Movie: Bal-Can-Can (2005)

(Macedonian: Бал-Кан-Кан; Countries: Macedonia, Italy; Languages: Macedonian, Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Bosnian, Albanian)

A comedy about a military deserter who escapes his native Macedonia with his family during the fighting between Albanian separatists and government forces in 2001. But this background only provides the point of departure for an extremely funny film.

The story consists of the quest to find the grandmother’s dead body who, when she dies during the journey, is rolled in a carpet, and loaded on the roof of the car to hide from authorities. When the carpet is stolen and along with the body, they find themselves trawling through Balkan’s crime mafias to retrieve her.

I’m hard to laugh watching comedies but this one kept me bemused. It has sharp twists of plot, intelligent dealing of situations, an expressive cast of characters, and it satirizes the conflict very well. I liked it 5/5, for what it is worth.

Fun fact: The film was the highest-grossing film to date in Macedonia (wiki). Here is the IMDb Link for the film.

Movie: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Historical background: Second Persian invasion of Greek city-states which ended in a stalemate at one front and Persian loss at the other, in the year 480 BC.

The film follows the efforts of one Athenian called Themistokles, who tries to unite all Greek city-states to offer a united front against the invading Persians, and goes through gore and blood of two major battles, which ends in decisive Greek victory.

I have written about problems of portrayal in the first installment, but this film comes out as much worse than the first.

It reinforces old school Orientalist characterisation in worst possible way and at the same time frames the Persians as war fanatics interested only in death and destruction. To encapsulate it in binaries, it’s a fight between good and evil, black and white, reason and fanaticism, Let’s see how.

The Persians are portrayed as ugly-faced, wild-eyed fanatics with fiery, hateful facial expressions. In his desire for vengeance, a reasonable-looking King Xerxes I of Persia undergoes some magic spells that make him a ‘god-king’ (I don’t know well about old Persians religious beliefs to opine how much of a joke it is but you get the idea!), and he marches on a trip to visit complete annihilation on Greece.

Orientalist bit: one Persian army general is shown as spending free time on the war ship in lechery (wine & women) when he’s ordered to stand up and check preparations for a fresh attack. The Persian army is clad in black (telling) and with turbans on their heads (telling). One Persian general is named ‘Bandari’ (not referring to Bandar Al-Saud but to current Iranian cities with have ‘Bandar’ in their names) and the other is called General Kashani (city: Kashan). So they couldn’t even think up, or look up, real-sounding names from the old Persian Empire.

Fanatic bit: When Xerxes I emerges from his transformation to become god-king, all high officials at the Persian court, those who were loyal to previous king Darius and taught and raised and counseled Xerxes before his transformation, are killed in cold blood, just for the heck of it, to remove any possible dissent on the part of those officials with regards Xerxes’ plans to invade and destroy Greece. This action, of course, is incomprehensible in a humane society like Greece but perfectly understandable in a country of fanatics.

The Greeks, on the other hand, are just your pretty looking, reasonable, clean and white folks gathering themselves together to defend their freedoms from marauding Persians. When they hear of the advancing Persian fleet, in Athenian senate, they verbally fight over whether they should negotiate peace with the Persians or fight. Themistokles, the great general-politician, tells them to calm down because “this is a democracy” and they must hold their guts to “fight tyranny”. Right there!

If you’re making a fantasy war film and not a historical war film, you are at liberty to fictionalise it in any way you like, but it doesn’t mean you produce a showy, gaudy and jingoist piece of political propaganda.

If I judge the film on merits of acting, story, and fantasy war, I still would not give it more than 2/5 because it’s a very flat film with nothing remarkable about it. In fact, the first installment (300 [2007]) was a much better film. Link on IMDb.

Movie: Halima’s Path (2012)

(Bosnian: Halimin Put; Country: Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia; Language: Bosnian)

Based on a true story, a grieving Muslim Bosniak woman must track down the biological mother of her adopted son who was butchered by the Serb militia in the war.

