Ugetsu: a parable of two men in pursuit of fame and glory, with social justice themes

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)

Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.

The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.

Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.

The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.

The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.

The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.

Run Lola Run: a mundane crime thriller plot set in a highly deterministic universe where humans run in preprogrammed loops

Tommy Tykwer, “Lola rennt / Run Lola Run” (1998)

A mundane plot set in Berlin about a young couple who have to replace a stash of money they need to deliver to a gang leader after one of them has accidentally left it on the train becomes an exploration of the influences of free will, determinism, random occurrence and their consequences in this fast-paced flick. A mostly techno music soundtrack, the use of animation and cinema verite techniques and an appealing main character who acts on impulse and whose colourful look contrasts strongly with her surroundings flesh out the film’s themes and add zip. In spite of the dazzling visual effects and methods used to prop up the story, the message they spin out is a fairly depressing one in which humans are no more than puppets being manipulated by unseen, unconscious forces that pervade the universe.

Lola (Franka Potente) is supposed to meet her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) and take him to meet his gangland boss Ronnie to deliver 100,000 Deutschmarks. Lola’s moped is stolen so Manni catches the train to deliver the money but panics on seeing ticket inspectors and leaves the train, forgetting to take the money with him. At the last minute he sees a homeless man pick up the money and tries to follow him but fails. He phones Lola at home, blaming her for the loss of the moped and tells her to stump up the money to replace the lost money and meet him at a public phone booth.

At this point the film divides into three versions of how Lola’s quest to get more money and save Manni from possibly being killed by Ronnie turns out. In the first version, Lola appeals to her wealthy banker father for help which is refused and Manni in desperation robs a supermarket. Lola meets Manni but are surrounded by police and the standoff between them and the youngsters ends badly. In the second version, Lola again appeals to her father for help and ends up robbing his bank but again the events that follow on don’t have a happy ending. In the third version, Manni manages to find the homeless man and get the money back from him, the moped thief ends up a cropper in a traffic accident and Lola goes into a casino and wins two bets resulting in takings of more than what she and Manni need to give to Ronnie.

In all three scenarios Lola meets characters whose lives spin out into wildly different directions as a result of her encounters. In the first run, Lola meets a woman pushing a pram, who is later shown being jailed for stealing a baby after losing custody of her own; in the second run, the same woman wins a lottery and she and her family embark on a life of luxury; in the third run, the woman becomes religious. A cyclist who offers to sell Lola his bicycle becomes a hospital patient falling in love with a nurse in the first run; in the second run, he becomes homeless; in the third run he sells his bike to the homeless man who has Manni’s cash. In all three scenarios there is a car crash involving a bank employee and Manni’s boss Ronnie but the details of the car crash differ: in the third scenario, Lola’s father is in the bank employee’s car at the time of the crash and he apparently dies at the crash scene. A security guard may or not may suffer a heart attack in these scenarios and a pane of glass being carried over a pedestrian crossing may or may not be hit by an ambulance (which might be carrying the guard). All of these scenarios emphasise how a chance meeting, a chance coincidence or a chance event may spark off a series of other incidents and events that overall come to have tremendous impacts on the lives of the people they affect directly and indirectly. What decisions Lola may make in accepting or not accepting a lift or fobbing off a vendor might have less influence on people than random events. The various encounters and incidents that occur while Lola is out racing around the streets suggest the universe is much more determinist and that for all she or Manni might do, they and the rest of the characters in the film have much less control over their fates than they realise.

What remains dormant in “Run Lola Run” though is an inquiry into why Lola and Manni are in the predicament they find themselves, why in the first place they are working for a king-pin for a gang and where Manni and Lola got the money they were supposed to deliver to Ronnie before Lola’s moped was stolen. Why does Manni blame Lola for losing the moped in the first place and what does the blame game say about their relationship? When all is said and done, the viewer realises that Lola is not a very resourceful youngster, relying on Daddy Banker to bail her and Manni out of trouble. Lola’s troubled family relationships hint at how a wealthy spoilt daughter of a banker who cheats on his wife might end up in a bad crowd but there’s no suggestion of how the girl can escape such confining circumstances. Director Tykwer appears not to question the social and economic order in which his characters live out their lives and as a result the film suggests no possibility of a change in Lola’s dysfunctional family dynamics: her father will continue to have an affair with his secretary or wind up dead, her mother will stay drunk and zonked out on daytime TV soaps, and Lola and Manni will spiral deeper into the dangerous world of drug-couriering. It’s as if in Tykwer’s world humans are little more than robots being run by programming loops.

