30 March 2010

Departures | Okuribito

Death has always been a taboo but Departures has turned this unspeakable subject into an art of sublimity. Daigo Kobayashi is a cellist who finds himself unemployed as his manager decides to dissolve the band. His wife and he make a big decision of moving to his hometown and living in his long-forsaken place which was once a cafe owned by his Father.

Daigo, then, accidentally gets accepted to work as a person who prepares the dead body for their funeral, a ritual that is at once very artistic and typical of a dying Japanese convention. Even though some people look down on him and think that what he is doing is improper, especially his wife, who threatens to leave him, Daigo finds this job spiritually rewarding as he perceives how people show suppressed emotion and passion, something that is quite impossible to express when the dead were alive. He learns the great truth of humanity, how everyone's life has some moments of greatness and beauty and how everyone deserves at least a little bit of dignity when they die.

Perhaps one can see that Daigo's decision to take this job is caused by his need for love, which has been denied to him by his broken family, especially when his Father decided to move out and live with one of his cafe staff, to the distress of his mother and him. However, through this job, which is demeaning to some, Daigo manages also to learn some of the most meaningful lessons -- forgiveness and unconditional love.

Of course, in a way we can see Departures as a very masculine film, in which two generations of men learn about each other, with women taking back seats and looking at them with support and respect. One can see that perhaps the ending is a little bit too melodramatic when Daigo manages to remember his Father's face, symbolically recognizing the role of fatherhood that he needs to perpetrate. His wife, on the contrary, just smiles and quietly lets him continue this honorary job. With this line of thought, one can also think of how Japanese society is still very much in close alliance with patriarchal codes. But somehow the film does portray the sweet and impressive side to these codes, not the oppressive ones we usually see.


L'iceberg, a film by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy, is a surreal comedy showcasing the dream of an alienated woman who longs to see an iceberg. She realises her desire one day after she accidentally traps herself in a walk-in freezer at a fast food chain where she works. Somehow this experience miraculously makes her realise how alienating her everyday life is, especially when, after a night of entrapment, she goes home to find that her family hasn't actually realised that she's not home. Bitter and confused, she finds herself more and more attracted to ice and coldness.

What the film nicely portrays through their odd cinematography and eccentric acting of main characters is the distinction between a city and a seaside town. The former is a breeding ground of angst and alienation, whereas the latter is the place where our main actress, Fiona, realises what she really wants -- the dream of seeing an iceberg -- and the man she really wants, a deaf sailor who owns a small boat aptly called Le Titanique. Rene is pitted up against her husband both in terms of dress and behaviour and it's no wonder why Fiona falls for Rene, as he's portrayed as a Heathcliff-style hunk who talks less but seems to ooze passion and depth, the exact features that go well with the ocean where he works.

However, with the film of this kind, a stereotypical ending where Rene and Fiona fall in love with each other and live together ever after is not going to happen. Fiona does see an iceberg in the end but it doesn't last, like one's dream that ironically loses its fizz once it is fulfilled. What perhaps is more interesting is to see that one still struggles for it nonetheless and one doesn't know what life will bring next. I know that this kind of moral twist is pretty boring and, to be honest, predictable, but L'iceberg does cast a fresh light on this twist via surrealistically minimalist dialogue, setting, and acting. This minimalism is somehow cast against the vastness of the ocean and the dream and aspiration of Fiona herself.

21 March 2010

เงาสีขาว | The White Shadow

The White Shadow has long been held as one of the best contemporary fictional narratives by those in the know. A work of substantial length, The White Shadow or the Portrait of An Artist in His Turbulent Years is not an easy read, especially when we take into account the author's eccentric choice of not dividing the whole text into paragraphs and his daring revelation of his angst and hatred for himself, those around him and the world in general.

