Branded to Kill (1967)

Made on a low budget and in no time at all, Branded to Kill (Koroshi No Rakuin) is a delirious and highly stylised gangland film about a killer who has a seriously bad trot at work. I was lucky enough to see this at one of the free screenings of classics at the Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne. And in a world going mad, why not add a bit more madness!

Funny, vicious, and daft by turns, Suzuki Seijun’s make it up as you go direction, the input of eight co-writers who all seem to have Ideas (the Hachiro Guryu), and Kimura Takeo’s strong visual sense make this a gripping and yet incredibly silly B movie. Some scenes were instantly recognisable due to homages in more recent films, and a little bit of creative license with the Bond franchise.

The film jolts along in a series of episodes to tell the story of Hanada (Shishido Joe), the Number 3 hitman. He would like to be Number 1, and is generally quite efficient and creative. But one day he is distracted by a butterfly landing on the barrel of his gun, and accidentally shoots an innocent bystander. He goes on the run, sometimes aided by death obsessed Misako and sometimes hindered by his wife Mami (Ogawa Mariko). Eventually Number 3 kills many other numbers, Number 1 is sent to kill Number 3. Number 1 must not take a lot of contracts. He likes to spend a lot of time on destroying his target’s spirit before he kills them so he moves in with Hanada. A ridiculous and suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues.

The characters live in funky modern apartments and dress in conservative but very 60s fashion. Except Mami who is usually naked. I actually didn’t recognise her at first when I saw her with clothes on. They drive cars with fins and hang out at nightclubs. Misako (Mari Annu) is obsessed with death and fills her apartment with dead creatures, especially butterflies and birds. Hanada’s methods are effective and surprisingly entertaining. There’s a cool trick with shooting up a drainpipe and some nice work making his escape on top of a miniature hot air balloon. When Hanada has a breakdown the screen dissolves into stylised animated graphics showing his confusion and panic. And the music is jazzy and sometimes incongruously chipper. It’s a decidedly modern film, with the endless ranking of hitmen and underworld niceties one of the few nods to tradition that manifests.

Hanada is not a good man, or a particularly likeable one, but I found myself cheering him on at times. Shishido manages to be lugubrious and comedic at once, largely due to his chubby chipmunk face. He is obsessed with sex and the smell of boiled rice is his aphrodisiac of choice. Hanada and Mami seem to share a penchant for uncomfortable sex in precarious locations, and that is about it. She hooks up with his boss Yabuhara (Tamagawa Isao), and eventually tries to kill Hanada. She was probably cold and tired of shagging while dangling off the top of the staircase. And some of his habits were gross. That crop top may be one of his worst decisions among so many other really bad decisions. Hanada knows someone will come to kill him, but he isn’t Number 3 for nothing and he managed a spirited defence. Even in the midst of all the impending doom there are moments of bright joyfulness as when Hanada starts playfully chasing a balloon, and a few “ew!” moments like Number 1 going Number 1 because they hadn’t yet worked out a toilet protocol, or Misako basically being flame grilled. It’s quite a rollercoaster.

Misako is the opposite of Mami in many ways. She is passively waiting for death, and wants Hanada to kill her. She sleeps with him to seal the deal but he then decides he loves her so he won’t kill her even though she only submitted in order to get him to kill her. I tell you these people have issues. Misako’s apartment is littered with dead butterflies and birds, in a kind of goth twist on crazy cat lady syndrome. Mari Annu is deadpan and her eyeliner game is strong. She drifts through scenes as though she already knows how everything will end and doesn’t care. Ogawa Mariko is passionate, fiery, and always wanting more. They are so completely opposite that neither character seems at all real.

In a film made from improbable and inadvisable actions, I still have some questions. I can accept that perhaps a belt buckle may stop a bullet. I could just about accept that a ladies hairband might perhaps deflect a bullet. But I cannot accept that firing a gun from inside a car will not break the windscreen but still kill a man on the outside. And, if you were hiding from a hitman, would you drive a convertible with the top down? Was Hanada dangling upside down from the ceiling trying to shoot a sniper? Some things really deserve to be explained. But you’ll need to see it to believe it when it comes to the ending.

The film is bordering on insane and I can easily believe nobody knew what they were about to shoot. It’s such a mess but it is oh so assured, stylish, and bleakly funny. 3 ½ stars!

