The Simple Pleasures of Life in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”

Abbas Kiarostami fascinates me. He is a poet, humanitarian, and a master when it comes to blurring the line between art and reality. With his Palm D’or winning work, “Taste of Cherry”, the Iranian director challenges us to look at the forbidden subject of suicide in an Islamic state. It is a small independent film with a relatively straightforward plot, but the ideas it encompasses are as complex and big as life and death. Like many of his films, most of it takes place in a car on the road. It becomes a metaphor for the odyssey that the main character goes through.

Mr. Badii drives around in his dusty Range Rover searching for random strangers. He picks up the ones that seem to be going through financial difficulties and offers them a large sum of money for a simple task. He informs them that he has decided to commit suicide. All he needs is for them to bury him the morning after and to double check if he is indeed dead before doing so. In the many episodes, encounters and conversations he has with these strangers, he never reveals the reason he wants to kill himself. In fact, the reason is irrelevant; all we need to know is that the man is suffering.

Suicide is always a legitimate option in life, and many have chosen to take that path. No matter what anyone’s stance on the matter is, the living will never truly comprehend the extent of suffering the person has gone through to reach that point. “Taste of Cherry” doesn’t argue for or against the concept of suicide, but it does ask for a compassionate view on the desire to do so. The world has always been fixated that suicide is wrong, and indeed it may be, but what’s even worse is the suffering one has to endure to even contemplate the thought. What elevates this film to a whole new level of greatness, however, is when Kiarostami gently steers the wheel and the film becomes less about death and more about the simple pleasure of life itself.

Film Analysis: “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”

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It took Kazuo Hara five years to get “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” made, and it took me even longer than that to finally see it. For the longest time, this masterpiece was only available to watch in extremely low-resolution video or by purchasing a pricy out of print DVD that would occasionally pop up on eBay. Thankfully, Second Run just released a restoration of the relatively obscure documentary; it is one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year. I highly recommend snatching a copy before it goes out of print again.

“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” paved the way for documentaries like Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”. Like the aforementioned titles, the director uses the film camera as a weapon to obtain social justice. Everything unfolds live before your eyes. Hara uses the medium to put people on trial in front of the whole world. “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” is fearless and fascinating cinema. It forces you to think. It makes you ask questions about how we experience and record history.

In this documentation, the focus is mainly on Kenzo Okuzaki, a complex man who will do anything to get veterans to confess to the barbaric atrocities committed in New Guinea towards the end of World War II. In his relentless campaign for truth and reconciliation, he tries to disclose facts about the deaths of two soldiers who got executed three weeks after the war was over. If you still have not seen this film, I suggest you stop reading at this point and return after having done so, as I’ll discuss some major plot points.

Throughout the film, Okuzaki visits one war veteran after the other to question them about what went down in the jungle long ago. Whenever the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Okuzaki resorts to violence. He punches, kicks, and wrestles old war vets to get to the bottom of things. And although the morally ambiguous tactics used in pursuit of truth and justice will surely make any viewer feel uncomfortable, once you grasp the gravity of the situation, you begin to understand that the unorthodox methods he uses stem from years of suffering.

At one point, he looks to the camera and tells viewers that he is doing this “for the sake of mankind”, so that people would stop regarding war as heroic, and see it for what it truly is. This may be the most confrontational documentary ever made; it also feels like the most urgent one. What makes this work so compelling is that it is both an exposé and a character study at the same time. I found myself constantly reassessing my opinion on the slightly unhinged activist.

In Okuzaki’s mind, his unpredictable bursts of aggression are nothing compared to the horrific acts of cannibalism that he witnessed in the Pacific. In fact, throughout the film, he makes a point of taking responsibility for his actions. In one scene, he calls the police and informs them that he has hit an old man, and then proceeds to wait for their arrival. Okuzaki is clearly trying to make a point; we should take responsibility for our actions and own up to them.

At first, the chief of staff of the Japanese Seventeenth Army stands his ground. He gets cornered, threatened and beaten up, but won’t budge. He even tells them to read his book, in which he wrote it all down. The book claims that when the food supply ran low, he and his men had to resort to eating grass. I was reminded of Napoleon’s famous words, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon.” We only tell the story we want to be out there, not the one that actually happened.