Of course, this sense of hatred is not uncommon in modern literature with those works of such French authors as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, who were sick of their surroundings and used their literary skills as a means of psychological healing (and paradoxically dwelling further into the dark abyss of the human mind). What is distinguished about The White Shadow, however, is how the author brings this state of mental complexity to the Thai landscape and shows how an average man, like him, can feel the same way.

With the literary work of this kind, one of the problems the author faces is how to steer the narrative away from the creation of a whimsical narrative that is eventually simply a work of self-gratification. Danaran Saengthong manages to move away from this, with his subtle criticism of Thai society, in which political correctness and the double standard of morality are something as commonplace as Starbuck's in Bangkok. However, through his masterly storytelling, he doesn't extol himself as a hero that can have an effective distance from all this mental corruption; he is himself corrupt and this leads to an ironical question that is strongly felt throughout -- how much can we believe this man, when he himself says that he's not that better from the rest? Perhaps this is exactly the reason that makes the message of this life story so pithy. Aren't we all like him? We like to criticize the status quo and yet emerge as an immaculate judge? The White Shadow just makes manifest that such an arrogant standpoint is impossible.

Another element that is special to this narrative is how the author seems to bare all the hidden social conventions that are hushed. His misogynistic standpoint, however, is highly controversial but is symptomatic of Thai patriarchy in general. His inability to love is also another reason why he is unable to settle down with a woman. Perhaps what we see here is something perhaps worth a psychological study. It is my conjecture that the author wishes to retain an emotionally charged life, in which he sees things as bright and interesting so that he can turn them into a work of art. However, life is not art and life is in fact boring, especially when we take into account certain 'traditional' stages of life that each of us is subjected through, such as education, courtship, marriage, procreation, children rearing, and coping with old age and death. Through his life story, we can sense the anger and anxiety of the author who doesn't want to subject his life to such mundane stages, whilst at the same time seeing them as unavoidable. This existential crisis is closely tied with the traditional Thai sense of manhood, in which men need to prove their performance through the conquest of women as well as their skills in infringing social codes.

Through the sense of inexplicable hatred and complaint of existing conditions, I find the book a compulsive read. As the novel progresses, we can perceive that the author is in fact a storytelling virtuoso who can keep us riveted to the chair reading his narrative that gradually unfolds the stories of people around him, those stories that are somehow related to his as well as his implicit comments on them.

16 March 2010

Ensemble, c'est tout

With my limited free time, I can't watch all the films that I want. But tonight it's the turn of a French film called Ensemble, c'est tout, starring the likes of Audrey Tautou and Guillaume Canet. It's a romantic tragic-comedy that is easy to digest, with the two main characters starting off with mutual hatred. The setting of Paris is appropriate, as it is the place where people do not care for each other and indifference is the general ambience. Tautou plays Camille, an office cleaner who often works in the night shift. She lives in the damp and freezing attic. Occupying the same building are two men, Franck and Philibert, who share the same flat despite their personality difference: Franck is a surly chef, while Philibert is living the remnants of his aristocratic past.

During the first half of the film, I thought that there would be a romance developed between Philibert and Camille, as he's the one who really cares about her health and takes her downstairs when she's seriously ill. Then, as the narrative progresses, we see a conflict gradually emerging when Franck seems to have a crush on her, too. However, to my disappointment, out of the blue, Philibert is taken out of the equation when the fate has him meet with another girl and fall in love with her instead. This is not quite what I expected as the film should have perhaps dwelt on the realistic complexity of the triangular relationship among the three main characters. Or at least just making Philibert realise his homosexual tendency would not be too bad and far better than bestowing him such an easy exit.

However, if I'm not mistaken, the whole point of the film has something to do with human connections. If Paris is portrayed as a place where people no longer feel connected and end up pretty much alone and miserable, it's high time we re-established connectedness among ourselves once again. Care (with or without understanding) is crucial, exemplified by Camille's act of humanitarian selflessness -- her decision to take care of Franck's dying grandmother.

