The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.

Ana by Day: exploring identity and the limits of freedom and pursuing one’s dreams

Andrea Jaurrieta, “Ana by Day / Ana de Dia” (2017)

You feel vaguely dissatisfied with and trapped by your life as a lawyer studying for a doctorate and engaged to a rather colourless though very nice and polite man of your own upper middle class set. You secretly wish you had followed your childhood dream and become a dancer. One day you call home and are shocked to discover that a stranger with a voice exactly like your own and who answers to your name, Ana, picks up the phone. You call home, then the place where you work, and are horrified to find that someone is impersonating you and doing all the work you should be doing. What do you do next? Do you confront the imposter? Do you call the police and tell them someone has stolen your identity?

In this film, the directing debut of Andrea Jaurrieta, you as Ana (played by Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson) seize the unexpected freedom from family, relationship and work ties and demands, and fly away from Barcelona to Madrid where, calling yourself Nina, you board with an eccentric family and find a job as a dancer at a rather seedy cabaret club called the Radio City Music Hall. Your work colleagues are people who have seen better days as entertainers and singers, and who (like you) are running away from past entanglements or even the law. You strike up a relationship with Marcelo (Alvaro Ogalla), a man with a shadowy background who doesn’t want you to know where he’s from, where he’s going to and what sort of work he does that allows him to live in expensive digs and take you out to high-class restaurants and meet socialite friends. (Scars on his back might suggest he’s a gangster or a professional hit-man.) Eventually though, your new family in the boarding-house discover that you had a past life and start pressing you to give up the late nights, the excessive drinking and drug-taking, and the shady boyfriend; your boyfriend discovers you blurted out his secret and now tells you he must leave town; and your newfound reputation as a dancer of note attracts an audience whom you’d rather didn’t follow you.

The film investigates, in quite original ways, issues of alienation, the limits and consequences of freedom, the loss and recovery of identity, the fulfillment of lost dreams, and the tension arising from accepting one’s place and obligations and having security versus striking out on one’s own to discover one’s real self and fulfill personal dreams and ambitions but experiencing loneliness, disillusionment and frustration along the way. Ana / Nina finds she can’t completely escape from her past: the irony is that becoming the lead dancer at the club is bringing into its audience people from Barcelona who know her.

With shots in confined spaces, and an emphasis on night-time scenes or scenes in shadow or under coloured lighting, close-ups and people going in and out of Ana / Nina’s room and rummaging through her belongings, the film highlights the fragility and changeable nature of identity and takes on a distinct look that suggests suspense and danger are never far away and any minute Ana / Nina will be exposed or her life is put at risk. We never completely know who the real woman behind Ana / Nina is. Perhaps the only time when Ana / Nina is truly herself is when she is on stage dancing and miming to an old Hollywood or Broadway number from decades ago.

While the acting is very good – Garcia-Jonsson is the stand-out here in playing two character types who gradually become very different women as a result of the decisions they make, the people they interact with and the environments they live and work in – and the issue Jaurrieta puts to the audience about how much of one’s personality and character comes from one’s inner nature or the social setting is dealt with in a bold and intriguing way, the resolution of this and other philosophical problems about identity and freedom that arise may not be satisfactory to most viewers. Initially bold in taking up a new way of living to live out her dream, Ana / Nina discovers that she ends up living another lie and ends up fleeing her new family and friends. Her romance with Marcelo ultimately goes nowhere. The paradox that arises is that, in following her dream, Ana / Nina ends up as lost as she was when her doppelganger first took over her old life. As a result, as the film progresses, it seems to lose focus and direction and becomes a bit confused about what it really wants. An easy resolution and tying off all loose ends are definitely not what the film wants or needs, because that would defeat the aim of what the film is pursuing: that breaking away from one’s old life to follow a new life also means that certain opportunities and choices that you could have enjoyed if you had stayed as you are, will be lost forever to you.

Suppose you confront your unwanted twin and discover that your twin has changed your old life in ways you hadn’t anticipated and which mean you can no longer return to it: what are you going to do then?