A socialist revolutionary parable and story of Buddhist compassion in “Yuki: Snow Fairy”

Tadashi Imai, “Yuki: Snow Fairy” (1981)

In the hands of Tadashi Imai, notable as a director of social realist films in Japan in the 1950s / 1960s, the novel by children’s author Ryusuke Saito becomes a socialist revolutionary parable. Thirteen-year-old snow spirit Yuki is entrusted by her heavenly grandparents with saving a village in mediaeval Japan from robbers and rapacious samurai over a twelve-month period, after which time, if she fails, she will turn into an insubstantial grey puff of smoke. Yuki descends to earth and is befriended by orphan girl Hana who leads her to her adoptive family of other orphaned beggar children led by the one-eyed, one-legged patriarch Only One. The beggars hang about the village whose farmers pay rent to local landlord Goemon. Almost as soon as Yuki becomes known in the village, a gang of robbers attacks but Yuki is able to best their leader thanks to her ability to tame and ride Goemon’s high-strung colt Blizzard. The farmers and Goemon’s hired samurai are able to drive the robbers away.

Next thing you know, after the summer rice harvest Goemon raises the taxes the farmers must pay and this leads to a revolt against him. Goemon flees but Yuki and the beggar children pursue him and the chase leads to Goemon’s ignominious death at the bottom of a cliff. The farmers rejoice that they have overthrown their oppressor and are now able to govern themselves but a series of earthquakes shakes their confidence and leads them to wonder if Goemon’s invocation to the Demon God to rain disaster on them is having effect. At this point Yuki realises that the farmers are faltering in their belief that they can be self-governing and determines to battle the Demon God herself – though this confrontation is certain to kill her …

The social realist slant of the film’s plot is noteworthy: significantly Yuki doesn’t appear to do a great deal apart from being an inspirational role model and catalyst but that’s the point of her mission: to show humans the path to their liberation and allow them to seize their destiny and work towards freedom. Gifts are best appreciated when blood, sweat and tears are exerted in the effort to obtain them. The farmers overcome their fears at upsetting the social hierarchy but become emboldened as they realise that by working together they can defeat the robbers and get rid of Goemon. Once the Demon God intervenes on behalf of lackey Goemon, the farmers are trapped by superstition and pagan belief and Yuki realises that the psychological warfare waged by elites against the common people can be as dangerous and deadly as physical warfare. She then determines to battle the Demon God, no matter what the consequences may be for her, to free the villagers and her friends from the internal mental fetters that Goemon has placed on them to keep them under control.

The film can also be read as an example of Buddhist compassion and empathy for one’s fellow humans: Yuki resembles a bodhisattva returned to earth to help others overcome negative karma and work towards their own enlightenment. Only when one is emptied of all selfish attachments and desires, when one is prepared to sacrifice oneself for others, is nirvana possible.

The plot is easy and straightforward to follow and its pace is fairly brisk. There are stereotypical characters in the film but they never seem limited and one-dimensional in what they do and say, and Yuki herself gives the impression of being self-possessed and having reserves of inner strength. She certainly needs all that strength when she confronts the Demon God. Other characters can be fun and child viewers can readily identify with Hana and the other beggar children. The film’s delivery is so matter-of-fact and business-like that one barely blinks an eye at the schmaltzy pop music that plays while Yuki and her fellow mendicant minors travel through treacherous mountain territory to find and confront the villagers’ ultimate oppressor.

