River Song (2018) — Review

Still from River Song
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When I was watching Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s River Song, a film about a cross-culture friendship set in the backdrop of the Dibang dam construction in Arunachal Pradesh, I couldn’t help thinking of two other films with dams at the centre of the story — Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013).

While Night Moves is evidently a movie (a thriller) that one would not compare immediately with River Song, a drama (in that regard, Thondok’s film is a lot closer to Still Life), I felt there was something akin to the unravelling of the two characters in the respective movies, even though the two characters couldn’t be more different nor their situations. In both the movies, the protagonists commit an act of violence at the climax that, at the beginning of the movie, one would not have expected them to commit, even though there’s enough evidence throughout. The evidence is more in your face in case of River Song.

The comparison with Still Life is less far-fetched. Both the movies focus on the displacement of people because of a dam project and the destruction of the local environment. However, the scope of Zhangke’s film is wider as it provides a more panoramic view of the social and cultural impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the village of Fengjie, China. Thongdok’s film takes a more intimate approach to revealing the disastrous outcome of the Dibang dam project.

The protagonist of River Song, Tashi runs a rundown fuel station at the outskirts of a small town in Arunachal Pradesh, selling fuel out of barrels illegally. Like the desolate tin-reinforced house he lives in, Tashi is a loner, with only a couple of friends, who are socially more active than him. He spends his time fishing, attending the fuel station and occasionally visiting the site where his brother had died. Tashi’s property is one of the many that run the risk of being flooded. He keeps receiving eviction notices from the government, but he chooses to ignore them. One day, he meets Eshna, who is in the town with her husband, who is in charge of overseeing the construction of the dam. Away from her home in a new place and an indifferent husband, Eshna too is a loner. Despite the language barrier Tashi and Eshna hit it off; they find a kindred spirit in each other, with both dealing with loss, guilt and loneliness.

The theme of displacement runs throughout the film. The tribals and locals of the town are being displaced because of the dam. Some are leaving the place, but many more are fighting for the land they grew up in, the memories that they have of the place, the ecology they hold so sacred. Tashi too fears the prospect of displacement, so he holds dearly on to his property and his memories of this place. Eshna too deals with displacement both physically and metaphorically. Both of them are awashed with a sense of guilt. Even as they try to hold on to something stable — Tashi to his property and Eshna to her marriage — the two keep drifting in the vastness of loneliness and uncertainty. When they find each other, they find in the other an anchor. They find a relationship that they can rely on — a risky notion in the face of an ecology rendered unstable and a community uncertain.

As much as it is about displacement and dealing with personal traumas, River Song also is an allegory of how mainland India treats the hill regions of Northeast India. From imposition of language to forcing of consent, the natives of the region find themselves at the mercy of the intruders. Eshna’s story is introduced like an intrusion into the film as she literally knocks on Tashi’s door. I wonder if it’s by design that her scenes with her husband seem a bit in disharmony with the rest of the movie. However, when she is with Tashi, the movie sails smooth.

The movie turns a critical eye towards the intrusion of the government that is insensitive to the environmental concerns of the region, which is a seismic zone, and the lives of the people. Thongdok uses real protest footage and sound bites from radio and places them strategically to amplify the voice of protest even as Tashi slowly finds himself reluctantly becoming part of the movement against the project.

The cinematography by Pooja S Gupte, who had also shot Thongdok’s National Award winning debut Crossing Bridges (2013), captures the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh in all its natural glory. The colour grading seems close to the natural hues of the greens and mist that descends upon the hills. The preference for natural and ambient light adds to the realism of the movie, even as a layer of surrealism is apparent in the fabric of the narrative.

The performances are natural, with Tenzing Khechog’s grounded portrayal of Tashi at the centre of it. Although I felt the performance by Vinamrata Rai, who plays Eshna, didn’t have quite the bottled-up intensity that the character required. However, that does not mean Rai was not good. In fact, she did a good job; it’s just that I felt it could have been better. The rest of the cast is a competent and does a great job in helping flesh out the wider concerns of the story.

Watching River Song in the wake of the tragedy in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, where the death toll has reached 70 and nearly twice as many are missing, provides perspective into the importance of the voice of the tribals, the locals and experts who time and again warn the authorities of the risks such developmental projects pose to the environment.

A scene in the police station sums up the government’s stance on the management of resources and the treatment of the locals. The officer in charge of the station, a non-native, assaults Tashi for beating up government officials. He rebukes Tashi for not speaking Hindi (confused by many to be the national language when it is one of the official languages) and apparently not knowing the national anthem. The government’s use of nationalism to impose policies and decisions on people is evident in the police officers’ use of the nationalist vocabulary to discredit and accuse Tashi. The centre uses similar tactics to discredit criticism and imprison opposition. For the government and the corporate sector the resources are theirs to exploit. For them the locals mean nothing, their history, beliefs and experiences are pushed under the carpet of a monolithic narrative of nationalism that benefits the people in power.

