Jirga: a sparingly told story of remorse, compassion and forgiveness

Benjamin Gilmour, “Jirga” (2018)

The wonder is that this film got made at all as it was filmed in Afghanistan, and in areas possibly still dominated by the Taliban at that. Understandably the narrative, seemingly simple and straight-forward, can appear quite disjointed and some things – such as the pink flamingo paddle-boat – come and go without any explanation. An Australian soldier, Michael Wheeler (Sam Smith), appears in Kabul on a personal mission to find a family in a very remote part of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the people he relies on to help him advise him not to go and to forget about his mission: the area is under Taliban control. As you’d expect, Wheeler ignores the helpful advice and hires a driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him south towards Kandahar. On their long and rough journey through very striking and beautiful mountain landscapes, the two men form a strong friendship despite being unable to speak each other’s language. They lose each other abruptly when they stop at a Taliban checkpoint and Wheeler is forced to flee on foot for his life.

After wandering in the desert, Wheeler loses consciousness and when he wakes up again, he finds himself a Taliban captive in a cave. After beating him, the Taliban men discuss what to do with him and one of them, being able to speak English, interviews him and acts as interpreter between him and the other Taliban men. Wheeler explains that he wants to find the family whose patriarch he shot dead during an army raid some years ago. Impressed with Wheeler’s earnestness and remorse, the Taliban leader orders his men to take the ex-soldier as far as they can go towards the village where the family lives. They advise him offering the American dollars he carries with him to the victim’s family will be considered an insult and a curse. From then on, and dumping the money along the way, Wheeler makes his path into the village where he explains his mission to the elders there. The elders form a council (“jirga” in the Pashto language) to debate what to do with Wheeler and whether he deserves to die for killing an unarmed civilian and leaving his widow and two sons destitute.

The sparing, minimal nature of the film, in which much is unsaid and is left to the viewer to fill out with his/her imagination, throws the spotlight onto Smith and his character’s motivations for pursuing his quixotic mission. Wheeler says very little and maintains a stoic face, but he is clearly a very troubled man. He is only able to come to terms with what he did by returning to the scene of his crime, re-enacting it in part for the village elders, visiting the widow and her sons and submitting to her anger and grief. Smith does his best with such a taciturn character, and the emotion he is able to express is very profound, but the role is very limited (and limited even more so by the conditions under which the film was made) with respect to the character’s background and motivations.

The resolution seems quite problematic as well: the village jirga’s decision seems just as eccentric as Wheeler’s quest, and the viewer has the impression that the elders are nonplussed as to what to do with their unexpected visitor. In the end, the decision becomes Allah’s will and the elders abide by it without question, even though some of them obviously don’t agree with it. At the very least some closure has been achieved and people are able to move ahead with their lives.

The message viewers are likely to take away from the film is that Wheeler survives mainly due to the magnanimity, compassion and forgiveness shown him by people who would not be blamed if they had decided on vengeance against him. For all the devastation, poverty, violence and instability that continue in Afghanistan, its people still hold onto their rich culture and traditions, and retain their humanity and spirit. One would like to think that Wheeler appreciates what has been done for him, and will be moved to return to the country in the not too distant future, to learn more about its history and peoples, and to do something constructive for them. Perhaps he might even learn something of how Australia blindly and stupidly followed the Americans into waging a one-year war over and over 17 times and counting. His abandonment of the American money, and what that symbolises – spurning the capitalist system and the beliefs and values associated with it – may represent a first step in this direction.

The World: a slow and meandering narrative reveals a rich world of hope, pain and tragedy behind superficial capitalist glamour

Jia Zhangke, “The World” (2004)

In future years, this film, long and meandering though it is, may well be regarded as an early masterpiece in Jia Zhangke’s corpus of work. Set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a theme park which gives visitors a taste of the world’s most famous monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in miniature without ever having to leave Beijing, the film focuses on the lives of various fictional employees at the Park, most of whom have come from poor rural parts of China or elsewhere, and reveals them to be bleak and alienated, not only from the, uh, world outside the park but from one another as well. Superficially presenting as a snapshot documentary of the employees’ daily lives as they entertain visitors in dance shows or guide them around the park, the film comes to question the impact of capitalist ideology (with its emphasis on consumption of material items and experiences) and what that brings – the increase in wealth that enables people to travel overseas and have new experiences not possible in China, in turn enticing others to dream about travel and escape – and how new global economic, political and technological connections have paradoxically led to disconnection and alienation among young people in contemporary Chinese society.