In this case, the concealed truth is that isolated Japanese soldiers found themselves reduced to cannibalism. First, they tried to feast on the natives. They called this flesh “black pig”, but the natives were too hard to catch, so they tried to catch easier prey. “White pig” referred to Australian soldiers. When things got really bad, they turned against each other and ate their own. I find it so disturbing that they actually classified different human flesh based on skin color, but when the situation got desperate, none of that mattered. They started picking people off based on personality.

Everything leads to one of the most gripping sequences in cinema, the final confrontation. Something very interesting happens towards the end of the interrogation, Okuzaki changes tactics. Instead of attacking the accused, he begins opening up about his own crimes. He tells the person he is accusing of cannibalism that he too has killed but chose not to bottle it up. The director then captures a beautiful subtle moment. We see a closeup of the old man’s clenched fist loosening up. He is ready to confess.

As he started confessing, you can tell that part of his unwillingness to speak was because he didn’t want to face the consequences of his actions and another part is because he was trying to avoid reliving those deep traumatic days. The soldiers of the Japanese Seventh Army are not proud of what they have done, and they lived their days with buried shame. The truth is finally reached not through violence or guilt tripping, but a chance at redemption. When the old war veteran is told that he is the last living survivor and his account can save future generation from repeating the same mistakes, he tells it all. He does it for the sake of mankind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Look at “The Exterminating Angel” During Times of Crisis

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It is not surprising that during these surreal times we live in, I find myself incredibly drawn to the work of Luis Buñuel, father of Surrealist cinema. Watching his 1962 masterpiece, “The Exterminating Angel” in the context of a nationwide quarantine has given this film a whole new meaning. Almost sixty years after it was originally released “The Exterminating Angel” has never been more relevant. His understanding of human behavior is timeless, and we can all learn a thing or two when examining his work with the current pandemic in mind.

The film takes place in the lavish mansion of Señor Edmundo Nobile. He has invited friends over for a fancy dinner party. As the party is about to get started, the servants disappear one by one. They hastily flee from the house like they know something big is about to happen. After dinner, the guests retire to the salon to socialize. They decide to sleep over, and in the morning, they find themselves incapable of leaving the room even though the door is open. As the days go by, they run low on food, water and medicine, which strips them from everything that makes them civilized. Before you know it, reason and sanity take a back seat to panic and madness.

Buñuel intended the house to be an allegory for the conventions of high society. His message was fairly straightforward. Stripped of these conventions, everything deteriorates, and human beings are reduced to animals. He even suggests in the iconic final frame, that we are all sheep following one another blindly. Not surprisingly, the film got banned in its initial release in fear of how people would react to it; it was deemed offensive and anti-government.

Much like COVID-19, an invisible force prevents the visitors from stepping outside the confines of the house. The title suggests that this is the work of an exterminating angel, I would never liken an infectious disease to an angel, but one can’t help but dwell on the eerie similarities of how this invisible force is affecting society as a whole. Like “The Exterminating Angel”, this outbreak feels like a wake-up call. Mother Nature is stepping in and exposing fragility of society and how easily the facade we’ve built around us can collapse.

Many have looked at this crisis as a test of our systems, and how years of social and economic progress can affect those farthest from wealth and power. In Buñuel’s film, the ones living on the margins of society are represented as the servants. They are exempted from this test and are given time to exit the house before entrapment. After all, the less privileged of the world are normally the victims of the situation that is forced upon them, and the whole point of the film is to switch roles and see how the elite would react to a desperate situation. The second people resort to an “every man for himself” mentality, chaos unfolds. In “The Exterminating Angel”, before all the chaos, dinner is served.

As the guests converse with one another at the dinner table, a servant walks in holding a big tray with a dish on it. He then falls to the ground and the food gets splattered all over the place. Suddenly the seated guests all break into laughter as the servant uncomfortably leaves the room. They laugh at the situation because they think it was a staged performance. One guest remarks, “Lucia has a flair for such chic surprises.” In other words, they are oblivious to the reality of the situation. Buñuel portrays those in power as delusional people with a rigid way of viewing the world. I couldn’t help but think of the powers that be, and how they are reacting to the current crisis we are in. At a time when social distancing to flatten the curve is most needed, some leaders are aiming for people to get back to work within weeks. They too are delusional to the reality of the situation.

