56th San Sebastian International Film Festival, 18-27 Sep, 2008

Report on the 56th San Sebastian International Film Festival

For “Great Goya” and Then “Dear Godard”

Massoud Mehrabi

Nowadays, international film festivals are not attractive enough to lure foreign guests on their own. Despite one or two decades ago when festivals did not show so much films, did not have diverse sections, and were not surrounded by all kinds of entertaining programs, now at the age of information and communications, most cinema productions can be easily accessed in any part of the world; from the initial idea that set them off to their birth and later survival. Undoubtedly, international film festivals are still attractive enough to local people and even at a national level. However, they can hardly persuade others to pack up and travel thousands of kilometers to reach a festival. Perhaps, this would not be so difficult in not-so-far future and they may invent a device to take you to any part of the world in a blink of eye [provided that you would not be caught in a disaster as happens to Set Brundle in The Fly (a film made by David Cronenberg on the basis of George Langelaen’s screenplay)]. Until that time, it is not a short distance from Tehran to San Sebastian: you have got to fly from Tehran to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Madrid before taking a train to San Sebastian. I had 24 difficult hours due to frequent stopovers and insomnia. For few reporters who had come from Japan and China, it was even more difficult. Most of us had caught a cold due to exhaustion and temperature changes. During the first few days, you could constantly hear reporters coughing at the theater.

The question is why, then, we had taken that hard trip? I don’t know about others, but I admit that cinema-related motivations were the last thing on my mind. I am one of those people who believe that museums are often more productive than film festivals and a painting, for example by Goya, is more amazing and impressive than a film by, for example, Godard. I mostly went there to revisit the works of art that are being held at the magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as well as to see unique national heritage of Prado Museum. Although San Sebastian is a magical city with its superb beaches, revisiting the works of Velazqez, Tiepolo, Sarolly, and Zurbaran, and of course, the gods of painting, Rubens and Goya, gives me the ultimate pleasure which I derive from touring this trove of human heritage.

We descend through dream-provoking clouds to touch our real Earth. The 56th San Sebastian International Film Festival was very productive this year. There were different sections such as Official Selection, Zabaltegi, Horizontes Latinos, Made in Spain, Basque Cinema Day, Velodrome, and Japanese Film Noir as well as tributes to grand cinema masters, Mario Monicelli and Terence Davies. More than 200 films were screened in 617 showtimes. Apart from 3,000 Spanish reporters and 1,000 foreign ones, 177,654 viewers watched the films. There were a number of surprising films topped by Hunger, the admirable work of Steve McQueen which is a favorite of writers and critics. Before reviewing films, like standing in front of paintings in a museum in order to reflect over them, enjoy them, or forget them with indifference, I have to mention a prominent part of the festival; a work which was screened as many times as festival’s films: it was festival’s trailer. Trailers of San Sebastian Film Festival are extraordinary as compared to other festivals: short, pounding, impressive, and memorable. In other words, they are like a small aperitif which increase your appetite for the main course even if the main course is not a delicious meal. The word “pounding” brings a bitter memory to my mind. The trailer of the 22nd Montreal International Film Festival (1998) was also pounding. Of course, this does not mean that it was positively surprising, but it hit you like a sledgehammer before the beginning of every film (that is, 3-4 times a day). Its subject was not bad, but its presentation was awful. A cubic piece of stone was cut until a baby was born out of it. It took 35 seconds before the baby was born, and during that time, the sound of chisel and hammer combined with uproar of the audience and the music and every other imaginable sound could be heard on loudspeakers at the highest possible decibels; it made breathing difficult for you.

San Sebastian’s trailer was 10 seconds long; it was a fixed image of a piece of wood (a narrow cut of a tree trunk) put on two thin bars. It reminded one of a bird. You could first hear mild uproar of people over it, which was like heartwarming voice of audience at a theater before a film has begun. It gradually dissolved into the sweet voice of a bird: chirping, chirping, and chirping. It was all. At the background of that symbolic bird, you could see a beautiful sky and a green forest. You have certainly experienced the sound of silence in nature. To hear that sound in this year’s trailer was like a dream. There was another delicate meaning to the trailer: the circles you saw on the section of the horizontal piece of wood signified the number of years that the festival has gone through; just in the same way that biologists use those circles to know about lifetime events of a tree.