The film appears to have no plot or at least nothing that resembles a conventional movie plot: it starts off with its heroine Tao (Zhao Tao), a talented dancer, charging through backstage rooms where fellow cast members are getting dressed or undressed or putting on or taking off make-up, and calling loudly for a band-aid. She never gets one and in this scene alone, one senses the film’s themes already falling into place: people apparently communicating over one another’s heads but the message never reaching anyone in particular and failing to be heard, much less responded to and acted upon; a continual search for connection that ends in failure; the frustration and anger that always seem to be simmering below the surface. The film follows Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard at the Park, and their tempestuous relationship. Tao is visited by an ex-boyfriend on his way to Mongolia and Taisheng seems rather jealous; from this moment on, the relationship increasingly frays, particularly after a friend of his asks him to drive a young woman called Qun to Taiyuan so she can deal with a brother with a gambling problem Taisheng becomes infatuated with Qun and after bringing her back to Beijing, starts paying her regular visits even though she tells him she has a husband in Paris and is trying to obtain a visa to visit the spouse.

There are various small sub-plots in the film, the most significant of which involve Tao striking up a friendship with a Russian woman Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) who works at the Park, though neither can speak the other’s language; and Taisheng’s childhood friend nicknamed Little Sister, who comes to Beijing looking for work and who is directed by Taisheng to a construction site. Anna eventually leaves the Park and takes up hostessing (and prostitution) to raise the money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, leaving Tao in tears; and Little Sister dies in a work accident that devastates Taisheng. Not long afterwards, Tao discovers Taisheng’s affair with Qun and she flees the Park to go house-sitting for two fellow employees who have recently married.

Through the various soap-opera dramas, we come to see how trapped Tao and Taisheng are in their low-paid and uninspiring jobs in which pretence is paramount, with no hope of escape to see and experience the places whose monuments are miniaturised into kitsch packages for tourists. The film’s title comes to be seen as ironic: “The World” holds out a promise of endless possibilities and opportunities but the main characters and their fellow travellers find themselves constrained by their work, the expectations put upon them by others, the obligations they carry, their inability or unwillingness to communicate how and what they really feel directly to one another (instead communicating via mobile phones) and ultimately by the passage of time. Hope dies away and there is only the endless repetition of work and fakeness. How Tao and Taisheng deal with the loss of hope and the death of their dreams and their relationship turns out to be shocking if not totally unexpected.

Small animated interludes stress the lack of direct connections characters have with one another and with their physical environment. Travel and the restlessness implied are a constant motif in the film: minor characters are always on their way to another place, another job or another goal while major characters are stuck in ruts partly of their own making. Buildings and other structures where the film plays out always look incomplete or makeshift, or their inner frameworks are on display. We see less of the glitzy Beijing and more of its industrial, polluted environment where people live out their lives either hoping for something better or lacking in hope.

Slow though it is, the pace has a purpose: viewers become fully immersed in the lives of Tao, Taisheng and their friends, colleagues and relatives, and so the pain and sorrows these people experience become all the more raw. The no-plot plot has its purpose as well: it demonstrates how hollow real life has become, even when dedicated to creating and maintaining a simulacrum of an idealised and superficial dream. The meandering narrative unexpectedly and ironically reveals a real and actually rich world behind a fake World.

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

Blade of the Immortal: one wearying bloodbath after another in a film on obsessive vengeance, duty and the hell of immortality

Takashi Miike, “Blade of the Immortal” (2017)

Condensed from 30 volumes of manga into a single work of about 140 minutes, this film was probably always going to be light on the character development and plotting especially under the direction of one Takashi Miike. What he doesn’t condense though is the original story’s gory nature – if watched casually, the film looks like a never-ending series of sword-bashing bloodbaths following in quick succession – and the sense of exhaustion and tedium that comes with being an immortal samurai. The story takes place in Tokugawa-era Japan, as most such samurai films do, and starts with ronin Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his kid sister Machi (Hana Sugiyaki) being ambushed by a 100-strong horde of thuggish sword-fighters. Machi is cut down by their leader and Manji is forced to fight through the lot of them to reach him. Several minutes later, Manji is the last one standing, or staggering with mortal wounds rather, when along comes a female demon who plugs him with a stack of bloodworms that clean up and heal his wounds, turning him into an immortal.

