The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet café and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.

Stoker: psychological thriller let down by stereotyped characters and poor scripting

Park Chanwook, “Stoker” (2013)

Appropriately Chanwook Park’s Hollywood directing debut is a psychological thriller featuring an oddball protagonist who has lived a life of isolation for a long time and who carries out a devastating revenge against someone who has destroyed her family unit. (This scenario will be familiar to fans of Park’s Vengeance trilogy films.) On the eve of her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) hears that her father has died in a bizarre car accident and she and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) duly attend her old man’s funeral and must entertain the guests at the lunch-time wake. One of those guests is Dad’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into Mum’s life and affections. For someone besotted with Evelyn’s porcelain beauty and brittle spirit, Uncle Charlie pays rather too much attention to India herself. In the meantime the house-keeper and well-meaning Aunty Gin (Jacki Weaver) disappear mysteriously and India later discovers they have been murdered. India also learns a few things about Uncle Charlie and his murky past, and how his past may be connected with her present, her relationships with her parents, separately and together, and what these mean for her future as she leaves adolescence behind.

The plot is based on the Alfred Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt”, in which a character, also called Charlie, preys on a widow and her daughter, and “Stoker” contains several visual references to Hitchcock’s work (“Psycho” most notably since this is the Hitchcock film most people know). However, in spite of a fine acting performance by Wasikowska, “Stoker” comes across as rather hollow compared to Hitchcock’s work. This may be due to the script, penned by actor Wentworth Miller, that Park worked with: the dialogue isn’t very good and some scenes in which India goes to school and is bullied by male classmates do not fit well into the rest of the film. Significant characters are very stereotyped and lack depth: Kidman, in playing Evelyn, must be on a personal quest to play Blanche duBois in the “A Streetcar named Desire” production to end all such productions while Goode’s character is plain creepy from the time when India spies him observing her at Dad’s funeral right up to the climax. At least Wasikowska does an excellent job portraying India (whose middle name could be Wednesday Addams) as an outsider coping with the usual angsty teenage-girl issues like competing with her mother, coping with social ostracism at school, fending off the attentions of boys and, er … dealing with an uncle with psychopathic tendencies.

Where Park excels is in creating an atmosphere of unease and growing horror with great use of cinematography that emphasises long shots and creative panning of the camera, and beautiful visual scenes that combine the innocence of nature with the grotesque and brutal. The style of “Stoker” is rather less flamboyant and melodramatic than some of Park’s earlier films but the toned-down style suits the subject matter and its steady but sure build-up to the climax. The use of music which includes Lee Hazlewood’s song “Summer Wine” is an important element in the film’s narrative and intense atmosphere of sexual frustration and longing.

The narrative has a cyclical structure in which the same or similar visual shots bookend the film. This refers to the film’s nature-versus-nurture theme: how much of India’s character and subsequent behaviour is the product of her family genetic inheritance, and how much of her upbringing? Kidman’s character Evelyn has some poignant lines in which she talks about the reason for having children: do people have children because they hope that their children will succeed where the parents do not (or cannot)? How aware were India’s father and Charlie Stoker of her character, to the extent that the father tried to shield India from Charlie and the family way by banishing Charle and teaching the daughter hunting? If the Stoker family has a troubling relationship with psychopathy, from which there may be survival advantages (it is only because India discovers her inner psychopath that she saves her own life and Evelyn’s life), what might this say for society at large?

Strip away Park’s input and the film becomes an ordinary if creepy family drama with a tight and incestuous love triangle. A Nick Cave is needed to inject some complexity into the script so that a motivation for India being and becoming in the family way can explain why she was brought up the way she was. How the best efforts of parents often tend to reinforce psychopathic tendencies in their children rather than keeping them dormant and unrealised could also have been made clearer in the film than it is.

Upstream Color: how love and hope can overcome a cycle of evil and bring about healing

Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color” (2012)

Since making “Primer”, Shane Carruth’s career as film director and producer has definitely leapt ahead. There is still a rough-edged quality to his work but it also has a new-found poetry. A definite Shane Carruth universe based on real life, yet combining certain elements of wacky sci-fi and reality in a highly eccentric style, now exists. Compared to “Primer” which was based around the familiar SF trope of time-travel and the complications it caused for the two guys who used it, “Upstream Color” has a more straightforward narrative revolving around another familiar trope of apparent mind control and the message that that trope might embody.

