Twitch at SAIFF 2010: A Preview

 "South Asia" takes in a lot of territory, both literally and culturally/aesthetically, so you've got to hand it to the fest and programmer Galen Rosenthal in particular: the diversity of themes, styles, and genres on display in this year's SAIFF is downright stunning. The easier path would have been to pick a brow--low, middle, or high--and stick with it, thus playing it safe by appealing to a certain target audience and stacking the deck accordingly. Instead, this year's SAIFF goes after movie-lovers in all shapes and sizes. There are wide-ranging approaches to filmmaking on display, from the boldly experimental to crowd-pleasing popcorn fare, and with both veterans and up-and-comers well-represented. Yet because of that same diversity, fest-goers may welcome some guidance, so with that in mind I offer up the following preview of what's on tap. 


Harud ("Autumn")

Managing somehow to be both meditative and seething, Harud represents quite an accomplishment for veteran actor-turned director Aamir Bashir. It's the rare first feature that betrays no missteps and no misgauging of its target--neither cautiously picking an overly modest topic nor trying to make a big splash by working on a grand scale. Instead, Bashir and co-writer Mahmood Farooqui take the classic approach of trying to capture the plight of a people and a moment in history not through sweeping gestures and a cast of thousands, but by selecting the right protagonist, keeping the focus tight, and drilling deep. Since I knew very little of life in contemporary Kashmir and the quiet brutality of Indian security forces stationed there, I suppose Harud has done its job as a "raising awareness" flick; my hesitancy in admitting this is due only to the fact that it's far too artful and personal to be deserving of that epithet.  

Bashir's quasi-Bressonian approach--using non-actors whose faces speak volumes and often focusing on the smallest, most mundane physical actions--achieves wonders here. As melancholy as the title suggests, Harud unspools scene after scene of quiet despair. And "quiet" is meant literally: eschewing an ever present musical score to convey emotions, Bashir relies on the script, the actors (lead Shahnawaz Bhat is nothing short of heartbreaking) and his own instincts. Beautifully shot, with a rich, vivid color palette, and fluid, naturalistic camerawork, Harud is very easy on the eyes. To be sure, the pacing is measured and deliberate, but the tempo never feels sluggish because of the underlying intensity. So no, the film is not a variety of thriller despite the simmering tension that runs throughout. As one might expect from a film about those who have "disappeared" and those they've left behind, the tone is more like that of a ghost story: the living are haunted by the missing, and we're haunted by the living. Well received at Toronto and elsewhere, Harud is clearly one of SAIFF's must-see's.


That Girl in Yellow Boots

It's easy to see why this film from Anurag Kashyap, an impressive director going back to the terrorist docudrama Black Friday (2004), is the festival's opening night selection. Engaging, and both pulpy and sensitive, it could end up being the most popular film in the lineup. One reason is the undeniably star-making turn by lead Kalki Koechlin. Uncharitably described by one character as a mixture of Bugs Bunny and Julia Roberts, she's actually a lot more than that--a real screen presence but also a good enough actor so that she doesn't overwhelm the material with that presence. 

Still, That Girl in Yellow Boots was a very hard film for me to get a handle on overall, at least initially. Its aspirations didn't really make sense to me, and summaries I'd read that referred to it as some kind of crime thriller turned out to be misleading. It's more of a straight-ahead drama in the fish-out-of-water vein... with some sex and drugs thrown in. Yes, at the core is a compelling mystery or quest picture--a young woman in search of the father she never knew. But the plot features so many tangential offshoots that its approach might be described as kaleidoscopic. There's an addiction-and-recovery subplot. There's an owing-money-to-gangsters subplot. And there's a keeping-the-government-from-learning-you're-working-without-a-work visa subplot. All of these are moderately interesting and hold our attention at any given point, but none of them really build to satisfying conclusions. The catharsis, I suppose, is supposed to come from the shock-ending to its main plot, but for me this was too telegraphed to be really impactful. 

However, a few days after watching That Girl in Yellow Boots, I realized that there was a major, unifying theme that I'd simply missed:  the film is largely an examination of all the different flavors of male-female relationships--the co-dependent, the abusive, the maternal/paternal, the matter-of-factly sexual, and so on. My final thought, then? I need to watch this again.


