Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Notes from PIFF 2012

Of all the films that I watched at Pune International Film Festival (PIFF) 2012, I found a common theme running – and that’s the theme of family – of people you grow up with, stay together, and sometimes turn away from. I watched relatively less number of films – 14 in all – and I personally didn’t find my experience of PIFF this year to be as rewarding. There were reasons many – inconvenience of changed venues, some utterly juvenile crowd, and to some extent the films themselves. Anyway, here’s some notes of my viewings.

Café Lumiere, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s tribute to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, is a film that captivated me with its beguiling sense alienation. The film shows us a young Japanese woman, Yoko, who is a freelance writer living alone in a Tokyo flat, and researching for her book on a Taiwanese composer. She does have a family – a father and step-mother – who don’t really understand her way of life, especially the fact that Yoko is pregnant, but doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend. That’s just the surface of the story, and much of the film’s beauty lie in the way it conjures up a sense of profundity while showing us nothing but the absolutely mundane. In some ways in reminded of Somewhere, a film I watched at last PIFF. Sample the opening scene: Yoko is just back from her research trip to Taiwan, and is talking on her cellphone while putting her washings on the tiny clothesline strung outside her window. We don’t know who she’s talking to, but her voice is friendly and intimate. Just then, there’s a sound of doorbell (it’s her landlady) and putting the phone down Yoko moves to the door to have a brief chitchat. The camera, however, does not follow her and remains fixed like a still observer. We see no one in the frame except the wet clothes fluttering in the breeze, interspersed with voices of people we haven’t known yet.

The other Hou Hsiao-hsien film I watched, A Summer at Grandpa’s, is different – with its straight narrative, greater movement, and seemingly picturesque depiction of rural Taiwan and all the fun of childhood. The story follows two siblings who are sent away to their grandparents’ place for the summer vacation as their severely ill mother undergoes treatment in the hospital. I had personal reasons to like the story since much of my summer vacations were likewise spent at my grandparents place, doing things the kids are shown doing in the film – taking a bath in the river, befriending the village boys, climbing trees, and idling away the days without a care in the world. The other reason I liked this viewing was because I watched this in a near-empty theater (this being an early morning show) and the audience was really well-behaved (something I found lacking this year). Thus, it became easy to get transported in scenes like the one where we see kids play (racing turtles) under a big tree. A long shot shows us the activity from afar: we see the breeze caught on the tree's leaves, there's birdsong in the background, and hear the excited shouts reverberating in an otherwise quiet morning.

Iranian film A Separation was a surprise. It’s excellent in many ways – the story reveals itself in many layers, the cast is well-chosen, and it subtly affects our thoughts. It raises questions without being too explicit and it remains humane even in the most critical moments. The film opens as Nader and Simin, a married couple, are arguing over a divorce. The wife wants a secure future for their teenage daughter and wants to settle abroad. The husband doesn’t want to leave because he has a father who has Alzheimer’s and needs care. Amidst this discord they had to hire a domestic help – a woman who has her own problems of a unemployed husband, financial trouble, and her pregnancy. From here the film takes off to confront us with several themes – on family, social status, legal proceedings, and the grey line that separates right and wrong. This is as taut as any well-made thriller. Glad that this film ran to a packed house.

There was a retrospective on Yasujiro Ozu this year and I caught two of his films – The End of Summer and Floating Weeds. I had been unfamiliar about Ozu’s films but had read him to be a fastidious filmmaker (known for his tatami-level unmoving camera) concerning mostly with traditional Japanese family drama. I found both the films excellent, Floating Weeds more so. While The End of Summer deals with a patriarch (and his escapades) of a large business family, Floating Weeds tells us the story of an itinerant master of a travelling theater group who has a past to confront. Much of the things Ozu dealt in his films are now strange and foreign to many. They are rooted in a past that has changed beyond recognition. In an age of excesses, they remind us what is to be gentle, meditative, and spartan. To end, a special mention for Haruko Sugimura, the actress who appear in both these films (she was a Ozu regular) and superbly acted in such contrasting roles – in one as a somewhat feisty talkative woman with emotional outbursts, and in the other as a gentle old mistress who is surprisingly dignified and reserved.

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