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Anaarkali of Aarah

Avinash Das’ Anaarkali of Aarah is a powerful and highly entertaining film with a strong thread of feminism in action, not just in speeches. And Anaarkali is a kickarse woman who compelled my full attention.

Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) is a folk performer, singing and dancing her way through innuendo laden songs for appreciative male audiences. She is loud and proud in both appearance and action, and genuinely loves what she does. She lives in a small world in a small town, and is happy and confident strolling the streets and turning men’s heads as she sashays by. But one of her troupe’s patrons, Dharmender Chauhan the VC of the local university (Sanjay Mishra), is obsessed with Anar. At a high profile police event he gets dangerously drunk and invades the stage. Anaarkali and her ‘friend’ and business associate Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi) try to put Dharmender off but he persists in trying to rape her on stage. She is frightened and angry, and slaps him hard, adding a mouthful of curses for good measure. Can a woman really get away with defending her honour when the men around her don’t see that she has any? Can a woman assert autonomy over her body when men don’t think she has the right to say no?

Mild spoiler – in this film world, she might. But even if you know the ending this journey is really worth taking.

Anar is a wonderful character and Swara Bhaskar is brilliant in the role. Anaarkali is not a fallen woman, she doesn’t need or want redemption. She’s a star in her particular field, and she thrives on the glitz and attention. When Anaarkali struts down the lanes near her home she tosses her hair and sways for her public. When she’s at home she’s foul mouthed and a bit goofy.

Anaarkali is an astute judge of character and mood, usually knowing when to be abrasive and when to simply listen and let the situation deflate. And then she realises that there is such a thin line between acclaim and notoriety and the line is drawn by men in power. Bhaskar delivered a layered performance, showing Anar’s stagecraft, her public persona, and her domestic side and the fluidity with which she switches between them. When Anaarkali lost her home and her troupe I felt her profound and debilitating grief. But Anaarkali is a strong and pragmatic woman. There is no attempt to paint her as a virgin prostitute who only dances. She is frank about her industry but retains the right to choose who, when, and where she has sex with a client. There are men in her life but far from waiting for a white knight, Anaarkali was pretty set on rescuing herself. I might want to be friends with Swara but I’d probably be slightly scared of Anar’s acerbic wit.

It was telling that when the police went into damage control, it was to protect the VC not uphold the legal rights of an assault victim. And also telling that the men near rioting when the show was cut short were not protesting in support of Anaarkali, they were furious because they were denied a spectacle. She is accused of bringing about her own downfall due to arrogance. Nobody seems interested in telling the VC not to be so rapey or allowing her to file charges against him. Sadly I didn’t find much of this to be a stretch of the imagination. Sanjay Mishra is vile as Dharmender, but in a very restrained and slimily real way. The VC’s entitlement is sometimes breathtaking. He only sees Anaarkali as a mirror of his own desires, and nothing is more important to him than his own gratification. He is so convinced she must submit to him, ostensibly because he is crazed with love but really because he is so rich and influential she has no right to refuse. Mishra’s scenes with Anaarkali seethe with anger (mutual), fear (hers), and thwarted desire (his).

Rangeela is an interesting character. He defends Anaarkali but will sell her out in a heartbeat. I tried to believe that was to protect the rest of his motley troupe but even so. When she needed him, he was a weasel. Pankaj Tripathi is solid in the role although I felt maybe some of his character’s story might have been cut and that I wanted to know more about his relationship with Anar. Mayur More is sweet and funny as Anwar. He adores Anaarkali and music. Their dynamic is more cute and flirty, with Anaarkali taking a while to see him as a young man rather than a kid. He tries to step up to look after her but he respects her wishes when she wants to resume singing. Hiraman is a devoted fan of Anar’s and he helps her get her mojo back through a recording gig. I really loved Ishteyak Khan’s performance. He was subtle but radiated love and pride when he was near Anar. His silent and dogged anti-bromance with Anwar was also fun to watch. It’s a really good ensemble cast with everyone fully inhabiting their roles.

Avinash Das has written a strong screenplay and delivered it with an assured visual interpretation. The lighting and composition underscores the drama but isn’t so stylised that it distracts from the performers. This is a small and vivid world and beautifully realised. The story rockets along but there is room for some directorial flair with a nice loop from an early flashback to the finale. Whoever cast the playback singers did an awesome job as the tones and style matched so well I never once thought it was anyone but Swara Bhaskar singing. The songs are full of double entendres that are sexual and also relate to the social position of a woman in Anaarkali’s job. When she sings her final song it is an awesome middle finger to the patriarchy.

