Monday, October 15, 2012

Shoaib Mansoor Interview

The Fukuoka Film Festival Audience Award Winner – BOL [speak up] Audience Award for the 23rd Focus on Asia Film Festival was announced last night and the recipient was BOL [speak Up]. Shoaib Mansoor’s 159 minute epic is based on the last testament of a woman awaiting the death penalty. It tackles some weighty social issues and the director was on hand for (an all-to-brief) post-award ceremony press conference to talk a little about the how’s and why’s.

Fukuoka Film Festival Audience Award Winner – BOL [speak up]

How do you feel after winning the Audience Award?

Well I’m very excited. You can well imagine the excitement of somebody who has only made two films in his life. And both films came here to Fukuoka and won awards. It’s a very rare achievement so I’m very happy. I’m very thankful to the people of Fukuoka who like my work. Hopefully I’ll be coming here again.

What was the message that you wanted to express through this film?

As I said I wasn’t very excited about this film because I don’t make films to win awards or to win critical praise. My main purpose is to improve my society through my films. I want to educate my people. There are so many things that they are doing wrong and as a result they are suffering. So my main purpose in making films is to educate people. That is why sometimes in my films there are a lot of explanations, answers to questions and to problems. I don’t just raise questions. I think it is the duty of the filmmaker who is making such films to offer answers to people. Just raising questions is not enough. It could be enough in countries where people are very aware and educated. But in countries like mine where people are not very educated it’s essential to educate them. Not raise questions but to show them a way. They may not agree right now but in times to come, maybe the next generation may find these answers appropriate.

How was your experience of working in television? Did you take on similar projects to your films?

When I was working in television I was mainly aiming at entertainment. I did music, I did shows, I did comedy, plays and drama also. My main goal was to entertain people. It was after leaving television that I realized that life was going away and that the lives of my people weren’t changing really. I had to play a role really. Unfortunately the Pakistani film industry had gone down a lot. So another purpose of my going into films was to revive the film industry in Pakistan. The second most important thing to consider is that I feel television is a very consumable commodity. It just vanishes very quickly. Film has a larger impact and a longer life. So I selected films to extend my message to people.

You ask that your face not be shown in any media if possible. Could you explain your decision for this?

Actually the reason is not for any fear of being recognized. I have a much bigger message for the youth of my country. I want them to realize the importance of work over fame. I want to tell them that despite avoiding fame and being behind the scenes you can contribute through your work and to the betterment of society. So the message to younger people is to concentrate on your work rather than showing their faces and getting famous.

What part of your film would you like audiences to pay attention to most?

All of it.  Actually as I said this film is not for an international audience. I made it for Pakistanis. It is my people who are doing those wrongs [expressed in the film] that I want them to correct. So it’s good also that outside Pakistan, in Japan and in the countries that BOL was released people have appreciated it, understood it and tried to feel the pain that Pakistani women are going through. Mainly the film concentrates on the conflict that is taking place between two classes. One class in Pakistan has already undergone change and the other class is resisting that change and is trying to keep their society backward. This conflict is really the subject of the film. The father, who is the main figure in the film, represents the fundamentalist class, the class that is regressive, that wants to keep the society backward. While the elder daughter is representing the class who wants to go ahead, to progress, to get education, to be able to work and not to be restricted to their homes. This is the subject of the film.

 Interview by Kenjo McCurtain

Mr. Tree – Han Jie – 2011

The 18:15 showing of Mr.Tree in the largest screen of Hakata City’s T-joy cinema was decidedly empty in comparison to the previous day’s screening of the spellbindingly brilliant About Elly (Asghar Farhadi). Punters came in their droves leaving nary an unoccupied seat in sight while the Chinese contender for this year’s Audience Award was attended by barely a quarter of the numbers. Could this have been just a case of bad timing? Perhaps it was a damning insight in to the quality that was to come? Or was it a reflection of public sentiment in the wake of sticky political tensions between host nation and that of the product?  Awards for best film and best director at Shanghai’s Film Festival and a producing credit for Jia  Zhangke belie the amateurish assembly of ideas that director Han Jie crams into his sophomore effort.

Mr . Tree is an offbeat, absurdist drama with just a touch of Kaurismaki about it. Set in a snowy, decaying town in rural China we follow Shu, a clownish, chain-smoking mechanic - and also a bit of a drunkard - whose ineptitude leads him to losing his job in an accident that nearly blinds him. Once his Mr . Tree is an offbeat, absurdist drama with just a touch of Kaurismaki about it. Set in a snowy, decaying town in rural China we follow Shu, a clownish, chain-smoking mechanic - and also a bit of a drunkard - whose ineptitude leads him to losing his job in an accident that nearly blinds him. Once his sight returns, he visits the capital of the province of Jilin with his friends and encounters the pretty, deaf-mute Xiao Mei whom he plans to marry. From this point, Shu suffers a series of letdowns. At first, he leaves his town for the city to work for his friend as a cleaner, but after seeing his friend’s marriage deteriorate he decides to return home. On the day of his wedding, he experiences vivid hallucinations of his deceased brother that shake him so much that the ceremony turns into a disaster. And just as a mining project in his village starts to uproot the homes of his friends and family, Shu’s mind drifts from reality to fantasy and his bright personality begins to fade.