As a traveler from Tehran, it was quite natural for me to begin my tour by seeing Iranian works before watching other films in accordance with subject and rhythm of my report. The Iranian cinema was represented by three films: Two-Legged Horse by Samira Makhmalbaf in competition section; Song of the Sparrows by Majid Majidi and The Firm Land, a co-production by Iran, India, and France directed by Chapour Haghighat in Zabaltegi section.

Makhmalbaf family has not been making films in Iran for a number of years and the reason is obvious: they want to make films without concern for approval of their screenplays and with ease of mind. Mohsen Makhmalbaf started filmmaking outside Iran with Time of Love (1990) which he made in Turkey. The screenplay has been published in Iran many times, but the film was banned from public screening. After that, Makhmalbaf made six more films in Iran the last of which was A Moment of Innocence (1995). His next four films have been made in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and India. Silence (1997) and Kandahar (2001) have been screened in Iran, but his last two films, Sex and Philosophy (2005) and Scream of the Ants (2006) have been made in such defiance of filmmaking regulations in Iran that they are never possible to be screened in the country. Of course, his fans have bought and watched smuggled CDs of those films. Although Makhmalbaf has worked freely in these films, some of his fans have noted that they did not like them or, at least, they preferred his past works. Two-Legged Horse can be considered within such a framework; all works of Makhmalbaf family members come forth from the same origin. Two-Legged Horse is about exploitation of a poor boy that has to carry a disabled boy to school on his back in return for daily pay. When he is carrying the boy, he has to compete with donkeys and horses in streets and alleys. However, the disabled boy, who comes from an affluent family, is not satisfied with him because he cannot run as fast as horses. Despite controversies which surrounded production of this film in Afghanistan (like a grenade which was thrown into crewmembers during production), its subject is good for those Iranian filmmakers who have an eye on international markets (Amir Naderi made Harmonica in 1969 whose subject and even some of whose scenes were similar to Two-Legged Horse and has been sold in many countries). Therefore, the film had no problem for production in Iran and the name of Makhmalbaf family was enough to ensure its global sales. However, the location in Afghanistan is admittedly more suitable for this film combined with amateur actors and for many years, every film that has been made without influence from censorship system has attracted more viewers.

Two-Legged Horse is aimlessly long and full of clichéd metaphors and outdated symbolism. It could have been a better film, if about 30 minutes of the total 100 minutes had been cut out. As a person, who has read all books written by Makhmalbaf and watched all their films, I am familiar with their production course as well as the rise and fall of their metaphors and symbols. Once, those metaphors and symbols were a forte for Makhmalbaf’s films, which were made under a highly political atmosphere of Iran, but now they have become Achilles’ heel of their works. Makhmalbafs should define stories of their future films in a more comfortable manner without allowing metaphors and symbols to overshadow each and every scene. I know this is going to be very difficult for a person who is looking for metaphors at the back of the simplest phenomena around him. Another article is needed to get to the details of this issue. I will write it in an upcoming issue.

Iranian films have claimed San Sebastian’s prizes on many occasions, including the brilliant Turtles Can Fly by Bahman Qobadi which won Golden Shell of the festival in 2004. Just to the extent that I hailed the choice of the jury in that year, I was surprised when a special jury prize was given to Two-Legged Horse this year.

Watching Iranian films along with reporters and writers from other countries is an opportune time to know about their reactions during and after watching those films and know whether they laugh at the same things which make us laugh, what are our cultural commonalties and to what extent a national film can rise on an international level? Watching The Song of Sparrows with this group was a very good experience. The amazing work of Majid Majidi, which is Iran’s nominee for 2009 Academy Award, almost elicited the same reaction from viewers in San Sebastian which I had observed in Iran. I had frequently noted that understanding of western audience of some Iranian films was quite different from and even to the opposite of the main intent of filmmakers. Western audience usually does not directly relate to the Iranian films, but sees them through the lens of politics and reverberations of Iran’s developments in their mass media. It was not unexpected that understanding of western audience of The Song of Sparrows was close to reality: its pictures were close to their idea of Iranian life while its humane message presented a more acceptable and different image of contemporary Iran.