Not only do urban people need a sense of connectedness, the ability to express oneself is also stressed in the film. The director appears to give a comment that with our life separate and alone, we somehow lose our ability to talk and express ourselves, especially our delicate emotions, preferring to live inside the shell of our lonely yet secure self-defence. The ending of the film criticizes just that and tells us to articulate our suffering and need should we need the help of our friends or someone close by.

Die Vermessung der Welt | คนวัดโลก

Die Vermessung der Welt is an ambitious novel by German novelist Daniel Kehlmann, who was born the same year as I was. The narrative centres around the lives of two important people in German intellectual history -- Alexander von Humboldt and Karl Friedrich Gauss -- and how they "measured" the world in different ways. Humboldt was by nature an explorer, travelling across the globe to Latin America trying to find a system whereby they could measure everything most accurately. Gauss, in contrast, was a prodigious mathematician, who liked to stay at home working on his mathematic formulae.

Kehlmann juxtaposes the two narratives together in a criss-cross manner, allowing us to have a glimpse of the lives of these great pathfinders. Gauss suffers from the fate of a genius whose intellect does not permit him to see that everyone else around him is not equally clever. One of his sons, Eugene, is a lost cause but his assistance is something that Gauss cannot live without, especially when he needs to make a long journey. Also, we see Gauss perceiving his own mental degeneration, which for others, is still the mind of a genius nonetheless. His suffering is more like a loner's, with pain he himself only sees and needs to endure.

Gauss complains and makes a lot of fuss whenever he needs to travel. The same cannot be said with Humboldt, as he is an avid traveller. His narrative borders on magical realism, especially when he goes to Latin American where everything seems to be marvellous and surreal. He is followed by his fellow companion who always complains but remains with him nonetheless, despite the fact that his name does not receive the same recognition Humboldt obtains.

I believe what Kehlmann does here is to portray how two different people set out to travel and measure the world, one internally and the other externally. What we also see is the beauty and subtlety of these two minds whose determination and complexity are brought into full display. Somehow the world is not the only place that needs to be discovered, as Kehlmann argues indirectly that perhaps our minds, especially those minds of great people, are also worth exploring too.

King and the Clown

Last year one of my beloved lecturers lent me a DVD -- a Korean film called King and the Clown. Of course it took me several months before I had a chance to see it. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally intense films I'd ever watched.

The story involves the complicated relationships among main characters, including two clowns and the King. Apparently it's based on a true story that once happened in Korea during the reign of King Yeonsangun of the Joseon Dynasty. I was intrigued by the playful yet serious performance of these three main characters whose fates are somehow intertwined in the solemn atmosphere of the palace.

The film does highlight the omnipotent power of the King, who can dictate the destiny of people around him with only a few words. The implication is that his power can be both alluring and rewarding for those who can secure his favour, but the same power may potentially be a death sentence for those who are not in his book or have enough dignity not to be obsequious. Then one day come Jangsaeng and Gonggil, two clowns, who are popular thanks to their ability to mock people around them. The awkward situation is when these two clowns don't have a choice but to provide an entertainment that borders on the satire of the whole court. The even more awkward situation is when the King is pleased with their performance and even has a crush on Gonggil and is willing to forsake his duty to spend time with this rural comedian and his beautiful storytelling skills with the aid of puppets and phantasmagoria.

The film delicately shows the moment when power and favour intertwine and how these two comedians react to their instant favour at court, despite their knowledge that the courtiers hate them, not only because they take the King away from his duty, but also because their satire just exposes these courtiers to ridicule. The tension between the rurality of the comedians and the urbanity of the courtiers can never be clearer. However, the clowns also find themselves in a very vulnerable position: once they lose the King's favour, their lives may be finished too. I reckon the film does a great job in portraying the arbitrariness and absurdity of the whole situation when everything does depend on the King's ups and downs, unfettered by any rules or traditions. Yet, both the clowns and courtiers need to do their jobs, knowing only too well the absurdity that lies underneath their acts.