Your Name (Japan 2016)

Mitsuha and Taki

Mitsuha and Taki

This new anime by director Shinkai Makoto has prompted comparisons with the great successes of Studio Ghibli and specifically with the work of Miyazaki Hayao. It isn’t difficult to understand the comparisons. The narrative deals with adolescents, both of whom have the potential for heroism. Mitsuha lives in a small town in the mountains but Taki lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a typical Ghibli young female, living with her grandmother and younger sister and estranged from her father, the town mayor. Her late mother had inherited her own mother’s spiritual powers and Mitsuha is expected to follow the family tradition, tending a shrine and helping her grandmother who weaves braids for ceremonies. But Mitsuha wants to try something different: she wants to experience Tokyo and the kind of lives that boys have.

In Tokyo, Taki is a high school boy with excellent drawing skills and a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where he has a crush on an older co-worker. Writer-director Shinkai Makoto has fashioned a narrative that enables these two adolescents to interact and learn from each other — using a mixture of romance, fantasy and adventure in new ways, even if the device of switching identities is familiar from universal romance/fantasy genres. But what starts and perhaps ends as one kind of film takes a very different turn part way through and moves into the kind of discourse familiar from manga and anime. As well as Ghibli, I was reminded of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which is a case study film in The Global Film Book. That film used science fiction to create a narrative around one adolescent’s discoveries about herself. In Your Name, although it is first fantasy that brings the couple together, there is also a real interest in science — and in the natural disasters which befall Japan.

The animation is detailed and sometimes very detailed. I enjoyed the music too, though I know there are critics of the pop group Radwimps. It is no surprise that this has become one of the biggest box office hits of all Japanese cinema and the only anime to challenge Miyazaki. (I should be clear though — this is not a Ghibli film.) If this film could charm me on a long haul flight, I’m sure it would be an emotional storm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, look out for the Japanese language version.

Mon Roi (France 2015)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

StudioCanal has a habit of what strikes me as ‘dumping’ French titles on the UK market. They open in a handful of cinemas with little promotion and then go straight to DVD or online. These are sometimes titles from interesting directors or they have been hits in France but are presumably not expected to do well in the UK (e.g. La famille Bélier last year). Mon Roi is a film by actor-writer Maïwenn. Her previous film, Polisse (France 2011), won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was widely nominated for awards. It too had a relatively limited release in the UK, despite significant success in France. I was tempted to see Mon Roi at HOME in Manchester, partly because Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review gave the film ‘One Star’ and described it as “an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake”. I’ve been agreeing with Bradshaw too often recently and this looked like an opportunity to end that run.

The ‘Roi’ in question is Georgio (Vincent Cassel) who tells his new lover Tony – Marie-Antoinette – that he is not a ‘jerk’ but ‘the King of Jerks’. The film begins in a familiar way with an accident in which Tony has a spectacular skiing accident (offscreen). We guess from various clues that the accident was at least partly her own fault, through inattention or deliberate foolhardiness. As a result of a serious injury she must spend several weeks/months at a rather nice rehabilitation centre by the sea. This gives her time to think back over the previous 10 years and her volatile relationship with Georgio. In flashback we see how they met and how the relationship developed.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

I have to admit that there was a moment in the first half of the film when I wondered whether I could cope with watching the affair develop and then unravel. But later on I began to get more interested and overall I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t use ‘Five Star’ ratings but if I did this would be at least a Two Star and possibly a Three Star film. It certainly seems to provoke Love/Hate reactions with critics and audiences, but overall seems to score positively. Part of the interest is in the casting. Vincent Cassel plays close to his usual persona but is capable of both ramping it up and toning it down – and the latter can be quite chilling. Tony is played by Emmanuelle Bercot who I barely know of at all. Bercot is also an actor-director and she took on this challenge in the midst of directing her own films. She has the difficult task of ageing 10 years and at first I struggled to recognise the ‘younger’ woman as the same actor I saw in the rehab centre. She achieves this both through a change in her hairstyle, but also something about her eyes which I couldn’t quite figure out. Cassel has to age as well, but his features are both so well-known and so distinctive that I had no problems with his character. As I’ve often noted, films directed by women tend to have a more frank attitude towards representing sex on screen. There is certainly a lot of both Bercot and Cassel exposed on screen. They didn’t seem to have body doubles and for a pair of actors born in the late 1960s they both look in very good condition. I certainly didn’t have problems with the depiction of their sexual relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Georgio is certainly a jerk – an arse I would call him. Tony is an independent woman, a high-flying criminal lawyer who falls deeply in love and agrees to marry and then have Georgio’s baby, both actions that will later rebound upon her. Her younger brother and sister-in-law see through Georgio, but that doesn’t mean Tony is a fool. The rows between Tony and Georgio are fierce – Bradshaw’s ‘histrionic’ perhaps – but they didn’t feel fake. I know men with some of Georgio’s traits and they seemed real to me. The final scene is in its own way chilling and Tony simply looked stunned. Bradshaw dismissed the flashback structure and all the rehab scenes but I enjoyed these. The centre seems to cater for young men with sports injuries and I thought the play with social class, gender and racial identity between Tony and the ‘lads’ was interesting.