With the opening scene done, dusted and tidied away, we skip 50 years to the story of another young girl, Rin Asano (Sugiyaki again), forced to watch in horror as her sword-fighting instructor father is cut down and her mother violated by another bunch of thugs led by the charismatic Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Rin manages to escape the butchery and vows vengeance upon Anotsu. Conveniently the female demon appears and directs the girl to seek out Manji. Rin quickly finds him and Manji agrees to help the child – but has he taken on an impossible task, given that Anotsu learned his skills with the sword from his father and grandfather who themselves trained with Manji’s forebears? Is Rin’s desire for vengeance too excessive and likely to bring both Rin and Manji to ruin? And how much does – or can – Rin substitute for Machi whose loss Manji still grieves over?

On top of the possible obstacles Manji and Rin face in exacting vengeance on those who destroyed Rin’s family, the villain Anotsu himself is double-crossed by the Shogun’s representatives who draw him and his gang into a scheme to teach the Shogun’s warriors sword-fighting skills. The government’s treachery leads to the annihilation of Anotsu’s school of thugs so by the time Manji and Anotsu finally meet (after they have both shredded entire armies of fighters into near-mincemeat), the two almost feel some sympathy for each other as outsiders operating on the fringes of an oppressive and corrupt law, and sickened and exhausted by the demands others make on them to keep fighting and killing.

The problems Manji and Anotsu encounter on their respective quests – Manji for finally being able to die, and Anotsu for power and influence – give the film some depth (if not much) and something for the actors to play with that enhances their characters. Miike’s flamboyant and excessive approach in retelling the story of Manji ends up interrogating the notion of vengeance: can the pursuit of vengeance become an end and an evil in itself as the mostly useless Rin keeps egging on Manji to pursue Anotsu? Why does Manji readily agree to Rin’s demands? At this point he might well curse the demon for having made him immortal – because his life becomes a relentless grind of one killing spree after another.

Miike paces the fighting sequences well – a huge battle scene may be followed by a smaller scuffle, in turn followed by another bloodbath – and while the major characters are essentially one-dimensional, Kimura at least conveys Manji’s world-weary attitude well. On the other hand, sub-plots that include two female antagonists, one of them a sword-wielding fighter (Erika Toda), are not very well developed and could have been omitted from the film.

The incredible fight scenes are well choreographed if surreal – there ain’t no-one that good who can mow down a hundred swordsmen with a long sword, a short sword and whatever other cutlery he carries with him – but over the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes their extreme and excessive nature can be wearying. Perhaps if Miike had cut out some of the more unnecessary fight scenes and concentrated more on Manji and Rin becoming a tight little family unit, or on Anotsu’s background, making the character a not unsympathetic fellow battling what he sees as government corruption, he could still have his intense and over-the-top film, that opens up a new focus on character and plot in future films.

Loving Vincent: an arresting visual animation style papers over a repetitive and insubstantial formulaic plot

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” (2017)

Most viewers will probably be bowled over by the use of oil paintings on canvas as animation cels and the directors’ preference for classically trained painters over animators to do the paintings, resulting in a very arresting visual style drawing heavily on 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant style. For all the distinctive visual style though, the film is not that remarkable in its plotting and I have to wonder why animation was preferred wholly over live action when both animation and live action could have been used. I suspect the animation helps to paper over inconsistencies and flaws in the plot that would have made the film just another ordinary historical biopic about a famous figure.

A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, young tear-about Armand Roulin (voiced and played by Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father to personally deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo after the letter fails to reach the latter and is returned to the post office. Although Armand does not know van Gogh well, his father persuades him to take the letter, telling Armand that van Gogh had suffered mental illness and had been ostracised by others as a result. Armand goes to see Julien Tanguy, an art dealer who sold painting supplies to van Gogh: Tanguy tells Armand to visit Dr Gachet, who had cared for van Gogh in his last days, in Auvers-sur-Oise. Armand calls in at the Gachet residence and learns the doctor is away. The young man whiles away his time visiting people who knew van Gogh (who painted their portraits) and tell him all they know of the painter: their stories form a narrative suggesting to Armand that van Gogh might not have committed suicide but instead had been murdered. In Armand’s mind, everyone including Dr Gachet and his family become potential suspects.

