Loving Vincent (2017)

Loving Vincent is a love letter whose true recipient has been long gone: a Dutch painter, Vincent Willem Van Gogh, died of infection caused by an untreated gunshot wound, which was inflicted in uncertain circumstances in Auberge-Ravoux, a small village near Paris. Despite unanswered questions regarding what led him to an untimely death at the age of 37, the established story tells us that the ‘mad painter’ (Robert Gulaczyk), who long struggled with the crippling misery of poverty, ill-health, and isolation, pulled the trigger of a revolver and shot himself. Naturally, not everyone is content with the standard theory. The postmaster of Arles, Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), was a close friend of the painter, and after re-reading Van Gogh’s last letter addressed to him, Roulin is simply unable to believe that the Dutchman had taken his own life. Having taken possession of the painter’s recently discovered letter to his brother, Roulin insists that his wayward son, Armand (Douglas Booth), personally deliver it to the grieving sibling. Having been persuaded by his father, Armand reluctantly travels to Paris, only to discover that the rightful recipient of the letter is no more: the painter’s brother, Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz), died six months after his brother’s death. Undeterred, Armand travels to Auberge, the town wherein the Dutchman worked until his death, to deliver the letter in question to Dr Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who was a close friend and a psychiatric doctor of the painter. By meeting the doctor, Armand also hopes to gain insight regarding the circumstances of his father’s friend’s death.

The rest of the story evolves around Armand’s quest: he transforms himself from a reluctant messenger to a man on a mission to discover the truth about the circumstances of the painter’s demise. In Auberge, Armand encounters locals who share various home-brew-theories regarding the manner in which the painter died. For example, Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), the inn keeper’s daughter whose entire family befriended the painter, has been harbouring suspicions on Dr Gachet based on some strange behaviour on his part, witnessed shortly prior to Van Gogh’s death. A local doctor also shares his forensic analysis to Armand. In his expert opinion, the bullet that wounded Van Gogh could not be fired by the painter himself: he must have been shot by a third party. In addition, there is an intrigue of the Dutchman’s rare ‘friendship’ with a young woman, Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), Dr Gachet’s withdrawn daughter, who daily brings flowers to the painter’s grave. Whilst Dr Gachet has been the artist’s friend and psychiatrist, it was widely reported that he and the Dutchman had a turbulent fallout right before the fateful incident took place. Yet, despite all the investigations undertaken, as Armand delves deeper into the intrigue, the inquiry reveals more about his interlocutors than the painter himself. Then how could this quasi-detective story, though impressively painted, framed, and directed, emerge as a genuinely moving tribute to Van Gogh’s art and life? The answer to this question is expressed by the title of this cinematic gem: Loving Vincent is really a loving tribute to the life and the spirit of a person whose pursuit of ’truth’ made it impossible to function in the world despite, and because of, his unparalleled inability not to appreciate every aspect of it.

Loving Vincent, the world’s first entirely hand-painted animated feature, is a labour of love by Polish filmmaker, Dorota Kobiela, and a British filmmaker, Hugh Welchman. Originally conceived as a 7-minute short, Kobiela, a painter herself, initially envisioned to paint every frame by her own hand. Yet, as the project turned into a feature length film, the production had to adjust to the scope of the cinema. Eventually Kobiela and Welchman directed and worked with 125 classically trained painters in total. Each frame is hand-painted in a style of Van Gogh, who inspired various strands of new art such as Expressionism and Fauvism, amongst others, and is now hailed as one of the most important catalysts of modern art. To achieve what they envisioned as the world’s first hand-painted movie, Kobiela and Welchman settled with an intricate production process: actors are set against a green screen to be situated in a ‘Van Gogh canvas’, and then the painters painted over their impressions by hand, to be incorporated within a ‘picture’. By this unique method, which Welchman called ‘the slowest form of film making ever devised in 120 years’, the directors took four years just to complete the filming and painting. This kind of effort is truly rare in cinematic art. Most productions would not allow such a consuming process, both temporary and financially. The business side of film making simply kills off such an unprecedentedly bold and uncompromisingly deliberate project the moment such a brainstorm begins. Fortunately, some non-profit entities stepped up to support the completion of the project, such as the Polish Film Institute. To sustain and complete a project such as this is a great achievement in itself, yet, quite remarkably, Loving Vincent is not a mere novelty: it is a great cinematic art in its own right that makes us ponder many questions. Whilst the story pulls us into the cinema with a question over the mysterious circumstances of Van Gogh’s death, ultimately, this proves unimportant. Hence if you expect to have a clear conclusion on the mystery regarding the circumstances of his death, you will be left disappointed. Yet, if that is your reaction to this marvellous film, you are as mistaken as someone who thought Crime and Punishment was a crime fiction. 

Loving Vincent is neither a mere dazzling visual affair nor a clever reinterpretation of a biographical detail of Van Gogh’s life: it speaks to us directly about the human struggle of finding a place in this world without betraying oneself, that is, abandoning what one believes to be ‘good’, ‘true’, and ‘beautiful’. Although none of us can hope to match the dizzying height Van Gogh attained, he speaks to us candidly and sincerely in his vulnerability: whilst he passionately believed in his vocation, he suffered from crippling self-doubt and lack of validation and understanding. If he was truly a ‘mad man’ who fanatically upholds and imposes ‘his truth’ to the world and crashed with opposition, his life and art would not have moved us in the way it did. He regarded himself as: nobody, non-entity, and lowest of the low. He was never enough for his parents, his acquaintances, his ‘fellow’ artists, and above all, for himself. He was afraid that his presence was unpleasant to everybody around him. According to Dr Gachet, his last word to him was that the world would be a better place without him. To his brother, he is said to have uttered: Sadness will last forever. In a letter featured in the film, the would-be painter states: he, a nobody, a loathsome non-entity, nevertheless yearns to someday show what lies in his heart. The letter mentioned was written when he was about to pursue his vocation as a painter, hence it is a statement of intent in a literal sense. It also uncannily anticipated Van Gogh’s future: he never saw that ‘someday’ wherein he could touch people’s heart through his art. Like many great and original contributors to art as broadly construed, the Dutch painter’s work and effort was met with disdain and neglect in his lifetime: it is said that he only sold one painting in his entire life. In short, he was a ‘failure’ by the standard of society, but most critically, everything he did was abysmal in his own eyes.

We must remind ourselves, however: it is not Van Gogh’s suffering in itself that makes him closer to us. It is his genuine and inexplicable yearning to open his heart to the world that speaks to us and moves us profoundly. His pursuit was indeed inexplicable in a worldly perspective. He had no idea how good he would be, or whether he would be able to touch anyone through his art. He did not have a particular method or theory to lead and reshape the world of fine art. There was no prospect of success. He could not find his place amongst fellow artists: everyone dwelled in Paris, and he could not stay there. He was neither a child prodigy who demonstrated a sign of exceptional talent, nor someone who set a goal to achieve greatness in one area of life or another. A late starter with no formal training in art, Van Gogh was nonetheless able to transform our perception of art: his ‘style’ was not dictated by formal concerns. For Van Gogh, his canvas was the open window to his soul. There was, literally, nothing to hide. There was no room for pretence and self-importance. It was this singular act of what Levinas might call generosity, coupled with what I consider humility, that separate his art and life from all the rest. Yet, paradoxically, this exceptional soul remains a mystery to us despite his openness. There are so many questions that remain unanswered: Why did Van Gogh choose art?; What did he see in his vocation?; and finally: Why do we practice and value art in the first place? These are the questions for which the painter probably had no answer himself. Whilst Loving Vincent does not pretend to ‘solve’ any of the mysteries surrounding Van Gogh, we must pay tribute to the directors who have made us see what is important, that is, the fact that his life and work matter because of his exceptional openness and sincerity to follow his chosen path against all odds despite crippling despair and insecurity he had to suffer. In this, Kobiela and Welchman achieved a rare feat of directing a cinematic ode that does justice to the legacy of this exceptional person: this cinema helps us understand why his art still matters, and why it is important that it matters. Hence Loving Vincent in turn proved itself an exceptional work of art in its own merit.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Never Let Me Go is based on the acclaimed novel of the same title by a prominent British author, Kazuo Ishiguro. It is the second feature film for Mark Romanek, who is regarded as one of the most creative music video directors (Closer for Nine Inch Nails, and Hurt, a Nine Inch Nails classic, covered by Johnny Cash, as well as many other iconic videos for: Michael Jackson, Fiona Apple, En Vogue, K.D. Lang, Sonic Youth, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, to name a few), and led by Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009; Drive, 2011; Shame, 2011; Far from the Madding Crowd, 2015) as the protagonist, Kathy H. Despite that the cast generally delivers, and there appears to be nothing obviously wrong with its mise-en-scène, the overall impression of the film is strikingly different from that of the novel. In fact, the way in which the film betrays the novel is so significant that it prompts us to wonder if Ishiguro’s novel is a singular work that cannot be adopted at all.

Given the way in which the film project was conceived, the gap between the original and the film is all the more intriguing. The film script was written by Alex Garland, the author of a bestseller novel, The Beach (1996), and the future director of Ex Machina (2015). As a long time friend of Ishiguro’s, Garland served as a reader of the manuscript as well as a sounding-board for Ishiguro. Impressed by what he had read so far, Garland did not wait to finish reading the draft before asking Ishiguro a permit for the right to adopt the would-be-novel into a film. Enthused, Garland completed the script before the publication of the original novel, and Ishiguro eventually served as an executive producer of the film to which he offered a ringing endorsement upon its completion. The failure of this film is an interesting one, since the shortcomings are not of a technical nature. The script is generally faithful to the novel, and, even when the alterations are substantial, it is, at least initially, hard to find reasonable alternatives to the way in which the final cut was shot. Yet, if one spends enough time to examine the reasons why the novel and the film offer such different experiences, one is going to gain some useful insights into modes of artistic expressions. And, in this case, the difference lies between two different approaches to art.

Never Let Me Go tells a story of young protagonists, Kathy H. (Mulligan), her ‘best friend’, Ruth C. (Keira Knightley, Atonement, 2007; Anna Karenina, 2012; The Imitation Game, 2014), and their love-interest, Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield, Lions for Lambs, 2007; The Social Network, 2010) to complete a menage à trois. They are raised in a privileged ‘school’ called Hailsham, where a great emphasis is placed upon cultivating creative expressions, be they visual art or poetry. In this traditional English boarding school environment, children are taught all subjects, such as history, literature, art, and science by qualified tutors, yet no one but one comes clear about their raison d’être: they are clones to become ‘donors’, and will supply vital organs for the National Donation Program. Whilst they are taught self-care, no one makes explicit the reason why it is absolutely critical for them to remain healthy. For the most part, the ‘students’ are left on their own in order to get a grip on their existential condition as future donors. Shrouded in ambiguity, children of Hailsham live in the world of myth, oft fantastically dark and senselessly terrifying. Whilst most of these myths fade away once they ‘graduate’ and relocate to various locations where they, for the first time, mix with their less-privileged clones who are bred in the facilities located all over the UK, there is one notion that not only endures, but becomes very close to being a ‘fact’: if two Hailsham alumni are truly in love, they will receive ‘deferrals’, that is, up to several years of delay before starting the process of ‘donation’. To be clear, the ‘deferral’ does not spare them from untimely death as the sources of vital organs, or the ‘completion’ as they refer; the deferral only means the delay of the process, not the cancellation. Yet, this notion is embraced with a reverence of messianic proportions, and much of the story revolves around this myth.

The premise is indeed bleak and terrifying, yet it is also a thought-provoking one. At first glance, the most obvious line of inquiry into the story is the ethics of cloning, that is, to question whether our technological advancement will make us meaningfully better than without it when this ‘progress’ is achieved at the expense of others. Modern medicine is one of the disciplines founded on Cartesian metaphysics which regards the physical world as a separate entity from Mind (or Soul), and the practice of organ transplant is one of the logical extensions of this world-view, as it regards the human body as a machine, that is, the aggregation of replaceable parts. Alex Garland stated his interest in what he calls the ‘politics of cloning’, and, as a friend and a sounding-board, he may have had a decisive influence on Ishiguro in defining the premise of Never Let Me Go. Clones are bred and raised for one specific end en mass, and, it is assumed that there is no other reason d’être for them. In this sense, they are raised like cattle to provide ‘goods’ for humankind; in order to justify such an exploitation, it must be assumed that clones are devoid of a complex inner life. Whilst some, like the principal of Hailsham and her collaborator, Madam, believe that these clones do have ‘souls’, and advocate for humane treatment during the early years, they do not reject the legitimacy of the National Donation Program; the donation scheme is the paragon of ‘great progress’, and this belief is founded on the assumption that clones cannot be considered really human. Despite their recognition that clones do have ‘souls’, and thus capable of developing a complex inner life like us, they insist on the status quo, like many of us who recognise animals as sentient beings yet feast on their flesh. The film is squarely focused on conveying just how terrible this practice is, and it is intended to make us question the possible ethical implications of cloning. And, interestingly, the film actually suits this end better than the original novel.

The reason why the film is a better thought experiment for a seminar or a classroom is not the relative convenience and accessibility of a movie as a medium. It is due to its lack of certain aesthetic opaqueness; the film singularly focuses on ‘politics of cloning’. To this end, the film explicitly shows the brutality of the practice, and even dramatises it with some clichés commonly used in movies and TV shows. For example, unlike Ishiguro’s original, the feature focuses on the love-triangle of three young people in order to highlight the cruelty of denying the future for them. Garland’s intention is clearly expressed from the very beginning of the movie; in the first sequence, Tommy, on his operation bed, heroically smiles upon Kathy as if to promise his safe return, like a soldier heading to the front. This scene establishes the tone for the rest of the movie, which advances Garland’s argument with ample use of melodramatic scenes. For example, Ruth’s death is very graphically documented; the film shows her corpse on the operation table to maximise the terrifying effect. Whilst none of these events are explicitly, or graphically, described in the novel (they in fact only get passing mentions), Garland made these alterations in order to express a singular point; his opposition to the potentially inhumane consequences of cloning. He turns to melodramatic clichés to represent the horror of the National Donation Program, and to induce the rage against the objectification of the Other. Like in his debut feature Ex Machina, Garland is relentlessly focused on his thesis, and he uses the movie as a device to represent and support his argument; for Garland, cinema provides the affective appeal to bolster his argument, and it appears that Romanek was given no choice but to go along with this approach.

