Double Seat (2015)

Sameer Vidwans’ Double Seat tells the story of newlyweds Amit (Ankush Choudhary) and Manjiri (Mukta Barve) starting out their married life in Mumbai, a city where space comes at a premium.

The film opens with a montage of a luxury resort honeymoon passing in lazy days, huge beds with drifts of crisp white linens, peace, and privacy. And then Amu and Manjiri arrive at his home in a chawl in Mumbai where they share a very compact apartment with his parents and brother Alpesh. Amu seems content with the way he lives, but maybe he just needed some encouragement. Manjiri is a pocket rocket, excited by achieving her dream of moving to Mumbai and her career in insurance sales. She sees nothing wrong with taking the occasional calculated risk and having aspirations. And so as they get to know each other, the dream of getting their own home is born.

I like the way the relationship between Amit and Manu is portrayed. They genuinely like each other and they’re dead keen to spend time alone together. They get around the limited privacy by texting each other, even in the same room, with little in jokes and hints. They get each other’s humour and enjoy talking about their hopes and dreams. They go out on late night dates, checking out the homes of the rich and famous, and talking about wonders like having a bath in your flat. Amit never wants Manjiri to change. He enjoys her cheerful blend of ambition and pragmatism, and encourages her. I loved how achievable and relatable some of her dreams were – like getting her first pair of jeans or learning to drive. She doesn’t want things out of greed as much as she wants to make the most out of her opportunities. Being so close to his parents, who are very warm towards her, still has an effect on Manjiri as time passes. She becomes a little less demonstrative and more concerned about what other people might think. She still gives as good as she gets, but she seems stifled.

Amit sees that change and doesn’t like it one bit, partly because it’s killing his nascent sex life. But he too has been squashing some of his aspirations and wishes in order to avoid causing ructions at home. I love the way Amu raises the subject of getting their own place, and how it’s what he needs and not just a thing to make his new wife happy. And then Manju falls pregnant. Both actors deliver likeable and well calibrated characterisations. When things take a turn for the worse Ankush Choudhary nails the blend of self-pity and fear that drives Amit to behave in a disappointing way. Mukta Barve gives Manjiri a spirit and energy that dims at times but is never really overcome. And I liked seeing a nod to realistic pregnancy with Manjiri looking more and more tired and uncomfortable as her due date drew closer.

Nothing ever runs that smoothly, or we wouldn’t have a 2 hour 20 minute film. There are a couple of incidents and scenes in the latter part of the film that I felt were a bit too clunky, but by and large the focus stays on the relationships and domestic life. Amu and Manjiri have some issues but realise they need commitment and communication to resolve their problems. And when financial woes hit, there is little blame or hysteria. Instead of wailing and moaning, Manju tells Amit to get his tears out today because tomorrow they start anew. But he has to remember he has not failed and he did nothing wrong by trying. Some people are a tad more dramatic than others, and some take a little longer to show up with practical support, but they get through things by coming together.

Vandana Gupte as Amit’s mother is delightful. She is very supportive of Manjiri having a job, but she is accustomed to certain rules for living so there is a little bit of friction between the kids and her husband. She usually aims her complaints at Amit though, expecting him to communicate the expectations to Manjiri. She bonds with her daughter-in-law over the mega popular soap Chhakuli Mami. And when she accepts the move will happen, she gets right on board to help the kids out. Her entrepreneurial spirit fires up and she takes to business like a duck to water. Vidyadhar Joshi is the mercurial and comfortable self-centred father and good at showing the wounded dignity that lies under some of his more inflammatory remarks. He’s not bad, he’s not horrible, he’s really quite friendly and tolerant to a point. But when his son wants move up in the world it exposes a tension between the generations and opens up a lot of anger and disappointment that Amit has been dutifully suppressing. He does come round to seeing that his son just wants to fulfil a dream. And as an almost full time dreamer himself, that is something dad can understand.

The remaining support cast are all good. I liked the contrast between Amit’s policeman buddy (Sandeep Pathak) and his wife with Amit and Manjiri’s relationship. Asawari Joshi plays the lead on the addictive soapy and appears as a kind of chain-smoking guardian angel for Manjiri. Shivani Rangole has a small role as Sapna whose proud and supportive grandfather was intent she complete her studies and get a good job.

This reminded me a little of the excellent Love and Shukla, although I like the couple’s dynamic more in Double Seat. See it for a thoughtful and engaging exploration of evolving values and relationships in the big city hustle. 4 stars!

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One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead was a highlight of the recent Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, and possibly my favourite film of the year. It’s a budget horror flick, a movie about movie-making, and a sweet story about the shared love of things that can bring people together.

Opening with Director Higurashi making a low budget zombie movie in a spooky abandoned facility, the film quickly takes a turn as the cast find themselves under attack by “real” zombies. He sees this as an opportunity to get genuine emotion and real horror from his cast so he will not stop shooting and actually pushes the actors into more peril. Bloody, profanity laden, decidedly B movie, unintentionally funny, the story speeds to its conclusion. All in one epic 37 minute take. But then the clock winds back and we get to see how Higurashi and his crew came to be in this place, all the planning and preparation for their movie, and what motivated them to do it. And finally, Ueda takes us back to the day of filming, but this time we see the things happening on and off camera and what that means for Higurashi and co.

