Category Archives: Drama

Death and All His Friends

Viva la Vida, so the Coldplay title goes. It’s a sentiment seldom expressed by artists of a certain brand—the kind who prefers to brood over loss, transience, and death. In a way it’s easier: sorrow and poignancy often go together in serious art, whereas happiness is considered trite, banal; there are many more types of sadness than joy. And with a subject like death—how not to be fatalistic? How to find happiness?

“Bring tissues,” a friend warned me before I saw Amour. Michael Haneke’s film, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, follows an elderly couple’s struggle against the final betrayal of the body. In it human expiry is a horrible spectacle, involving stages of decay and deterioration, disgraceful in the utmost. Amour confirms everything we know to be true about death, and amplifies it to an almost intolerable note. This impression is made all the more strongly by the film’s first scene, which shows a close-up of rows of theatergoers—a mirroring effect intended to tell us, This film is about you. The point comes across immediately—amusing at first, a fine trick—but the scene lingers on and on until it is no longer just uncomfortable, but something worse. Five minutes into the film, and already we’re faced with the certainty of our own demise. It’s an understated memento mori, full of artifice but at the same time utterly without; it is a relief to be able to look away.

Yojiro Takita’s 2008 film Departures takes a different approach. Masahiro Motoki plays the lead role of Daigo, a cellist-turned-encoffiner who has to cope with the social stigma around his new profession. Initially skeptical, he slowly comes to appreciate the role’s importance through his boss Sasaki (Tsutomo Yamazaki), but finds it difficult to communicate this newfound profundity to his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), who harbors the conventional biases of many Japanese. At the same time Daigo has to confront his own feelings about his father, whose early abandonment threads through his entire adult life.

Departures handles its subject the way its protagonists treat the dead: gently, carefully, with the utmost respect and sensitivity. Without being false, it lends dignity to the awful truth of our existence by couching it in love and tradition. There is love in Amour, of course, and Georges’ final act reflects the extent of his devotion toward Anne, but ultimately it is about resistance—human temerity in the face of death, where consolation comes only in the tiniest increments. Departures, conversely, tends toward acceptance. Spliced among numerous scenes of death are those of consumption, eating as evidence of life. As they share a meal of puffer roe, Sasaki tells Daigo, “The living eat the dead to survive.” Here death is not the enemy; it is the way of the world. We grieve and we move on.

In the end it turns out I didn’t need tissues for Amour. It’s a heavy film, extremely sad, and my eyes turned watery at one point, but I never did actually cry. Strangely, it is in the more uplifting Departures where I found myself unable to hold back the tears. The film offers so many trite moments (like cello-playing in the fields), but somehow it still works, cradled in an overall atmosphere of tenderness. Joe Hisaishi’s marvelous score abets this sincerity, as well as the seamless cinematography. The recurring shots of swans particularly resonated with me, as it echoes W.B. Yeats’ poem about nature, existence, and the passing of time.

The Wild Swans at Coole
W.B. Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Far from being a lament, most viewers’ tearful response to Departures is an acknowledgment that we see here is very human, an attempt to make death bearable through ritual, an attempt to give meaning to the incomprehensible. While watching it I let go of my critical self and saw it simply as a human being—frail, temporal, hopeful as we all are. This is, I suppose, the highest praise you can give any work of art.

Amour

‘Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.’

Departures

‘When I was a child winter didn’t feel so cold.’

‘Long ago, before writing, you’d send someone a stone that suited the way you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they’d know how you felt. From a smooth stone they might get that you were happy, or from a rough one that you were worried about them.’

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

The Hunt (2012)

There are just some things you don’t doubt. The horror of war, the importance of family, the innocence of children. I suppose it’s a primal tendency, this easy allocation of truths and archetypes. It’s a bitter irony to note that for all our insistence on human complexity, at the core of society lies simple values founded on assumed truths. After all, without anything to agree on, how can communities exist? Values are of course important, but sometimes in our blind fealty to them they can lead us to fixed conclusions, spawning fictions more convincing than reality. In The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg explores what happens when these values are challenged, and the irreversible consequences of a single idea.

