Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mandala (1981)

Mandala is, one could say, a variation on Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund: a rare film, poetically made, to be able to do justice to such a theme. It is about Buddha, the nature of Buddha: it is about dogma and freedom outside it, about respect and freedom outside of it. The film flows like a river, like the river in Hesse's Siddhartha, a river turning in and out with slow purpose, and Jisan and Pobun meet and lose each other and then again meet each other, just like Siddhartha and Govinda. However, Pobun is more Narcissus than Govinda, with no one person's distinct way superior to the other's. Pobun is tormented, but sure and steadfast and trusting and loving, and seeking to know himself through himself; Jisan is the rogue and can also be steadfast in his own way, but he is also tormented, lusting after life and knowing himself through others, like Goldmund's quest. Both men seem to stand on opposite extremes of religious mores and yet stand hand in hand in the spiritual domain.

Elegantly shot, the film's slow rhythm is beautifully punctuated by Buddhist chants, and some of the shots are a delight to watch for their patience, which lets the viewer be immersed in the film's environment. Pobun in particular is very well played by Ahn Sung-kee, and the remaining cast is doing well, though I feel that the most important character of Jisan could have been played better. Overall, Mandala is yet another deep, sensitive film from South Korea.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


Pema Tseden's Tharlo is one of the most beautiful movies that I have seen in recent years: it reminded me of the little-known, equally intense and poetic Hindi movie Frozen, but it betters the Hindi movie by its beautiful camerawork, intelligent camera placement in particular, and brilliantly interwoven humour and tragedy alongwith a constantly running political commentary on the modern state of China and its meaning for different people, particularly those who live on the margins or even outside of them, as does Tharlo, the film's protagonist shepherd. Both the film's main actors, the famous Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima as Tharlo and the hairdresser, put in strong performances; like in Fúsi, it is very important for such a film in particular for the main actor to be very honest to his role, and Nyima does it to great effect. But it is also the camera which is the star here: placed mid-distance, often noting details of small life along with the story, not moving much, silently partaking of life's river.

Shot in crisp black and white in the unforgiving landscapes of Qinghai, the film is an artwork in its truest sense: it makes you plunge in the routine of Tharlo the shepherd, of the city nearby, of the slow evenings where nothing much happens, of the police station. It makes you plunge like Gao Xingjian's novel Soul Mountain does: it makes you feel the place and the people. Along the way, the film makes wry, twinkling humour: without any bitterness, only with the full pleasure of observing irony.

Tharlo is a film whose scenes will continue to haunt you, for long, long after.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Le temps des aveux

Many Western directors have continued to Orientalize the Orient: some have still been worthy efforts, like David Lean's films, but some take the downright patronising path, as Régis Wargnier's Le temps des aveux (translation: The Time of Confessions). It is always a surprise to me how such films resonate with a large section of the Orientalized, too: have they absorbed so utterly the dominating colonial gaze?

This film inevitably led me to a comparison with Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, a film which is around the same theme but a different setting and context and yet is very different in one thing: Kwai portrays Saito as the equal of Nicholson: just with different rulebooks. Lean's camera does not just focus on Guinness' patient, obstinate suffering; it also focuses on Saito's patient, obstinate wilfulness. This is the strength of Lean's masterpiece: it is an exercise in dialectics in a way, though one person's methods may seem to be more cruel than the other's. However, with Le temps des aveux, it is the usual picture: the heroic, stoic white man, the only one who has the knowledge and courage to follow truth, among a sea of puny, weak-willed, ignorant heathens. The film moves very fast at its beginning: stealing glances at a Cambodian girl to marrying her and having a daughter with her happens in a blink. For the character development of the girl never entered the director's mind: the film had to deal after all with Bizot's lone, true fights. Then there is Douch, that enlighten-able man, perfect material for missionaries in other settings and here for Bizot, which the Westerners have loved to put up on a pedestal since colonisation's time: the intellectual dummy who buys into the gaze, who is content to be looked at with the colonial gaze. The patronising rarely becomes so insufferable than in such films, where it is mixed subtly, like a dose of slow poison.

Is such a film, also noteworthy for the very white, sympathetic appearance of France as a "just" country, a film widely appreciated by French audiences, a revealing detail of the fabric of French social life? As long as films such as these continue to be seen widely, hope for Europe is dim: some can cling on to their dreams of power as they deem it, and yet the world will move on, knowing that knowledge is true power and not asking someone else to subscribe to your ideas, your world.