To further humiliate Tashi the police officer orders him to sing a song while standing on one leg. Tashi sings the river song, “O sacred river, sacred river. / You keep flowing and all our lives, sustain and nourish us. / O sacred river, sacred river.” This is what the tribals and the locals stand for. This is what they want to protect.

The Lovebirds (2020) — Review


The Lovebirds is a run-all-night crime caper romantic comedy that may not quite have the lungs to run a marathon, but it is really effective in short sprints. Having two likable leads, a few tricks up its sleeve and a runtime of under 90 minutes do help.

Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) play a couple who find themselves at each other’s throat after having fallen in love in the span of a short but sweet montage and then been abruptly yanked to the present in a matter of a scene transition that (in caps) says FOUR YEARS LATER. If that happened to me, I wouldn’t be muttering sweet nothings into my partner’s ears either. Jokes apart, I am sure you must have seen similar openings in rom-coms, and you know how the rest of the story goes — a couple on the verge of a break-up is caught in an adventure or misadventure, during the course of which they relearn to trust and appreciate each other. This basic structure has been and is common to most stories, irrespective of the genre, where two protagonists with a largely common goal are involved. Stories with the ability to make the audience care about the characters and the outcome of their undertaking or suck the audience into the adventure are able to distinguish themselves. The Lovebirds has most of that going for it, for the most part. However, at times it becomes too obvious that the movie is trying hard to get things right, the way it shows in a performance when you can see the preparation distractingly visible on the face of the performer. 

When Leilani and Jibran accidentally get mixed up in a murder, they decide to take it upon themselves to prove their innocence because being people of color, they conclude they wouldn’t have much luck with taking the matter up with the police. As they solve one puzzle after another, they find themselves falling out of the frying pan and into the fire, with each situation being more or less funny than the previous one.

This inconsistency in delivering funny scenes is one of the main problems of the movie. Some of the scenes are genuinely funny, while some seem a bit forced (thankfully, the latter kind are few). The effectiveness of humor aside, the jokes, from dorky to droll to dark, at times feel a bit random but not entirely inconsistent, with dark and dorky mostly confined to situations involving threats and other characters and the droll humor largely making up the arguments between Leilani and Jibran. While on the topic of humor, I must say that one of the major winners in the movie is its “woke jokes”. Consider this example: a young couple mistake Leilani and Jibran for murderers and call 911; the girl almost apologetically tells the operator that the suspects also happen to be “colored” individuals.

Every time the humor seems to start to lose its bite, the screenwriter and the director turn in a sweet moment between the two characters. That is another positive about the movie. These moments are staged and acted with sincerity, and I found them more believable than anything else happening in the movie. Even if the movie didn’t suck me completely into the adventure like Game Night (2018) did (I could not help the comparison), these tender moments told me more about the characters than the hasty, tactless exposition and foreshadowing could.

Even though subtlety isn’t a strong suit of the script, I would like to commend the screenwriters for not being too overt with the self-awareness the movie undeniably has. It helped the movie focus more on the relationship of the characters (Issa and Kumail do a really good job, and they share great chemistry) as they come to terms with their insecurities, overcome miscommunication and understand each other a little more — it is called The Lovebirds, after all. To sum it up, the movie is inconsistently funny, thoroughly sweet, a little short of delightful but definitely worth a watch. In fact, I think I might like it more on the second viewing.   

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Ema (2019) — Review


There are two ways to approach Ema: 1. a horror movie, in which a pansexual reggaeton dancer, impulsive anarchist, compulsive incendiary sets out to win her adoptive son back from his new adoptive parents, and she will stop at nothing even if it means disrupting the family structure as we know it and hold so sacred; 2. an erotic drama about a reggaeton dancer trying to cope up with the aftermath of a rash decision that turned her family upside down, and now she is trying to take control of her life and sexuality in the process of finding redemption.

And oh it is a dance movie too.


