‘Marriage Story’ is a realistic look at an all too common topic

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, now in limited release, Marriage Story will be available for streaming December 6.  The Netflix original movie is gathering a lot of buzz as one of the front runners for Oscar noms. I saw it first at TIFF, now again in the theatre, trying to confirm my initial feelings about the film.

Directed by Noah Baumbach with a stellar cast, the title would be more apt if it’s called ‘Divorce Story’, for the film is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber going through the separation and divorce process, culminating with the final custody case of their 8 year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Marriage Story
Scene from Marriage Story with Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, and Scarlett Johansson. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Nicole is an aspiring film actor in LA before following avant-garde theatre director Charlie to NYC to become a stage actor with his company, his muse, and later, his wife and the mother of his child Henry. Exactly, the emphasis on the possessive ‘his’, and hence, the reason for Nicole’s discontent. 

At this point in her marriage, Nicole finds herself oddly unhappy, although she doesn’t show it that much. Looks like Charlie has everything going for him. Nicole describes it: he’s alive while she’s in a coma. As he becomes more and more successful, “I got smaller,” she laments. Charlie has distinguished himself as a theatre artist and akin to his professionalism, is honest in his critique of Nicole’s acting. One time after a performance, he takes out his notes, “I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”

So, with the offer to star in a new TV series, Nicole jumps at the opportunity and goes back to LA, with Henry in tow. 

The film starts off with a voiceover as we hear Charlie and Nicole read out something they’ve written on what they love about each other. A marriage counsellor is trying to lead them down memory lane to revive their relationship, to think on why they got married in the first place. But looks like they’ve passed this point. They want to stroll down the divorce lane, casually, no lawyers. Soon they find there’s no gentle way to go about this.

Humor comes as situational irony. Here’s one of those scenes. In her mother’s kitchen in LA, Nicole is figuring out how and who to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, documents in a brown legal envelop placed on the kitchen counter. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) loves Charlie and isn’t cool with the task. The duty falls on sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). The three nervously prepares the scene quickly just before Charlie enters, arriving from NY and bursting with excitement of winning a MacArthur Fellowship and is spontaneously met by good cheers from all, just might not be the right mood to serve any legal papers.

Marriage and family relationships have long been Baumbach’s subject matter. His semi-autobiographical, breakout work The Squid and the Whale (2005) is edgy and personal. Through the eyes of the sons, teenager Walt and his 12 year-old brother witness the nasty demolition of their literary parents’ marriage. Walt finds out at the end of the film that the model he’d seen as a child at the Natural History Museum of a sperm whale swallowing up a giant squid is a visual metaphor of his parents’ relationship. That film is impressionable as it shows not only a marriage breakdown but the emotional and psychological damage of their sons. A dark comedy full of fresh takes on a common subject matter, with Baumbach’s signature quirkiness and eccentric characterization.

In Marriage Story, however, Baumbach doesn’t need a metaphor as he tells his story in stark realism with a low-risk, conventional approach. This is probably the director’s least quirky and idiosyncratic feature in his oeuvre. His vivid depiction of the love/hate ambivalence between Charlie and Nicole is nuanced and vivid. Heavy on dialogues, reminiscence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), but Marriage Story is more an updated version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) exactly 40 years ago. 

Love lingers. Even though they are separated as far as the east coast is from the west, every time Charlie visits Nicole and Henry in LA, tenderness surfaces readily. Just begs the question though, as the counsellor wants them to think about why they got married in the first place, looks like they now need to ponder on why they want a divorce.

Reality is, our legal system is adversarial. Nicole’s aggressive lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) tells her, “the system rewards bad behavior.” The harder you stab, the more likely you’ll win. They’re charged to combat each other, and when it comes to digging up dirty laundry in favor of their case, the lawyers leave no stone unturned. This is something both Charlie and Nicole don’t expect. Instead, they’re pushed into the legal torrents reluctantly. Empathy as expressed from the older, semi-retired lawyer Bert (Alan Alder) means incompetence. Charlie finally has to hire the high-priced legal shark Jay (Ray Liotta), for the stakes are too high.

If Baumbach has sprinkled his newest film with a bit more squid and whale quirks, it will make it more interesting. Surely, the strong cast overall delivers, with Driver and Johansson offering some fine performance. But with such a commonplace subject matter, and so many movies have already done it, what’s amiss is the very quirkiness and eccentricity Baumbach leaves out.

Another consideration is, do we need all the 136 minutes to tell the story of Barber vs. Barber? Maybe not. However, since it’s a Netflix original movie, viewers have total control over how long to sit in front of the small screen to view it; chopping it up into shorter segments is what I predict to be the viewing habits of many. Herein lies the problem with streaming movies from a device, i.e. the trivializing of the experience. But that’s beyond the present discussion. Some day maybe, another post: Theatre vs. Netflix.

So what was I trying to confirm in this second viewing? It’s the reason for my detachment. Twice now, I was an observer of a performance, appreciating the nuances, the humor, but not being drawn in in terms of feelings. Could it be, at times, I find there’s pushing for the emotion?

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

 

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

While We’re Young: Wearing the Hat of Authenticity

Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

Original Screenplays Written Directly for the Screen: What to Watch in Nov. and Dec.

‘Parasite’ is an Entertaining Wild Ride

Parasite won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes this May. I watched it at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and reviewed it for Asian American Press in September. I thank AAPress for the permission to re-post my full review here on Ripple Effects. The film is now released in selective theatres.

Parasite
Brother and sister seeking Wi Fi reception in Parasite. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF19

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho can make social statements in the most unconventional ways, like through the friendship between a child and a giant pig in Okja (2017) to draw awareness to our meat-obsessed economy, or, environmental warnings in the apocalyptic action thriller Snowpiercer (2013).

His latest work, the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winning Parasite, has its Canadian Premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival in September. Its subject matter––the gap between the rich and the poor in contemporary Asian society––had been covered by two acclaimed productions at Cannes last year, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, and Burning, which brought South Korean Lee Chang-dong a Best Director win. Under Bong’s helming, the subject matter is approached with a fresh, new take showcasing his signature audacious and inventive handling.

