The Sampo: good-looking film with a moral let down by watered-down story and wooden acting

Risto Orko and Alexander Ptushko, “The Sampo” (1959)

A joint Finnish-Soviet fantasy production aimed at a family audience, “The Sampo” is a very loose retelling of some of the tales in the Finnish national epic Kalevala. In the original stories, the aged bard and poet Väinämöinen is the major character but here becomes a support character with scattered screen time here and there. The film’s focus falls on the fortunes of the hunter Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin) and the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) as they battle the evil witch Louhi of the North Country (Pohjola). The trouble starts when Louhi (Anna Oroshko), greedy for personal wealth, decides she wants a sampo made. The only person in the world with the knowledge and skill to make a sampo, a magical object that can dispense endless riches, is Ilmarinen so Louhi contrives a scheme to force him to come to her. She kidnaps his beautiful young sister Annikki (Eve Kivi) and holds her prisoner; the news soon reaches Ilmarinen. Lemminkäinen has been wooing Annikki so he and Ilmarinen leave their community Kaleva and travel together to Pohjola to rescue Annikki. Louhi demands ransom in the form of the sampo and another arduous task from both men so they oblige and eventually Annikki is released to go back home with them.

Sounds all very straightforward but some complications arise: Lemminkäinen decides Louhi can’t be allowed to keep the sampo all to herself so he swims back to the witch’s cave hideout while Ilmarinen and Annikki continue home. Lemminkäine ‘s rash actions endanger himself and his entire community in Kaleva as Louhi swears vengeance on him and tries to destroy his people by stealing the sun. Väinämöinen (Urho Somersalmi), portrayed as the community’s leader, leads his people in a cooperative effort to fight Louhi and her army of sorcerers. Unfortunately for everyone, the sampo itself ends up destroyed, its parts scattered throughout the world, and Lemminkainen is only able to retrieve a small part for Kaleva.

Viewers may quibble that a TV series with hour-long episodes would have better suited Kalevala with its different stories and their subplots: the great Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were successfully televised as ongoing TV series by India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan in the 1980’s at a time when that country was much less wealthy than it is now and the special effects needed for both shows must have been a massive and hugely expensive undertaking. As it is, “The Sampo” is a series of little episodes in an overarching story about ambition and greed and the disasters they cause along with the value of cooperative effort in overcoming a great enemy. There is some redemption as well. At least the moral messages that appear compensate for the patchy good-versus-evil plot which doesn’t do justice to the epic’s complexity and dark characters. Some original Kalevala stories are worked into the movie but in a way that drains them of their power and prevents them from enriching the plot and its characters: to take one example, the subplot in which Lemminkäinen’s mother (Ada Voitsik) rescues her son and brings him back to life is so whitewashed from its original that a lesson about effort and sacrifice is precluded and so the subplot becomes unnecessary. One story that unfortunately didn’t find its way into the film is Louhi’s all-out showdown with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen in the boat carrying the sampo; the script-writers substituted two weak episodes separating the fight and the sampo’s destruction.

The film’s main asset is its special effects: they may look cheap and some are cheesy but they’re right for the job and aren’t excessive for their scenes. (Now that would be cheesy!) Ilmarinen’s separate creations of a horse and boat from fire and metal are suitably awe-inspiring and his sampo, a slightly hokey creation of coloured crystal, actually gains credibility as a wealth generator and then as a good luck charm once in pieces. Scenes in which Kaleva is cursed with everlasting blizzard and winter and in which some unfortunate people are covered over with snow are commendable. On the other hand some effects are quite comic and probably unnecessary: the twirling bear shot merely looks weird and creepy and the scenes with a talking birch tree are laughable.

Speaking of trees, yours truly finds the main characters Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen as solid, expressive and unyielding as wood: they don’t so much talk to each other and to others as declaim their sentences. Lemminkäinen dares just about anything and everything to knock him over – his face is frozen into expressions of resolution of varying degrees – and even death doesn’t wipe that mask off his visage. Annikki is just a McGuffin figure to get Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen up and running to Pohjola to meet the witch. The only worthy acting (maybe over-acting) comes from Oroshko who clearly relishes playing Louhi. Believe it or not, Oroshko is female in spite of her character’s very mannish appearance with overgrown eyebrows. Some of Louhi’s sorcerers offer performances to match Oroshko in overdone drama, especially when they think of the sampo and say in wonder: “…. sampo! …” and get that dazed faraway look in their eyes, but the camera doesn’t pay much attention to these individuals.