Here’s how Inception, the ultimate movie about ideas, describes one: “Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” This aptly describes how a Danish village comes to view Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a nursery teacher whose life falls apart because of one child’s lie. The charge of pedophilia is not a light one to make; the severe punishment we exact on perpetrators is a testament to the weight we associate with the corruption of innocence. But what happens when our terrors get the better of us, when in our desire to protect children we end up corrupting them?

Excluding malevolent little devils (as in Looper, as well as many horror movies), children do not often appear as antagonists in films. But little Klara doesn’t fit the standard mold of the antagonist either. In fact, no character does. As Mikkelsen says in an interview, “Nobody’s trying to do something out of maliciousness. Everybody’s doing it out of love and fear.” Which makes the story all the more chilling, because in our minds a tragedy on this scale requires a face, a malign intent, to pin it down on. But as we come to realize, often that’s not the case. We see what we want to see. We create our own fictions.

There are easy choices, in life as in art. With The Hunt, it would have been very easy to slip into a black-and-white portrait of a community gone mad, incensed by its own conjectures. It would have been just as easy to paint Lucas as simply the poor victim. But the village we see here is much more nuanced than that, and a feeble, whining Lucas never appears on the screen. Mikkelsen portrays him as a man of obvious pride, who must reconcile his conviction of his innocence with an admission of his predicament. Mikkelsen’s performance singlehandedly carries the film, but The Hunt involves such a high-tension act that even the tiniest snag would have dispelled the effect altogether. Fortunately the movie comes with a superbly chosen cast, down to the most minor character. Thomas Bo Larsen and Lasse Fogelstrøm give commendable performances as Lucas’ best friend Theo and son Marcus.

Ultimately, The Hunt is about the fears that plague us and the measures we take to protect ourselves, sometimes at the expense of truth. It is an exploration of human weakness, how easy it is to unravel lifelong friendships, how little it takes to mark a person with the permanent stain of doubt. Most importantly, it invites us to examine ourselves, at the way we see and interact with other people. For even as we feel righteous anger against characters on screen, our accusations are offset by a haunting uncertainty: Would I not have done the same?

This careful balance results in a film that is cinematic yet social, emotional but not maudlin, satisfying but also disquieting. With all this going for it, about halfway through I feared that the movie might end on a wrong note—with too happy or sentimental a conclusion. But I need not have worried. Vinterberg’s capabilities are manifest in one delicate scene between Lucas and Klara. The conclusion that follows is brilliant. Raw and unsettling, The Hunt ends on a perfect pitch.

‘You want to tell me something? The whole town is listening.’

‘What do you see? Nothing. There’s nothing.’

Rust and Bone (2012)

That the soul carries weight is hardly a new thought. From the Bible to Titanic (“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets”), art has long affirmed that the soul accrues scars over time, grows heavier with pain. That the body is also a repository of secrets, not as much. In The Gathering Anne Enright declares, “What is written for the future is written in the body.” This finds an echo in Alvin Yapan’s Sambahin ang Katawan, which locates human experience—fear, ambition, desire—in the flesh. This same intertwining of sentiment and physicality lies at the core of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.

Touted as “a love story that begins when two worlds fall apart,” the film chronicles human experience of pain, how it leaves marks on the body, which heals in time but never fully recovers. All tragedy brings with it scars, some more visible than others, some cutting deeper than most. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give excellent performances as Stephanie and Ali, unlikely lovers brought together by chance and tragedy. Human life takes the forefront in Rust and Bone, but here we are depicted as the most vulnerable of creatures, the most interdependent and at the same time solitary—pitiful when compared to the casual grace of orcas, the constancy of ocean waves. But out of this existence can arise a fragile beauty, a dented fortitude that comes only with pain and loss, which the camera captures beautifully in scenes too many to enumerate.