Ishiguro’s approach marks a stark contrast to the one described above. His novel is much more than a thought experiment that conveys the author’s view about a specific subject. Ishiguro demonstrates a far more nuanced understanding of his characters’ plight; for Ishiguro, the terror is not only about what is done in this story, but also how it is dealt with. True, the film does deal with how the society at large justifies cloning for organ harvest; it flatly denies clones’ right to life either by denying their capacity for a complex inner life, or by reinforcing an arbitrary distinction between humankind and its clones. Yet, the film fails to capture how clones themselves deal with this horror, which is one of the most important aspects of Ishiguro’s story; he painstakingly crafted Kathy H.’s narrative in order to express the extent to which clones internalised the institutionalisation of their existence. Throughout the story, there is no mention of rebellion; there is no resistance in any form or scale against the National Donation Program. Just as ‘normal’ children expect to someday become ‘grown-ups’, clones expect to become donors. It appears that they simply see this process as a ‘coming of age’, and approach it with curiosity, hesitation, expectations, and dread. They are indeed far more ‘reasonable’ than ‘normal’ adolescents; there is absolutely no mention of escapism such as substance abuse, running away, or suicide. With ‘Stoicism’ and ‘self-respect’, they simply carry on until they ‘complete’. As the notion of ‘completion’ masks the cruel reality of their existence, clones comply with societal norms and never disturb the carefully maintained equilibrium of the system. This silent conformity to the society which ruthlessly exploits their actual existence is where the most horrible effect of this novel lies. Ishiguro masterfully brings out the voice of Kathy, who is independent, observant, yet in total denial of her fear, grief, and loss. At the beginning of the story, Kathy mentions in passing that she is ready to make a transition from a carer to a donor. She simply tells us that the time is somehow ‘right’ to make the step forward. What she doesn’t say is: she wants to die. She lost all of her friends, and she experienced a terrible heart-break when Tommy rejected her in the end. Unlike in the movie, there was no loving smile from him to Kathy. Instead, Tommy requested to replace Kathy with another carer before his final operation. Yet, how Kathy really felt about these horrible events is completely absent from the narrative.

If one thinks that this silent complicity, the way everyone ‘looks away’ from the horrifying reality and carries on, is the Leitmotiv of Ishiguro’s novel, one is only half-right. This novel is an exemplary art which can stimulate one’s thoughts, theoretical or otherwise, and requires multiple readings, for there is a certain opaqueness about the narrative that allows a multitude of interpretations for any aspect of the story. Ishiguro’s masterfully sculpted narrative is not nebulous, however; each sentence carries clear meanings and performs certain functions for the story. Ishiguro was able to achieve this because he does not regard his story as a means to an end; unlike Garland’s script, Ishiguro’s novel does not advance one thesis or another. As it is certainly thought-provoking, it is far richer than a thesis disguised as literature. Case in point: the final distance Tommy wedged between him and Kathy could be interpreted in at least a few ways: He was with Kathy only to obtain deferral; he wanted to protect Kathy from the terrible end of his; or, he simply surrendered to all consuming despair. And, most importantly, we will never find the definite reason for his decision, for Tommy himself probably didn’t know exactly why he chose to be alone in the end. This is one of many examples of Ishiguro’s splendid opaqueness; in his story, the opaqueness that makes each of us a proper individual are not only retained, but also carefully cultivated. It is Ishiguro’s acute appreciation for this ambiguity that sets him apart from his peers.

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne, Miller’s Crossing, 1990, Cohen Brothers) used to utter: No one knows anyone; not that well. And Ishiguro appears to have a special respect for this uncomfortable wisdom. Whilst it may be easy for some to dismiss this statement as a smart expression of cynicism, the way Garland comes up short to Ishiguro might suggest the reason why imposing a theory to the world for the sake of clarity is never a good idea. For the world, and every human being in it, is far more complex than a clever speculation can account for. And thus, we must take note: When studying humankind, less is not always more.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There is a milestone not only for Studio Ghibli and its fans, but anyone who enjoys quality films that can be shared with the entire family. It is the second feature film by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arietty), and the last movie from Studio Ghibli before its indefinite hiatus from feature film making. Whilst it is not exactly ‘young’ in terms of its content, it touches on an important theme of life that viewers of all ages should find deeply moving.

It tells a story of love and friendship between two young girls, Anna and Marnie. Anna is a 12 year-old girl who finds herself outside of ‘an invisible circle’ called humanity. She is intensely private, and her interactions with others are limited to the bare minimum. She hates her awkwardness, she hates the resulting alienation, and, most of all, she hates herself. One day she suffers a severe asthma attack at school. A doctor recommends her mother to send Anna to the countryside in order to ease the stress arising from Anna’s social awkwardness. Anna stays with her uncle and aunt who live in a seaside village where she makes a fateful encounter with a mysterious foreign girl of her age, Marnie, whose friendship, for Anna, becomes her very reason to live. It is a wonderfully illustrated story of love, friendship, the importance of family ties, which are the keys for one's healing, and coming of age.

The above description fits just about every movie produced by Studio Ghibli. For example, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a coming-of-age story about a 13 year-old witch, who has to overcome her insecurities and confusions. Spirited Away’s Chihiro, Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart, Satsuki from My Neighbour Totoro, Taeko from Only Yesterday… all of these protagonists have to struggle with their obstacles to discover who they really are. Studio Ghibli has been consistently producing excellent coming-of-age stories, and Marnie seems to fit neatly into this tradition. Yet, remarkably, Yonebayashi achieves what Miyazaki and Takahata attained in a very different way. For this reason, Marnie cannot be simply appreciated as the ‘last feature movie’ from Studio Ghibli; it should be praised as a great film in its own right. So what makes Marnie a stand out film, even compared to the best of Ghibli’s features?

In this film, Yonebayashi decides to tackle the real darkness in life without compromise. There is simply no other films from Studio Ghibli, or any family features, opens with such a sense of despair. The loneliness, the sense of unworthiness, and the resulting self-hatred Anna feels is expressed with a great urgency that it seems only a matter of time before Anna carries out her first suicide attempt. Anna’s departure to the remote village projects little excitement; instead there is a sense of abandonment that cuts deep into her tender heart. Whilst Anna occupies herself with drawing, unlike in Miyazaki films, the art does not bring any life-saving magic to this protagonist. Unlike in Takahata films, not even the natural beauty of this remote land can console her soul. In short, Anna represents a dire condition of the human soul which is rarely explored by film directors except Ingmar Bergman who did so with great regularity. Life is a mere mortal coil for Anna, and she has no reason to live. She is barely hanging on, simply because she has not yet thought of the final exit as an option for her.

A very few family film has ever been allowed to express such despair. It is a courageous decision Yonebayashi commits himself to, and it pays off; Marnie turns out to be one of the most emotionally authentic films I have ever seen. The way Anna is filmed excludes all sense of self-pity and indulgence. By looking her face, we receive her message clearly: The world is a better place without me. Yonebayashi succeeds in making us feel her pain and taking it seriously. Only a few have ever achieved this feat in animated films. Takahata achieved this with The Tale of Princess Kaguya, as well as Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi with their excellent short, The Dam Keeper (2014). Still, Yonebayashi enjoys the distinction of telling a story of despair and redemption in a realistic setting of contemporary Japan. Given that juvenile suicide has been a grave problem in post-WWII Japan, and it is becoming a serious concern globally, this achievement is of particular importance.

It is only through the friendship of Marnie that Anna finds a reason to live. The story of Marnie is not a happy one either; she faces a real darkness herself, yet she somehow manages to find joy in life. Whilst Marnie appears more like a standard Studio Ghibli character, that is, charming, brave, and full of life, the sadness and despair she feels is just as real as Anna’s. And because the darkness experienced by these characters are genuine, the final redemption brings a truly exhilarating catharsis.

One might think that the twist of fate Anna and Marnie share is a very unlikely story in real life. I must refrain from giving a full argument in support of this narrative, thus I simply state this for the time being: This story takes a particular path to show one universal truth about the indispensable nature of love in our lives, and the way this story is told is not only justified; it is the true strength of this great movie. 

After the viewing, I’ve been left wondering when we will be able to see the next movie by Yonebayashi. If you know anyone who might know this young director, please pass on this reviewer’s words:

Please continue. You are too good to quit.

The Perfumed Nightmare (1977)

Kidlat Tahimik’s The Perfumed Nightmare is a wildly enchanting masterpiece, one of a kind in the truest sense of the word. It is truly magical, not only because the main protagonist, Kidlat, embodies child-like fascination for the world and what it can offer, but because it demonstrates an individual’s capacity to express and shape one’s own history, thereby showing a way to resist a grand narrative, or an ‘official account’, of our story. In this case, 'our history' denotes both the history of Philippines, and the history of modern world.

The Perfumed Nightmare is directed, starred, and narrated by Eric de Guia, A.K.A., Kidlat Tahimik, which means ‘Silent Lightning’ in Tagalog. The main protagonist, Kidlat, is a humble jeep-bus driver in a small village, and fascinated by all things American, from American radio program to the images of white American beauty queens. However, the subject of his ardent admiration is a German-American scientist, Wernher von Braun, the man who ‘made a bridge to the moon’. To Kidlat, von Braun represents the progress of humankind and the glorious splendour of modern civilisation. In his enthusiasm, Kidlat becomes the president and founder of Wernher von Braun fan club, which consists only of village children. Throughout the duration of the film, Kidlat maintains his unassuming, childlike attitude. Thus, the film, though intellectually profound, does not come across as pretentious. If anything, it might appear wild, crazy, and even funny.

Yet, there are signs that this film has more to it than meets the eyes. For example, it is hard to imagine that Eric de Guia was ignorant of the legacy of Wernher von Braun. The scientist was also the creator of the V2 Schneider rockets, arguably the first Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, which later became the key instrument of mutually assured destruction policy (MAD) during the Cold War. Despite the fact that von Braun was a member of NAZI party and the SS, the OSS gave him immunity, brought him to the USA, and put his talent to use, despite Truman’s insistence that no former Nazi party member would be recruited to work for the USA. All this was possible by means of Operation Paperclip, an OSS program set up solely to manipulate wartime records of desirable former NAZI members. To circumvent Truman’s restriction, the OSS systematically whitewashed desirable subjects’ pasts and created false wartime records for them. In case you forgot, von Braun also left a mark on the history of film, as he was the man who inspired the role of Dr. Strangelove.

Thus, it is clear that Kidlat is not Eric de Guia; Kidlat is created as a court jester who mocks his Western masters by pretending to be simple and primitive. His outrageous tactlessness is only a means to deliver his critique and wisdom to the masters in their comfortable thrones. By setting up von Braun as the man who represents modern civilisation, Eric de Guia, by disguise of Kidlat, is questioning the very nature of modern civilisation. Therefore, whilst we laugh or smile at Kidlat’s supposed naïveté, we soon realise that it is we who are naïve and ignorant of the history, of the nature of our civilisation, and of the future history which we are creating by doing nothing. And we also realise that, despite the appearance, the subject of this film is no laughing matter. Because, after all, this film is an unflinching meditation on the destructiveness of modern civilisation as a whole. Through the unlikely journey of Kidlat, de Guia confronts the official history of the Philippines, as well as the official history of humankind by creating his own mythology against the ‘objective account’ of the modern world.

Despite all this seriousness, The Perfumed Nightmare brims with the joy of film making. The exuberance we experience through this film is genuine, and it cannot be reduced to the comic excellence of Kidlat the jester alone. The sheer enthusiasm expressed by de Guia and his crew in creating this unique masterpiece is truly infectious. Unlike Tarantino’s work, there is little or no reference and homage to the history of cinema here. Instead, like the main character Kidlat, the entire film expresses the wild curiosity and excitement of creating and experiencing a film. Although it is true that to make such a profound film with the appearance of primitivity requires a deep intelligence and an outstanding creative instinct, one cannot help but be enchanted by the excitement which the entire crew must have felt throughout the filming. There is truly a childlike quality to the joy of creative expression embodied by this film. I know of no other movie which is capable of expressing such an excitement while dealing with a serious subject such as the destructive nature of modernity. The Perfumed Nightmare, despite the somber title, manages to be simultaneously profound and funny, political and mythological. For this reason alone, The Perfumed Nightmare must be visited and revisited, not only because the subject matter is as relevant as ever. It is also an outstanding creative feat.

Now, before ending this article, let us ask one more question. Who actually is Eric de Guia, after all? This Filipino prefers to present himself as Kidlat. He travels as Kidlat, directs as Kidlat, and performs as Kidlat. After the completion of The Perfumed Nightmare, it is as if the person previously known as Eric de Guia was replaced by Kidlat Tahimik. Yet Kidlat cannot exist without Eric. Then, who are they, really? My take is: Eric is a Sancho Panza. He walks besides his mad and wild master, Kidlat, without drawing attention to himself. But Kidlat did not absorb Eric. Eric accompanies every step Kidlat takes, even though it is Kidlat who does all the talking.

Still, there is an important difference between the literary masterpiece by Cervantes and this cinematic gem. Whilst the Spanish author was Sancho Panza himself, it is not clear at all who gets the credit for creating The Perfumed Nightmare. In fact, it is impossible to measure the contributions and the influences of each in this film. And this ambiguity arising from the invention of history and the reinvention of oneself through it is one of the most fascinating qualities of this movie.

