Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 13/10/2012
Reviewed today: Aiyyaa; Key Of Life; Mahanagar; Tess.
11.30am: Mahanagar [clip]
Some things in this festival are changing this year: but some stay reassuringly the same. The Treasures From The Archive section has managed to survive the programme reorganisation without being called Age or Restore or Despeckify or something - it's simply called Treasures now, and continues to present the best movie restorations that have been completed over the past twelve months. As in previous years, their most astonishing films get pride of place in weekend matinee screenings, and today I'm seeing two of them.
The restoration of Mahanagar has been commissioned by the BFI themselves, in preparation for a retrospective next year of the work of its director, the Indian master Satyajit Ray. The Big City (to give it the English title used in the subtitles here) was made in 1963, and depicts a family of three generations living in a single house in Calcutta. For the first reel or so, it appears relatively plotless, simply drifting between the family members as they go about their daily lives. But a theme slowly emerges, as it becomes apparent that the Mazumdars are struggling to get by on the bank accountant's salary brought in by husband Subrata (Anil Chatterjee). It falls to his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) to come up with a solution: she'll have to go to work herself. This being 1950s India, she'll face opposition to this, not least from her son, her husband and his parents.
As is the case with all the Ray films I've seen so far - a pitifully small number, but hopefully next year's retrospective will fix that - Mahanagar is simultaneously a perfect time capsule of the period and place it depicts, while being utterly universal. Arati is a woman who slowly discovers what she's capable of, and Mukherjee's performance shows that in a beautifully subtle way. Aside from her awakening, there are several other themes in play - the resistance to what she's doing from men across all generations, the solidarity of women, the racism against Anglo-Indians - and Ray carefully weaves them into the story without ever getting preachy about it.
This is a digital restoration from the original negatives, and I'll give it a somewhat grudging thumbs up - the picture and sound look as good as new, but at this particular screening they were bedevilled by bits of red digital static buzzing across the screen every so often, like kids in the auditorium playing with laser pens. Hopefully, though, that was just a glitch at this particular performance. Watch the film when it comes out next year just to be sure, and then you can answer a question for me: is it just me, or are the first four notes of Mahanagar's main musical theme the same as the first four notes of the theme from The Simpsons?
2.30pm: Tess [trailer]
I've been to a lot of director talks in the BFI Southbank over the years, and it's interesting when people can remember the specific moment where they discovered they wanted to be in the film industry: a film they watched where they suddenly became aware that people were responsible for its making, and decided that they wanted to become part of that process. For me, the equivalent was seeing Roman Polanski's Tess when it came out here in 1981, and it being the first time I noticed cinematography. Famously, it was the final film of both its cameramen - Geoffrey Unsworth died halfway through the production, and his replacement Ghislain Cloquet passed on shortly after receiving their joint Oscar. Before seeing Tess, I'd only really thought that the pictures in a film were there to tell a story, and never considered them as being a source of pleasure in their own right.
Of course, talking about the merits of a film by Roman Polanski is as awkward as talking about your favourite episode of Jim'll Fix It. Arguments will always rage as to whether we can separate an artist's personal life from their art, and whether we should. Here, the two are inseparable: part of what gives Tess its astonishing look is the breathtaking French scenery, and you're acutely aware that if Polanski had shot it in the West Country as originally intended, he would have been extradited to the US and made to face a charge of statutory rape. It's a debate that will doubtless continue when the BFI runs their Polanski retrospective in 2013: for now, the best I can do is judge Polanski's work on a film-by-film basis, and Tess means too much to me for it to be anything less than a masterpiece.
Sticking like glue to the plot of Thomas Hardy's novel, Tess is another Treasures film showing one woman's battle against the patriarchy: but unlike Mahanagar, this one was never destined to have a happy ending. It's the story of young Wessex lass Tess (Nastassia Kinski's staggering debut performance) and the two men in her tragic life: her newly-discovered rich cousin Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), and saintlier Angel Clare (Peter Firth). Alec offers Tess and her family financial security, but instead leaves her with a much more damaging legacy, one that will have an impact on her subsequent relationship with Angel.
This is another digital restoration, and thankfully didn't suffer from the projection problems of Mahanagar. If anything, Tess looks even lovelier now than it did on its initial release. Every shot is of jaw-dropping beauty: from the golden light of the exteriors to the subtle shading of the interiors, and taking in the only time in cinema history that a lens flare has been dramatically justified. There isn't the unnatural image enhancement that digital restoration sometimes gives you, but instead each frame has been brought back to its original level of clarity, to the extent that you end up obsessing over the little scar on Kinski's cheek (or at least, I do).