Playing Shu is Wang Baoqiang, a well-known character actor in mainland China. He is the best thing in the film – largely thanks to being the only well-written character in the picture - and he takes on his role with convincing virtuosity. He is at once lovable and repugnant, and always unpredictable. His moments with Xioa Mei are sweet and innocent, vaguely recalling Chaplin in their forced silences. Xiao Mei has to write to communicate and their exchanges are directed with a deft touch, albeit without much humor. The bit-part players do not profit from the same pen, with some ending up becoming jarring obstacles. An ill-judged scene in which a friend and his wife have it out over a girl’s text message feels like a needless and empty foray into domestic politics but is given as foreground action nonetheless. 

More could have been made of the more charming elements of the plot – the awkward budding romance between the two leads, the would-be fish-out-of-water situation that occurs when Shu turns from bum to impromptu seer. But Jie plays it out all too seriously belying his protagonist’s playful, childlike quality and making the all-important sociological concerns of the film a harder sell. The film shows signs of wanting to be several things at once: a romantic comedy, a surrealist character study, a socialist drama, but succeeds in none, while failing to engage on a narrative level. Moreover, the final act ends up flitting in between reality and delusion so often you end up wondering if anything was real at all.

The deterioration of the village and the sense of impending takeover are played out well. And Jie’s intentions in exploring the extraordinarily rapid urbanization of China are clearly well-meaning. But in its puzzling plotting and what one can only assume as a deliberately uneven tone, Mr. Tree is rather hard to analyze, and even harder to love. A film that is so irreverent and uninterested in the cause of its viewer it becomes immune to criticism. In this sense, it finds itself in the same kind of oblique self-containment as a David Lynch movie.  But unlike the latter, Mr Tree holds no real aesthetic merit nor succeeds as an “experience” (perhaps with the exception of the experience of sheer befuddlement). By the end, it’s clear that Jie isn’t interested in encouraging our response, emotional or otherwise, instead he takes the liberty of short-cutting through the story and leaves us somewhat cold. 

Written by Kenjo McCurtain

Monday, September 17, 2012

Kahaani - Sujoy Ghosh - 2011

The second showing of the pre-festival screenings was the Japanese premier of a film from the sub-continent: Kahaani. If part of the purpose of the Focus on Asia festival is to encourage cultural exchange then Kahaani has proven to be an excellent choice. Films are a valuable means of gaining an insight into distant or remote cultures. What we get in Sujoy Ghosh’s fourth feature is an uncompromising street level view of the city of Kolkata, culminating in the famous Durja Purj festival – which is incidentally, not dissimilar to Fukuoka’s own Yamakasa festival. Naturally, with the Indian cast and subject matter, it is sure to be somewhat of a novelty to Japanese viewers.

Before we delve into the heart of the matter there two main points of interest: the female lead (unusual for a Hindi film) and the location shooting (again rather rare for a mainstream Indian feature). The rest is unfortunately, not all that novel. The film opens with a curious and at first, unconnected prologue in which a deadly chemical weapon is accidently released on a busy subway carriage. We then jump two years, to Kolkata’s airport, where a heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) has just landed from London. She is on the search for her husband and heads straight to the police station.

In the weeks prior, her husband Arnab arrived in India for a job assignment. They talked daily on the phone, until without warning, his calls stopped. Everywhere Vidya turns, no one can remember Arnab. There are no signs that his assignment ever took place. There is no trace of him at the guest house where he supposedly stayed. She is confronted with increasing skepticism as all she has as proof of his existence is a wedding day photograph and her protruding bulge. Undeterred however, Vidya continues her search and at times goes to great measures to get her answer.

Balan does perfectly well in a strong, commanding performance as the tenacious Vidya. But her acting chops aren’t exactly stretched to breaking point. There’s something about her character that is a little too relaxed. It’s fair to think that one might be a little more unhinged given the odds that are stacked against her.

Alongside Vidya is Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s endearingly sincere policeman who is taken by her resolve and helps her in her cause, driving her from place to place and tagging along as rearguard. It is an interesting reversal of gender roles. Their close contact throughout the first hour hints at a possible romance to come, winning the film an added depth. Also good is Nawazuddin Sidiqqui as the steely government official who comes in at the half-way point barking orders at everyone in his way. He spends a lot of the time barging down corridors past his inferiors and his (truly) intense presence is put to good use. His terse, heated exchanges with Balan serve as the highlights of a script relatively lacking in hard, raw emotion. But arguably the real winner here is the city itself shot lovingly on celluloid. The bustle and vitality that is the simple nature of Kolkata is captured lovingly on celluloid with some great DP work. Coming out of the film you will feel like you’ve lived there.   

