Friday, June 17, 2011

Eat Drink Man Woman - Marriage of Life's Elixirs

Most of us know and respect Ang Lee's works. His deep understanding of the fragilities of the human heart have been ably showcased in movies such as 'Brokeback Mountain', 'Lust, caution'. Delving into his filmography I chanced upon one of his earliest works from his Taiwanese roots which was later adapted by Hollywood as 'Tortilla Soup'. The movie - 'Eat Drink Man Woman'. And it was a satisfying discovery indeed. A tale of a father and his three grown daughters living together in Taipei, it looks at the paternal bond between a strict, emotionally distant father and the daughters who are at the wings of taking their owns flights into love, life and liberty.

Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is the best. His culinary delights have feasted the very important personalities of Taiwan. However, somewhere along the way he has lost his sense of taste. Ironical for a head chef. He cooks out of habit and relies on his longtime associate Wen to tell the quality of his lovingly prepared masterpieces. Indeed food plays an exquisitely important part in the proceedings and to see them being crafted from the ground up is a delight to our gastronomical senses. Where Chu so successfully brings balance in his profession, he flounders to maintain his relationship with the girls.

The eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is an emotionally repressed chemistry teacher who was thwarted in love nine years ago and has yet to recover. Seen as an old maid by her family, her suppressed desires flutter back to life when she meets the new volleyball coach. The middle sister Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) is possibly the most successful, working as an airline executive in the process of a promotion to their Amsterdam office. Focussed and work oriented, she comes across as the hardest of the sisters till the layers peel to reveal a sensitive, mature personality. She is also an excellent cook whose dreams of following on her father's heels had been shattered by him. Girls don't make chefs, so she was sent to get an education that mattered.

The youngest Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) studies and works at a fast food chain. Her track involves finding love at the cost of her friend's struggling romance and some lies. Alongside runs the track of a family friend, a divorcee with a little girl for whom Chef Chu prepares elaborate lunches to take to her school. There is also the mother of the family friend, a widowed garrulous, borderline rude  woman who has her sights set on the chef. Holding an observant hand with a smattering of comedy, Ang Lee makes us understand the characters. The father who belongs to an old world, is unable to communicate with his offsprings who are no longer his little girls. He prepares elaborate Sunday dinners for his daughters which they must not miss and the process is painful, as a dinner table laden with his lavish cooking worthy of a party, sees the girls pushing around the food unenthusiastically in their plates over stilted conversation. The easy camaraderie and joy of gathering at the table is missing. Hence, maybe his delight in feeding the little school girl and her friends their daily lunch.

The sisters all caught in their own webs, play out equally well. The elder daughter's cautious approach towards opening her heart is especially interesting and rings true. Though the conclusion seemed too comic, for the depths the characterization had provided. The youngest daughter's ironical work place is a sign of the winds changing. From the times of crafting elaborate meals from scratch, where food and its preparation was an art, to the world of fast food. We see both worlds. Finally it is the middle sister's sensitivity that stands out.

The performances all work, the characters are all interesting because they could be any ordinary person we bump into in our worlds. Every life carries a story and when a film maker makes the effort to carve a story around ordinary lives, that is hardly dramatic or climactic, he achieves a 'slice of life' cinema. Ang Lee went on to make a mark in Hollywood and  has made some big movies. This was a very promising beginning from a man who is still growing from strength to strength. As a character says "'Eat Drink Man Woman' which is Food and Sex - Basic Human Desires, cannot avoid them". A marriage of the two, that was dealt with utmost sensitivity and a little humor in this small movie with a big heart.

Available on DVD
Originally Released in 1994
In Mandarin with English Subtitles
Best Foreign Language Film Nominee at the Academy Awards 1995

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Inglourious Basterds - A Tarantino Delight

Quentin Tarantino has to be the most daring filmmaker of significance today. Crafting a career out of bold works such as 'Reservoir Dogs', 'Pulp Fiction', the dual volumed 'Kill Bill', he has mastered every aspect of filmmaking and storytelling through the ages and genres and then devilishly twisted them all, to blaze the film scene with an originality hitherto unseen. We know him as an autodidact whose position as a video store clerk served a fertile learning ground. 'Inglourious Basterds' is a glorious continuation of Tarantino's mad mix of genres and styles of film making. Let's face it, who else would have dared a setting as sombre and disturbing as the Nazi infested World War II and then made a spaghetti western of it, throwing historical events for a toss and concluding the most significant chapter of 20th century history as only Tarantino can. History has been writ all over.