In the following scene, Lucia catches one of the servants as they’re about to exit the mansion. “What is the meaning of this, Pablo? Are you leaving?” she says in a disappointed manner. “I must see my poor sister, madame.”, he replies. “What’s wrong with your sister? Is she ill?” The servant then confirms the fact: “She felt unwell this morning.” And Lucia fires back with: “Ridiculous. This is an insult to my guests.” All she cares about is keeping the house running, even if it’s at the expense of someone else’s health and wellbeing.

Throughout the film we witness the people let go of the social rules governing their behavior. It starts with them taking off their tuxedos to sleep on the floor, and escalates to sexual harassment, and people fighting each other for scarce resources. In the midst of a global pandemic that threatens our livelihood, people have reacted in similar fashion. Hoarding and stocking up on more than one needs has reached despicable levels. News reports claim that stores are running low on medicine, food, and medical supplies. Some are even taking advantage of the situation and selling them for ridiculous prices online. Reacting to a doomsday scenario selfishly without measuring our preparations can have dire consequences. Every crisis presents opportunity, and in the face of a common challenge, the world must work together as a global community.

Time spent in isolation should be time spent in reflection, and I could not help but wonder. What will happen after this global nightmare comes to an end and millions of families exit their homes. Will we emerge from our homes as changed people with a new awareness of the world, or will we fall back into the same trap? The film suggests that the door is always open, and it is up to us to find the courage to walk through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domestic Turmoil in John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”

John Cassavetes’ most revered film, “A Woman Under the Influence”, is one of cinema’s exemplary works of realism. The title refers to an urban housewife who is gradually losing her sanity. As this intense film unfolds, Cassavetes slowly shifts his focus to the eccentric husband. This subtle switch of the viewer’s gaze is absolute genius. Just like that, Cassavetes tells us everything we need to know about this particular case of domestic turmoil.

Plunged into a misogynistic household, Mabel finds herself victim to the restrictions of a gendered role. In many ways, “A Woman Under the Influence” plays like a psychological horror film. The protagonist falls victim to her surroundings. Her sadness, insecurities, anxiety, and deteriorating mental health is caused by her failure to fulfill a role that society has assigned her. In this remarkable work, we witness two unpredictable human beings act incredibly out of norm, yet only one of them is perceived as unstable by the surrounding family members.

Cassavetes film is about the toxicity of gender roles in society, but there are no villains or heroes in this household. Characters are depicted with incredible complexity. We watch two frustrated individuals struggling to deal with one another, but never does it feel like the director is judging either one of them. Cassavetes’ tender approach makes you empathize with real people who have fallen victim to the faultiness of society. This is cinema at its most intimate and personal.

Paranoia in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”

⁣“Man is the warmest place to hide.”

“The Thing” is John Carpenter’s greatest work; it is also a strong contender for the most entertaining horror film ever made. The film takes place on a remote base camp stationed in Antarctica. Life gets disrupted when the scientists spot a helicopter chasing and attempting to shoot a sled dog on the run. The Americans take the dog in, and before you know it, all hell breaks loose. We get introduced to one of the most memorable movie monsters to ever grace the screen, the thing – a shapeshifting extra-terrestrial being that can assume the shape of its victims.

The practical effects used in this picture are second to none. Almost forty years after it was originally conceived, the wild and gruesome practical effects are more impressive than anything that we’ve seen since. In fact, the animatronic effects are worthy of purchasing this masterpiece alone. But what separates Carpenter’s film from every other gorefest out there is what it says about the human psyche. The most nerve-racking aspect about “The Thing” has nothing to do with the creature, but how the characters react to it.

As soon as the scientists discover the nature of the creature, heightened paranoia begins to feed the ever-growing presence of mistrust. The claustrophobic setting puts us face to face with mankind at his most dangerous. The thing is nothing but a catalyst that brings out the monster inside of us. This film is about the internal conflicts that arise when paranoia penetrates the psyche; it is about what happens when suspicion disturbs the sanity of an entire group. Ennio Morricone’s iconic score plays like an eerie heartbeat to the impending doom lurking inside. John Carpenter’s reimagining of “The Thing from Outer Space” (which was made shortly after World War II when Cold War paranoia was sweeping the United States of America) is the most blood-curdling version of John W. Campbell Jr. short story out there.

