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Titli

titli une chronique indienne

This is a first-rate film from India I saw the other day, about a lowlife crime family in greater Delhi and their lowlife antics. I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—who probably knows non-Western cinema better than any other US film critic—describe the pic

The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface…

If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.

The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control. (…)

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here.

The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary India in this era of globalization—urban India’s globalized logo consumer culture is declaimed in the opening scene—, neoliberalism, and—how else to put it—modernization and the attendant anomie, with the violence that suffuses social relations, not to mention relations within the family, and the general breakdown of social mores. My grandfather (1903-80) would die a second time if he saw what India has become, where money is all that matters, people have extramarital affairs and get divorced, and you name it. Indian culture is famously family centered, which the film depicts well, except that the families are distinctly Mafia-like—no sentiments, just pecuniary interest—but with the women neither passive nor taking shit from their menfolk. At least some things have changed for the better. The Lunchbox—a most heartwarming film—this is not. And this one no doubt nails a certain reality in India these days more than did Gangs of Wasseypur, which was over-the-top and borderline cartoonish toward the end.

In addition to the backhanded social commentary, the pic is gripping—I didn’t check my watch once, which, for a 2+ hour film, is not bad—and very well acted all around, in particular the comely Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), the protag Titli’s wife (or “wife”). As for Titli’s name, I thought it odd, as that’s normally a girl’s name (or nickname), but it’s mentioned halfway through that his mother (deceased) so wanted her third (and last) child to be a girl—as her first two sons were destined to be sleazebags from birth, who could blame her?—that she gave him a girl’s name anyway. The film—which has so far opened only in France (it has yet to in India)—contains a warning that some spectateurs may find certain scenes shocking (for the violence), so be ready to avert your eyes (as I did). Reviewers from THR and Screen Daily who saw the pic at Cannes last year give it the thumbs up, as have French critics. Trailer is here.

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Marking the occasion, Le Monde’s Friday issue has a full-page article by one of the paper’s international editors, Adrien Le Gal, “Voyage chez Pol Pot,” in which it is recalled how the Khmer Rouge victory was applauded by numerous Western leftist activists, tiersmondiste intellectuals, and engagé journalists—including, Le Gal specifies, at Le Monde itself. The subject of the article is precisely those Western apologists, delegations of whom were invited by the Khmer Rouge to visit “Democratic Kampuchea” in 1978—in groups of three or four at a time—the first Westerners to set foot in Cambodia in three years. Le Gal tracked down some of those visitors, to solicit their assessments with four decades hindsight. Most regret their views of the time, though a few remain unrepentant (one being the Swedish gauchiste writer Jan Myrdal, son of the illustrious Gunnar & Alva). One of the more vocal Khmer Rouge apologists in the English-speaking world was the British academic Malcolm Caldwell, who was killed in Phnom Penh in late 1978 in mysterious circumstances. French historian Henri Locard—who has authored a recent book on the Khmer Rouge—told Le Gal that he is quite sure Caldwell’s killing was an accident, that he was hit by a stray bullet fired by a Khmer Rouge guard in an altercation that had nothing to do with Caldwell. Interesting.

For the anecdote, I was one of those who applauded the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, apologized for them for a couple of years, and did not wish to read the horrific refugee accounts that appeared in publications like Reader’s Digest (which, as Susan Sontag informed an unappreciative New York audience several years later, got it more right on communism than did The Nation). In April 1975 I was a college freshman and self-proclaimed Maoist (a political posture I had adopted four years earlier—as a 10th grader—after reading Edgar Snow’s Red China Today). In 1976, during my sophomore year, I wrote a term paper, for an interdisciplinary course on East Asia, explaining and defending the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the population of Phnom Penh to the countryside. My principal source was a just-published monograph by Khmer Rouge Über-apologists Gareth Porter and George C. Hildebrand, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. The professor’s remark at the end of my paper was “Excellent!” (letter grades did not exist at my college but if they had, I would have gotten an A for sure; I probably still have the paper, buried in a box somewhere). The très engagé Porter—who’s still around and kicking—held a doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Cornell—the top university in that field—and was thus no hack, has sort of half-apologized for his Khmer Rouge apologetics (though he’s kind of defensive about it). Other leftists of the period, who had nothing in particular to say about the Khmer Rouge while it ruled, suddenly started to denounce it, and to give credit to all the horror stories, after Vietnam’s January 1979 invasion and occupation of Cambodia. The Vietnamese invasion gave them cover. It was Vietnamese Communists good/Khmer Rouge bad (like the good Lenin vs. the bad Stalin). I am reminded of the spectacle of holier-than-thou leftists, at a public debate on US foreign policy at New York’s Public Theater in the winter of 1981, taking to task panel member Richard Holbrooke—who had just finished his stint as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs—for the Carter administration not having recognized the Vietnamese client regime in Phnom Penh and having backhandedly aligned the US position on Cambodia with that of China, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign patron…