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd is a fine period drama with a great cast and flawless mise en scène. It is based on Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same name, and this is the fourth film adaptation. The main role, Bathsheba Everdene, brilliantly performed by Carey Mulligan, has been played by the likes of Julie Kristie. So, one might expect that there is nothing more to see than the improvements which different actors, music, costume design, and cinematography might bring to this time-honoured classic. Fortunately, Vinterberg is able to prove this assumption quite wrong. The director manages to make a period drama like no other, whilst staying within the limits set by the genre. In a sense, Vinterberg is showing that it is still possible to direct period dramas, a notoriously time-worn genre, with difference. He proves that directing a period drama does not require the absence of individual style and a unique sensibility. This is a subtle, yet a great accomplishment which is very likely to be overlooked.

The key to his success lies with the subtle balance Vinterberg strikes between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Directing a period drama is a tricky business. It is different from adopting a classic in that it has to be confined within the intended time and the place of the original work. For example, if you are adopting a literary classic, you can present it as a period drama, or you can transport the story and the characters into another period. Theoretically, one can direct Faust as a SCi-Fi movie, if so desired. On the other hand, a period drama is restricted to the specific time and the place in history wherein the story is set. Moreover, a period drama, whether it is based on a literary classic or a contemporary best seller, the way the story progresses strictly adheres to the style of the 19th century novel; the story follows a linear temporary order, and it is generally told through the third-person narrative in which the author assumes the role of the omniscient God who is the only person with a clear sense of what is happening, and thus the sole source of the objective account.

For the director of a period drama, these rules are compulsive. If you break these rules, the movie is no longer recognisable as a period drama. The audience of this genre is as unforgiving as a corset. Since there are many period dramas in the history of cinema, we are accustomed to the way it is generally presented. Whilst the interpretation of a character might give some liberty to the actors, a director is completely tied to the spaciotemporal framework of the story. We are also accustomed to the 19th century mode of storytelling that it has become the default mode of writing, especially in the English speaking world. This generally constraints a director to such a degree that there is no room left for a director to leave their mark as an auteur. In short, a period drama is all about refinement and skills, not about originality.

Vinterberg follows these rules well enough that the movie remains a clearly recognisable period drama. His direction follows the linear temporal order, and there is nothing that strikes the audience as unfitting. Additionally he assembled a great cast, and they deliver. Carey Mulligan shines as Bathsheba Everdeen, and once again she proves that she is one of the finest actors of her generation. Indeed, her performance is one of the key ingredients to the success of this movie. As the leading actor, she represents her character from a different time-period with freshness. Whilst she reminds us of the gulf between our contemporary sensibility about genders and that of the19th century England, she makes the story relevant to us by breathing a new life into the character. It is Mulligan's presence, with her proven acting skill, that makes tremendous difference in this latest adaptation. She is someone from a distant time period, yet her struggle, taken out of the exact context, is also real to the contemporary sensibility. In any case, what Mulligan show us is that we need to be keenly aware of two elements to fully appreciate a good period drama: respecting an unfamiliar sensibility from the distant past, and embracing a familiar subject to which we can relate. Still, if this is the only positive aspect of the film, what Vintergerg achieves with this film is only a mere refinement over the previous adaptations.

However, there is nothing further from the truth. To make a point, I should draw our attention to another aspect of this movie’s understated success: a foreign element. There are two artists who represent a foreign element in this quintessential English classic: Vinterberg and Matthias Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts offers a strong performance as Gabriel Oak, and he can be easily accepted as an Englishman. Yet, there is a certain foreignness about his look that makes his Gabriel really stands out from his fellow actors in this movie. It works wonderfully in sculpting this character not merely as a down-to-earth man of strength, but as someone who is very different from other characters. His devotion to Bathsheba is selfless, and as his name suggests, there is a certain pure quality to the way he carries himself. In this sense, this character stands apart from the rest with his keen sense of morality, and casting a talented foreign actor for this role proved to be a wise decision. Thus, Schoenaerts contributes no small part to the success of this movie.

The foreign element Schoenaerts brings with him to the screen works wonders with Vinterberg’s direction. The landscape of rural 19th century England is captured with impeccable skill, yet, through Vinterberg’s eyes, this land at times appears completely foreign. The way he captures the terrible beauties of the cliff, the gentle afternoon in the grassland, or the beam of the sunlight that silhouette the lovers, transfixes us. Whilst it is the mark of a true artist to be able to capture the beauty of ordinary things with arresting freshness, I suspect that there is more to this phenomenon here. It is Vinterberg’s foreign eyes that enable to transform the all-too-familiar landscape of Victorian England into the view with unearthly qualities.

The key to this effect lies with Vinterberg’s Nordic sensibility to light. Although it is evident in the way he handles artificial lights, such as a lantern in the woods, it most powerfully manifests with his handling of natural light. As in other Nordic directors’ works, such as Bergman’s and Skjoldbjaerg’s, the natural light, and its lack thereof, dictates the screen in this movie. It is a kind of sensibility that would be cultivated by someone who was born and raised in a region where the cold and the darkness persist for the much of the year. Whilst the film blissfully plays with the light in its English moments, the natural light reveals its power with it’s starkness in its Nordic moments. Remarkably, Vinterberg uses the force of light like the key motives in a complex symphony. Since he mixed these Nordic moments with English ones with such skill, the distinction of his accomplishment in this aspect might go easily unnoticed. At first glance, this movie presents itself as an accomplished period drama, and there is nothing wrong with this assessment. Yet, if you really care to appreciate this film in its full capacity, to realise what kind of an accomplishment Vinterberg attained with this period drama, one should pay special attention to his use of natural light as a mean to bring much needed new life to this classic.

It might take a few viewings to fully appreciate every virtue of this movie. Yet I assure you: it is worth it.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is a complex meditation on subjects such as: life, death, ageing, and relationships between close associates (both of the opposite and the same gender). It probes how participation in art affects a participant’s life, how life shapes art, how the contemporary celebrity culture affects celebrities, and, ultimately, how one might face these challenges in life.

Indeed, it is a lot to tackle in a film which lasts just over two hours, and sadly this is by no means a flawless film. The reason I state this with much regret is that there are moments in which Clouds of Sils Maria achieves majestic heights with intensity, nuance, and a deep understanding of the human struggles with the subjects described above. Interestingly, the flaws of the movie are not due to the fact that it is tackling too many complex subjects all at once. There are undoubtedly signs of greatness. The problem is this: It is a great story told by the wrong director. Thus, despite that the final cut represents a missed opportunity, it still is not one to be passed over.

It is a story of Maria (Juliette Binoche), an accomplished actor who is internationally recognised as one of the finest actors of her generation. On her way to Zürich to receive an award on behalf of a celebrated play-write and director, Wilhelm, she receives news of his sudden death through her devoted personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). For Maria, Wilhelm is a central figure in her life; he cast then 18-year-old Maria for the main role, Sigrid, for his play Maloja Snake, and later cast her again for the movie production of the play for the same role. Shaken, yet too late to turn back, Maria joins the award-giving ceremony to honour her memory of Wilhelm. During the obligatory post-ceremony dinner, Maria is visited by a film director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger). Klaus confides to Maria of his plan to produce Maloja Snake, and offers the role of Helena, an older counterpart of Sigrid. Initially Maria is apprehensive of the proposal, for she has been identifying herself with Sigrid since she first played the role, and she finds Helena uninteresting. Yet, Klaus’ interpretation of the two roles interests her, and he eventually secures her service. Maria prepares herself for the role of Helena in Wilhelm’s house upon a mountain which is offered by Wilhelm's widow (memorably performed by Angela Winkler from The Tin Drum). While using Valentine as her counterpart, Sigrid, Maria continues to struggle with her new role, that of an established woman who destroys herself by means of her obsession for a younger woman. In the process, her relationship with Valentine starts to transform.

Juliette Binoche delivers an inspired performance as Maria. While this is what we all expect from a quality actor like Binoche, this time, she demonstrated such skill that she simply left me in awe. Binoche is probably one of the best actors of all time when it comes to playing a person grieving, as she ably demonstrated in Kieślowski’s Blue. However, as the story moves forward, she delivers a whole lot more: joy, anger, fear, irritation, disdain, defiance, hesitation…the sheer range of emotions she embodies from one moment to another as Maria is simply astounding. I am convinced that the majestic heights this film achieves at times owes to the presence and performance of Binoche, and the forbidding beauty of the Alps where the majority of the story unfolds. Throughout the film, they have no equal in sight.

The reason I give such credit to Binoche is that she is the only person in this movie carrying the story that needs to be told. There are many points where Assayas fails not to spoil what is already great. If he could have let the story unfold itself, with a recast and some tweaks in the plot, it could have been a far greater feature. There are quite a few sequences which simply do not belong in this movie. For example, there is a scene in which Valentine drives through the foggy and twisty Alpine roads at night, and the way the sequence is directed and edited is absurd. The same goes for some of the sequences that focused on the Internet and Hollywood, the toxic mixture that breeds the much decried tabloid culture. Not withstanding his disdain of celebrity culture, however, Assayas demonstrates an unhealthy obsession to this subject and invests too much screen time on it. In addition, the way he handles the scenes featuring Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) makes me think that Assayas is trying too hard to bring in his trademark kitsch, which is best represented with his earlier feature, Irma Vep. The problem is: these are two completely different movies. Thus, it is clear that Assayas fails to grasp the spirit of this story. Fortunately, there are enough moments where the majestic force comes forth despite all too frequent, unwelcome, and absolutely unnecessary interventions by Assayas.

As represented by the awe-inspiring performance of Binoche, the potential for this film to become a masterpiece is there. Then one should ask oneself: How can it be fixed? In order to answer this question, we need to first see this movie as a Bergman film pictured in contemporary Switzerland, instead of Sweden. This story is about a human drama which must be expressed with utmost intensity and care. A stern and enclosed environment in the Alps, the silent presence of the deceased play-write and his obsession for the clouds called Maloja Snake, and the troubling present haunted by the troubled past…. How could Assayas have missed all the cues? There is no time to indulge ourselves with inessential subjects that rage external to this confinement, such as the Internet and tabloid culture. This story is all about characters, and their human experience through the company of each other in a forbiddingly isolating topography. Once all the noise is cut, then finally, there is space and time for the story to come forth.

Unfortunately, there is no more Bergman. Indulge me, if you will: the choice of the three main characters is easy enough. Obviously, Binoche is here to stay as Maria. Then who can match her intensity and understanding in contemporary cinema from the younger generation? My proposal is to replace Stewart with Carey Mulligan as Valentine, and I would pick Saoirse Ronan as the ‘new Sigrid’ (Of course, I will rename this character: 'Jo-Ann' is absolutely atrocious.) I’d present her character as someone who is unknown in the film world, yet, true to the spirit of the character Sigrid—strong, intelligent, private yet unafraid, without all that tabloid non-sense. After Zürich, I would simply lock up Binoche and Mulligan in the Alps, later to be joined by Ronan. Through silence, dialogue, gaze, and gestures, they will reveal the full potential of this story in all its majesty. It is a tantalising prospect.

Now, you might ask yourself: Why should I spend time watching this film, which is supposedly nothing but a missed opportunity? Well, to realise what it is, first you have to sit and experience this film. And, like the mystical Maloja Snake, a glimpse of its majestic beauty alone is worth all the trouble in the world. Even if you choose not to explore the possibility of greatness in this film, there is still Binoche, and her acting alone makes it a must-watch.

The Dam Keeper (2014)

The Dam Keeper is a short animation film which lasts only 18 minutes, and it offers my favourite 18 minutes on the screen.

Despite the brief running time, it offers a rich and deeply rewarding viewing experience of the best feature films in all aspects: characters, storytelling, artwork, music, and the deep appreciation of humanity both in its brightest moment and its darkest. The story is told by delightful light, somber shadow, rich colour, and by the gently mournful voice of Lars Mikkelsen (Sherlock, House of Cards). The events in the past week reminded us, again, just how terrible our experience on the Earth can be. And, this is what I decided to share with anyone who cares to read my writing, with my heartfelt gratitude for everyone who returns to my pages since its launch this summer despite everything happening, or unhappening, in life. (Thank you.)

This short animated film was directed by Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi. Both worked as art directors at the famed Pixar Animation Studios, yet directing a film of their own was a completely new experience for them. Following this challenge, they took an enormous risk by quitting Pixar and starting a new path as independent film directors by setting up Tonko House, an independent production company. I applaud their courage and conviction as independent directors, for, once one watches this short film, there is no doubt that they have so much to offer. 

Now, onto the film itself.

The Dam Keeper tells a story of a young orphan, Pig, who dedicates himself to the task left by his late father. He lives in isolation at the edge of the city where a windmill called ‘The Dam’ stands at the top of a great wall which separates the city and the world of ashes that ‘suffocate everything’. His life is dictated by a rigid routine in order to maintain the function of ‘The Dam’, for, without its proper function, the city will be smothered by dark ashes, rendering the place uninhabitable. The story begins with a somber tone, reflecting the deep sorrow of the protagonist. Through the windows of his ‘home’, he sees the world obscured by ashes on one side; on the other, he sees the world of ‘people’. And on both, he sees ‘darkness’.

We soon discover what he meant by the darkness that surrounds him. He is isolated from the rest of the society for which he silently carries on one vital duty as the dam keeper. It is not entirely clear at first that the residents of the city are aware of his vital function, or the fact that they owe him their delightful existence. There are a few instances which suggest that they are fully aware of what he does for them. Despite the knowledge of his service to the society, he is despised in a manner in which people of certain professions are discriminated in various societies. For example, in Japan, there is a very strong prejudice against Burakumin, i.e., untouchables, who toil as butchers, undertakers, etc. This is a terrible condition which many still suffer, as an Academy Award winning Japanese film, Departures (2008, by Yōjirō Takita), points out. In many societies, certain professions are available for a certain social class, and the harsh discriminations based on one’s creed remains strong. This explains the way Pig was treated not only by his peers, but also by the adults. The inhabitants of the city can barely contain their disgust toward this little child, and his peers at school mercilessly bully him at every opportunity they can find.