When authorities find bones and skeletons of murdered Bosniaks, they call on Halima to give blood sample so her DNA might be matched with that of the heap of bones, but she can’t help as she’s not the biological mother. Then begins the search for the real mother, who has reasons of her own to hide the fact that she’s the mother of Mirza, the murdered lad.

But that’s about the only thing that’s based on true events; the rest of the story is fictionalized for dramatic adaptation.

This is just about all I could say about it without spoiling it for anyone wishing to watch the film.

There’s a bit about a couple wanting to give their son a ‘proper’ Islamic name. That was before the war. So they name him Aaron (Haroon). The boy’s uncle, similarly Muslim, objects to the name and says he’s never heard of it. “I don’t know if this name is from this world let alone a proper Muslim name.” It appears that Bosniaks tend to have their own Bosnian-origin name like Iranians do. Even so, how can a Muslim who has a slightest clue about Islamic tradition couldn’t have heard about Haroon? Musa and Haroon? hello?

The actress who played Halima did well but otherwise the film’s pretty average, on every count: acting, character-building, effects of war and rapine – nothing shines through. I’d rate it 50/50, despite it having got 8.3 out of 10 on IMDb.

Of Love and Other Demons – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
First published 1994

Set in 1700s Colombia, it’s a story of a little girl born into a family of nobles whose landholdings are disappearing and family name is fading.

The twelve-year-old daughter of the Marquis is a miracle child which the saints have given to her parents.

She is bitten by a dog and the fear is that she has contracted rabies, which was common at that time and was a cause of many untimely deaths. Half-doctors, quacks and local medicine-women begin strange and tortuous treatments on her to cure her real or imagined disease.

When traditional medicines fail to treat her festering wound the word goes out to the leader of the Church who forces the father to entrust the girl to a convent of nuns, party to treat her, partly to quarantine her.

There at the convent, living in delusions of solitary life, they come to believe that the girl is possessed and must be exorcised. Then starts a macabre story of blind faith taking over reason.

The novel is a rich depiction of colonial Colombia, its society, faith, and its politics. The twelve-year-old girl has a magical aura to her character; and her fascination relationship with her mother who absolutely hates her, hates anything to do with her, and later, the power of her beauty, the influence of her presence, on the emissary of the Church official, who falls in love with her during her days of confinement at the convent, and wants to rescue her.

And as always, Marquez’s unique narrative style, magical and dreamy, – with an echo of One Hundred Years of Solitude – frankly sensual, and inconspicuously violent, takes you into a world of possibilities – It’s a very engrossing read. Full marks.

Movie: To Kill a King (2003)

England was the first country in Europe to become a commonwealth or republic when it deposed and killed its king back in the middle of the 17th century. But it did not last long. When Oliver Cromwell, the ‘Lord Protector’ of the commonwealth died, the nobility enthroned the son of the deposed king and restored monarchy. The restoration has lasted to date while the republic lived only for about a decade.

This film chronicles the struggle between Lord Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell and their conflicting policies about the fight against the king.

The leader of the struggle, Lord Fairfax, who was born into nobility, rose to prominence on the back of other nobles in their dispute with the king on his extremely unfair merchant levies and misuse of absolute monarchical powers. But Lord Fairfax was a moderate who desired reconciliation with the king if he assented to nobility’s demands; his second-in-command, Oliver Cromwell, however, was a fiery fanatic, or so the film depicts him such way.

It’s pretty standard fictionialised storytelling but how faithful it has been to history I can’t say, because I’m not well read in the Cromwellian saga, which I understand to have been much mythologized in the annals of English history, to make an informed judgment.

A history lesson for sure, but nothing special. I’d rate it 3/5. IMDb Link

Movie: The Hunt (2012)

(Danish: Jagten; Country: Denmark; Language: Danish)

‘It is assumed that children tell the truth but it’s common for children to describe non-existing details’ and ‘to have a vivid imagination.’