Capharnaum: a film of hope in search of identity and a place to call home

Nadine Labaki, “Capharnaum” (2018)

I’m sure plenty of children around the world are serving time in juvenile centres for serious criminal acts including stabbing a man and crippling him for life as a result but not too many of those kids get the opportunity to phone a television current affairs show to announce that they’re going to sue their parents for bringing them into a rotten corrupt world that condemns them and their siblings to bleak, hopeless poverty and robs them of happiness and opportunities to play, go to school and learn to be decent human beings. That one 12-year-old boy called Zain (Zain al Rafeea) does so is a springboard into a documentary-styled drama focused on the twilight world inhabited by refugees, illegal migrant workers and homeless children, the relentless pressures on them to find their next meal and some shelter over their heads, and the extraordinary (and ingenious) risks they take to survive. The bulk of Zain’s story is told in flashback as he and his attorney (director Labaki herself) on one side of a courtroom face his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) on the other side while the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired judge) presides over the proceedings.

Zain lives with his parents and an apparent horde of siblings in a tiny Beirut apartment rented to them by a landlord whose son Assaad is infatuated with Zain’s 13-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Almost as soon as Sahar has her first period, the parents marry her off to Assaad and Zain rebels against the marriage and stomps off. He travels to another part of the city where he meets a transvestite called Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) who leads him to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian migrant working various odd jobs and hiding her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), knowing that his discovery by the authorities will lead to her deportation and the baby being sent to an orphanage. For several months, Zain babysits Yonas – at least until Rahil is arrested and jailed. From then on, Zain does his best to look after Yonas while trying to find work to get enough money to buy food and feed them both.

Eventually Zain reaches the end of his tether when he cannot get any work and leaves the baby with Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who promises to place Yonas with a foster family – in reality, Aspro works in trafficking desperate Syrian refugees to Sweden – so he can go home to find his papers so he too can leave Beirut. Once home, he discovers the dreadful fate that befell Sahar soon after she married Assaad and the boy vows vengeance on the landlord’s son …

Through Zain’s point of view, the precarious and unstable existence of an underclass with no papers that would prove their existence and identity is portrayed with a raw grimness occasionally lightened by humour (even if it’s on the black side) and the innocence of children like Yonas. In spite of the incredible, grinding poverty, the violence and abuse he suffers at home, and the pain he sees around him and experiences, Zain is still capable of compassion, love and care for those less able than he to defend themselves, like Sahar and Yonas. Zain al Rafeea, himself a refugee from Syria, delivers an incredible performance as a child struggling to survive yet yearning to know his true path and direction in life, and wanting nothing more than to know he is known and needed by society. Apart from Labaki herself, all the actors in the film are non-professionals and several of them actually were refugees or undocumented workers. In bringing their experiences to their roles, the actors helped give the film a raw and harsh quality.

No less than the cast itself, the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut, weighed down by floods of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, its bureaucracy and institutions unable to cope with them and illegal migrants from other countries, are a dramatic, often severe background in which the modern-day Oliver Twist tale plays out. Parts of the script do stretch credibility – is it really possible that the authorities manage to find Yonas among the crammed warehouses of people hoping to find asylum in Sweden? – and the ending can come across as unbelievably optimistic. Little attention is given over to how Zain’s parents came to be in their appalling predicament in the first place, how others exploit and manipulate them, and how and why they have given up hope for themselves and their children. The system which they and their son fall into cannot offer them hope and one presumes that after Zain serves his allotted jail-time that he will return to his family and possibly fall into trouble again.