While the film’s look has dated somewhat and can be placed in the late 1970s / early 1980s, its unfailing optimism, hilarious child characters and detailed shots of nature and people hard at work cultivating and harvesting the rice in ways typical of rural Japan hundreds of years ago are sure to appeal to all age groups and pique interest in the history and culture of pre-modern Japan.

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

The Red Turtle: a pretty and glossy package with a conservative and banal message

Michaël Dudok de Wiet, “The Red Turtle” (2016)

God save us all from pretty packages with lots of high gloss finish and finicky attention to detail that ultimately reveal very little of substance to sustain for a long time. The latest such trinket is Michaël Dudok de Wiet’s animated film “The Red Turtle” which he wrote and directed with the support of Studio Ghibli and French-German distributor Wild Bunch. The film wears its influences openly: the background animation reflects the high level of technical care and attention that Studio Ghibli gives to the appearance of its films while the film’s characters show a French influence in their simple features that emphasise their generic nature.

The plot is simple and vague enough as to form a parable of sorts. A man is lost at sea during a storm and washes up on a remote island somewhere in a vast ocean. He attempts to leave the island by building a raft out of bamboo trees he finds on the island at least three times and each time he is thwarted by a force that smashes the raft’s logs from below once out at sea. This strange force turns out to be a red turtle which incurs the castaway’s wrath. The turtle climbs out of the water onto the island beach, at which point the angry castaway overturns the animal onto its back, leaving it helpless and exposed to dehydrating heat. The creature dies and the castaway, overcome with remorse, covers it in bamboo branches and leaves.

The dead animal transforms into a woman and from then on the pair find love and play happy family, bringing up a son to adulthood. The trio appear to encounter very few problems during the long years they have together, the biggest being a giant tsunami that engulfs the island and leaves it completely devastated.

Problems abound with the film’s paper-sliver thin narrative and the message it is trying to tell. Everything is so generic – even the island is generic (we can’t even tell if the island is a tropical one or one in a more temperate climate zone) – that audiences will have a hard time identifying with the characters and their issues. The island itself could have been a significant character in testing the castaway’s resilience, moral and spiritual as well as physical, and in helping him to learn something about himself. Unfortunately the island setting and its inhabitants remain passive players in the entire movie. The turtle woman is hardly more active than the island: she merely plays a stereotypical good wife to the castaway. If she teaches him anything about how to accept his fate and how to live in harmony and peace with nature and to find his niche in the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, none of this is made obvious to viewers who have to infer all these notions for themselves.

The view of woman as being at one with nature, represented by the ease with which the turtle woman emerges from her carapace in human form and returns to her original form decades later, is a tired stereotype that should have been consigned to the dust-bin decades ago. It is a dangerous and demeaning stereotype that denies women their intelligence, qualities and distinctiveness as individuals, and puts men in opposition to nature from the moment of their birth: a deterministic and narrow view of humans that takes gender for granted instead of treating it as a cultural construct. At the end of the film, all that the castaway has learned from his island experiences is that his role in life is to find a wife, raise a family and let his son go out into the world to repeat the same banal cycle.

Ultimately the film carries a very conservative and depressing message about humans and their connections to the natural world and their place in the cycle of life. Nature is mysterious and unknowable, and humans can do no more than accept this idea and submit without complaint to the natural world’s whims, as represented by the suddenness of the tsunami that smashes into the island. (Er, shouldn’t the turtle woman with her deep knowledge of the natural world have received sufficient advance warning from earth tremors to warn her men to build a raft and put out to sea before the tsunami arrived?) The possibility of humans being partners with Nature and maintaining a balance between their interests and the restrictions of the natural world does not even occur. Those viewers anticipating that the film might address philosophical issues of existence and life’s purpose will be astonished that the plot has no time for such questions.

I don’t like to say that a film has been a waste of time to watch but with “The Red Turtle”, I’ve lost 80 minutes of time that could have been better spent doing something else. The film itself could have been condensed into much less time than it took to tell its story.

