Where Is The Friend’s Home? (1987) خانه دوست کجاست

Country: Iran
Languange: Persian
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Babek Ahmed Poor, Ahmed Ahmed Poor, Kheda Barech Defai, Iran Outari, Ait Ansari

Theme: Culture (Friendship)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.8/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1987 Fajr Film Festival
1989 Locarno International Film Festival

Awards:
1987 Fajr Film Festival: Golden Plate for Best Director / Special Jury Award
1989 Locarno International Film Festival: Bronze Leopard / FIPRESCI Prize – Special Mention / Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention

Nominations:
1989 Locarno International Film Festival: Golden Leopard

Where Is The Friend’s Home? (1987) by Abbas Kiarostami is considered the first film in Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, which also includes follow-ups such as And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). But the director has also claimed that it might be better to take Taste of Cherry (1997) as the third film whilst omitting Where Is The Friend’s Home? because of the running narrative theme of “the preciousness of life” (Cheshire, 1999).

The film is deceptively boring yet intelligently simple. It tells the story of a young boy, Ahmed, who travels from Koker, a rural town of Iran, to a neighboring village to return the notebook of a schoolmate, Reda, that he had accidentally picked up by mistake. Ahmed deems this act important because his friend had been harshly reprimanded earlier on in the day because of not doing his homework on the notebook as it was in the hands of another classmate. The teacher threatens to expel Reda, who promptly burst into tears at the unfairness of the situation. It is not as if he did not complete his homework – he merely did it on loose sheets of paper that could very well have been pasted back into his notebook after all. This thereby creates an unsettling scene as Kiarostami plants Ahmed, who sits next to Reda within a few frames as well, thus capturing his uneasiness at the situation amid a sense of not knowing how to react to console Reda. Thus lies the root of the title of the movie, as the conscientious schoolboy sneaks out of home alone, for the first time, and attempts to search for Reda’s home.

Kiarostami’s movie is very affective, as there is nothing more that can capture one’s attention and draw the viewer in other than the raw emotions of a young child. You cannot help but root for Ahmed in his quest to fulfill his the sense of civic duty, and to uphold the basic loyalty one should have for a good friend. Adults here are portrayed in a bad light in the movie which acts as a very good social commentary of how Iran might be at that point of time. Adults are portrayed as strait-laced single-minded people who are, to say the least, unreasonable. The teacher is hypocritical and exercises double standard, himself not fulfilling the duties of a teacher and arriving late for class. Yet, unless punctuality is not a virtue that is condoned in the Iranian society, he turns a blind eye on the student that arrives later than him. How would this impart the correct moral values into the young children? Further, Ahmed’s mother is unwilling to listen to reason, even when Reda had willingly lent his notebook to Ahmed in the first place – which morally and rightfully gives Ahmed the impetus to ensure the notebook is returned to Reda. She even says at one point in time, “Serves him right. He deserves to be expelled.” Thankfully, the innocent children tend to be the most self-righteous in their actions (yet another similarity could be drawn to Tietou in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The Blue Kite). In the middle of the movie, we see Ahmed’s grandfather resting by the roadside. He proclaims “I want the child to be brought up properly” but a few scenes later sends Ahmed away to buy him a packet of cigarettes. He also says, “Anyway, I’ll find an excuse to give a beating every fortnight.” How does introducing a vice to a young boy constitute “proper” upbringing?

The movie is engaging in its numerous still shots and long takes that introduce the lives of the average proletariat Iranian family. Through a series of medium (thanks Hui Ping!) shots in the first scenes within the house, we see tension in the family taken between the mother and the son contrasted against still shots. Further, a wide establishing shot is captured as Ahmed runs up the slope on a barren hill, framed with a solitary tree standing naked against the background. This framing thus creates an impression of the height and depth of the field, whilst filling the empty space that would otherwise have been the horizon atop the hill. The camera follows the 180º rule strictly in Ahmed’s running sequence in the medium shots. As he runs out of one frame to the right, he is shown running back into the frame from the right.

