Monday, September 27, 2021

Aarkkariyam aka Who Knows? [dir. Sanu John Varughese]

The story of Aarkkariyam (made by cinematographer turned director Sanu John Varughese) is set during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Married couple Shirley (Parvathi Thiruvothu) and Roy (Sharafuddeen) are driving down from Mumbai to be with her aging father at his home in rural Kerala. We learn early on that this is a second marriage for both of them; Shirley has a daughter from her previous relationship, now studying in a convent boarding school some hours away from her father's home. Shirley's father Ittyavra (Biju Menon) is the typical old-school backwater "Lord of the Manor", a man who for so many decades has nurtured his backyard and farmlands, and for whom old age is an unwelcome, if also inevitable burden. He is taciturn and sometimes crotchety, but dotes on his family. He is also deeply religious, a trait that echoes in Shirley.

As the couple integrate into the daily routine at Ittyavra's - having meals together and sharing the household chores - she is anxious to find a means of bringing her daughter home at the earliest. Roy has financial worries as well, what with the lockdown leading to his imported goods consignment indefinitely stuck in the customs hold. To help out his daughter's family, Ittyavra comes up with the plan of selling off his property, and giving them  a part of the money while shifting to a more manageable apartment. There is one slight hitch, as he casually reveals to Roy when Shirley is not around: He has long ago buried a body in the kitchen yard, and the skeleton needs to be destroyed before it is excavated by any builder that buys the property.

Aarkkariyam may be described as a moral mystery. The question that Roy (and the audience) has is, who is this dead person and why was his body buried in secret in the premises? Common logic would suggest that he get the story from his father-in-law, with whom he appears to share a relationship of trust and respect; after all the bonding between father and son-in-law is a core element of the film. But in a not very convincing conceit, Roy becomes withdrawn and secretive, opting instead for an exercise in tracing clues through a series of conversations with strangers in some way related with the tragedy. Rather than as an organic progression of the script, it is as though the writers (Sanu John Varughese with Arun Janardanan and Rajesh Ravi) felt that having Ittyavra directly spill the beans would not be sufficiently cinematic in a drama that is already conversation-heavy. The manner in which they attempt the circumvention leads up a convoluted path that only adds (pun unintended) 'dead space', without sufficient payoff.

But while the film errs on the side of rambling in trying to tell a measured tale, it is not guilty of unnecessary dramatics or that dreadful habit of superfluous twists that destabilize the narrative. When the truth is shown to Roy, it is not some earth-shattering moment. There is a quiet confession and an equally quiet laying to rest of an old burden. Without obvious sign-posting, it gives a beautiful underpinning to the actions and beliefs of the involved characters and helps us understand them better as people.

Apart from the aforementioned meandering tone during Roy's 'investigation' I thought there was an excess of external intrusion into the setting by way of Roy's interactions with his Mumbai friend Vysakh played by Saiju Kurup (Also, they speak to each other in a puzzling mix of Malayalam and Hindi, which I have never seen Malayalees in Mumbai do). These could have been pared down and perhaps Vysakh could have been reduced to a less frequent voiceover, just my thought. My other bugbear was with Sanjay Divecha's score. He is an excellent jazz musician for sure, but this movie has too much underscoring, to the extent that I got annoyed with all the guitar twanging. I would have preferred for it to go the other way, keeping non-digetic music to a minimum.

Even with these issues, there's a warm humanist streak in Aarkkariyam that beautifully shows in the writing and performances, and makes it worth recommending at least as a once-watch. Beyond that, well, who knows?

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Taste of Cherry [dir. Abbas Kiarostami]

In  Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997), Houmayun Ershadi plays Mr. Badii, a man who for a good part of the film's beginning we see as a rather suspicious character. He is cruising around in his car, looking to pick up isolated men. At least one of them openly tells him to scram, falling to the obvious conclusion that Mr. Badii is trying to hook up for a gay tryst. But as we learn later he has a different motive.

You see, Mr. Badii has decided to commit suicide; he has even dug his own grave. What he wants is for someone to confirm his death and then spade in earth to bury him. For this he is willing to pay handsomely. He courts in succession a young Kurdish military cadet, an Afghani seminarian, and a taxidermist among others to do this deed for him. He is not interested to explain his reasons or to listen to justifications about why he shouldn't go ahead with his plan. A good part of Kiarostami's film is about the conversations between Mr. Badii and his prospects; how he inveigles himself to put forth his offer, and how they ultimately respond to him.

Taste of Cherry is not so much about being a character study (right up to the end we do not know anything about the life of Mr. Badii and why he wishes to end it) or being laden with symbolic meaning. It is a rhythmic existential film, and what happens at the end is a lot less important than the interludes along the way. This is also not a film for the impatient or plot-focused. I remember, when I first watched it I was fidgeting through the initial part when he is propositioning various men before we know his purpose. I was better placed on the re-visit since I knew the roads it would travel. I am not certain if it was shot that way, but the finished film does suggest an element of improvisation in the dialog and its use of non-experienced actors in pivotal roles.

It may not have served as direct inspiration, but the long-range visuals of Badii driving his range rover over the dusty hill paths with a purely diegetic soundtrack may have been in auteur Nuri Ceylan's mind when he conceived the magical Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. In its less ponderous way, Taste of Cherry is also a haunting existential fable.