There have been several cinematic treatments of the Khmer Rouge’s ubuesque, totalitarian regime, its enslavement of the entire Cambodian population, and the auto-genocide it embarked on (the first time in human history a ruling cabal set out to exterminate the majority of its own population). Everyone has seen Roland Joffé’s 1983 The Killing Fields. Last December Régis Wargnier’s Le Temps des aveux (English title: The Gate) opened in France. This tells the story of ethnologist François Bizot as recounted in his 2001 prize-winning book Le Portail, published in English under the title The Gate. In his book Bizot, a leading French academic specialist of Cambodian civilization who, since 1965, had been living in a village near Siam Reap—where he married a Cambodian—tells of his abduction by the Khmer Rouge at a guerrilla checkpoint in 1971. Imprisoned in an open-air jungle camp in Khmer Rouge-held territory, Bizot was shackled, mistreated, brutally interrogated, and accused of being a CIA agent, which meant execution. During his captivity, he witnessed the extreme cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, where people were led off to be shot or clubbed to death for the most minor of infractions—infractions decreed by the Khmer Rouge that almost no one could avoid committing at some point or another. But Bizot, played in the film by Raphaël Personnaz, managed to convince his otherwise pitiless interrogator, Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. Comrade Duch—played by writer and translator Kompheak Phoeung—that he was indeed merely a scholar researching ancient Buddhist manuscripts. When Bizot appeared before the Khmer Rouge leadership—the Angka, with Pol Pot presiding—to be judged, he was acquitted. Duch, no doubt at some risk to himself, had managed to convince his Angka colleagues of Bizot’s innocence. The scene of the revolutionary tribunal reminded me of the similar one in the film Timbuktu, which I had seen a few days earlier, of the formal commitment to law and legal procedure by men who know nothing whatever about law and are utterly arbitrary in their decisions.

So Bizot owed his life to Duch, a cruel man—a sort of Cambodian Eichmann—who, it would later be revealed, had had many thousands tortured and murdered. After three months of captivity, Bizot was freed, with instructions that he deliver an envelope to the French embassy in Phnom Penh. The envelope contained the text of the Khmer Rouge’s ideological and political treatise, which spelled out precisely what it planned to do once it had conquered the country. The auto-genocide was all in there. The treatise, it seems, was filed away untranslated at the Quai d’Orsay. No one read it before 1975.

Bizot declined to leave Cambodia after his experience—his family and work were there—and was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived in April ’75.  He sought protection with his family at the French embassy, along with all resident foreigners and many terrified Cambodians. This sequence of the film is well-done, though Wargnier does take a few liberties with the historical record, e.g. in showing Duch as the Khmer Rouge official at the embassy gate (when, in fact, he wasn’t there). Olivier Gourmet plays the consul Jean Dyrac, who was the senior French diplomat in the country (France having formally broken diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Lon Nol’s 1970 coup d’Etat). Here Wargnier, relaying Bizot’s account, corrects the portrayal in ‘The Killing Fields’—Sydney Schanberg’s, in effect—of the French diplomats in Phnom Penh having behaved cynically, indeed immorally, in pushing Cambodians associated with the fallen regime out of the embassy grounds and to certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Bizot asserts that such did not happen, at least not in the way Schanberg claimed it did; the consul and his staff were faced with an almost impossible situation, as the Khmer Rouge did not respect the extraterritoriality of the embassy grounds, couldn’t have cared less about any Vienna Convention, and were ready to storm it at any moment. There was nothing the French could have done to save the Cambodians at the embassy who didn’t hold a foreign passport (see here; also here).

Bizot, with hastily made French passports for his family, left on the convoy to Thailand (though his wife didn’t make it past the border guards; she survived the Khmer Rouge but their marriage did not). The film then jumps to 2003, with Bizot back in Cambodia and where he meets with Duch, now in detention and awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. And the trial finally happened six years later, which Bizot wrote about in this 2009 NYT op-ed. I thought the film was quite good. It’s engrossing, well-acted, and effectively conveys the evil of the Khmer Rouge (and it was entirely filmed in Cambodia). And Bizot’s story is exceptional. The one full US review, in THR, is here (it’s positive, though I totally disagree with the final paragraph, on the film’s supposed “one failing”). It will surely open in the US at some point. Trailer is here.

