors look cramped and are filled with panels of levers, steering wheels and gauges. Moscow itself is portrayed as a futuristic planned city dominated by a few skyscrapers here and there and a long rollercoaster-like bridge that reaches for the sky itself. The lunar landscapes, all painted on background boards, almost have the appearance of abstract avantgarde oil paintings with huge white block-shaped boulders draped over by dark shadows, over which the Earth can be seen rising.

Interestingly during take-off, the astronauts are shown wearing special costumes and sitting in liquid-filled chambers. Presumably the liquid absorbs the changes in pressure and any shocks that occur while the ship escapes the Earth’s atmosphere so that, once in space, the astronauts suffer no ill effects. Tsiolkovsky and Zhuravlov sure did think of everything that could have gone wrong and how to solve any potential problems!

As a film aimed at children, “The Space Voyage” includes considerable humour: Karin is prevented by a group of Komsomol children from stopping Sedykh’s flight and has to pretend that he authorised the flight all along; and Sedykh’s wife, in helping her husband to pack his luggage for the trip, realises he has forgotten to take his warm boots so she hurries to the spaceflight centre with them. The prime humorous aspect is that the flight crew includes no young able-bodied adult males whom viewers would expect to perform the action-hero parts; when Sedykh gets into trouble, Marina and Andriusha are the ones who bail him out. A young military man who is Marina’s boyfriend would have gone on board but Marina throws him out after he throws his support behind Karin’s orders.

Though intended as a propaganda piece masquerading as a children’s space adventure, the film’s choice of main characters and the way the first part of its plot plays out are in their own way subversive of official Communist propaganda: Sedykh and Marina defy a bureaucrat’s orders and Andriusha sneaks away from home and boards the spaceship as a stowaway. Sedykh and Marina initially treat Andriusha as just a kid but after he declares that he and his friends stopped Karin from grounding the rocket, the two allow him to explore the moon’s caves with them. None of them is what NASA or its Soviet equivalent would call “qualified” to be space explorers. When they get back home, they find they are forgiven for their disobedience. Ah, if only real life had been as kind to the film as the fictional bureaucrats were to the trio … “The Space Voyage” was pulled from cinemas in 1936 as the animated scenes of jumping astronauts were judged by government censors to be frivolous and was neglected for a long time afterwards.

 

 

Living in Fear: unusual and eccentric black comedy about finding redemption in digging up landmines

Chuyen Bui Thac, “Living in Fear” / “Song trong so hai” (2005)

It’s mid-1975, the war has ended and the Americans have gone, and the North and South halves of Vietnam are reunited under Communist rule. Nguyen Tai (Tran Huu Phuc), a soldier who fought for the “old” regime (that is, the corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the West), has been released from jail and education camp and is now adrift in a new society with no skills and little confidence in himself. He happens to be a bigamist in a society that now frowns on “promiscuity” and both his wives Thuan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) and Ut (Mai Ngoc Phuong), living separately, have young children to feed and bring up. Thuan’s brother, a minor revolutionary official who despises Tai, harasses him by forcing him to report to his office regularly when there is no need. What is Tai to do?

A chance at a new life comes unexpectedly when Tai discovers an unexploded landmine in front of Ut’s home. This discovery leads Tai to learn all he can about finding and defusing landmines from a friend, Nam (Mai Van Thinh), in spite of the dangers and prohibitions involved. He gains new skills and knowledge which also help him relearn farming skills and his self-esteem improves. Though the government forbids trading in found landmines, Tai sells them anyway to earn money to feed his growing brood. His immediate community, initially suspicious of him, ends up rallying around him and grants him land for personal and family use if he can clear it of landmines.

This is a very straightforward and simply told story, based on fact, about a man, cast into an unfamiliar world that is wary of him and his past, who finds new purpose, gains personal redemption and eventually wins social approval and acceptance by doing work that forces him to confront his fears and to accept responsibility for past actions, both his own and those of others he once served. The conventional narrative style and matter-of-fact acting in a context where people practise emotional self-restraint don’t allow a layered story of flashbacks to past histories and conflicts and of complex character development to develop so Western viewers must accept the film’s implicit assumptions about post-1975 Vietnamese politics and society. The new society is idealised as beneficent and allows Tai to find his niche as long as he works hard and fulfills his family and personal responsibilities. The dangerous work he does atones for his having fought for an enemy that planted the landmines. A very minor subplot that involves Tai’s brother-in-law and the female leader of the cadre in the area where Ut and Tai live is worked into the film.