The film looks very beautiful and colourful in a way that might remind viewers of a certain age of Walt Disney nature documentaries of the 1950s – 60s; wherever the opportunity beckons, the camera lavishes its gaze on the silvery forests, the lakes and rivers, and general Finnish countryside scenery. The impression is of serenity and tranquillity in the dark and still birch trees. Opening scenes in the movie show rural people at work cutting down trees to clear the land for planting crops. Once the focus is on Lemminkainen and Ilmarinen journeying to Pohjala to save Annikki, the film pays no more attention to portraying rural Finnish life other than showing how men and women dress and how the interiors of their houses might appear. Unfortunately being a good-looking fantasy film isn’t enough: a strong plot, lots of adventure, memorable characters tested and matured by adversity, and interactions with conflict – and the original Kalevala has plenty of these! – are just lacking here.

Ashik Kerib: flat plot and hammy acting wreck ethnographic survey / travelogue of Azerbaijani culture

Sergei Parajanov and David Abashidze, “Ashik Kerib” (1988)

The last completed film by Georgian / Armenian director Sergei Parajanov before his death in 1990, “Ashik Kerib” is a sumptuous survey of the culture of Azerbaijan as it was from the 1500’s to the early 20th century. The film takes the form of a retelling of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov’s short story of the same name (which in Azeri and Turkish means “Unfortunate Lover”) and is performed as a children’s fairy-tale. Two young lovers, the minstrel Ashik and a rich trader’s daughter Magul-Megeri, pledge their love and wish to marry; unfortunately the girl’s father, greedy for a huge bride price, prevents the marriage from going ahead unless Ashik can cough up the wealth required in 1,001 days. During this period, Ashik has many adventures in faraway lands and undergoes one trial after another as he tries to raise the money. If he doesn’t get back in time with the bride price, Magul-Megeri’s mean old man will marry her off to the equally odious Kurshudbek. Can Ashik raise the money and return home in time to claim his love?

As with Parajanov’s previous films like “The Color of Pomegranates” and “The Legend of Suram Fortress”, the film’s presentation is rich and layered with many shots of still life (a jug on a rock against a mountain waterfall, Persian-style miniaturist portrait paintings, displays of jugs, cups and musical instruments) that demonstrate what everyday life was like for Azeri people or the rich and middle-class among them at least. Scenes are filmed at some distance from the actors to show off their cultural context which helps to explain why they think and behave the way they do; there are very few close-ups and many of those are head-and-shoulder shots. The effect is one of a series of moving dioramas which suit the episodic nature of the plot, broken up into many short chapters each revolving around one incident. Dialogue is minimal and serves mainly to advance the story. The musical soundtrack is nearly continuous throughout the movie and doesn’t match the action closely so some viewers may find the wailing singing annoying and shrill.

There are many outdoor scenes which give the impression of Azerbaijan as a semi-arid grassy country where horses and Bactrian camels seem to be the main animals used for transport. Urban life takes place in small towns or large villages of old stone buildings.

Aimed at children, the film often features histrionic acting by villains or those who threaten Ashik in some way. Villains are readily identified by their lurid make-up and hammy, buffoonish actions. The two lead roles are passive and make little effort to overcome the obstacles that separate them: things happen to Ashik and he suffers and despairs a great deal but the plot’s convolutions give him no opportunity to try to improve his fortunes. This is where the film founders: if it’s a fairy-tale, surely Magul-Megeri and Ashik should have some direct or indirect access to magic so they could help each other? Magul-Megeri could find a wise woman or magician to send a helpful dove to guide Ashik and keep him out of trouble, and that dove could convey communications between the two to keep each other’s spirits up and hold Kurshudbek at bay. The film already deviates from the original short story as it is: if Parajanov and Abashidze had followed it closely, the plot would end up as a remake of one of Parajanov’s other films in which a Romeo leaves his love to pursue fortune and ends up wealthy but forgets to return home and marry the girl pining for him.

As it is, the plot and Ashik wander from one struggle to another until time runs out and something has to be done to get Ashik back home. There’s very little sense of the wonder and enchantment that should have accompanied this otherwise interesting ethnographic survey of Azeri culture. Usually with films in which a hero must endure trials and tests of character in a fairy-tale narrative, the main character is seen to change into a nobler person and proves a worthy marriage partner. This doesn’t happen with “Ashik Kerib” and so in spite of the beautiful visual work and the good-looking lead actors, the film becomes just an exotic moving travelogue with some interesting still-life scenes but little else to hold the audience’s attention.

