While you already know about how I’m a fan of Asian cinema (despite now suffering from dumbed-down US remakes – I’m aghast about Park Chan-wook‘s Oldboy having an English remake produced; why can’t people learn to read subtitles?), I think Europe does create some special and interesting films. I’ll just discuss three at present.
Das Experiment (2001)
I find it hard to watch violent films but if it has a good reputation, I’ll suffer the viewing experience. This was loosely based on the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. For a fortnight, 20 volunteer male participants are hired to play prisoners and guards. The “prisoners” are locked up and have to follow and obey basic rules while the “guards” are told to keep order without using physical violence. Everybody is free to quit when they want and forfeit payment. In the beginning, both groups are insecure but as arguments come up, those with more power in their hands show off their authority by becoming high-handed with it. Meanwhile down-on-his-luck journalist Tarek who volunteered as a participant to write his experiences as an inmate realises as events go down that the experiment is going down a terrifying path it was never intended to take.
This is a great German doco-film about power and its effect on the holder. While the outcome is predictable, what is interesting is the characterisation. It is a conventional tale in the sense of the cat-and-mouse game but is interesting enough to keep you watching to the end.
Patrik, age 1.5 (2008)
The plot is based on this: Göran and Sven (Gustaf Skarsgård and Torkel Petersson) are a happily married gay couple who have moved into an idyllic new suburb with white picket fence front yards and are anxious to adopt a baby. However, no foreign country is willing to give a child to a gay couple and suitable Swedish babies are difficult to find. They are overjoyed upon hearing that an orphaned 18-month old baby is available for adoption but are shocked when their baby Patrik turns out to be a 15-year old homophobic delinquent (Thomas Ljungman) merely due to a misprint in the adoption documents. Given this is the initial premise, it’s not too hard to figure out the ending will turn out for the best ultimately after the new family battle each other’s differing opinions and the prejudices of their neighbours.
What really makes the film is the acting. The three family members are very strong in their portrayal of their relationship with each other given the backgrounds they have come from. Göran is very nurturing and loving while Sven struggles as he has an ex-wife and daughter and is much more masculine than his partner and has his own prejudices in regards to Patrik who tends to comes across as less tough than we expect. It is also admirable that the family seems like an average family going through the trials brought on by life and avoids all cliche references to gay stereotypes.
Cinema Paradiso (1989)
This Italian film which is set in a small Italian village could almost be interpreted as a love letter to the cinema. It mainly dwells on the relationship between the cinema projectionist Alfredo and young Toto. We follow Toto on his incredible life’s journey as he works on his dreams coming true after being encouraged to follow his dreams by Alfredo. Interspersed with this is the portrayal of the development of cinema in a way that’s almost paying homage to the form. I’m not very big on art house but this if you can tolerate the sentimentality is a majestic watching experience especially due to the music by Ennio Morricone.
This is a very simple and straightforward movie, with no big name stars, on the pursuit of a dream vocation by a boy who works on making his aspiration to be a film director a reality, which chronicles his tragedies and triumphs along the way. There are no grand gestures or flourishes here with special effects but Cinema Paradiso still captivated me just with its raw emotions and feelings with its depiction of fulfillment and loss. This film has several stunning scenes with an ending that is a joy to watch and is almost a masterpiece because of its simplicity and message of love.
In Breath by Tim Winton, we have a gripping tale that is simple and profound in the topics it tackles – adolescence, the need for heart-pounding and risk-filled excitement, a yearning to outshine and outdo the competition and how old wounds affect the passage of life as time passes. This book which is mostly about the friendship between two boys and their daring surfing exploits is melodic in its use of written language and deserved the Miles Franklin Literary Award it won in 2009. As an immigrant Melburnian, surf culture is alien to me but as Winton paints such a vivid verbal picture of that world, and how the ocean could be both enthralling and toxic, Breath is a captivating read.
The most touching moment was when or coming of age protagonist had to admit that he was ‘ordinary’ after all. You realise it is a melancholy book as the trajectory of events clues you in that this is no flowery ode. Since it’s structured from the start as a reflection on past events, you can’t help but feel for Bruce Pike, the main character and later on his love interest. It did surprise me that the amount of time spent in learning about his present was very miniscule.