The film offers hope that, for all the pain and horror he has experienced, Zain’s natural resilience, compassion and ingenuity that have served him and Yonas well will not only help him to survive but to thrive as well. The deliberate identification of Zain with the city he inhabits by “Capharnaum” make the boy a metaphor for the fortunes of Beirut and by implication, Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Levant.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Formulaic coming-of-age heroic fantasy blends with Thai Buddhist beliefs in “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra”

Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, Nat Yoswatananont, “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra” (2018)

Not known for its animation industry, Thailand nevertheless seems to be pinning its hopes on this film, recently released in Australia and New Zealand, to garner some attention (and maybe lots of money!) for the industry’s further development. The plot is standard Hollywood formula: the principality of Ramthep is conquered by a demon race called the Yaksas and an old blind sage prophesies that a hero will save Ramthep and restore its rightful Prince, and destroy Yaksa leader Dehayaksa into the bargain. A general in the Ramthep army escapes the Yaksas carrying the kingdom’s most sacred weapon, the Ninth Satra, and a peasant baby called Ott. The general is gravely paralysed by the Yaksas while escaping but finds refuge on the remote island of Nok Ann. There, Ott grows up and is trained in the Thai martial art of muay thai as part of the general’s mission to return the Ninth Satra to its Prince so Ramthep may be restored. The Yaksas find and destroy Nok Ann village but not before Ott escapes with the Ninth Satra. With his adoptive father the general dead and all of Nok Ann village gone, Ott has to find his way to a homeland he barely knows. With luck, he is picked up by two friends, Red Asura, a yaksa who is friendly towards humans, and Va-ta, a monkey king, and later by a pirate ship captained by Chinese pirate queen Xiaolan. Together the foursome lead the pirate fleet to Ramthep on a journey fraught with several dangers including being harassed by Dehayaksa’s scout Black Jagger and having to navigate the pirate ship through a treacherously narrow passage.

The film rockets along at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, though the fight scenes are too quick and flashy to show off the style and movements of muay thai at its best.  Still, for a film that cost US$7 million to make, the computer animation is well done with characters that move smoothly and naturally, and background scenes, especially those that showcase Thai Buddhist architecture and the country’s islands, are gorgeous in their colour and detail. The aerial chase and fight scenes are spectacular to watch and are perhaps the major highlight of the film. (Of course there is the overblown Saturday morning children’s cartoon showdown between Ott and Dehayaksa and as may be expected it’s full of fire and fury and not a great deal else.) The animators pay considerable attention to character development, especially the characters of Ott, Red Asura and Xiaolan, with the result that viewers come to care a great deal about these particular figures as they battle their inner demons as well as the greater demon in Dehayaksa and his forces.

What really distinguishes this film though is the way in which the plot blends a formulaic coming-of-age fantasy epic with elements of Thai myth and Thai Buddhism. For Ott to be able to deploy the Ninth Satra weapon effectively, he must demonstrate the nine virtues associated with it, virtues such as courage, steadfastness, moral integrity and faith; he’s actually not tested on these virtues but viewers have to assume he’s in full possession of them all when he meets Dehayaksa. Ultimately the film’s message that a lowly village boy can become a saviour of his people by freeing them from enslavement by the demonic Yaksas, if he is of good moral character and trusts in his religious faith, will make an impression on its target audience of teenagers and primary school-age children and their families.

Movie fans will be able to spot obvious influences from Hollywood and Japanese anime films, and guess that the inclusion of a group of sky-riding pirates and a monkey prince is a sop to Chinese and Indian movie audiences. Still, the stitching together of the various influences and elements from other movies is done smoothly and the quality and energy of the animation are exuberant enough that viewers will readily overlook the derivative quality of the film’s plot, its characters and some visual pieces. While the film could have drawn on Thai culture and artistic media (traditional and modern) more than it does here, it’s still a very good-looking and energetic work.

5 Centimetres per Second: an insubstantial trilogy on the fleeting nature of youthful love, hope and desire

Makoto Shinkai, “5 Centimetres per Second” (2007)

As with his “Your Name”, Makoto Shinkai’s earlier “5 Centimetres per Second” is a teenage romance based around desire, hope and loss. The film takes the form of a trilogy of short story pieces revolving around young hero Tataki as he progresses through childhood and adolescence and becomes a young adult taking on the burdens and pressures of adulthood. The first and longest short story riffs on his childhood friendship with the girl Araki, how they meet in primary school and bond together, and their separation when, on the verge of transitioning to junior high school, she and her family relocate away from Tokyo to a more distant rural part of Japan. The second story focuses on another girl, Kanae, who is in Tataki’s class at high school and who has a crush on him which he fails to notice and she fails to admit to him. In the third and shortest installment, Tataki has already graduated from high school and college and with a job and a girlfriend seems well on the way to middle class career and family contentment. However the young man still pines for Araki so he chucks in his job and breaks up with his current love to travel to that part of Japan where Araki lives in the hope of meeting her and reigniting their relationship.