Viy: Gothic fairy-tale horror film of Cossacks and seminarians threatened by witches, vampires and demons

Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, “Viy” (1967)

A rare 1960s Soviet film in the horror genre, “Viy” is more Gothic fairy tale than a straight horror film, due to its close adaptation of the original short story by 19th-century Ukrainian / Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Yet the film itself has the look of many horror movies made in the West at the same time with lots of colour, some excellent photography and a staged look to the sets. What makes this movie different from contemporary horror films is that the story is steeped in the culture of the people and time from whom and which Gogol was inspired to write his story. The setting is in rural Ukraine some time in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Slavic-speaking people settled in the eastern and southern parts and inherited customs and folkways from people already living there that became the basis for Cossack culture. An Orthodox seminary breaks up for holidays and the students walk to their homes: three of them decide to take a short-cut across some fields but get lost. One student, Khoma (Leonid Kravulyov), stays at a farmhouse and meets an old witch there who tries to ride him like a horse; he beats her severely and runs away home. Later he is contacted by his seminary to be told that he must say prayers for a Cossack chieftain’s dying daughter (Natalia Varley). He is forced to travel to the village where the chieftain and his family live and discovers to his dismay that the girl is not only now dead but may be the incarnation of the old witch. The chieftain compels Khoma to stay in the village and say prayers for three nights for the girl who specifically requested the young man’s presence before her death. During his stay, Khoma gets drunk, acts stupid and tries to escape but the chieftain and his servants make sure that every night for three nights running Khoma is in the dilapidated church next to the young woman’s bier reading and chanting prayers.

The first half of the film builds up steadily to the moment when Khoma’s three-night ordeal begins; there isn’t much to attract people looking only for horror but for parents and children watching together, the scenes of past peasant and religious life in a faraway country will be of interest. The character of Khoma is clearly established: he’s young and not particularly devout, and he likes to drink and have a good time with the other seminary students. By the time he starts his nightwatch, viewers already have a clue his faith in God is shaky and there’s a good chance he won’t last the three nights. The villagers look up to him and call him “philosopher”, the chieftain is more suspicious of him but insists on his presence as the daughter had asked for him by name. The teachers at the seminary treat him as a bit of a fool. Apart from Khoma, everyone else plays support but the film is all about a test of one fallible man’s character and faith when surrounded by evil. Kravulyov perhaps looks too healthy and robust to play a fragile, naive youth but his portrayal of Khoma as perhaps not too bright and very out of his depth in the real world away from the shelter of the seminary is very good.

And what evil there is, in the second half of the film – the special effects might not be great by the standards of horror films made outside the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the 1960s but they’re adequate for “Viy”: the girl’s coffin flies through the air in circles, giant hands emerge from the walls and floors and deformed creatures literally crawl out of the woodwork to menace Khoma. They cannot breach the circle of chalk he has drawn around himself so they call for Viy, the biggest and most evil demon of all, to break through the magic protection sustained by Khoma’s rapidly fading courage and confidence. Some of the acting probably needs to be more overdone, the demon make-up and costuming are at once hokey and scary, and Viy does look like a laughable carnival freak but the demon attack on Khoma is truly frightening though not at all gory. The animated skeletons and a close-up of a cute bristling monster weasel are major highlights. The filming method used in the horror scenes is outstanding with the camera continuously circling around Khoma or the flying coffin to create a sensation of delirious fear, dizziness and helplessness.

Apart from the use of special effects and the constantly rotating camera during the nightwatch scenes, the cinematography isn’t very remarkable though it does show the colour and flavour of rural Ukrainian life of several hundred years ago very well. The aerial riding scene is good with aerial photographs of lakes and forests whizzing by in the background behind the witch and Khoma to suggest the couple’s speedy flight. The music soundtrack by Karin Khachaturyan is notable with very screechy violin strings in parts and softer, more bell-like tones in other parts.

Viewers will note a sexual subtext to the story: the witch’s ride can be read as a metaphor for seduction or rape and the chieftain himself suspects Khoma of having had sexual relations with his daughter. He knows Khoma is poor and tempts him with the promise of a thousand gold coins in payment if the young man can sit through the three nights with the girl’s corpse so the night-watch is as much a test of his self-control and honesty as it is a test of his religious faith. Perhaps if the film-makers had deviated from the original short story during the horror scenes and allowed the witch to try to seduce Khoma and tempt him with pleasure mixed with terror, the film might have become an artistic work in its own right that appeals to all audiences and not simply a retelling of a story with fairy-tale elements.

There aren’t many horror films that mix horror with dark fantasy, folk-tale elements and an examination of human nature and superstitious cultures, and put them all in a world that’s at once ordinary yet fantastic enough that witches, vampires, demons and werewolves can live there and “Viy” remains a good example of what’s possible with that kind of fusion.