With Parasite, Bong has surpassed himself by delivering a genre-fusing feature, confronting economic disparity in his home country of South Korea. It opens as a dark comedy filled with funny tricks and clever twists, then develops with rising suspense while still keeping its comedic styling, eventually rolling into a chaotic mayhem of an action thriller.

Living in a cramped and squalid semi-basement unit, the Kim family takes up odd jobs to scrape by. They are father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mom Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang) and their adult son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park). The son has failed the university entrance exam four times. As we learn in the film, in a society where an opening for a security guard position could attract 500 university level applicants, the Kims have no luck but to share the plight of unemployment.

One day Ki-woo meets an old school friend who is going away for a short while. He recommends Ki-woo take over his tutoring job at the rich Park family to help their daughter with English. Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) is the president of a high-tech company. Ki-woo accepts the challenge with apprehension, but knowing the opportunities this could open up, he forges ahead. With a little help from his artistically inclined sister, Ki-woo heads to the Parks’ residence and presents his best self to the lady of the house, Mrs. Park, the beautiful but naive wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). Ki-woo is hired on the spot and thus begins a life-altering adventure and mishaps for both families.

The Park family of four lives in an architect-designed residence, with lush grounds and gardens. As he gets to know the teenaged Park daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and her younger brother Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), the quick-thinking Ki-woo begins to pave a path for his own family members to benefit from his new position. Anything more mentioned here will be spoilers to some clever and funny plot lines.

Another crucial character living in the luxury abode is the housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Lee Jung Eun). A long-time resident in the estate as she has been working there since the previous ownership. She is an indispensable help to the Parks’ daily living. Moon-Gwang gives the impression of a Mrs. Danver type of character as in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. With Bong’s script, there’s always something more than the appearance conveys.

A distinguished feature of the film is the original soundtrack by Korean composer Jaeil Jung. Classical styling from full orchestral to piano, harpsichord, strings, and percussions, the music in Parasite is a major force augmenting the suspense and the overall storytelling, as well as enhancing the production with a touch of elegance. Just listening to the soundtrack is an enjoyment in itself.

Parasite is slick and smooth-pacing, towards the end, it turns into a Bong-style action thriller, bloody and graphic. Snowpiercer comes to mind. Can the rich and the poor live peacefully together? No answer is offered here, for nothing is as simple as it appears. What Bong presents with Parasite is a scenario provoking the imaginary. The bottom line could well be just the wild wide of pure entertainment.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

 

My other related reviews on AAPress:

Shoplifters

Burning

 

The Personal History of David Copperfield: From Book to Film

In a previous post I reviewed The Goldfinch, one of two literary adaptations on my list to watch while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The Personal History of David Copperfield is the other one, which also had its world premiere at TIFF; it represents a totally different approach to bringing a literary work to the big screen.

If The Goldfinch is an example of a traditional way of adaptation, striving at loyalty to the literary source while overlooking cinematic elements, David Copperfield is a brave venture out wielding post-modern strokes, not that it is changed into a contemporary setting, but that it is adapted with a modern-day zeitgeist. Here’s director Armando Iannucci’s rationale during a TIFF interview: Just as Dickens wrote David Copperfield reflecting life and society of his time, as a filmmaker today, he directs the adaptation through a frame of our time. 

David Copperfield
Dev Patel as David Copperfield. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF19

What stands out in such post-modern filmmaking is the ‘colour-blind casting’ of the production. David Copperfield is played by Dev Patel, a young British actor of Indian descent. Known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Patel has established a popular screen presence with a charisma that whisked him through many subsequent successful features such as the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011, 2015) and Lion (2016). Other non-white actors taking up main roles include Benedict Wong (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) as Mr. Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar (Howards End, 2017) as Agnes and Nikki Amuka-Bird (The Children Act, 2017) as Mrs. Steerforth. It is a bold statement Iannucci is making: skin colour is not an issue. These talents are first and foremost, actors.

Iannucci indicated that he’d always have Patel in mind ever since he watched Lion (2016), a true story about an Indian boy separated from his older brother in a Calcutta train station and later sent away for adoption in Australia. Twenty-five years later, after a long search, he finally located and reunited with his mother in an Indian village. Watching Patel in Lion, Iannucci thought, that’s David Copperfield for him. Indeed, Dickens’s character David Copperfield could well be a metaphor for those who had suffered much in childhood and yet against all odds, have survived and grown up to be resilient and compassionate human beings.

The adaptation exudes energy and humour. Iannucci has chosen his cinematic palette with bright colours and sprinkled with comedic sparks. Surely, Dickens’s Copperfield has a sad upbringing, orphaned after his beloved mother dies young, and mistreated by his stepfather Mr. Murdstone and his sister Jane Murdstone, later having had to fend for himself as a child labourer at the ripe age of 12. Yet Dickens’s humour never fades. His light-hearted depiction of Aunt Betsey Trotwood or Mr. Micawber offer some hilarious characterization. Later, David’s brave and arduous escape to seek the shelter of Aunt Betsey turns his life around. The autobiographical fiction could well represent Dickens’s view that, in the midst of misfortunes and human pathos, there still lies a deeper essence, and that’s the joy of life. Iannucci deftly capitalizes this inherent quality in the the author’s writing and adorns his film with humour and jollity.

Here’s a note on Wikipedia on Armando Iannucci that I find interesting: “Born in Glasgow to Italian parents, Iannucci studied at the University of Glasgow followed by the University of Oxford, leaving graduate work on a D.Phil about John Milton to pursue a career in comedy.” I’m sure the story about his academic pursuit and career change entail more than just this one line can say, but that’s enough to give us the background of who’s bringing David Copperfield to the screen now. Iannucci is the creator and writer of the award-winning TV series Veep (2012-2019), the Oscar nominated political satire In the Loop (2009), and the dark comedy The Death of Stalin (2017), for which he won Best Director and Best Writer at BAFTA.