All of this changes when a new student joins them at the school.

The moment Fox steps into the ‘school bus’, everyone takes notice. The tone of the movie suddenly shifts lighter. She brings a breath of fresh air, with a lively spring in her every step. Unassuming and open, she is not afraid of being a newcomer. The moment she takes the seat next to our protagonist, who always sit alone the back of the vehicle, she begins to draw in her sketchbook with a great exuberance. It turns out that this newcomer is his new classmate. She is kind, lighthearted, and instantly popular amongst her peers. Yet, as she takes notice of the plight of our protagonist, Fox does not join them in their discrimination of Pig; she offers instead the very first and seemingly the only hope of friendship for him. And yet, how terrible would it be to feel the despair of this lonely soul who happens to ‘discover’ that Fox is not who she appears to be and there is no hope of real friendship in the first place?

In the wake of this crushing ‘realisation’, the world turns dark. Literally.

Since I would like to share this greatest 18 minutes on screen with you, I refrain from revealing the specifics of this movie any further. Instead, I would like to draw your attention to some lessons in life: Whilst we are all supposed to be able to summon our strength and overcome any obstacles, we cannot do so all by ourselves. In this respect, being genuinely kind, or being a good friend of someone, is one of the greatest contributions each of us can offer to the world around us. I sorely need to improve myself in this regard, since I have made, however briefly or remotely, many encounters with Foxes in my journey through the world. Like our protagonist, I was lifted by most of whom I would never meet again on the various corners on the Earth. Some of the help I was offered were life-saving in a literal sense, whilst others were just as important. Whilst a Pig cannot become a Fox, any Fox you will meet will tell you: It is OK.

A Pig will be capable of kindness, in time.

This film also tells us never to lose heart. When everything appears dark and one is left with the deepest sense of despair, you might find just enough light to show you the right path for you. So, hang on. We will see it through until the light shines through. Together.

I sincerely hope that this gem of cinema is available to every one of you. And I am infinitely grateful that these two directors took some incredible risks to deliver such a wonderful work. This is the kind of movie I would recommend to anyone, on any occasion. It lifts you up without refraining from plunging into the real darkness that can exist in life. It is rare to have a movie like this in one’s life, and still rarer that one experiences such a profound emotional journey in a mere 18 minutes.

Norte, The End of the History (2013)

Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of the History is a film of great length and ambition. It is said to be based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, and is generally accepted as a brilliant adoption of the literary classic to contemporary Filipino life, with comparable depth and scope to the original. Like Crime and Punishment, Diaz’s movie is said to belong to the highest echelons of art, and it enjoys universal acclaim as it is said to represent a triumph of Filipino independent cinema. Yet, Diaz’s feature shows little resemblance to Dostoyevsky’s novel in important ways.

Unlike the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, our anti-hero Fabian (Sid Lucero) has no redemptive quality. Yes, like Raskolnikov, Fabian murders a money lender. Yet, unlike Raskolnikov, he also kills an innocent bystander. Despite Fabian’s philosophy of only morally motivated murder being permissible, his selfishness proves stronger. Thus he brutally murders the guiltless money lender’s daughter, whose only crime was witnessing her mother’s death. Also, unlike Raskolnikov, he never gives himself up to the authorities, thereby letting an innocent man, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), be punished for his crime. It is only years after that Fabian tries to correct this wrong in his predictably dubious way; he exchanges what he stole from his victim at the pawn shop, hands the money to the wife of Joaquin, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), and persuades his former colleague and professors to reopen the case of Joaquin, without turning himself in. And, more importantly, Fabian never makes a meaningful attempt to atone for his sins: He doesn’t admit his crime to anyone, and although he knows immorality of his crime, he continues on his destructive path. It is all too evident that his focus is intensely on how he feels about his deeds than what he did to his victims. Thus, Fabian’s descent into darkness is irreversible, and he seems to come to a dead end with his precious theory on so-called ‘post-humanity’.

The most important point made by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment is: To truly atone for one’s sin, first one must admit one’s sin to oneself. Without this admission, one cannot repent, and without repenting one’s sin, there is no possible redemption of one’s soul. Raskolnikov gives himself up on the recommendation of Sophia, and promptly goes to jail. Yet, redemption eludes him until he finally admits the enormity of his crime to himself. This cathartic redemption at the end of the novel is what makes it one of the most important classics. Since Diaz openly admires the Russian author, it is inevitable to ask: Why does he choose to deny redemption for his Raskolnikov?

This is due to Diaz’s assessment of the contemporary state of affairs in the Philippines. As the title suggests, Diaz’s critique is squarely aimed at the aftermath of the alleged ‘triumph’ of liberal capitalism, which signifies the ‘End of History’, as suggested by Francis Fukuyama. According to Fukuyama, the liberal capitalist form of society is the end point of human evolution, and thus, it is not only the best form of society, but it is inevitable. Of course, just like his counter part, i.e., Marxists, Fukuyama is merely, and erroneously, appropriating Hegelian dialectic to justify his chosen political ideology. As Norte is rife with historical critiques of modern Filipino politics and its place in contemporary global economy and politics, the notion of the ‘End of History’ has to be taken as an irony, albeit a pointed one that is supposed to cut deep.

In this context, Fabian, a modern day Raskolnikov, is a representative character of the ‘Zero-Society’, which itself is a product of global liberal capitalism. He is a preacher of radical individual freedom, a freedom which justifies ruthless murder of the morally decrepit. According to Fabian, it is not only history which is dead. The notions of truth and meaning are dead as well, and thus everything is permitted. In this what he calls a 'post-human’ world, violence is not only permitted, but required. He is not preaching a Hobbesian state of nature here; he argues that violence must be directed at everything that impedes morality. Like any psychopath, Fabian certainly knows how to dazzle his audience with his ardent radicalism. Yet, his professors and friends alike ask: Define ‘morality’, define ‘good’ and ‘evil’. And these are fair questions.

As it turns out, Fabian is a mere faux intellectual. Notwithstanding his appearance, he is intellectually lazy in that he does not bother to defend his most fundamental assumptions, despite that the justification of his ‘theory’ depends on the correctness of these assumptions. He merely declares in response to the questions posed by his former professors that one must forget what the ‘stupid philosophers’ said and rely on instinct alone. He merely declares that we already 'know' what is good and what is evil. Whilst such a statement might sound radical and iconoclastic, in fact, it is a cheap move to mask his shallowness. He is a particularly maleficent product of this age. His generation grew up seeing the promise of revolution and a better future sabotaged, and was told that there is no prospect of changing the course of history, as history itself has already ended. In a world where everything is gutted hollow by the econo-political elites, the notion of justice under the law seems meaningless. As he cannot turn to religion, Fabian is left with his faux radicalism, for, as smart as he is, he has no sincerity to pursue a genuine intellectual path. Despite being a poser, Fabian’s radicalism is taken seriously by intellectuals, and he has established himself a reputation of a radical thinker, a crown prince of Filipino intelligentsia in hiding. Yet, his radicalism does not bring any meaningful social change. Why?

It is because Fabian, like Marcello from The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci), is not really concerned about history, philosophy, or politics. His radicalism is like Marcello’s conformism to Italian Fascism; it is a means to dress up his personal grudge for the world around him as a radical, and dangerous, political gesture. As a result, the only thing they are capable of is committing a horrific yet cowardly crime. Malicious yet pathetic, Fabian goes on as a miserable parasite of everyone around him. Denying redemption to this self-important fellow from a privileged class, and granting it to a certain extent to Joaquin, Diaz is making a statement about class relation in our contemporary world. The picture he presents here is a familiar one; we have a rather long list of privileged and disgruntled sociopaths and homicidal criminals amongst our contemporaries. In this regard, the relentlessness with which Diaz paints the misfortune of Joaquin’s wife, Eliza, and the abysmal descent of Fabian, is somewhat justified. For Diaz, the End of History is a hell where the innocents suffer and the sinners roam free.

Still, the justification of Norte’s pessimistic realism is only partially granted. This is due to Diaz’s fatal misstep; whilst he denounces Fabian’s ‘post-human’ society, or ‘Zero-Society’, he neither resists it nor counters it by delivering certain justice, poetic or otherwise. Here, I am thinking of a particular moment of cinematic genius delivered by the Coen Brothers in No Country for Old Men (2007). Toward the end of the movie, completely out of the blue, supposedly invincible Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) meets a stunning twist of fate. As he drives along a peaceful street after all is said and done, suddenly, a car, which is seemingly driven by someone dead, strikes his with full impact. Both immensely satisfying and shocking at the same time, this sequence shows that there can be a certain justice even in a world which is completely devoid of hope.

Sadly, Diaz failed to deliver this sort of masterstroke which separates films that are interesting, and cinemas that are truly great (I am not of the opinion that No Country for Old Men is a great movie; yet I truly believe that the scene I described above is one of the greatest scene in the history of cinema. It is a prime example of the Divine Violence; Walter Benjamin would be happy if he had a chance to see it). Whilst the liberal capitalist hell of ‘Zero-Society’ that Diaz presents is undoubtedly beautifully captured, this beauty does little to soften the despair of the ‘post-human’ world. As Joaquin does acquire a certain redemption by evolving into a kind of saint, and he might even be acquitted in the future, damningly, by Fabian’s scheme, it still does not right the wrong as long as Fabian roams free. Given the price Joaquin’s family has had to pay, no amount of compensation would suffice. Instead of delivering a cinematic Divine Violence to Fabian, Diaz chooses to stick to his Bressonian minimalism to the end, thereby leaving this post-human condition unchallenged. One might argue that Diaz justifiably assumes that his audience would take his warning to heart and be pushed to actively resist this ‘Zero-Society’. Yet there is a lot of assuming in this argument. Given the film’s failure to provide true redemption to Joaquin and retribution to Fabian, we might think of this film as a statement of despair: It is what it is, and I will make you face reality in all of it’s harshness, so get used to it.

Of course, some might even endorse Diaz’s method by saying that this is the only justifiable attitude at this point in history: We should not insert ourselves in documenting the ills of the world; rather, we should show it just as it is. The problem is though, that this very endorsement of Norte and Diaz’s methodology also validates the very notion of post-human world as a given. This defence is based on the supposition that we now indeed live in Fabian’s ’Zero-Society’. And this statement assumes in turn the validity of such a concept. If we are to accept these assertions, what now? Should we follow the footsteps of Fabian then? As terrifying as it is, once you accept the notion of the ‘Zero-Society’ as a given, there is nothing to deny this possibility. Are any of you willing to go that far? I hope not. Naturally, this is not the point Diaz wants to make. Norte is meant to be as illuminating as Dostoevsky’s original novel. However, in order to achieve the profound effect Dostoyevsky unfailingly produces with his work, stoically documenting the suffering of innocents and the descent of the criminal from a certain distance is not enough. There must be some moments of emotional interventions by the author so that we can feel inspired and elevated enough to fight back.

Unfortunately, this deficit in this visually gorgeous work is as inevitable as Fabian’s downfall. It is because Diaz's commitment to his minimalist style does not allow him to do otherwise. This is a prime case of an artist being a hostage of his own style. It is clear that Diaz’s chosen style and method betrayed him in Norte. He must have wanted to create a cinematic masterpiece of devastating emotional intensity of the kind with which Dostoevsky always captures his readers. Yet, his film is no Dostoyevsky; it is rather a Hemingway. Whilst Diaz’s visual is lush and expansive, his narrative is as dry as Hemingway’s, leaving his characters stereotypical, his observations of humanity a cliché without a complexity or a genuine depth. In the end, Norte ends up resembling its anti-hero; whilst dazzling with charm at times, its critique cuts neither deep nor sharp.

Transit (2013)

What do you do if your host country suddenly decides to force you to part with your children by deporting them?

This is the question Filipino director Hannah Espia confronts us with in her debut feature, Transit. Whilst this film, set in Tel Aviv, is about a Filipino family’s struggle to stay together by hiding their children from Israeli immigration police, it is a universal story in the age of global diaspora. Although I am well aware that this is a touchy subject which many of us might find ‘unappealing’, I am going to ask you to spend your precious time to closely examine this film. It is not only because this is an important subject; it is because the way Transit tells the story of displaced people is at once engaging and enlightening. Giving a voice to the silenced and a face to the faceless is something cinematic art does best, and Espia carries out this mission with exemplary skill and sincerity. Therefore, if you decide to follow my advice to dedicate 90 minutes to watch this fine film, not only will you learn about the world which you share with strangers, but quite a lot about yourself as well.

Espia succeeds in creating a quality film precisely because she does not veer from the personal stories of each character. She gives equal importance to the voice of each character, and skillfully demonstrates the precarious nature of immigrant life. It is tough, confusing, miserable, and dangerous. When one confronts the subject like this, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to focus on the obvious, that is, the cruelty of immigration policy adopted by the host country Israel. Confronted by such an absurd policy of deporting children under the age of five to be separated from their parents and families, it is difficult not to react in quick anger. Whilst this reaction is perfectly understandable, or even necessary, it also tends to render the narrative one dimensional, and the human side of the story tends to get lost in the process. Fortunately, and remarkably, Espia shows great restraint: this film captures the audience by strictly keeping the narrative up-close and personal. This is because Espia chooses to stay true to the experience of the displaced, and resists the urge to make a grand political gesture. I for one greatly appreciate her humane sensibility and artistic commitment shown here.