But Tess' pleasures go way beyond the visual: this is a fine story, told in a solidly classical style. The introductions to today's screening - featuring producer Timothy Burrill, costume designer Anthony Powell and cad Leigh Lawson - confirm that despite the many problems encountered during the shoot, everyone was aware at the time that this was a team of collaborating artists working at the top of their game. And Polanski, described by Powell as one of the few directors he's worked with who has "cinema coming out of his fingertips," pulls that team together with undeniable skill. Taking, for example, the murder scene - do we need to have spoiler warnings for Thomas Hardy novels? - it's the first time I've noticed how much Polanski leaves to the viewer's imagination: the murder weapon is only identified thanks to a couple of glances towards it while it's offscreen. Even if you have to ultimately admit that Kinski is just far too bloody attractive to fit into the rest of this cast, Tess still holds up as a great film, and it's a pleasure to make its acquaintance again.
8.45pm: Key Of Life [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl would like it to be made very clear that Japanese writer/director Kenji Uchida is her discovery. Not that anyone else in the UK seems to care, unfortunately. It all started when she lived in Sapporo for a few months in 2008, and fell heavily for Uchida's second film, After School. (To clear up a discussion I was having with Malcotraz last night - this isn't the After School that got a release in the UK, it's another one. As far as I know, apart from the odd festival screening, the Japanese film hasn't been shown over here.)
Then earlier this year I reviewed a whole pile of movies as part of the Japan Foundation's touring season Whose Film Is It Anyway?, and it turned out the best one of those was Uchida's earlier picture A Stranger Of Mine. Things got even freakier at the Terracotta Festival a couple of months later, where we accidentally caught a shot-for-shot Korean remake of A Stranger Of Mine called Couples. So between us, The BBG and I have possibly seen more of Uchida's work than anyone else in the UK, making inevitable that we'd be here for his third feature.
Uchida is a writer/director of comedies notable for their ridiculously complex plotting, so it comes as no surprise that the first three scenes of Key Of Life have no apparent connection to each other. Magazine editor Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue) announces to her staff that she's going to get married in two months, although she hasn't actually found a suitable husband yet. Hitman Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) performs his latest job to what appears to be an incredible level of efficiency. And broke actor Sakurai (Masako Satai), having just failed to kill himself, sniffs his armpits and decides that he needs a bath. It's a bath that will have spectacular repercussions for everyone involved.
Anyone unfamiliar with Uchida's work may find this hard to believe, but this is actually quite a simple story compared with what he's done before. There are no major jumps backwards or forwards in time, no important bits of information withheld from audience (well, not many) - just the pure delight of classic farce, where the comedy comes from the audience knowing much more about what's going on than the characters on screen do. The cast perform it to perfection, with particular plaudits going to Teruyuki Kagawa, one of those actors who apparently turns up in every Japanese film made in the last decade (he had two roles in Dreams For Sale last night, that's how busy he is).
Even when the story moves into the territory of suicide and murder, Uchida somehow keeps a light touch throughout, and the laughs are there from the beginning all the way to the end. (Including a glorious one partway through the end credits, so yah boo sucks to all the people who ran out of the ICA as soon as the titles rolled: you missed one of the best bits.) It's a delightful movie, possibly my favourite one of the festival so far, and a UK distributor needs to pick it up asap and make The BBG feel really smug.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Aiyyaa [official Facebook]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Rani Mukerji plays Meenakshi, a strong-willed young Hindi woman whose head is full of fantasies of Bollywood movies. While her parents fear they will never see her married and start looking for suitable candidates, Meenakshi dreams of running away into the night with a love-match. When she finds work at a library in a local art college, she sees - or, more to the point, smells - her dream man, Tamil art student Surya (played by South Indian actor Prithviraj) and instantly falls obsessively in love. She must find out more about this mysterious man, and why he smells so good, but all she hears is dark rumours, which seem only to intrigue her more.
Seeing Aiyyaa immediately after Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar, I couldn't help but be struck by how short a distance Indian cinema, and by extension Indian society, has come in the past fifty years. Certainly, Meenakshi is independent minded, and goes out to get a job, but all her family care about is getting her married, and at the end of the day, that's all she cares about too - only she wants it to be to someone she is in love with. Then again, that is the stuff of rom-coms world over, so maybe not too much should be read into it. Aiyyaa is really just a fluffy Bollywood rom-com, and although it flirts with a couple of dark ideas, and plays with culture clash between North and South India, it all comes down to boy-meets-girl with song and dance numbers.
For me, Aiyyaa works best when it is in Meenakshi's head, mimicking period Bollywood and Tamil movie set pieces (although I really do think it's about time for a Strategic Autotune Limitation Treaty). The supporting cast of quirky characters laid on the quirk a little thick for my taste, but this was Rani Mukerji's film. This isn't one of her more serious acting roles, but she was a delight to watch. So, just a bit of Bollywood fluff, but an enjoyable one.
And as for the film's title, Aiyyaa seemed to be just an exclamation of surprise often uttered by Meenakshi, translated in the subtitles by "Oh my God!". Don't believe anyone who tells you it's Rani Mukerji's character's name!