Thursday, January 29, 2015

Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)


The Professionals

With an opening worldwide weekend gross of $6 million and at best mediocre reviews from critics, Michael Mann's $70 million Blackhat--despite the presence of Thor star Chris Hemsworth--is poised to become the director's biggest commercial and critical disaster to date. 

Easy enough to list implausibilities: Hemsworth plays Hathaway, a...genius computer hacker? Skilled in the use of small-arms fire and the Screwdriver School of Close Combat? Reads French philosophers in his spare time? Wears duct-taped bulletproof cardboard in preparation for battle? Has beauties like Chen Lien (Wei Tang) throwing themselves at him? Maybe not the last--experts (i.e. women) have assured me that Hemsworth is the actor of choice for playing Norse gods.

Against this stack of minuses yet another problematic observation: Mann doesn't seem to give a damn. Hathaway (like Frank, like Lt. Hanna, like Vincent, like Crockett) is another of Mann's professionals, a solitary figure (in this case literally so, locked up behind concrete and steel) kept in a state of stasis (thirteen-year sentence, for cybercrimes committed) till called upon to perform a duty, a mission, a sacrifice of some kind. 

This mission involves the (entirely fictional) Chai Wan Nuclear Power Plant in Hong Kong, whose cooling pump failure has triggered a tremendous explosion; the culprit is a RAT, a remote access tool, piggybacking on a worm program that Chinese cyber security expert (and Lien's brother) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) recognizes as his own creation (downloaded from the internet) and that of his college roommate, the aforementioned Hathaway.

The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, a series of intricate chess moves as whitehats and blackhats (never referred onscreen as such) maneuver to gain decisive advantage.

And here's where Mann fails or succeeds, depending on how you look at it. Hacking isn't a visibly physical activity; if anything the scenes of actual assault (digitally animated bytes swarming the servers like disciplined Roman legions, sent by a solitary RAT blinking ominously in one corner) are a far less successful, and far less interesting, feat of visualization. Mann insists that the problem is a mental struggle to be resolved primarily by intellect, not knife or pistol, and calibrates his film accordingly. 

I mentioned chess, a game where the players are bound by strict if simple rules, but within those rules face a bewildering number of moves. Hathaway and his nemesis play a similar game, the rules being the Code common to all professionals, which basically boils down to a single imperative: don't act stupid

So Hathaway carefully examines what he knows his enemy has done so far. He assumes the blackhat has a plan; he assumes the plan is logical and follows a timetable (the number of possible moves reduced accordingly). Cornering the soybean money is logical (build yourself an operational stake); blowing up the nuclear plant is not. Hathaway has his countermove. 

Around this tangle of clear and unclear, of certain and unpredictable, Mann builds his film. Sometimes the view opens up to a vast dry riverbed, and Hathaway and Lien are forced to look about, lost in all the desolation; sometimes the scope narrows down to a subterranean passage, the action circumscribed by the tunnel's fatal curve. The game continues, the Code (don't act stupid) applying ruthlessly to both



Mann shunts all the energy that might come from the film's action to the surrounding landscape: the breathtaking sweep of the Hong Kong skyline as a helicopter swings across; the endless charnel house that is the devastated reactor, all stillness and ash and well-done corpses. Hathaway, Dawai and Lien remain unfazed by the dramatic vistas, the death and devastation. They're professionals; losing one's cool is an obvious form of stupidity

Critics call the affair that quietly sprouts between Hathaway and Lien insipid, lacking in chemistry; perfectly possible--Hemsworth isn't known for his thespic (oh that word) prowess--but it's also perfectly possible to read their reserve as that of professionals who know they're breaking the Code, know they're being stupid, do so anyway. 

You're reminded of Murnau's Sunrise, where the protagonist's name was Man, his co-protagonist's Woman; Mann doesn't quite have the daring to make his characters so abstract, but he's headed in the same general direction (next picture maybe?). You're reminded of Bresson, who called his actors 'models' and drained them of obvious emotional life--you're forced to pay closer attention, scrutinize their faces for furtive signs of thought, feelings, a clue as to how you're suppose to feel about them. You're forced to look at their hands, which are often more expressive--and then remember how startlingly effective Hemsworth was with a screwdriver. Not saying Mann is as subtly inventive as Bresson either (the action sequences in Lancelot du lac are unsettlingly staged and shot, on a fraction of the budget Mann is used to working with), but they do share a similar desire to maintain a low onscreen temperature.