Kris (Amy Seimetz), a film production executive, is drugged and abducted by a thief (Thiagos Martin). In her drugged state, Kris is tricked into handing over most of her life savings to the thief. Awaking from her drugged state, Kris discovers a worm wriggling in her body. Responding to a series of low-toned drones, Kris travels to a pig farm where the farmer, who has used sampled infrasonic sound to attract specimens of a nematode worm to his farm, performs a transfusion operation to remove Kris’s worm and inject it into a sow.

Apparently healed, Kris tries to reorganise her life but finds herself unemployed and her bank accounts empty. By chance, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is drawn to her. Through trial and error, the two discover that they have had similar experiences and start to feel one another’s emotions and pain. As they eventually piece together various coincidences in their lives to ascertain the nature of their mysterious link, a parallel story runs in which the pig farmer makes field recordings of sounds in and around his farm, travels astrally to observe people, and drowns a litter of piglets mothered by the sow who receives Kris’s worm. While the piglets are dying, Jeff attacks his co-workers and Kris suffers a panic attack.

Jeff and Kris come to realise that they are being controlled by the pig farmer and confront him. They contact several other people who have also been infected by nematode worms from the farm and surrounding forests, and bring them to the farm. In time, the pigs are made healthy and the nematode worm infestation disappears.

The film might be considered a metaphorical investigation of cycles of physical / sexual abuse of children and how those cycles can be broken by the victims acknowledging that their problem exists, owning the problem and finding for themselves the solution to the problem. The victims also reach out to others and educate them, and together they all work to eradicate the original cause and heal their environment and society. The pig farmer might be a metaphor for Evil or Satan and the thief might be Satan’s tool for spreading temptation throughout society. At the same time, out of suffering and its banal repetition, represented by the nematode worm’s life-cycle through innocent flowers, humans and pigs, love and hope can arise, and from those positive emotions can spring motivation to eliminate evil, heal wounded souls and spread good health and bounty.

The cinematography is very beautiful and often poetic: Carruth may not be a very experienced director but he has a distinctive, matter-of-fact style that finds unexpected beauty and art in even the most gruesome shots. Scenes in which nematode eggs are released into a creek and spread through it to infect an entire ecosystem are lyrical yet sinister. The use of close-ups and hand-held cameras gives a documentary feel to the action. The soundtrack is an essential character in the film though actual music is quite conventional: the pig farmer uses found sound to entrap and draw his victims to his farm to extract the fully grown worms and inject his pigs so the parasites can complete their life-cycles.

The romance between Kris and Jeff is very deep and complex, and the sex scene between them, filmed in a short, choppy series of close-up shots, reveals more intimacy than a hundred Hollywood romance films put together.

The film’s structuring can be confusing to viewers and the narrative has plenty of logic holes – shouldn’t the nematode life-cycle go from flower to pig (a herbivore) to human (a carnivore)? – plus there are loose ends a-plenty; but all the rough patches do not detract from a film that speaks up for the power of love and hope to overcome evil and heal society.

Reflections: original and beautiful use of black-and-white animation to illustrate a cosmic joke

Jerzy Kucia, “Reflections / Refleksy” (1979)

Black-and-white animation has never been used so well as in this little film about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a small scale. A newly formed adult insect struggles to emerge from its cocoon after a long period of pupation, only to be attacked by a predatory ant that has been waiting for its prey for a long time. The insect and the ant struggle but the battle is very one-sided. No sooner does a victor emerge than it too is subjected to another cosmic joke.

Simple though the narrative is, it is beautifully told in the way Kucia changes the viewer’s POV from side-on when the first insect completes its metamorphosis and is attacked, to a bird’s-eye POV when the insects fall into a puddle and fight to the death. The action moves off-screen and all we know is the crackling noise the creatures make and the ripples of black and white waves moving across the screen as the animals struggle. (Animator Kucia originally trained as a painter and his painting background is obvious in the way he uses black and white colours to show the rippling water moving across the screen and to reveal narrative.) The ripples change to show a silhouette of the trilby-hatted man watching the insects and listening to background traffic noises, waiting for a car to arrive. The man ends up playing God to both insects.