Princess Iron Fan: first Asian full-length animated movie is an overstretched “short cartoon”

Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming, “Princess Iron Fan” / “Tian Shan Gong Zhu” (1941)

This retelling of a Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West” featuring the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his disciples Sun Wukong aka the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie who is part-human / part-pig and the not too-bright human Sha Wujing is historically valuable for being the first Asian full-length (over 40 minutes) animated movie to be released. It was also the third animated full-length movie released in the world after Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and Dave Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. The film also kick-started the Japanese animation movie industry after its export to Japan in 1942 blew away the natives there and prompted the Japanese navy to commission a home-made full-length animated movie (“Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors”) that came out in 1945. Made under very difficult conditions in Shanghai – China at the time was occupied by Japan, the Communists and Nationalists were fighting the Japanese military and the workshop where the film was made had been bombed in 1937 – “Princess Iron Fan” is impressive to watch with beautifully detailed backgrounds and very active and excitable characters. The film uses the rotoscoping animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement frame by frame: this technique saved a lot of money and renders the characters in the movie very life-like with  lively and shining eyes (of actual actors, I should add).

As the copyright has apparently expired, the film can be seen in one bloc on Youtube.com but without subtitles for non-Chinese speakers. The plot is straightforward: Xuanzong and his followers try to visit a town but their path is blocked by a fierce fire demon. To get rid of him, they need an iron fan from a beautiful goddess but she refuses to lend it to them. Monkey King and Zhu Bajie each try to get the fan off the sulky lady – Monkey King himself tries a neat trick in which he transforms into a tiny ladybug and gets himself swallowed by the goddess so he can kick around her stomach and cause aches and pains – but both followers discover she has tricked them by giving them dud fans that only fuel the flames. The three disciples also have to battle the goddess’s husband the Bull King and subdue him if they are to get hold of the real iron fan.

The plot unravels in a series of episodes and each is long – there’s a lengthy sub-plot in which a disguised Zhu Bajie tries to seduce a fox lady and then the goddess herself – so viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese stories or who can’t understand the Mandarin language spoken in the film may think each episode is independent of the others and wonder why it has to be there. The characters’ looks and movements appear influenced by old Walt Disney cartoons – the Monkey King has rubbery arms and legs and twirls at hyper-Mach speeds while flying through the air pursued by the fire demon or the Bull King – but there is a definite Chinese flavour and style in the backgrounds, reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings of landscapes and nature, drawn for the movie and most male human characters look very Chinese. The foxy lady looks Betty-Boopish with her huge eyes and elaborate hair-style.

The film aims to entertain as well as teach children about their myths and legends and there’s slapstick galore accompanied by constant music and descriptive sound effects that again show the Walt Disney influence. A house forced to bend with a storm puts out hands to stop its roof from flying away and a cat, clinging to the roof for dear life, sees all his fur rip off his body hair-strand by hair-strand.

The film has the feel of an extended cartoon short with three linked episodes of gags and action, one of which centres around Zhu Bajie, the others focussing on the Monkey King, and none of the characters having much personality development. There are breaks in continuity as well – how the Monkey King escapes out of the goddess’s stomach isn’t clear from the film – and some of the frames seem to wobble and the characters’ lines go watery as if the whole film had gone underwater. Given the conditions it was made under, “Princess Iron Fan” looks much better than expected and some special effects, especially the hot flames for the fire demon and a scene in which two characters move behind a semi-shuttered screen, are very well done. Scenes are milked for all they’re worth for humour and drama and fight scenes are very realistic. Western audiences may find the plot and theme of collective action being better than individual action dull and the film is probably of more value to Chinese and other Asian audiences familiar with tales of the Monkey King’s adventures.

The Legend of Suram Fortress: Georgian folk-tale of self-sacrifice and love of country retold in a beautiful film

Sergei Parajanov, “Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa” /  “The Legend of Suram Fortress” (1986)

“The Legend of Suram Fortress” is based on an old Georgian folk tale as rewritten in the 19th century by writer Daniel Chonqadze. The plot isn’t hard to follow but there are digressions that almost overwhelm the narrative. Mediaeval Georgia is at war with nearby countries and needs strong fortifications to remain secure; all but one fortress hold strong against the country’s enemies. No-one knows how to make the fortress at Suram secure: an early scene shows the newly reinforced stronghold crumbling before the camera, the lens itself splashed with mud and water. During this time the Prince of Georgia sees fit to free his serf Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) who is left homeless and penniless as a result. He vows to buy the freedom of his love Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili) and to marry her but she foresees that he won’t return. Durmishkhan leaves Georgia and meets a rich merchant Osman-agha who tells the youngster his own history and conversion to Islam. Osman-agha takes on Durmishkhan as a son and heir and teaches him his trading business. Over the years Durmishkhan becomes a wealthy trader, marries and has a son called Zurab, and himself converts to Islam. In the meantime Vardo, despairing that she will never see Durmishkhan again, becomes a fortune-teller.