The film does flit over several themes including mental illness and people’s attitudes toward mentally ill people in van Gogh’s time, the painter’s difficulties in coping with his poverty and various demons, and how best to remember someone by seeing the world as he saw it, with all its natural delights, and celebrating what he leaves behind in spite of a painful and undeserved death. Unfortunately the film concentrates too much on a story that tends to go round and round in circles and becomes quite repetitive. Ultimately Armand’s adventure seems rather insubstantial – the whole murder plot building up in his mind eventually goes awry after he’s interviewed all the most significant people who knew or met van Gogh – though he does come to appreciate how special van Gogh was to the people who knew him and he resolves to lead a better life than he has done so far. Even so, the idea of a rank amateur trying to solve a murder mystery that the police have dismissed as a suicide, and using rough-n-ready interview techniques to solve where more sophisticated police methods of the time have failed is hardly new.

The acting is not all that remarkable and seems rather flat – but that may be due to the style of animation used. The action proceeds in a leisurely way and only near the end does it become emotional and moving in parts.

Promoters of the film are very fond of saying how it was made and of how many painters (mostly from Poland and Greece, two countries severely affected by neoliberal economic policies and programs ordained by EU bureaucrats) were employed to create the 65,000 oil paintings that became the basis of the film’s animation. When so much emphasis is placed on the film’s technical aspects, one suspects that so much else within the film isn’t quite as good.

Blade Runner 2049: an absorbing and leisurely film on future societal trends despite a thin plot and lack-lustre characters

Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

In its own leisurely way, “Blade Runner 2049” is a very absorbing, even hypnotic film with stunningly beautiful sets that describe a post-modern Western society on the edge of collapse and obsolescence as it plunders and cannibalises its own past with hyper-technological bombast. Decay abounds whether it is in the breakdown of law and order, the casual mix of peoples from previously different societies reducing so-called “diversity” into a bland and artificial mono-cultural blur, and that false heterogeneity’s parallel in the uneasy blend of humans, replicants and anthropmorphic holograms, none of which has a greater claim than the others to possessing anything equivalent to or symptomatic of a soul. The pace is slow enough that viewers can take in the vast urban and semi-urban vistas of a futuristic society and (with their imaginations) fill in the gaps in the thin plot and make allowance for the superficial characters played by workman-like actors.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant blade runner of a new breed made strictly to obey, who is employed by the Los Angeles Police Department to retire old-model replicants in the Los Angeles of the year 2049. During one such retirement of a farmer, Gosling discovers a box buried beneath a tree. When the box is collected by the LAPD and the skeletal remains within are examined by its forensic investigators, an astonishing secret is revealed: the skeleton is that of a female replicant who apparently gave birth to a child and died during its difficult delivery. Since such a technological achievement has remained secret for decades, K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to seek out and kill the child that was birthed. K visits Wallace Corporation, the company that has acquired the old Tyrell Corporation and its intellectual rights to manufacture replicants. Wallace Corporation founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) discovers in the old Tyrell Corporation archives that the dead female replicant is Rachael, an experimental prototype who disappeared with a former blade runner known as Rick Deckard. Wallace desires to know more about Rachael and the child she had, as such knowledge will benefit his production of replicants, and orders his assistant Luv (Sophia Hoeks) and his minions to secretly follow K wherever he goes.

This sets in train two searches, K’s search for the child which turns out to be linked to his own origin, his purpose in life and another search for Rick Deckard himself, with Wallace Corporation hot on his heels tracking wherever he goes through his hologram companion Joi (Ana de Armas), herself manufactured by Wallace Corporation subsidiary Joi. K’s journey turns out to be a subversive Hollywood comment on how everything that appears in films ends up being linked to the plot: a bit depressing for this viewer, because it means various aspects of the film’s plot become predictable. Suffice to say that K’s discovery of the child (now adult) is mind-blowingly banal and that once he fulfills his mission, he becomes superfluous to the police force, his society and an underground revolutionary movement that had uses for him but which have all now dispensed with him. After all, he is just a replicant whose purpose is to do as he’s told.

While the plot is thin and the characters are not all that memorable, they do serve to highlight the film’s themes and messages which are many and various. Climate change and its effects are significant for part of the film’s plot and its look as is also the futuristic society’s inability to be sustainable as it continually generates waste. Significant also is the society’s two-faced attitude towards women: while Wright may play K’s boss, Hoeks’ character Luv is as menacing and vicious as villains come, and women lead an underground rebel movement, the film also presents women as commodities to be exploited by corporations for profit. Joi (the hologram) exists purely to pleasure men and K’s trip to a dead Las Vegas reveals the city as a bizarre hyper-erotic Babylon pleasure-dome for jaded billionaires before its collapse. The society’s complete control over its citizens has an unexpected result: true originality and innovation in culture are no longer possible, and society is reduced to plundering its past for inspiration. Even Hollywood understands satire as it ransacks its own old movie archives for ideas. The original “Blade Runner” film’s themes about what being human means and the paradox that replicants have more vitality than humans do are still present but are less significant.