The importance of her approach becomes starkly clear in the scene where Yael (Jasmine Curtis), the teenage daughter of Janet (Irma Adlawan), witnesses the outburst of her Israeli boyfriend. He declares just how much he hates the injustice of his country’s immigration policy, and asks why Yael seems removed from it all, despite she and her family is deeply affected by it. In reply, Yael expresses the total sense of powerlessness: there is nothing she and her people can do about this law, since they are not protected by the state. This scene is short and rather mundane compared to more dramatic turns of events in this film, yet, in fact, it hits the heart of the matter; the ones who has little or no protection from the state cannot afford to speak out against it. It is the privilege of a citizen to express his/her opinions, political or otherwise. As such, the fear of confrontation with law silences ‘aliens’ in the most inhumane way possible. And it is this fear that denies the agency of the ‘strangers from abroad’.

However, the worst effect of this fear is: it tears apart the fabric of the most intimate relationships, such as family and friends. The fear of deportation forces members of a closely knit community to turn against each other. Some are even forced to work as informants to the immigration police. Transit stays true to Espia’s commitment to honor the experience of each character and present it as it is. As a result, it sometimes feel like a documentary film. This characteristic often brings tremendous immediacy to each character’s experience and facilitates our empathetic response to it.

Despite many such great attributes, this movie is not without its’ flaws. Whilst each element of the story is emotionally absorbing, the way different perspectives are put together feels forced at times. For example, there are a few repeats from the opening scene in which Janet is calling a certain number on her cell phone. Although it is a scene which sets the tone of the movie, when you see it for the second or third time, it feels neither natural nor necessary. That being acknowledged, there are some breathtaking moments created by this method of telling and retelling a scene from different perspectives. Some of the scenes are slightly altered to reflect the different ways in which each character experienced a certain episode. At times, such a difference gives a much deeper insight into the heart of each character, and it definitely helps the audience to appreciate their struggles. Whilst it is certainly an effective method, and Espia’s execution is nearly perfect, there remains one problem; the chosen method ultimately prevents the audience from emotionally fully committing to the story. We are always aware of the method in which different perspectives are put together. This stylistic awareness considerably weakens the intensity of our emotional response to the movie, and it is a real shame. It makes me wonder if Transit could have achieved an emotional intensity of Bergman films if Espia kept its narrative straightforward.

Still, Transit deserves all the praise already given to it by many critics. Espia is undoubtedly talented, and I look forward to seeing what she can offer with her future projects. She has a sensibility and temperament which enable her to find a way to confront difficult issues without reducing them to a political statement. And this quality needs to be nurtured if humanity hopes to survive beyond this age of dogmatic confrontations.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a gorgeous visual feat which singlehandedly legitimised Wuxha films beyond Asian audiences and Wuxha enthusiasts. Even though I enjoy it when the opportunity presents itself, I am not a Wuxha film fan, or an enthusiastic follower of action films in general. Yet this film offers something for almost everyone: great aesthetics, imaginative choreography, great casts, and tragic love stories. As enough has been written on this film already, I am going to focus on one aspect of film which stands out.

Before getting into the main subject, I must come clean about something: I have a very soft spot for stories featuring female warriors. I love stories about strong women, especially in period dramas. Women with swords and armour solicit more of an empathetic response in me than any other characters. Quite frankly, if the shield maiden were the main character, I would have continued watching Vikings. I lost count of just how many times I have watched through the entire season of Claymore. So it is easy to see why I love this film, because this story is all about women’s agency and the adverse condition against their development in my book.

This approach puts the focus squarely on one character, Yu Jiaolong, superbly performed by Zhang Ziyi. She is a young aristocrat who is about to be betrothed to another aristocrat. At first, she is introduced as a picture perfect maiden, who is understandably conflicted about this monkey business: marriage as a mean to the consolidation of estate and power. At this point, she could be a character from a Jane Austen novel. To her great annoyance, everyone else believes they know better than her what is best for her future. She wants to be free from it all, yet she is not quite sure in herself. However, Jiaolong, roughly meaning ‘graceful dragon’, is from the beginning clearly different from her counterparts; she knows what she is good at, and she is determined to pursue it. She is a formidable warrior in her own right with great potential. Desiring to test her true ability, she sets about to obtain the legendary sword, Green Destiny, formerly yielded by the sword master, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat). She wants to see what she can do with the sword of unparalleled legacy in the history of China.

Despite her inexperience and lack of proper training, the combination of Green Destiny and Jiaolong’s natural talent prove more than a handful, even for an experienced warrior such as Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), whom Jiaolong first admires as her big sister. For example, in their final encounter, Shu Lien emerges victorious by the smallest of margins. It seems Li is the only warrior who can outclass her in the combat. Yet, even in defeat, Jiaolong cannot be tamed. She mocks Li’s proposal to teach her the secret of the Wutang clan. She defiantly insults Li by calling Wutang a whorehouse, suggesting the fact that her early mentor Jade Fox was sexually exploited by the Wutang master. Jade Fox gets her revenge by poisoning the molester, stating Wutang warriors’ disdain to women as their downfall. Li is not the only one who is offering assistance to Jiaolong. Jade Fox calls Jiaolong her disciple, and Shu Lien never stop trying to persuade young dragon to choose the established path, whether it is reconciling with her family or marrying another man. Everyone around Jiaolong knows better, and everyone wants her to do what they think to be best for her.

Yet, she rejects every offer. Whilst it is easy to see her rejections as young and immature, I would like you to pause and think about her point of view, and what is it that she really wants. Paradoxically, to really understand what she wants, it is necessary to adopt her annoying, yet reasonable, well-wishers’ point of views. Firstly, assuming Jiaolong wants to become a warrior, it makes no sense for her to reject Li’s proposal. He is a legendary master, and Wutang is supposedly the best warrior school there is. Li would be more than happy to pass on to her Green Destiny, once she learns how to control herself. If she agrees, she gets everything she is fighting for. Or does she?

Secondly, Shu Lien’s offer to help her reunite with Lo in Wutang mountain seems ideal. Jiaolong would be free to be with her lover, who loves her more than his own life. On top of that, she would be training to possibly become the best warrior, even surpassing the legendary Li. Again, she would get everything she wants. Or would she?

Since the rest of characters can offer nothing but rubbish (Her parents? Oh, please!), I will refrain from making this list any longer. In any case, it is indeed puzzling why Jiaolong rejects such great deals. She wants to be with Lo, and she desires to become a warrior. Yet, in the end, she leaves Lo, and in fact, she leaves this world completely, not dissimilar to the manner in which Princess Kaguya wished to in Isao Takahata’s masterpiece, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (link). So what is the matter with Jiaolong? What is it that she really wants?

I think that, in the end, all she wants is the space and freedom to find out what she wants. With all the well-wishers pestering her all the time, she cannot freely try and see what suits her best. Yes, she is a formidable warrior, and yes, she fancies to become the strongest of all. Does it mean she has to dedicate her whole life to the Wutang way? Can she be transferred to another discipline later if she finds it more relevant to her own person? Can she also study something else? Can she invent her own way? Most certainly not. Yes, she did fancy Lo, and they had a connection. Does it mean she has to marry him? What if she doesn’t want to marry him? Should she be blamed for it? Why should she? Who would like to spend the rest of life with one’s first love? Who would actually be happy by doing so?

At this point, suddenly, the supposedly enigmatic character becomes someone to whom we can relate, someone whom we care deeply about. In the environment and the people she is surrounded by, Jiaolong has no space of her own, no time to develop herself in her own way, and no freedom to discover what it is that makes her life wholesome and worthwhile to live. In order to obtain that space and time, she is forced to fight with everyone around her, the very people who wish her nothing but best. Whilst they are genuinely well-meaning, they all fail to see what she truly needs. That space and time of her own to define her destiny, dear readers, is what she calls ‘freedom’. It is not a path of defiance and violence she wants. She simply needs freedom to experiment in order to know who she really is. Despite their good intentions, by denying Jiaolong this freedom, or her very agency, they become her adversaries.

And this makes this film truly tragic.

Unfortunately, things have not changed enough regarding the way women are treated. Therefore, before you start congratulating yourself about human progress, let me repeat it for you: matters have not changed enough for women, especially for young women. If you don’t get what I am suggesting here, it is time for you to watch this, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, again with fresh eyes. And listen carefully to what the women in your life can say about their experiences. Seriously.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)

I never start a review by making an assertion, but for once, allow me to make an exception. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only the finest feature film by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the FirefliesOnly YesterdayPom Poko); it is arguably the crowning achievement of Japanese cinema to this day. The visuals, character development, and its philosophical depth are only comparable to the very best of film history, and not just limited to Japanese or animated films. In short, this film completely blew me away.

Princess Kaguya is based on the ancient Japanese story about a baby-girl who was ‘born’ from a bamboo shoot. An old and childless couple find her and raise her as their own. Determined to give their beloved daughter a better life than they have had, the family moves to the Capital where her godly beauty starts to attract public attention as she grows into a beautiful woman. As her parents amass fortune and climb social ranks, Princess Kaguya withers in unhappiness and longs for life back in the country where she was initially raised. Yet, her time on the earth is nearing its end as she must return to where she is originally from.

It is clear from the storyline above that this film bears the signature of Takahata. There is his unmistakable rejection of hollow consumerism represented by an urban lifestyle, and his strong endorsement for a wholesome life in the country where one is an integral part of a natural environment. All of this has been told by him before. Yet, there is one crucial difference which sets this movie apart from the rest of his work: this film is a fantasy, and a very fine one at that. I think Takahata even got the better of his celebrated colleague, Hayao Miyazaki, with this latest effort.

The fact that Kaguya is a fantasy is astonishing. He is known to be more of a social realist compared to Hayao Miyazaki. Whereas Miyazaki shares his vision through dazzling fantasy, Takahata wants us to rediscover the enchantment of ordinary moments in life. Whilst Miyazaki creates movies that deal with what he sees as ills of modern civilisation at a purely philosophical level, Takahata always offers either possible solutions or pointed criticisms of modernity in Japan based on his assessment of the concrete situation of contemporary Japanese society. Takahata, throughout his illustrious career, is supposed to be the down-to-earth critic as opposed to Miyazaki the wizard. So it begs the question: What made Takahata want to direct a fantasy movie like Kaguya in the first place?

The reason Takahata needed the format of fantasy is that he wished to go even further than he usually does with Kaguya. In this film, he is not trying to offer a critique and/or a solution to the concrete problems in modern Japanese society. What he is dealing with here is not what might bring back the magic in our everyday life; it is rather showing the enchantment of living itself. The journey of Kaguya shows that seeking what might bring magic in our life is misguided. Material comfort, social status, or fame cannot make your life wholesome. This story shows instead that, if lived fully, life is magical with all its joys and its sorrows. Happiness is not the absence of pain and/or discomfort. Kaguya rather wants to feel all of it, for being open to what the world offers, despite its challenges, makes her feel alive. She’d rather work hard to earn food, because it makes her life wholesome. It is at this point where Takahata finds himself with the company of greats such as a German director Wim Wenders, whose masterpiece, Wings of Desire, offers a poetic affirmation of the life of ordinary humans despite everything, or a French novelist and philosopher Camus who famously said: Live, to the point of tears. And, with Takahata’s stunning visuals and masterful storytelling, we can live through the wonder of life, and the lack of it, through the eyes of Kaguya. For once, Takahata adopted a fantasy, and the result is truly magical.

And, at the very end, Takahata asks us the very question asked by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition: Why are we always trying to escape from the human condition? This question should be followed by asking ourselves following questions. Why are we trying so hard to eliminate the so-called problem of life rather than live it through? Why must we be ‘happy’ all the time? Why are we not allowed to feel miserable from time to time? For, as Rilke famously suggested, isn’t it through this lens that life finds meaning?

All of these questions have been asked before. Yet the world never experienced them with such beauty, poignancy, and intensity before.

Please do not miss this masterpiece. I am glad that I now have this film in my life rather than not.

Leviathan (2014)

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a cinema of considerable depth and scope with great complexity. At first look, the story appears quite straightforward, and the message of the film seems unmistakably clear. The basic storyline tells us a tale of a helpless car repair shop owner, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who struggles to fight the corrupt, or rather criminal, mayor (Roman Madyanov) and his gang of government officials in order to keep his property and his family home from being seized. To fight the sinister might of the power-that-be, he enlists his old friend from Moscow, Dmitry, (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to his aid. Dmitry is now a well-connected lawyer with an ace under his sleeve…. Certainly this is the most standard way to describe the plot of this movie, and, from Kolya’s point of view, this is exactly how things begin.

It is all too easy to see this story as a pointed social commentary on the corruption of Russian society under the reign of Vladimir Putin through the eyes of ordinary people, or a biblical parable resembling to The Book of Job. Whilst there are indeed such elements in this movie, merely recycling these interpretations would be a disservice to this feature, the director, and the audience. The most remarkable characteristic of Leviathan is the way it presents to the audience a manifold of differing points of view. Despite its appearance, this narrative contains many stories, and they never merge into one. They occasionally collide, yet they remain separate to the end. For example, if you follow the standard interpretation, this movie is the story of Kolya, and he is an innocent victim of the criminal corruption of Russian government officials. On top of it, he was betrayed by Dimtry, and his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), in the middle of this damning trial. He is not only innocent; he is ‘man enough to forgive his cheating wife’, and still has enough passion for her to spontaneously, and carelessly, engage in a carnal act, as accidentally witnessed by his teenage son, Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev). So, from Kolya’s point of view, this is a tragedy that has absurdly fallen upon an upright, honourable, and innocent man.