To those wary about the lack of seriousness, the superb cast is poised to deflect such criticisms. Tilda Swinton (Oscar winner Michael Clayton, 2007) as Betsey Trotwood and Hugh Laurie (Golden Globe Best Actor The Night Manager, House) as Mr. Dick are the anchors that complement Patel’s spirited performance. They are pivotal in transferring Dickens’s moral insights onto screen. Aunt Betsey’s kindness towards Mr. Dick, who in today’s term would be one stricken with mental illness, is a lesson in example, influencing David’s mutual friendship with him. The same with David’s support and acceptance of Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family while they are in dire financial distress. If we need a villain, Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep is there to show vividly the face of hypocrisy and the consequence of jealousy and deceit.

Such a light handling of the classic novel has its weakness naturally. While the moral lesson of good over evil still stands, David’s growing insights about love, life, and faith which Dickens writes about so eloquently have not been transferred onto screen as successfully. It is unfortunate that the movie does not elaborate on the effects of David’s misplaced adulations of Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch, 2019) nor does it focus on his awakening to the fervency Agnes has for him. David’s blindspot and Agnes’s hidden love for him would have made a poignant storyline. Nevertheless, the two eventually do come together, but just as a coda, with Dora (Morfydd Clark, Love & Friendship, 2016) getting the inkling of a mismatch between herself and the emerging writer to gracefully step aside, sparing David the deathbed scene from the book.

Overall, the adaptation is a joy to watch, and one of those films that I’d like to rewatch. It has just been screened at London Film Festival in early October, release dates in North America unknown. The casting might pose an issue for some, but it just may be another object lesson for today.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

The Goldfinch

Lion

Love & Friendship

 

Literary Adaptations at TIFF19: The Goldfinch

Two book-to-film adaptations were on my watch list while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September: Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch and the Dickens classic The Personal History of David Copperfield, both had their world premiere at TIFF. The two make such interesting contrasts that it would be good to discuss them together in one post, but that would be a long one. As I covet your attention, I’ll split them into two reviews. 

I listened to the audiobook of The Goldfinch in 2014, a year after the novel was published. My impression was: this one’s written for the screen. There are Dickensian characters and storylines transposed into present day. 13-year-old Theo is visiting a NYC art museum with his mother when she is killed in a bombing. In the aftermath, stunned and traumatized, he follows a mysterious track to an antique shop where the owner Hobie takes him in. There he meets Pippa, a girl he finds affiliation as she’s looking at the same painting with him in the museum when the bomb goes off. Later Pippa moves away and Theo goes to live with a wealthy Park Avenue family, the Barbours, only to have his stable life interrupted by the sudden reappearance of his long-gone, alcoholic father claiming full guardianship and taking him to live in Nevada, where he becomes friends with Boris, another boy lost in the sandy void.

Later, fleeing from his abusive father, Theo returns to the antique shop in NYC. Under the mentorship of Hobie he learns the skills of the trade. Years later, by chance and fate, Boris shows up again in his life, pulling him into the underworld of art dealings that eventually leads to a violent end, but that’s where the closure begins. “The Goldfinch” is the painting Theo takes with him after the museum bombing and hides it for himself, for it is a physical reminder of his last memory with his mother. They were looking at it when disaster struck; it was his mother’s favorite painting.

The Goldfinch.jpg
Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

That’s the main book story in a nutshell, and it appears that screenwriter Peter Straughan is keen to remain as faithful to the source material as possible. When the task at hand is loyalty to the original 784 page novel, the 149 minute screen time can feel like a laborious effort to create a replica, thus losing its flavour as an art form of a different medium, breathing, living cinema. The characters and major plot points are there, but what’s missing are the emotional depth and sparks of life.

Tartt’s novel has its Dickensian characters, and I can’t help but see parallels between The Goldfinch and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Theo and Davy, Boris and Steerforth, Theo’s father Larry and Davy’s stepfather Mr. Murdstone, Pippa and Agnes. The two features, however, represent two ends of possible choices for film adaptations.

Director John Crowley, who helmed Brooklyn (2015), a beautiful adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, has a good cast to work with for The Goldfinch. Oakes Fegley (Wonderstruck, 2017) gives us a mature performance as young Theo. Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour decades apart, two roles that don’t give her much to say. Luke Wilson as Theo’s volatile father Larry and Sarah Paulson as his girlfriend Xandra are the livelier contrasts to other characters. Maybe Crowley focuses too much on the theme of grief that the overtone is sombre throughout. Ansel Elgort as adult Theo may not be a miscast but is boxed in by the only emotion he can express, gloominess. I can’t remember he has flashed a hearty smile once. That goes for other characters as well. The Goldfinch is a story of grief and Crowley has painted the mood in stark realism.

Thanks to the venerable cinematographer Roger Deakins (2018 Oscar winner Blade Runner 2049), we get to see some sunlight and energy in the Nevada desert days of  friendship between young Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, TV Stranger Things). For most of the film, however, the color is a greyish cyan of dolefulness. While the museum bombing scene is dramatic, watching it over and over again––as Theo is drawn into guilt-ridden memory––could diminish the effect. But then, this would be an editing issue. And like Theo, don’t we all want to see the face of his mother, whose death is the cause of the grief, but that only comes for a short moment towards the end.

In an early scene, antique shop owner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) shows young Theo how to tell a piece of furniture by touch to feel its authenticity. Too smooth has to be fake. Furniture that has weathered years of usage would be rougher and uneven. The character of adult Theo could have been a wiser man, more seasoned and worldly, but he remains static and stiff. The poignancy of fate with its power over one’s life comes late in the film and exerts little effect on the emotional connection with viewers. Unfortunately, Hobie’s antique lesson for young Theo is a metaphor for the adaptation. Other than a visual representation of the major plot of the novel, the film is a reproduction that lacks authenticity and liveliness.

 

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

***

Toronto International Film Festival 2019

In the coming weeks, I’ll be in Toronto covering the 44th TIFF taking place Sept. 5 – 15. TIFF is my annual destination away from the Pond, my chance to immerse in the celebration of film arts, world premieres of new works, festivities on King Street, and be swept up by the excitement of crowds catching a glimpse of the talents and filmmakers converging there.