In themselves the characters are not all that remarkable and seem very one-dimensional in their melancholy and constant preoccupation with their thoughts; likewise the threadbare plot proceeds to a conclusion many viewers may find unsatisfactory if predictable. Kanae’s unrequited crush on Tataki – and his attitude towards the girl – may come across as rather callous on Shinkai’s part, and point to an insensitive and immature self-absorption on Tataki’s part that explains his inability to hold down a job and maintain a relationship with any female other than Araki. Perhaps it’s just as well that the original relationship between him and Araki peters out from the pressure of distance and time because if they were ever to meet again, he would find her literally another person.

The use of first-person voice-over story-telling is an original touch and coaxes the thin narrative forward steadily. The fragmented and not altogether reliable monologues have to be pieced together by viewers to form a clear narrative that holds all three stories together. The film proceeds rather as a series of beautifully detailed tableaux reflecting on the passage of time through the changes of day into night and day again, and of the seasons. The emphasis on trains and train travel serves as much to heighten the sense of separation through time and space between Tataki and Araki.

The background animation is gorgeous as it always is in Shinkai’s films but the characters and story fall far short of the beautiful and rich settings. Tataki and the girls he is involved with seem far too stereotyped as lovey-dovey young teenagers and the plot is equally generic. The film’s unusual title is a reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms, symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of youth, giving way all too soon to age and ultimately death, fall to the ground from the tree. It would be most ironic if this film becomes as minor in Shinkai’s body of work in the years to come as cherry blossoms are transient.

Your Name: teenage romance comedy drama comes with an unexpected twist sending it into disaster sci-fi fantasy

Makoto Shinkai, “Your Name” (2016)

At first this teenage romance drama seems to be just as sappy and sentimental as any other such film – especially if it’s a Japanese anime film – but it turns out to be quite a moving fantasy in which the two young protagonists try to save a community (and its traditions and culture) from sudden catastrophic extinction. How the girl Mitsuha and the boy Taki meet is ingenious: they meet each other in dreams in which they flip out of their own bodies and end up in the other person’s body. This creates a fair amount of havoc for them, their families and their friends, at least until the two become aware of each other and what is happening so they leave notes for each other on their mobile phones, in their diaries and around their bedrooms for whenever they change places again.

The two youngsters then help each other gain confidence in their social circles: Taki works up the courage to ask a co-worker at the restaurant where he works part-time out on a date, and Mitsuha becomes more popular at school. At the same time, Mitsuha participates in old family and community traditions in her village, as instructed by her grandmother, and is taught to leave sake offerings at the shrine of the village guardian deity near a lake. Later on in the film, Taki tries to meet Mitsuha and travels to her village, only to be told on the way there that the village was destroyed by a comet shower three years previously. To make matters worse, Taki later looks up fatality records for the village and discovers Mitsuha’s name is among them.

Thanks to highly detailed background animation, the film is never less than beautiful to watch though most human characters still look typically cartoonish in the way Japanese anime films portray them, with huge shining eyes and tiny button noses and small mouths and ears. Aspects of local village traditions are well researched and depicted. The film tends to be quite slow in its first half – this part of the film is mostly exposition, showing where the main characters live, what they do, how they spend their time, and what they yearn for (Mitsuha yearning to escape the village with its set routines and ways, Taki wondering about the world beyond Tokyo) – but the main characters thus established end up rather one-dimensional and bland. The pace picks up once Taki figures he can warn Mitsuha in the past of the comet strike and save her and her village. Much of the rest of the film then becomes Mitsuha’s quest, along with some of her school-friends, to convince, then force the villagers to evacuate by staging a power strike at the local electricity station that erupts into a wildfire.