After Wargnier’s film, I simply had to check out others on the subject. So over the subsequent two weeks I saw two documentaries on DVD by Paris-based filmmaker—and co-producer of ‘The Gate’—Rithy Panh (not to be confused with the photojournalist Dith Pran, whose story was at the center of Roland Joffé’s film). The first one was the 2003 S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a.k.a. S21, in Phnom Penh, of which Duch was the director for most of the Khmer Rouge’s years in power and where some 17,000 persons were interned, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Prison interrogators and guards coolly described to Rithy Panh how they went about their work. It’s an amazing documentary. An absolute must-see (trailer is here). Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial of the Khmer Rouge’s auto-genocide.

The other Rithy Panh documentary seen was The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante, curieusement pas encore sorti en France), which won the Un Certain Regard top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was one of the five pics nominated for the 2014 best foreign film Oscar. In this one Rithy Panh tells the story of his own experience under the Khmer Rouge, of his deportation from Phnom Penh at age 11, the slave labor in the countryside, and death by starvation of members of his family. One particularity of the Khmer Rouge era is the near total absence of images. Mug shots at Tuol Sleng and a few black-and-white propaganda films excepted, there are practically no photos or other images of Cambodia of the period. Like the Nazis and their extermination camps, the Angka did not wish to record what they were doing for future posterity. So to make up for the absence of images, Rithy Panh used miniature clay figurines to tell his story. It’s an original film and powerful. Like his ‘S21′, it’s a must-see. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

These are but two of the several documentaries Rithy Panh has made on the Khmer Rouge, one of which is entirely focused on Comrade Duch. This I’ll see at some point. He’s also published his memoir (written with Christophe Bataille), L’élimination, which has been translated into English. As with the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide and mass evil, there will never be too many books or films on this subject.

S21

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Lee Kuan Yew 1024x576(EN)

[update below]

I would likely not be doing a post marking Lee Kuan Yew’s death this past Monday were it not for my visit—my first—to Singapore last June. I spent three full days there, which is the right amount of time for a tourist (and that’s what I was). I was interested in seeing the place but had certain preconceptions: that it would be sterile, soullessly modern, overly expensive, not much of interest to see or do… And then there were the news stories from past decades of the petty repression, of being fined for spitting, chewing gum (which I don’t), etc. I was quite impressed with the city, though, which has much to recommend it and is absolutely worth a visit if one happens to be in that corner of the world (I was coming from Malaysia). The modernity is married well with the older ethnic quarters (Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street…). Singapore is a well-ordered city-state, easy to get around (on foot and by the excellent public transportation system), and not overly pricey (hotels, restaurants) if one knows where to go. And I was particularly impressed with the cultural patrimony—which is not insignificant—and the museums, which reveal the will to build a national identity in a city-state that was not a nation when it became independent en catastrophe in 1965. I learned more about the modern history of Singapore—of the construction of the state and nation—at the National Museum than in any book (not that I had read a tremendous amount on the subject beforehand). And the nearby Peranakan Museum—entirely devoted to the hybrid Chinese Confucian/Malay Muslim subculture, now vanished, that was born in Malaya and Singapore in the late 19th century via mixed marriages (Chinese men, Malay women)—was fascinating. I had no idea. And the Chinatown Heritage Centre was well worth the visit, where one sees—as at the National Museum—how poor Singapore was and how miserably most people there—mainly Chinese migrants—lived into the 1960s.

Modern Singapore is a miracle (and aided by the modern miracle of air conditioning, as economist Branko Milanović reminds us via Paul Krugman, without which no successful economy in the tropics or a desert—including the US sunbelt—would be what it is). From a piss poor country six decades ago Singapore now has a higher per capita GNI at PPP than the US or any member state of the EU (I was informed while there that the salaries of public primary school teachers begin in the mid five figures in US$, and university professors are all paid into the six figures US$; and for nationals, housing is not expensive). And Singapore is not a Gulf emirate or sheikhdom living off rentier income. The Singaporeans have done it by hard work and, while they’ve been at it, in forging a collective national identity based on what in France is called communautarisme (Chinese 74%, Malays 13%, Indian Tamils 9%). And it works. And all thanks to one man: Lee Kuan Yew.