For those inclined towards numbers, here are some figures: TIFF19 will screen 333 titles in total, including 245 features, 86 shorts, and 6 series, selected from 6,866 international and 1,059 Canadian submissions. There will be 133 World and 71 North American Premieres. 84 countries are represented with 36% of titles directed, co-directed, or created by women.

It’s a major task to organize one’s own viewing schedule. Films that I want to watch have time conflicts. After several days of juggling and regretful eliminating, I’ve finalized my list, more or less.

The following are some of the feature films on my To-Watch List (All images courtesy of TIFF):

A Girl MissingA Girl Missing directed by Koji Fukada (Japan) North American Premiere. Fukada’s previous film, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner Harmonium (2016) grabbed me as a concoction of Hitchcockian suspense and poignant family drama. Excited to see his newest work at TIFF.

A Hidden Life (1)A Hidden Life directed by Terrence Malick (USA, Germany) Canadian Premiere. Based on the true story of Austrian farmer and conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to join the German army in WWII. I expect this newest Malick film to be another soul-stirring work.

The AuditionThe Audition directed by Ina Weisse (Germany, France) World Premiere. Women play major roles in this production as director, screenwriter and cinematographer. But the main attraction for me is actor Nina Hoss, whose riveting performance won her high acclaims in the German films Phoenix (2014) and Barbara (2012).

Coming Home AgainComing Home Again dir. by Wayne Wang (USA/Korea) World Premiere. Wang brought Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to mainstream cinema in 1993, telling generational stories of Chinese-Americans. His newest is based on a personal essay by acclaimed writer Chang-rae Lee about a son coming home to his ailing mother. 

David CopperfieldThe Personal History of David Copperfield dir. by Armando Iannucci (UK) World Premiere. As a book-to-movie enthusiast, I won’t miss this one. What more, the cast looks impressive, and postmodern. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) fame will play Davy, Tilda Swinton as Betsey, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, and Ben Whishaw the villain Uriah Heep. Turning a 800+ page classic into a two-hour movie is as daunting as Davy’s life journey. But I reserve my judgement.

THE GOLDFINCHThe Goldfinch dir. by John Crowley (USA) World Premiere. The adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is helmed by the same director as Brooklyn (2015), with adapted screenplay by Wolf Hall and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy scribe Peter Straughan. Looks like a top-notch collaboration.

Hope GapHope Gap directed by William Nicholson (UK) World Premiere. This is Nicholson’s second directorial feature which he also wrote. His other screenplays include Les Misérables (2012) and Gladiator (2000) among many others. But what draw my attention are the duo who play a couple at the brink of a marriage breakdown, Bill Nighy
and Annette Bening.

Parasite (1)Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea) Canadian Premiere. This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. From the description, it echoes Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, last year’s Cannes winner. But Bong’s audacious and creative styling could make this a fresh approach to the subject of social inequality. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) also comes to mind.

Varda by Agnes (1)Varda by Agnès directed by Agnès Varda (France) Canadian Premiere. After watching the late French New Wave auteur Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places (2017), I’d been looking for this, her last work. Excited to know there will be a special event at TIFF 19 with the screening of Varda by Agnès plus a bonus post-film discussion by a panel of filmmakers.

***

For the full lineup, schedule, and tickets go to tiff.net

My reviews of the above plus other TIFF titles will be published on the websites Asian American Press, Vague Visages, and here at Ripple Effects.

 

‘Burning’: From Short Story to Big Screen

Burning is based on the short story “Barn Burning” by the popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, the translated English version first published in the November issue of The New Yorker in 1992. Acclaimed Korean director Lee Chang-dong has fleshed out the minimalist narrative of Murakami’s story and created an extended ending, turning Burning from mere rumination into a dramatic suspense thriller, shedding traces of a myriad of literary allusions. That is the appeal of the works by the Korean novelist-turned-filmmaker.

Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and a nominee for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Burning had its North American premiere on September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival. As well, South Korea has announced that Burning will be its official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film race at the 91st Oscars in 2019. The acclaimed film will be released in November in selective cities.

More than fifty years before Murakami’s short piece appeared in The New Yorker, back in 1939, a short story of the same name, “Barn Burning”, was published in Harper’s Magazine. Its author was William Faulkner. It was a dramatic story of class discrepancy in the American South, the chasm between the rich and the poor and the hateful revenge of a tenant farmer burning down the properties of his land owner. Interesting to note that Murakami made no mention of Faulkner in his story, which can be seen as a modern-day version of the American author’s work.

Director Lee’s adaptation shares similar meaning-imbued elements as his last feature Poetry from eight years ago. While his previous work is a character study of a grandmother trying to seek out a way to renew her life, in Burning, Lee focuses on the young, specifically, the millennials, and contrasting the social chasm between the rich and the poor with two characters.

burning_01
Yoo Ah-in as Jongsu in ‘Burning’. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) graduated from university majoring in creative writing. At present he is doing menial jobs as a living while trying to write a novel. On a delivery one day he comes across an old schoolmate, Haemi—impressive performance by newcomer Jun Jong-seo—working as a raffle promoter on the street. She recognizes Jongsu as according to her, they used to live in the same community when they were children. That brief encounter sparks off a precarious relationship between the two.

Due to some legal entanglement of his father’s, Jongsu has to leave the city to return to his father’s impoverished farm to look after it. He sleeps in a run-down shack, drives a rusty truck and clears the waste of the only cow left. At the same time, Haemi is going on a trip to Africa, and has asked Jongsu to go to her small apartment to feed her cat while she is away. This he gladly obliges.

But when Haemi returns after some time, she brings with her another man, Ben (Steven Yeun of the TV series ‘The Walking Dead’), a third person to the intimate relationship Jongsu had wanted to establish with Haemi.  Ben is more than just a disruptor but an enigma. He lives in a high-end apartment, dresses stylishly, drives a Porsche and exudes sophisticated tastes. He does not hold a job nor seem to mind Jongsu’s presence, but invites him home and brings him into his circle of friends. “The Gatsby in Korea” as Jongsu figures him, Ben is a man with a mysterious past and unsearchable intention.

