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