The film’s open-ended conclusion suggests another sequel may be in the works as not all loose ends have been tied. Some minor characters in “Blade Runner 2049” are clearly under-utilised and may return in a third film. If a third film is made, and then a fourth, and so on (!!!), at least viewers can enjoy the views and atmospheres of a never-ending franchise past its use-by date if not increasingly thread-bare plots and one-dimensional characters.

Neruda: an exploration of how stories are created and shaped by those who exercise political power

Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” (2016)

Very loosely based on an episode in Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda’s life, when he and his wife Delia were forced to go on the run from police authorities on account of their Chilean Communist Party membership and leftist sympathies, “Neruda” explores the grey boundaries between realism and fiction, and within that zone becomes one man’s quest to find purpose and meaning in his life, in the process becoming a real human and not just a one-dimensional cog in an authoritarian machine society. The film folds in elements of noir, thriller, comedy, tragedy and Borges-style magic realism as the cat-and-mouse chase becomes a duel between what is real and what is unreal, what is imagined and what is outside imagination.

At the film’s opening, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a Senator,  having denounced Chilean President Gabriel González Videla for his brutal anti-Communist attacks against ordinary people over the past couple of years since his election in 1946. (Incidentally Videla was elected President by the Chilean parliament, not in a general election.) Neruda is threatened with arrest and is forced to go into hiding, and then to find refuge in different parts of the country as the police pursue him. Prominent in the pursuit is Chief Inspector of the Investigations Police of Chile Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dour figure as blank as blank can be, who has never known his father and therefore is cut off from his origins and history.

Peluchonneau serves as narrator of the film as well as antagonist – or is it protagonist? – and through him, and his determination to be the lead character in this particular story, battling Neruda to be the hero figuratively as well as arresting him and achieving “heroism” (from his point of view) in the more mundane sense, the film explores how history – and Latin American history in particular – is made and shaped by those who have political power and therefore the power to direct the path of a nation’s historical narrative. At one point in the film, when Peluchonneau catches up with Delia, she suggests to him that he is a figment in Neruda’s imagination; Peluchonneau resists Delia’s suggestion and from this point on, his pursuit of Neruda becomes an absolute obsession to the point where the poet is forced to flee over the Andes mountains and the police inspector himself makes one mistake after another in pursuing the poet across snowy country.

While the film provides a good introduction into the poetry of Neruda and how it galvanised Chileans across different layers of society into supporting Neruda and the values he stood for, Larraín does not shrink from portraying the poet with all his contradictions and the ambivalent relationships he often had with his wife and close supporters. Chilean society in the 1940s is shown to quite good effect, as much as can be done in a film under 2 hours in length: the historical details look fairly accurate, and the rural landscapes and natural countryside of Chile, from the fjords to the high country of Araucanian pines, are stunningly filmed. As Neruda flees farther away from Santiago, Peluchonneau’s authority – and by implication, government control – weakens and becomes laughably incompetent.

The acting is not bad but it’s not great either. Bernal does a good job portraying Peluchonneau as a cypher but cannot flesh out the character with the result that Peluchonneau always seems less than human even when his quest and sacrifice endow him with the purpose and humanity he has always sought. The best acting actually comes from two minor characters: the drag queen who tells Peluchonneau of his brief connection to Neruda that the inspector will never experience, and the waitress who challenges Neruda on his political beliefs and whether she will ever be his political and economic equal once Chile is rid of tyranny and dictatorship.

As long as viewers realise that “Neruda” is intended as a fantastic retelling of what might have been in a period of Neruda’s life, the film is an entertaining light thriller; but beyond light entertainment, it can do no more.