The situation in Georgia worsens and Osman-agha leaves his business to Durmishkhan and returns to Georgia where he dies. Durmishkhan and a grown-up Zurab (Levan Uchaneishvili) go to Georgia and – the plot becomes hazy at this point – Zurab enters the Prince’s service. The Prince orders all fortresses to be strengthened but Suram continues to crumble. He sends some envoys who include Zurab to visit the ageing Vardo (Sofiko Chiaureli) who, on recognising Zurab as her old lover’s son, keeps him aside from the others and tells him that a young blond and blue-eyed man must be bricked up alive in the fortress walls for the fortress to stand strong. Zurab, not knowing anything about Vardo’s past, later realises he is that man.

The narrative and Parajanov’s idiosyncratic style of directing that makes his movies akin to unfolding scrolls of dioramas of picturesque scenery inhabited by moving people and animals combine to make difficult viewing which is why repeated viewings may be necessary to fully appreciate this and similar films that showcase an unfamiliar culture through one of its stories. Although Parajanov breaks his tale into several episodes – the break-up does tend to disturb the film’s flow – in each episode the style of filming, with the camera set back some distance from the action and often at odd viewpoints such as knee-height or looking down from a balcony, means viewers have to try to take in action at the top of the screen (background scenes) as well as in the middle and front of the screen. There are many outdoor scenes, some of them spectacular and shot from afar, that almost amount to overkill for audiences more used to seeing movies in which action is shot fairly close up and the scenes or backgrounds are made generic or stereotyped enough to throw the focus onto the actors. Some of the outdoor locations – in particular the precipitous staircase to Vardo’s home after she becomes a fortune-teller – are so breath-taking that they deserve a longer still-life shot to themselves than they get in the film. The cast includes animals of the hoofed kind: horses, sheep, camels in many shots to themselves as groups and individuals and a couple of llamas (methinks that was an oversight) in one shot.

In this kind of film where plot and context override everything the quality of acting is not important so here it is minimal. Actors speak but don’t necessarily face one another – they tend to face the camera or look away from the recipient when speaking. If they appear to converse together, the camera frames their entire bodies and the activity around them. The dialogue serves to push the plot and feelings and opinions are not expressed. Viewers have to guess at what motivates Osman-agha then to give up his business and wealth, convert back to Christianity and return to Georgia at the risk of losing his life as his history forms a major sub-plot that may say something about how fluid ethnic and religious identities and loyalties can be and how easily small Christian Georgia could be swallowed up by the larger Islamic Turkish and Persian empires to its south. Perhaps Osman-agha’s motivation ties in with the film’s theme of self-sacrifice and loyalty to ideals higher than oneself: the aged merchant must be aware that renouncing Islam would lead to his death but his loyalty to the country of his birth and its religion overrides any qualms he has about being killed for apostasy. Another character whose motivations can be a puzzle is Vardo who knowingly sends her ex-lover’s son to his death yet mourns him at his grave. There’s the possibility any human sacrifice could have sufficed to strengthen the fortress and Vardo made up the bit about the sacrifice being an Adonis pin-up out of spite.

Some idea of Georgian culture and society as militant, passionate and heroic can be gleaned from the film though viewers may miss many background cultural details in following the plot and digesting the film’s tone and look. There are definite cultural influences from the Islamic societies south (Turkey and Persia) and from the Caucasus region; the music soundtrack often features the harsh and shrill winding melodies associated with Middle Eastern countries. The overall look is very busy with constant movement in the foregrounds and backgrounds of most scenes and the pace seems quite brisk though the shots are not short and the camera doesn’t move often.

Although “… Suram Fortress” isn’t as abstract as its 1969 predecessor “The Color of Pomegranates” and its plot and structure make it a more accessible film to general audiences, the narrative and visual style compete for attention so the film is tiring to watch. Parajanov’s distinctive style of filming recounts the legend in a way that brings out its dark magic. The legend itself harks back to a pre-Christian past of nature worship which included  placating the gods with human sacrifices and suggests even man-made inanimate objects such as buildings require the appropriate homage and rituals.

