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The World (2004)
Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Chen Taisheng, Jing Jue
Language: Mandarin, Shanxi
Jia Zhangke's early films were often in trouble with the authorities on account of their themes that laid bare the essential sadness of life in contemporary China. Ironically, The World met with approval from the same government - maybe its sadness was so affecting that it broke even the hardest hearts in the establishment!
Perhaps the most important filmmaker working today, Zhangke's great art is in finding poetry in the struggles of working-class people. The World is set in a Beijing theme park, a backdrop against which play out the struggles for love and survival of the park's poor employees, all migrant workers from the provinces. The two most important characters, Tao, a dancer, and Taisheng, a security guard, are in the midst of an unhappy affair;Taisheng ends up getting involved with another woman, who's trying to obtain a passport so she can join her husband (who hasn't so much as contacted her in years!) in Paris. There are other wretched characters as well: a Russian immigrant faced with the prospect of turning to prostitution;Wei and her dangerously obsessive boyfriend Niu who decide to get married, even though one can see that this union will generate nothing but misery;a fellow migrant whom Taisheng helps get a job in Beijing's booming construction industry, with tragic consequences.
The tone of melancholy set right at the outset ensures that we watch the film with a sense of resignation, hoping for a modicum of happiness for these characters, but knowing that we're not going to get a fairytale. At least not the kind we're used to.
The Circle (2000)
Director: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Nargess Mamizadeh, Maryiam Palvin Almani
Jafar Panahi, one of Iran's most celebrated filmmakers, was arrested on charges of shooting a film about the events following last year's infamous elections. Panahi refuted the charges, but had to spend several months in prison before an international outcry led to his release. The Circle shows us why Panahi makes the government nervous.
Infuriating, heart-rending, thrilling and chilling, The Circle is structured like a relay race, moving from one character to the next, giving us a glimpse into the life of each one. The film begins with a woman delivering a baby girl in a hospital, the ramifications of which are frightening. Next we meet two women just out of prison, one of whom 'arranges' for some money so the other can take the bus to her native town. (However, for a woman in Iran, taking a bus isn't the easiest thing to do. ) We're then introduced to another ex-convict, who needs an abortion, followed by a woman trying to abandon her little daughter because she doesn't have the means to bring her up. Finally we meet a prostitute before the film comes full circle.
Less philosophical than his mentor Kiarostami, Panahi's films confront the oppressiveness of Iranian society more directly, thus making him more troublesome for the establishment. The key characters in The Circle are ex-convicts, and yet the struggles they go through for the simplest things in life (smoking a cigarette, for instance ) make us so aware of their position in society that we don't give a damn what crime they've committed. We just want them to be left alone and allowed a smoke!
Director: Yojiro Takita
Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue
Every once in a while comes along a film unabashedly sentimental and manipulative and yet something about it makes you surrender to it. You know you're being played, but you enjoy the music so much that you don't mind. Departures is such a film - you'll find yourself revisiting it in your mind time and again for a quick whiff of pleasure.
Daigo is a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra, who suddenly finds himself unemployed. Along with his wife, he returns to his mother's house in a small town and, to make ends meet, ends up in the profession of preparing the dead for funerals. His job involves making corpses beautiful by cleaning and dressing them up, and applying make-up on their faces and bodies. Soon Daigo's well-paid but lowly job becomes an embarrassment for people who know him, including his wife.
This foreign-language Oscar-winner has every trick in the formula book: the wife who blows hot and cold in service of the plot, a clichêd father-son angle, the protagonist giving up his artistic dreams to survive, an ending bordering on the soppy. . . And yet there is much to admire: the handsome production, understated performances, some delicious dark humour associated with food, and the exercise of restraint at crucial places. But what you will revisit in your mind is the painstaking, delicate and meticulous way in which the protagonist works on the departed. He's fascinating to watch, and his profession seems the most beautiful job in the world.
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