A primary school teacher is accused of sexually abusing an innocent child. A mass hysteria ensues. He is ostracized, social-boycotted, spat on, thrown out of shops, abused and, finally, arrested by the police. Lucas’ perfectly normal life becomes topsy-turvy.

This girl Klara adores her teacher, idolizes him, but one day he gently admonishes her over a little matter. Klara takes this to heart.

What recourse does an adult male have when an angelic child, just to spite her teacher, describes things which can only be interpreted as sexual abuse? None whatsoever; it is as though the accusation proves the guilt.

Look at the irony here. The girl later realises her blunder. She is disturbed with how the events have taken shape, and concedes to the headteacher and later to her mother that she had said something foolish, that she had not meant it, that Lucas had not done any thing to her. They interpret this as a child’s internal defence mechanism and think that she is denying it to forget the horrible experience!

It’s an excellent critique of  preconceived notions and our attitudes towards some social matters, which, though serious, are guided by irrationality and impulse than by reason and evidence.

I did not know Mads Mikkelsen (of Casino Royale and Clash of the Titans) was a Dane. He played the lead role well.

A recommended watch. My rating 5/5. IMDb Link

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
First published 1999; translation published 2001

This novel had a promising start but it sort of turned banal and blandly descriptive half way through, till it regained some of it effect at the end, and, as is common for Murakami novels, ended on a sad and depressing note.

A young woman (Sumire) in her early twenties, living a lonely and conflicted life, is desperately trying to become a writer, which invokes images of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but other than that there’s no similarity.

She struggles to write and keeps herself going with odd jobs when she meets a woman ten years her senior, Miu, and falls violently in love with her. Sumire’s tumultuous love for Miu is not reciprocated, but she must find a way to to Miu’s heart

There is something of the marriage of real and magical in this novel, for which his two books (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore) are famous. In this story, the personality is split in two and a person’s one half travels to the other side and the second half remains on this side. Both halves are horrified at what the other half is doing.

A friend of mine read it literally and disliked it for its improbable storyline. The story is perfectly plausible but the magical realist bit can’t be judged with tools of realism. What happens to the young woman and the older one for whom she has lesbian romantic feelings is symbolic portrayal of split personalities and conflicting thought patterns, and the steps one takes towards achieving conflicting goals, something that can’t be pursued here in this mundane world.

In the end there is a disjointed insertion of the narrator’s school pupil’s stealing episode from a store which, to use Murakami’s own metaphor, seems like a false note in an otherwise coherent music piece. My rating 3/5

Movie: The Raid: Redemption (2011)

(Indonesian: Serbuan Maut; Country: Indonesia; Language: Indonesian)

Director Gareth Evans brings Indonesian martial arts (Pencak silat) to worldwide audience. It is action packed thriller. First class action in an otherwise third class film.

Action pervades, right from the start; so much so that by the time the film ends your cheeks are flushed and your heart’s beating fast.

There is very little towards good story and nothing about characterisation except that every one is a master in martial arts, and they amply display their talents. The movie makers could have just gathered cops and gangsters in one building and, without bothering with anything else, made them fight for the whole one hour forty minutes run time. Oh wait. That just what they did!

A team of elite cops led by a maverick lieutenant raid a decrepit tenement to capture a dangerous gangster chief who runs the place. They have underestimated his designs. Trouble is, the operation is not official and a top cop has ulterior motives for capturing the crime lord.

Five out of five for action and just a single star for the film. IMDb Link

The Museum of Innocence – Orhan Pamuk

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
First published 2008; first published in English 2009

A tale of obsession of a rich Istanbul businessman who is engaged to be married but falls in love with a teenage distant relation of his. He goes to ridiculous, comical lengths to try to get the girl of his desire.

He slumps into a profound uselessness; his business suffers, his relations with his family and friends are impaired, his whole life seems to have acquired a suffocating stillness, but he is focused on one thing: to make himself available to his beloved, to make himself seen and heard, to visit her house on a regular basis under a pretext of visiting poor relatives.