A disappointment? According to the Code, which Lien and Hathaway follow with (of course) professional competence, sex is a biological imperative, a way of releasing hormonal steam. It only becomes love when the act of staying together becomes a hindrance not a help--which at one point it does; significantly it's Lien who decides to violate her Code, after which Hathaway chooses to support her decision. Nothing obvious, just the twitch of facial muscles here, there. They may be tossing their Codes aside for each other, but hardwired habits don't die easy, and Mann respects this--just as he later respects the blackhat's decision to violate his Code, for his own reasons (basically pride--Hathaway has humiliated him, and he demands redress)

The film ends with a confrontation under torchlight, in Jakarta's Balinese Nyepi Day Festival, but the real climax has occurred much earlier, when one competitor has managed to thoroughly read the other's book (his Code if you like)--what follows at Nyepi Day no matter how violent or spectacularly shot is mere denouement. 

Is it more than a well-made thriller? Don't know of any recent picture that has made such a fetish of the gradual (some will say too gradual) rise of tension against a background of serenely menacing beauty. Don't know of any recent picture where the actions of specific individuals feel so grandly unimportant. Mann's overall vision--and in my book it is a vision--says something (however quietly, however professionally) about the state of grace under which the best minds operate, and how little all that matters in this chaotic world.  

Best action film of the year? Don't be silly--it's only January (tellingly the graveyard period in which unwanted or unpromising productions are dumped). But it's a damned entertaining one, and in my book should stand up well against whatever might follow. 

First published in Businessworld, 1.22.15

 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt' bogom, Aleksei German, 2013)

I, Mud

Aleksei German's adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers' 1964 novel is to put it mildly a labor of love: six years actual shooting (from 2000 to 2006), another six of post-production, with German himself dying in 2013 (the film was completed under the supervision of his wife and son); more, it's possible he'd been thinking of adapting the book through the length of his long if sparse career (five feature films, from 1967 onwards)--perhaps longer (shortly after the book's publication, if you believe some folks).

Critic Olaf Moller gives a detailed account of the film's painful genesis, not to mention some of the context against which the film was made (including a 1990 film directed by Peter Fleischmann). A massive effort, comparable perhaps to long development period of projects like Welles' 1966 Chimes at Midnight (first staged on Broadway as Five Kings in 1939) or Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya (eight years in the making, according to Japan Times critic Mark Schilling--and also (considering his advanced age) possibly Takahata's final feature).

The story's simple enough: Earth has found a sister planet, in terms of technological progress roughly eight hundred years behind; it has secretly planted agents in that planet to observe and record. Anton, posing as the long-dead nobleman Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is gifted with a near-magical sword that can cut through anything, and a fighting technique that has earned him the reputation of being the most feared swordsman alive. Rumata's dilemma: he is both moved by the plight of the people about him and strictly forbidden to interfere by his Earth-based superiors.



(If the plot sounds familiar, it's not just your imagination, though it's difficult to prove anything--the novel was published in English in 1973 (Theodore Sturgeon was a fan), and by then Star Trek had been cancelled some four years. But who knows what Roddenberry was reading or hearing about back in the mid-'60s? Who's to say he wasn't thinking along similar lines?)

Little of this comes through in German's film; if anything the director seems to have sunk the plot deep into the general muck that pervades throughout. Fleischmann's version was a straightforward full-color adaptation done along the lines of Conan the Barbarian, with not a little Highlander thrown in; German's is three hours long and in black and white, the decision to go monochrome crucial to the film's look. Mud and blood and manure and vomit (and other substances too disgusting to mention) are rendered equivalent and indistinguishable, spurting from or being smeared into or seeping slowly out of various wounds and faces and fore-and-aft orifices of the people onscreen. Skins are equally textured, with boils and tumors erupting from cheeks and foreheads; teeth are either rotten or snaggled or missing altogether; bones twist in every direction except straight out. As if in response--or celebration--of their abnormalities the people somersault, turn cartwheels, move on one, two, three, four limbs at once, from mincing little steps to bounding great leaps.  