Slow and patient, the film allows viewers to take in the beautiful rural landscapes, the farming lifestyle common in Vietnam in 1975 and absorb the little nuances of the actors’ minimalist style. Tai isn’t very emotional most of the time but camera close-ups show him perspiring heavily when he is defusing a landmine so the audience certainly knows he is anxious and fearful. There are comic touches: whenever the brother-in-law visits Thuan and Tai happens to be at her house, hubby has to hide in a huge pot or in the bath to avoid being seen; and both Thuan and Ut fall pregnant and end up in the same hospital giving birth at the same time so Tai has to dash back and forth between the two women in pain! Then of course there is the ultimate black comic punchline: Tai finds his landmine work less stressful than dealing with two wives, his children and an angry brother-in-law! The only problem with the plot that viewers may have is that near the end, the story-line suddenly jumps several years into the future and resumes its near-glacial pace; the only major change is that the brother-in-law and the cadre leader have found love and marriage and the brother-in-law is now at peace – probably thanks to Tai who saw they were made for each other!

Viewers hoping for Hollywood-style marital discord might be disappointed that Tai’s two wives already know of one another’s existence and accept each other without complaint. The only really significant character study is of Tai himself who relentlessly pursues his landmine work as if there’s no tomorrow and even includes a landmine on his makeshift Buddhist shrine; whenever a cow or someone important to him is killed by a landmine, he goes to his shrine to pray. At one point in the film, Tai finds a landmine and faints as if in ecstasy. Such strange details limn Tai as an oddball though likeable character, but some viewers might find his actions hard to stomach and understand. It would probably take a psychological paper to explain Tai’s behaviour fully but for the purpose of this review, the landmines represent many forms of freedom for Tai: they free him from his old work as a soldier, they give him a new personal and social identity, they help provide for his family and free him from family strife, and they give him new knowledge, new skills, new opportunities – in short, they give him a new chance of life. Their power to give life to Tai and take it away from others borders on whimsy and absurdity. Why wouldn’t he pray and thank them at his shrine?

Lovely and easy on the eye with lots of greenery and farming scenes, this film combines an important social and political issue – the presence of landmines in many impoverished countries and the dangers they pose to farmers and children – with an unusual and eccentric tale of redemption. It’s very much a film for the arthouse circuit with its leisurely pace and distinctive though underplayed comedy.

 

 

Dead Snow: a mishmash of previous zombie movie plot twist and character stereotypes

Tommy Wirkola, “Dead Snow” (2009)

For laughs, gore and stunning mountain scenery you can’t go past zombie comedy flick “Dead Snow” but there isn’t much else to sustain the movie. The plot revolves around a group of university students going to a remote mountain cabin in northern Norway for skiing, snowboarding and sexy-time fun during the Easter holiday break. The place is so remote they have to leave their cars at the bottom of the mountain and walk with their luggage to the cabin while one of their number, Vegard (Lasse Valdal), leads the way on a snowmobile. The cabin happens to belong to his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) who’s making her own way there via cross-country skiing. On their first night in the cabin the kids are visited by a local ranger (Bjørn Sundquist) who lectures them on the area’s recent history: during World War II, a paramilitary death squad of several hundred Nazi German soldiers stationed in the mountains to intercept Russian-British trade and communications treated locals so badly that the Norwegians rose up against the occupiers and massacred as many as they could; the remaining soldiers fled into remote parts and were never seen again. The ranger then goes on his way and the youngsters never see him again. After that night, strange things start happening: Sara never turns up so Vegard goes off to search for her and one of the students, Chris (Jenny Skavlan), disappears after using the out-house the following evening. Next thing you know, the students hear groaning and grunting noises outside the cabin, windows are smashed inwards and the youngsters realise they’re besieged by … undead Nazi German soldiers!

At least the mountain locations and forests are beautiful and the cinematography captures the sharp look of the bright blue skies and jaw-dropping cliffs and rocky outcrops where most of the action occurs in the second half of the film. The actors look the part of a stereotyped cast: blonde bubble-headed babe Liv (Evi Kasseth Røsten), brainy brunette Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) with her hair in dreadlocks, Erlend (Jeppe Laursen) the chubby film buff, nerdy Martin (Vegar Hoel) who wears glasses, the physically attractive and natural leader of the group Vegard and another fellow, Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen); they act like stereotypes as well so Liv plays damsel in distress and Hanna tries to get help for herself and the others. Vegard singlehandedly fights off several zombies with ingenuity and his snowmobile and he even does his own running repairs, Terminator-style, with sewing needle, thread and duct tape – just don’t ask which part of himself he stitches up. Martin and Roy form a comedy duo who accidentally burn down the cabin with Molotov cocktails but then redeem themselves with a chainsaw and hammer against an army of zombies. For their part the zombies act like typical zombies of their post-“28 Days Later” generation: they run fast, they bite hard, they don’t think deeply and they do as they’re ordered by head zombie and former Einsatzgruppen leader Herzog.