Chilean director Pablo Larrain does not impose any of those ideas on the audience. In fact, he lets the character of the protagonist take the center stage, and it is by exploring the dichotomies, impulses, desires of the character that he builds the case for both the approaches to the movie. Ema’s character drives the story. Her actions, reckless, dangerous, liberating and unpredictable as they are, lend and justify the movie its airs. I cannot remember any scene in the movie where Ema is not present. That is perhaps because Mariana di Girolamo is a force to reckon with, and if she wasn’t in a scene, I cannot remember it. Her portrayal of Ema sits on the character’s skin like a leotard — she takes the shape of the character. She does not miss a single beat. Her performance is as much evinced from her face as from the rest of her body, and that is exactly what an actor is supposed to do when playing a performer who is solely reliant on her body to express emotions as well as someone who is on a sexual journey to find herself. And boy does she use her physicality to dominate every single frame she is in. The confidence and lucidity with which she moves, although it eludes her speech earlier in the movie, gradually becomes her persona even when she is off stage.

One of the problems with Ema being such a hypnotic character is that every other character in the movie gravitates towards her, like a moth towards a flame. After a point, it becomes really difficult for the audience to feel concerned about anyone else besides Ema. When we follow Ema as she executes her seemingly sinister plan to infiltrate the lives of the couple and pry back her son, there is a sense of horror, but it is the kind of horror that does not give us the creeps because we are not looking through the eyes of the victims here. It is the kind of fear we identify subconsciously with as we egg on Ema to see the end of this machiavellian plan and descend further into darkness. Even the fear that we should be feeling for the couple is highjacked by Ema. To see it positively, Ema’s magnetism affects beyond the screen.


The only character that stands up to Ema is her partner and choreographer Gaston, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. He is snobbish, controlling but also loving and when needed reasonable. They are the perfect match, not remotely because they have things in common, but because they can both get under the other’s skin and go deeper to touch the soul. They complement each other. Bernal plays Ema’s other half perfectly. However, when it comes to Gaston being a choreographer, I just can seem to buy it. Maybe Bernal can dance in real life, but in the movie, I don’t get that dancer vibe from Gaston as I do from Ema. That is perhaps my one major complaint.

I am not a fan of reggaeton (I prefer reggae) and I did sort of feel like a snob watching the movie and thinking how I consciously avoid listening to not just reggaeton but a lot of other music that I consider “inferior” to or “less sophisticated” than the kind on my playlist (however, Ema’s soundtrack has made it to my palylist — baby steps). I felt like Garcia’s character. I felt a bit uncomfortable of this divide I have created. This brings us to another aspect of Ema. The movie isn’t just a character study of this enigmatic person, it is about Chile, its culture, its economic and social divide (the snobs and the snubbed, if you may), and to a large extent, it also works as a commentary on the immigration policy (the adoption of an immigrant boy serves as a metaphor, I think) of the Chilean government. I think, Ema stands for Chile. With the portrayal of the flamethrower-weilding, fiercely progressive, anarchist, sexually liberated, polyamorous dancer — yes, a woman can be all that — and a mother Ema, Larrain draws a blueprint for a new Chile. It is a dream for a country that is more open to the LGBTQ rights (Chile already seems to be doing great on that front) and reorganizing social and economic structures that are more liberating, and one that shows restraint on using state coercion on protestors (notice the lack of police on screen despite the frequent acts of arson). It is a blueprint for a new order that a lot of countries can use, including mine. On being represented thus, Ema becomes the fire that cleanses and forges the new and not that brings destruction. This is the second approach to the movie.

Time to Hunt (2020) — Review


A small-time hustler gets out of prison after serving a three-year sentence for robbery and he has a new plan to make a ton of money and leave South Korea for the sunny beaches of Taiwan. He ropes in two of his friends and another who owes him money to rob a local gambling house. Not everything goes as planned.

That is the basic outline of Time to Hunt. If one were to judge movies by their story outlines, one would never want to watch another after watching maybe the first two or three of its kind. But thankfully, there are elements to story such as characters, motivations, situations, themes and storytelling that make them different. The above outline could be fleshed out into anything from a crime drama, a dark comedy, a horror movie to a wall-to-wall action flick. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

So, what kind of movie is Time to Hunt? Well, the title does not leave a lot of room for guesswork — it is a crime thriller. And does it work? Yes, it does. A lot of credit for that goes to the movie’s ability to shift gears and morph into a different beast altogether almost seamlessly.


The movie opens with a shot of two friends — Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi-Woo-shik) bickering over clothes — branded or designer — in a grocery store. The banter continues even as the transaction ends and they step out of the store. The camera follows them and reveals a dystopian South Korean city. What was just a normal conversation between two friends a moment ago gets a different context with smog in the air and the homeless on the street. This opening shot establishes at the outset that these young boys, no matter how street-smart, aren’t really prepared for the world out there. When their friend Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), somewhat hardened by three years of jail time, joins them, we get to know that the present condition of the country and its people is not so because of any war or outbreak of disease, it was caused by economic meltdown. As the movie gradually starts painting the picture of a failed economy and the impact it has had on the people, especially the young, for whom escaping this bleak reality is the only way to move forward, even if it means taking great risks.