I also cannot bear but note the anachronism this film contains. Being set in the 1980s, an age where mobile phones are not prevalent, a promise is a promise. There is thus no way in reneging a promise or a deal, nor will there be a way in the movie for Ahmed to reach out to Reda via a simple text message (you’d be surprised at what age children today start owning a handphone), who probably thought that he had misplaced his notebook and who was probably fearing the worse from the teacher the next day. This stands in stark contrast to a denigration of such virtues in present-day society, what with the increasing interconnectivity between people that thus has led to an ease in contacting people.

References

Cheshire, G. (1999). Taste of cherry. Retrieved on November 19, 2010, from http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/55-taste-of-cherry

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Singapore Dreaming (2006) 美滿人生

Country: Singapore
Language: English, Mandarin, Hokkien
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Colin Goh, Wu Yen Yen
Starring: Richard Low, Alice Lim, Serene Chen, Yeo Yann Yann, Lim Yu-Beng, Dick Su
Theme: Culture

Ratings: IMDB: 6.7/10

Film Festivals:
2006 San Sebastián International Film Festival
2007 Asian-American International Film Festival
2007 Tokyo International Film Festival

Awards:
2006 SSIFF: Moutblanc New Screenwriter Award
2007 AAIFF: Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
2007 TIFF: Best Asian/Middle-Eastern Film Award

Singapore Dreaming realistically captures the livelihood of a typical working class family, right down to the propagation of materialistic desires of the archetypical 5’C’s (cash, condominium, credit card, country club, career). This production, funded by renowned plastic surgeon Dr Woffles Wu, also features a joint collaboration between husband-wife pair Colin Goh and Wu Yen Yen, novice filmmakers with the former being the honcho between spoof website Talking Cock.

Like what most Singaporean movies like to do, probably to pander the film to an international audience who may not be familiar with what Singapore is like, Singapore Dreaming opens with a series of random cutaway ‘filler’ shots that capture the everyday essence of Singapore life, which are subsequently peppered through the film as “chapter dividers” that provide a breather in the flow of the film. For instance, the MRT station, the cashier counting bills, the hawker center, the wet market, the Singapore Pools outlet, a straight-up frontal shot of the Merlion etc. This is also evident in other films like the recent Boo Junfeng film Sandcastles (2010) and Eric Khoo films like 12 Storeys (1997) and Be With Me (2005). Images like the three-or-four-room HDB flat with its stoic corridors, wet market and hawker center will strike a resonance with local heartland culture, but also set the proletariat tone of the film among foreign audiences. Tied together with the title Singapore Dreaming, “dreaming” being an euphemism for Dream and the title a blatant reference to The American Dream, we sense that it remains an ongoing process for Singapore, in stark contrast to the finished product that are the ideals of the American Dream.

Realism is the standard directorial stylistic technique used in this film, as the movie aims to capture everyday Singaporeans going about their everyday work. The (then-)obsession over photography on camera phones is evident in 04:04 (CD1) as Irene takes a shot of her aunt preparing food on the camera phone, and in a subsequent scene as she takes a shot of a baby on the bus. Several still shots focus on Mei and CK, a couple whose drive on the expressway (06:35; CD1) contains testy dialogue that is a sign of frosty relations that is exemplified thorugh the means the characters are placed within the shot. The wife is akin to a passenger and the husband a chauffeur as the wife opts not to sit next to the husband in the front seat. This could be inferred as a distinct disparate nature of the “class” and “social” belonging both characters find themselves in. Mei can be inferred to look down on CK – and we learn that this is true later on in the movie, that she doesn’t think much of his job peddling insurance. Through separate cutaway scenes at 10:00 (CD1) that feature the lead protagonists at their respective workplaces, we can tell that they are all employed rather than self-employed, and their cubicled jobs indicate the menial everyday nature of their work. This is reinforced in 12:34 (CD1), when CK is seen flipping through his old yearbook and as he tries to peddle insurance to old classmates under the pretext of catching up. The camera cuts to a medium shot that captures the drab fluorescent lighting, sharp angles, and motivational posters on the wall that seemingly mock the characters in their everyday menial work.