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Steven Yeun as Ben, ‘The Gatsby in Korea’.

Things become more intriguing and uncomfortable when one night, Ben confides in Jongsu that he burns greenhouses for his own pleasure. He would scout out his target and set fire to it while watching from afar. The next one he has in mind actually is quite close to where Jongsu is staying, near his father’s farm. Here we see Murakami’s interesting flip of Faulkner’s story. Instead of a hateful man from a lower economic class driven by jealousy and bitterness to commit arson, we have the resourceful rich burning down greenhouses, but for what reason?

Unlike Murakami, Lee alludes to Faulkner, but also takes up Murakami’s suggestion that it is not only poverty or revenge that drives one to commit incendiary acts, but ennui, self-indulgence, or mere emptiness can also prod one towards inexplicable behaviour.

Steven Yeun, the Korean-American actor known for the TV series “The Walking Dead”, takes up his first major role in a Korean film. Yeun’s portrayal of an amoral, metrosexual may well be a modern-day parallel of Camus’s L’Etranger, The Stranger.  His often expressionless, but not unpleasant, face could well have conveyed the inner psyche of a rootless and purposeless existence.

One time at a social gathering, Haemi imitates the African ‘hunger dance’ in front of Ben and his friends. First, she acts with small, silent gestures showing the ‘little hunger’ of the literal, physical pang then changing to the ‘great hunger’ with her arms reaching upward and swaying to signify the empty soul reaching out in search of fulfilment. Watching her, Ben’s response is a yawn and a slight smile when Jongsu catches his bored reaction. Then a quick cut to a loud, electrifying night club scene with Haemi dancing wildly in a smoky, hazy atmosphere. Lee’s cinematic storytelling is stark and to the point.

The director’s rendering of passion and the human psyche is enhanced by Hong Kyung-pyo’s mesmerizing cinematography and the engaging score by Mowg and other incidental music, presenting sequences that are at times dreamlike, and at times, sadly realistic. In a stirring scene, Haemi dances again, this time against the setting sun out in Jongsu’s farm, her silhouette captivating her two audience, subtle rivals, one genuine, the other, unsearchable.

The plot thickens towards the last section when Jongsu tries to connect with Haemi after some time but finds her missing. Her apartment has been vacated, her phone disconnected. The next time he sees Ben, Ben is with another woman and admitted no knowledge of Haemi’s whereabouts. The disappearance of Haemi ignites Jongsu’s suspicion and drives the tension towards an explosive denouement which Lee adds to Murakami’s short story. It is an ending that is a surprise and yet also natural in context. Lee brilliantly brings his viewers full circle back to Faulkner with his layered storytelling.

Just like his previous works Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007), Lee has shown once again that he is not only a masterful director but an astute observer of human psyche and behaviour.

***

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

Note: My review above was originally published in Asian American Press on Sept. 12, 2018. I thank AAPress for permission to repost here.

***

Update Nov. 16: “Burning” just nominated for Best International Film (South Korea) at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

A Star is Born and the Dilemma of Success

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga walked the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September for the North American premiere of their movie “A Star is Born”, a Gala presentation at TIFF. Now the movie reaches the general public as it is released in theatres worldwide.

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Bradley Cooper as Jack and Lady Gaga as Ally in “A Star is Born”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

This is a bold and spectacular debut for both of them, Cooper as first time director, and the superstar singer her first leading movie role. The two manifest great chemistry on screen, casual and heartfelt. Cooper plays a famous singer Jackson Maine discovering the sensational voice and talent of a struggling singer/songwriter, restaurant worker Ally, a stripped-down, no (or minimal?) make-up Lady Gaga. It’s also a sad story as one star rises just as fast as the other falls like a meteor, self-destruct by alcoholism.

The love story begins with Maine searches for a drink after a performance one night as he has emptied the bottle in his car. His driver roams the streets for any bar that’s still open. They find one and Maine stumbles in just in time to hear Ally begin her gig. The song that she performs hooks and wows him. It’s “La Vie en Rose“, the iconic number by the legendary French singer Edith Piaf. That’s the inciting incident of the movie.

After the song he goes backstage, needing no introduction; he is Jackson Maine. He sits beside her and watches her take off her make-up, then with her permission, helps her peel off the Edith Piaf thin-lined eye brow. It’s just pasted on, not real. But what’s authentic is her voice, which Jack already knows, and he’ll soon discover, her heart as well.

That night, the two sit in the parking lot outside a grocery mart and chat into the night. Why doesn’t she write songs and sing her own work? People like her songs alright, but not her looks, she tells him. She’s self-conscious about her nose. He traces her facial features tenderly with his finger and tells her she’s beautiful. When his driver drops her off, as she’s walking up to her front door, he calls out from the car window: “Hey”. She looks back, he says: “I just wanted to take another look at you.” This line will later become the ominous turn into a heartbreaking end.

It’s Cooper’s directorial debut, and from this feature, we can see he’s a meticulous, sensitive and conscientious helmer. He catches and releases the right amount of tension and emotion with expert timing. His love lines are nuanced, casual yet touching. His singing is seasoned, a bit raspy and therefore quite moving. A Star is Born is remarkable achievement considering he’s the director, co-writer, actor, singer, and co-songwriter, with Lady Gaga and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) of the 17 original songs in the production.

Kudos to Lady Gaga, other than a mesmerizing voice, her acting looks to be another talent that’s authentic; indeed, a star is born with this movie debut. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. She’s been a bold and versatile performer for a long while. It’s the unplugged looks and demeanour in the movie that’s a pleasant surprise. In reality, she’s already a supernova, so where will this further catapult her career? How will movie success affect other aspects of her life?

In the film, the change of Ally from a plain-looking, struggling artist to a performing star with dyed hair, showy costumes and vibrant dance steps stir Jack to remind her to go deep into her soul. Nothing’s perfect. Success comes with a price. Ally handles it relatively well. What is authentic? Surely not the appearance, the stage persona. At least, she still knows her heart. It looks like Jack has a harder time dealing with Ally’s success than the crumbling of his own. That still may be the easier part when compared to conquering the demon of alcoholism.