While the socio-political angst still simmers underneath, the movie continues to explore the three characters, their fears and their dreams and what they would not do to preserve the sanctity of the bond they share. And before you even get to say, “Hmm. A coming-of-age crime drama! I like where it is going,” it becomes a game of cat and mouse with a hint of a slasher.

The performances are on point, with the three leads bringing the just about the right mix of innocence, anxiety and boyish charm and ably complemented by the sinister, although underdeveloped, villain (they did try to flesh him out through his actions, which lead to some really tense moments). Although the movie begins to become predictable as it moves closer to the climax, director Yoon Sung-Hyun’s ability to create tense scences, which are ample in the movie, keeps the eyes glued to the screen. Even when you know how a scene will play out, you want to watch it for the sheer craft on display, supported by really good cinematography and sharp editing, which help bring out the director’s vision of this bleak world the protagonists must escape for a better future. This little crime thriller scores big over Netflix’s bigger release Extraction.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) — Review


Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma is a period romance set in France in the 1770s and it is destined to be a classic. The movie tells a tale of love, desire, art, and memory through the eyes of two women, who find each other through art, challenge their roles as artist and muse, and choose to perpetuate their love through art.

At a time when history was reserved for the rich, grand, and male, the personal history of the marginalized and women in love could survive only in memories that occasionally cropped up in grand exhibitions through a sleight of hand, meant only for the pleasure of that one person. Unlike men, our protagonists cannot freely express their love through art, and unlike Shakespeare, cannot hope to perpetuate their love or immortalize the beloved — “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” They do not have the luxury of such ambitions. Art for them is not a vanity project to be exhibited or collected, it is deeply personal, existing in personal spaces such as on an unprinted page of a book — artifacts that they would probably take with them to their grave — meant only to stoke the memory of a happy moment. Art is intimate.

In fact, it is the titular painting that triggers a memory and takes us down Marianne’s memory lane. Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young French painter, is commissioned to paint a rather elusive subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel), a woman of an aristocratic French family. Upon reaching the estate of the family located on an isolated island, Marianne learns that Heloise had previously foiled an attempt to be painted by another painter. The painting is for a Milanese nobleman whom Heloise is betrothed to. Heloise’s mother suggests that Marianne pretend to be Heloise’s walking companion, memorize her features, and paint her without her knowledge. Marianne agrees. Soon, between furtive glances and guarded conversations, they begin to develop an attraction towards each other. However, what begins as furtive attempts to capture the physical features of the subject soon ends up being an act of deception not just toward the subject but to the artist herself. It is then the story becomes a meditation on the artist and the muse.

Historically, the relationship between the artist and the muse has heavily been in favor of the artist — the creator — with the muse being marginalized as merely an object. The great works of art that have stood the test of time are hardly ever recognized for their muses, except perhaps for a few, although the paintings are supposed to be collaborations between the two parties. Even before the movie hits the half-time mark, this tradition is challenged by Heloise, which eventually sets in motion a collaboration destined to become something more, as both the women find the liberation they sought for in love.


The movie is strikingly minimalist, and it is so by design. A film that is set in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the extravagant grandeur of the Baroque and Rococo styles had given way to a bit more austere, but in no way less majestic, Neoclassicist style, feels more Romantic in spirit (it also has a touch of the gothic in some scenes). It is more focused on exploring the emotions of the characters as individuals without imposing classical archetypes on them. Even when it does relate to mythology, the characters choose to mold it according to their own impulse, instead of accepting the traditional narrative. For instance, towards the end of the movie, a person at an art exhibition thus expresses his surprise at a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Usually, he’s [Orpheus] portrayed before he turns or after, as Eurydice dies. Here, they seem to be saying goodbye.” The Orpheus story becomes analogous to their love’s fate, but its reinterpretation as presented in the painting becomes an act of defiance of the traditional order.

Sciamma’s direction and Claire Mathon’s cinematography convey the uneasiness of the protagonists’ budding attraction for each other through long stares, often interrupted by Marriane and Heloise catching each other stealing glances. The two leads ensure that every emotion their characters are going through comes out clearly. As so much of the acting is done through the eyes, it is impossible to hide any insincerity or lack of commitment. Their eyes become the windows to the souls of the characters they play, which is to say they become the characters. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel do a phenomenal job.

