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!

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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!

lion-all-the-saroos

5 Centimetres per Second

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Shinkai Makoto’s 5 Centimetres per Second (or Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru) deals with themes of love, isolation and separation. With 3 episodes spanning over 20 years from the late 90s, and at just over one hour running time, he tells the story of the love of a lifetime in a spare, elegant, and quite melancholy manner.

The film is stylised and has a strong manga influence in its construction and framing. Longer passages of action are interspersed with single frame shots that speak for the characters inner thoughts, or condense a series of events. The kids are largely alone and set against a larger world, small figures running through their school and town that seems frozen – there are trains and things but little sign of human activity. Takaki says when he dreams of Akari he always sees her alone. The story is mostly told from his perspective, although he is the least emotionally articulate, and Akari is elusive although more expressive.

Cherry Blossom (episode 1) introduces Takaki and Akari. They have been close friends for years, both transferred to their current school when their parents relocated to town for work. A few years later Akari’s parents moved away and the pair have communicated by letter since. Yes, this is a pre email and social media long distance love.

His family are planning to move again, this time to the other side of the country, and Takaki wants to see Akari one last time. He plans a train trip but is delayed by blizzards, and in all the waiting around he can’t avoid confronting his fears that Akari won’t be there but he can’t even contemplate not continuing with the journey.

Of course Akari did wait. They see each other for what may be the last time. They talk, they share their first kiss, and it is sweet and sad.

Cosmonaut (episode 2) is set a few years later when Takaki is settled in his new school. There is another girl, Kanae Sumida, who likes him. He seems oblivious though, and treats her as a friend. Sumida falls for him at first sight but also seems genuinely interested in understanding him, and Takaki is honest with her about his fears and doubts which just makes him all the more appealing and different from other boys. Kanae realises that while she loves him he doesn’t really see her, he’s always looking for something in the distance. If only she knew his dreams were full of Akari, even if he didn’t always recognise her. She resigns herself to a one sided love, and decides not to tell him.

In the final, and titular, episode Akari and Takaki have long since lost track of each other. It’s 2008 and he is living alone, working hard, not doing much else. She is planning her wedding for the coming New Year. He realises that he has lost his enthusiasm for life and had forgotten his fascination with its possibilities and mystery. His girlfriend Risa broke up with him because she knew there was something else he was yearning for, and she wasn’t part of it. So he quits his job and emerges from his tiny drab apartment in time to see the cherry blossoms again. He walks by the spot he and Akari had wanted to visit to see the sakura all those years ago, and passes by a woman who looks very familiar.

I know people who hated the open ending but I think it suits the melancholy tone. This story isn’t really boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy finds girls again. It’s about how time, distance, the minutiae of life can take us down a different path. Kids who couldn’t overrule their parents moving towns, growing up to realise that if you love someone they are under no obligation to feel the same, deciding what matters to you. We drift, maybe a little faster than 5 centimetres per second, and get caught up in currents and cross winds. I think Takaki just accepted that he needed to stop obsessing over what he had lost and what he had never found, and went out to see what was in store for him. I’m not convinced about the singalong ballad at the end… And what do I think the ending means? Does it mean he finds Akari and they get back together? No idea. Sometimes I think maybe they have and sometimes I think he has just come to terms with where he is in life and so can walk forward with a smile.

At just over one hour, there is a lot going on in this deceptively simple film. While the characters are presented without much detail or background, they reveal more about themselves through their interactions, in Akari’s letters, in Kanae’s inner monologues. I felt connected to them and could relate to some of their dilemmas. I like how this story leaves some things up to interpretation and doesn’t tie everything up too neatly. And I also liked that it is OK for Takaki or Kanae or Risa to be sad because of one another but that it doesn’t necessarily follow that any of them are bad people. Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you dreamed.

Shinkai is a great story teller who can illuminate complex emotions or philosophy with a handful of frames. His “Voices of a Distant Star” is one of my favourite films ever, and I liked that this story picked up some of the same themes and developed them. The visual style is strong and with the minimal dialogues it works beautifully to create the mood and show another layer to the story.

See if it you like a bittersweet and oh so chaste love story, or just want to immerse yourself in a beautiful piece of art. 4 ½ stars! (Yes, I did take off a half for the ballad)