However, this is only a fraction of what is happening in this film. The way this story is experienced is quite different for Dmitry, for Roman, and above all for his wife, Lilya. Consider the charge of marital rape pressed against Kolya by the district prosecutor. From Kolya’s point of view, this charge does not make any sense. Yet his inability to comprehend how Lilya might have experienced his sudden burst of passion tells us a lot about their relationship. For Lilya, the tragedy is not only Kolya’s, but more so hers. She is trapped in a miserable marriage and is enduring a soul-crushing job, and add to it the daily insults of her stepson. Her husband never listens to her pleas to leave everything behind and start over at a new place. No amount of reasoning can stop Kolya from fighting the already lost battle. Thus, from Lilya’s point of view, Kolya is certainly the architect of his own downfall. As the local priest puts it, Kolya is simply trying to ‘catch a Leviathan with a fish hook’. As for Roman, Dmitry, and Kolya’s friends, each of them is entitled to his/her own take on this story. Thus, this seemingly straight forward plot is comprised of many stories. Each of them is as real as the other, and each remains completely separated from the other points of view. The fact that these characters are unable to share or to develop a common story is wherein the devastating power of this film lies. The true origin of this tragedy is neither Kolya’s dogged demand for justice, nor the corruption of contemporary Russian society. It is each character’s inability to form a mutual understanding of a shared event in life with his/her most intimate people.

Still, the movie presents a complex manifold of tales as one event with no sign of Rashōmon-esque fragmentation. And this is the point where Zvyagintsev begins to approach Ingmar Bergman. From the beginning, Bergman’s spirit is all too evident. The landscape captured through the lens is not only where every dream dies; it is the place where nothing grows. This is where the skeleton of the dead creature is more present than the living on its shore. The barren landscape in which the drama unfolds reminds us of the icy desolation of Hour of the Wolf, or the opening scene of The Seventh Seal. Better yet, Bergman’s influence is not limited to the topography and the atmosphere. The beauty of Leviathan is that it presents one event, in which the collision and the separation of different stories unfold, without privileging any particular one. And this characteristic, which is so striking about Bergman’s work, makes this film a rare and precious gem in the contemporary cinema. Please be warned though; the beauty I speak of here is of a terrifying kind.

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game tells a story about the singular life of a British mathematician, a logician, a celebrated codebreaker, the pioneer of modern computing, the first person who conceived of the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and a prosecuted homosexual, Alan Turing.

Since enough has been written about the ‘historical inaccuracies’ spotted in this film, I am going to completely leave it to the prospective viewers to decide whether a bio-pic must be absolutely factually accurate and to judge what the notion of factual accuracy really means for cinematic art. Also, enough has been written about his unparalleled contributions in the area of his specialties by many who are far more qualified than I am, I am going to leave this aspect to the existing literature as well.

Instead, I am going to focus on one aspect of the film, that is, the story of a truly amazing mind. In short, I am asking you to view this stellar ‘bio-pic’ not as a historical drama. I know this sounds like quite a stretch, but please bear with me for a bit longer.

Stripping away all the greatness Turing achieved, what would be left of his story? The theme of alienation and prosecution suggests itself. He was able to see problems differently, because he was different. He was misunderstood and mistreated because of his idiosyncrasy, his lack of social intelligence, and his sexuality. The story of Turing in this light is a devastatingly moving and a poignant one, magnificently embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch. His performance was so compelling that he elevated his character to the point where we care for this character not because of what he achieved; we care for who he is. Even if he failed to crack the Enigma, it really doesn’t matter for our reception of the film, because it is a deeply moving human story in and of itself.

That being acknowledged, there is still a lingering thought which bothers me greatly: the film wouldn’t have been made if Turing did not crack the German code. The contemporary narrative about Turing and this film seems to confirm my worry. Dozens of Silicon Valley executives are heaping praise on Turing and the movie, a phenomenon which, I think, betrays the spirit of this great story, and obscures that which is the most amazing quality of Turing. So what is that quality of his which I find so moving?

It is his utter openness to the different possibilities which can be only conceived when one is willing to question what we call ‘common sense’. Turing is open to question fundamental assumptions; for example, he accepts the possibility of a machine that thinks. This can be only done if one is open to question what ‘thinking’ really is. Just because a machine cannot think like humans, he argues, does not mean that it cannot think. An absolutely extraordinary idea. Turing is also open to the idea that women can perform intellectual tasks as well as men, an idea which was inconceivable to his contemporaries. Hiring Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), his future fiancé, was not due to his self-interest; it was what the logic demanded. The gender or the social class of candidates for the job did not concern him, because he was open to the possibility of someone outside of the privileged class performing difficult and important intellectual tasks. He correctly believed that anyone who can solve the puzzle he posted in the newspaper within the given time limit should be qualified for the job. They did not have to be graduates of Oxbridge or Eaton. This utter openness to what is different from himself, I think, is the most amazing quality that Turing expressed with his life, and it is beautifully and faithfully presented in this film.

So let us be open enough to care for this wonderful soul regardless of what he achieved. Let us not judge him harshly because it is difficult to understand his difficult thoughts. Until we do that, we are still betraying the spirit of this quite lovable fellow human being.

Whilst the ending is crushingly poignant, this is ultimately a story of unparalleled courage. If we are inspired to adopt Turing’s openness to different possibilities even for a fraction of what he represented with his life and work, then we can finally do him the justice he deserves. And no amount of official apologies and Royal pardons can do that. There was, after all, nothing for which to be pardoned.

NW Animation Festival 2015 Edition Review

Northwest Animation Festival showcases some of the most exciting animation films from all over the world, and the year 2015 Edition is no different.

Now, before introducing a few of the features for this year, I would like to clear up some misconceptions about animated films. There are many who believe that animated films are somehow inferior to ‘real’ films. Such a prejudice is not only false, it also needlessly, and quite severely, limits one’s appreciation of the depth and scope of what cinematic art can be. If you care for cinema, you cannot live with such a limited view.

When one hears ‘animation films’, most of us only think of the commercial features produced by big American studios, or perhaps Japanese animation films. They are certainly the dominant forces in terms of recognition and box office sales, and there are quite a few films among them that deserve high recognition and respect. Yet, they are not the only ones worthy of our appreciation. There are many who prove that animated films are an art form without limits: In animation, one is not restricted to what one can capture through the camera, but by the limits of one’s vision and skill. Animation films can be awe-inspiringly diverse, thoughtful, playful, and deep. Because one can have unique freedom to express one’s vision directly to the screen in animated films, there are almost infinite styles and characteristics. Unfortunately, many carelessly dismiss animated films as a whole while only thinking of blockbusters. This conception is quite plainly false, and, thanks to the good work done by the NW Animation Festival team, we have a few days of cinematic pleasure to correct this misconception every year.

It is also helpful to remind ourselves that ‘real films’, excluding documentaries, are no different from animated films in the sense that they both express artists’ visions. This point is especially true today. We see many movies with the heavy use of CGI, or which feature a cartoon character as the main protagonist. One can also question just how ‘real’ the world represented in fantasy films and Sci-Fi films is. However, some might argue that human actors can induce a deeper emotional response in the audience than is achievable through animation. I agree that great actors can move us in ways that can change our perception of life and the world around us, yet I disagree with the view that animated films cannot do the same. To dismiss animated films as an art form just because it does not capture what is ‘real’ through the camera is akin to asserting that paintings are inferior to photographs. How could one argue that works of Van Gogh or Schiele are inferior to photographs? People who make this kind of argument are either not exposed to good animation films, or are simply being dogmatic, and thus too self-important to engage in a meaningful discourse.

Now, it is time to preview some of the carefully curated animated films featured for this year’s NW Animation Festival.

Nothing Else But Water by Carlos De Carvalho (France)

This is a charming piece about alienation and longing presented with outstanding animation quality. This is the kind of movie which captures you even before the actual film begins. From the moment the title credit appears, you will be captivated by just how exquisitely every detail is presented. The story also speaks to everyone, for we all have a moment when we feel invisible in this world where everyone but ourselves seems to be joyously celebrating life on earth. However, the real merit of this film is that it manages to speak this feeling without being dark or overly sentimental. Even in a moment of utmost hopelessness, it manages to remain humane, compassionate, and warm. So, please join us and enjoy the ride. It will brighten your day.

Beach Flags by Sarah Saidan (France)

Although this film was produced in France, it is about women in contemporary Iran where qualifying for the international sport competition can mean so much more than personal achievement. It follows the story of two women who compete for the sole spot to represent their country in an international competition of Beach Flags. Profoundly insightful and moving at once, I sincerely wish for everyone to watch this film and to appreciate how cinematic art helps us to transcend conventions such as gender, nationality, and religion. The struggles of these characters may be unfamiliar to us at first, but we soon realise that their hopes and fears are as real as ours.

Raw Data by Jake Fried (USA)

This is an incredible visual experience that reminds me of the latter half of Hermann Hesse’s literary masterpiece, Steppenwolf, where the protagonist, Harry Haller, gets lost in a psychedelic journey of self-discovery by means of self-destruction: Harry completely demolishes his own self-conception which leads to liberation from the ego. By delving into this crazy visual feat, you get a sense that the core of your experience in being exposed to this film is not merely aesthetic; it is mystical in a Hessian sense. If you are not familiar with the reference, please do not worry. The film itself is so powerful that it will get you there no matter what. Simply let go and experience this ‘Magic Theatre’ that changes your idea of what an animation film can and cannot do!

Tusk by Rory Waudby-Tolley (UK)

This poignant tale of a creature who is brought back to life in the modern world is disarmingly simple, yet also manages to deliver one of the most profound critiques of modern civilisation I have yet come across. If this description raises a red flag, you should not be concerned. There is no stereotypical political message that is both righteous and deafening. There are no brainy post-modern acrobatics either. Instead, the creature speaks ever so quietly. And it is this quietness of her voice that really delivers the message in the most moving way. So, please listen to what this amicable soul can tell us. It is important.

Footprints by Bill Plympton (USA)

This is a timely meditation on our ‘culture of fear’. By (literally) following the footprints of a mysterious monster, the movie shows just how fear feeds aggression, and aggression makes us more susceptible to fear in return. It reminds us just how deeply American masculinity is born out of fear, reactive aggression, and paranoia: the protagonist of this movie is a modern day Ahab who is obsessed by the shadow of Moby Dick. Now, a question: What is your Moby Dick? Who is it? Deliberate very carefully, for your fate depends on your answers. I recommend you to watch this movie before answering these questions, for you will surely learn a thing or two. Unless, of course, you are determined to go Ahab’s way.

The features previewed above are only a fraction of what NWAF selected from a deep pool of submitted films. I encourage not only animation film fans, but anyone who cares about quality films to join us in celebrating the sheer wonder of cinematic art in its full potential. The Best of NWAF 2015 will be hosted at Hollywood Theatre in Portland on 11 September, and at Bijou Metro on 19 September.

Death in Venice (1971)

Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same title, which was originally published in 1912. It is about a German composer, Gustav Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who attempts to escapes his life crisis by going to Venice for a vacation. Upon his arrival, he makes a fateful encounter with a Polish boy, Tadzio (Björn Andréssen), whose godly beauty instantly captivates him. Despite the danger of an epidemic in Venice, Aschenbach stays there in order to catch a glimpse of Tadzio, and he even wonders whether the attraction may be mutual. He goes so far as to wear makeup to obscure his old age, and shadows the boy all over the city. Eventually Aschenbach falls ill and dies on the beach while seeing his idol turning to him, raising his arm, and pointing toward faraway as if to invite the dying composer to join him in eternity.

Despite the apparent simplicity of the plot, Mann’s work bears great complexity of thought, and to fully appreciate Visconti’s adaptation, we need to delve into this intricacy. I shall begin with some notes on the inspiration behind this work.

The original novella was published a year after the death of an Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler. Mann personally met Mahler on a few occasions, and the composer left a strong impression on the writer. According to the writer’s spouse, Katia, Mann modelled the appearance of the main protagonist, Aschenbach, after the composer. He was preoccupied with the death of Mahler, as well as the work and legacy of this great composer at the time of writing this novella. Still, by Katia’s testimony, it is clear that the story itself is based on the writer’s own experience in Venice. During a family vacation to Venice, Mann encountered a Polish noble family and was strongly attracted to the boy of the family. Despite her clarification that her husband did not shadow the boy all over Venice, Death in Venice is a very autobiographical work.

It is clear that Visconti knew of these details before shooting this movie; he altered the protagonist from that of a writer to a composer, and he made ample use of Mahler’s scores, especially the famous Adagietto from the 5th Symphony, which became inseparable from this film after its release. Also, somewhat awkwardly, Visconti added a scene inspired by Mahler’s life: the death of Aschenbach’s daughter. Gustav and Alma Mahler had lost their young daughter, and her death dealt a fatal blow to their marriage and haunted the composer for the rest of his life. Still, for most of the movie, Aschenbach sports a moustache precisely in the fashion of the German author. Therefore, it is clear that Visconti made an informed directorial decision over the character of Aschenbach: He created a hybrid of Mann and Mahler in order to reflect the complex thoughts, inspirations, and desires of Mann at the time of writing Death in Venice.

Visconti also altered the story in order to highlight the philosophical aspect of Mann’s story. The director inserted the scenes where Aschenbach and his friend argue over the ideal of artists. Whilst Aschenbach insists that artists must be morally exemplary, his friend argues that chaos, ambiguity, and sensuality drive artistic creation in a domain which is liberated from societal norms. This is in line with the widely accepted interpretation of Mann’s novella; the struggle and the eventual downfall of Aschenbach represents the Nietzschean battle of two temperaments, that is, a classical and formal Apollonian ideal which strives toward harmony, serenity, and symmetry, and a wild and untamed Dionysian impulse. In this interpretation, Aschenbach, an Apollonian moralist, is eventually destroyed by his Dionysian desire for Tadzio.

However, Mann’s story is too complex to be reduced to this single line of explanation. For once, it is easy enough to notice the parallel between Aschenbach and Tonio from Tonio Kröger (1901). Tonio, like Aschenbach, is a writer who struggles with repressed bi-sexuality, yet Tonio Kröger’s central theme is not a Nietzschean struggle. It is rather an identity crisis of a person who is a mediocre bourgeois and a deviant artist at the same time. This duality was an important theme for not only Mann, but of his contemporaries such as Franz Kafka, who described his nightly toil of writing as ‘the worship of the Devil’ all the while working as a lawyer for a government insurance office by day.

