It is indeed like a rare alignment of celestial bodies when Takashi Miike releases his 100th film and it’s nothing short of a samurai bloodbath. It is bound to fill up venues at any festival anywhere and KIFF is hardly an exception. Right from the trailer release, the excitement around Blade of the Immortal has been sky-high and quite rightly so, since outrageous excesses have always been Miike’s home ground, so to speak.
The uniqueness or the director’s signature mark doesn’t lie in the basic premise of the film which narrates the account of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a samurai who is cursed with immortality and thus condemned to lead a solitary life of mourning and lament about personal tragedies and also a waning away of the sacred Bushido code which even he is unable to stick to. Things are set in motion with the emergence of Anotsu and his gang of warriors possessing a darker, malevolent and globalist approach toward martial arts. They seek to fight by any means necessary as long as it defeat their foes. The gang attacks and wipes out a Samurai academy dedicated towards training in an indigenous and particular style, leaving out a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) as the sole survivor. Driven by a quest for revenge, Rin seeks out the help of Manji who finds this as an opportunity of redemption, both personal as well as of the Samurai code.
A familiar narrative trope found both in Chambara films as well as Westerns, the aged warrior becoming a social outcast and finds one last chance at redemption, becomes an interesting meta-text regarding the jidaigeki/chambara genre within the larger dynamics of Japanese film industry itself. It almost becomes a comment about the survival of the genre in its classical form amid adverse currents of an unreceptive film industry. However, beyond that, the film cannot really be considered as engaging although certainly enjoyable to an extent largely due to the heavily stylized and choreographed action scenes. Even during the action, the use of a Hollywood-like fast and rapid cutting becomes a distraction as it becomes almost philosophically disconnected from the way of the Samurai, which have been marked by long drawn pauses before a sudden flurry of movements and resorting back to calmness.
Furthermore, the overall narrative experience of the film is considerably uneven, being adapted from a 30-volume manga resulting in a very episodic structure and the rhythm varies in an irregular fashion between the episodes of action and episodes of plot-development or characterizations. But mostly, the problem lies with Takuya Kimura in the lead role as he lacks the sheer gravitas of a Toshiro Mifune or the acting skills of a Tatsuya Nakadai or even the iconic presence of a Sonny Chiba. However, if one is looking for nothing else but gonzo excesses drenched in blood and gore with severed limbs strewn across the screen, Blade of the Immortal is certainly the extravaganza of the year.
A true vanguard of Hungarian cinema with six decades of filmmaking behind her, Marta Meszaros almost immediately struck a chord with the audience at Kolkata International Film Festival when a series of her films were screened in 2009. Through an expansive body of work, she emerged to a distinctly unique and significantly female voice in the cinema of eastern bloc during the post Stalinist era. Her recent film Aurora Borealis has been her first feature length work in five years and it generated enough excitement to ensure a full house even at Nandan I on a weekday afternoon.
The film narrative is built on the premise of WW II when Hungary is under Soviet Occupation and thereby the aristocracy is under persecution under the communist political regime. The plot begins with Olga (Ildiko Toth) who is a successful lawyer based in Vienna. When she is informed that her mother Maria (Mari Torocsik) has suddenly gone into coma, she immediately returns to Hungary to deal with the emergency. Following her visit to her mother, Olga realizes something fishy as her mother keeps mumbling and muttering about old days and some names and a letter. As Olga begins to dig into the past, she is forced to encounter traumatic events surrounding her birth and the very nature of her identity.
While the film certainly succeeds in delivering a pleasant viewing experience, it is disappointingly simplistic as an auteur’s work. While her scathing critique of the Soviet regime is certainly a valid project, both aesthetic and political, the film ends up merely being a marvellous performance driven engrossing narrative. In fact, the very idea of using the flashback as a formal trope where an elderly character recounts the experiences of a traumatic and violent past, results in a rather well-rounded narrative and more importantly well-resolved in the past. Consequently, the film tends to posit an idea of an uncomplicated present without any conflicts or their ramifications. In fact, the unproblematic imagination of the Hungarian past can be considered as a major problem in itself. The film builds on a romance between a village belle and an aristocrat and the atrocities and violence faced by the couple at the hands of Soviet military. However, aristocracy as a socio-economic position is left unproblematized and as a result, mainly due to the use of continuity editing without intervention and a ‘beautiful’ cinematography, the film ends up being a convenient black and white conflict between pristine and naïve aristocrat Hungarians and the evil Soviet soldiers. As the film progresses further with Maria’s plight under Soviet regime till and after Olga’s birth, it slowly gets detached from the larger historical and political concerns, getting reduced to a highly charged human drama a la Sophie’s Choice, and thus falling short on impact.
Prolific and enigmatic, defamiliarized and yet intimate, Jean-Luc Godard’s films have traditionally been the highlight at the Kolkata International Film Festival. While Godard’s popular reception largely rests on his films made during the ‘New Wave’ era, lasting from 1960-68, the years following the May ’68 witnessed a marked shift in Godard’s work with radical changes in his formal and aesthetic approach to cinema. During the 1980s, Godard returned to somewhat more traditional filmmaking although they continued to be deeply personal, often autobiographical exercises in content, style and political consciousness. Commissioned by French TV channel TF1 in 1986, Grandeur et decadence d’un petit commerce de cinema, which can be loosely translated to ‘Rise and Fall of a Small Movie Business’ is among JLG’s lesser known works shot on video, which have recently been restored and therefore being screened across festivals this year. Markedly different from his earlier works, the Rise and Fall is less ‘cryptic’ than his other films from this period, feeling strangely familiar, almost like the words and sounds of your favourite poem, slightly rearranged and set to a different meter.
Although a plotline would be a rather simplistic and reductive way of describing the premise and events of the film, Rise and Fall takes the cue from James Hadley Chase’s pulp novel ‘The Soft Centre’ and takes off to follow Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a filmmaker in charge of Albatross films, and known more for his strong-willed temperament than his producing or directing skills. In the process of producing increasingly wacky adaptations of hackneyed crime novels, he starts to lose his mind, holding infuriatingly dreary casting calls. The witness to his descend to near-madness include Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky), something of a friend as well as an intellectual rival to Bazin, and his wife Eurydice (Marie Valera), a failed screen actress trying to break into Television. Throughout the film, Bazin’s increasing madness and a strong wistful yearning for a ‘cinema’ of the past, almost holds a mirror to JLG’s shift to television and his own incongruous relationship with the medium.
Rise and Fall throws sharp light on JLG’s understanding of television as a medium of news and information, of an apparent superficial intimacy held together by dreary mundaneness and repetition. Godard turns all these aspects into formal tropes in his treatment of the film resulting in a consistently interrupted narrative. The idea of repetition is brilliantly articulated in the elaborate sequences of casting call where each of the actor walks in, recites a word or a phrase and makes an exit as the next one walks in. It goes on until its again turn of the first one and so on. But with each turn, every actor gets a different word or phrase to deliver from a given set of text. Thus, it not only becomes a rather visual metaphor of assembly line production but also invokes an insane poetry out of the endless repetitive nature of television viz a viz the capitalist culture industry at large. In this scheme of things, amid the verbosity of television, Godard fills his audio track with words and makes abundant use of talking heads like shots and images and yet the very idea of a conversation, a meaningful exchange between individuals become sparse. It only happens outside the office space, most memorably in a car featuring Almereyda and Godard himself in a cameo. In an apparently mundane exchange about the stark contrast of finance in cinema and television, JLG turns the personal into political.