(The faces and bodies vary, but the eyes are hauntingly alike: wide and desperate and full of life, yes, but also of suffering.)  



German shoots in long takes, the camera gliding down hallways and across rooms, shouldering aside curtains of hemp rope and hanging armor, past fools and sycophants either leering maniacally or poking spearheads at the lenses.  Think termite or ant colony, not looking from high above but inside, in one of their endless tunnels, soldiers with clicking jaws teeming about you; if your skin crawls at the thought, the effect is intentional.



People die in grotesque and often unwatchable ways--we don't see the actual passing, but catch a glimpse of their remains as the camera glides by. A girl's face suddenly sprouts an intricately barbed arrow; a concoction of squash seeds in syrup is ladled over hung corpses (Why? To attract birds,perhaps encourage carrion feeders?); a man explains the workings of a ten-foot-long spring-loaded spiked superdildo to Don Rumata, whose hand when touching its length comes away covered with a thick dark coating. 



Occasionally German pulls back to take in an entire location, but not for our relief--or at least, not exactly. Early on the camera pans about what looks like a sinkhole/cliff face/construction site, with scaffolding shoring up high muddy walls, surrounding a pool of indeterminate color. Two men start knocking down a little outhouse at pool's edge; one yanks away the wood flooring with its heavily crusted hole and--horrific little touch here--a flock of sparrows whir out. A pole is sunk into the outhouse's pit, a mark cut into the chunky coating's edge; the man walks about with the marked pole, measuring people for upside-down insertion.  

You think of the junky clutter in Welles' Mr. Arkadin; you think of the filthy sewage, the physical and moral corruption in his Touch of Evil. German attempts to do Welles better, more explicitly; the attempt is honorable if not fully successful (Welles did more with less).

As Rumata, Yarmolnik has to hold our attention for almost the entire one hundred and seventy-seven minutes; he does so with a carefully constructed performance, full of mysterious little gestures and puzzling details. His Rumata is constantly sick, either coughing or sniffling or wiping away snot and phlegm (considering what he's constantly breathing, not a big surprise); he's either heavily drunk or coming out of a bad hangover, his walk more confident than careful (he's from a more advanced civilization, after all), pitched halfway between a swagger and a stagger. On occasion he experiences a heavy nosebleed--viscous gore pouring out like a spout (Why? One reads of telekinetic powers triggering heavy bleeding, but Rumata doesn't seem to exert any kind of power, just leaks at seemingly random moments).

By film's end Rumata's superiors attempt an extraction. In Fleischmann's film this meant a giant saucer swooping down from the sky to put everyone to sleep, then spirit him away; in German's film the saucer is replaced by a horsecart, the flight through space by a creaky ride across the snowy landscape. The images make you wonder: are Rumata's people all that technologically advanced? Are the Strugatskys (through German, or perhaps it's German alone?) pulling our collective leg, pretending to have set the film in another planet when we were on Earth all along (now where do you think he got that plot twist?)? What distinguishes Rumata from everyone else?

Two gestures, I submit (skip the rest of this article if you intend to watch the film!). Rumata tends to smear stuff on his face. He'll touch walls, floor, other people, the superdildo, and his hand will come away with mud, mucus, blood of various colors and viscosity, which he spreads across his cheeks, eyelids, nose. 

Call it an infantile moment, a bestial impulse to draw stuff close for inspection by nose and tongue. Sometimes he sniffs his fingers first, drips it on upturned face, as if to better taste, to savor the elusive flavor--in my book surest proof he's from a higher civilization, as he exults in the sheer tactility of German's painstakingly constructed and realized world. Much of what he touches is repulsive, noisome, obscene; it's also an unmistakeable reminder of both the wonders and horrors of life.

Second gesture is his occasional washing--an act of (much-needed) hygiene, of purification, of sobering up after a serious drunk. Late in the film his fellow humans find him by a pool, presumably cleaning up after a massacre; this wash however has a different feel, has the finality of an actor back in his dressing room, removing makeup. 

Rumata speaks with not a little bitterness (I don't want to go!), but has no choice. His regret implies two things: he finds it difficult to abandon his friends, the people he has observed, mingled with, fought, occasionally fucked. He finds it difficult to give up the role--the power, the sense of superiority, of an all-important mission to be accomplished. He may leave, his face washed clean of the world, but he takes the memory with him, and his feelings come out through music piped out of the bizarre little clarinet he carries away with him. Lovely melody; not genius but heartfelt, not a little haunting.