This heightened self-consciousness of an artist who is external to societal norms in his creation, yet dons the mask of normalcy, is an important theme to understand the crisis of modernity. Seen in this light, both novella of the German author are about the lack of authenticity arising from the duality of existence. And this duality is not merely about two opposing temperaments. It actually hints something far more sinister. This duality has a potential to create a monstrous existence who rationalises his/her personal desire, however deviant, or criminal even, and imposes it upon the world as a norm in order to escape the sense of duality within him/her. Whilst Visconti could not explore this aspect of European Zeitgeist in this film, he did so with his earlier work, The Damned (Götterdämmarung) in 1969. Whilst this film is full of 'damned' characters, this theme is best represented by Martin von Essenback (Hermut Berger) who makes a devil's pact with a SS officer Aschenbach (Hermut Griem) in order to protect and enforce his duality: the heir of a wealthy and powerful family by day, and a deviant criminal in private.

Visconti has done a great job of reflecting much of the complexity that shaped Mann’s novella in this movie. Whilst the director’s intervention seems forced at times, it is to his credit that he integrated this much into a cinematic adoption, which is smooth enough to follow without straining the audience’s attention. However, Visconti’s classicism that enables this ease of viewing has its drawback. The facility to follow the narrative of this movie is so great that it is difficult not to treat this movie as a music video, which features the angelic beauty of an adolescent boy and one of the most hypnotic musical scores ever written. In Japan, Andréssen inspired many male characters for the graphic novels targeted to young girls, and there was a cult of Tadzio in the ‘70s and ‘80s amongst them. And, needless to say, this movie is one of the most celebrated films in the male homosexual community. Whilst it is up to the audience as to how the movie is to be enjoyed, I will close this article by drawing a conclusion regarding a question: Did the infatuation with Tadzio cure or destroy Aschenbach?

In the Nietzschean interpretation, the Apollonian Aschenbach is destroyed by giving in to his desire for Tadzio. Whilst his attachment to Tadzio eventually causes his death, I don’t think he is ‘destroyed’ by a Dionysian impulse. Aschenbach certainly betrays his standard of conduct by wearing makeup and shadowing an adolescent boy all over Venice, yet his desire is restrained to the very end; in his daydream, he touches Tadzio’s hair in a fatherly manner, and that is as far as he would go. And, at the end of his life, Aschenbach follows the gesture of Tadzio who points toward the immensity over the sky and the ocean, as if to invite the composer’s gaze to the transcendental Form of Beauty itself. Tadzio, and his gesture, is a cinematic representation of an Apollonian ideal: a perfectly composed form of a classical beauty. Even though Aschenbach himself is getting far and away from Apollonian beauty with his horrid makeup, Tadzio remains pure in his eyes, and the boy serves as a guide toward the beauty which he thought was forever lost to him. Thus, I must say that his desire, Dionysian or not, did not manage to destroy his Apollonian ideal. It only destroyed Aschenbach’s body by forever delaying his departure from the plagued city, but not the artist.

Then, did Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio cure his artistic impotence, as his friend thought it would? The answer is again negative. Whilst Aschenbach becomes inspired, the inspiration is purely aesthetic, not artistic. Aschenbach spends his days without attempting to compose anything in Venice. It is as if he forgets about his vocation altogether. The awakened sensuality is still restrained, and his love for Tadzio remains Platonic. He is completely absorbed with Tadzio’s beauty, yet the beauty he beholds does not inspire his creative impulse.

Therefore, in the end, Aschenbach, despite his appearance, does not transform in his final trip to Italy. Death in Venice is, thus, more about death itself than the life of an artist. Like German poet Novalis, Mann seems to take death as the point of rapturous transcendence, the moment in which one becomes free of the dominion of flesh, and thus enables artists to meet the aesthetic ideal in its purest form. Yet, as Ancient Greeks understood, this form of beauty must be represented by something which appeals to our senses. And the final sequence of this film represents Mann’s ideal perfectly, with Tadzio gracefully pointing toward the beauty that is beyond our reach, as he himself is the representation of it. Thus, despite many flaws, Visconti succeeded in an improbable task: creating a cinematic representation of the idea of beauty which has captivated the West from Greek antiquity to the present. And the film, like Aschenbach, finds the redemption at its final moment by completing this task.

The Conformist (1970)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s seventh feature film, The Conformist, was released right at the heel of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (Götterdämmarung) (1969). Both movies explore Europe’s darkest moment; whilst Visconti dealt with the creeping process by which Nazism took hold of German society, Bertolucci chose to confront his own country’s skeleton in the closet by adopting Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same title. Both directors expressed their anti-Fascist politics in their respective works, yet Bertolucci’s work is all the more powerful for reasons which I wish to discuss here.

The Conformist tells the story of a young bureaucrat, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). He volunteers for the Fascist secret police to spy on his former professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who is exiled in Paris due to his strong opposition to Fascism. Marcello’s reason for collaborating with the secret police is not out of his support for Fascism, not his fear for personal safety, or his career ambition; it is that he wanted to acquire a sense of normalcy for himself. This desire to assume the appearance of normalcy is the guiding force of his life; it is also the reason why Marcello marries Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), a daughter of petit-bourgeois. Marcello’s proposition was to use his honeymoon to Paris as a cover, approach Quadri, and collect information on anti-Fascist activities in Italy. However, the secret police abruptly alters the once-approved plan of Marcello’s and orders him to assassinate his former mentor. To add more complications, upon meeting his target in Paris, Marcello falls in love with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the mysterious wife of Quadri.

There are many great movies about Fascism and Nazism: from The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and Tin-Drum (1979) to Downfall (2004) and Hannah Arendt (2012). European cinema continues to reflect upon the political movements that swept the globe into furious and irreparable self-destruction. Despite the sheer amount of work and effort expended by post-war European cinema, The Conformist secures its stand-out status; it offers a unique character study of a conformist, and Bertolucci improves upon the original novel with his deep understanding of the subject. Unlike Moravia’s novel, which represents Marcello as a psychopath in his childhood, Bertolucci portrays Marcello as an 'everyman': a hopelessly mediocre man who wants to be and behave like others. This characterisation of a conformist is one of the best cinematic representation of what Hannah Arendt called the Banality of Evil. Like Adolf Eichmann, Marcello commits abominable crimes not because of ideology, but because of his desire to conform to the system. This film makes a great supportive argument for Arendt: it is not a crazy maniac who is truly dangerous, for such a maniac cannot accomplish great evil on his/her own. It is 'ordinary' people like Eichmann and Marcello who are truly dangerous, for their ruthless complicity to the powers-that-be.

The problem with people like Marcello is: Once you make a pact with the Devil, the complicity cannot be partial. This is precisely the point made in The Damned by Visconti. You cannot just commit one crime and wash your hands, as there is no walking away from the Devil. Visconti’s insight is indeed illuminating, yet Bertolucci went even further with this film. Visconti still locates evil as external to the main protagonists of The Damned, whilst Bertolucci locates the source of evil within an ordinary person. It is not some powerful and devilish person or an organisation manipulating people to do evil; the evil lurks in our quite ordinary desire to be normal and accepted as such by society. This conformity may appear quite innocent in a time of peace. However, as Nietzsche observed aptly, it turns us into the 'Last Man', the tool of whatever institution to which we think we belong. Bertolucci’s rendition of Marcello perfectly demonstrates this point. And yet, his brilliance does not end here. He also exposes the impossibility of a conformist agenda by showing how Marcello’s desire to acquire normalcy in his life alienates him from humanity, and turns him into a monster, albeit a quite petty one. The more he tries to become normal, the more isolated and grotesque he becomes. Marcello does not realise that his very pursuit of normalcy prevents him from acquiring it. After all, 'normal' people to whom Marcello wants to belong do not even think about pursuing ordinariness; normal life is simply the given, something that people just do. Like breathing, it is not the subject of thought, and they do not know any other way to live.

This heightened self-consciousness about one’s alienation and intense desire to overcome it, however, are not unique to Marcello. It is symptomatic of the spirit of his generation. The people, dead or alive, who became prominent in the 1920s and 1930s shared a certain sense of doom. They were disgusted by a decadent, corrupt European civilisation in its decline. However, for many of them, this sense of doom was also accompanied by a feeling of liberation from the past. Modern science and industry made many a European, such as Futurist, Positivist, Fascist, and Marxist, confident of their power as sovereigns of the universe, even though still many, like Kafka and Austrian poet Georg Trakl, saw this 'progress' as further evidence of Europe’s decline. Therefore, this generation, whilst confronting the authority of the past generation who represent this 'sick' civilisation, had not yet established their own cultural and spiritual identity. As they were suspended between the past which they rejected and the future which was still undefined, they experienced a deep sense of alienation from the world and from themselves. They could not tell themselves who they really were, and the mark of this dire distress is evident in virtually all of their representative work: the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin, the writings of Kafka and Stanisław Witkiewicz, and the poetry of Trakl, to name just a few.

Despite the dire confusion this generation experienced, and the diversity of their response to it, there are a few things that were common to them. Firstly, there was a fervent desire to overcome the 'sick' civilisation of 'old Europe'. Some desired to conquer it by hastening its end with the brute force of revolution. Whether their chosen type of revolution was a political, scientific, or an industrial one, they all chanted one slogan in unison: Progress! Others resisted these radical solutions; they find the notion of progress of humankind dubious, and guarded themselves against it. Still, they shared with these revolutionaries the same desire to overcome the sick Europe of old, and confronted their parents’ generation in each his/her own complicated way. This radical break from the past characterises everything from this era; new physics, new art, new philosophy, and new politics. Yet, this sense of liberation from the past also invited moral ambiguity; things that were forbidden in the past suddenly became quite permissible. Both political far-right and far-left believed that everything, even murder, was permitted in the name of revolution and political correctness. And, given their desire to prevail over their parents, this premise offered them justification to take revenge on their 'guardians'. Therefore, Marcello’s complicity with Fascists can be interpreted as his way to get back at his parents’ generation. Fascist Italy merely presented an opportunity for him to exact his personal revenge. This explains why Marcello, a cowardly conformist, actively offered his service to Fascism. Whilst he could have been quite normal without his collaboration with the Fascist secret police, he simply could not pass on a chance to exact his revenge against his former mentor, Quadri, the 'father' who abandoned him by escaping the fangs of Fascists to a foreign land.

Secondly, this desire of making a break from the past and the resulting confrontation with their parents was often expressed in the area of sexuality. Again, the ways in which this generation reacted to the 'old Europe' in this sphere are diverse; some experimented with non-traditional sexuality in order to challenge established norms, whilst others repressed their sexuality in order to fight against the perceived decadence of their parents’ generation. For example, Berlin, before the Nazi takeover of Germany, was known to be the most liberal city in the entirety of Europe, both politically and sexually. As Fascist regimes actively and brutally prosecuted homosexuals, there was certainly an aspect of struggle over Europe’s sexual identity in this period of European history. Marcello’s fear of female sexuality is expressed by his disgust for his mother, and his feeling threatened by Anna’s attraction to Giulia. At the same time, Marcello himself is struggling with his past homosexual experience, and this episode is one of the reasons why he seeks the appearance of normalcy. Whilst it is not clear whether Marcello was homosexual or not, his fear of sexuality, despite his conquests, is evident: his sexual conquest was merely a way to conform to the societal norms. He does what he is expected to do, and nothing else. Anna is perhaps his only hope for overcoming his fear; she is the only person who could inspire raw emotion and confusion in him so that he can pursue life with absolute and complete surrender. Yet, he abandons her in the cold when it matters the most, not because of his ruthlessness, but of his cowardice.

Yet, most significantly, The Conformist is not a mere reflection of the past. Bertolucci was clearly finding many Marcellos amongst his contemporaries when he directed it. Whilst Moravia’s novel leaves Marcello dead, and thus closes this chapter of history, Bertolucci does not kill his protagonist: Marcello lives on as an ordinary citizen of the post-war Italy. This alternation is not merely to point out that there are many Fascists and conformists surviving as citizens of the republic. The point made by this film is that Italy was, and still is, not out of the shadow of its Fascist past. Tragically, he was proved right when a fellow Italian cineast, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was brutally murdered near Rome in 1975 for his leftist political view. And, sadly, Bertolucci’s message is still relevant today. Its relevance is not limited within Italy: it is universal. As we live in an age wherein the check and balance of power is quietly yet swiftly being eroded, transparency and accountability are blatantly discarded, and populism sways the masses, there are plenty of ideologies, be they religious, political, or cultural, that demand our absolute complicity. Whether this violation of human integrity might be demanded in the name of faith or patriotism, we must prepare ourselves for the trials that test the full strength of our persons. In this light, the importance of The Conformist cannot be stressed enough today. We must look out for Marcello, not only amongst us, but within us.

The Best of North West Animation Festival 2014

North West Animation Festival showcases some of the best animation films from around the globe. These animated shorts boast remarkable diversity both in style and narrative. Here, I wish to persuade those of you on the fence to come and enjoy one day of celebration for some of the most interesting talents in animated films. (If you missed the 2014 edition, there is always another one coming every year thanks to the hard work of Sven and Gretchen from North West Animation Festival!)

Cooped by Mike A. Smith and El Empleo (The Employment) by Santiago ‘Bou’ Grasso and Patricio Plaza

The essence of this humorous short film, Cooped, is all told in the title. Or is it? This delightful piece is more than meets the eye. On the surface, it is the story of a dog who is ‘cooped up’ in a desolate cohabitation with his owner. Yet, by the end, we are not sure who is really ‘cooped’ in what. If you find the dog too friendly for your taste, you might like El Empleo (The Employment) by Santiago ‘Bou’ Grasso and Patricio Plaza. It is a story about a world which is chillingly familiar with all its banality and the evil.

