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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Zinda Laash (1967)

 

You’re at Friday night work drinks, listening to someone passionately advocating the merits of Jeetendra (but we all know he has none), and a colleague casually says they thought this Pakistani Vampire film was so awesome they named their band after it. What would you do? Luckily the film is on YouTube in a terrible print, but with subtitles. And as a tribute to the subtitle team on the copy I watched, I will also use a capital V whereVer that letter appears.

Khwaja Sarfraz’s film is also known as Dracula in Pakistan but rather than a supernatural road moVie, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Just set in Pakistan. With lots of Very familiar music in the soundtrack. And some excellent and quite dramatic 60s eye liner. It’s not a film for nuanced acting, so I’ll stick to the plot points and things I found interesting.

Professor Tabani (Rehan) was a scientist trying to find the elixir of immortality. He tested the brew on himself and there is a cautionary tale in there about proper test protocols.  The next day his assistant spotted his “dead” body. He had thoughtfully written some notes before drinking his elixir of life. She popped him in the coffin in the basement as instructed (how handy!), and seemed to think no more of it. She awakes to see him in her room, seemingly hypnotised as he moVes in with fangs at the ready. Then the titles launch oVer a montage of women screaming so I guess he was well on the way to being able to feed himself. Eternal life of one sort.

A car driVes down a long country road to the tune of La Cucaracha. A man enters the old mansion and starts exploring, unnerVed by the spooky art, gloomy lighting, and general air of unease. A man in a cape appears – yes, Professor Tabani. They greet each other cordially enough although seem to be strangers, and Aqil Harker (Asad Bukhari) is shown to a guest room to stay. Tabani spouts some classic Dracula lines as he listens to the children of the night, then tells his guest to make himself at home. Aqil is there on a mission, as he keeps writing notes about his host in a diary. Later he relaxes by the fireplace, but hears tinkly laughter in the distance. When he looks for the source of the laugh he finds a “seductiVe” woman (Nasreen) ready to launch into a low cardio dance of loVe to Peace Pipe by The Shadows.

To be fair, I’d struggle to rise elegantly from reclining on that coffee table too. She is thwarted by Tabani who has arriVed home in time for dinner. He throws what looks like the body of a small child at his lady friend, and she runs away. Tabani is tempted by the unconscious man but dawn sends him running for safety too. Aqil wakes up and decides to try and kill the eVil Vampire before fleeing. He finds their coffins in a spooky cellar and stabs the lady Vampire repeatedly. But Tabani gets the better of him.

Another jump, now to a club number about youth and liVing life and not feeling obliged to dress up eVen if you are the designated item girl (Cham Cham). A man (Habibur Rehman) arriVes at the inn, asking for his brother, the missing Dr Aqil. The manager tells him about the scary house. He also sets out for the mansion, this time to a jaunty piano based arrangement of The Wooden Soldier and the China Doll. He finds Aqil’s belongings, including his diary. He also finds the lady Vampire and sadly, Aqil. Not so jaunty now.

Then another abrupt cut to a young lady, Shabnam (Deeba Begum), at her family home. Aqil’s brother, who doesn’t seem to haVe a name, is Visiting but says they shouldn’t tell her of Aqil’s death as it would be too upsetting for a delicate young woman to cope with. Her brother and sister in law refuse to belieVe what happened to Aqil. So he proposes to take them there to proVe his story is true. But when they arriVe, all the coffins are empty. Now I think a basement full of coffins is weird enough, whether they are full or empty, but Mr ParVez (Ala Ud Din) insists this proVes it’s all just a fantastical story.

Back at home, Shabnam goes on a picnic with her friends and they frolic in the sunshine. The melody here is El Rancho Grande which is Very not what I expected. [Sidenote: One of my friends and I consistently sing this with the wrong lyrics. Our Version goes “Oh it’s the song about cattle…something something something CAAAAAAATtle” and that is what I was singing as Shabnam was doing her thing]. Shabnam disappears mid-chasey. She is found unconscious, with no memory of what happened to make her faint. Her family are sensible enough to call a doctor but he has no explanation for her symptoms. Her niece senses a change in Shabnam and is a little afraid of her. Shabnam is in thrall to Tabani, waiting impatiently like a loVer and an addict for his return nocturnal Visit. She dies and nobody wants to belieVe she might be a Vampire. But when a child is found dead, drained of blood, and Shabnam’s graVe is open and empty, Mr ParVez agrees to go look for himself with the doctor. EVentually Shabnam turns up, intent on taking her niece. Her brother is stunned, and is nearly a snack himself. But Aqil’s brother stabs Shabnam in the heart, and releases her soul.

The men decide they haVe to saVe their respectiVe families by killing the king Vampire Tabani. They start by going back to the Golden Crown and haVing a further conVersation with the inn keeper, this time as a number called Shish-Kebab is playing in the club. He tells all and just in time as Tabani has now targeted ParVez’s wife Shirin (Yasmeen Shaukat). Will they saVe Shirin? Will there be any more strangely upbeat songs?