What distinguishes him? In short: his inexplicable love of this world, his need to occasionally purify himself of said world, his ability to sublimate both love and loathing through art. His perverse sentiment, best expressed I would think by paraphrasing Marlowe: "Why this is hell, nor do I want to be out of it." A great film, one of the best of 2014.

First published in Businessworld, 1.15.15




Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Films of 2014: Four Lists


Best films of 2014: four lists

First:

The Babadook, Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, Selma, Under the Skin--the usual suspects--are not all bad films (when talking 'bad' two titles in particular come to mind), but for one reason or another the flaws felt more significant than the virtues.

Plus said titles have no shortage of supporters and even less need for further promotion. If they happen to be nominated or win the Golden Dildo, more power to them, whatever. No feelings for or against their victory--such as it is--whatsoever.

Second:

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Just know your eyebrows shot up. To explain:

Not a big fan of Peter Jackson's recent works, least of all of his previous nine-hour epic. That said, the megatonnage of grief dumped on his latest three-picture extravaganza is arguably unwarranted, for several reasons: 1) Tolkien's The Hobbit was less pompous, less grandiose, more humanly scaled than its overblown sequel; 2) Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is a funnier, more engaging, more sane protagonist than Elijah Wood's constantly moist-eyed, endlessly insufferable Frodo.

True Jackson blew up Tolkien's slight children's fantasy novel into a three-part epic, but 3) that just creates an interesting aftereffect: Freeman's diminutive Bilbo--no Ringbearer only thief, stubbornly unheroic and unnoble--crawling along the margins of Jackson's massive, grandly staged and scored and photographed conflict, keeping it (so to speak) real. Bilbo is a reminder that the little people persist, that they matter, despite the larger schemes and higher aspirations of Dwarves, Orcs and Elves. 

And for that--however small a reason it may be--the picture at most deserves a mention.  

Third:

Bendor (Ralston Jover, 2013)

Jover's debut film followed a band of youths as they dived into the Manila Bay for scrap metal; his sophomore effort follows a woman (the quietly spectacular Vivian Velez) as she hustles trinkets in a Manila street corner and fronts for an under-the-table abortionist. Understated neorealism, with just a touch of surrealism a la Nicolas Roeg. 

Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014)

Burton's latest celebration of arcane American marginalia focuses on the career of one Margaret Keene, painter of portraits of eerily big-eyed waifs, and her husband Walter Keene, who turned the pictures into an international craze, claiming authorship along the way. Burton doesn't present much of an argument for the paintings' value as art but does speak up for Margaret's value as a person, and for the paintings' value as popular kitsch. 

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Director Edward's tribute to the kaiju movies he loved makes the (somewhat) radical case that audiences simply want to see monsters locked in a titanic struggle, not much else. Immediate objective--survival; ultimate goal--restoring Nature's ever-precarious balance. As for all the helpless humans: the sooner they learn their proper place in the world (tucked safely out of the way in one corner), the better.

The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014)

The Raid was a grim, gritty exercise in non-stop arm-bruising, jaw-crunching, shin-snapping violence; the sequel actually has a plot (borrowed loosely from Shakespeare, about a son struggling to come out of the shadow of his father) but this time the violence has acquired the grace and beauty of an extended MGM dance sequence, with imaginatively used props (a baseball bat, a claw hammer, a pair of sickles). Evan's work puts everything Hollywood blockmeister Michael Bay has ever done--from his gigantic Trans-R-Us flicks to his insipid yet somehow critically respected Pain and Gain--to painful, pitiful shame.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)  

James Gunn's Slither was the story of a gaggle of small-town losers trying to win the hearts and souls of their community, either as offering to an invading alien lifeform or for themselves; it was only incidentally a horror movie. Guardians is the story of a band of small-time losers trying to win the hearts and souls of--oh, anyone willing to accommodate them; it was only incidentally a Marvel comic-book adaptation. Odd material for a gigantic summer box-office hit? That's the punchline.
 