The Image Threads

Here's a film that makes me excited about my own ignorance. What I mean is that I'm unfamiliar with director Vipin Vijay's previous work, but my shame at this is outweighed by my excitement at eventually discovering it. I'd come across a brief bio stating that he's not a populist filmmaker, and if The Image Threads is any indication, that's the understatement of the year. Brainy, audacious, and challenging, this film is not for everyone, but I suspect that those who like it will often love it. You can keep your Enter the Void--this is visionary filmmaking circa 2010. 

The Image Threads is screening in the dramatic competition category at SAIFF, where its oblique, self-deconstructing narrative (involving an online discourse/relationship that is both sexual and transcendent of sex) probably works against it:  it's not "gripping" in the conventional sense and certainly isn't as accessible as its competition. The excitement here is pretty much entirely of the intellectual and aesthetic variety--although that description makes Vijay's achievement seem far drier and crustier than it really is. In visual terms, The Image Threads is well beyond the typical descriptors of "interesting" or "striking":  nearly every shot in the film is pleasing to both mind and eye, and the cumulative effect of all this creativity has a good chance of bowling over even the most jaded cineaste. In essence, it renews one's faith in feature-length experimentation itself. How to sum up the experience? Think about the cinematic mysticism of a Jodorowsky filtered through the hyper-precise and cutting-edge sensibility of an author like William Gibson or Don DeLillo. Yes, that means that much (or even most) of this film went over my head--which is why I'm anxious to check it out again the first chance I get.


Slackistan

With its strong opening scene and a protagonist who laments the fact that he can't rent a DVD of Mean Streets in Islamabad, it's hard not to root for Hammid Khan's ambitious feature. Add a likable, attractive cast, and an intriguing Mean Streets-inspired subplot about an outstanding debt to some shady characters, and all the ingredients are in place for a winning entertainment, not to mention a revealing, the-paint-is-still-wet portrait of twenty-somethings in urban Pakistan. Certainly Khan does a more than respectable job of introducing Islamabad to those (like me) who are unfamiliar with it, imbuing the city with a personality all its own. But beyond these moderate pleasures, the film was something of a disappointment for me, gradually devolving into something that's decidedly less than the sum of its parts 

Of course with a title like Slackistan, one expects a certain amount of navel-, if not shoe-, gazing, but here the end result feels like a shoe gazing at its navel. Suffering from a flatness of pacing, uneven one-liners and production values, and a voice-over that occasionally slips into near-monotone, Slackistan shows why sensitive, indie-style serio-comedies are deceptively hard to pull off. What's most dismaying is that a film that intelligently touches on themes of American political and cultural hegemony itself succumbs to the tidiest of Hollywood conclusions, offering up bits of truth that are meant to be refreshingly self-evident but come across as obvious, if not predictable. At first star Shahbaz Shigri's physical resemblance to Joshua Jackson seemed mere coincidence, but when combined with the script's adolescent themes (how do I handle that the love of my life is with a more successful guy?) and adolescent sense of wisdom ("It's sad when passion goes to waste"), it made me feel like I was watching a South Asian adaptation of Dawson's Creek. To be more charitable, the use of pop music and quick montage to establish place and move things along sometimes created the illusion of viewing an extended episode of The Real World: Islamabad.


The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project

Like Slackistan, this is also about a young filmmaker; unlike it, it is also about filmmaking, not just the concept of filmmaking. For long stretches, Srinivas Sunderrajan's meta-comedy is just so dead-on and so hilariously deadpan that you can't help but sit there with a smile on your face. To choose but one example, the scene where our film geek protagonist wants to know what it's like to meet Tarantino is simply priceless. Indeed, such scenes alone make the movie more than worthwhile, especially for film buffs. But that's not the full extent of its accomplishments. Just as its forward momentum starts to lag and its narrative begins to meander, the film morphs into something rich and strange. 

First The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project enters creepy, Kafkaesque waters as a government official suddenly intrudes on the filmmaking process that's depicted in the narrative. Then the film we're watching folds itself inside-out, transfiguring itself into a rather haunting--not cerebral--exercise in meta-dom. It's a risky shift in gears by Sunderrajan and company, but they pull it off. Don't expect your date to deal with this transition too smoothly, but now that you've been prepared, sit back and enjoy. This is low-budget filmmaking at its best, fueled by conviction and inventiveness at every turn. Like The Image Threads but on a more modest scale, it's a film that makes one believe in the magic of cinema itself. 