2046: glossy soap opera with little profound to say about love and loneliness

Wong Kar Wai “2046” (2004)

If ever a film could be considered typical “art house” with an emphasis on visual candy, music substituting for emotion and colour for mood, and a story-line that appears to promise much but ends up saying very little, then Wong Kar Wai’s “2046” would be that film. It looks stunning and the camera lavishes a great deal of attention on period detail to evoke nostalgia for a (mostly romanticised) past. The actual events of the period in question – most of the movie is set in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore during a significant period in the history of the Chinese-speaking people in the mid to late 1960s (hey everyone, look, the Cultural Revolution was taking place in China) – take a distant backseat to the concerns of the film’s main character, an unemployed journalist and writer of seedy pulp fiction Chow Mowan (Tony Leung), who spends most of his time on screen chasing women of dubious virtue. An unhappy affair with a lady called Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung in a tiny role) sets our man Chow adrift searching for love and comfort with a series of lovely ladies beginning with high-class call girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), his landlord’s daughter and aspiring writer Jingwen (Faye Wong) and a professional gambler (Gong Li) who also happens to be called Su Lizhen. Already I think we can see where this film is going. The only problem is Chow is unwilling to commit himself fully to any of these women, stunning beauties though they are, and the result is heartbreak, lots of brooding and unhappy expressions all around. At the end of the day, Chow is as lonely as ever with only his memories to keep him company and his various loves go their separate ways.

Chow’s love affairs provide much material for a science fiction novel he is writing in which a fantastic train carries its main character (Takuya Kimura) on a never-ending journey to reclaim his memories, so that he can go forward into a new life, and during which journey he meets android stewardesses who are Chow’s women projected into the train-riding future to find true love. The only problem is that having given their hearts to Chow, the androids are unable to love. The story of the novel is intertwined with the episodes of Chow’s most significant romances, those with Bai Ling, the landlord’s daughter and the second Su Lizhen, though the film hints at other romances Chow has had which have turned out to be just as desultory and futile.

The plot is very flimsy and the characters are weakly developed, with only Zhang and Wong’s characters deserving of much sympathy from the audience as the two women try to find emotional fulfillment. Zhang gives the impression of working hard in her role while the rest of the cast sleepwalk their way through their respective parts. If the film works it is mainly because the stories are more or less threaded together along with the sci-fi subplot so that there is a constant transition between the subplot and the stories as a group. Indeed the subplot is the sole element that holds the entire narrative although the psychological outlet it provides for Chow to dump his problems is a dead end.

Though the film has been much lauded (by Western film critics) as a languid and exotic Oriental piece with gorgeous images and faces, a distinct style and haunting ambience, it really is not much more than a very glossy soap opera with nothing much to say about the nature of love and loneliness. The most viewers come away with is a platitude about finding true love at the right time and the right place but this is about as profound as the message gets. There is nothing about true love being something people might have to work at if it is to be recognised. The main character learns no real lessons from his experiences or from the novel he writes and publishes, and at the end of the film, all that can be said for him is that he will continue drifting along in life collecting more unsatisfactory affairs.

“2046” took up two hours of my time that I’ll never be able to claim back.

Cold Souls: a dull, flat and unsatisfying comedy about materialism and the nature of identity and existence

Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” (2009)

In the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” but without that film’s sprightly tone, “Cold Souls” is a metaphysical comedy intended as a commentary on Western materialist society in which souls can be traded for money just like any other commodity. Playing himself, Paul Giamatti is a typically angst-ridden New Yorker who becomes so absorbed in the characters and roles he plays that they follow him home even after the play or film has finished and end up tormenting him and playing havoc with his relationships. He discovers a clinic that can remove his soul and put it into deep storage. After undergoing the necessary procedure (and finding to his great consternation that his soul looks just like a chickpea), Giamatti is tremendously relieved. Not long afterwards though, his new soulless condition starts causing him problems with his wife (Emily Watson) and his acting career so he returns to the clinic to retrieve his soul. He and his doctor (David Strathairn) open the storage unit and discover the soul is missing. For a while, Giamatti is content to use the soul of a Russian poet called Olga, and this enables him to play Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s famous play of the same name successfully but unfortunately the Russian soul isn’t a good fit for Giamatti and he yearns for his old soul back.