Seng returns home, supposedly with an American degree, and is immediately viewed upon – with bias – as the pride and future of the family. But the directors drop subtle hints amid the context that all might not be as rosy as it seems. First, at 18:56 (CD1) the camera frames the shot such that Seng’s back is shown such that his face is not shown most of the time – an insinuation that he might have something to hide. There is palpable tension around the steamboat table as the characters mouth curt remarks at one another. Further, Seng doesn’t seem very happy when his father talks about his expectations – a sign of negativity surrounding his supposed degree. The close-up at 33:54 (CD1) has a fish tank by the corner of the frame, with the camera then panning to capture the fiancée as she cosies up to Seng, whose mother is hugging him from his left. Yet he doesn’t look contented despite having the love of the two most important women in his life. This is subsequently confirmed in the climactic burst-up when Seng confessed to not having graduated at all, and not acquiring a degree, thus signifiying that not only his parents have wasted tons of money on him, his fiancée Irene had also done so. Such is his materialistic demands and wants that he has squandered away the money and trust provided by his loved ones.

The voyeuristic paparazzi-esque framing at 37:49 (CD1) shows that the father character is not as self-righteous as he seems, but has something to hide. Through the use of a wide shot, the camera frames the father, along with his mistress and illegitimate child occupying a table amid many other customers at the roadside durian store. Rather than move closer into the scene to capture the state of being of the family through a direct focus on their expressions, the camera keeps its safety distance. This discreet shot implies something fishy is going on, and this is ascertained later when they appear at his funeral. The father’s death was a dramatic moment of stark contrast – his eagerness at winning $2 million in Toto a few days before and being elected for a country club membership interview short-lived as he dies of heart failure moments before the interview. The camera cuts away to a close-up of the swerving tennis racquet and ball within the tennis court, paired with the sound effects of the smack (05:34; CD2) as the world spins around him – and frames him (05:58; CD2) with a close-up that captures the vacant look in his eyes that indicate him losing sight of his ideals in life.

In portrayal of reality Goh and Wu opt for still shots through most of the movie, and hence the shaky camera shots that were used in the climax appear jarring in contrast. This was evident from 26:04 (CD2) onwards, when the camera shifts from a confrontation between Mei and Seng as he accuses her of forcing money out of their mother, who is apparently in shock and oblivious to the world.

Yet in spite of the wide critical acclaim and endorsement by President S R Nathan himself, the independent film still failed to break even, acquiring only $420,000 worth of box office gross that remains far short of the $800,000 production costs. Is this really a sign of the maturity of local audiences who would only support mainstream fare by Jack Neo?

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

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 臥虎藏龍

Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, USA
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ang Lee
Running Time: 120 minutes
Starring: Chow Yun-fatt, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen

Theme: Culture (wuxia pian)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 97% | Metacritic.com: 93/100

Film Festivals:
2000 Bergen International Film Festival
2000 Ghent International Film Festival
2000 Toronto International Film Festival

(Selected) Awards:
2001 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Art Direction/Best Cinematography/Best Foreign Language Film/Best Music, Original Score
2001 Australian Film Institute: Best Foreign Film Award
2001 BAFTA Awards: Best Costume Design, Best Film Not in the English Language
2001 Directors Guild of America Award: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures
2001 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director – Motion Picture, Best Foreign Language Film
2000 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Film
2001 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Cheng Pei-Pei)
2000 Toronto International Film Festival: Best Director (Ang Lee0

(Selected) Nominations:
2001 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Costume Design/Best Director/Best Editing/Best Music, Original Song/Best Picture
2001 Art Directors Guild: Excellence in Production Design Award for a Feature Film
2001 BAFTA Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actress (Zhang Ziyi)
2000 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi), Best Director, Best Film
2001 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Actor (Chow Yun-Fatt), Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi)