The Song of Sparrows tells the story of a worker called Karim who works at an ostrich farm. He is fired when an ostrich runs away while he badly needs money to buy a hearing aid for his daughter. He goes to the city to find a hearing aid and finds out that he can earn money by carrying passengers on his motorcycle. Karim starts the new job and apart from the money, he finds worn-out things around the city and stores them in a corner of his small yard. He gradually changes and once he is tempted to steal a refrigerator, which he is carrying on his motorcycle.

The image of Tehran in Majidi’s film is quite bitter. You see a section of a class society where many people are amassing wealth (in its negative sense). Stores are full of consumer goods produced by multinational companies, as if people – importers, brokers, sellers, and buyers – were their slaves – just like people in Fritz Long’s Metropolis (1927). In that environment, innocence, nobility and honesty of Karim is threatened to be lost. The solution proposed by Majid Majidi is going back to innocent human nature and sacrifice. Karim does that and is saved and that solution is open to other people living in this metropolis.

Undoubtedly, few filmmakers but Majidi are able to approach such hectic themes. In reality, he is considered an insider by the government, but his films have been admired by critics with different tendencies. In Children of Heaven (one of five nominees for foreign film Academy Award in 1998), he had presented an intelligent image of poverty and darkness. In The Song of Sparrows he has added delicate shades of religious themes to his bitter and protesting story, so that, it won’t be considered as presenting a bleak picture of the country (which state authorities usually believe such films try to do). Majidi is not only successful in the country, but he is also one of the most successful Iranian filmmakers in winning awards from many creditable world festivals. Two examples include jury special prize of San Sebastian for The Father in 1996 and the best actor prize of Berlin Film Festival for The Song of Sparrows in 2008.

Good feature films are not usually made on small budgets: The Firm Land by Chapour Haghighat is one of them. It is a co-production by Iran, India and France and reminds one of poor children with emaciated bodies and lackluster faces as a result of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. People like Chapour Haghighat who write cultural screenplays with an artistic intent (most of which are not suitable for public screening) are not few and since professional producers are reluctant to help them, they go everywhere to find a small budget and make their dream come true. Such endeavors are laudable, but the result should conform to the minimum of film standards. Although most of such films end up in some festivals and cultural circles as well as unpopular television channels, when a work has nothing to say on ground of low budget, it is like a leafless tree with no shade.

The Firm Land is story of villagers at a remote village near the Indian Ocean which is plagued by a lethal disease. Villagers decided to call on government for help, but since they have no direct access to authorities, they send six representatives to the capital to employ “educated people” who could speak for them. Villagers are confused and in trouble in the big city, but a former and disillusioned university teacher encourages them to harass health ministry officials until somebody would listen to them. However, the ministry staff violently rejects them. An old dame, who is a broke noblewoman, arranges a big feast for them. They dance and sing and talk about happiness and life….

The film is supposed to be about the passage of time and hopes of people who suffer from loneliness and death. The suffering through which the viewers go in order to get that message is no less! It is an unorganized film like amateur ones. Naturally, there is no Indian singing and dancing (whose choreography and performance is very costly); if there were any, we would have expected less from the film. Now, facing a film with a claim to artistry, the least expectation is to see some good scenes, satisfactory mise en scene and few impressive performances. But even this minimal expectation is not met.

There is no doubt about cultural intentions of Chapour Haghighat, but it is not enough. It is correct understanding of film which turns a revolving reel into a work of art. Haghighat is not famous in Iran. He has been born in Garmsar in 1947, but has lived in Paris for many years. He is said to hold a doctorate in sociology and teaches at Sorbonne. Supported by a cultural foundation, he made The Night Song of Travelers in 2005 whose storyline was somehow similar to The Firm Land.

Perhaps festival organizers had been under a contractual obligation or something to put three Spanish films in Official Selection section (something like unending rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer teams over championship) because those three films were not good representatives for the brilliant Spanish cinema. If those are top productions of Spain in 2008, what should we say about other Spanish films? We know that most new films are made for box office return and entertainment and their makers do not care much about aesthetic aspects of their works. This is not special to Spain and the situation is the same all around the world. There is no sign of brilliant films of 1950s to 1980s. It seems that the world in culturally in decline. Maybe I am too picky because in a world plagued by terrorist bombings, war in Gaza, and widespread economic woes, people need more peace and entertainment away from serious thinking.