Mon Roi feels very ‘French’. That’s perhaps a facile statement, but the film has a quality I can’t describe and it seems to go with a certain sense of humour, a perception of what is ‘cool’ and a willingness to explore the extremes of relationships. I liked all the performances and I’m struck again by just how many female filmmakers in France can get films made and into distribution compared with their British sisters. It’s a shame this hasn’t had a wider release and more discussion about the characters. Emanuelle Bercot tied with Rooney Mara (for Carol) as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Tony. I’m not sure I agree with that but she is certainly very good.

Mermaid (HK-China 2016)

mermaidposter

This record-breaking Stephen Chow comedy was released in the UK only 10 days after its Chinese release. Sony released the film taking advantage (presumably) of the new strategy devised by Asia Releasing which gets new Chinese films into cinemas in cities with a sizeable Chinese diaspora population. Mermaid opened on 19 screens in the UK.

This release strategy is similar to that of the Bollywood distributors in the UK and Mermaid shares something with mainstream Hindi popular cinema in offering romance (with songs) and broad comedy alongside special effects and action. The massive success of the film is, however, due, I think, to jokes in the Mandarin dialogue (which I couldn’t catch) and a serious theme. This latter gave the film a Japanese feel for me.

Mermaid‘s simple plot sees an extremely wealthy businessman Xuan Liu (Deng Chao) buying an area of coastal National Park for re-development and then entering into partnership with the dangerous Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), a beautiful woman who expects Xuan’s attention but is interested mainly in money. Xuan’s plan is to use sonar devices to drive away all marine life away from ‘Green Gulf’ and then re-develop the area (or sell it for re-development at an inflated price). At a party to celebrate the new partnership, Xuan is approached by a young woman, Shan (Lin Yun) who everybody assumes is a dancer or a ‘goodtime girl’. Xuan is interested, even if only to spite Ruolan. What he doesn’t know is that Shan is a mermaid from the last surviving group of ‘merpeople’ in Green Gulf. She is the ‘honey’ in a trap designed to capture and kill Xuan and prevent the redevelopment. The rest of the plot flows from this premise. Will Xuan fall for Shan? Will she be party to his murder? Will Ruolan allow all this to happen? Will the mer community be wiped out etc.? You can guess the answers to these questions.

Lin Yun and Show Luo as Shan and her 'uncle'

Lin Yun and Show Luo as Shan and her ‘uncle’

I enjoyed the film and the central performances. Stephen Chow has appeared himself in previous blockbusters such as Kung Fu Hustle (HK 2004) but now he is limited to producing, writing and directing. Deng Chao and Lin Yun make a good couple and Zhang Yuqi is an excellent villainess. I thought that Show Luo, the well-known Taiwanese dancer, had a very interesting role as a merman who is half octopus/half man. Chow mined this character for some good comic material.

The Japanese connection comes with both the ecological theme shared with Miyazaki’s Ponyo (Japan 2008) and the various documentaries about pollution in Japanese waters including The Cove (US 2009). I don’t know enough about critiques of pollution and narratives of ecological destruction in Chinese media to judge how unusual this is. I’m also intrigued by the strength of the anti-business message and wonder how this is being received in China. Unlike Hollywood blockbusters, this Chinese blockbusters seems to be ‘about’ something. This places it alongside other Japanese genre pictures such as the Godzilla films.

Deng Chao as Xuan Liu

Deng Chao as Xuan Liu

Ruolan played by Zhang Yuqi

Ruolan played by Zhang Yuqi

Xuan Liu is quite a bit older than Shan and some reviewers feel this is an issue for the romance narrative. I should also point out that many reviewers criticise the CGI in the film. I never notice these things – they seemed to work fine. But perhaps evaluating effects is just a skill I don’t have? It’s far more important to have a good story and interesting characters. The role of Ruolan is played ‘straight’ by Zhang Yuqi. This is the better option, I think, than playing the villain as a comically evil character. Overall Stephen Chow makes the right decisions throughout the production.

Crimson Peak (US-Canada 2015)

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wiakowska

Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the potential couple at the centre of a gothic romance.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.

The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain.

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).

I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.

Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.

Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.

Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:

. . . and here’s another:

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.

OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)

The lovers, Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Thara (Nitya Menen)

The lovers, Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Thara (Nitya Menen)

I was excited by the prospect of this film but I hadn’t attempted to read much about it before the screening. Mani Ratnam is acknowledged as one of the innovators of popular Indian cinema, helping to transform Tamil cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s and then moving into Hindi films or dual language versions of the same script. His last (Tamil) film was not released in the UK and his recent films made in Hindi or both Hindi and Tamil did not really work as well as his earlier purely Tamil films. I was delighted then to recognise quite quickly that OK Kanmani is in many ways an updated version of one of my favourite Ratnam Tamil films, Alaipayuthey (2001). I read later that Ratnam deliberately opted for the update to explore what he saw as changes in attitudes towards marriage in India.

In Alaipayuthey the young man is a recently graduated software engineer setting up a new company with classmates. He comes from a wealthy family but at a friend’s wedding he meets a young woman, a medical student from a middle-class family. Their parents refuse permission to marry because of the class difference so they marry secretly and inevitably things go wrong before a happy ending to what is a romance/family melodrama set in Chennai. In OK Kanmani, the young man Adi is a talented computer games designer who arrives in Mumbai from Chennai to work on a new job with friends from the Tamil community. He meets Thara, an architectural ‘intern’ living in a ladies’ hostel. Again they meet at a wedding (a Christian Tamil wedding). The class positions this time are reversed, Adi is middle-class, Thara comes from a very wealthy family in Coimbatore (the rapidly developing second city of Tamil Nadu). Though they are clearly very much in love, neither wants to marry yet. Since both are away from home they are able to consummate their relationship outside marriage without their parents’ knowledge. They must then decide if they want a ‘live-in’ relationship and not a secret marriage. This is the big change between the two films.

As well as this central relationship, Ratnam offers us a long-term marriage, possibly as a comparison or ‘test’ for the younger lovers. Adi is lucky that he is able to rent a room in the spacious house of his brother’s ex-boss, the retired banker Ganapathay. The banker has retired to look after his wife Bhavani, a former singing star of Carnatic music who has developed early stage Alzheimer’s. If Adi and Thara are going to live together in Ganapathay’s house they need to persuade the couple. Inevitably though it is going to be difficult to prevent Adi’s brother and sister-in-law from discovering what is happening. As one comment I read pointed out the brother’s marriage is conventional for the 1990s, thus Mani Ratnam can present three relationships across the decades when the brother and his family make a surprise visit. Adi and Thara’s relationship is contingent on their separate career ambitions. In particular she wants to go to Paris to study further and he knows his talent can take him to North America. How will the relationship survive these potentially conflicting ambitions? Neither wants to marry but marriage is a convention of Indian film narratives as well as Indian society generally.

In ‘updating’ the earlier story Mani Ratnam has made some interesting decisions. He’s returned to work with cinematographer P. C. Sreeram who lensed Alaipayuthey and earlier Ratnam classics with long-term collaborator film editor A. Sreekar Prasad. Also, I understand that the film uses a great deal of live sound – it was certainly noticeable that the dialogue seemed both more spontaneous and more ‘natural’ than the booming dialogue of mainstream Indian cinema. Reading round the film I also discovered that much of what was meant to be Mumbai was actually Chennai. Ahmedabad is one of the cities visited by Thara for its architectural qualities. but it also provided more generic locations. So, Mumbai here is less a city of tourist sites and more a generic urban space excitingly filmed. To add to this sense of the ‘urban’, Ratnam starts the film with a sequence from a videogame. Later we will realise that this is ‘Mumbai 2.0’ the game (presumably in a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ style?) that Adi is developing. Further game sequences including an animated sequence feature later in the film. The music is by maestro A. R. Rahman. I enjoyed the soundtrack in the film but nothing stood out immediately. I’m now listening to the tracks on YouTube and getting more into them. In the clip below (sung by Karthik and Shashaa Tirupati) the lovers are together in a lodge in Ahmedebad – one of the few scenes that aren’t primarily ‘realist’. The song begins with Adi using music software on his iPad and a Bluetooth speaker. This is one of many examples of modern phone and computer technology woven into the narrative.

The film succeeds for me mainly because of the cast. Dulquer Salmaan (Adi), younger son of Malayalam cinema icon Mammootty, is very good with his rather annoying and cocky manner which is easily dealt with by Nitya Menen as Thara. The two work very well together and I found Nitya Menen delightful as an intelligent young woman who is very attractive but not a Bollywood fantasy woman. This couple is matched by veteran Prakash Raj as Ganapathay and Leela Samson as Bhavani. Leela Samson is a highly experienced dancer but this is her first film feature. She steals many of her scenes. Ratnam’s skill is to use her character’s Alzheimer’s in such a way that we realise its serious implications yet she can also be the deflater of serious moments. I won’t spoil the narrative but I agree with those commentators who see the older couple’s intense love as an important element of the film.