Set in Western Australia where surfing beaches abound, Breath gave me enjoyment in reading about the landscape. Sometimes authors overdo it to the point that it becomes a pain to read but Winton avoids relying on description and infuses his tale with enough dialogue and dramatic tension to sustain interest. You need to realise beneath the story surface story evoking nostalgia, there are other themes such as addiction, dreams vs reality and growing old integrated into the plot as an undercurrent.
I know computer games are a big deal today but the ones I enjoy are almost obsolete in this day and age. What I refer to is a unique type of game known as a text adventure game or interactive fiction. You have no visuals except perhaps for a map occasionally and need to navigate your way through the game using words. I fell in love with this type of game after my parents bought me a CD titled 100 Educational Games, which had eight of them. These games are tough to play because you need to figure out the correct words to use (mostly verbs or nouns in the context of an instructive command) in order to progress forward. You also need to keep track of the directions in which you move because in some games, the wrong move can have your main character meet an unexpected death. Below I’ve reviewed three of them.
Anchorhead (Advanced to Expert Player)
I suggest you tackle this after you’ve played a few of the introductory level games because the choices you make can lead to unexpected consequences. The game story takes place across three days. There is no time limit in the first two days; each day ends when the player has completed a required task or tasks. From the third day onwards the game imposes limits on the number of turns a player can take to solve puzzles.
The game is set in the town of Anchorhead where the protagonist and her husband Michael have moved to after inheriting the mansion of his deceased ancestral family, the Verlacs. The protagonist begins the game exploring her home and the town and meeting Anchorhead’s odd residents while her new husband becomes engrossed in researching his family history. As he becomes more obsessed and withdrawn into his research, the protagonist begins her own investigation of her husband’s family and manages to stumble upon an obscene “family tradition” that has spanned generations of Verlacs.
If you want to literally participate in the shaping of a story, interactive fiction allows you to do so. Anchorhead created by Michael Gentry is one of the lengthier but more beautifully content rich text adventure games out there.
You can play it here.
The Dreamhold (Beginner to Average Player)
This is the game to play for those who are new to interactive fiction and wouldn’t know what to do straight off the bat. It’s difficult to get frustrated with text adventure games because often what you might type might not be understood by the game system and you get the response from the game “I don’t know how to do that”. The Dreamhold is a game that introduces the players to basic commands and has a built-in hint system (don’t get reliant on these or you’ll become dependent on walkthroughs – a help guide).
It begins with this basic premise: You don’t remember who you are. You are lying on a smooth cold stone floor in a small, unfurnished stone cell. You are carrying a quill pen, and a there’s a gap in the stone in the east wall. The objective is to remember how you came to be there in that cell. As you play the game and solve puzzles, you realise how you fell into that predicament through flashbacks.
Babel (Medium – Advanced Player)
Babel is similar in premise to The Dreamhold in that it about a character who has lost his memory but the level of difficulty in this is higher than Anchorhead when it comes to figuring out puzzles. The amnesia or flashback device and reliance on backstory may be cliché but the story here is a different one to that of The Dreamhold. I mean you wouldn’t say The Notebook and 50 First Dates are the same movie, would you?
You wake up in an abandoned research station in the Arctic. The game begins with you not knowing anything about yourself: your name, where you are, or how you got here. As you explore by touching glowing objects, visions give you glimpses of the lives of four scientists who resided here and the tragedy that befell them. Before you can escape, you’ll need to learn your own history. While it’s a story-based game more than a puzzle solving game, its creator Ian Finley has masterfully crafted the twist at its culmination. It does take the unaware by surprise and only the unnecessary romantic subplot was a minor irritation. This is a game about piecing things together so if you are the type of player who likes to be dropped in the middle of the action, I suggest avoiding this and trying out Spider and Web instead.
You can download Babel here.