The romance between Mitsuha and Taki tends to be shallow and sappy, with the characters obsessed with talking about their feelings, and by the end of the film the strength of this romance is still as vague and half-hearted as it was earlier when the characters became aware of the body-swapping. As though to compensate for the wishy-washy characters, the film brings in the plot twist that throws everything coming afterwards onto a different trajectory, and the romance takes distant second place to the disaster movie that unfolds.

The film’s saving grace is the various themes that it tackles with grace more or less successfully: loss, and how individuals deal with loss, whether it is personal loss, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of culture, history and tradition due to a catastrophe; yearning for connection, to be part of a world greater than one’s own immediate surrounds; and exploring identity through gender, social connections, time and space, and family and cultural background. If it were not for the themes informing the plot and the characters, the film would be no more than a typical teenage romance comedy drama with the unexpected plot twist that sends it off into disaster movie / sci-fi fantasy.

Rams: a minimal but insubstantial film on the fragility of family and community ties and traditions against the outside world

Grimur Hakonarson, “Rams / Hrutar” (2015

Forty years ago, a family rift led to two brothers in an Icelandic sheep-farming family going their separate ways, splitting the family property in half so that each brother tends to his own flock of pedigreed heritage sheep. For forty years the two brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) don’t speak to each other and Kiddi’s dog Somi takes handwritten messages from one to the other if they have to communicate. And forty years after the family conflict, now long forgotten, the two brothers do have to come together and communicate: in one of the brothers’ flocks, a ram comes down with a disease feared to be scrapie. The entire valley where the brothers live becomes a scrapie disaster zone and the government in Rejkjavik decrees that all sheep farmers in the area must slaughter their animals, clean and disinfect their properties and equipment, and remain sheep-free for two calendar years. Some sheep farmers are devastated by this news and decide to give up their farms; Gummi tries to comply with the regulations but can’t bring himself to kill his beloved ram; and Kiddi refuses point-blank to comply with the law. Faced with the extinction not only of their unique breed of sheep but also of their family legacy and way of life, the sensitive Gummi and stubborn, hard-drinking Kiddi need to come together if they’re to save Gummi’s prize ram and a small set of ewes from the veterinarians and the agricultural authorities.

The film starts as a quirky eccentric comedy centred around the brothers’ personality quirks and their feud, and gradually develops into a bleak tale in which the two are driven to desperate measures and risk their lives to maintain a family / cultural tradition. The isolation of these elderly sheep-farmers in a remote part of Iceland, and the self-reliant, taciturn nature such isolation engenders (even if its flip-side is eccentric and silent stubbornness) becomes apparent; even the government inspectors and the family lawyer from the south are puzzled by the brothers’ behaviour, and talk too much (and they’re Icelanders!) for the viewers’ comfort. Audiences become very aware of the attachment farmers like Gummi and Kiddi have for their animals and for the harsh physical environment where they have lived all their lives, and of the intrusive inspectors and veterinarians from Rejkjavik who look out of place in the windswept (and, in winter, snow-laden) open landscapes.

The plot is perhaps too simple and the characters of Gummi and Kiddi a little too stereotyped to carry the film’s themes of community and family ties, and how fragile these can be, successfully. The film spends more time with Gummi (whose daily routines are on the dull side) and not much at all on Kiddi so we know little about Kiddi other than that he drinks too much and is prone to anger and even violence. At times the film does drag with long silences – but that’s probably a problem for us city people with our short attention spans and dislike of long pauses in conversation – and the family conflict that split apart the brothers is never explained so viewers remain in the dark about how it came to have such a deep effect on the two men.

The film might have been more successful had the characters of the two men been more developed, and perhaps a sub-plot included as well. Something about how the outside world increasingly encroaches on the isolated sheep-farming community in a remote part of Iceland, and the changes it brings – changes that threaten a traditional way of life and the physical environment – would have added an extra layer of interest and conflict. The two brothers’ reaction to the threat that the authorities pose to their beloved ram and ewes may seem pathetic to some viewers and heroic (in a tragic sort of way) to others.

For a movie that is not long – it’s not quite 90 minutes – “Rams” does wear out its welcome quickly.

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.