Anima and Persona

It's a cliché that Indian films can be all over the place in terms of tone and generic content, but Anima and Persona (I don't quite get the Jungian title) certainly does a deft job of interweaving romance, father-son drama, and gangster epic: you never feel like the film is a kitchen-sink jumble despite its eclecticism. Though undeniably goofy at times and sporting a couple of all-out chase scenes, Anima and Persona isn't really an action-comedy but more like a black comedy. 

Still, despite its strategy of supplying entertainment value on multiple fronts, I suspect audiences will be divided on this one. The internal gang dissension and how it plays into a conflict with a rival gang is initially reminiscent of Johnny To at his best, and there are several memorable scenes along these lines (including a very effective one involving the use of speaker-phone). But director Kumararaja doesn't seem interested in sustaining that level of stylish intelligence. Instead, he shoots for a more standard noir with some additional action scenes included for good measure. The problem, I think many audiences will feel that the film doesn't quite surrender to its own popcorn-oriented instincts, which will make it come across as neither here nor there. To be fair, though, the version that I screened was a rough cut, so it's entirely possible that additional polish could throw the crowd-pleasing elements of the film into greater relief.


Gandu

A coming-of-age wish-fulfillment fantasy that's nothing less than a welcome antidote to the forced Dickensian melodrama of Slumdog Millionaire. Where Danny Boyle's film was glossy to the hilt, here the black-and-white cinematography and the keeping-it-real direction by Q (yes, that's a full name) make Gandu feel both more raw and more honest. That's true even during the musical interludes, which feature rap songs performed by the protagonist, an uncharming ne'er-do-well (the title translates to "A**hole"). Instead of coming across as obligatory production numbers, they feel like moments of mindscreen that help us get to essence of the character. Indeed, in its portrait of youth today Gandu recalls a film as embarrassingly truthful as Royston Tan's 15 (2003), that is, until the wish-fulfillment aspect of the final reel. 

Some may delight in the sudden turn of events, but for me, the lack of irony in Gandu means that a situation that's grounded in interesting specifics is forced to become a more generic fable. Such an approach might work, if the first part had set up the character and his situation as more archetypal, but it didn't; it was too closely-observed, too believable, so that the subsequent shift was too jarring for me. Or maybe the film is ironic and I just missed it? You tell me. Oh, and a couple of final points: the Oedipal themes are a bit clumsy; on the other hand, the graphic sex scenes--and I need to underscore graphic, in case you're thinking of seeing this movie with your Mom--are actually quite well done.


With Love to Obama

With an inspired premise and often hilarious (especially in the early-going), With Love to Obama is sure to make plenty of filmgoers happy. Without trying too hard, this crime farce comes across as a wry, irony-heavy commentary on both the interconnectedness of the global economy and what the optimism of Obama's 2008 victory means in the face of so many compelling reasons to remain cynical. The opening, with fluid camerawork and disarming dialogue, is both entrancing and humorous, recalling alternatively both early Tarantino and the best of HK or Chinese goofball caper movies (cf. Crazy Racer). The idea of kidnapping an NRI mistakenly believed to be wealthy, and his subsequent use of his business skills to outwit increasingly high-powered gang bosses--well, it works in theory. To be sure, it often works in practice, too, but unfortunately not enough. 

When With Love to Obama succeeds it does so because it's the kind of underdog film in which we root both for the scrappy kidnappers and their beleaguered capitalist; but when it loses its way it's because the script kind of forgets that we also need someone to root against. The way the main villain keeps changing is certainly clever, but dramatically the story becomes less and less gripping--as if so pleased with its structure that it forgets about its heart. And it's that sense of self-satisfaction, of not going the extra yard for the audience, that keeps With Love to Obama from being a contemporary classic, a South Asian updating of an Ealing comedy. At a running time of two hours, it instead feels like a 90 minute movie that was allowed to sit too long at the dinner table--in scene after scene, one can spot the extra minute or two that could have been trimmed. And it's that padding that, in part, helps the film dull its own sharp edges. The dynamic between the two leads is effective but the plot's pretext for keeping them both captives wears thin. Worse still, there's never a tangible sense of jeopardy--the bad guys talk a tough game, but the film lacks a memorable sequence of violence or pursuit that would both underscore the stakes and act as relief valve to endless scenes of people talking in rooms. Sadly, the pacing and tension gradually peter out just when they should feel most heightened.  
 
As wind-up, I should note that I really envy those who'll be able to catch many of these on the big screen. And of course check back with Team Twitch over the next few days as my esteemed colleagues provide more in-depth reviews of these titles.

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