The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova): an idiosyncratic film that preserves the spirit and culture of Armenian people

Sergei Parajanov, “The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova)” (1969)

A true labour of love, this film is a meditation on the life of the Armenian poet who was born Harutyun Sayatyan and came to be known as Sayat-Nova (Persian for “King of Songs”). Since the film isn’t intended as an authentic blow-by-blow account of Sayat-Nova’s life, here is a quick rundown of his life (the information is from Wikipedia): born in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1712, Sayat-Nova acquired skills in writing poetry, singing and playing at least three types of stringed musical instrument. He entered the court of King Irakly II of Georgia as both full-time professional poet and diplomat and in his capacity as a dilopmat helped forge an alliance of Georgia, Armenia and Shirvan (a former state now part of Azerbaijan) against Persia. Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court for falling in love with his employer’s daughter and became a wandering troubadour. He entered the priesthood in 1759 and served in various monasteries, dying in Haghpat monastery in northern Armenia in 1795 when a foreign army invaded the building and killed the monks inside.

Knowing the background information will enable viewers to get a handle on an otherwise confusing series of visually gorgeous and lush tableaux showcasing Armenian culture and its steadfast devotion to Christianity which incorporates animal sacrifice. The film follows Sayat-Nova’s inner life  and impressions of the world around him based on his poetry and songs. The structure of the narrative is straightforward and organised into chronological episodes starting with the poet’s childhood and youth and continuing into his time at the royal court and later entry into monastic life. There are deviations into aspects of the poet’s inner life: his dreams, sexual desire and love for a woman and meditation on death. Each episode of Sayat-Nova’s outer and inner life is an opportunity for director Parajanov to highlight the culture, music and society of the poet’s time: to take one example, the poet’s childhood becomes a device to emphasise the importance of learning, education and religious study in Armenian society at the time. Scenes of the young Sayat-Nova surrounded by open books on roof-tops stress the value of books and their preservation. When the young budding poet is tired of studying books, he hangs around wool-dyers and the bath-house and again various tableaux show the dyers at work. boiling pots of dye and drenching wool into them, and various men relaxing and being scrubbed in the bath-house. These and all other tableaux of 18th-century Armenian life and culture in the film are often symbolic in ways that may be religious or hint at something darker. Demonstrating the importance of stock-breeding in 18th-century Armenia, animals appear in nearly all tableaux, culminating in one extraordinary scene in which the middle-aged poet is nearly swallowed in a flock of sheep filling up all the space and the corners of a church: there may be hints of pre-Christian nature worship in this particular scene as well. Viewers are invited to wonder at the richness and complexity of the culture and values inherent in these scenes and to meditate on what meanings, personal or otherwise, may exist within. Magic may be found and for some viewers the past itself may come alive with personal messages for them and them alone.

For this viewer at least the music soundtrack itself is amazing: it has many Middle Eastern influences, Christian choral elements and there are even hints of musique concrète: in one scene, men are working on part of a church with chisels and the noise they make is incorporated into the soundtrack rhythm. The film suggests a link between one musical instrument that Sayat-Nova plays and his sexual desire: in one scene the poet traces spirals around the body of a lute as if tracing spirals around a conch (already established as a sensual symbol of the female body). The implication is that much of Sayat-Nova’s poetry and music was inspired by personal lust and desire translated into inspiration. As though to drive the point home, the film provides an actual lust object of a muse played by Georgian actor Sofiko Chiaureli who handles five different roles in the film including the poet himself as a teenager. The very fact of a woman with flawless features playing an adolescent boy introduces a homo-eroticism into the movie which among other things got Parajanov in trouble with the Soviet government. Chiaureli and the other actors speak no dialogue and perform minimal actions with expressions that are either blank or at least gentle, kindly and serene. In maintaining a steady, calm composure throughout their scenes, not giving the least hint of injecting their own thoughts, feelings and misgivings into what they are doing, the actors demonstrate their skill.

Apart from necessary scene breaks there isn’t much editing and the camera rarely moves so each scene has a painterly quality and is a diorama of moving characters who appear two-dimensional in the way they may move from side to side. Close-ups of actors playing Sayat-Nova and those who influenced his work portray them as if they are religious icons.

For Western viewers the first half of the film is of more interest in showing more of the traditional folk culture and values of the Armenians and the pace is steady though not fast; the second half of the film which deals with Sayat-Nova’s inner life much more, with his dream and contemplation of death, is slower and more esoteric. As the poet revisits his childhood in parts, some scenes may confuse viewers with the sudden appearances of the same child actor who played Sayat-Nova early in the film. The last two episodes appear redundant as they revolve around death. In the second half of the movie also, there is a sense of aloneness and alienation: Sayat-Nova appears to be at odds with the monks in the monastery at times and doesn’t participate in the monks’ communal activities. At one point in the narrative, he even leaves the monastery to go and work among the common people. It is possible that Parajanov was projecting something of his own life and experiences in the “life” of Sayat-Nova as it plays out here.