I’d had this film on my list to write about for a while but then conversations with a Twitter friend and reading Anu’s review seemed to be a sign to get a wriggle on.

See this for a genuinely female centric film that has a fairly sound feminist position, and a rousing good yarn into the bargain. Swara Bhaskar is fearless and imbues Anar with an unapologetic sensuality and strength of purpose. 5 stars!

Qarib Qarib Singlle

Jaya (Parvathy) is a single woman, busy with her career and an array of friends who rely on her for help. She has been a widow for around ten years, and there is something both wistful and a little salacious in the way she notices signs of sex all around her. She wants to move on but is a bit conservative when it comes to dating publicly, and is wary of losing someone she loves again. But she sets up a profile on a dating site and one response stands out amongst all the sleazy ones. She sets up a coffee date with Yogi (Irrfan, still so fancy he needs no last name). He is a scruffy and unpretentious bloke who seems to say whatever is on his mind. Yogi is convinced his exes are all still pining for him while Jaya is pining for her dead husband. Through one of the few really clunky exchanges in the film, they agree to go on a roadtrip and visit his exes. They can get to know each other on their co-funded separate bedrooms holiday, and Yogi believes Jaya will come to see what a catch he is.

Parvathy is impressive as Jaya, initially quite stitched up but revealing more of her hopes and desires as she opens up under Yogi’s impulsive influence. Jaya is a career woman and Parvathy is authoritarian as a hardarse manager but in Jaya’s personal life she shows the fragility and caution that has stopped her from really moving on. She has wonderful chemistry with Irrfan and as she warms to Yogi I found I was seeing him differently too. In some scenes the sparkle of laughter in her eyes could be genuine amusement at his outrageous behaviour. When Jaya lets herself go she is physically braver than Yogi, while he seems socially and emotionally more robust. Jaya often interacts directly with the camera and Parvathy is amazingly skilled at acknowledging that we are watching and aware without breaking out of Jaya’s character. Jaya finds herself tagging along with a carefree and chaotic guide, and between the stress, fights, and hilarity she reconnects with life. That sounds grand but this is an intimate and very personal story.

Irrfan is charming and funny as Yogi – who could almost be a Manic Pixie Dream Manchild (MPDMc). He is entirely comfortable with himself, and has a deep and possibly delusional confidence in his charms. Yogi needs to let go of his past too although he doesn’t recognise his nostalgia as toxic. He is a catalyst if not a wrecking ball. Yogi can’t help himself from going off on tangents and has a very lax approach to time management and logistics. And I won’t start on his fashion sense. He would have driven me mad. But he is a kind and intelligent man, and Jaya responds to his curiosity about her. Some of the antics are clearly just for the sake of having something go wrong at that point to force Jaya off onto another tangent, and Yogi bears the burden of the poor decision making based comedy. But Irrfan plays his scenes with Jaya with wit and warmth and only a few lapses into acting school improv shenanigans. As an MPDMc Yogi did get on my nerves but I was relieved and happy when Jaya called him out on those behaviours, and also appreciated his response. If, like me, you liked Irrfan in Piku or Life in a Metro, then I think you’ll enjoy this performance too.

The extended trip and varied transport allows for other characters to enter and leave the story without taking up too much space. Also I greatly enjoyed the dashboard decoration of one taxi, fake grass and all. Yogi does spend some time with his exes but the glimpses of their lives look like they are all well and happy, not hung up on him at all. Neha Dhupia is all glamour and self-assurance as his legendary second love. I also enjoyed the direct life advice from the taxi driver played by…someone whose name I have neglected to note.

The story meanders across India from Mumbai to Rishikesh and Gangtok and elsewhere, using planes, trains, taxis and autos. Tanuja Chandra and Eeshit Narain manage to make every location look breathtakingly beautiful and instantly recognisable without resorting to tourist brochure clichés. The golden afternoon light and conversations under the stars create an atmosphere that keeps things anchored in the world and avoids feeling stagey in the dialogue heavy scenes. The music is largely used in the background but when made a focus it seemed that the lyrics were pertinent to the drama. There are no big production numbers and that is just perfect for this film.

The mechanism to get the roadtrip underway was highly contrived, the material is a bit thin in places, and the ending is a little too rushed. But the journey in the middle is charming, infuriating, and ultimately uplifting largely due to the excellent work by Parvathy and Irrfan. One to see if you like a sensible and respectful approach to your rom coms.