Out of three Spanish films in the competition section, My Prison Yard by Ms. My Prison Yard Belen Macias included pleasant and attractive moments despite its bitter story, though it was not an overall powerful film. It was very similar to Women’s Prison, which was also made by a female director, Manijeh Hekmat, in Iran in 2000. Apart from few instances, minor stories which shape both films are the same. The only important difference between the two films is in their tones. My Prison Yard has a happy and hopeful tone, while that of Women’s Prison was bitter and sad.

My Prison Yard tells the story of female prisoners who have been banished from normal life. Isa is a bitter-minded but generous thief who cannot adapt to life out of prison. Her friends include Dolores, Women’s Prison a blonde gipsy who has killed her husband; Rosa, the kind and vulnerable prostitute; Ajo, who is in love with Pilar (another inmate); and Luisa, a simple Colombian who is baffled in an environment where nobody understands her. When Mar arrives as a new member of prison staff who cannot adapt to strict prison laws, women prisoners start on a journey which ends in their freedom. With Adla, the prison warden closing her eyes, they form a theatrical group which gives them new energy to fight difficulties of life.

Even if My Prison Yard has been inspired by Women’s Prison, Belen Macias has made is into a totally local and independent work. Unlike men, women’s behaviors and tempers are somehow similar all around the world and they face the same problems and difficulties wherever they are. Belen Macias has been born in Tarmgona and has already directed theatrical plays, advertisements, and television series. She has made two admirable short films and My Prison Yard is her first feature.

Bullet in the Head was the second Spanish film in the competition section and was among those films that linger in memory. It is not because of an attractive story or memorable performances; nor for its masterly structure or the dialogues which cannot be heard! Jaime Rosales should have worked himself to death over this film. There are so many needless or necessary shots from behind a window or door that you just feel sick of any door and window. It is an attractive idea that characters talk and we see their lips moving without hearing what they say. However, using this outmoded method with no creativity makes us sorry more than seeing a good theme that has been wasted. Rosales has mainly used two methods; he has either recorded long shots using a Tele lens, or has got people to talk behind window panes of their houses, stores, phone booths, and automobiles. There is a scene where the leading character is making love to a woman. Where in the world will somebody do this at night, in a heavily lighted room, and behind a window overlooking the street?

Story of this memorable film, which may excite some cinema freshmen, is as such: Ion is an ordinary man who wakes up in the morning, has his breakfast, gets his things and meets with his lawyer. One night, he comes across a girl at a party. They spend the night at the girl’s apartment (the aforesaid scene). Afterwards, Ion’s life continues on the past smooth course and he spends days in the same unimportant situations. One day, he rides a car with another person and they drive toward France. They spend the night at a couple’s house. The next morning, they kill two plainclothesmen after a chance meeting at a café. The only dialogue that you hear is in the closing scene when Ion shouts “Fuck policemen” before shooting them!

Such “ambiguous” movies pave the way for some critics of metaphor to claim that the film has depicted such a police atmosphere that even viewers were considered outsiders! Or what is the use of words when there is nobody to listen to you? If this is the case, what we should say about silent masterpieces which talked through their pictures alone? I will not exchange a single frame of German expressionist silents for a hundred of such films.

Bullet in the Head is the third feature film by Jaime Rosales. He has been born in Barcelona in 1970 and made his first film, The Hours of the Day, in 2003, which was screened at Cannes and won a FIPRESCI award. I have not seen that film, but those who win FIPRESCI usually fail to make more films better than or even matching their first; there are many examples.

The share of the American films from box office in many European countries is usually higher than domestic productions of those countries: at least 60 percent of annual sales. Sometimes, governments take action to support the national cinema and try to change this rule by lending their financial support and appropriating subsidies to films with special themes. Camino, the third Spanish movie in the competition section is one of those films which has been funded by Spain’s Ministry of Culture and Television and has been made through a hefty budget (compared to other Spanish movies). Although the result is not remarkable, it will be most probably welcomed by domestic markets and television channels.

The film is based on a true story and is an emotional journey focused on an 11-year-old girl called Camino. The girl should simultaneously face two serious events in her life: falling in love and dying of cancer. Above all, she is supposed to be a bright light penetrating through all the darkness which is trying to strip her of the love to live and show other people around her the path to salvation.