The very story of A Star is Born is itself a cautionary tale. Interestingly, Hollywood loves this story. The Cooper and Gaga version is the fourth time the tale is told. The very first A Star is Born back in 1937, its screenplay by Dorothy Parker, was based on a 1932 movie What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor. Imagine someone back in 1932 was already mulling on this question.

Cukor later directed Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 remake. Fast forward to 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson starred in another version, this time Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunn co-wrote the screenplay, turning the limelight to the musical stage from the movie industry. The 2018 Cooper-Gaga reprise gives credit to Didion and Dunn’s script.

In a perfect world, artistic success can find an ideal integration and balance with popularism and consumerism, while addictions are absent, superficiality and shallowness all but banished. A perfect scenario, but not in the real world. In the real world, we have stories, some repeated and same old but in different versions. No matter how many times they’ve been told, we still embrace them. All because they are real.

***

TIFF-launched foreign language films shooting for Oscars 2019

Watching foreign language films could be an acquired taste for some, not unlike eating sushi. Once you’ve gotten over the seemingly counter-intuitive idea of eating fish raw and allow the soft texture to melt in your mouth, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the cold freshness and welcome the brain-stirring sting of the wasabi, as well, appreciate the sweet taste when lightly dipped in soya sauce, balanced by the blandness of the vinegared rice morsel. A delightful exploration.

Film festivals are the best venues for one to have a taste of these international, cinematic delicacies. And as usual, the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September was a launching pad for films from all over the world, several were subsequently announced as their country’s official entry to the upcoming Oscars Best Foreign Language Film race.

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“Shoplifters”, this year’s Palme d’Or winner and Japan’s official entry to the
91st Oscar Best Foreign Language Film race.  Photo courtesy of TIFF

The following is the list of TIFF selections that made it to represent their country at the 91st Oscars. Posted also are their premiere status at TIFF. Some of these I’d seen at the Festival and since reviewed (just click on the links). More reviews are forthcoming. The Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

**

El Angel, Argentina, dir. by Luis Ortega, North American (NA) Premiere

Hidden Man, China, dir. by Jiang Wen, International Premiere

Birds of Passage, Columbia, dir. by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra, Canadian (CA) Premiere

Sergio and Sergei, Cuba, dir. by Ernesto Daranas, NA Premiere

Winter Flies, Czech Republic, dir. by Olmo Omerzu, International Premiere

Never Look Away, Germany, dir. by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, NA Premiere

Sunset, Hungary, dir. by László Nemes, NA Premiere

The Cakemaker, Israel, dir. by Ofir Raul Graizer

Dogman, Italy, dir. by Matteo Garrone, CA Premiere

Shoplifters, Japan, dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda, CA Premiere

Capernaum, Lebanon, dir. by Nadine Labaki, NA Premiere

Roma, Mexico, dir. by Alfonso Cuarón, CA Premiere (Review forthcoming)

Cold War, Poland, dir. by Pawel Pawlikowski, (Review forthcoming)

Burning, South Korea, dir. by Lee Chang-dong, NA Premiere

Border, Sweden, dir. by Ali Abbasi, NA Premiere

The Wild Pear Tree, Turkey, dir. by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Review forthcoming)

**

The 91st Academy Awards ceremony will take place Sunday, February 24, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Hotel Mumbai’ captures both terror and resilience in the tragic attack

On November 26, 2008, the City of Mumbai, India, was under siege by terrorists in a co-ordinated shooting and bombing attack that lasted four days. For long hours until security forces arrived from outside of the City, twelve sites in Mumbai were attacked and civilians were gunned down defenceless or taken hostage.

An Australian production, Hotel Mumbai had its world premiere at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2018. Director Anthony Maras in this his debut feature captures the horrific attack ten years ago with a pace that is intense and sweeping, leaving viewers breathless as they watch terror unfold on screen, acts after acts of senseless violence. But don’t let this drive you away.

The setting of the thriller Hotel Mumbai is the luxury heritage Hotel Taj Mahal Palace, or the Taj, where many foreign, renowned personalities had frequented. It was one of the twelve targets of the terror attacks, for obvious reason. Gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifle and hand grenades took foreigners hostage at the five-star hotel and shot point-blank many others. In the aftermath, 31 in the hotel were killed, almost half were staff refusing to escape but stayed to defend and assist the trapped hotel guests.

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Dev Patel as Arjun in “Hotel Mumbai”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The storylines following several guests in the hotel are particularly gripping, like Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) hiding in a closet caring for a baby who wouldn’t stop crying as the baby’s parents David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are trapped somewhere else in the hotel, trying to get to their infant son.

Dev Patel plays staff server Arjun. The turban he wears makes one of the guests fearful. A crisis situation could tip either way, as an opportunity for understanding and the breakdown of barrier, or an incendiary fuse leading to deeper hatred and animosity. In a volatile situation as the hotel is besieged, complications could be deadly. But Arjun exudes ample dignity and generosity. That turban will later become a symbol of selfless grace.

The consoling breathers and the meaningful elements in the film then were these acts of kindness and courage. Maras captures the human foibles in the face of dangers, as well the strength of the hotel staff in protecting their guests. Their sacrificial, heroic acts render the film not merely a record of atrocity, but a gratifying chronicle of resilience and bravery.

The bullet-riddled and fire damaged five-star hotel was fully reopened after only twenty-one months. A special commemoration was held and a monument set up to honor those who died.

 

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“Hotel Mumbai” Press Conference at TIFF. From left: Director Anthony Maras, actors Dev Patel, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, and Armie Hammer (back). Photo by Diana Cheng

There was a good representation of main cast members at the press conference of the film, moderated by Richard Crouse of CTV. Present were director Anthony Maras and actors Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and Anupam Kher. They all commended the hotel staff for their extraordinary courage, some they had met in person who were survivors of the attack.