The director Higurashi is completely over the top, threatening his performers and demanding they keep filming even when their life may be at risk. He has one shot at making the film and will do what it takes to deliver. I really enjoyed Takayuki Hamatsu’s performance as he would swing from politely earnest to literally spitting with rage and back, all in the service of his film. His relationship with his sulky teenaged daughter Mao (played by Mao) and retired actress wife Nao (Shuhama Harumi), who are both on the set, gives the film an unexpected sweetness amidst all the gore and dismemberments.

Akiyama Yuzuki and Nagaya Kazuaki play Chintatsu and Ko, the stars of the film. I enjoyed their deliberately bad acting in the movie within the movie, and the contrast with their vacuous celebrity sides. When things started to go awry they were the least prepared and therefore, among the funniest. Shuhama Harumi’s Nao is a walking cliché in some respects, intoning warnings and urban legends straight out of every other horror movie. Her hobby and practical application of her skills almost brought the house down, and her character really comes to life in the latter part of the film. The rest of the cast includes stock types like the has-been actor who drinks to steady his nerves, the goofy AD who never challenges an order, the finicky cameraman, and his enthusiastic assistant who just wants a chance to try her style.

Things move at a frenetic pace but there are beats where you can simply enjoy what’s going on before plunging back into the thick of it. I was constantly delighted by small details like the appearance of a hankie wiping blood spatter off a lens as the cameraman gamely ran in pursuit of a screaming actor and zombie.

The narrative structure is brilliant and the editing is timed to perfection. Things that looked like bad acting or glitches in the movie might later be seen in a different light and instead make you want to cheer for this game little bunch of movie crazy people. The jokes were sometimes funnier from the second perspective too, which is quite an achievement. Dolly Parton once said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Ueda Shinichiro has managed to make a highly technical and polished film look like it was made on a shoestring, but in a good way. It’s a tribute to the spirit of making do.

I flinched, I groaned, I cheered, I laughed so hard I cried. If you can stand a lot of swearing and fake blood splashing around, see this.

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

The Japanese Film Festival is on in Melbourne and I’ve found lots of gems to enjoy in this year’s programme.

Yamazaki Takashi’s adaptation of Saigan Ryohei’s manga, Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari, is beautifully odd and charming.

Akiko (Takahata Mitsuki) moves to Kamakura after marrying Isshiki Masakazu (Sakai Masato), a popular author. The town is unusual, and there are supernatural creatures living alongside the human residents. Akiko is a high spirited and curious young woman, and she generally enjoys her new home and the strange goings on. However an entity from the underworld takes an uncomfortable interest in her, a bad luck god sneaks into the house, and things start to go very wrong. She is separated from her husband all too soon. But Masakazu is Kamakura born and bred, is matey with a grim reaper, and he finds a way to travel to the underworld to rescue Akiko’s spirit.

The film is as much a rom com as it is a fantasy. Akiko is quite a bit younger than her husband Masakazu, and she is worried she won’t be able to be a proper wife to a fancy author. He is a little worried about his precarious work situation, how she will settle in, and if she will be able to deal with the supernatural. They are both quirky characters and the actors sometimes go for energy over subtlety. But I was won over by their mutual affection and sense of fun. Sakai Masato is wry and charming, unless Masakuzu has a deadline. Then he becomes a panicky work avoiding child, obsessed with toy trains. Masakuzu also has a side line in helping the police with hard to solve cases, and they act as small episodes within the story, showing more about the village and how things operate between the communities.

Akiko learns some household tips from elderly and enigmatic Kin (Nakamura Tamao) and finds out more about the mysterious side of Kamakura. She is generous and impulsive, and that is both a curse and a blessing, quite literally. Takahata Mitsuki plays Akiko as wide eyed and a bit too perky, but she has an endearingly goofy energy that plays well off her co-stars. I particularly enjoyed the quieter scenes between the couple when they were just happy to be together, and the warm contentment was palpable. She wants to do the right thing for her husband and that gives her strength to make some hard choices. And when they are separated, she stays strong because she has faith in their love.

I liked Ando Sakura as the administratively overwhelmed and under-resourced grim reaper. It’s quite a change of pace from her amazing performance in Shoplifters (the film that had me crying in public at MIFF earlier this year). This grim reaper is kindly disposed towards humans, fancies clothes at the more garish end of the all black wardrobe spectrum, and seems to enjoy having local celeb Isshiki Masakuzu as a new friend. Masakuzu’s mate Honda (Shinichi Tsutsumi) strikes a deal with her and his story takes quite a turn. Again, his story is about family and regrets as much it is about magic or gods. The bad luck god Binbogami (Tanaka Min) is loud and blustering but develops a soft spot for Akiko who treats him like a welcome guest. Guests are god, after all.

The visual effects are often jawdroppingly lovely, and I think anyone would want to go to Kamakura as a result. Every shot counts, and some things that seem to be a bit of whimsy become more meaningful later in the film. Scenes at the Goblin Market were both magical and relatable, with a blend of real world and supernatural. Little creatures scuttle in the background, or ramble around in Akiko’s garden apparently unnoticed and unremarked. The yokai can look very elaborate and non-human, but some blend in quite well unless they choose to reveal themselves. The underworld is where the effects skills get a serious work out, creating a vast expanse of structures and landscapes with incredible detail. I love that they catch a train to get there, and the journey on the way in was gorgeous. Getting out was a bit less relaxed!

I was in the right mood for a feel good film with tons of charm, and this was perfect.