Released at the start of the millennium, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Chinese language martial arts (wuxia) film directed by Ang Lee. It features an international cast of ethnic Chinese actors such as Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. The movie was based on the fourth installment in a series of novels – the Crane Iron Pentalogy – by early 20th century novelist Wang Du Lun. A multinational production with investments from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and USA, the film is credited to these four countries although the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Picture was accredited to Taiwan in the end. But this could prove to be an interesting case study of how countries want to gain co-ownership of a movie that does well in the international circuit, but this urge is of less important amongst co-productions that do not become as prominent on a global scale. [Point in note: I’ve always thought of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a Taiwanese film, and it is only through my research for these film notes that I realize the involvement of other countries]

Set amid the Qing dynasty, the story revolves around martial arts master Li Mu Bai, who embarks on a quest for revenge in his attempt to recover Green destiny, a seemingly invincible weapon. Along the way, he meets with resistance from a host of people, including his arch-nemesis Jade Fox and Jen.

Despite its largely ridiculous storyline, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did a magnificent job in terms of its martial arts portrayal. It was, as Park (2001) so aptly put it, “a rare example of fearless yet thoughtful experimentation by veteran filmmakers”, especially when we consider that this was director Ang Lee’s first experience with martial arts films. The camerawork is artful but not showy. Every shot is designed to sustain the illusion of reality.

One of the film’s features that really stood out was its heavy use of wirework. A controversial issue amongst martial arts movie fans, wirework is traditionally seen as cheesy and over-exaggerated. It dramatizes the characters’ actions and movements unnecessarily and makes everything seem really incredulous. However, in the case of Crouching Tiger, its extensive use of wirework actually came across rather positively and it blended well together with the dance-like choreography of the characters’ movements without going overboard. As Zacharek (2000) aptly says, “the camera work is artful but not showy, every shot is designed to sustain the illusion of reality”. Testament to this was the memorable sword fight sequence between Li and Jen where they were ‘flying’ high up in the lush greenery of tall bamboo trees. Most of this is largely due to the work of Yuen Wo-Ping, a highly revered choreographer who worked on big films such as Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994) and The Matrix (1999).

Another feature that struck me was the film’s stunning cinematography – with its breath-taking use of locations such as Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Gobi Desert and stunning shots of snow-capped mountains, all of which play a big part in conveying the epic scope that the story demands. Together with the enthralling soundtrack, viewers are treated to an imaginary China that is both lush and ethereal.

Personally, I felt that the movie was visually and aesthetically brilliant, but it could have been better had it adopted a more consistent tone throughout. I’m not sure if it was part of director Ang Lee’s strategy to create a film that straddled between being an art house film and a kung fu theatrical, but what we got (at times) is a film that swings unevenly between emotional melodrama and physical brawls. This could have been due to director Ang Lee’s background prior to Crouching Tiger, where his films were all built on highly personal levels that dealt with the detailed complexities of relationships and the conflicts that arise from them.

That aside, the entertaining mix of action, romance and the exotic settings gave the movie a very wide appeal and created a highly pleasant viewing experience that will entertain almost all audience.

References

Park, S. (2001, January 20). Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Retrieved on November 5, 2010, from http://www.culturekiosque.com/nouveau/cinema/rhetiger.html

Zacherek, S. (2000, December 8). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Retrieved on November 5, 2010, from http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/review/2000/12/08/crouching_tiger/

 

Princess Mononoke (1997) もののけ姫

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi
Theme: Culture (Anime)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.4/10 | Metacritic: 76/100

Film Festivals:

Awards:
2001 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Saturn Award
1998 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Film, Special Award
1998 Blue Ribbon Awards: Special Award
1998 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Animated Film, Best Film, Reader’s Choice Award

Nominations:
2000 Annie Awards: Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature Production
2000 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Sierra Award for Best Animated Film
2000 Golden Reel Award (Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA): Best Sound Editing – Animated Feature
2000 Satellite Awards: Golden Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture, Animated or Mixed Media
2001 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – Nebula Award for Best Script

The main reason I chose this animation movie for one of my 50 films is because it would definitely be severe injustice to the huge cultural movement that surrounds anime in Japan if the genre is left out. Princess Mononoke (1997), to sum it up in one word, is epic, and that comes from someone who is not even an anime fan to begin with. The film is directed by animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki, who later went on to direct Spirited Away (2001) that clinched an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002, and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) that was nominated for the same award in 2005. His latest work is Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). The prolific manga artist and prominent film animator has nearly five decades worth of experience, and this shines through in the sharp pacing and crisp imagery of the film, that also had a 1999 English-dubbed American release.