Unbeknownst to both, the chickpea thing has been stolen by a soul mule called Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for a black market operator based in Saint Petersburg trafficking in stolen souls. Feeling a bit guilty, Nina contacts Paul and tells him his soul is now residing in the body of a Russian TV soap opera starlet married to the fellow running the black market soul-stealing scheme. Paul has to try to retrieve his soul back from the starlet – but is his soul agreeable to returning to its original owner? It seems that Paul’s soul is having such a fun time with the starlet that it wants to stay with her permanently.

The film could have been very funny with a serious message about how commodifying souls can encourage greed, increase unhappiness and discontent, and even lead to violence and the kind of trafficking shown. (If the clinic run by Strathairn’s character had been the black market operator or the doctor himself an unscrupulous money-sniffing quack, that would have provided the film with the frisson it needs rather than having to resort to needless stereotypes about Russian-style capitalism that imply that whatever Russians do turns out bad.) Intriguing questions about why we have souls and the difference between American souls and Russian souls could have been asked and left unanswered so that the audience is challenged to come up with its own answers about questions of life and the purpose of existence. By choosing to film the story as drama as well as comedy, director Barthes turns “Cold Souls” into a dreary plod. Giamatti is enthusiastic about sending himself up and provides the main spark of life as long as he is on the screen; but once he disappears, the movie becomes very leaden. Support characters like Nina, the doctor, Giamatti’s wife and the Russian starlet could have been very interesting and entertaining, even in a brief superficial stereotyped way in the case of the starlet, but under Barthes’ control end up flat.

Under a different director, the idea of a society where souls can be bought and sold (and stolen and trafficked) could have given us rich comedy and plenty of food for thought … but in the hands of Barthes, in the guise of “Cold Souls”, it just ends up … soulless.

The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carrying a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.

Allegro Non Troppo: a suite of animation shorts of breath-taking imagination and originality, and much food for thought

Bruno Bozzetto, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976)

A spoof of and tribute to Walt Disney’s famous “Fantasia” film, “Allegro Non Troppo” is noteworthy mainly for its six animation shorts set to short works of famous composers in Western formal compositional music linked by a live-action narrative of slapstick comedy. The black-and-white live-action sequences are insincere, painful to watch and utterly forgettable; they feature dull and dated comedy skits that mock the elderly female characters in them and viewers can dispense with these interludes. The animation sequences range from surreal and playful to almost realistic and painful, with plenty of room for director Bozzetto to give his views on human evolution, the nature of love and the effects of materialism, conformity, capitalism and industrialisation on human societies and possibly the future of humanity itself.

Of the various animated sketches, the best ones are those attached to Jean Sibelius’ “Val Triste”, in which an aged cat lingering about a ruined mansion remembers the comfortable life he had in the building; to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, in which a snake fails to persuade Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit it offers and as punishment must experience all the ills of capitalist society; and to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”, detailing the evolution of life from primitive one-cell origins to the triumph of humanity. The animation is highly imaginative and inspired, frequently bizarre and mind-blowing, and always colourful. Each sketch has its own style of animation and colouring. The music is not bad though the choice of pieces might leave something to be desired as not all the music is equally good and the animated pieces, taking their cues from the music, are also uneven.

The Sibelius sequence is very moving and tragic: the cat tries to remember the humans who cared for it, and the warmth of the mansion in its former glory – but memory eventually fades and the cat also fades with it. Finally what remains of the mansion is destroyed by a wrecking ball. The Vivaldi piece (featuring “Concerto in C major for 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, Strings and Continuo RV 559”) is light-hearted and bright in colour, yet sympathetic to the tiny bee inconvenienced by the two large humans romping and making love in her garden.

While the animation can be stunning, and some of the messages contained within individual segments invite thoughtful examination, the film as a whole is very uneven and the mockery in the live-action sequences is unnecessarily cruel and may appear alien and strange to contemporary audiences.

 

Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.