On a field at night during a festival when the attraction does overpower their inhibitions, they share an unbroken gaze. Mathon’s camera captures the moment with such brilliant use of perspective, which is intensified by a folk song. Sciamma chooses to show the gradual progression of the song as it catches on from one vocalist to another, quite like a fire, until we see its effect on Heloise through Marianne’s eyes. At this moment, Heloise is both literally and figuratively touched by fire. The moment is engraved in Marianne’s mind and it becomes the Portrait of the Lady on Fire.

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Extraction (2020) — Review


This is a spoiler-free review.

The second action set piece in the movie is a nearly 12-minute long chase-fight sequence made to look like a single unbroken shot. Director Sam Hargrave seems to have either pitched his vision for the movie based on this 12-minute scene or decided to direct the whole movie because he wanted to shoot the particular scene. And boy does it deliver! It is clearly the movie’s highest point, after which it is mostly downhill, although it is not altogether unimpressive.

Extraction is based on a graphic novel named Ciudad by Ande Parks, although a lot of it has been altered in the screenplay by Joe Russo, including the setting from Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) to Dakha (Bangladesh) and the gender of one of the protagonists. The plot is pretty basic — a druglord in Dhaka gets his Mumbai-based rival druglord’s son kidnapped and a battle-hardened, grieving mercenary is hired to rescue and extract the boy. However, props to Joe Russo for trying to inject a bit of thematic heft into the story by introducing the theme of parenthood, which in ways becomes both an albatross around the neck and a welcome relief for the movie.

Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, the mercenary hired for the job. It is pleasant to watch Hemsworth, who has grown into such a big movie star over the years, show so much sincerity and bring believability to a character type that every action hero in Hollywood must have played at least once. In case you are wondering what that is, it is this: a white male looking for some sort of redemption takes on a dangerous mission in a foreign land (which is mostly exoticized the heck out) and ultimately finds it. This is fairly common in western literature and movies, portrayed with varying levels of artistry and success. Getting back to Hemsworth’s performance, the fight scenes sure looked excruciating. Even with a body double and a ton of amazing stunt performers there to make him look believable, Hemsworth had to perform a lot of choreography himself. And that is impressive, especially because the on-screen commitment is much more demanding here than anything he has done before, including the superhero stuff.


The other thing the movie does right is introducing a South Asian character that stands as an antithesis to Tyler Rake’s westerner in the East. Played by Randeep Hooda, the character Saju is surprisingly organic to the plot and the theme and is definitely not there just to attract the Indian audience, unlike the barely-there cameo of Pankaj Tripathi. Unsurprisingly, Hooda holds his own alongside Chris Hemsworth.

In fact, Saju is the only character that I felt like rooting for in the movie. Both Tyler and Saju have the same objective but are pitted against each other because of their different motivations. And here it got really interesting for me — while Tyler is on the mission because of the money and redemption and because he wants to, for Saju, it is about survival (I won’t disclose more to avoid spoilers). It is like accepting that the first-world countries have the luxury to dream of and fight for the future (the boy represents future/hope), while for a third-world country, surviving in the present is more than enough. Perhaps I am reading more into it than I should, but it seems the script is aware that without such an antithesis, it would just be another white savior narrative, which it largely becomes, especially because of its representation of Dhaka, which I am sure the people of Dhaka will not be too excited about.

With two good performances, excellent stunt work, great production design (the movie was not shot in Dhaka, except for a few establishing shots), inventive cinematography (especially in the second set-piece — it is brilliant) and fairly fast pace, you would think this is the action blockbuster you have been waiting for, but it has its fair share of problems, including the few mentioned above. One of the major problems with the movie is that it is pretty weak in the emotional scenes. There were instances where a more nuanced approach could have done wonders. Clearly, Hargrave’s directing ability is not as honed as his skills as a stunt coordinator and his efforts fail to evoke the struggles of parenthood and its coexistence with violence in this bleak world. Moreover, Rudraksh Jaiswal’s (who plays the kidnapped boy) underwhelming performance does not help. The script too loses its steam as the movie progresses, giving way to cliches and contrivances far too common in action movies. Although cliche-ridden, the final shootout is great.

To sum it up, if you can get past the white savior complex (saved partly by Saju), cliches, uneven direction, weak emotional core, and one particularly ordinary performance, it can be worth a watch. Just focus on the three Hs — Hemsworth, Hooda, and high-octane action, and who knows you may end up enjoying the movie more than you thought.


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Still Life (2006) by Jia Zhangke — Review

Still Life 17

Jia Zhangke’s Still Life is set during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, and it was released the same year as the dam became operational — in 2006. Among the project’s many achievements, such as being the largest hydropower plant in the world, the China Three Gorges Corporation had then listed down the resettlement of nearly 1.13 million people as a world record.