Far from me to praise an authoritarian (soft) and who theorized nonsense on something called “Asian values.” On this subject I go with the critiques of Amartya Sen and Li Xiaorong—Asians both—end of discussion. But one must give credit where credit is due. Lee was an authoritarian who succeeded (how nice it would be if the Arab world could boast such a figure). On this, I link to James Fallows’s remembrance, “Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who lasted.” Also the one by conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple on “The man who made Singapore,” in which he expresses his admiring ambivalence of the sociopolitical order created by Lee. Echoing the last line in Dalrymple’s piece, a Turkish resident with whom I conversed par hasard told me that Singapore is an excellent place to live and where one can do well for oneself, provided that one scrupulously obeys the law and respects all the rules (of which there is a plethora). If one does that no questions asked, then one will have no problems. But if one transgresses, big problems will ensue.

While Lee’s ideas on “Asian values” were problematic, to put it mildly, he had interesting things to say on other topics, notably that of Islam, a religion well represented in Singapore via the Malay community and a minority of the Indians (Tamils, Punjabis). As I read in TOI last October 17th, Lee clearly designated Saudi Arabia as the culprit for the rise in jihadi terrorism in Southeast Asia after 9/11.

According to Lee, Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant. But in the 40-odd years since the oil crisis and petrodollars became a windfall in the Muslim world, Saudi extremists have been proselytizing, and building mosques and madrassas that preach Wahhabism. Lee argued this Wahhabi brand is a “venomous religion” that has radicalized Southeast Asian Muslims, and marketed to Muslims throughout the world that the gold standard for being a good Muslim is Saudi Arabia.

Southeast Asia has thus fallen victim to the Wahhabi-driven al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah (JI) that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia from 2003 to 2005. Now, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines are witnessing a revival of Islamic extremism via the spread of ISIS.

Lee Kuan Yew got this one totally right. Saudi Arabia has been one of the most pernicious forces for evil in the world over the past several decades. But as Saudi Arabia has all that oil, occupies a strategic position in a part of the world vital to the world economy, and is a relatively stable (for now) state in a region going to hell in a handbasket, there is unfortunately almost nothing that can be done to counter the malevolent strain of Islam that it has been aggressively exporting.

As for the Islamic presence in Singapore—where religious tolerance is an ironclad rule, as is moderation in religious practice—here are some photos I took

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In Chinatown.

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Muhammet, tailor, South Bridge Road. He wants you to know where he stands on the question of secularism back in the home country.

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The Malay quarter.

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Bussorah Street, behind the Sultan Mosque.

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It’s ‘malam nisfu sya’aban’—the Night of Mid-Sha’ban—so hundreds of worshipers have come to the Sultan Mosque.

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I’ve lived in Muslim majority countries for some eight years of my life and have never seen such a sight, of so many women in colorful hijabs (not a single niqab) praying outside a mosque. Traditional Islam in Southeast Asia is the not the same as in the Middle East-North Africa.

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In Little India.

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To read, click on image and enlarge.

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This is the Kampung Kling Mosque in Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia, 235 km northwest of Singapore.

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Talk about a syncretic architectural style…

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An amazing mosque. I’ve never seen one like it.

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The mere sight of this mosque would give ISIS a collective heart attack. They’d definitely blow it up if they could.

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While I’m at it, this is the Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur (City Centre). Its design and construction were supervised by the British.

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The National Mosque, on the edge of the KL City Centre. Built in 1965.

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You can get a few thousand worshipers into this mosque.

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Architecturally speaking, it’s rather less interesting than the ones above.

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Moi.

UPDATE: Longtime Harvard professor Graham Allison has a piece in The Atlantic (March 30th) worth pondering on “The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum.” The lede: “Singapore’s late leader governed undemocratically but effectively. Which raises a question: What is the ultimate purpose of government?”

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A Touch of Sin

a touch of sin

In my last post, on the documentary ‘Fidaï’—the subject of which is a single FLN fighter during Algerian war of independence—, I mentioned the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, who was the film’s executive producer. As it happens, the last film Jia directed was the excellent ‘A Touch of Sin’, which I saw almost a year ago, made my Top 10 best of list of 2013, and that I totally forgot to post on. So now I am, a year later. Mieux tard que jamais. In brief, the film consists of four stories—all based on actual fait divers over the past several years that Jia learned about via social media—of horrendous murder sprees committed in different parts of China, focusing on the murderers (and murderesses)—who appear to be ordinary people—and what caused them to snap and commit their crimes. In the film Jia weaves the fait divers together and casts them in the wuxia operatic tradition, of taking an actual event and fictionalizing it, rendering the actors as chivalric individuals crushed by oppressive, unjust power and reacting with violence that is both extreme and futile. There are no heroes or good guys here (i.e. this is not Hollywood). It is one of the most powerful films I’ve seen on contemporary China, of the anomie and violence of social relations there, and the utter absence of justice or any kind of ethical or moral code guiding the behavior of those in power. US reviews were good, French reviews excellent. Trailer is here. Very highly recommended.

