Monday, December 14, 2009

IFFK 2009: Amphibians and Aviators

The sun is out and she’s shining one hell of a scorcher on this particular Trivandrum December. Reptilian heat- one that crawls out your pores and creeps down the spine. The eyes declare fever- blurry narcotic colors, blind flashes, silver streaks, orange and green flares. The Swiss army knife Trivandrum edition comes equipped with a pair of cool green aviators. Screw design. We’re talking survival here.

It’s day 4 of the 14th International Kerala Film Festival and owing to unavoidable circumstances, day 1 for yours truly. The cold blooded cinephiles have already gathered and are running wild and depraved all across this once idyllic city that otherwise smacks of a quiet colonial hangover disrupted only by the pageantry that seems to accompany politics here. A pirate Mahindra Commander mounted with boom-boom speakers and party insignia was seen driving in circles asking one and all to gather and march in the name of justice. Flags and posters are everywhere but it is the festival banners that stand tall amongst it all and against the sun. For a whole week, the art house and the avant-garde will spill over the barricades and storm the streets.

My aide and comrade, Dr. Fu Manchu has already set up camp in the mouth of all this madness for two whole days. The good doctor has assured the situation had been excellent and that he had been experiencing mild delirium, hallucinations and the occasional rasp of poetry. He grins Cheshire as he says,”Mindfuck.”

Transistor Love Story

A Pen-Ek Ratanaruang retrospective. After Tsai Ming-Liang and Kim Ki-Duk, the mysterious divinations and calculations of the IFFK compass once again picked up one of the most original visions from across the map of Asia and the world. Cool, deadbeat, punch-drunk, lit by the same light that shines through the firmament of our own memories and longings, the time is indeed perfect to shed some spotlight on the eccentric filmography of the Thai auteur.

To all like yours truly, who hold Shaad Ali’s glitter shine ‘Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’ as some sort of a classic, ‘Monrak Transistor’ is one on the lists for all time top tens. Ratanaruang’s sophomore effort after his cult debut ‘6ixtynin9’ is a fancy firecracker of a film, one that explodes into colors and shapes and noise and thrill. He spins a cheaper kind of full blooded melodrama with wit, grit, style and a bit of Godard and the result is an ecstatic, genre-hopping fever dream. Inspired by the baroque melancholy of a pop song titled ‘Never Forget’ by a tragically short lived Thai singer, Ratanaruang fashions a tall tale of a man named Pan who leaves his wife and children behind and absconds from the army to pursue his dream of being a singer only to end up swabbing the floors of a studio. After almost two years of labor, he gets his first chance under the lights only for an unfortunate incident to derail his life yet again as he becomes a worker on a cane farm and from there to the streets and from the streets into lock up.

In only his second effort, one can already spot the mastery over the narrative that would define his two later films- that dreamy classic ‘Last Life in the Universe’ and the crazy hypercube that was ‘Ploy’. Deadbeat tableaus that could make Jarmusch proud, cocky intertitles (Sweet Talking Voice Over; Tits, Ass and Balls), breaking the fourth wall, a musical interlude, slow motions, fast-as-blur- he embraces the kitsch and the high emotions and goes jazz with it. Cinematographer Chankit Champnivikaipong bleeds the scenes with poetry capturing at once, the sadness and festivity of the neon smudges. The film may be a sprawling potboiler but it always seems to have time to stop all proceedings and stare in rapture at the rainwater twirling out the roof and the light hitting the surfaces or a towel blowing in the wind. It is in these small details that the Director makes a quiet comment on a changing world where all that is real and true and earthy is being replaced by the plastic and disposable.

The titular radio keeps playing forgotten songs.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl

Manoel de Oliveira, what could explain him? When a man lives for over a hundred years and keeps making beguiling and delightful art house films, I can’t deny the fact that I have some serious catching up to do on life. I have been enchanted even provoked by the grand old man’s films but I have never loved them as I think I should and I do confess to being slightly stumped by them. His latest ‘Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl’ is no different.

The film begins a la Bunuel’s ‘The Obscure Object of Desire’ as a young man narrates the story of his love to the interested woman in the next seat. ‘Eccentricities’ continues Oliveira’s Bunuel obsessions after his ‘Belle Trijour’, the sequel to Bunuel’s ‘Belle Dujour’. The tale is strange- old and new, young and ancient. The young man, an accountant falls in love with the titular blonde who appears before him, tantalizing with her exotic fan, across his office window. Gazes meet. There is seduction and young love. When the young man expresses his desire to marry her, his uncle disowns him and he has to travel to Cape Verde to make a fortune only to lose it when he returns. His steadfast love for the blonde-haired girl is about to set him once again into far off, dangerous lands when Oliveira pulls the carpet and well… Freud didn’t get it, Stephen Hawking confesses he can’t either and Senor de Oliveira charmingly seems to sigh- women! But it is exactly why we still go on loving them.