Still Life focuses on the impact of the construction and the resulting resettlement drive on the socio-economic fabric of the county of Fengjie. It suffices to say that Zhangke’s style of mixing documentary and fiction does not adhere to the state’s narrative of achievement, rather in telling the human side of the story, Zhangke highlights the issues the Chinese government failed to mention while presenting the resettlement figures as a world record. Still Life calls out the resettlement drive for what it is — displacement.

The film follows two characters in their search for their families in Fengjie. The first plotline sees Han Sanming, a coal miner from Shanxi province, arrive at Fengjie on a ferry cruising along the Yangtze river, carrying a motley crew of individuals, mostly migrant workers. Han Sanming has not seen his wife and daughter for over sixteen years, and the only way to find them is an address Sanming’s wife Missy Ma had left him when she ran away from Shanxi. Unable to locate his family, he joins a team of workers assigned with demolishing buildings to support himself during his stay in Fengjie.

In the second story, Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao), a nurse in Shanxi province, comes looking for her husband who she hasn’t seen in the past two years and has only heard from him only once when he called her up to check if she was alive.

Both the characters come from two different economic backgrounds, and the film rightly chooses to show the direct impact of the Three Gorges Dam on Sanming’s quest, rather than on Shen Hong’s. The hydel project plays out more like an exotic backdrop for Shen Hong’s story — it serves a more metaphorical purpose. And, it is not by coincidence that the documentary element is more prominent in Sanming’s story than in Hong’s. However, that does not mean that Hong’s quest for her husband does not give us any insight into the lives of people in Fengjie. In fact, it is through Hong’s interactions with other characters (both those living on the margins on the verge of being displaced and those benefitting from the demolition of settlements) that we get a clear picture of how differently people of different classes are being affected by the project.

Still Life is an evocative presentation of the powerlessness of ordinary human beings at the face of a state’s ambitions and the (consequential) changing economic and social dynamics — after all, how can people expect to build or salvage something in a place crumbling into dust and debris and where a power less arbitrary than fate, but as ruthless, is at work? Despite such bleakness, Still Life is filled with moments utterly humane and, sometimes, humorous. In an early scene, Sanming is duped by a cabbie (a motorbike rider actually) who hides the fact that the address Sanming is looking for has been flooded. However, later in an act of sympathy, he secures Sanming a lodge on discount, to which the lodge owner remarks, “You are siding with the customers.”

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Five Deadly Venoms (1978) — Chang Cheh channels heroic bloodshed via mystery

Director: Chang Cheh

Cast: Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, Wei Pei, Lu Feng

Story: A kung fu student must fulfill his master’s final instructions and face some of his evil seniors who are more skillful than him.


Considered as the most prominent filmmaker from the Shaw Brothers’ stable of directors, which at one point of time included King Hu, Chang Cheh made some of the most popular kung fu films to come out of Hong Kong. His efforts include cult favorites such as One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Heroic Ones (1970), Five Elements Ninja (1982), Crippled Avengers (1978) and, of course, Five Deadly Venoms (1978).

The movies of Chang Cheh could be seen as bearing the prototypical elements that would go on to form the heroic bloodshed genre, a category of Hong Kong action movies that still inspires action cinema all over the world. To put it simply, heroic bloodshed focuses on male camaraderie, a strong moral code, revenge, and redemption. These films had some staple characters such as a good-at-heart gangster and an honest police officer, who would often team up to bring down the bad guy. Across movies, there were subtle variations in the motives of characters, the degree of their cockiness, and to what extent the protagonists were humor-resistant, but one thing was certain: hyper-stylized violence, as much as Chow Yun-fat with dual Berettas.

Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms and most of his kung fu movies (haven’t seen them all) were very much the precursors to the heroic bloodshed movies, with ample display of moral codes, brotherhood, intense violence, reverence for the masculine and commitment to the marginalization of the feminine.

I recently watched Five Deadly Venoms on Netflix and realized how long it had been since I had watched a 70’s Hong Kong movie that was not Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) or Drunken Master (1978). It was fun!

Five Deadly Venoms begins with a dying kung fu master revealing to his pupil the not so positive reputation of his school, which is kind of obvious if you name your school the Poison Clan, and the possible nefarious designs of his five former pupils, each of whom has mastered a particular fighting technique — Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad. The sixth pupil, who has mastered none of these techniques but is a jack of all, receives the instruction to prevent his seniors from succeeding in their evil plans. With inferior skills to his seniors, the sixth pupil’s only hope is to hope that not all of them have turned evil and that he could join the ones who still have their integrity and honor intact and defeat the others. The catch is even the master does not know the identity of his pupil because, for some reason, they practiced with masks on. However, again, for some reason, the master seems to know that some of the pupils might know each other individually.