Spring: character study on renewal through love and connections, and beating back monsters

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Spring” (2014)

A rather long and thin character study romance that’s equal parts comedy, drama and gore-blimey slimy body horror makes up this low-budget flick “Spring” whose title ends up overburdened with many layers of meaning by the time the final credits start rolling. A young Californian, Evan (Louis Taylor Pucci), has just lost his mum from cancer and follows that crisis with another when he loses his dead-end job as a restaurant cook after a fight with a customer. All at sea with no other family and no idea what to do, he accepts an invitation from friends to go travelling with them and he lands in southern Italy. He takes up a job (an illegal one, it turns out) with a farmer and strikes up a friendship with local 20-year-old girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). This friendship quickly develops into a romance, or so he thinks … it’s just that Louise behaves a bit oddly, standing him up at the most inopportune times, due to a terrible secret she carries …

The intention for this film is for it to draw its strength from the character study of the two lovebirds and the deep and complex relationship they develop. There certainly is chemistry between the two young actors who play Evan and Louise. Unfortunately much of the dialogue isn’t very convincing, especially in the drawn-out denouement where Louise explains the nature of her protean shape-shifting condition and how she needs to renew her human shape every 20 years to remain the 2,000-year-old alien-human hybrid entity she is. Parts of the action seem a bit forced at times – just how does Evan figure out in a split second that Louise needs her syringe in one horrific scene? – and the film never explains satisfactorily how in 2,000 years no-one has noticed that Louise has always looked much the same without ever ageing, or that animals and humans occasionally turn up dead in the streets, in the fields or out at sea bearing the most hideous mutilations. Come to think of it, even Louise doesn’t appear to have learned a great deal in 2,000 years on how to manage her condition; one would have thought that in all that time, she would have acquired specialised knowledge of herbs, medicines and recipes to keep her Lovecraftian love-handles at bay and everyone else from guessing the nature of her curse.

Parts of the film could have been tightened up for pace and dialogue and the running time could have been cut to about 100 minutes without too much of the plot or its message being affected. On a superficial level, the message of renewal through love and finding connections comes through clearly; on a deeper level there is an exploration of what it means to be human and mortal, and to know immortality through means other than the purely physical. Just as Evan learns to live again by making new connections and falling in love, so Louise has to learn what true immortality really means and the sacrifice she must make to achieve that. The film achieves closure when both cross into their own existential and metaphysical springs.

Filmed in southern Italy, the movie has many beautiful rural and maritime settings, and the cinematography, using filters that render outlines a bit blurry (as though to emulate the blurriness of the tragic heroine’s real looks, which viewers never see in their entirety), creates mood and feeling very effectively. One does start to care for the lovebirds and their potentially doomed romance and the climax is a satisfying and graceful close to the themes raised in the film.

Sans Soleil: a pretentious and confusing film that plays a stupid joke on its audience at its end

Chris Marker, “Sans Soleil” (1983)

Picture yourself receiving a letter from a long-time friend who has been living and travelling for many years in Japan, Iceland and Guinea-Bissau (a small country in western Africa). Everything he writes about in the letter – and it’s a very long letter too – revolves around the transience and fragility of memory, the malleability of history, what people across the world yearn for and dream of, and the quest for meaning in life wherever it is. He wants to capture everything he sees and hears, whether in writing or in filming it (he’s a film buff and knows Alfred Hitchcock’s work, especially the classic “Vertigo”) and he’s trying to find a story-line or narrative that can encompass all he experiences of contemporary Japanese culture with all its contradictions and complexities, its startling ultra-modern technology co-existing with ancient temple ceremonies, social rituals and superstitions; and what he knows of Guinea-Bissau’s history and politics. (You know your friend is sympathetic towards leftist politics but is not heavily concerned with socialist ideology.) No matter how he tries, the concept seems to be too overwhelming so he hits you with everything that makes a deep impression on him, all the things that made him cry for joy or weep in despair; but out of all this melange, he hopes to inspire you, to break all barriers of time, space, cultures and all our mental constructs to reach out to you and to connect with you.

In a nutshell, that’s “Sans Soleil”, French director Chris Marker’s attempt to combine in one very long and overwhelming visual work his meditations on the nature of time, space and history, and their circular nature which climax in his overwrought discussion on the treatment of memory in the movie “Vertigo”. While the images presented are often very beautiful, thanks to various special effects and filming techniques that renders some very hallucinatory and abstract, others can be extremely disturbing and still others seem quite pointless.