Where the pic doesn’t really succeed is in its storytelling. While the first hour set up the characters and the story in a simple, understated fashion, even building some tension along the way, the following acts really drop in pace where they should pick up. Overestimating the charm of it all, Ghosh lets his film run to a hefty two hours. Instead of a racy final act we plod along lifelessly as the characters bounce from one non-descript location to the other, each scene introducing another unnecessary twist and becoming more convoluted. Viewers may find themselves switching off in the final 20 minutes, pinching themselves only in the hope of catching the answer to Arnab’s disappearance.

Crucially Kahaani is lacking in the golden ingredient of thrillers: suspense. Aside from an all-to brief scene that sees Balan and Chattopadhyay break in to a government building at the same time as a hitman, there is never any sense of real danger or nail-biting tension. It’s a little lightweight and could have been far darker.

It all comes to an end with a set-piece shot amongst the vivid colors of the Durja Purj festival. The big twist that comes is smart and unexpected but does little to add to the story or Vidya’s character. Nevertheless it does serve to reinforce the film’s ideological subtext on womanhood. Balan’s solo performance is convincing and powerful enough to serve a spoonful of resounding proof to the Hindi film industry and to viewers that a woman can carry such a film on her shoulders. However, take out the gender politics, the female lead, and Kahaani is a thriller we’ve all seen before. 

Contributor: Kenjo McCurtain

Focus on Asia Fukuoka International Film Festival 2012 Preview

The 22nd Focus on Asia Film Festival gets underway on the 14th of September. Once the red carpet has been rolled out, the festival will showcase a veritable smorgasbord of Asian cinema to sink your teeth into. From the Philippines to Turkey, 36 films from 15 countries will be involved in this year’s festivities, with all having been hand-picked by festival director Yasuhiro Hariki [梁木 靖弘]. Of the several features of the festival will be an agricultural theme (アグリ・シネマ) featuring three homegrown films to address the global issue of food. There is set to be a broader selection of works from the western reaches of the continent with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India all being represented. Finally, there will be a complete retrospective of the cinema of the Academy-Award winning director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi – a first for Japan.

Film In Japan will be in the midst of the action, bringing reports, reviews and interviews. Starting with the opening ceremony and the Korean-made opener Dancing Queen on September 14th.

Below are some of our choice picks:

Kahaani – 2012 – India  Director: Sujoy Ghosh

A Hitchcockian thriller shot in true Guerilla style in the heart of Kolkata on a shoestring budget and personally recommended by festival director himself Yasuhiro Hariki. Kahaani is somewhat of an original in Bollywoodland. Its divisive depiction of motherhood and feminism notwithstanding, the film was also filmed on the sly in the Guerilla mold of films like Battle of Algiers. The story sees the efforts of a pregnant woman, portrayed by Vidya Balan, on the search for her missing husband during the Durja Puja festival. Already released to wide critical acclaim, and a box-office success in its motherland, we’re excited to catch this one on its Japanese debut.   

The Sound of Light [ひかりのおと] – 2011 - Japan    Director: Juichiro Yamazaki

Part of the Agriculture and Cinema section, The Sound of Light is one of only a small handful of Japanese films to be shown this year. The picture charts the inner struggle of Yusuke Kariya, who returns to rural life after a hard time as a musician in Tokyo. It looks as if this film might have a touch of Ozu about it in its depiction of ordinary lives and everyday struggles. This film also marks Juichiro Yamazaki’s directorial debut whose experience on a farm as a youngster lends an added authenticity.

September – 2011 – Turkey          Director: Cemil Agacikoglu

Winner of Best Director and Best Actress at the 18th International Adana Golden Boll Film Festival, September follows a shy couple who come across an ill-treated young woman and their efforts to restore her to health. Working somewhere in the shadow of the aesthetic mastery of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the picture makes up one of the two Turkish entries for this year.

You Are the Apple of My Eye – 2011 – Taiwan     Director: Giddens Ko

Another semi-autobiographical directorial debut on our list is this picture from Taiwan. A high school set, quirky coming-of-age romance that follows a rebellious boy and an attractive and popular female honor student.  You Are the Apple of My Eye had its world premiere at the 13th Taipei Film Festival and has already featured widely on the festival circuit. A storm at its domestic box-office, Giddens Ko has recently revealed plans for a sequel. Where he will take this story next remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting its strong populist appeal.

Asghar Farhadi Retrospective

What a great opportunity to experience this modern master’s work on the big screen. All five of Farhadi’s films will be screened, including last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, A Separation. But perhaps the highlight of the director’s oeuvre can be found in the gripping storytelling and tension of 2009’s About Elly, daubed by David Bordwell as a “masterpiece” and another multi-award winner. Cinephile or not there is something for everyone in Farhadi’s honest and unpretentious cinema. A sort of piece de resistance for the festival, this is not to be missed.

The Audience Award ceremony will take place at the JR Kyushu Hall on September 19th for which advanced admission is required. 

Contributor: Kenjo McCurtain