Mad About English! (2008)

Country: Singapore, China
Language: English, Mandarin
Director:
Lian Pek
Running Time: 90 minutes

Theme: Culture (Language) / Documentary

Ratings: N/A

Awards: N/A

Film Festivals: N/A

Nominations: N/A

Mad About English (2008) is a peculiarity, simply for the lack of information that is even available on this documentary helmed by Singaporean filmmaker Lian Pek on the World Wide Web. Running a search through Google hardly throws up any hits save from a few (local) reviews here and there, such is the low-key nature of the film. But this is surprising, though, as I expected much more international media attention on the underground documentary that deals with the very timely and contemporary issue of Chinese nationals picking up English en masse to deal with the (then) upcoming Olympic Games and Shanghai World Expo, so as to play their part as good hosts and being able to bridge any communication barriers between themselves and the international community. Boy are those scenes captured on the parade square really scary, with tens of thousands of citizens congregating everyday just to listen to one man lecture at the podium in a scene perhaps similar to a revolutionary revolt.

Broken English, bizarre accents and awful grammar aside (“I not lazy, so I will success! – er, what?), their efforts are indeed commendable and Lian Pek’s social commentary ventures deep into the heart of China. They are inexorable and tireless in their spirit to pick up the language as a community, working in tandem and each doing his or her own part, however small it may be, in a widespread nationalistic sentiment that pushes China into a positive global limelight. There is, after all, only so much new state-of-the-art infrastructure like the Birds’ Nest can do. Camaraderie and rapport struck between the locals and the foreigners will be what eventually count and make the difference.

There is no excuse, regardless of age. There is a young girl enrolled in elementary school joining a language boot camp, and a retiree volunteer for the Games who practises her English everyday whilst doing taiji (“I a volunteer”). “Hello, how are you today?” they greet warmly. They are humble in the face of their lack of knowledge, and appear to be willing to listen to advice, correct themselves and learn—very much unlike Singaporeans who fall prey to grammar lapses such that a “Speak Good English Campaign” is necessary, or the Taiwanese who flamed the Singaporean brand of English on a variety show that is very much uncalled for, given the higher standard of the language Singapore has over the Taiwanese. (And I say this for a fact: the foreign friends I made while I was on exchange could hardly understand the Taiwanese brand of the language)

The documentary at just 90 minutes long is a terse affair—and I can’t help but feel that much more could have been done to ensure a more all-rounded perspective of the issue. The film pans out like a propagandistic affair that has no downside to it, as hardly any negative point of view is acquired through the lenses of the camera. But still, it is undeniable that the documentary is a well executed one, gently paced with moments of unintentional comedy shining through with massive grammar faux pas

 

Departures (2008) おくりびと

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yōjirō Takita
Running Time: 131 minutes
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 81% | Metacritic.com: 68/100

Film Festivals:
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival
2008 Montréal World Film Festival
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
2010 Pacific Rim Film Festival (Santa Cruz, USA)
2010 Borderlines Film Festival (Hertfordshire, UK)

Awards:
2009 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (controversially beating hot favorite Waltz with Bashir)
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Performance by an Actor  (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Asian Film Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki) / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Screenplay / Best Sound / Best Supporting Actor (Tsutomu Yamazaki) / Best Supporting Actresss (Kimiko Yo)
2009 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival: Audience Award for Favorite Feature
2009 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Film, Best Sound
2008 Montréal World Film Festival: Grand Prix des Amériques
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival: Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
2009 Yokohama Film Festival: Festival Prize for Best Director, Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Kimiko Yo; Ryoko Hirosue)

Nominations:
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Screenplay
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Ryoko Hirosue) / Best Art Direction / Best Film Score
2010 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Asian Film

Departures (2008) by Yojiro Takita won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, thus thrusting the otherwise humble film about traditional rites and rituals of death and funeral processions into international limelight. Much unlike the hot favorite nominee of that year, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) that created waves in the film festival circuit, Departures (2008) was not picked up by any of the Top Three film festivals in the world, such is the nondescript, low-key nature of the modest production. Its stoic sentimentality borders on calmness and tranquility, even in the face of death. The underlying emotional currents will thus land the greatest impact on anyone who watches the film, which is also based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiography Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.

There are no pretentious effects or fancy cinematic techniques. Everything is portrayed in its  barest stripped-down beauty that does not steal attention away from the core subject of death and moving on. And it would take someone with a heart of stone for the story to not tug at the heartstrings by the third quarter of the film.

The protagonist is an ex-cellist in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), who moves back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He falls for a cleverly-worded advertisement for a good-paying job seeking assistants for “departures”, and goes for an interview uncertain of what to expect. Comic relief is provided in the earlier parts of the movie with Daigo acting as a corpse for a DVD explaining the embalmment process. His first assignment involved a lonely old woman who has been dead for two weeks. While Daigo becomes more experienced, the sense of gratitude of the survivors of the dead gives him a sense of accomplishment in the job. But social taboos kick in as his peers started to ostracize and humiliate him for his “disgusting” profession. Yet the honor and respect of the profession finally shone through in a redemption only possible when he performs the rituals in front of his family when a family friend passes away. Daigo bears a grudge against his father, but when he dies Daigo was meant to prepare the body. The finale scene was emotionally affective, and it symbolizes Daigo coming to terms with the death and finally seeking closure to the innate hatred. It is ironic that Daigo has to give up his big-city dreams and reclaims his sense of his roots in the small-town context. Director Takita exercises restraint in sensationalizing the event, opting instead to show death as a commonplace cycle of life rather than flirting with it as a denouement or melodrama.

The topic is fresh as the hardly-understood profession takes centerstage and the movie is relevant in according morticians the transcendent respect amid cultural condemnations. No one likes dealing with death, and for someone to have to meet death face on everyday is no mean feat. The solemn film is able to straddle the balance of lamentations and regret of what could have been, with that of laughter—as the death of someone is clearly in today’s society taken on communal importance as people visit the funeral to pay their last respects, and this cuts across cultures. And it is with this positivity that the movie attempts to bring forth the positivity that might surround death. A euphemism for “death”, the title Departures hardly counts for a negative word especially when it primarily refers to the act of leaving for new places. Regardless of whatever cultural or religious beliefs you subscribe to, dying is a natural act of moving on, whilst the living—following a prolonged process of grief, denial and coming to terms with the unfortunate situation—learn to do so as well.