This routine continues for eight years during which the story is obsessively and nauseatingly improvised, through all the little details and happenings that seemed to change things for him, to give him a ray of hope, but nothing definite happens till very late, and when it does finally happen, when the girl accedes to his unrelenting pursuit, there occurs a tragic events which makes everything topsy-turvy.

It is ‘museum of innocence’ because Kemal, the protagonist, is showing the visitors around a real museum which he has painstakingly created over the years to commemorate his ‘one and only love’ for Fusun. It is through this he tells his story. A fascinating fact is that Orhan Pamuk has actually conceived and started a real museum in Istanbul displaying items from everyday lives of the people.

This novel – along with his real Museum of Innocence – depicts the lifestyle of upper class Istanbulites of the 1970s and 1980s, a period of immense social and political change in the life of modern Turkey. This is a time of expanding businesses, urban population swell due to rural migration, creation of strong socioeconomic ties with blooming Europe, and of political revolutions and counter revolutions at home. In a narrow sense, however, it’s a document on members of Istanbul’s upper class who negotiate their modern paradoxes of identity and destiny. The perennial question sits at the heart of their conundrum: are they European or not? Should they do and behave like European to modernise themselves? Or uphold their traditions and keep their customs and still be counted modern and enlightened?

I spent much longer reading the book than I’d have; I lost interest about mid way. It’s not as good as his previous novel. The start is typical Pamuk, which is to say it’s fast, intense, introduces conflict right from the start, and completely pulls you into the story. But then it stalls in the middle, completely loses its movement and interest factor with endless and overdone improvisation, till things begin to happen by the end of the book when it’s too little too late to salvage the novel for the stellar reputation his previous novels, (My Name is Red, Snow), enjoy.

Selected Poems – Paul Celan

Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton
This selection first published 1972

I discovered Paul Celan’s poetry from a list of Best of World Literature which featured 100 great works. It was a worthwhile discovery, for when I read Celan, I fell in love with his verse. He is nothing like anything I have read before in poetry in English, original or in translation. A fantastic artist.

Celan’s poems deploy a highly complex imagistic landscape which forces the reader to decipher the many layers of meaning like the opening of a box inside box inside box till you peel the last wrapper off to find the hidden gem. He was under the influence of Surrealism in the beginning, which shows in his early verse, but later his style metamorphosed into a totally original approach to verse-consruction, in particular his one-worders and highly unusual word choices which, besides challenging the reader’s interpretation, alters the meaning of the stanza and, in some cases, the mood of the poem.

Themes of loss and death are recurrent; he was from a Jewish family and both his parents perished in concentration camps. He survived and lived with an anguish which spills into his poems every now and then.

I came to like more poems in one book than I normally do. I’m very picky but with Celan, it’s hard to leave out and not like many if most of his poems included in this particular selection. Among others Fugue of Death, There was Earth, Psalm, Below, Language Mesh, Aspen Tree, In memoriam Paul Eluard, Speak, You Also, There Was Earth etc are some worth reading. Here is a meaning-changing stanza from Below:

Led home, syllable after syllable, shared
out among the dayblind dice, for which
the playing hand reaches out, large,
awakening.

A few selected lines from Speak, You Also:

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
But keep yes and no unsplit
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.

And later, this:

Look around:
look how it all leaps alive -
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.

And look at these spine-tingling lines, a little word-painting of a captive and a flash of thought that goes into his or her mind, look at this beauty: From Language Mesh

Eye’s roundness between the bars.
Vibratile monad eyelid
propels itself upward,
releases a glance.
Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dreary:
the sky, heart-grey, must be near.

Towards the end of the poem, he thinks of what lies outside the cell and at the same time transposes the mood of his condition on to the remembered thought of his beloved. Simply brilliant!

The flagstones. On them,
close to each other, the two
heart-grey puddles:
two
mouthsfull of silence

Five out of five for Paul Celan and a recommendation for anyone who likes good poetry.