Princess Mononoke combines both historical elements—being set in the late Muromachi period of Japan—with the paranormal as supernatural beasts and spirits take centerstage here, much like all of his later works. The titular character is otherwise known as San, a human being adopted by a pack of wolves when she was abandoned by her parents as a baby. The self-righteous character is against the industrialization of the nearby Iron Town, run by Lady Eboshi, an authoritarian feminist leader who renders the men slaves and the women her aides. Feminist lines such as “Women are more intelligent than men” are reiterated throughout the show, for instance. The development of Iron Town means the forests have to be cleared to make way for more factories and buildings. Meanwhile, the forests are full of (very cute) diminutive tree spirits and a Forest Spirit that adopts the form of a deer reigns.

Miyazaki avoids moral simplifications as he opts not to take a stand for or against industrialization versus environmental protection in this struggle for triumph. His sympathies switching between both sides in a rather convoluted manner that would perhaps be clearer in a more straightforward story thread. The protagonist is Ashitaka, the “Chosen One” brought to the area because he was wounded and poisoned by the boar god whilst fending off the enemy to protect his hometown. He becomes the middleman between the two parties as he tries to seek a compromise between the environmental perpetrators with the industrialists, and is the ultimate victim of the hard-wringing battle for supremity between the two. I’m not sure whether the release of this movie has anything to do with the lead-up to the Kyoto Protocol that was released the same year, or was it sheer happenstance. But the environmentalist messages against global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases that started taking prominence in the 1990s make the release timely. Miyazaki also succeeds in not making Ashitaka the typical hero, revealing in an interview that, “Ashitaka is not a cheerful, worry-free boy. He is a melancholy boy who has a fate. I feel that I am that way myself, but until now, I have not made a film with such a character. Ashitaka was cursed for a very absurd reason. Sure, Ashitaka did something he should not have done – killing Tatari Gami. But there was enough reason to do so from the humans’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, he received a deadly curse. I think that is similar to the lives of people today. I think this is a very absurd thing that is part of life itself.” (Toyama, R., 1997).

The movie is ranked 6th on seminal film critic Roger Ebert’s Top Ten movies of 1999 (apparently he only managed to catch to English-dubbed version). He writes, “Animated films are not copies of “real movies,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.” (Ebert, 1999). The critical and box office acclaim garnered by the movie is significant because it marked a shift away from the Disney monopoly into the other ancillary markets of Japanese anime, and other animation films by the up-and-coming studios of Pixar and Dreamworks.

References

Eberts, R. (1999, October 29). Sun Times: Princess Mononoke review. Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19991029/REVIEWS/910290303/1023

Toyama, R. (1997). An interview with Hayao Miyazaki. D. Goldsmith [Ed.] Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/m_on_mh.html

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998)

Country: Singapore
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Philip Lim
Starring: Melody Chen, Caleb Goh, Lim Hwee Sze, Chong Chee Kin, Steven Lim, Randall Tan

Theme: Culture

Ratings: IMDB.com: 7.0/10

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998) is a satire of the Singapore junior college education system, and is a film adaptation of the 1988 Adrian Tan bestseller, The Teenage Textbook. It takes a light-hearted look into the lives of four students as they begin their junior college education. Such prevalent references to the book are present throughout the movie, that is split into various chapters that all take a cue from the original book. For instance, the movie opens with a quote from the book, “Teenagers love movies that start with good music” (00:00), before mocking the schizophrenic, confused state of wearing secondary school uniforms to their junior colleges during the first three months of school. With the film centered upon particularly the first three months of junior college years, the movie takes on a very Singaporean point of view, as it broaches upon topics like boy-girl relationships, family relations, money, materialism, etc.