With this and other movie-length films such as “The Legend of Suram Fortress” and “Ashik Kerib”, Parajanov was perhaps trying to capture the spiritual essence of the cultures around which the films revolve so that Armenians, Georgians and Azeris alike could see through the rituals, customs and traditions shown the reverence their ancestors had for God, their land and way of life. Why Parajanov did this must be seen in the context that he had to work in: the Soviet government did all it could to suppress religion and its rituals. In doing so, it was wiping out much of the cultures of non-Russian peoples under a multicultural façade that celebrated “folk cultures” as long as they were drained of any inner meaning. This may have been the intention as religion is often the basis of a people’s identity and culture, and without religion, people in the Soviet Union would have become easier to mould in the regime’s idea of the new Soviet citizen.

Not necessarily suited for a wide general audience due to the subject matter and its treatment but for those of open mind and who are interested in film as more than moving stories, this film is a worthwhile treat. It serves as an original and eccentric introduction to the culture and society of 18th-century Armenia through the life of one of its most famous sons.

Penelope: film’s beauty can’t compensate for static plot and characters

Ben Ferris, “Penelopa” aka “Penelope”  (2009)

Lovely to look at but beautiful, almost abstract scenes of nature and long circular panning shots that lovingly savour the object of their focus can’t compensate for a nothing story about a faithful wife moping for a long-lost husband who went off to the wars years ago. “Penelopa” imagines the interior life of Penelope, wife of Odysseus the king of Ithaca, who supported King Menelaus of Sparta in the Trojan wars. The wars last 10 years and for another 10 years Odysseus and his armies wander lost among the lands around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. During this time Penelope puts up with loneliness, worry, bringing up any children she and Odysseus may have had and fending off a horde of suitors – in ancient Greek legend, there were 108 of them – vying for her hand in marriage so they can get theirs on her wealth and properties.

Of course in real life Penelope would’ve been busy enough managing her household and assets, acting as regent for an absent king and beating off the suitors with cunning, guile and a suite of bodyguards but “Penelopa” makes no reference to the life a noble woman might have led in the Age of Homer. Penelope (Natalie Finderle) spends her time lost in memories of the past and dreams about the future as represented by various rooms in her mansion. In one memory, Odysseus (Frano Maskovic) s is about to leave to journey to Troy. In one dream, Penelope finds the suitors have abused and killed all her ladies-in-waiting; in another dream, she strings her husband’s bow and kills off the suitors. The boundary between reality and Penelope’s inner world dissolved, our heroine resumes her patient wait for her husband.

The sense of isolation in the mansion’s gloomy rooms, the feeling of being trapped, memories of happier times, the desolation, longing and unfulfilled desires … all hang heavy throughout the film. A powerful sense of being marginal is conveyed by the costumes: the white draped robes of the women suggest funeral garb as opposed to the men’s colourful peasant costumes. A strict separation of the genders exists here though that might not have been the original intention: the women inhabit the world of home, the interior and seem not of this planet; the men are comfortable in their world of war, physical lusts and activity.

Long left-to-right panning shots that circle various characters, very little editing and a music soundtrack dominated by slow solo piano melodies create a languid pace and maintain a sense of introversion and contemplation. Passing of time is indicated by changes in nature: summer storms that occur early on are replaced by piles of autumn leaves over the forest floor. A dream-like quality is emphasised by characters fading in and out of scenes that might have come straight out of paintings.

In spite of its visual beauty, “Penelopa” leaves this viewer unimpressed: on the assumption that the climax is a dream, the plot cycles about with its characters remaining much the same at the end as at the beginning. Penelope will have her good days full of hope for Odysseus’s return and her bad days when she can barely get out of bed. Odysseus will continue to fade in and out of her dreams. The ladies-in-waiting continue to serve her loyally and the suitors to gorge on her hospitality. If the climax is interpreted as real then viewers may be relieved that Penelope has acted in a decisive way but then this passage becomes the only part of the film that departs from legend and the question may be asked why the rest of the film doesn’t. Penelope could be shown berating her absent spouse for abandoning her to life and holding conversations with the gods to demand why they’ve let Odysseus die and her live. In this way Penelope becomes a more active figure who can decide how she can spend her time without Odysseus: she can wait for him by moping or she can create an independent life for herself. Then we might have a great work of art that engages the mind in an enquiry on fate and the purpose of life, especially for women and children left behind by dead husbands and fathers. In ancient Greek society, such unfortunates suffered loss of status and faced an uncertain future if they didn’t belong to powerful families. Assumptions about the lives of men and women and their separate worlds, their different status and how they deal with their differences could have been challenged.