On other films from China seen over the past year-and-a-half or so:

‘Mystery’, by director Lou Ye, who had been banned from making movies over the previous five years for transgressing taboos on Tiananmen Square 1989. This is a film noir-ish thriller set in Wuhan, of an upper middle class couple riven by infidelity and jealousy, and which results in murder—the story inspired, as with the above discussed film, by fait divers the director learned about via the Internet. Another tale of the violence, corruption, and amorality of a contemporary China sans foi ni loi. This US review was good but this one and this were mixed. I lean toward the mixed. French reviews were good enough on the whole. Trailer w/English s/t is here, w/French s/t here.

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‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’, by Diao Yinan. As this was the happy winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale this past February, I was clearly not going to miss it, and particularly in view of its top reviews in France. The film is, to quote one critic

a mystery story presented almost exclusively from the point of view of an ex-cop [named Ziang Zili; actor Liao Fan], and dealing with a series of grisly murders, with the victims’ bodies chopped to pieces and spread over a large territory, hundreds of miles apart.

Lovely. It’s the noir-est of film noirs, and yet one more cinematic portrayal of the dark underside of contemporary China. As Variety’s reviewer, who noted a “certain opacity” in the film, observed

Though…a less overtly political film than Jia Zhangke’s recent “A Touch of Sin,” “Black Coal, Thin Ice” does proffer a similarly dark and blood-soaked portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground. All that’s missing is for Diao to have someone tell our forlorn hero, “Forget it Zhang, it’s China.”

To be honest, I couldn’t get in to this film. I lost the thread of the story part way through, either on account of its above mentioned opacity and/or because I nodded off more than once (which happens) and possibly missed crucial information. In short, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. And my overall sentiments were manifestly not in the minority, as Allociné spectateurs were considerably less enthusiastic about the pic than were the critics. The Hollywood Reporter’s “bottom line” anticipated this reaction from the unwashed cinema-going masses, calling the film

A fascinating exercise in style that will entrance the critics and leave audiences scratching their heads.

I was seriously scratching my head at the end (and particularly with the way it ends). Further down, THR’s reviewer opined that despite the film’s undeniable qualities

as a detective story it verges on the incomprehensible, which will be a serious drawback to distribution, [though s]ophisticated audiences will enjoy its strange atmosphere as they try to puzzle out plot and characters.

I guess that means I’m not part of the sophisticated set, as I didn’t try to puzzle out a thing after leaving the salle. Perhaps it all goes to show that I’m finally just a regular movie consumer and with regular middlebrow tastes—as one Uber-highbrow cinesnob friend has been sniffing at me of late—, meaning that the incomprehensible will leave me uncomprehending. Oh well. Trailer w/French s/t is here, w/English s/t here.

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‘Three Sisters’, by Wang Bing. A languidly paced 2½-hour documentary entirely set in a mountain top village in the fin fond of Yunnan province… Not exactly your Saturday night date film. I hesitated on seeing it, despite the top French reviews and having been impressed with the director’s previous film, The Ditch. But when it came to my local cinéma municipal, which is a mere ten minute walk from chez moi, I had little choice. But I’m glad I went, as it’s worth seeing. I’ll let NYT critic Jeannette Catsoulis describe it

Not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder, Wang Bing’s two-and-a-half-hour “Three Sisters” documents extreme poverty in rural China with the compassionate eye and inexhaustible patience of a director whose curiosity about his country’s unfortunates never seems to wane.

Filming for six months in a remote hillside village in 2010, Mr. Wang follows the spirit-crushing lives of a short-tempered peasant and his three little daughters. Their mother ran off long ago, and now Yingying, 10; 6-year-old Zhenzhen; and Fenfen, 4 — all so malnourished that they look years younger — spend their days doing chores and herding sheep. But when their father leaves for a job in the city, taking the two youngest girls with him, Yingying is left alone. A grandfather and an aunt live close by, but the girl’s isolation and sadness suggest a poignant hopelessness, as though she has reached the age at which she has begun to notice a future. And it’s not pretty.