This is an interesting American trailer for the film that gives almost nothing away about the feel of the actual film:

For those interested, a few words about the recent blu-ray release of Taste of Cherry from Criterion:
My previous viewing of the film was more than a decade ago on the Criterion DVD (gifted by a dear friend). Taste of Cherry was one of the early DVD's in the Criterion label, with a non-anamorphic transfer that was not hugely impressive even at the time of release. Not surprisingly, their blu-ray sourced off a new 4K restoration simply blows away the previous release. There are levels of detail and contrast that were entirely absent on the DVD. While there may be some push of blues towards teal in the grading, it does not take away from the overall superiority of the new master and this is a must-have upgrade for fans of the film. The original Farsi audio is presented as LPCM mono and sounds very clear, with surprising presence for ambient effects. I have not checked the extras as yet but they are definitely more than what was present on the previous DVD.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tokyo Story [dir. Yasujiro Ozu]

So I finally saw Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu's much-lauded 1953 feature about an aging couple from rural Japan that decide to visit their children in and around Tokyo, and find that they may not be as welcome as they had imagined.

With a cast headlined by Chishū Ryū (an almost constant Ozu protagonist) and Chieko HigashiyamaTokyo Story was loosely inspired by Leo McCarey's 1937 American classic Make Way for Tomorrow - Hindi film fans may be indirectly familiar with this one, it being the plot source for the Bollywoodized 2003 Amitabh Bachchan - Hema Malini starrer Baghban. As I understand, it was Ozu's regular screenwriter Kogo Noda, who  had seen Make Way... and suggested using the outline.

Tokyo Story doesn't go to the extent of showing the parents being separated by their children for selfish reasons, although there is a symbolic separation when they find they have to make individual arrangements for one evening their daughter is having guests over and does not want her dowdy country-folks lingering in the house. There are no 'confrontations' (the closest the film gets is when the daughter is upset with her father for having returned drunk from a reunion where he was actually hoping to be put up by one of his friends) and no one is outright rude, but the only person that seems to truly welcome them is their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara, playing another noble Ozu heroine). Occurring mostly within the span of the parents' visit, it is a more restrained chamber drama.

While I generally like Ozu's quiet observational approach (Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon, Floatng Weeds and End of Summer are among my favorites) I did feel this plot required a stronger treatment. The script of McCarey's film may have had more obvious tear-jerking moments (Orson Welles is famously quoted as having said "It would make a stone cry") but it worked beautifully. For me, Tokyo Story was polite to the point of feeling detached, like a curio behind a window. The characters are also not particularly layered or interesting (Haruko Sugimura appears rather shrewish as the daughter), and the film lacks Ozu's trademark sly humor, making the nearly 140 min drama something of a chore (Only a few of Ozu's films have stretched the 2-hour mark).

Which is not to say that there are no good moments - Setsuko Hara has a great scene where she breaks down in front of her father-in-law who now mirrors her widowed state. The reunion between Ryū and his friends (one played by Kurosawa regular Eijirō Tōno) is also remarkable in how it plays out, especially after they get drunk and confess about their  disappointments in their children. But the film could have done with more of such moments. This may be sacrilege to hear for many film-buffs, but Tokyo Story is for me more tepid than heart-warming.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

#Home [dir. Rojin Thomas]

#Home can, I suppose, be considered the Malayalam take on how "It's all about loving your parents".

Sreenath Bhasi (Kumbalangi Nights) plays hotshot young film-maker Anthony trying to script his second feature, but struggling with creative block (here attributed mainly to easy distraction from social media). Anthony goes back to the idyll of his parents' home - apart from the indulgent parents, there is a mobility-impaired grandfather and a younger brother who aspires to become a Vlog-Star. The crux of the film is how Bhasi and his brother do not appreciate their mild-mannered, self-effacing father, the colorfully named Oliver Twist (Indrans) who quietly does all manner of things to keep his family happy. Bhasi is more impressed by the flashy achiever father of his fiancee and keeps unfairly comparing the two. The film is also about how Oliver grapples with modern technology to communicate better with his kids and thereby earn their appreciation.

While there is the kernel of a good film there, the final product is really not it. The characters of the sons are shoddily etched – it is possible for children to like their parents without respecting them, but the sons here are shown as barely caring and self-centered to a fault, purely to glorify the unselfish parents (and not in the entertainingly goofy manner of the 80’s Mohan Kumar / Kalpataru / Visu movies). There is a forced insertion of too many social issues the makers want to include (appreciation for parents, older generation struggling with modern tech while current gen is addicted to it) and clumsy "Moshe the Explainer" devices to address them (Indrans' psychologist, who has a ready answer for all his personal issues) .

Shallow as an ad-film for a retirement finance plan (complete with jingle style song numbers), yet stretching to a vegetative 160 min, this one wallows in blandness. There’s one really effective scene where the parents have a showdown with their pampered brats in front of guests; it has an electricity wholly apart from the mildly humorous oatmeal tone the film had up to that point. But after that moment, the script again recedes into mush territory. Too many characters are introduced in a wasteful manner, without giving them enough to do; this seems to mirror the creative block of the main character. The heroic backstory given to the father and how it connects them to other characters is too contrived. And what if he hadn’t had such a backstory? Would the kids be justified in their cavalier behavior? Isn’t unselfish parenthood in itself a heroic act? The makers seem to lack faith in their own idea. The actors are almost uniformly solid (Indrans shines as the mild mannered indulgent father, hoping to be liked by his sons), but the script foundations are too shaky for this #Home to stand up.