The film suffers from its own ambition and Marker’s own arrogance: the narration covers far too much ground in such a superficial way that much of the film where it covers Guinea-Bissau and aspects of Japanese culture (that is to say, the bulk of the film) almost seems racist. In particular the film’s broad sweep across Japanese culture and the attention it devotes to social fads that blow away Japanese people from time to time suggest not so much a deep love and understanding of the nature of Japanese people and society, and why they are the way they are, but instead a kind of creepy voyeurism that exoticises and makes fun of its subjects. There is nothing in the film that hints that Marker makes any attempt to know and try to understand the strains that Japanese society might be under, why the country was (even in the 1980s) heading for a demographic crash and to connect with Japanese people themselves, even if that connection is with one or two individuals.

The narration is dull and repetitive and the music soundtrack with its bleached acid-psychedelic sounds and effects is so badly dated that it gives the impression of the film being ten years older than it actually is. Although the version of the film that I saw was digitally remastered, some images are very blurry and substandard in their appearance and the soundtrack desperately needs remastering and cleaning up.

A confused and confusing film that ends up saying the worst about its director, that presents his superficial observations about aspects of foreign cultures (removing them from their proper historical contexts); and moreover contains a cheap twist about the real nature of your friend – so the “narrative” itself includes you as the antagonist, not as a narrator removed from the action, and everything in the film could have been imagined by a political prisoner or an asylum inmate (and now you know why the film is called “Sans Soleil” meaning “without sun” in English)- can only be considered a buffoonish and pretentious fantasy. The notion then that memory is fragile and history is circular becomes a tool that could be used to serve a sinister agenda and exploit people – as Scotty discovers (in “Vertigo”) that he and the woman he thought was Madeleine are used and exploited by the real Madeleine’s husband to cover up the murder of his wife.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: an individual’s search for wholeness and authenticity delivered in a flat musical adaptation

John Cameron Mitchell, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

A feisty little number showcasing John Cameron Mitchell as a director, actor, scriptwriter and singer, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name in which Mitchell also starred. The film follows the quest of Hansel (Mitchell) growing up in East Berlin in the 1960s – 70s: a product of a dysfunctional family, he finds refuge in Western rock music. Dissatisfied with his life, he seeks escape with an American soldier who suggests that he (Hansel) change his sex from male to female and marry him (the soldier). Taking his mother’s name (Hedwig), Hansel does what the soldier suggests – although the sex change operation is botched – and marries the fellow who then takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. At the same time, Hedwig sees on the TV news that the Berlin Wall has fallen so all her sacrifice has been for nought. Nevertheless, Hedwig picks herself up by forming a band, writing and performing songs, and babysitting for US army families. She meets and befriends Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), teaching him all she knows about rock music and helping him with personal problems. They write and record songs together, and eventually fall in love. When Speck discovers that Hedwig is transgender, he flees with the songs they have written together and establishes his own career as teen pop idol Tommy Gnosis. In this, he becomes wildly successful and Hedwig launches a copyright lawsuit against him. She tries to raise money for the lawsuit by forming a new band The Angry Inch, composed of eastern European migrants including her “husband” Yitzhak (played by actress Miriam Shor), and touring franchises of a seafood restaurant chain and various other small venues.

Hedwig’s history is told in various ways including song, animation and traditional live action plot narrative mixed together. Most of the plot is told in flashbacks that follow a chronological sequence and this sequence is sometimes interrupted by some incident relevant to the plot in the present day. Throughout this narrative of rise and fall, defeat and rise again, followed by betrayal and another defeat, is threaded a journey in which Hedwig searches for wholeness, renewal and authenticity, indicated by her constant reference via the song “The Origin of Love” to a story in Plato’s “Symposium” in which humans were originally two people stuck together and forcibly separated by the gods, and the purpose of life is for humans to rediscover their lost halves.

While Mitchell excels in his multi-tasking as director and actor, and portrays Hedwig in all her bitchiness and questing, the songs in themselves are not all that interesting – performed in various conventional pop / rock styles, they are clearly aimed at the general public – and would be flat without Mitchell’s flamboyant presence; and the plot itself builds up to a weak and inconclusive climax. Does Hedwig win her lawsuit? We don’t really know, though later she gains much public sympathy after an incident with Speck later in the film. The final scenes in which Hedwig appears to reconcile with Speck could be pure fantasy – indeed, everything that happens after Hedwig’s encounter with Speck in his luxury limousine could be fantasy.

Apart from Mitchell himself, the cast is rather mediocre, and without the songs and Mitchell’s stage performances, the film tends to be flat. There isn’t much to recommend the music and I’m not surprised that most of what is memorable about the film is Mitchell’s acting and his character Hedwig in all her primping and glam finery.