Camino is very emotional. The director, Javier Fesser, has used all elements to make a weepy movie for tender viewers. It is quite similar to The Song of Bernadette, the admirable work of Henry King (1943). The director has not denied that similarity and to prove that he is honest, he shows us the cover of the book, The Song of Bernadette (by Franz Werfel) in a scene when Camino’s mother is reading a book to her at the hospital. This is not the sole imitation in the film, but it employs certain elements from Cinderella. The music weighs heavily on the film and there are few scenes without it. The film budget has been mostly spent on its special effects. Like The Song of Bernadette, the film contains anti-dogmatism elements (condemning dogmatic priests) without insulting religion or the church. On the whole, Camino is an intermediate movie which is fit to be a telefilm, rather than a feature.

Javier Fesser has already directed such feature films as The Miracle of P. Tinto (1998) and Mortadelo & Filemon: the Big Adventure (2003). He has been highly admired as director of short films and has won many prizes. In 2004, his short film, Binta and the Great Idea, was nominated for Academy Award of the best short film. His publicity material for Camino outdid all other movies. Despite most other films whose publicity was limited to a brochure or a folder, there was a green book at reporters’ box with the name Camino on it. When you opened it, instead of book, you saw a small box in which a number of letters in Camino’s handwriting had been put in an adroit manner which gave you specifications of the film, a summary of the screenplay, and introduction of crewmembers. A number of photos, a CD containing parts of the film, a prayer from the Bible, and a leaf of Camino’s painting notebook were other items inside the box. Camino’s painting was a heart on which she had written: Camino Loves Jesus. The word “love” was replaced by a small heart. This brilliant idea of producers was truly enchanting.

The United States was also represented in Official Selection section by three films, though two of them were not for judgment: the war comedy Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller), a social drama called Frozen River and Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which was a slapstick comedy. Frozen River was Courtney Hunt’s directorship debut which has won jury’s grand prix of Sundance Festival (which supports independent films in the United States) in 2008 and is an impressive film. It tells the story of a woman called Ray Eddy who wishes to buy a small house where she is living with her young boy. Her problems begin when her gamble-loving husband secretly takes the money they have saved to buy the house and loses it in gamble. Realtors have given her a deadline to either pay the debt or leave the house. To find money, Ray enters a human smuggling gang. She sees many people who have suffered a lot and whose sufferings are much bigger and more painful than hers.

Ms. Courtney Hunt, who has directed this film, is a graduate of fine arts from Columbia University’s Film Division whose first film is a long stride. She has been successful in communicating the cold atmosphere of her film to her audience. Realistic photography by Reed Morano using natural lights has done a great part in transferring the cold atmosphere of the film. Good performances, especially by Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, constitute another advantage of Frozen River. If Hunt stays away from low-quality television films, she would be a promising filmmaker.

Although public screening of The Brothers Bloom has been scheduled for spring 2009, there have been few festivals which did not have it in one of their sections since September 2008; from Stockholm Festival in Sweden to Abu Dhabi Festival in the United Arab Emirates and from Toronto in Canada to San Sebastian. Interestingly, some festivals have proudly announced that the film is their opening or closing program. This shows that many festivals need a great audience in order to attract sponsors and needed money.

The Brothers Bloom is an entertaining and funny film. It is a well-made commercial movie running on a popular storyline. Bloom brothers are the most skillful cons in the world. They have plotted many scenarios on the basis of weaknesses of their millionaire victims to rob their money. Now, they are planning their last scheme before retirement. They are going to cheat on a young, wealthy woman who has been handed down a hefty bequest. However, their adventure takes a different turn and through a journey around the world, a true romantic story evolves which is quite the opposite of what the two brothers thought about.

The Brothers Bloom is a costly film shot in many locations and its producers have been so confident about the result of their work that they have spared no expense. Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, and Rinko Kikuchi are leading actors of the film and salaries paid to the first three have been relatively high. Locations vary from New York to Jakarta and from Africa to Australia. Producers are hopeful that the film will be received enthusiastically in 10-15 countries where it has been shot. We must wait and see what happens in the spring, though nothing is quite impossible in our changing world.

Rian Johnson has graduated from cinema and television school of USC in 1996. His first feature film, Brick (2005), has won many prizes and has been greatly admired by critics, but The Brothers Bloom does not seem possible to win the same acclaim.