The movie plays out in five acts in occupied France between 1941 and 1944. It opens in French country when a dairy farmer is greeted by german troops led by Col. Hans Landa, played to amazing accuracy in a career defining performance by Christoph Waltz. The scene is of a typical western complete with Ennio Morricone's soundtrack, which plays out through a good part of the movie. What follows is one of the most thrilling interrogations that movies have seen. The farmer is suspected of harboring Jews in his dwelling. Needless to say, the Jews are discovered and slaughtered with a lone escapee, Shosanna (French actress Melanie Laurent ). The scene moves to a band of American Jews formed for the purpose of massacring the Nazis, called the 'Inglourious Basterds', the reason for the misspelling never clear. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt in superb form) they scalp the nazis, pulp them with a baseball bat and what not.

Everything comes together when a nazi movie is to be premiered in a local Paris cinema owned by Shosanna, who has managed to change her identity, the details are not important. On one hand the basterds have a plan to annihilate the nazis attending the premiere and then Shosanna has revenge up her sleeves. And thus Tarantino changes the course of WWII. The plot is intelligent of course. But what is typical of a Trantino film, 'Inglourious Basterds' being no exception, is the playing out of the individual scenes. Each one is lovingly fleshed out, with detailed, multi layered, sinuous dialogues, delivered and played out by talents chewing on their parts, knowing the relevance of each line rendered, every movement made, into making a scene worthy of individual glory.

Three sequences stay in mind. The opening interrogation being the first. There is then an elongated sequence in a basement tavern where a plan is to be laid out only to result in bloodbath. It is brilliantly played out with Diane Kruger portraying a German actress, who has now changed sides to help the basterds. And then there is a Kill Bill like sequence with Shosanna getting ready for her big revenge. Filmed in typical noir, we have the allusive lady in red with the red lips and an automatic in her purse to the strains of David Bowe's 'Putting out the fire'. Memorable! A good movie is when the entire story works with good performances, technical soundness. However, it is when you can take back individual sequences and carry them with equal verve, great cinema is made.

The performances all carry weight. Brad Pitt as the southern accented Nazi hating leader is brilliant and gets the comedy in his dialogues and delivers them with sly fun. German born Diane Kruger shows a side of her which is a departure from her big hollywood eye candy roles. Laurent's lead performance of Shosanna comes out trumps especially in the final sequence showing off the maniacal revenge hungry side of a bottled up, wary heroine, on film. In a movie where every performance big or small is nailed accurately, only peans of the highest order can be sung for Austrian born Waltz's tour de force as Col. Landa aka 'The Jew Hunter'. The impeccably polite, gracious nazi with hidden steel and cunning is a charm and evil act unmatched and is worthy of every award garnered, starting with the Cannes and ending at the Oscars. In my view asides from Uma Thurman's spirited bride act in Kill Bill, this is the best written part in a Quentin Tarantino film, which is saying a lot because I am picking from a plethora of memorable characters.

Inglourious Basterds is not another world war movie. Nor is it just a western revenge drama. Tarantino doesn't believe in formulaic cinema. As I had started out with, his is always a delightful, mad mix of genres, styles that transcend the staid diet of movies we are fed on. It tears the moral fibre leading to vastly unpredictable, ingenious characterizations. Even at its lengthy two and a half hour runtime, we crave for  more delicious scenes to stretch out. This is a movie best seen a second time. The first time, you want to do away with the plot and then revisit it, to linger over each scene, enjoy the effects of razor sharp wordplay, meticulously crafted characters. And then sit back and take in the fact that this is a piece of the best, cinema will have to offer in today's time.

Originally released in 2009
Available on DVD
In English, French, German with subtitles
Oscar award winner for Best Supporting actor (Christoph Waltz)
My Rating: 5/5