Remarkably the action looks as if it could have been done in one take without any editing as it moves from left to right continuously and then to the top right-hand corner of the screen as the ant pulverises its victim and the victim fights in sheer desperation. The final blow occurs off-screen and we have to infer it from the foot-prints left behind by the man as he leaves the puddle. With the action appearing as though in close-up, the viewer is in a position of being voyeur and therefore complicit with the trilby wearer in allowing the first insect to suffer as it does while the ant is attacking it.

As with much other Polish animation, there is grim black humour which arises from the film’s theme of the vicissitudes of Fate and the fragility of life in a particular microcosm. “Refleksy” gains its power from its style of animation, the originality of the way the action is framed, and in the way it leaves out the most significant action which has to be inferred by the viewer. The viewer is then left to ponder as to why the man didn’t act earlier with regard to the insects’ battle.

The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

House of Wax: realism versus art and artifice in horror cult film

Andre de Toth, “House of Wax” (1953)

“House of Wax” was the movie that established Vincent Price as a horror film icon and in itself is a larger-than-life cult classic. “Professor” Henry Jarrod (Price) is a wax sculptor who pursues art, beauty and perfection in a series of life-sized wax models based on historical characters and events; his particular pride and joy is a model of Marie Antoinette in her resplendent Ancien Regime finery. Jarrod regards his sculptures as his children, more human than the real humans around him, and talks to them frequently. His partner Mathew Burke (Roy Roberts), keener on making profit out of the wax figures, proposes burning down the lot to collect insurance money but Jarrod rejects the idea. Burke goes ahead anyway, the two men fight and soon a conflagration is raging through the building where the wax works are housed. Burke escapes, the building burns down in spite of fire-fighters’ best efforts at the time (the film is set in the early 1900s) and Jarrod is presumed dead.

Cut several months later, Burke is enjoying the gains of his ill-acquired wealth with a pretty socialite Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) who happens to be a room-mate of a working-class girl Sue (Phyllis Kirk). Burke soon dies in mysterious circumstances and Gray follows him shortly after. Sue happens to see Gray’s murderer who pursues her through the streets of New York City. She manages to escape him. While police investigate the deaths of Burke and Gray and the disappearance of their corpses from the morgue, a new wax museum, containing figures derived from horrific crimes and scenes of murder, opens to much fanfare. Jarrod has survived the fire and with two assistants (one of whom is played by Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Buchinski, in an early role) has restored most of his figures. Phyllis, visiting the museum with her sculptor boyfriend Scott (Paul Picerni), is drawn to and freaked out by the figure of Joan of Arc who resembles Gray. For his part, Jarrod is drawn to Sue who reminds him of his beloved Marie Antoinette figure which he intends to restore with Sue’s likeness …

The original film was made in 3D which explains several rather pointless scenes in which women dance the can-can on stage and a man advertising the wax museum’s opening bangs ping-pong balls on bats at viewers and people attending the opening. There is quite a long chase sequence early in the film with Sue and Cathy’s murderer through shadowy streets that might have come straight out of an early Hitchcock film which milks suspense and terror for all these are worth. Generally the first half of the film is quite slow with very little horror but a lot of talk and character establishment; the second half of the film when very minor characters are introduced and the plot is well under way moves quickly to tie up all loose ends and resolve underlying issues.

Price delivers no less than 100% and then some in his role as Jarrod, evoking both sympathy and revulsion from viewers. His idealistic pursuit of beauty for its own sake, spurning greed and profit, is noble although creepy at the same time. There is an underlying theme of realism-versus-artifice throughout the film; the plot deliberately confuses the two in Jarrod’s pursuit of art and Sue, and in a number of characters who, though live, might as well be puppets for Jarrod to manipulate. Viewers will see the contradiction in Jarrod’s need for actual humans – and very dead ones at that – on which to base his creations and realise his ambitions of creating art. Even live humans, whether deaf-mute ones like Bronson’s Igor or live ones like Sue’s beau, end up as putty in Jarrod’s hands regardless of whether they have feeling or not. The other actors present competent performances as required by the plot and Hollywood narrative conventions imposed on it.