Reevaluating Humanity in Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP”

There is absolutely no way anyone can watch Kazuo Hara’s “Goodbye CP” without getting deeply affected by it. That said, it is not an easy film to watch by any means. “Goodbye CP” documents what it is like to live in Japan while suffering from cerebral palsy. People with cerebral palsy are often mistreated by the general public. Bystanders either look away or give them change, even when they’re not begging. Some do it because they feel sorry, others simply want to feel better about themselves.

At the beginning of this powerful work of art, we learn that many parents commit suicide when they find out that their children will be born with this condition. It causes permanent movement disorders due to brain damage detected at an early stage. But Hara doesn’t concern himself with the medical side of things, instead his film is more interested in showing viewers an intimate perspective of how they live their lives. We learn who they are, what they do and how they feel about various topics including sex, work, and marriage. Much like Werner Herzog’s “Land of Silence and Darkness”, Hara takes us to a world very few people have seen.

What I admire most about this type of filmmaking is that the filmmaker does precisely what everyone else shies away from. I think the majority of people rarely make contact with people with such extreme conditions, not because they don’t want to deal with them, but simply because they don’t know how to deal with them. So when a filmmaker like Kazuo Hara tackles a subject as specific as cerebral palsy, the whole world is forced to understand them. If there is one film that I think everyone should see, it is this one. “Goodbye CP” is gut-wrenching and in your face; it makes you ponder whether you’ve been living life selfishly. It forces you reevaluate your own humanity. It is a film that will change anyone who chooses to see it.

Film as a mosaic in “Dawson City: Frozen Time”

⁣We tell stories that are worth sharing every single day. We do it in the form of a conversation at a dinner table, through a joke, a riddle, or even through news reports. But the best stories are told through an artistic medium such as film, music, theater, or literature. Those who practice storytelling for a living are often on the lookout for a good story to tell, and I believe no one could have told the story in “Dawson City: Frozen Time” better than Bill Morrison. The only other filmmaker that comes to mind is Guy Maddin, another Canadian filmmaker who likes to tell stories by piecing together footage from old film reels.

In “Dawson City: Frozen Time”, this technique has a hauntingly beautiful effect, because traditional documentary re-enactment has been replaced with footage from long lost silent films. Seeing all this lost footage for the first time will entrance viewers with the awe and wonder of the movies. The music by Alex Somers (a member of “Sigur Rós”) compliments the visuals perfectly. I was reminded of the iconic kissing montage in Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”. Andrei Tarkovsky once famously claimed, “Film is a mosaic made of time.” These words never rang more true.

“Dawson City: Frozen Time” links two storylines. The first covers the gold rush of 1896, and how an estimated 100,000 prospectors flocked to the northern city in search of gold. The other story is that of film itself. Cellulose nitrate was first used as a base for photographic film rolls. The problem is, nitrate made it highly flammable, and as a result, a lot of film theaters went up in flames all over the world. It is estimated over 75% of all silent films were lost in fires.

When this started to happen in Dawson City, which was located at the end of the distribution line for silent films, the townspeople panicked and buried the film reels in a swimming pool. Almost seven decades later, the unearthing of silent films has rewritten the city’s historic significance. Once known for its gold, today it is immortalized in artefacts, films and photographs. Like the buried gold and the lost films, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Identity Crisis in “A Brighter Summer Day”

“A Brighter Summer Day” is Edward Yang’s ambitious crime epic about Taiwanese street gangs in the 1960’s. Seeing this film reminded me of the first time I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather”, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”, or Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”. It is a mammoth work of art that deserves its place among the greats of the genre.“A Brighter Summer Day” swept me away into a world of juvenile delinquency and rock and roll. Politically charged and boasting with energy, Yang’s novelistic vision is something to behold. 