The Missing Scarf by Eoin Duffy

This is a great film for anyone who has been annoyed by someone who has all the answers. This is equally a great film for someone who actually has all the answers. French philosopher Braise Pascal famously said that even in the moment of extinction, humankind is better than Nature, for we humans understand what is destroying us, whilst Nature does not. If you agree with the great philosopher, you should definitely watch this film more than once. You might want to follow the footsteps of a cute origami squirrel philosopher very carefully, and note the fate of his friends in detail.

Marilyn Myller by Mikey Please

Marilyn Miller is a macabre tale of a struggling artist. If you think such a character is a tired and old cliché, this film is about to blow your mind. It is an insightful satire of what is going through the mind of an artist in the process of creation, and, at the same time, it is a chilling portrait of the relation between an artist and his/her admirers. The animation is stunningly beautiful, and the story is told with flawless timing. One question remains, however: How could you continue as an artist after gaining such an insight? Perhaps Samuel Beckett offers the best answer: Fail again, fail better.

Rabbit and Deer by Péter Vácz

Rabbit and Deer is a story of a genuine friendship with all the ups and downs. That being said, their challenge is nothing short of unworldly: Deer and Rabbit live in different dimensions! This film has all the ingredients: quirky and cute characters, an amazing concept, great storytelling, and a fantastic resolution. If the above description reminds you of the illustrious Miyazaki, yes, you are on the right track. But, before giving a knowing nod, add ‘artistic originality’ to the list of ingredients: it is truly a delight and capable of bringing back the wonder of childhood classic such as Harold and the Purple Crayon, but it stands against the seasoned eyes of adult moviegoers.

There are many more gems in this line-up. A visually stunning fairytale (Premier Automne), a magical espousal of visual and music (Virtuos Virtuell), heart-warming stories (Borrowed Light, and Velo Hoot), and some crazy satires (Love the Way You Move, and The Beards). There is something for everyone, and you will be jolly indeed if you are a fan of short films and/or animated films.

The Notebook (2013)

The Notebook is Szász János’s latest movie, and was short listed for the Academy Award Foreign Film section. This fact alone seems to vindicate the Hungarian director's effort, yet, to fully appreciate this great piece, I think it is necessary to touch on the original novel and the historical context in which this story was born.

It is based on renowned Hungarian-French author Ágota Kristóf’s first novel, Le Grand Cahier (translated as The Notebook). It was published in 1986, and immediately established Kristóf as one of the most important contemporary French writers (A short note on Hungarian names: in Hungary, the last name is spelled first, followed by the first name. I respect this custom throughout this article, except for Ágota Kristóf; she is technically a French writer). At the age of 21, she had to leave Hungary for Geneva, when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact brutally suppressed the anti-Soviet revolt in her home country. She spent the next 5 years working in a factory, until she divorced her husband and started to learn French. Eventually, she established herself as one of the most important voices of contemporary French literature, yet the pain of being permanently in exile and being forced to abandon her mother’s tongue haunted her for the rest of life. Many exiled Hungarians could not take the loneliness and despair, and took their own lives, or went back home and were executed. Writing in Hungarian was never an option; as an exile, her writing would be banned in her country of origin, and publishing in Hungarian outside of her mother land was not a realistic option. Thus, the author made some painful decisions in order not to die.

Seen in this light, it is clear that The Notebook reflects much of the author’s inner life. It is a story about twins (Gyémánt András & Gyémánt László) who are separated from their parents (Bognár Gyöngyvér & Ulrich Matthes, who plyed Josef Goebbels in Downfall) because of the war, and started living with their cruel grandmother (Piroska Molnár) in a village near an extermination camp. They decide to survive at any cost, and begin to train themselves by inflicting all possible pain onto one another, so that they could conquer all the cruelties, brutalities, sufferings, and fear in the world. They prove themselves as excellent students of savagery, and eventually surpass the cruelty of the world around them. And the film, as a stand-alone adoption of the first book of the celebrated trilogy, did a great job of translating Kristóf’s cold and objective prose into a motion picture. One major alteration is the topography: whilst the original story is set in an unspecified region and era, this film is set in World War II.

Upon seeing this film, many critics questioned the degree of savagery exhibited by the twins. Since the story is based on a fiction, why does it have to be so cruel? Couldn’t the twins be more likable? Whilst we are ready to embrace the tragic tale of children in war, such as Grave of the Fireflies, it is hard to follow a story wherein children actively participate in extreme cruelties. That being acknowledged, I think the questions above are the wrong ones. The audience, myself included, most of whom have no first-hand experience of this kind of pain—the pain of surviving war and the suffering of uprootedness, have no right to demand this author, and this director, to care about our emotional equilibrium. We should be asking instead: What did the author, and the director, wish to convey through this story?

I think there are two points to appreciate. Firstly, there is a kind of pain which is so deep that it becomes unrecognisable as an emotion. It destroys the very essence of a person so completely that one ceases to feel anything at all. Whilst this is true, it is also easy to see the thinly veiled rage beneath the stony faces of the twins. The rage against the unfairness of the fate which separated them from their parents. The rage against the cruelty toward them and the few of their friends. The rage against the condition which made it necessary for them to give up everything that was wonderful, such as loving words of their mother. Still, this rage is frozen in their bodies. And, as the audience, we should feel the rage against the history which necessitated such a story to be told.

Secondly, I detect a deep remorse and sadness of the Hungaro-French author upon seeing this film. I recall the same impression that overwhelmed me when I read Kristóf’s work for the first time in the 90s, yet this time, for one reason or another, the sense of guilt and despair cut deeper into my heart. Whilst Kristóf became a successful writer in her adopted country, I cannot help but remembering a remark made by Primo Levi. As a survivor of Auschwitz, he was tormented by one thought: The morally good ones did not survive there. 

And we should feel rage against the condition which make survivors of history feel such pain and remorse, too.

This is by no means an easy film to watch. However, once in a while, a movie like this comes along and tries to convey some important human experience. When it happens, we have no choice but to respond to such a work. The director Szász János did a great job of documenting the cold-bloodedness of the twins’ actions whilst reminding us of their helplessness as children of war by the fantastic treatment of the notebook in which the twins record everything. And, more importantly, this film reminds us that this is not a mere story of the past. As we live in the age of perpetual war, the suffering seen in this film must be felt at a deeply personal level. So, if you are not already suffering this kind of pain personally, I beseech you to spare some time for this important film. 


The Zero Theorem (2013)

Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is the last of his dystopian trilogy, following Brazil (1985) and 12 Monkeys (1995). Or, at least, that is what Gilliam had in mind when he planned and directed this movie. Despite many similarities with Gilliam’s past efforts, however, this is not a quintessential dystopian film like Brazil. The story takes place in a dystopian future, to be sure. Yet, this is not the central theme of this essentially philosophical work.

This is the story of a mad genius, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). He has been waiting his entire life for one telephone call, the call that reveals him the secret: the reason why anything exists; the reason why we bother to go on; and the reason why everything is not nothing. In the mean time, he works for an all-powerful corporation, Mancom, run by a mysterious man called The Management (Matt Damon). Qohen has been requesting a permission to work from home for quite sometime in vain, and he worries that he might miss that call. One evening, at a party which he was forced to attend, he encounters The Management in a deserted room. The Management offers a special assignment to Qohen and allows him to work alone from his home. The assignment was to solve the Zero Theorem, according to which ‘everything is indeed nothing’. Whilst Qohen devotes himself to solve the Zero Theorem, he continues to wait for the call. As his desire to solve the theorem intensifies, he finds himself in a unresolvable dilemma: if the call reveals the meaning of life, then, surely the Zero Theorem must be wrong, and thus his work would be wasted; yet if he manages to solve it, then there is no meaning of life at all. As he loses grip on reality by living through this contradiction, a woman he met at the party, Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), begins to challenge Qohen’s ritualised life style, rigid assumptions, and his existential fear that the Zero Theorem may be ultimately right and there is no meaning of life after all.

This is a philosophical tale which resembles a parable written by Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s tale, “Before the Law”, a man spends his entire life waiting to be admitted to the Law. As he is dying, it is revealed that the Law is there for him alone, yet, it is never meant to be accessed. This story acutely represents Qohen’s utmost angst. Like Kafka’s protagonist, Qohen waits his entire life waiting for the meaning of life to be disclosed. Yet, by a cruel twist of fate, he dedicates himself for a project that potentially negates his hope. So, the real question is : What should one do with this supposed paradox? I suspect that most of us would not do as Qohen does.

It is a tragic tale, performed magnificently by Christoph Waltz. True, there are plenty of Gilliam’s signature visual splashes in this film. Yet, once you focus on the theme and the story, you will appreciate that this is a very different feature from his other work. Unfortunately, Gilliam is not his best friend in this particular case. His trademark visual brilliance might be offering too many distractions for the audience to fully engage with the subject of this film. Despite the negatives as such, Waltz’s presence and performance give this story its life. He perfectly rendered Qohen's tragicomical existence. At times, he was easily as comical as Johnny Depp at his best. Yet, there were moments Waltz elevated Qohen to a state of devastating nobility—the nobility of a person who faces squarely at his fate despite his intense desire to do otherwise. Admirably, Waltz appears neither stony nor grim in doing so; his performance is espoused with touching vulnerability. Without Waltz’s tour de force, this movie could not have achieved its tragic effect.

Otherwise, this tale would resemble that of, say, a chess player who strives to find the ultimate truth of the game on the board. Since there are more possible moves than the total number of the atoms in the entire universe during one game, it seems implausible for anyone to unlock the forced sequence that leads to the irrefutable conclusion, even with the aid of a supercomputer. The problem in seeking the impossible is: as one is engrossed in the problem, one forgets entirely the world in which the game and the player him/herself exist, as if the entire universe is represented by the 64 squares of the chess board. Only when one accepts chess as it is, i.e., a mere game, can one be in a position to enjoy playing it again. Whilst it is an interesting exercise (in futility, one might add) if you love the game, it remains utterly trivial for bystanders.

Fortunately, perhaps, it appears that our protagonist, despite acting against his great desire to be free and to live, reaches the point of stoic equanimity. Whether you should accept this serene landscape or not is an entirely separate question. Most of us would perhaps choose to run away with our Replicant lover, as opposed to staying and seeing it to the end as Qohen did. Yet, Waltz’s compelling performance elevated this figure into a tragic one, rather than a merely and completely mad one.

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

A Most Wanted Man is the third feature by Dutch director Anton Corbijn (ControlThe American). Prior to start shooting feature films Corbijn had already established himself as a photographer and music video director in Europe. He produced some of the most iconic music videos for the likes of Joy Division, U2, and David Sylvian. His first movie, the Joy Division bio pic Control, was very much a photographer’s work; despite the action on the screen, one could not shake the feeling that we were facing a series of perfectly composed stills. Corbijn’s black and white pictures imposed chilling stillness and deadly silence, and it fit perfectly to the main subject of the movie, Ian Curtis. Curtis is someone who is completely frozen in his audience’s memory, and Corbijn’s style was perfect for cutting this singer’s stark figure on the silver screen.

His next film, The American, was not as successful. Again, there are plentiful impressive shots and moving silence, yet, in this particular case, photographic stillness refused to work with the flow of the story, and thus, it did not come together well as a motion picture. In retrospect, The American was a transitional work for Corbijn; having seen his third movie, A Most Wanted Man, I can say that this is the first real motion picture directed by this talented Dutchman, and it is a very fine one at that.

A Most Wanted Man is a story of German Intelligence officer Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a Chechen fugitive Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). When Karpov illegally comes to the shore of Hamburg, Günther is alerted of his presence by his staff. Russian intelligence service confirms to the Germans that he is a wanted terrorist, and Günther orders his team to follow his movement in the city. In the mean time, Günther and his team have been monitoring a noted Muslim leader, Abudullah, who is known as one of the most prominent moderate Muslim speakers. Günther has been trying to uncover Abudullah’s association with a shipping company which he suspects is a front for al-Qaida. . 

This film offers everything you would expect from a fine espionage film based on a John le Carre novel: sophisticated plot lines; ambiguous characters; ubiquitous intrigues (yes, there is an intrigue between the sexes as well); and timely subjects, such as international terrorism, inter-agency conflicts, immigration, and indiscriminate mass surveillance. In addition, the line-up of actors are so great with the likes of Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin!RushThe Fifth Estate), Martin Wuttke (Hitler from Inglorious Bastards, known for his role in the legendary theatre group, Berliner Ensemble, which was founded by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel), and Herbert Grönemeyer (Das Boot) playing quite insignificant roles for which they are absolutely overqualified. Yet, Corbijn’s enviable list of talents in this film is not a bad thing, for the deliveries by the main cast are very impressive, and keeps us focused on the drama. Dobrygin’s portrayal of a tortured Chechen is intense and absorbing, and Nina Hoss delivers a subtle humour and human affect to the otherwise utterly impersonal world of spying as Günther’s right-hand woman. Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Willem Dafoe all make their part believable, and the late Hoffman is simply magnificent as Günther. 

That said, this is by no means a run-of-the-mill espionage film; there is no need for shoot-outs, car chases, flashy CGI or a catchy theme song. It is comparable to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (link), another le Carre film, in terms of the quality of acting, directing, and editing. In this film, Corbijn’s photographic sensibility, that is, his keen eye to tone and light, and his appreciation of stillness, works perfectly with the plot, the characters, and the changing pace of this motion picture. Whilst the stillness of the frames disrupted the drama in The American, here it conveys the underlying mood that makes this movie so unforgettable. This film is like a slowly developing music that was composed for the climax… one explosive instance, the moment that freezes and shatters the whole world with a singular cry of rage. And Philip Seymour Hoffman was born to embody this rage on the screen. And this cry, this cry alone, set him, and this movie, apart from the rest.