There may be a second theme, not fully explored in the film, of women as things to be moulded by men and then gazed upon for their beauty and art (or artifice); the characters of Cathy Gray and Sue may be compared and contrasted in this respect as well, Cathy delighting in being a plaything of rich men and shaping her body to fit into tight-waisted clothes to satisfy the fashion diktat while Sue presents a more natural and even at times feisty would-be heroine who does her own detective work and brings it to the attention of the police.

The look of the film is colourful and near-Gothic with a strong carnivalesque atmosphere. Actors wear rich and sometimes luxurious costumes and the sets are often gaudy. Sly humour and puns are incorporated into the dialogue and sometimes performances verge on camp. The character of Igor is a stock figure in horror films but Bronson manages to carry it off in a way that makes Igor genuinely sinister.

The Sweet Hereafter: a fragmented film labouring under too many issues about loss and betrayal of children

Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)

It won quite a few Best Film and Director awards and was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars but I found Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” overly long and laboured for what it is and what it seeks to do. An ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), lobs into a small rural community grieving over the loss of several children in a school-bus accident; Stephens aims to round up enough willing applicants to launch a class action litigation suit alleging negligence against the bus company and the school insurance board. He manages to rope in a few people but the lawsuit threatens to open raw emotions and other wounds afresh among the townsfolk and set them against one another. Two significant eye-witnesses, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nicole (Sarah Polley), are unwilling to testify; Nicole in particular, despite her singer-songwriter career having been derailed by the accident, suffers from survivor guilt, resents her parents’ interest in a huge cash payout to compensate for her no longer being a money-pot, and refuses to have anything to do with the suit. While rounding up potential litigants, Stephens must also deal with his personal problems, most of which revolve around his guilt over the upbringing of his young daughter Zoe who as an adult has become a drug addict and who fears she has contracted an HIV infection after she is rejected as a blood donor.

The lonely and melancholy beauty of the harsh mountain landscape in winter, where the action takes place, provides an ideal setting for the tragedy that unfolds leisurely through flashback scenes interspersed among Stephens’ visits to the locals and his own narrative of loss, tragedy, despair and guilt. At the heart of the film is the issue of responsibility and blame, how people cope with loss, and how it has the potential to rend a community apart or bring people closer. One underlying theme is how people as individuals and as a collective and through their institutions have failed their children and themselves time and again; there is also a related theme of child sexual abuse that raises its ugly head at the film’s climax. Human institutions such as an adversarial legal system or organised religion can be dangers in this respect. Stephens, running away from his own guilt over Zoe, pours his anger at himself into posing as a crusader for social justice on behalf of the town but is ultimately thwarted by the young girl Nicole when she is called to give a witness statement.

The acting is good and restrained but I wonder if Egoyan errs on featuring too many close-ups of people about to break down and cry, as if seeing one or two almost weepy people isn’t enough to turn on viewers’ own lachrymal spigots. The blues-rock music soundtrack can be too intrusive at times, trying to stress the intense emotional aspects of the plot and the issues it raises. At one point the film appears to aspire to soap opera status by featuring two people having an affair that goes nowhere. For an otherwise low-key film, there is too much emotion and not enough questing as to how people should cope when a tragic accident that could be no-one and everyone’s fault occurs and whether it is right to apportion blame and responsibility arbitrarily and to pursue justice in a way that exploits and manipulates people’s emotions with the potential to create conflicts, grievances and problems that need never exist.

In the figure of Stephens himself, Egoyan could have raised issues about how running away from guilt and not confronting it directly but channelling it into other people’s affairs may cause friction and serious on-going conflict that escalates further. The structure of the film in which various narratives are interwoven and end up open-ended is problematic in that it offers very feeble hope with most characters left to fumble through personal demons. At the very least, we could have had some closure in which Stephens resolves (perhaps yet again after so many other failures of courage) to meet his daughter and get help and counselling for her. The climax of the film in which the lawsuit collapses due to an underlying incest issue that two family members keep hushed up jars horribly with the film’s ending in which one of the two appears as an angel of forgiveness and redemption … in a period before the bus accident!