I will agree that the plot is far from perfect and that a lot of things do not make much sense. However, I did find the structure and the themes that stem out of that slightly weird premise interesting and, mostly, effective. Thanks to the hidden identities, the movie is part mystery, which would have seemed unnecessary and less engaging had the writers chosen to keep the audience in the dark, too, like the characters (the identities of all but one pupil are revealed). Now, although the audience is a step ahead of the characters, they are still in the guessing game, with regard to the identity of the last pupil.

The themes, too, are varied and layered and provide a welcome change of pace in an action movie largely meant to showcase the physical prowess of the actors and the intricate fight choreography. For example, there is the theme of trust and masks. The master trusts only the sixth pupil because he has seen his face; later in the movie, the audience is able to guess how the events would unfold for characters who rest their trust in someone who has not revealed his identity. Themes such as honor, brotherhood, revenge, redemption common in heroic bloodshed movies are also observed. In addition, finer character details, such as a character whose skin is invulnerable to weapons is also the most vulnerable of the lot when it comes to trusting people, make Five Deadly Venoms a wholesome viewing experience.

The action choreography is highly imaginative and meant for most impact. Each character has his own combat style and Chang Cheh makes sure that we see the different techniques as the extension of the characters, as distinguished as their personalities. Although, I would have loved the final fight to last a little longer, what we get is nonetheless one the best fight scenes from that period. The training montage of the five pupils alone could be considered as one of the best training montages ever filmed.

Chang Cheh makes the most of the male form on display in all its beauty and strength. He ensures that the camera does not shy away from the brutalities on display, the horrors being inflicted on these bodies and captures the essence of what these characters live and die for —  their code of honor and brotherhood.

What are your thoughts on the film or on kung fu movies in general? We would love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019) — A lackluster story saved by Jolie and CGI

Reviewed by Priyanka Minj

Director: Joachim Rønning

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson

Story: When Princess Aurora accepts the marriage proposal of Prince Phillip, she unknowingly opens the door for the dark forces that want to destroy the moors and its mystical inhabitants.


Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a sequel to the 2014 dark fantasy movie Maleficent. The original film was a reimagining of the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty and Disney’s own animated film Sleeping Beauty (1959). The film told the classic tale from the viewpoint of a fairy who puts a curse on a child to sleep forever only to be awakened by true love. While the first Maleficent movie, even though it brokered with our patience, made sense, but the second movie is more about spectacle than storytelling. The first movie showed us that ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. But she was not just scorned, her wings were stolen from her too. Probably that was the reason why Maleficent did what she did, and that she might not be evil after all — despite putting a curse on the baby, she learned to love and care for her.

The second story in the hands of Joachim Ronning expands on the previous premise. From the beginning, it’s made very clear that this is not a fairytale. It seems Disney along with us has finally grown out of its own delusion of beautiful sunsets and happily ever afters; that this might be a world where “love does not end well”, a warning from Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) to Aurora (Elle Fanning).

Aurora is now the queen of the moors. Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) of Ulstead confesses his true love and proposes marriage to Aurora, who happily accepts his proposal. This happy news does not go down well with Maleficent. She already feels cornered not only because she does not want to lose Aurora but also because her past experience has made her lose her faith in love, and she believes that Aurora is making a huge mistake.

Despite her misgivings, she agrees to meet Aurora’s future in-laws King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Reluctantly, she visits the castle of Ulstead, but it turns out to be a disaster from the get-go. Maleficent finally meets her worthy opponent in Queen Ingrith, who indirectly humiliates her and tells her that she will keep Aurora as she believes that it is against Maleficent’s nature to be a mother. This forces her to unleash her wrath and from there, things spiral downwards and drowns only to be saved by an unexpected ally who takes her back to her roots.

The story delves deeper into the fantasy world. It is engaging, but it does not justify the return of all the characters. Even though it was considered to be a much-awaited sequel, it just delivers your usual fare of good versus evil and the triumph of good over evil. This time, it is also less joyful, which seems to be missing altogether, and it is all about war. Pfeiffer’s character Ingrith says that human beings are far more complicated and unpredictable than anything else, and Disney seems to have made everything complicated without any reason. There is conflict but no cause for it. Just a vague reason of humans’ greed for power. Maybe it is the reflection of our times and everything that has happened before ours. You don’t need a specific reason to destroy someone’s life and snatch everything away from them — greed sums it up.