England, like Spain and US, had sent three films to Official Selection section, as if some kind of balance had to be kept! Two of those films were not to be judged. Perhaps quality of other countries’ films is so low that nine films of this section have come from the above three countries. The Other Man (Richard Eyre), Enova (Michael Winterbottom), and The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas (Mark Herman) were Britain’s representatives the last of which is a remarkable work.

The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas is an antiwar movie based on a novel by famous Irish writer, John Boyne which tells the story of friendship between the nine-year-old Bruno, son of a prison camp guard in Berlin in 1942, and Shmuel, an underage prisoner of the same camp. The shocking melodrama helps the young audience to come to grips with the atmosphere prevalent in World War II and to learn more about this horrible human catastrophe. Mark Herman, the screenwriter and director, has noted that this has been his main motive for making the film. He has already made a number of acclaimed movies such as Brassed Off (1996) (which was both a candidate for BAFTA and won a Casar award for the best foreign film). He has noted that his film is not solely for children and is different from fantastic films like Harry Potter, but kids can and should see it. He maintains, “Life is not simply adventures and fantasies about superheroes like Batman and Superman and children should know about what happened to children of their age during the World War II. The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas is very impressive and especially its surprising and unconventional ending lingers in mind.

Every film made by Michael Winterbottom depicts a different world compared to his previous films. His last production, Genova, has nothing to do with his Mighty Heart (2007) and, especially, with his controversial film, The Road to Guantanamo (2006). In Genova, 16-year-old Kelly and 10-year-old Mary who have lost their mother, Marianne, in a car accident, leave the United States with their British father, Joe, to live in Genova for a year. Barbarra, an old friend of Joe, helps them get settled. Their father teaches at the university while his daughters learn piano from a guy called Mauro. Mauro’s house is in the old part of Genova which is full of tortuous alleys where the girls have difficulty finding their way. As Kelly finds out about this new, mysterious world and is annoyed at having to take care of her younger sister, Mary blames herself for her mother’s death and tells Barbarra that she sometimes sees her mother in a trance before falling asleep.

Genova is a confused film on the long track record of Winterbottom. He vacillates between making a touristic film and a spiritual one and the result is unattractive. Genova is not even as successful as those films which tourism departments make to introduce their cities’ attractions. Winterbottom shows nothing of the zest of warm-blooded people of Genova. I have seen, strolled, and walked in many of those places which you see in this film; Genova’s magic is worlds apart from Winterbottom’s exotic concept.

Zabaltegi is the most productive section of the festival where major movies are screened. Before saying farewell to the festival, I review four more films in this section.

Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme, the active director and winner of five Oscars for his memorable The Silence of the Lambs (1991), is the story of Kym, an oversensitive, problematic girl who has been hospitalized at a clinic for a while. She is very talkative and has a slanderous way of talking who neither recognizes her own shortcomings, nor knows how to behave toward others. She constantly smokes and looks nervous, but instead of regretting what she has done, she is ready to incriminate others. She is trying in vain to adapt to her surroundings and look like a normal person, but she cannot do that without nervous fits and drawing other people’s attention. Now, she leaves the clinic after more than nine months and goes home to take part in wedding ceremony of her sister, Rachel.

It is a journey back to Jonathan Demme’s independent cinema and a good beginning for Jenny Lumet (Sydney Lumet’s daughter) who is screenwriter. Helped by a photographer and an editor, they have managed to create a totally acceptable atmosphere. The best aspect of the film is that Jonathan Demme has dared to combine bitter and sweet. He has understood that major milestones like marriage combine the best and worst of humans. The factor which had made the film even more realistic was a decision by Demme and his director of photography to make “the most beautiful family film in history of cinema”. This is an acceptable work by Demme, which of course, falls short of his past masterpieces.

Tokyo Sonata, which represents Japan in 2008 Academy Awards, has a universal story: Sazaki is loyal employee of a big Japanese company. When the company decides to relocate its administration in China, Sazaki loses his job, but does not dare to tell his family. He stands in line at job agencies while his wife goes around their house with remarkable tact to bring apparent peace to their house which only exists at the dinner table. Their children have lost their emotional relationship to their father.