Disappointingly the mountain landscape is a passive bystander in the film: its stunning vistas and the soft light of sun that glints on ice and snow could be the very thing that inspires hope in the community to do better by its children.

Hidden: a film about guilt, trust, colonial exploitation and manipulation of signs is overburdened by art and cleverness

Michael Haneke, “Caché / Hidden” (2005)

An imaginative if overly layered thriller about a couple threatened by an unseen and unknown stalker, Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” is a film about guilt and how its projection onto others can have the most catastrophic consequences that can last for generations. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a middle-aged Paris couple with a teenage son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), whose snugly bourgeois life-style – he’s a TV show host, she works for a publisher – is disturbed by a series of sinister videotapes and drawings being left on their door-step that suggest that someone is spying on them. Georges interprets the drawings and cassettes as referencing past childhood memories and deducts that someone called Majid, whom his parents once adopted as a child and then had institutionalised after a chicken decapitation incident, is the culprit behind the parcels. Through one of the videotapes he and his wife view, he tracks down Majid (Maurice Bénichou), now a grown man, and harasses him. The ugly contact between the two men leads to disaster for Majid, a simmering enmity between Georges and Majid’s young adult son and tension in Georges’ marriage and family life that may not have a good resolution.

Through Georges and Anne’s reactions to the videotapes, we see how they become two quite unpleasant and unsympathetic characters and the effect their behaviour has on each other and on their teenage son who soon becomes alienated from them. We see how the marriage has been slowly falling apart over the years, to the extent that when Georges visits his mother and she asks after his wife and son, he admits that he does not know very much about what his wife does. The arrival of the mysterious parcels is the catalyst for the marriage’s disintegration as Georges refuses to share important information with his wife and she starts to doubt his love and loyalty for her. We see the initial stirrings of an affair Anne may have with one of her and her husband’s social circle, a man who happens to be married to another of their friends; thus, the couple’s social circle may eventually break up. Pierrot already suspects his mother is unfaithful.

Georges’ feelings of guilt over the way he and his parents treated Majid as a child, and his mother’s attitude towards Majid’s welfare – she does not remember the episode when he speaks to her about it – is a metaphor for France’s treatment of its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, and how the French pretend not to know or remember how their subject peoples were often dispossessed of their lands and other resources, expected to adopt French culture, and suffered alienation from their own cultures as a result. The metaphor can be extended to other European and Western countries that also founded colonies on other continents and robbed the indigenous peoples there of their lands and destroyed their cultures. Majid’s meeting with Georges and Georges’ subsequent harassment of him and his son lead to personal disaster for Majid, at which we question who is really the victim and who is the bully in the wider post-9/11 context that the film was made in and which it subtly references for Western audiences.

The film is remarkable in the way Haneke stages several shots so as to appear like a stage drama in which the audience is forced to be complicit in the action, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film “Rear Window”. Viewers are invited to speculate on who is sending the videotapes and the drawings, and even to anticipate what will happen next. The low-key and quiet nature of the film itself forces it to be a character-driven piece dependent on the skills of the actors, and in this endeavour, Auteuil, Binoche and Bénichou do not disappoint. A death scene is treated almost as Greek tragedy in its stage-drama shot; the audience is almost expected to act as a Greek chorus. The film’s slow and easy pace and its cool, almost icy style mirror the bourgeois class’s studied indifference to emotions and unresolved inner conflicts that can erupt unexpectedly over innocent things. The events that occur during the film and Georges’ interpretation of them leave him in an infantile state as he withdraws into a cocoon-like bedroom, takes sleeping tablets and curls up in bed.

Comparisons between Haneke’s film and Alfred Hitchcock’s work are apt: the videotapes and drawings themselves serve as MacGuffin devices that in themselves have no meaning except for Georges who imposes a personal narrative based on unresolved guilt on them. The fact that he and wife Anne work in media-related industries, in which truth can be edited and shaped by canny producers and directors to fit narratives that appeal to audience expectations and exploit their desires and fears, is significant: here Georges, initially the exploiter of dreams and desires, ends up being the exploited one. The irony is that having been exploited, Georges is then driven to more acts of lies and exploitation to drive away and repress his fears further to no avail.

