After having watched more than 20 films in less than week, with one more day to go, I’m kinda looking forward to a life beyond films. Y’know, one that involves lunch or a social life or more than five hours of good sleep.
I’ve pointed out many inadequacies of the fest this year in my previous few round-ups, but that doesn’t mean that it has been a disastrous experience. Several things about this year’s Mumbai Film Festival have been fairly top-notch as concepts, hampered only slightly by execution — which is understandable, given that it’s an all-new team that has put this fest together.
For instance, I think everybody agrees that the bar-coded entry for booked attendees is a great improvement over showing SMSes or emails that could easily be faked in the past. Next year, I hope to see a system that allows people to change bookings or transfer their booking to someone else in real-time.
Yesterday was a heavy day, in which I watched three serious films that wore their ‘arthouse’ tag with pride. Master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsein’s The Assassin, which won him the Best Director award at Cannes this year, was my first. A gorgeously shot wuxia, it has moments of lyrical beauty and carefully orchestrated violence that makes the film come alive in a beautiful manner.
However, its extreme lack of narrative force and inert acting, even by the director’s famously austere standards, made the film extremely difficult to watch, and I struggled to make it to the end. Many in my screening and others, from what I’ve heard, couldn’t manage to do the same (I counted roughly 30-40 walkouts during mine).
Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot posed a similar problem, albeit to a much lesser degree. Having debuted in competition at Cannes earlier this year (in the Un Certain Regard category), the film is set in Punjab during the time of Operation Blue Star. Singh adapts two short stories by Sahitya Akademi Award winning Punjabi novelist Waryam Singh Sandhu to highlight the paranoia in those parts during that turbulent time.
The first one, involving two friends travelling in a train, bookends the main story about a family that has been threatened by militants to prevent their dog from barking. Singh, with cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul, attempts to recreate the subdued power of his acclaimed debut Anhey Ghorey Da Daan.
However, while the terrible projection at PVR Phoenix ruined Nagpaul’s beautiful visuals (stand-out shots included breathtaking drops of dew on vast, green fields) by introducing a reddish tinge in the film’s night sequences, what really let me down was the terrible acting. Singh prefers to work with non-professional actors, which is fine, but it was too difficult, at least for me, to seriously engage with a film where silences feel forced and theatrical and in which characters sometimes speak turn by turn, as though being prompted by someone behind the camera.
The day ended with the wonderfully poignant Guatemalean film Ixcanul Volcano, part of the International Competition section. Directed by Jayro Bustamante, it focuses on a traditional Mayan family that works on a coffee plantation at the foot of a towering volcano. On the other side, as a character puts it, is the vastly modern world of the United States, with only a “little thing” called Mexico along the way.
Young Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy) is the family’s teenage daughter, who has strong beliefs about learning Spanish before learning English (they speak a language called Kaqchikel, while city-dwellers speak Spanish). She’s also at an age where she’s, naturally, curious about sex; this leads to a heart-stopping scene in which she slowly undresses for her boyfriend Pepe, leading to consequences that shape the rest of the story.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but marvel at how remarkably free of melodrama it was. An Indian film on the same subject would’ve led to much talk of honour and shaming but Guatemala, going by the film, doesn’t seem to be quite as patriarchal.
Buoyed by wonderful performances — especially one by Maria’s no-nonsense, endearing mother (Maria Telon), who sheds all inhibitions to appear nude in a couple of scenes — Bustamante, in his debut feature, pulled off what a celebrated master and a National Award winning Indian filmmaker couldn’t manage to do for me — he came up with an engaging and universal story that was more concerned with what it was saying than how it was saying it.
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