In this film all human experience is sensory, corporeal. Scenes alternates between the brutal and the sensual, often combining them into a single image. So we see rippling folds of flesh, stocking rolling down a thigh, spittle flying, blurry nipples, a lone tooth whirling in a splatter blood. Naturally, viewers feel disoriented. We don’t want to look, but we don’t want to tear our eyes away either. Violence is difficult to confront because through it we see the tenuous threads that tie us to life—risk, accident, love, the ineradicable need for connection. It is a tension that Rust and Bone handles splendidly, no matter how contrived.

In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann posits that art also makes its marks on the body. Even with a plot far removed from ordinary experience, Rust and Bone nonetheless inflicts a universal pain on its viewers, the simultaneous burden and joy of life. It is a transcendent feeling that apparently even commercial spaces like movie theaters now recognize. At the end of the screening, the lights did not go on immediately at Cinema City. Viewers were given a few minutes to wipe their eyes as the credits appeared on screen. Soon people would begin standing and putting on their coats, but in the immediate aftermath of the film nobody moved from their seats. It was a small moment of humanity.

‘Don’t leave me.’ ‘I won’t.’

Intouchables (2011)

There are movies that challenge the mind, and there are those that nourish the heart. Of the latter, we have no dearth, but it is the rare nugget that manages to outshine all other dregs that exit film studios by the bulk. This is not to say that a film can’t be both heartwarming and intellectually stimulating (as Hugo proves), but only that we have come to expect certain things from certain films. Reading TIME’s piece on Intouchables, I expected a poignant story of an inspiring friendship, of working-class racial prejudice, and how a genuine bond can overcome such differences—which is exactly what I got, except realer and a lot more fun.

It can feel too contrived: a poor black man enters into a wealthy tetraplegic’s service and changes both their lives. But it’s true—at least up until that part. Based on a real-life story, Intouchables stars Omar Sy as the brash, loud-mouthed Driss and François Cluzet as the disabled and lovelorn Philippe. Both of them are “untouchable” in the sense that one is a social outcast and the other is detached from normal life. But it is not merely this similarity that binds them together. Beneath the bets and gags, you can see that there’s something genuine there, that the two have formed a bond that—incomprehensible as it may seem—remains wholly palpable. The paragliding scene encapsulates all this splendidly. Thousands of meters above ground, neither Driss nor François are impeded by any limitation. Up there, they experience momentary freedom—from societal expectations, bitter histories, physical restrictions. Up there, they are simply two friends gliding in the wind.

Cluzet plays his part capably, but the spotlight undoubtedly falls on Sy. Exuding natural charm, he delivers in all his scenes and shines where it matters. It’s a pleasure to watch him because he enjoys himself tremendously. It’s hard not to get caught up in that energy. Despite its obvious potential for melodrama, Intouchables chooses a different direction: fun. Not the good, clean Marley & Me kind (of which we have seen enough, but always fall for anyway). Driss and François are regularly seen sharing marijuana joints, hiring Asian hookers, and exchanging borderline offensive jokes. In between, they take time to venture into each other’s worlds. Driss listens to classical music and Philippe lip-syncs to groovy hits from Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s an astonishing friendship.

While Driss and Philippe’s relationship strays from the usual, banlieue residents apparently earn a more stereotypical approach. As far as we know, Driss’ family includes a breadwinner, a delinquent, a good daughter, and several younger children. It bothers me that the setup is too formulaic, but at the same time I acknowledge that real life offers many such situations. Either way, Intouchables possesses enough merits to attract a wide audience, and that it has. Buoyed by a wave of good humor, it became the highest-grossing film in a non-English language, breaking the previous record set by Spirited Away (my favorite Miyazaki). Although I’m skeptical about its success, I understand the movie’s appeal. Along with its feel-good quality, I appreciate Intouchables for taking a much-abused subgenre and spinning it into a success. At the very least, that’s much more than we can say for other contenders.

‘Tell me Driss, why do you think people are interested in art?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s a business?’ ‘No. It’s because it’s the only thing one leaves behind.’

‘Listen to this. Where can you find a tetraplegic?’ ‘Where can you… I don’t know.’ ‘Where you left him.’