The film’s closing scene in which Pierrot meets Majid’s son and has a conversation with him can have many interpretations including a conspiracy and reconciliation; it rather spoils the thriller template that the film hangs from but then that’s my problem to deal with. If anything, the film is overburdened by Haneke’s intellectual gaming with the audience and over-layering of the idea of “hidden”. A little less cleverness on Haneke’s part tooling the plot and its implications and references, and “Hidden” would have been a perfect film.

 

Code of samurai honour and Japan under Tokugawa shoguns under superficial examination in “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”

Takashi Miike, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011)

As this is a Takashi Miike film, this flick has the requisite blood-letting shock factor to satisfy Miike’s fans for whom “Ichi the Killer” is his one and only masterpiece, but apart from the excruciating act of seppuku near the beginning of the film and the frenzied fighting that climaxes it, “Hara-Kiri …” is an examination of the concept of honour and its debasement in Japanese culture. The setting is early 17th century Tokugawa Japan, over 30 years after the Battle of Sekigahara which brought Ieyasu Tokugawa to power as the Shogun. Many clans that supported him and which expected handsome reward as a result of their loyalty despite earlier spats now find themselves abandoned and one such family is the Chijiwa family. The patriarch dies and his young son Motome is taken in by a loyal retainer Hanshiro Tsukuno (Ebizo Ichikawa) who brings up the boy together with his own daughter Miho in genteel poverty. Years pass and a now-adult Motome (Eita) takes a job teaching village children how to write. He and Miho (Hikari Mitsushima) marry and have a child but they struggle to make a living. During a hard winter, Miho and the baby fall badly sick and Motome, desperate for money and having sold his swords, decides on a risky request: having heard that the nearby Lord of the House of Ii has been visited by down-and-out samurai requesting to commit suicide in his courtyard and receiving instead money to avoid embarrassment and shame, he will also try the same ruse …

This is the background Dickensian tale-of-woe told in flashback that provides the motivation for the act of seppuku and which forms the film’s moral heart and structure linking the suicide and Tsukuno’s act of vengeance against those who cynically and contemptuously force Motome to kill himself and indirectly cause Miho to suicide as well. The story of Tsukuno’s family and how it falls on hard times due to the whims of the Shogun and the Shogunate’s restrictions on what people may and may not do (which extends to whether they can repair their homes or not, let alone determine how they make a living and earn money) is almost as excruciatingly painful to watch as Motome’s death. Miike sure knows how to draw out maximum pathos by focusing on close-ups of the cute chubby baby when alive early on and later featuring unbearably sad close-ups of the li’l fella dead.

The story ultimately revolves around a moral duel between Tsukuno and the head official, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), deputising for the Lord of the House of Ii who is absent: Kageyu is shown early in the film as something of a faceless bureaucrat who likes his creature comforts and who lacks a moral backbone. He’s not lacking in compassion and he does have potential to be a wise arbitrator but he allows himself to be used by others like head swordsman Omodaka and his lord, and he slavishly follows convention. Kageyu could have used his authority as deputy to let off Motome and give him money, and also to show mercy to Tsukuno; but by obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the law and custom of the land, he debases the notion of honour. With that, the society of Tokugawa Japan stands indicted as all style, conformist and fetishising military values and codes, but lacking in substance, mercy and compassion for suffering and helpless people, and ignorant of true honour. The retainers of the Lord of the House of Ii are shown up during the climactic fight scene as a bunch of idiots who can’t even cut down one middle-aged samurai wielding a wooden sword.

The film’s narrative structure affords many opportunities for Miike to make a very beautiful film that partakes of the concept of mono no aware (awareness of the transience of life and having a wistful attitude to that knowledge) in its cinematography which sometimes dwells on images of still life and nature to show the passage of time. On the other hand, gorgeous visuals aren’t enough and are sometimes too much also: Miike’s close attention to trivial details and obsessing over particular scenes or a story-line more than is necessary take his attention away from a more probing inquiry into the nature of honour, mercy and compassion, and the film comes across as fussy and superficial with an empty centre. Character development is uneven: Ichikawa does a good job of portraying Tsukuno but other actors playing Motome, Miho, Omodaka and Kageyu either don’t have enough screen-time or aren’t given enough to do to flesh out these characters as other than one-dimensional stereotypes. True tension between Tsukuno and characters like Omodaka and Kageyu is lacking: the film doesn’t even make clear whether the tension should be between Tsukuno and Omodaka, between him and Kageyu, or between him and the higher layers of the aristocracy with whom his real beef is – after all, Kageyu and Omodaka, self-serving as they are, are following orders.

Famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto is called upon to provide a musical soundtrack and what he supplies is a mix of bland kitsch movie-orchestral melodrama full of heavy emotional swells and stark minimal piano melodies that tug too hard at the heart-strings.

For all the above, Miike is to be commended for trying to break away from his earlier career of genre pieces heavy on shock, gore and commercial values and for remaking classic Japanese historical drama films using technology and methods not available to the directors of the original films, in the process trying perhaps to educate himself on how past masters wove universal themes into their films that resonated deeply with their audiences, and striving to do the same himself.

Confession of Pain: glossy tale of vengeance long-planned with an implausible plot

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, “Confession of Pain” (2006)

Ain’t no bad time like Chinese New Year for a police officer to come home one night and find his girlfriend has just topped herself but that’s exactly what happens to Detective Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) while on duty arresting a bunch of hoodlums in his apartment. Grief-stricken, he leaves the force and becomes a private detective, indulging his sadness in drink. Former buddy Hei (Tony Leung) and his wife Susan (Xu Jinglei) try to snap Bong out of his sorrows and give him a reason for living by enlisting him to investigate the brutal murder of Hei’s filthy rich father-in-law Chow. Hoping that the work will assuage the loss he feels, Bong agrees to help Hei and quickly finds the murder has the characteristics of a revenge killing that has taken years to plan and execute. During the course of the investigation, strange things happen to Hei and Susan, culminating in a mysterious gas explosion at home that severely injures Susan and sends her into a coma from which she might not recover.

The plot turns out to be ridiculous beyond words and one wonders why Hei would hire Bong to investigate if he knew that Bong is just too good at chasing leads and finding his man. One might think also that there should be various obstacles put in Bong’s way so as to lead him away from the killer/s, several of whom are mysteriously done away with lest Bong arrests them and forces them to confess. The movie pulls off its closed-loop plot through the work Takeshi and Leung do in their good cop / bad cop routine: both actors are restrained in their emotional expression and reveal quite deep feelings and conflicting motivations beneath impassive countenances. Leung especially maintains a poker face throughout the film even when Susan rejects him. Their respective roles don’t give them much to do other than run around a lot but the actors do their job efficiently. The rest of the cast also have very little to do and a sub-plot that revolves around Bong and a new girlfriend (Shu Qi) isn’t substantial enough to counterbalance the main plot other than to suggest that life must be lived if one is to find meaning and a reason to go on living.

The film’s style is low-key minimal and glossy with many moody shots of Hong Kong at night and most parts of the plot taking place in expensive and fashionably furnished interiors. There are a few scenes lasting several minute each in which there is no dialogue, just action, and the camera lovingly focuses on the city’s urban landscapes, revealing the metropolis’s energy and hinting at hidden and desperate secrets beneath the shiny glittering surface. Editing can be sharp and there is quite good use of special effects and black-and-white filming to show flashbacks in time when Hei was a young boy witnessing the murders of his parents and sister. Bong also “relives” the scene in which Hei’s father-in-laws dies in gruesome black-and-white detail. Graphic depictions of violence are par for the course in HK action thriller films.

There is an overall theme of loss (of loved ones, of identity) and how characters cope with that: some come to terms with it and find their way back to living life in full, others must construct new identities to cope, still others dwell on their loss and try to avenge lost loved ones – with disastrous results. The city of Hong Kong is also portrayed as dealing with loss of some kind: loss of a past identity and adjusting to a new one as a part of China; loss of an older, perhaps more human way of life and its replacement by a cold, shiny corporate culture in which gleaming style is a thin veneer for dark secrets.

The packaging may be beautiful to look at and the cast and crew do what they can but the bulk of the film is an implausible soap opera affair and no amount of lacquered sheen can hide that.