It is worth noting that the film was well-received critically and managed to top the Singapore box office at a point of time, though given the trends of films like that it most likely rode on the initial popularity of the best-selling book. The film is stylistically rich, with many comedic techniques used throughout the film. The stereotypical “love at first sight” glance is paired with romantic music at 4:24, and at 5:06 the tacky mood for the comedy is set with the announcements over the school PA system for the students to “proceed your way into the school hall”, from a principal that graduated with a pHd from Calcutta. Letters drop off from the school signage at random – the original being PAYA LEBAR JUNIOR COLLEGE, and instances include “PAY” to form “A LEBAR JUNIOR COLLEGE”, and other permutations to form phrases like “PAY BAR UNCLE” and even “EAR JUICE”, a form of witty cynicism amid wordplay that is common throughout the film. For instance, “pimple” is defined as “a minor eruption of pus on the surface of the skin”, or “the end of the world”.

The characters are plain stereotypical caricatures, but these caricatures must have been real at one point of time for them to become stereotypes, and one should be able to draw reference from them. Espoused character types include the geeky female, the nerdy male, the rich kid, the suave flirt, the hunky bookworm and the beauty. the Mui Ee (Melody Chen) comes of age with the help of her best friend Sissy Song (Lim Hwee Sze) as she picks up skills like party etiquette and dating on Valentine’s Day, though not without complaints such as “How can you be so enthusiastic and still get to a party two hours late?” (11:51). She falls for the school flirt, before settling for a more down-to-earth relationship with the geeky but reliable Chong Gay (Caleb Ng).

A gripe is the numerous filler shots used to beef up the length of the movie, and these senseless shots that capture driving scenes to random local sites like Orchard, Simei and Holland Village are grating and redundant. It is a convenient means for the audience to hear the (not so) witty jokes over the radio (with 98.7FM being on air), but this does not serve to value-add to the scene at any bit. There does not seem to be any scene in particular that really needs to take place in these areas, the setting mostly ambiguous HDB flats, for instance.

Since the release of The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998), similar films have been few and far between. Eating Air (1999) attempts to blend comic elements of anime manga but to not much success, and the sociological movies after that all tended towards a more serious tone (with the exception of Jack Neo films that resort to jokes on a more realistic scale rather than the stylistic exaggeration seen in these films).

Watch it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIYbvZi3Wt8

The Middleman (1976) Jana Aranya

Country: India
Director: Satyajit Ray
Language: Bengali
Runtime: 131 minutes
Starring: Pradip Mukherjee, Satya Banerjee, Dipankar Dey, Lily Chakravarti

Category: Culture

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.8/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Film Festivals: NIL
Awards: 1976 National Film Awards (India): Golden Lotus Award for Best Director
Nominated: NIL

Director Satyajit Ray is considered one of the greatest Indian cinema auteurs of the 20th century, and his reputation is nailed with his Best Director win for The Middleman (1976) at the National Film Awards. Ray believed that Indian cinema needed “more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium”, and true to his word, The Middleman does away with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood technologies. Rather, his camera lenses provide us an insight of how he sees the world.

Further, this Black & White film that is adapted from the novella Jana Aranya by Sankar. And like most of Ray’s other films that he has become renowned for such as Pather Panchali, it addresses major sociological concerns of that time. With The Middleman, he touches on the despair of the educated middle-class in 1970s India. The high unemployment rate makes it difficult for graduates like lead protagonist Somnath – who only obtained a ‘Pass’ certificate – to secure a job. Somnath becomes a businessman of the “middleman” sort (hence the title), attracted by the allure and glitz of entrepreneurship and business. He buys goods from a supplier, and resells them to a customer for a profit. The story takes an eventual turn as personal morals come into the fray when he runs into trouble with one of his deals, and the only way to make a profit and to pacify his customer is to engage in the sex trade, where a prostitute is the ‘item’ to be peddled. The latter turns out to be his friend’s sister, forced into prostitution due to the poor times, and the moral dilemma that ensues is harshly captured by Ray’s camera. The ultimate question appears to be an age-old one: “Does money guarantee happiness?”

