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Review: Almayer’s Folly

4.0

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Almayer’s Folly
Photo: Artémis Productions

Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly opens with a series of nested feints. First there’s the drift in through the door of a sweaty bar in some grubby Malaysian locale, the slow, gliding camera that seems to promise a bit of languid mood-setting. Within that setup we get a shocking and sudden murder (shades of A Brighter Summer’s Day) as a lurking onlooker leaps onstage to stab the garishly dressed lounge singer, interrupting a karaoke rendition of Dean Martin’s “Sway.” From there, all auspices of realism vanish, as one of the backup dancers, still rocking in a trance as the dying singer is dragged away, finally comes to, straightens up, and breaks into a soaring aria. Though all this, the perspective pushes resolutely toward the woman, thrusting past waves of extraneous action, finding its true protagonist in a tightly framed close-up.

This is Nina (Aurora Marion), the daughter of the titular Almayer and perhaps even the folly itself, a mixed-race fugitive quietly striving for autonomy. This first scene leads into a flashback, to a time when Nina was a child and her father was the center of the story. It’s a significant transition: By positioning Nina’s ostensible moment of catharsis at the outset, at a point where it has no meaning and no purpose but to disrupt a seemingly conventional introduction, Akerman signals the start of another ingeniously singular film. She also indicates a marked shift in perspective from Joseph Conrad’s source novel, while coloring and transforming everything that will happen from here on. First and foremost, this won’t be the old story of vanquished megalomania, of masculine endeavoring against harsh elements, or a man consumed by the insuperable savagery of the wild. It also won’t be the tale of two young lovers running off to start a new life, as the sequential ending seems to promise, but a declaration of freedom from traditional strictures, both personal and narrative.

The source story, the one Akerman pays due diligence to in order to eventually subvert, concerns the elder Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), who sets up a way station on a Malaysian river, after his dreams of striking Oriental gold turn up empty. Guided by his mentor Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), he marries a native woman and sires Nina, who becomes his last hope after the way station also goes bust, the river forgotten in favor of more convenient waterways. His dreams dashed, his marriage loveless and cold, Almayer becomes obsessed with his legacy, sending Nina off to an English boarding school, where she can be taught to embrace civility and order. When this too fails, he attempts to marry her off to the son of a rich neighbor, a scheme that comes off as well as you might expect.

Inhabiting this material, the always transgressive Akerman works within the boundaries of a classic colonialist narrative, with Almayer hopelessly trying and failing to harness the fruits of the land he believes is his to control. But this plotline becomes the secondary focus, with more attention paid to the seething vibrancy of the jungle, dense with color and lashed with revitalizing storms, its greens, browns, and blacks presenting a strong, earthy color palette. The resulting document is both fervently passionate and formally meticulous, the latest stunning coup for a director who’s made a career of repurposing archetypal storylines, finding women in various prisons and freeing them, or at least shedding ample light on their subjugation.

What Akerman has done here is locate the most interesting plot thread in a seemingly outmoded novel, trimming it to nurture the story of a girl born with one foot in two worlds, and with no special desire to belong to either. So while she barely speaks, Nina has other means of expression, metaphorically associated with the power of the forest, a force that’s less primeval and destructive than ever-regnant; Almayer’s expectation of control seems laughably flimsy, at the mercy of a giant river a pulsating jungle. This means that while Almayer’s Folly is a story of waxing and waning forces, an idea enforced by the repeated motif of a pale moon shadowing the water, the elder Almayer’s decline is not a downfall as much as the necessary consequence of his hubristic transgressions: As he progressively wastes away, Nina becomes more beautiful and suffused with life.

The same goes for the sham love interest, Dain (Zac Andrianasolo), a militant separatist turned oppressor who’s also summarily dispatched, via the film’s opening murder. That scene’s implied suggestion of suppression (Nina is one of four backup dancers) lets us know that his promises of love aren’t genuine; its outcome shows that his menace won’t prove an actual threat. Gestures like this might undercut a more traditional movie, but what Akerman provides isn’t a linear story as much as a raging, rigorous tone poem. Such confident moves therefore establish the film as a spectacular transference of energy, with Akerman subsuming and repurposing Conrad’s story for her own purposes, diverting its channel just as the river bypassed Almayer himself.

In this context, it’s significant that the introductory murder is committed by a long-suffering servant, a periphery character who suffers silently for the rest of the film. In Akerman’s able hands, this becomes a story of old orders disrupted, tables turned, and dynamics flipped. Taught to her in the English school, the Mozart aria that Nina sings may be a symbol of her oppressors, but it isn’t theirs to control. Freed from all manners of male and European repression, from lip-syncing Dean Martin, and finally from the shackles of Conrad’s stifling novel, she finally gets to deliver her own version of an old song, a startling moment of independence that concludes her inevitable bloom.

Cast: Aurora Marion, Stanislas Merhar, Marc Barbé, Zac Andrianasolo Director: Chantal Akerman Screenwriter: Chantal Akerman Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2011

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Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.

3

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The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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