Even Elle Fanning’s Aurora has not much to do except be a helpless bystander. She manages to steal a few scenes here and there, but overall she fails to make her presence felt. As for Harris Dickinson’s Prince Phillip, he is just a good-looking Ken with a wooden expression and always the last one to figure out what is happening in the castle. Together, Phillip and Aurora are rendered blindingly fair (it hurt my 3D vision) and insipid like a lukewarm soup without salt!

The best part about the movie is its eye-popping visuals, classic build-up establishing heroes and the villains, a bounty of colorful and magical creatures and a CGI-laden climactic battle sequence. But, the crowning glory of the movie is Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. Her horns are beautiful and almost a phallic symbol of potency. It’s a shame that Aurora asks her to cover her horns as she is uncomfortable with her non-binary body. Whatever screen time she gets, she holds it with aplomb, overshadowing everything and everyone. You cannot move your eyes away from her, such is the power of her screen presence. It is disappointing that such a majestic and magnetic character, for the most part, was made to be the spectator of the story.

Despite its flaws, the movie mostly works because of Jolie’s performance, visual effects and the tried and tested Disney formula. In the end, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil took a brilliant character and did justice to it for the most part, if not entirely. The two Maleficent movies have transformed the story of Sleeping Beauty and the character of Maleficent forever and largely for the better, with a message that “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters who you love.”

Did you like the film? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 

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Ready Or Not (2019) — Review

This is a spoiler-free review.


Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillet
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Andie MacDowell, Henry Czerny
Screenplay: Guy Busick, R. Christopher Murphy

After Hobbs and Shaw (2019) confirmed that even spin-offs of mega franchises are not allowed to venture outside the tradition of upholding the sanctity of friendship and familial bonds — given that studio franchises themselves are more or less representative of the traditional family (the MCU comes to mind, obviously) — we may have to look elsewhere to seek stories in which suffocating family traditions and structures are dismantled while taking a jab at the vices of capitalism. A hard-to-find combination, you say. Well, you are in luck as Ready Or Not does exactly that.

The Le Domas family has built its fortune selling card games (and eventually bloated into a sports giant that owns four professional teams), thanks to a mysterious benefactor called Mr. Le Bail, who had bailed one of the ancestors of the family out of hardship. Hence, to acknowledge the family’s good fortune and honor Mr. Le Bail, the Le Domas had started the tradition of making the in-coming bride or groom play a random game, as a rite of passage to becoming one with the family, on the night of their marriage when they would rather be playing games that do not require more than two participants, usually.

Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien), the estranged scion of the Le Domas, are to be married. A girl who has grown up in foster homes, Grace is at once excited and nervous at the prospect of finally being part of a family. But she fears her new family might dislike her for the lack of “enough blue blood” in her. Her fear comes true at midnight when she picks up a card that reads hide and seek, a seemingly harmless game at first, but which to Grace’s horror turns from a minor quirk of her in-laws to something sadistic and diabolical.

Although Grace is the protagonist, who has to survive this night of unhinged violence, the writers of the movie assign her an additional purpose: her character is used as a device to introduce the audience to and explore the world of the Le Domas, for the movie is as much about Grace’s fight for survival as it is about the dysfunctional family that the Le Domases are.

The script manages to strike the right balance between the protagonist (who grows from a girl who lets out a nervous giggle early on at words of encouragement from her mother-in-law to a survivor who despite being shot, stabbed, strangled does everything she can to cling to dear life and kicks some ass along the way) and the Le Domases who despite being a bunch of murderous caricatures of the privileged class nevertheless, on quite a few occasions, let a spark of pathos flit across their eyes. While this trace of pathos is prominent in Alex’s mother (Andie MacDowell) and profound in its absence in Alex’s aunt (Nicky Guadagni), none of it is enough to redeem them, except Alex’s elder brother (Adam Brody), who is torn between family traditions and doing the right thing. His is the most fleshed-out character in the movie, or at least, one that has the most realized character arc.

The movie may at times feel like it could have done better with sharper dialogues or some visual wit, but the gags (relying mostly on violent acts and the characters’ reaction to it) keep coming and the audience keeps chuckling and gasping, often in succession.

Where Ready Or Not really scores is its tight script, great performances (Samara Weaving captures her characters manifold emotions with authority, giving us a wholesome character), even pacing and assured direction which shows in the handling of multiple layers of storytelling and social commentary. My favorite of which is how the directors have managed to marry capitalism with family traditions, with the members of the family existing safe and secure as in a conglomerate as long as they are willing to give up their freedom and guarding the family against outsiders with traditions that are at once patriarchal, pompous, irrelevant and designed (even in its randomness) to keep out the ones who could be a threat to the company, someone who would not sell their soul easily.

Please let me know your thoughts on Ready Or Not in the comments below.

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