As per movies of that era, it opens with the credits rolling, and silence. There is a weird scratchy sound in the background, and the camera cuts away to a scene in the examination hall. The scene gradually comes into focus, panning down onto the (sleepy) chief invigilator and zooming out to include the hall (1:46, Part 1). The comedic tone (I personally find it rather unfunny though I’d choose to attribute that to an unfamiliarity of the language with the jokes lost in subtitle translation, and that the era is different) of the movie is set right from the start, as we see that the students are not entirely serious about sitting for their final exam, fidgeting and talking to each other. The disconcerting scratching noises continue throughout the scene, though it seems impossible to determine whether it is diagetic or not. A sense of dissonance is conveyed as it does not seem consistent with any of the images on scene, yet a logical conclusion to be drawn is perhaps it is that of pen on paper.

Perhaps to draw relevance to globalization and the need to stay relevant, we hear the characters using a lot of English words in their language and dialogue, for instance “strongest subject”, “revise” and “negligent fools” throughout the entire movie, just to name a few.

Close-ups are used liberally to indicate fierce concentration on a task, for instance, at 8:49 (Part 2) where the camera captures a close-up of the lead character typing on a typewriter with close-ups of the keys as he types. “This needs great concentration,” he says, and his unfamiliarity with the technology is expounded through his attempt to use an eraser to erase the ink. The fierce competition for jobs is emphasized through a cutaway to the behind-the-scenes view of the post office. Hordes of envelopes is shown coming in, which staff go through manually one by one. Reality is blatantly discussed, that the post office will take 2.5 years to clear all the letters (and that does not take into consideration the bulk of new letters coming in day after day).

At 2:30 (Part 3) via a lower shot that captures his friend from the chin-up, thereby conveying a sense of power that he has his future mapped out – drawing reference from “MP friends”. Somnath on the other hand, through his slouched posture that is directly contrasted with the statue he is leaning against, conveys a defeatist attitude.

 

Cutaway techniques at 3:50 (Part 4) is used featuring similar images at different locales, of the man’s application letter and pin-up of his passport photo in numerous offices, an indication of the number of applications he had made.

A few scenes later at 4:14 (Part 4), we see a wide shot of a wall as Somnath walks past, the word “Victory” scrawled on it that is both a mockery and as the character cuts a small frame against the massive wall. It is also a foreboding sign as the camera captures his first job interview, with the interviewers asking questions like “What is the weight of the moon?” that are redundant to the job. This takes on two suggestions : (i) the need to stand out from the crowd transcends into the need to know even the most mundane information, and (ii) a mockery of the application system of that time.

Further semiotics is observed in 5:29 (Part 13) with the grilles of the gate indicating an imprisonment of Somnath’s own puritan values by the demands of the business.

By today’s standards, the film would perhaps even be considered sloppily edited. We see scenes like 6:11 (Part 4) where the talking Somnath was framed directly behind the pillar of the roadside stall –it might of course perhaps be a conscious, deliberate decision but the scene just serves to distract from my point of view. Further, zooming in and out techniques that are heavily frowned upon in cinematography today are heavily utilized, rather than the camera itself shifting towards the character it wishes to draw attention to. This results in many shaky shots throughout the film as the camera zooms in (and out) onto a certain focus. A further point of contention is the use of jerks and shakes of the camera so as to reposition a scene, rather than separate cutaways (1:37-1:39; Part 8). There is also abrupt discontinuity of sound (0:41 & 6:50; Part 10) where the sound source is abruptly cut off that even ambient noise is excluded from the scene. There is also a relative inconsistency in the shots, with the scene as Somnath walks down the street with his mentor at 8:46 (Part 4) being the only one that is extremely shaky, claustrophobic and nauseating as if out of a scene from Cloverfield. Yet it helps to support the scathing social commentary of the economic climate of India when the film was made.

However, the late Ray’s aesthetic is one that he can truly call his own, and by which nobody can fault.