Zinda Laash is not bad as a straight up remake, with a strong Gothic flaVour in the lighting and composition of scenes. The acting is Variable, with the word wooden appearing quite a lot in my notes. Also the note “great eyeliner”. But the oVerall combination of serious psychological horror, Vampire mythology, and cheesy soundtrack is somehow much more than the sum of its parts without really being Very good at all. Mystifying. But Very entertaining. 3 stars!

Lion (2016)

lion-movie-posterIn an “only in the movies” story, little Saroo is separated from his big brother at a railway station near Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. He accidentally takes a train that lands him in Kolkata, hundreds of kilometres from home. Living on the streets he evades some very unpleasant people and situations before being taken in to an orphanage. He is adopted through an organisation called ISSA and placed with a middle class Anglo family in Hobart, Tasmania. When Saroo moves to Melbourne for uni he starts to admit to himself that he really wants to know who he is. He can’t forget his family, especially his mum and older brother Guddu, and knows they must have been looking for him all these years. His friends suggest using Google Earth to try and find landmarks he remembered. It’s a struggle as Saroo deals with his feelings of betraying his adoptive parents, his complex relationship with adopted brother Mantosh, his whiny girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and the sheer time and energy to do the work. But he never completely gives up, and he does find his way.

 

Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, The Long Road Home. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview introduced by Saroo and his mum Sue. They had input into the screenplay adaptation, and both said they were pleased with the results. Garth Davis uses landscape beautifully to reflect Saroo’s journey and to ground his memories. The scenery in Tasmania is pristine and lovingly shot, with a sense of order and calm. In contrast, Kolkata swirls with movement and energy as little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) darts through crowds and runs his heart out in search of home. The film is as manipulative as can be, but it’s the kind of emotional push and pull that made me want to buy into it. He’s a good kid, and you want him to be happy.

Sunny Pawar is that rarest of creatures – an Indian child actor I don’t want to slap. Apart from being ridiculously cute he conveys emotions with clarity and a sense of genuine feeling. Saroo couldn’t speak to anyone much about what had happened as he was a little kid, only spoke Hindi, was illiterate, and had no idea how to find his home. He was selected by Mrs Sood (Deepti Naval) as a good candidate for overseas adoption and before long, he had a new home.

Twenty years later, Dev Patel is Saroo. He has great hair, and a good Aussie accent. I’ve not been completely convinced by some of his past work but I felt he really inhabited Saroo and was just brimming with energy and life. He had a typically Australian slightly inarticulate, good natured, blokey feel about his character but could also show great depth of emotions. Patel’s scenes with Divian Ladwa who plays grown up Mantosh were full of love and disappointment and rivalry, being mean in ways you know will hit hardest, always internally comparing this brother to long lost Guddu. He had a strong connection with Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his parents, and a relaxed playful rapport with the ensemble of his friends. The latter section of the film drags a bit as Saroo wallows in his angst, but it does make the payoff all the more sweet.

Sue’s dedication to having an adopted family made me slightly uncomfortable in the film, but not when I heard her speak in person. Possibly it was the tight close-ups of Nicole Kidman and her fierce emoting that made it seem too much. You know when you inadvertently see a display of intense emotion that was not meant for you, you just want to look away and give that person back their privacy. David Wenham has long been a favourite actor of mine. I would probably watch him watching paint dry, and find it fascinating. He plays John as a typical dad with a big heart and a few bad jokes, trying to keep his family of diverse and strong personalities together and happy through their ups and downs.

The casting really is excellent and I think it shows their commitment to getting things right. The Indian cast features some excellent character actors including Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Deepti Naval in small but impactful roles, with Priyanka Bose as Saroo’s birth mum Kamla. Melbourne girl Pallavi Sharda and local soapie actor Sachin Joab play a couple of Saroo’s uni mates. Abhishek Bharate delivers a good performance as Guddu, with a cocky swagger and a warm smile that made him so unforgettable for his little brother. Rooney Mara is stitched up with a fairly insipid role as Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character Lucy just doesn’t have the same complexity and depth as the others and she comes across as more of a plot device than a person.

I think Lion is going to be interpreted quite differently depending on your perspective. Many Australian viewers would have no idea who Deepti Naval or Nawazzudin Siddiqui is, so there’s that. I may have been the only person in the theatre to whoop when Prabhu Deva appeared on the telly in the background of a scene! And I doubt the 1980s approach to intercultural adoption, which was heavy on assimilation, will sit well with everyone. I was adopted as were several of my friends, and we all had diverse experiences and have made our choices about finding birth parents, so this resonates strongly with me. Sue is clear that she wants Saroo to tell her all about himself and what happened before the adoption, so it isn’t a case of ignoring his personal history. It’s more that there seemed to be no acknowledgement of his existing language or culture, only his misfortune of being a lost boy. Because the film jumps from the start to the end of Saroo’s personal journey, there is a whole other story in the middle that we don’t see. Saroo mentioned he might be working on a prequel so perhaps there will be a companion piece to come. Whatever your views, Saroo seems to have turned out to be a very generous and grounded young man who both his families are proud of.

See Lion for a beautiful story of identity and home and family, for the unashamed tugging at your heartstrings, for the excellent performances. Take some tissues because at least one of the Saroos will probably make you cry!

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