The film moves like all of the master’s films. Stately, mannered and poised. There is a musical performance on harp, then a poetry recital. Moments of quirk and mischief. Long static shots for all of the brief 64min. In the end, I was a bit confused. Sigh.


First one has to remark that it was terrific idea to screen Malayalam auteur Shyamaprasad’s latest in an open air auditorium. At its best it was breezy, understated and all-too-human. It was sometimes unintentionally bizarre. And then there were the terrible times for which we could perhaps use the word- ‘Bhandarkarian’.

‘Seasons’ is undoubtedly the lowest ebb of the director’s filmography working only intermittently as the director engages with the larger pursuits of changing landscapes, relationships and politics as he satirizes the globalize corporate complex. Weaved into it is a coming of age tale, which is also a heartbreaking one of innocence lost. It is only when the director bends over backwards to appeal to a larger audience that he completely misses the pulse and steps into the territory of the plain ridiculous. He is at home when he gently unfolds a father-son and sibling relationship or a fabulous drunken party among old comrades, but in etching the dynamics of a techie office he resorts to tired clichés and stereotypes. The presence of a homosexual gay cartel stealing software and selling it on the black market is an idea as strange as it is jarring. The rock-muzak soundtrack seldom helps and not to mention a cop-out of an ending after he calls into focus all the complexities and politics.

One of best reasons to watch ‘Seasons’ was it features by far the most auspicious debut by any young actor in the last decade in Malayalam Cinema. Actor Nishant etching the role of the prodigal son Sarath brings a heft and easy sincerity as he wanders in the corridors of a new Kerala, the one that as his brother says is inhabited by so many Mr. and Mrs. Iagos. Even in the midst of much sap, the young actor holds his own and does it with much soul. As we reel under the spectacle of so many fat men jumping high on wire their ugly paunches tied in corsets (a spectacle called Pazhassi Raja), ‘Seasons’ with its young cast and many ideas offers a semblance of a relief. But just that.

The Weavers

It’s only the first day but if I was a betting man and a smart one at that, my money would go on Francesco Rosi as the find of the festival. Why isn’t the man mentioned more? Why is it that Dr. Fu Manchu and me, two not-too-lousy cinephiles have never heard of this grand guy before? Why don’t they mention him when they’re discussing Scorsese and why doesn’t his name turn up in one of those many many essays on the New Wave of the 60s? For all who have seen Scorsese’s first ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door?’ and have been in awe at the macho dynamics and the bebop beat at play at the heart of it all- well, presenting the original- Fransesco Rosi.

I maybe excitable but this is pretty much what tends to happen at a Kerala International Film Festival. (Goa, you suck! You could never pull it off. Stop paying fat packets to the PR guys and then we’ll talk.)

A chronicle of modern corruption, ‘The Weavers’ has both swing and sting. Something Ray’s inferior ‘Janaranya’ could have done with in spades. A chronicle of group of Italian carpet salesmen trying to peddle cheap carpets in Germany, ‘The Weavers’ has it all- a style, a poise, a sterling sense of humor and morbid feeling of being human, broken and corrupt. The soundtrack rock and rolls and the Gianni di Venanzo’s deft camerawork frames the scenes in the crisscross Art Deco chiaroscuro of a true blue noir. I’m pretty sure Robbie Muller would have taken notice. The characters are etched with charm and grit. Alberto Sordi turns in an all time great turn as a conniving con guy/salesman and he is equal parts sweaty and suave. However, it is Belinda Lee as the femme fatale who takes the daggers to our hearts. Underneath her skin, what at first seems something feline turns out to be a quiet desperation and determination something she seems to share with the rest of displaced and dispossessed characters. Rosi frames Lee like only a master could capture a muse and never has a woman walking down a corridor or lighting a cigarette been a source of such seduction and mad delight.

Before I retire from this festival, there’ll definitely be another Rosi film that I’d have seen. With the way that she walks.


In other news, Rocket Singh was found last night under a street lamp near the Zoological Gardens with multiple bullet wounds on his chest and limbs. His condition is now reportedly stable and the police are on the lookout for a suspect, a man known only as ‘Pierre’. The only witness present at the scene of shocking violence refused to testify and when asked the reason, simply lit a cigarette and said,” He wasn’t any goddamn piano player.”
(Cross-posted at

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