Additional questions about Penelope’s loyalty, her motivation for remaining faithful to Odysseus and whether viewers can learn something from her about faith, hope and inner resources when you are under siege from patriarchal social, economic and political institutions that allow intolerable situations such as the 108 lovestruck twats eating you out of house and home must remain unanswered.

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.

Nang Nak: ghost horror story of a love that transcends death and passage of time

A very moving and emotional story of a love that endures beyond death and time. A farmer fights in a war and leaves his pregnant wife at home. After a long recuperation from wounds and injuries, he returns to find his wife and newborn happy and safe … not knowing that they are actually ghosts. The village endeavours to tell him the truth but his wife’s ghost becomes angry and brings terror and death to the villagers.

Nonzee Nimibutr, “Nang Nak” (1999)

This Thai ghost horror story about a love that transcends death is very moving and tragic. The messages the film conveys about the fragility and impermanence of life, the Buddhist concept of the sin of attachment and refusal to accept change and flux, and the importance of community and the individual’s obligations to conform to its requirements, make “Nang Nak” complex and thoughtful. Set in rural Thailand in the late 1800’s, it follows the fortunes of a young married couple, Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and Nak (Intira Jaroenpura): Mak is required to fight for King and country and leaves his pregnant wife to work the rice farm on her own. He loses his friends in heavy fighting, suffers serious wounding himself and recuperates for a long time under the care of doctors and monks. After he recovers, the monks suggest to him that he should be ordained but Mak is anxious to go home and see his wife is all right. He travels back to the farm and sees Nak with their baby, both happy and healthy. Little does he knows what’s happened to Nak while he’s been away. Their village certainly knows; some of the villagers had to bury Nak and the newborn child some months ago …

Many viewers will come away with the impression of “Nang Nak” as a visually beautiful film with many shots of lush rainforest, grass and farming landscapes filmed under varied weather conditions at different times of the year. The emphasis on nature throughout the film serves many purposes: it shows how close humans and nature are; it demonstrates that the border between life and death, between the material and spiritual worlds, is more porous than we realise; it shows the passage of time and the changes it brings; and it is a distancing device separating Mak from the rest of the community, enabling Nak to deceive Mak, and also preventing viewers from identifying too closely with Mak and Nak’s dilemma. We know Mak has to learn the truth eventually and that Nak must go to the spirit world where she belongs. The village, led by its local monks, reclaim Mak and a senior abbot, Somtej Toh, advises Nak’s ghost to acknowledge her death and to stop terrorising and killing villagers who try to disabuse Mak of his delusions. Mak and Nak eventually realise they must separate and they promise each other that when the time comes for them to be reborn, they will be reborn in the same time period and become husband and wife again.

The film’s pace is leisurely and tension develops slowly but steadily. It picks up speed during the scene when some headstrong young men try to burn down Mak’s house and a storm generated by Nak’s ghost leads Mak away towards safety. The film’s pace bogs down during the ritual at Nak’s grave in which Somtej Toh soundlessly chants to Nak and for Western audiences, the emotionally intense farewell between Mak and Nak can come close to mawkishness. Why the chanting is soundless may be a puzzle to some: it may be that the intended audience (Thai people who know the legend) know the words anyway and they need not be repeated, or that Nimibutr might not have wanted to offend religious sensitivities by making them audible, especially as only part of the ritual might be used.

In spite of the simple and straightforward plot, practically given away by an unseen narrator at the beginning, the themes that flesh it out sit very lightly in the film. Kraibutr and Jaroenpura play their parts quite minimally, their actions and speech doing most of the emotional expression though Nak is very clingy and weepy where Western audiences might be concerned. The minimal acting fits in with the tenor of the film which treats its subject at a distance with the use of voice-over narration at the beginning and the end of the film, which clearly states that the story is a popular legend in Thailand.

Brief scenes in the film can be very graphic and violent – a scene in which Mak discovers a woman’s corpse being eaten by monitor lizards is especially horrific – but “Nang Nak” is well worth watching. Audiences interested in seeing how ordinary people in Thailand used to view life and how their lives were regulated by austere Theravada Buddhism and folk superstition together should see this film. It’s interesting to see how fear of the spirit world can be used by religious and communal authorities to pull people into line and at the same time preserve a person’s psychological health and well-being; a scene in the movie where some monks visit Mak at home clearly shows Mak to be suffering from psychological denial. The ritual at Nak’s grave can be interpreted as guiding Mak through a process of grieving and letting go, and enabling him to move to a new stage of life. While we may like to see Mak and Nak reunited, the passage of time and change itself dictate that this reunification is unhealthy for both of them.

Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)