The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom, 2014)

Michael Winterbottom's sequel to The Trip is more of the same, only better: Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden again eat and argue and impersonate (Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, and Al Pacino, among others) their way around the countryside, this time of impossibly beautiful Italy. The food is if anything even better; instead of Coleridge they're guided by the biographies and poems of Byron and Shelley, and by films set in Italy (The Italian Job; Beat the Devil). Some poignant ruminations on aging and the transitory nature of life, though a less obvious if more amusing high point would be the film's one reference to a truly great film: Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy, somehow evoked in a brief scene involving Brydon's 'small man in a box' (imagine that if you can).
  
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013) 

Its sexual politics may be dated, its lead actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) miscast (she's playing a woman almost half her age); this is still a film by Polanski, still sexy, seductive, remarkably personal fun, still perfectly capable of drawing blood when it so chooses.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon ho, 2013)

Bong Joon-ho's first English-language film. The setup is genius: the last survivors in a frozen world ride a train that circumnavigates the Earth. The lower classes sit in the back, are preparing to fight their way to the front; the upper classes sit in front, are ready to fight for their seats.  

Better than the premise is Bong's outrageous sense of humor, which in this setting makes bizarre sense: the rebels come across the world's last aquarium, and at the center of the aquarium the world's last sushi bar.  What do they do? Sit and enjoy a plate of beyond-delicious sashimi.

Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)

Call him the least reputable of Andersons (W.S. as opposed to Wes or Paul Thomas), then call this his possible masterpiece, a combination disaster film, gladiator flick and love story where the action is crystalline clear, the CGI effects involving the Vesuvius eruption imaginatively (and for once, authentically) done, the filmmaker's (surprisingly poignant) conviction nicely balanced by (well-toasted) cheese. 
 
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)

A man, a car, a cellphone, for ninety largely gripping minutes. If that doesn't pique your interest...

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

Carruth's debut feature Primer told a complicated time-travel plot in a nervy, almost entirely obtuse style; Upstream is no less challenging, but its pace is more leisurely, its offerings more sensual, more poignant, ultimately more mysterious--Kris and Jeff fall in love, easy to understand, but who's The Thief? Who's the Sampler? What's the blue dye secreted by the dead animals? More to the point, why is the film so difficult to follow, yet so freakishly fascinating? 

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014)

Corbijn adapting a Martin Booth novel can feel hermetic; Corbijn adapting a John Le Carre novel is if not a perfect match then an inspired one. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of Le Carre's wounded souls; his target is a possible terrorist financier, his challenge to approach said financier through a former torture victim. Subtleties and slow burns as delivered by a master of espionage fiction, ably translated to the big screen by an up-and-coming filmmaker and an actor--one of the best of his generation--in his last great role.

Violator (Dodo Dayao, 2014)

Problem with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook: while the first half is a harrowing portrait of a single mother struggling to raise a troubled child, the second is an overinsistent about-face of said mother's anxieties, her woes blamed on largely supernatural forces when the film could have done a better job maintaining the delicate balancing act between belief and skepticism (Is she in danger? Is she the danger?)

Dodo Dayao's Violator doesn't even really attempt to evoke ordinary life--more like a fevered dream of that life, as inspired by the coming apocalypse. Or, as described to a potential film programmer: "A Howard Hawks film as directed by an up-and-coming Kurosawa Kiyoshi."

The film programmer's reply: "That sounds...fascinating!"   

Happen to know the man. Hooked, definitely. 

Fourth: 



The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013)

James Gray doesn't work near often enough (his last film Two Lovers came out in 2008); anything new from him should be considered a major event. 

This one has the incandescent Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman and her sister, first lost in the labyrinthine hallways and tiled clinics of the Ellis Island Immigration Inspection Station, later on the streets and alleyways of 1920s New York. A melodrama, but so beautifully shot you're transfixed; Gray might be setting himself up as this millennium's Francis Coppola, an old-fashioned storyteller with state-of-the-art visual chops (as with his The Yards and We Own the Night, the cinematography is stunning).  

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2013)

Again a melodrama; like Gray's this is so rooted in its setting (the small towns surrounding Austin, Texas) you can't imagine it happening anywhere else--Green manages to create a slatternly offhand poetry from all the rusted infrastructure steel and junk-stuffed front porches onscreen. 