The four-hour film revolves around a fourteen-year-old kid who falls in love with a troubled girl. The young girl used to date a feared gang member who has gone into hiding. When he makes a return to the village, things quickly escalate to violence and despair. In this true story about a crime that shook the nation,emotions run very high. Growing up and falling in love in the midst of a gang rivalry is too much to deal with for anyone. But this major work of Taiwanese cinema is so much more than a coming of age film about kids engaging in street fights. Beneath the surface, it’s about an entire nation in search for its identity. 

Rejected by the Chinese regime, a huge wave of immigrantswere left in the dust fighting for their dignity. Having fled communist rule in mainland China, the grown-ups struggled to make ends meet amongst the native Taiwanese people. They spent their days looking for the next hustle and longed for the good old days when the economic situation was stable. However, their first-generation kids didn’t share this nostalgia for the homeland. The film argues that since they never felt like they belonged anywhere, the lost youth started forming gangs in order to claim territory they could call their own. Shakespeareanin scope, “A Brighter Summer Day” will captivate you with itsgrittiness and dreamy lyricism. I can’t wait to revisit this time and place in the near future.

Reincarnation in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” defies written description. The experience is more akin to that of music or painting in that it operates on a subconscious level. It communicates its complex concepts and abstractions through otherworldly sights and sounds. This is magical realism at its most spiritual; the characters inhabit a world that is just as ethereal as anything we’ve seen in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

When asked to describe his film, the director explained, “it’s about going back to the roots of things, what we have in our bodies, the primitive energy,”. But the film is not just about the past, it’s also about the future, and what happens to us after we pass away. Stricken with kidney failure, Uncle Boonme is convinced that his time has come. During his last days, we see him surrounded by his relatives, but he is soon visited by the ghosts and spirits of loved ones who have long passed away. On paper, this all sounds very frightening, but when these spirits made an appearance it had the opposite effect on me, their presence was soothing and comforting.

Weerasethakul’s vision is not for everyone. I’ve heard many people call it extremely slow, but I think a better description would be meditative. The film creates its own entrancing pace, and you just have to fall into it. There’s no use to linger on what any of it means, just let the film wash over you, and your patience will be rewarded. The film explores the transmigration of souls between human beings, animals, ghosts and mythical creatures. It left me with a heightened awareness of everything that we don’t know about the strange world we live in. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is a gateway to another world; it exists in the space between life and death, between past and present, between reality and fantasy.

The Dark Side of Humanity in “Häxan”

Benjamin Christensen’s “Häxan” is a Danish film about witchcraft from the silent era. It features dramatized horror sequences that will send chills down your spine. The film is split into four parts. In the first segment, Christensen walks us through some disturbing diabolical artwork from the dark ages. Where does it all stem from? The film plainly states that “the belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” But the real horror that the film presents has nothing to do with demonology. What man is capable of doing when clouded by superstition and strict religious beliefs is far more sinister than anything that witchcraft brings to the table.

In the second part, we are exposed to a series of vignettes demonstrating medieval practices, beliefs and superstitions. The purpose of this film’s first half is to put viewers in the mindset of someone who was brought up before the enlightenment age- a time when divinity ruled over reason, and people believed in all kinds of wicked superstitions. But the second half of this macabre masterpiece is when things get very interesting. First, we get a demonstration of a typical witch accusation. We then learn of the torture methods used against the accused by religious authorities of the time. The only way the torture would stop was if they confessed and gave up twenty names of other accomplices, and the rest, of course, is history.

The witch-hunt reached epidemic levels, and over eight million were burnt alive in one of mankind’s darkest chapters. But the film argues that modern times are just as horrific. Torturing people into confessions is still practiced to this day, only the church has been replaced by the law. The modern hysterical woman inhabits all the behavior traits of what people back then would consider the devil’s work, and the way we treat the insane today is just as upsetting. We may not burn them on stakes, but we surely give them hell in mental institutions. When I first heard of this magnificent film, I thought it would illustrate so called witches as “the evil ones”. Instead, the film portrayed perfectly normal human beings with everyday professions- priests and policemen- as the true villains. “Häxan” is the most fascinating horror documentary I’ve ever seen; a haunting document of a time when the practice of medicine was considered sorcery. This thesis film is a scholarly dissertation of one of the most horrific chapters in human history, and it hasn’t aged one bit.