Friday, October 25, 2013

Good grief

Speaking on the sidelines of the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival, the French filmmaker Leos Carax said that every generation had a responsibility to reinvent cinema. And he didn't mean the adoption of newfangled technology such as 3-D. He meant something more lofty, although he didn't seem sure exactly what it was.

At least the documentaries that were screened would definitely make it to the brave cinematic new world that Carax envisions. Take, for example, The Act of Killing, a genre-busting documentary about the perpetrators of anti-communist killings in the 1960s in Indonesia. Its major strength is that, years after the brutal act, the frail killers unflinchingly proclaim their past "achievements" in front of Joshua Oppenheimer's unassuming camera. One of them even ties a steel wire around his neck and stops short of strangling himself, just to give Oppenheimer a taste of gory verisimilitude.

At the other end of the spectrum is Rithy Panh's alternately deadpan and emotional portrayal of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. With the help of handmade clay dolls and voice-over narration, Panh conveys the brutality of Pol Pot and his cohorts.

Foremost among the feature films that might tickle Carax's fancy is the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour. Adapted from a graphic novel, this French drama about a same-sex relationship between a high-school student and a budding painter kept me pinned to my seat for 180 minutes. Director Abdellatif Kechiche certainly allows his own male fantasies free rein at points, but the rest of the movie is frightfully captivating. The movie gains even more significance because France legalised same-sex marriage this year.

If Cannes is about premieres of big-ticket releases, Berlin is about getting au fait with underground cinema, and Sundance is about showcasing American independent cinema, the Mumbai Film Festival is about something more primal: watching an awful lot of devastatingly beautiful movies. Two hundred movies and documentaries were curated this year. If one theme had to be conjured up to connect most of them, it would be the extent of human endurance. As it is, this year Hollywood has had Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips already vying for Oscar success, thanks to their mind-bending performances. At the festival, another Hollywood legend, Robert Redford, 77 years young, showed his awesome sole survivor acting chops in J C Chandor's sophomore feature All is Lost. As a ship captain in Indian Ocean, and without saying more than 300 words throughout the movie, Redford made Robinson Crusoe's travails look like a walk in the park.

Strangely similar is Locke, a Steven Knight film that unfolds over one night in a car that a construction manager, Tom Hardy, is driving, even as he deals with a veritable avalanche of problems while navigating motorways on the outskirts of London. Who could have thought that an SUV could be a resilient weather system for emotions: betrayal, love, comeuppance, dark humour, exorcism of past ghosts, and so on. A comparatively low-key, but equally transfixing, film is Paul Wright's For Those in Peril. An 18-year-old is the sole survivor of a mysterious fishing boat disaster, which pushes him into the realms of deep self-introspection.

However, the standout feature of the festival - and something that seems to fit Carax's idea of "new cinema" - was Tsai Ming-Liang's Stray Dogs. This is a gut-wrenching drama about a man who works as a human billboard for real estate companies in Taipei, and about his two kids. It's so miserable that Victor Hugo might have thought he was overdoing it. It's utterly captivating and disturbing at once; I couldn't help but feel as though I was the movie-viewer analogue of Schrodinger's cat, both looking at the screen and looking away.

Among the disappointments is Jia Zhangke's much-hyped A Touch of Sin. This movie, a story about four rural Chinese characters told in four separate sections, was supposed to be a scathing commentary on today's China. From Bo Xilai to Foxconn to the one-child policy, Jia has tried to put every burning issue into the blender. Sadly, the result is an inedible concoction. Another major disappointment was the universally hailed American indie feature Short Term 12. This mawkish drama about a bunch of depressed adolescents recuperating in a foster care facility left me stone cold. My objection wasn't that the problems of these young adults, including of their guardian, were cliched; it was that they were depicted in a monotonously dolorous manner.

Finally, the biggest shout-out is reserved for the team of the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI), the organiser of the festival. For all its organisational glitches, cancelled screenings, showocasing foreign cinema without subtitles, chaotic queue management, the MAMI team still deserves a medal. Why? Here's what an IT engineer at the festival told me, "This fest is so good that I'll have withdrawal symptoms at least for a week. It opened a whole new world for me."


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