The plot falls to pieces even before the zombies gatecrash the kids’ party:  why or how the German soldiers became zombies in the first place and their reverence for the gold and silver treasures the students find hidden in their cabin that they’d chase the youngsters for them, are never explained in the film. You’d think the script-writers might draw on Norwegian lore about the treasures having some kind of evil Lord-of-the-Ring or Nibelungenlied radioactive influence on the soldiers, turning their human cells and metabolism into undead zombie cells and metabolism. There would then be a lesson, however crude it be, we mortals could learn about the dangers of greed and stealing occult jewels of non-human manufacture whose powers are dangerous and not to be underestimated. Perhaps there’d even be a backstory about how Hitler ordered the Nazis to come to this remote mountain territory precisely to find this forbidden treasure that could bestow unbelievable power on the German armed forces and enable them to conquer and control Europe. The power would be real enough but the consequences of messing with it for selfish material interest would be severe. Possibly with the release of the sequel “Dead Snow 2”, we’ll learn more about Standartenführer Herzog and his soldiers and how they were transformed into the undead.

Though this is a low-budget slapstick horror film that milks previous zombie horror films for character and plot twist stereotypes, there are some artistic moments here, the major highlight being a scene in which the zombies are eviscerating one of the students through a blocked and blurred camera lens that takes the victim’s point of view. The special effects look well done and though the body count is high the killing and hacking aren’t exaggerated. The zombies look menacing and horrific with grey corpse faces.

Shame then that such a good-looking film with an interesting premise and stunning mountain landscape backgrounds doesn’t exploit its source material to make the plot more credible and the monsters more fearsome. Local Norwegian legends about dwarves making and hiding hoards of gold and precious jewels in the mountains combined with Nazi Germany’s obsession with the occult and mastering its secrets to obtain power and territory could have provided much creative stimulation for a story in which zombified Nazi soldiers become a strikeforce for unknown malevolent forces to threaten the world. Of course a small budget can cramp the creative ambitions and scope of the script but in the case of “Dead Snow”, all that’s needed is a more credible explanation for how the soldiers came to be what they are. The movie could have broken with the usual horror movie conventions about what zombies can and can’t do and allowed them to speak and remember their history. The significance of the treasure the students find in their cabin becomes an important part of the plot. Now that would be a lecture worth listening to.

Man Bites Dog: strong satire on Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, “C’est arrive près de chez vous” (“It could happen in your neighbourhood”)  aka “Man Bites Dog” (1992)

Made by four Belgian film students, this mock documentary on the daily routines of a professional killer remains a powerful criticism of Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence. Although it often looks aimless and appears to be a series of skits, it’s actually well constructed with a definite narrative and an overall mood that’s at first light-hearted, jokey and comic with Spinal Tap moments but becomes darker and sinister towards the end. Shot on grainy black-and-white, the film has the air of a fly-on-the-wall independent documentary as a film crew zealously follows Ben (BenoÎt Poelvoorde) as he goes about his daily or monthly routine of robbing and/or killing postmen, pensioners, security guards, taxi drivers and various others he meets.

Chatty and friendly, Ben introduces the film-makers and viewers to his family (Poelvoorde’s real-life relatives), girlfriend Valérie and his boxing trainer throughout the film. He expounds or rants at length on a variety of topics. Among other things, viewers learn from Ben that there is an art to weighting dead people with ballast so when they are dropped into rivers they don’t float and that people’s lives can be improved or blighted by the decisions governments make on urban renewal and aesthetic details of architecture and interior design. He fancies himself a gourmet and treats the film crew to a sumptuous lunch of mussels and wine. Viewers see him playing a musical duet on the piano with Valerie on flute and sparring with his trainer at the grotty sports club. He is interested in art, literature and film culture and spouts poetry (self-composed and crappy) about pigeons and the change of seasons. Altogether a thoroughly cultured and intellectual if pretentious being is our Ben; but how does he finance his activities? – on the first day of every month, he kills postmen to steal pension cheques and visits the homes of the people they’re addressed to, kills them and looks under the beds and cupboards for more money. To keep limber as it were, he robs and kills other people in hilarious sequences that reveal his ignorance and prejudices towards others as well as his education and culture.