Summer Hours (2008)

Long queues are a staple for any film festival. What I did not expect: hours of traffic, a persistent “low oil” light, and zero parking spots. When we finally stepped inside EDSA Shangri-La, Tim, Sarah, and I rewarded ourselves with a hearty CIBO dinner. Later, we added cookies and a bucket of popcorn. The calories were well-deserved.

Last 2011, the French Film Festival featured a Sandrine Bonnaire retrospective (À Nos Amours, Vagabond). This year, director Olivier Assayas serves as the guest of honor, dominating the line-up with titles like Irma Vep and Clean. Unfortunately, our intransigent schedules only allowed us to squeeze in Summer Hours. Its synopsis reads like the premise for an Anne Enright novel: When their mother Hélène (Edith Scob) passes away, three siblings must decide what to do with her legacy of valuable art and furniture—a collection she accumulated over the years in a house with just as much history. As Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) confront this enormous decision, they invariably look to the past, sifting through their collected memories in a way that only death can trigger.

There is nothing exciting about Summer Hours. After Hélène’s death, everything else is a long dénouement, an unraveling. Scenes lead into the next like the rooms of a house opening to a visitor; in each one we learn a bit more about this abode, this family. The movie possesses a strong sense of verisimilitude. We see our characters eating, drinking, conversing, negotiating their stands. Brief quarrels arise, but—just as in real life—people concede. Nothing happens, yet even the smallest events leave an imprint on our characters’ internal landscapes. Their shared history has carved mutual scars, as real as the cracks in the walls of the old house, but no crumbling occurs. Nonetheless, our characters do mourn. Frédéric cries over Hélène memorably, his face half-obscured by the reflected leaves on his windshield. He has stopped the car; he cannot go on. But outside his grief, life marches on as usual. Calls have to be placed, decisions made; too soon, it’s all over.

Although I still feel squeamish about the ending (the third-generation epilogue seems too protracted), there’s no question how I feel about the film. Summer Hours is a poignant rumination on inheritance: as gift, as burden, as residue. It’s a quiet film, but it resonates with emotion.

‘A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore. But…there’s the residue. There are objects.’

Love Me If You Dare (2003)

It’s not exactly cabin fever (we had only been there a week!), but something was definitely in the air that night we watched Love Me If You Dare at the Writers Village. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but Gio, Vida, Karlo, TJ, Debbie, and I ended up watching this movie after dinner—probably as a last attempt to cling to our productive city habits. Valencia’s charms won us over anyway, but at least for that night we managed to drown out the cicadas.

Romantic movies seem to be my thing lately (Titanic, One More Chance). Despite the obvious love story, it doesn’t seem quite right to lump Love Me If You Dare in the group. It’s far from being a category of its own, but it definitely doesn’t belong in such a conventional, realistic set either. Real-life couple Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard star as childhood playmates Julien and Sophie, whose friendship revolves around a ceaseless game of dares. At first merely innocent and playful, their challenges escalate as they grow older, becoming more vindictive and dangerous at every turn—until eventually the game becomes their all-consuming obsession.

Julien and Sophie give up many things for love—a parent, marriages, children—but what they hold on to most fervently, what they never let go of, is the game. In establishing the rules of their relationship, it both binds and breaks them. One haunting question reverberates throughout the film: “Cap ou pas cap?” It’s a query posed as much to the characters as to the audience: Are you game? In asking this, Love Me If You Dare highlights its own absurdity, flaunting it, daring viewers to believe the incredible. Each scene adds to this growing sense of disbelief, finally culminating in two alternate endings—one charming, the other disturbing, neither seemingly real.

Even as I was sitting through this film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d already seen this somewhere before. The camera tricks, the fast-paced narration, the witty repartees—the movie reminded me so much of Amélie—and it pales in comparison. Love Me If You Dare has some things going for it, and it might have worked with a more original framework (and a better lead-up to the ending, or a different ending); but as it is, the similarities are much too striking to be ignored, and it ends up falling short of its cinematic vision.

‘Cover your ears, cover them well. Do you hear how I love you? That’s all that matters.’