Nicholas Cage (as Joe) and Tye Sheridan (as young Gary) enjoy a relaxed chemistry together, Cage's modesty an especially welcome  change(usually he comes at you like a Great Dane in heat). From the late Gary Poulter (a homeless man who died only months after this was released) as Wade, director Green luckily gains more: a portrait of quotidian evil, unforgettably, recognizably real.




From What is Before (Lav Diaz, 2014)

Could be said Marcos' declaration of Martial Law is the key event of recent Filipino history and, consequently, of Diaz's cinema; but where his earlier films explore effects and echoes, this one explores sources, root causes--not so much historical and social as psychological, emotional, spiritual. 

It's not all philosophical musings and heavy drama, though; the film can be deadpan hilarious (the army explaining the terms of their occupation to an increasingly uncomfortable civilian population) or harrowing (the last twenty or so minutes). As with most recent Diaz it's basically a tiny independently funded and produced digital film with a weighty agenda and vast ambitions; watching him attempt to marry one with the other can be a breathtaking sight. 
  
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)


Can’t help but feel a sharp tang, knowing this to be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film; can’t help but see this as a valedictory work, a summing up of his thoughts and feelings about art and aviation and everything else at this late point in his life.

That said, the film has been criticized for being a whitewash of the consequences and moral implications of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi's work on the Japanese Zero, one of the Second World War's most formidable fighter planes.

Disagree--it's a subtler, more troubled film than that, and scrupulously clear about what's actually on historical record, what's speculative fiction (Miyazaki must feel he owes Jiro the honesty). All gorgeously animated of course, mostly by hand, and a great film.  



Hard to Be a God (Aleksei Geran, 2013)

Aleksei German's adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers' 1964 novel is to put it mildly a labor of love: six years actual shooting (from 2000 to 2006), another six of post-production, with German himself dying in 2013 (the film was completed under the supervision of his wife and son); more, it's possible he'd been thinking of adapting the book through the length of his long if sparse career (five feature films, from 1967 onwards)--perhaps longer (shortly after the book's publication, if you believe some folks).

German's magnum opus is three hours long and in black and white, the decision to go monochrome crucial to the film's look. Mud and blood and manure and vomit (and other substances too disgusting to mention) are rendered equivalent and indistinguishable, spurting from or being smeared into or seeping slowly out of various wounds and faces and fore-and-aft orifices of the people onscreen. Skins are equally textured, with boils and tumors erupting from cheeks and foreheads; teeth are either rotten or snaggled or missing altogether; bones twist in every direction except straight out. As if in response--or in celebration--of their abnormalities the people somersault, turn cartwheels, move on one, two, three, four limbs at once, from mincing little steps to bounding leaps. Can a filthier grimier more virulently corrupt (yet blindingly brilliant) depiction of a rectum of a world be found on the big screen? Don't know; frankly doubt it. 

The Story of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)  

If talking frugal output, Isao Takahata is a frontrunner: the master filmmaker--he's a colleague of Miyazaki, and artistically his equal--has not done a feature since the effervescent My Neighbor the Yamadas, back in 1999.  

So after a fourteen-year hiatus within which the project underwent eight years of gestation, plus the possibility that this would be the filmmaker's last major project (he's older than Miyazaki by six years), one cannot expect a half-hearted effort. The film may evoke the art of sumi-e, or inkwash painting--evoking texture and emotion and tone, the very essence of the object being painted, with the least amount of strokes--but behind the spareness is an exuberance (that splendid sky-wide cherry blossom tree!), a heedless confidence, as if Takahata (like Miyazaki and German) knew this was his last chance at bat.

The film is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest of Japanese fables; out of the slim story Takahata fashions a parable on parenthood (every girl is a princess, ever parent a foolish believer in their child's royalty), a poignant sketch of conflicted youth (even she doesn't know what she really wants), a grim depiction of the cruel logic of fairy tales (if you do this, you become that; if you touch this you lose your identity, your sense of your old self, forever)

Despite the visual spareness, the elegance of the storytelling, the film feels full to overflowing. Takahata has made definitive use of his chance; what you experience are the aftereffects. A great film, the best--hands down, head bowed, knee bent--of 2014.

First published in Businessworld 1.8.15
 
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