As the film carries on, the film-makers – and with them, the audience – become deeply involved and implicated in Ben’s crimes as witnesses and participants. The change is subtle and gradual: Ben begins to finance the making of the documentary and directs parts of it himself; the film-makers help him chase a boy and participate in a gang rape / murder of a woman. Ben orders them also to re-bury bodies in a quarry he uses to dump his victims when the water dries up. Viewers, initially charmed by Ben’s warmth and generosity, now see his arrogant and more psychopathic side, lacking in true empathy and compassion for others. Sure enough his pride and smugness get the better of him, he makes some slip-ups and he ends up being chased by a never-seen criminal gang and the police who jail him. On his release, Ben discovers the criminal gang has killed his family and girlfriend, and his life and those of the film-makers are in grave danger.

Viewers stand as much indicted as the film crew itself as observers and accomplices, however passive, in Ben’s trail of mayhem and chaos. The handheld camera style and use of frequent close-ups create intimacy and draw viewers in as voyeurs. When Ben and his crew meet another film crew following a criminal in an abandoned building he uses as his hide-out, we find ourselves rooting for Ben as the film crews prepare for a stand-off. Uncomfortable questions about the sensationalisation / trivialisation of violence by mass media in our society, the ways in which reality TV shows encourage people to behave in extreme ways, celebrity worship and the numbing effect continuous exposure to violence and trauma must have on viewers’ mental states arise. The relationship between a film crew and the subject that is the focus of its film is also questioned – how objective can a documentary be when its subject and the film crew are friends? – and the Spinal Tap sequence of two sound-men dying one after the other, each leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend called Marie-Paule, while funny, also makes for uncomfortable viewing. At what point does a film or any other venture become so important that people’s lives become secondary to it? The project takes on a life of its own and Ben exploits the film-makers’ friendship and hero-worship of him into making the film a never-ending diary celebrating his banal exploits to feed his ego. For all his supposed sophistication as an aesthete, Ben lacks the self-reflective insight, the depth of feeling and emotion, and empathy needed to be a true aesthete and a talented poet.

The film does become repetitive and the meeting of the film crews in the hide-out surely alerts viewers that ideas are starting to run out. After this point, the film seems to lose direction although in fact unseen criminals associated with the other crook followed by his own film crew are now trailing Ben and his crew. At the same time Ben’s crimes become more serious and brutal and viewers should consider the possibility that if he didn’t have a film crew following him around, Ben would confine himself to cutting queues for nursing homes and denying thousands of dogs in Belgium the pleasure of chasing posties. Ben mugs for the camera and some scenes where he is drunk could have been edited or cut altogether. On the technical side the film-makers do a good job of knitting all the various skits into a seamless, smoothly flowing whole and the skits have the appearance of naturally following on from one another even if they actually didn’t. How much of the film was improvised, how much was scripted and how much just happened to be there at the time of filming – especially the hospital scene with Ben being in the same room as an elderly patient engaging a nurse in verbal jousting over his toilet habits – is hard to tell.

At once compelling yet repellent, looking unfocussed as it progresses but with a definite goal in mind, this film still has a lot of power to shock and intrigue audiences. The nature of violence in Western societies, our fascination with it and how that fascination is pushed and manipulated for profit by media organisations and others, how that affects our psyches and might determine our attitudes and behaviour in situations where diplomacy rather than violence is called for, and the attitude that people are only worthwhile when they have cash or can be exploited (Ben only kills people if they have money) – these issues continue to make “Man Bites Dog” more relevant than it was when first released. Education and culture prove not be civilising influences on a mind lacking in self-examination and compassion for other people and the central character of Ben turns out to be as hollow and cold as the society being satirised.

Symbol (dir. Hatoshi Matsumoto): polished and slick slapstick comedy on nature of the universe

Hatoshi Matsumoto, “Symbol” (2009)

A slapstick comedy about interrelationships and the impact one person can have on events around the world, “Symbol” is the second full-length feature by Hatoshi Matsumoto who is best known in Japan as one-half of a long-running comedy act. The plot splits into two parallel stories that occur on opposite sides of the world, Japan and Mexico. In a small rural part of Mexico, a middle-aged man resignedly prepares for a tag-team wrestling match where he stars as Escargotman; his aged father and small son worry about his physical condition (chubby and pot-bellied) and his attitude in his pre-match routines (no hyping himself up or doing warm-up and limbering exercises). At the same time an unnamed man (Matsumoto himself – let’s call him M) wakes up in a large white-walled room with no furniture or windows in an unknown location in Japan. Images of cherubic male angels appear briefly and fade away, leaving behind only their genitalia on the walls and floor.

