Category Archives: Asian Cinema

Devi (The Goddess) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Satyajit Ray

Screenplay: Satyajit Ray

Met with controversy upon release in its native country of India, Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Devi squarely lays the blame on superstitious religious belief for the dissolution of a family. As the film opens in late-19th-century Bengal, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), a young student, is departing his teenage bride Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to return to his university studies in Calcutta. While Uma is away, Doya remains on a large property living with Uma’s father, brother, sister-in-law, and kid nephew. The widowed father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) is a devoutly religious man, and seems a bit unstable, but is blithely fond of Doya (calling her “mother” as a term of affection).

One night Kalikinkar encounters a vision in his dreams that convinces him his daughter-in-law Doya is the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Shaken, the old man informs Doya of her divine status and positions her at an altar at the steps of his house, where the townspeople may come to worship her. Many are skeptical of Kalikinkar’s ravings, including Doya herself (note her scrunched toes in the image above) and her concerned sister-in-law, who keeps a watchful eye on Doya’s imposed conversion to goddess; meanwhile, the staunch rationalist Uma is stunned and angry with his father when he finds his wife objectified as a deity upon returning from Calcutta. These skeptics are challenged, however, when Doya’s “divine” presence appears to revive a peasant’s lifeless son from the dead, before everyone’s eyes. Even Doya begins to believe in her divinity, though she cannot quite say if she feels any differently inside when questioned by her husband (“Don’t you feel that you are human? Aren’t you my wife?”). It takes a tragedy within the family to expose the fallacy of Doya’s “healing” powers, and by this time many of the relationships between the central characters are irreparably damaged.

Satyajit Ray is an acclaimed master of realist filmmaking, his best loved films being perhaps the Apu Trilogy (1955-9), which took inspiration from Italian neorealism to chronicle the life of a young man growing up in South East India. A departure of sorts from the director’s realist roots, Devi proves Ray is equally adept at insinuating an atmosphere of the supernatural on film. Though we are eventually persuaded to dismiss Doya’s divinity, Ray earlier succeeds in clouding our judgment of the situation by inviting us to behold Kalikinkar’s arresting vision of Doya as the three-eyed mother goddess Kali, and by subsequently refusing to explain the apparent resurrection of the young peasant boy. There is also a spine-tingling scene set on a deserted beach – and scored with swirling, ominous music by Ali Akbar Khan – where a wide-eyed Doya, transfixed by the image of a broken down altar stuck in the sand, intuits the potentially harmful consequences of rejecting her divine calling. Here and elsewhere, Ray expressively blurs the boundary between piety and madness, confusing even the objective viewer.

This isn’t only a tale of superstitious versus rational belief, however; Ray is also concerned with mining the fraught territory of the generation gap in India, where the traditions upheld by the aged Kalikinkar clash with the modern-minded (in truth, increasingly Westernized) values embodied in his son Uma. Not surprisingly, the one who suffers most in this conflict is Doya, who essentially becomes an object of dispute between Uma and Kalikinkar, with each in his own way claiming rights to her. Critic Richard von Busack contends that “[Doya] is literally a battleground between the old and the new India”; fully cognizant of this fact, Ray locates the ineluctable tragedy of the story in the frazzled countenance of the young girl. Doya’s final, ghostly retreat from the household becomes the film’s truest vision of the uncanny: an image fit to haunt both traditional and modern India.

-Cam

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Filed under Asian Cinema, Cam, Happy 50th, India, Team Wipe

Hausu (a.k.a. House) (1977)

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Screenplay: Chiho Katsura

If you’re in the market for exceedingly bizarre and utterly sui generis horror-fantasy films that can also make you laugh until you’re sick, do yourself a favour and visit Hausu.

The plot of the film, such as it is, follows Japanese high-schooler Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) and her friends as they vacation at the country home of Oshare’s aunt (Yoko Minamida), a spinster with bleached white hair and sinister designs on the “unmarried” girls (does she seek revenge? repossession?). Enlisting the help of her demonic house and pet cat, the aunt subjects the schoolgirls to a series of increasingly baroque games of torture and ensnarement.

This macabre plot description does hardly any justice to the film; as Stephen Broomer writes of Hausu, “The story is secondary to its aesthetic character,” which is remarkable and very hard to describe. Perhaps I’m not aware of my own cinematic blind spots, but it’s impossible for me to think of another narrative film that offers anything to rival Hausu‘s non-stop battery of delirious, pervertedly funny, and all-together eye-popping imagery, especially in its final twenty minutes or so. (Argento and Bava share Obayashi’s pop art sensibilities, but can’t match his speed or prolificity.) It seems likely you’d have to look to the avant-garde for comparable cinematic insanity (some of Hausu‘s effects include the cutting up of compositions with animation and floating superimpositions of torsos, skulls, arms, etc.; as well as the use of varying intensities of colour, light, and camera speed from image to image); this makes sense when you read that director Obayashi began his career as an experimental filmmaker in Japan.

Another apt comparison may be comic books: each of Obayashi’s shots resembles a different panel, organized unto itself and containing a new candy-coloured visual invention, another gag, another giddy shock, refusing easy narrative continuity. Adding to this comic book flavour is my favourite character, Kung Fu, a high-flying, high-kicking schoolgirl played by Miki Jinbo, who engages in an epic battle against house furniture in the film’s manic climax.

Geez, just take a look at the trailer, will ya?

-Cam

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A Moment of Innocence (1996)

Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Screenplay: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

It’s almost impossible to tell fact from fiction, documentary from narrative, in this Iranian New Wave entry, though it is much easier to ascertain that the film is something of a masterpiece. The story of this project’s genesis is extraordinary in itself: director Makhmalbaf, who spent five years in prison as a teenager for stabbing a police officer during a political rally in the late seventies, encountered the very same police officer (Mirhadi Tayebi), now unemployed and looking for work as an actor, some twenty years later at a casting call. The two subsequently decided to collaborate on a film that would revisit the scene of the stabbing, exploring its personal, political, and moral implications for both parties concerned, then and now; A Moment of Innocence is the fruit of that collaboration.

Makhmalbaf’s execution here owes something to the French nouvelle vague, with its abrupt, playfully self-reflexive intertitles and extended interview/audition scenes particularly revealing Godard’s influence. But what makes the film especially engaging on its own terms, and lends it a tremendous amount of heart, is its mingling of the real Makhmalbaf and Tayebi with the young actors they cast as themselves to appear in the film-within-a-film reenactment (Ali Bakhsi as Mohsen and Ammar Tafti as Mirhadi; Maryam Mohamadamini as the young cousin of Mohsen present at the time of the stabbing). Rather than simply dramatizing the events of the past with these young actors, Makhmalbaf allows Bakhsi, Tafti, and Mohamadamini’s own personalities and ideals to inflect the way the story is retold, producing variously confusing, whimsical, and heartbreaking results.

By this method of allowing reality to affect fiction (and vice versa), Makhmalbaf and Tayebi’s original encounter is (or seems to be) thoroughly reinterpreted in A Moment of Innocence, confirming that no one interpretation can disclose the meaning of this encounter, and, more generally, that the passage of time both yields fresh insights into the events of the past, and serves to complicate them. The entire film pays off big time in a single, startling image that should knock the wind out of you and make your mind race.

-Cam

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Filed under Asian Cinema, Cam, Iran