Upon talking with hotel staff and understanding the actual events, the actors were impressed that small acts of kindness were the essence of resistance. There were staff who had escaped but went back to save hotel guests. Some in the kitchen would put cookie sheet inside their clothes as shield to protect themselves in order to cover guests as they escape. One particular poignant observation they all felt was the breakdown of barriers as both staff and guests were all victims of the horrific act of violence. All racial and financial barriers came down in the face of crisis.

The cast also stressed the point that the perpetrators were all misguided and brainwashed young men. Nine of the ten gunmen were killed. But the mastermind, called “the Bull” in the film—who was in constant contact, directing the attackers throughout by means of their cell phones—was never caught.

 

***

 

Diversity Wins at TIFF 2018

It’s a wrap for the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival as the awards were handed out on Sunday, September 16, 2018, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre 1. The top prize, the Grolsch People’s Choice Award went to Green Book, a world premiere at TIFF18. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the comedy-drama stars Mahershala Ali as classical pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as a working-class Italian-American bouncer getting the job to drive Ali on the road in the American South during the 1960’s. Ali won an Oscar for his role in Moonlight (2016), Mortensen is a two-time Oscar nominee. Looks like the film has just got a huge boost with this win and will travel far in the upcoming Awards Season.

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Viggo Mortsensen driving Mahershala Ali in “Green Book”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

If Beale Street Could Talk, a world premiere at TIFF18 and director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight (2016) was the People’s Choice Award First Runner-Up. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, the film tells the love story of a young African American woman trying to prove her imprisoned lover’s innocence. In the TIFF webpage, the film is described as a ‘gorgeous tone poem on love and justice.’

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KiKi Layne and Stephan James in “If Beale Street Could Talk”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (my review) came third in the People’s Choice Award. A Canadian Premiere at TIFF18, it is an artistic rendering of a young maid’s experience in a middle-class home in Mexico City during the 1970’s. Of note is the black-and-white film is regarded as a semi-autobiographical account of Mexican director Cuarón, the first Hispanic and Mexican to win the Academy Awards for Best Director with his sci-fi work Gravity (2013).

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Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The high-profile contenders First Man directed by Damien Chazelle with Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born did not place.

TIFF’s People’s Choice Award winner is often regarded as a predictor of the next Oscar Best Picture. Past winners that went on to capture the Oscar include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years A Slave.

Capturing the People’s Choice Documentary Award is Free Solo, International premiere at TIFF18, directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Chinese-American mountaineer/photographer Jimmy Chin. The duo chronicled the renowned rock climber Alex Honnold’s scaling free solo — without safety ropes — up the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.

People’s Choice Award from the Midnight Madness program went to the The Man Who Feels No Pain, World Premiere at TIFF18, directed by Vasan Bala, one of the young, new wave filmmakers in India. This is a cinematic fusion throwing in Hong Kong martial arts comedy Stephen Chow styling, the agility of Jacky Chan, the Bollywood sensation, the American Superhero momentum, and the inspiration of Buster Keaton. Fits right in the Midnight Madness program of introducing new works by a new generation of filmmakers.

Platform Prize went to Cities of Last Things, directed by Ho Wi Ding. This world premiere at TIFF18 is a collaboration of filmmakers from Taiwan, China, USA, and France. From TIFF’s webpage, “a seamless blending of genres, from sci-fi to noir to romance, the Malaysian-born Ho commandingly employs cinematic language as a tool to discuss the root of our collective sadness, which is perhaps the very thing that makes us human.”

NETPAC Award for the world premiere of international and Asian film went to The Third Wife from female writer-director Ash Mayfair of Vietnam. A film about a 14-year-old girl’s struggles after she becomes the third wife of a wealthy landowner, set in 19th century rural Vietnam.

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Takes an International Film Festival to Remind Us

It takes an International Film Festival to remind us that we live in a world with many countries and myriad of cultures, languages and experiences beyond our own. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) opens a window looking out towards such a diverse human kaleidoscope. (All photos in this post are by Diana Cheng, Sept. 2018)

TIFF on Festival Street

What better time than now for us to press on to connect and share when it seems the progress we had made in recent decades had been dismantled in no time. What better means than through the visceral medium of film art in exposing views, eliciting empathy, and inspiring minds. Films could well be the best avenue to reach out and understand, as well, to be understood.

TIFF is the largest public film festival in the world. Its top prize is judged by the audience. Named the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, the annual winner is often a predictor of the next Oscar Best Picture. Some past winners include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, 12 Years A Slave.

Glamour aside, the variety of its film selections are examples of diversity and opened doors to places and issues that are foreign to many in the Western world. But then again, finding the gem of universality may just be the serendipitous reward.

This year, the number of films in TIFF’s various programs comes to about 342, representing 83 countries, from Algeria to Kazakhstan to Vietnam, just to go down the alphabetical list. These official selections are chosen from a total of 7,926 submissions, 6,846 from around the world, 1080 from Canada domestically. Among these three hundred some titles, over 80 languages are used. After watching half a dozen of the international entries, reading subtitles at the bottom and watching the whole screen at the same time will become a skill you’ll be happy to have acquired.

Share Her Journey

Further, the Share Her Journey Rally on Saturday, September 8, lends a voice to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, pressing for respect and equality for women on both sides of the camera. Attended by hundreds and led by actress Geena Davis among other distinguished guests, the Rally represents a united front to shatter the glass ceiling in the film industry. This year at TIFF, 35% of films are by women filmmakers, a statistic that TIFF is aiming at improving.

During the first few days kicking off the Festival, King Street West was closed for a few blocks for pedestrians to enjoy the fun, food, and free samplings. Here are some sights on Festival Street.