Throughout the film the action jumps back and forth between these two scenarios: the man in the room, pressing on the tiny penises, discovers that with each press a hole in a wall (not necessarily the same wall where the pressed penis is located) opens up and spits out an object he can use. Eventually the man works out that he can plan his escape from the room but the plan demands considerable lateral thinking as to how to open a hole up in a wall that leads to a locked door, get the key to that door and the right numbers to unlock the combination lock on the same door. Escargotman meanwhile prays at the family shrine, has his sister (a nun) drive him to the match venue, puts on his costume and mask and goes out to the ring. He waits on the side ropes while his partner gets beaten almost to a pulp by two more pumped-up wrestlers and then goes into the ring himself. In the audience Escargotman’s father and son anxiously sit and wonder if their hero will also get thrashed.

On their own each story isn’t remarkable in itself and viewers mightn’t feel much sympathy for Escargotman and the very real probability that Tequila Joe and his partner will humiliate him absolutely in front of his home crowd. As Escargotman hardly talks and shows little emotion, and on top of that his story shares screen-time with Matsumoto’s protagonist, there’s little tension building up to the wrestling match. M is essentially a comic-strip character in kidult pyjamas and kooky mop-top hairstyle who occasionally has something interesting to say but spends most of his time wordlessly trying out strategies that, comic strip-style, spring up in his head; the strategies work but only after much trial and error and temper tantrums for comic effect. It’s only when M finally escapes from the white room littered with objects and enters a second room where adult angels come and go and leave behind their genitals for our hero to press that the action becomes more interesting; every time he presses a penis, Escargotman lands a punch on his opponents. At this point the two stories become one and viewers start to realise that M isn’t just any ordinary man and the rooms he enters aren’t just any ordinary rooms on our particular plane of existence; each room represents a higher or deeper level of being and in each our man acquires more influence and power over the affairs of Earth. The tale of Escargotman becomes one of many on Earth that M can change. Naturally he insists on continuing to the next room beyond which the punchline awaits him.

The plot falls flat partly because Escargotman and his family are presented as flat though eccentric individuals and the wrestling match could be one of many in several parts of Mexico. For a quirky comedy the Mexican scenes have few quirks to them and become just stereotyped foreign exotic locations with stereotyped characters: Dad trying to make a living, Mum doing housework and nagging people all the time, Grandpa and Junior bonding together and anxious for Dad to prove himself a hero all over again and Aunty utters endless strings of expletive at her rundown truck. Although M helps Escargotman in his match, the influence is one-way only and this insinuates that Escargotman is a mere puppet. The implication behind that, though meant to be comic, is sad. Do Escargotman and his family exist merely for cheap laughs? (I guess so – don’t Third World nations and people exist to be pushed around?) This kind of philosophical black comedy has probably been done to death before and “Symbol” has nothing new to say on the matter.

In spite of the film’s polished presentation which includes a sharp, bright style of filming, computer animation and special effects that look real, and a steady pace driven by M’s desire for escape and meaning, “Symbol” ends up delivering a message that’s clever and slick but not profound. The movie’s worth is mainly in how it manipulates viewer expectations about the plot, its main character, the nature of his prison and how the Escargotman sub-plot ties into the main plot. You laugh at yourself for thinking that because you’re watching a movie, everything there has to make sense or connect with everything else in some way for a clear plot; but expected connections never materialise and unexpected ones do. As M goes from one maze to the next, viewers quickly realise he’s undertaking the metaphorical equivalent of human spiritual and intellectual evolution but whether he realises the importance of the journey himself – it looks as though enlightenment comes to him only during his swimming journey in which, sperm-like, he advances to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – is another matter entirely. Any thoughts he has about his journey, what he learns from it, and what awaits him at the end – and what he plans to do – are never revealed. The punchline could be more effective if M had broken the “fourth wall”, having done so a few times through the film already; he could just raise his finger and look quizzically at the audience before the camera cuts abruptly to the end credits.

“Symbol” is on a par with films like “Inception” and “eXisteNZ” which position the universe as similar to a videogame with various levels that require more skill and expertise in playing the game. The structure of the film into three parts “Education” where M teaches himself the strategies to leave the room, “Implementation” and “Future” suggests as much. Viewed this way, there’s no need for “Symbol” to say anything profound other than that a search for meaning in life is meaningless in itself and the universe may be one big cosmic joke. Films of this nature often seem superficial perhaps because if the universe is seen as a cosmic videogame, then there’s the inference that players enter the “game” on the understanding that they can’t change the “rules” of the game and free will only extends as far as the rules and parameters of the game permit. You as the player are no different than hamsters running on wheels in their cages, no matter how elaborate the wheels are or how far they go.