At this point it seems that OK Kanmani is a big hit with the public in South India and abroad in North America. There isn’t a Hindi version but a Telugu version was released at the same time as the Tamil. Nitya Menen has appeared in earlier Telugu films. Some of the younger critics in India and especially those most interested in the new ‘independent’ Indian cinema have criticised OK Kanmani for its lack of adventure in its depiction of the city and for its weak ending. I’ll agree with this last point, the narrative ‘resolution’ was a disappointment for me but that doesn’t negate the sheer pleasure I got from most of the film. This is a mainstream romance and most audiences will thoroughly enjoy it on that basis. My faith in Mani Ratnam remains.

Official trailer:

The Lunchbox (India/Germany/France/US 2013)

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.

The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.

Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.

Shaikh (Nawuzuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former's wedding

Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former’s wedding

My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).

There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.

The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.

So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from  MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.

The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!

I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.

Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008)

Aga (Fan Van) escapes to the beach to try to clear his head. This is one of several beautiful images of the local environment.

Aga (Fan Van) escapes to the beach to try to clear his head. This is one of several beautiful images of the local environment.

Cape No. 7 is an excellent case study in the recent surge of local commercial hits in East Asian markets. Ostensibly a rom-com with music this film without major stars became the best-selling local film in contemporary Taiwanese cinema as audiences embraced its mix of genre and local history/nostalgia.

Writer-director Wei Te-Sheng had been working in the film industry since the early 1990s and in 1996 he had been assistant director on Edward Yang’s Mahjong. His early short films and his first feature had won prizes but not commercial audiences. It was a brave decision therefore to risk a relatively large budget (by Taiwanese standards) on Cape No. 7.

Outline

The film’s title refers to an address in rural Taiwan as written under the Japanese occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945 and Wei got the idea from a newspaper report about a (successful) attempt to deliver mail to such an address in contemporary Taiwan. In Wei’s story, the package sent from Japan refers to the parting of lovers in 1945 when the young man is forced to ‘return’ to Japan. Wei opens the film with the man’s voiceover expressing his emotions as he sails out of Taipei bound for Japan. The narrative returns to this flashback at key moments later in the film.

The temporary postman charged with delivering the package 60 years later is a ‘failed’ rock musician who is forced into temporary work in the small seaside town of Hengchun, a popular tourist resort on the southernmost tip of the island. Aga is in fact ‘coming home’ from Taipei. Meanwhile, a dispute between a large resort hotel and the local council leader means that a music festival on the beach can only take place if an ‘authentic’ Taiwanese band opens the show for a visiting Japanese pop star. Aga is dragooned into forming this band with a motley crew of young and old musicians, representing the diverse population of the region and different musical traditions and including ‘Taiwanese aboriginals’ and the various identities of Han Chinese, including Hakka and Hokkien. The differences between these groups are highlighted in the interactions between the various characters. Charged with getting the group together is a Mandarin-speaking Japanese woman, Tomoko – a former model who reluctantly takes on a kind of mother/schoolteacher role. Will Aga get together with Tomoko? What role will the memories of the lovers of 1945 play?

Commentary

From the outline it’s clear that there is a potent mixture here of romance, music, comedy, the melodrama of families and the drama of competing interests of hoteliers, local councillors etc. Who was the girl left behind in 1945 and what became of her? How can the band become ‘authentic’ – what kind of music will they play?

Cape No. 7 was something of a surprise hit on a small scale but once it started to contact with local audiences it began to grow ‘legs’ staying in cinemas for three months and making 10 times the production cost. Later the film won several international prizes in East Asia and opened successfully in Hong Kong. A release in the PRC (mainland China) was delayed and eventually a severely cut version of the film was released. (It has been argued that the film was seen as ‘Japanised’.)

As a ‘local film’, I found the opening half hour intriguing but slightly difficult to follow as I didn’t easily pick up all the clues about the diversity of the population and the inter-family disputes that fuel the melodrama. This feeling continued for a while and I realised that I was engaged and appreciative of the filmmaking but still not totally understanding the complexities of the narrative. It was only in the last third of what is a long film (by rom-com standards) at 133 minutes that I felt fully in control of my own reading. Now, looking back over the narrative I can make sense of most of the actions and I have fully enjoyed the experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Taiwanese culture as well as having a good time. The films mix of ingredients attracted what the Hollywood studios refer to as the four quadrants of young and old, male and female (the film was released by Disney in Taiwan).

There is an appeal to nostalgia, especially in relation to the period under Japanese occupation and the mix of experiences related to those times. Popular musical forms are popular throughout East Asia and these must also have been important (a soundtrack album and a very successful DVD release followed). Perhaps most important of all, here was a chance to celebrate the success of a local popular film after decades of domination by first Hong Kong and then Hollywood imports. Having broken records, Cape No. 7 was then overtaken by later local hits such as You Are the Apple of My Eye. I’m grateful to Felicia Chan and the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester for introducing me to both films.

(Cape No. 7 is released on a Region 2 DVD by Flynn Entertainment.)

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