Fusion food is the best sign of diversity. Check these menus out:

Food Truck Menu where East meets West

Fusion

Or, be transported to Paris just for a dream trip:

On Festival Street

and stop for a latté and croissant at Bistro Air France, if you don’t mind waiting:

Bistro Air France

To many, the fun part of TIFF is waiting. Many wait for hours to get just one glimpse of their favourite stars to arrive at a red carpet, there are several in different venues in downtown Toronto:

Star Gazing

Here’s another one, also waiting for their faves:

Still Waiting

**

(All photos in this post are by Diana Cheng, Sept. 2018)

In the days ahead, my list of film reviews on both Asian American Press and Ripple Effects will include (director’s name after title):

Burning, Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, N. American Premiere
Capernaum, Nadine Nabaki, Lebanon, N. American Premiere
Hotel Mumbai, Anthony Maras, Australia, World Premiere
Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg, Belgium, Luxembourg, World Premiere
Maya, Mia Hansen-Løve, France, World Premiere
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón, Medico, Canadian Premiere
Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, Canadian Premiere
Shadow, Zhang Yimou, China, N. American Premiere
The Wild Pear Tree, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, France, Germany, Bulgaria, North American Premiere
Wildlife, Paul Dano, U.S.A., Canadian Premiere

Just to name a few. More reviews coming up. Check out the details of the programs from tiff.net

 

***

Lion: From Personal Memoir to the Big Screen

The memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, first published in 2014, has officially changed its name to Lion. This may well be a metaphor for its author. Only a change in the name, but everything inside remains intact. From a child lost on the streets in Calcutta, India, to a man grown up in Hobart, Tasmania, Saroo remains who he is. He writes in his memoir: “I now have two families, not two identities. I am Saroo Brierley.”

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Lion (previously titled A Long Way Home) the memoir by Saroo Brierley

5 year-old Saroo was lost in a Calcutta (now Kolkata) train station, almost a thousand miles away from his home in a small village, Ganesh Talai. With no language (a different dialect), not clear of the name of the place he calls home (mispronounced by him as “Ginestlay”) or even his own last name, Saroo is utterly alone and helpless. Living dangerously on the streets of Calcutta for some weeks, he was picked up and sent to a youth detention centre, which was only a tiny bit safer from the streets. Subsequently Saroo was sent to an orphanage, Nava Jeevan (“new life”), run by the benevolent Mrs. Sood. There she arranged for his adoption by a loving Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley.

That could have been the happy ending of a tumultuous experience for Saroo, as he grew up in calm and beautiful Hobart, Tasmania, well adjusted and dearly loved by his adoptive parents. But for twenty-five years, Saroo has not forgotten his first home. As he grew, he was all the more tormented by the memory of his birth mother, and the brothers and sisters who had shared the first five years of his life. An important message he has always wanted to convey to them is that he’s ok, and that they need not worry about him. For years he has been haunted by the thoughts that his mother and older brother Guddu must have been devastated with losing him without a trace, as it was Guddu who had left him alone on a bench at the train station near his home, telling him to stay put as Saroo was too sleepy to tag along on that fateful night.

With the help of Google Earth twenty years later, and vague memories of the physical features of his home surrounding, Saroo finally located his village and flew back to India to search for his mother. They reunited a few doors down from his old home, as his mother had persisted all these years to not move away but stay there to wait for him, hoping against hope that her son would come back to her. The photo inserts in the book add even more poignancy as we see the Brierleys meet Saroo’s birth mother Kamla in India.

Utterly moving, authentic, genuine and real. While Slumdog Millionaire may be entertaining and eye-opening for those of us who are not familiar with Indian’s millions of children living on the streets, Lion is a true portrayal of one lost child, determined to find his way back home twenty-five years later across the oceans.

**

Lion the Movie

Is the movie any good? For those who think it’s always the book that’s better, here’s my answer: Yes, very good. Premiered at TIFF16 last September, Lion has since garnered awards and nominations, including young Sunny Pawar, his debut performance as an actor. Kudos to all those involved in transporting this story from a personal memoir onto the big screen for international viewers. If not for the movie, even though it has been reported in India and Australia, I for one in North America would not have known about this real life miracle.

So, hats off to Australian director Garth Davis, screenwriter, the acclaimed Australian  poet/writer Luke Davies, and the cast, Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) as the adult, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham the adoptive parents, Rooney Mara the girlfriend, and the cast of Saroo’s Indian family. They have delivered an authentic and moving real-life story.

Basically structured into three parts, the first focuses on five year-old Saroo, living in poverty but is loved by his mother and siblings. One night he pleads with his older brother Guddu to go with him to his night work, salvaging garbage left on trains. After reaching the closest station from his home village, Saroo is too tired, so he stays behind sleeping on a bench to wait for Guddu. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself all alone. He gets on one of the parked train to look for Guddu but falls asleep again in there. He wakes to his horror as he finds he is being transported in the speeding train further and further away from his home.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012; Bright Star, 2009) uses his camera effectively showing some haunting images, a horrified 5 year-old, alone on a train speeding to the unknown. Throughout the film as well, he tells the story poignantly with his camera. Scores composed by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran add power in eliciting emotions, taking us closely with Saroo on his incredulous life journey.

Second part we see Saroo grown up in Australia, having a good relationship with his adopting parents but troubled nonetheless by his past. The frustration of having only vague memories of the physical features of the train station near his home makes it an impossible task to search for an unknown town in the vast land of India. Thanks to Google Earth and his unyielding perseverance, the adult Saroo was rewarded with a dream come true.

While the physical locales might be distant and vague, memories of his childhood experiences are lucid and close. In the second part, the director and screenwriter have deftly inserted Saroo’s memories of his childhood days in India, enriching the screen story of his intimate relationships with his family. These inclusions add to the texture and are placed aptly to enhance the continuity of the child and the man. Very effective.

I welcome the quiet and slower pace in Part Two, and appreciate Patel’s portrayal of inner turmoils. Kidman has done an amiable job as the adoptive mother trying to hold the family together, with two Indian boys, now grown men, both deeply troubled by their past in different ways. If Part One is about the outward dangers of a lost child, Part Two illustrates the internal turmoils one still wages into adulthood.

Part three is that triumphant and exhilarating reunion. How we want to see a happy ending by then. Although we know that is forthcoming, it is still exciting and gratifying to embrace the uplifting end. Lion is a story well told cinematically, and worth every minute of a viewer’s attention. Do wait till the very end before you leave the theatre, the photos at the closing credits make a beautiful wrap. And why the title Lion? That’s for you to find out.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

for both Book and Movie

***

Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Slumdog Millionaire

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Lunchbox