This is the latest work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who belongs to the third generation of Japanese cinema, and its screenplay has been written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka based on an original novel by the Australian writer, Max Mannix. They have first cast a sarcastic look at father’s vain effort to mask his joblessness followed by his accidental meeting with an old friend, Kuroso, at a restaurant which gives free food to the poor. Kuroso, who is also jobless, has set his cellphone in such a way that it would ring at certain intervals to show others that he is very busy! In a funny sequence, when Sazaki has invited him to his house, he tries to make his wife believe that they work together! In the second part of the film, the initial comic look shifts toward a tragic situation to give it a universal dimension. Although there is nothing new in this film compared to other Japanese movies, Tokyo Sonata avails of seamless performances of its actors, especially Teruyuki Kagawa as Sazaki and Kyoko Koizumi as his loyal wife. Kurosawa’s style in trying to convey the message through implications, which has made his horror movies such a hit, has been also successful here and is a positive point for this film.

After making their brilliant No Country for Old Men, which brought four Oscars to Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), they have returned with Burn after Reading in order to demonstrate their finesse in making unconventional films once more. It is present-time Washington. Osberne, the experienced CIA analyst is demoted for his alcoholism. He is angry and decides to write his memoirs. On the other hand, Kaite, his wife who is demanding divorce, copies his computer’s contents on a disc, but one copy of that disc is lost. It is found by a gymnastics coach who sees that an opportune time to pocket some money. His middle-aged friend, Linda, who is going to have a plastic surgery, joins gymnastics coach to con Osberne. During a subsequent meeting, Osberne reacts violently to their scheme, but Linda tries to sell the disc to the Russian embassy.

Coen brothers’ films always make you feel that everything is happening in the past. Even present-time events seem to suspend in time. Brothers make their movies with due care for every scene down to the smallest details. However, their success depends on them being cautious not to allow their films look very formalistic, which may get viewers away from the main story. Burn after Reading is all about searching and following. Like most other characters created by Coen brothers, the leading characters lose a valuable (which is a computer disc here), but they are avidly looking for something else and foolishly think that they can get away with it. Coen brothers accompany their stories with satirical mages of exciting scenes of spy films including satellite photos at the beginning of the film as well as views from security cameras looking down and powerful music. On the whole, they make up a “farce” comedy containing attractive properties of a comic work.

I conclude this report by reviewing one of the most remarkable films made in 2008: Steven McQueen’s Hunger; the 40-year-old black British director whose debut was quite showy. His film is the story of the last six weeks of Bobby Sands’ life at Maze prison in Northern Ireland and the events which ended in his hunger strike and eventual death. He also looks at the situation of other prisoners and prison guards. In March 1981, Sands’, who was member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), went on a hunger strike which led to his death 66 days later at an age of 27. This turned him into an international figure and drew global attention to IRA’s anti-British struggles. The then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her cabinet refused to recognize Sands and his friends as political prisoners and said they were criminals who should be punished like other common criminals. His death was followed by other members of IRA going on hunger strike which sent nine more members of the Irish Republican Army to their deaths.

The film has a quite, but powerful tone in telling this political and historical story. There are many shocking and impressive scenes in the film, but what makes it so prominent is a verbal duel between Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest both of whom are apparently on the same side. Both of them believe in struggle for the liberation of Northern Ireland, but their methods are totally different. Therefore, their 18-minute conversation is hectic focus of the film. Both are sitting on either side of a table and are, at first, arguing in low voice. Sands is not wearing a shirt (while the priest is clad in his official black robe) and his nakedness lends more stress to visual aspect of the film’s main theme: hunger strike. At first, it seems that Sands is having a heart-to-heart talk with the priest, but they gradually oppose each other. They do not talk to viewers, but question each other’s methods. Therefore, there are no common behind-the-shoulder or edited scenes in this sequence and everything has been shot in an 18-minute take. It is here that the director has taken his stride and, though depicting the consequences of physical torment, he reminds us that determining correct method of struggle is sometimes more different than the struggle itself.
Steve McQueen has studied at Chelsea School of Art, Goldsmiths College of London and the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. He began his career as still photographer. McQueen has organized many exhibitions of his photos at creditable museums and galleries and has won prizes. Hunger has also won a Camera d’Or in Un Certain Regard (A Kind of Look) section of Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

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