Note: The levels are just suggested recommendations after my experiences of playing interactive fiction.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is about accident-prone soldier Billy Pilgrim who does not happen to like war and consistently bungles his duties. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he and his comrades are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse known as “slaughterhouse number 5”, hence the title. During the bombing of Dresden during WWII, both Billy’s fellow prisoners and the Germans hide in the cellar and manage to be some of the few who survive. Sounds OK so far but now get ready for the arrival of some sci-fi detail.
In addition, Billy is also an optometrist in a dull marriage who claims he was abducted by aliens from Trafalmadore; these aliens can see four dimensions and have witnessed their futures but are powerless to change it although they can choose to relive and reexperience specific moments continuously. These creatures, we are led to believe, exhibit Billy in a zoo with a B-list film actress Montana Wildhack selected as his “mate”. He even knows and expects when he is to die. So time travelling Billy moves forward and backward in time, while he relives occasions of his life, both real and fantasy.
The experiences Billy relives again includes being a captive zoo exhibit in Tralfamadore, Dresden during the firestorm, Germany just before his capture, his dull post-war life in USA and the moment of his murder. Billy’s death is caused by a chain reaction of events that precipitate his death. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets soldier Roland Weary, a bully who picks on Billy due to his lack of zeal about war. When they are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has including his boots and gives him wooden clogs to wear. He dies of gangrene brought on by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary convinces petty thief Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge his death by killing Billy. But while Billy knows how, when and where he will die, he can’t do anything to change his fate. He relives these experiences in fragments of bits and pieces in no particular order.
Still as protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller, who experiences random events of his life, with no idea of what part he will live again — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time (just like Time Traveller’s Wife although this is more of a absurdist postmodern book rather than a romantic novel), like another experience mingled with his other experiences which seem to have a sharper edge to them in any case. While the book is interesting in its exploration of free will or lack thereof depending on how you choose to interpret the underlying message, I found that I’m one of those people pigeonhole Slaughterhouse-Five as belonging to the science fiction genre even if it’s an anti-war novel but please keep in mind I tend to hate anything that references aliens of the non-immigrant variety as much as I dislike Jane Austen. So for a different point of view, check this review out.
I usually tend to hate black and white films (despite my love of vintage fashion) so it was a pleasant surprise when I found myself enraptured by one. This was the black and white rendition of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita by Stanley Kubrick, director and fan of the game of chess (a passion he shared in common with the author of Lolita who was also an avid lepidopterist). What a shame that Kubrick died even before editing Eyes Wide Shut properly – his films resonate with the audience so well because of his distinctive touch of style.
On opening credits, it had me spellbound on seeing a very pale and small foot having its toenails painted rather tenderly and fluffs of white cotton balls stuffed between the toes. This simple foreshadowing scene of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) painting Lolita’s (Sue Lyon) toenails is artistically composed with soothing music to match the mood. It then cuts to the first scene which has changed the order of events in the novel by putting the last event to unfold first in order to sustain interest.
The plot contains more of Kubrick’s vision despite the screenplay credit made to the original author; Vladimir Nabokov’s original content in Lolita was used sparingly in this adaptation produced in 1962. In this film, Quilty (Peter Sellers), a man similar to Humbert Humbert in Lolita’s life but lacking his naiveté, plays a more active and prominent role.
The film has been panned in the past because the eroticism was not as overt as depicted in the book and the young “nymphet” of Humbert Humbert’s infatuation looked less like a child and more like a teenager with developing curves especially when he is first tempted to stay by the sight of her in a bikini. The toning down of the sexual tension between the principal characters was mostly because the production had to be demure enough to make it by the censorship board of that time. But in doing this, Humbert Humbert is made to look less of a predator on a vulnerable young girl. This could also be due to the fact this film falls into the genre of dark comedy, hence Peter Sellers and his multiple personas. But this did make me feel uneasy and perhaps this was a clever stratagem on Kubrick’s part as this seems to be the intended feeling he wanted to evoke.
Nevertheless I found it to be an interesting interpretation that was skillfully delivered through the cinematic medium for me to remain engrossed from start to finish. For some reason, I feel that if you liked American Beauty by Sam Mendes, you will enjoy Lolita if black and white does not pose a problem for you.