Though less overtly political than Mr. Wang’s nine-hour masterpiece from 2003, “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” (which chronicled China’s painful transition from a state-run economy to a free market), “Three Sisters” makes its point in lice-infested hovels and with the bleeding feet of endlessly coughing children. A communal meal at a great-uncle’s house reveals village elders sniffing at the government’s proposed “rural revival,” knowing that it really means extra land fees for already strapped peasants. Clearly, the country’s economic boom is not trickling down, leaving them frozen in a way of life as ancient as the ground beneath their feet.

Not pretty, contemporary China. The film holds one’s attention, at least it did mine and despite the length and languidness, though it could have been shortened. Variety’s Jay Weissberg agreed, regretting that the film’s running time will likely limit its exposure beyond “Sinophile film nerds and scattered human-rights fests.” THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.

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Narendra Modi in the Big Apple

With my Mother

With my Mother

[update below] [2nd update below]

In my last—and only—post on Narendra Modi, from 4½ months ago, I opined that were he to become Indian PM following the general election there the US would no doubt lift the visa ban he was slapped with in 2005, for his implication in the infamous events in Gujarat three years prior. It is indeed hard to imagine an Indian Prime Minister being denied entry to the US and not welcomed at the White House with open arms. So PM Modi arrived in New York City yesterday for, as WaPo reports, a five-day “rock star-like U.S. tour,” which will involve, entre autres, a speech “to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a show replete with laser lights, holo­graphic images and former Miss America Nina Davuluri as co-host [and with the event being] broadcast in Times Square and 100 other venues around the country.” Moreover “[t]he Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [will add] extra trains to accommodate the expected crowds [and a] red carpet will be unfurled.” Definitely rock star-like. À propos, an academic gauchiste half-Muslim Indian friend—whose political views are the antithesis of those of Modi and his supporters—informed me today that, to her exasperation, her Facebook news feed has been inundated with links and comments by excited friends and relatives who plan to attend Modi’s US events. A post in the NYT’s The Upshot blog on Thursday indeed called Modi “A Facebook leader, too,” informing the reader that he had 21.8 million official fans on his FB page—two days later it’s over 22 (see above image)—, which is way more than any other political personality anywhere save Barack Obama (who has 42MM). By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was bragging recently about how he has more Facebook fans than François Hollande, has yet to hit a million…

On Narendra Modi’s US appeal, the très gauchiste historian Vijay Prashad, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford CT, had a comment in The Guardian yesterday on how “Tough guy Modi is the man of the moment for wealthy Indian Americans.” Money quote

For wealthy sections of Indian America, Modi represents a strong man who evokes pride in India. When Modi brags about his 56-inch chest, his machismo indicates India’s arrival in world affairs. Poverty is swept away by his braggadocio. Eyes are averted from the slums and instead rest upon his promises to toss environmental and labour laws in the dustbin. Trains will run on time, workers obey their supervisors and the armed forces will spread their testosterone along India’s borders. Experiences of racism and discrimination inside the US will be forgotten in the presence of Modi. If America sees Modi’s toughness, say his US supporters, the petty humiliations of life in the west will vanish.

As I observed in my post of 4½ months ago, Modi bears a distinct resemblance to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Poor India.

Pankaj Mishra, in the November 21st 2013 NYRB, had a review essay on the latest books (co-)authored by Indian economist frères ennemis Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, “Which India matters?,” in which he made observations similar to Prashad’s

Rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to such hard-line leaders as Narendra Modi, whose well-advertised toughness with labor unions and PR-enhanced business-friendliness make him the preferred choice of many corporate leaders, economists, and commentators as India’s next prime minister. Bhagwati, for instance, has described Modi as a “positive role model” with “an unblemished record of personal integrity.” As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was allegedly complicit in the killing of over a thousand Muslims there in 2002 and was barred from traveling to the United States as a result. But he still embodies managerial efficiency and iron discipline to those disturbed by the political assertiveness of the poor and the disaffected.

And Mishra writes supra that

India’s ruling class today consists, as C. Rammanohar Reddy, editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, defines it, “of large Indian businesses, the new entrepreneurs in real estate, finance, and IT, the upper segment of the urban middle classes, the upper echelons among the bureaucracy, and even large sections of the media.”

What’s immediately striking about this class of the relatively affluent is the degree to which it shares the same interests and beliefs, and its reflexive hostility to government spending on welfare—although political parties feel particularly obliged to indulge in such spending before elections. But the conservative rhetoric about buoyantly self-reliant entrepreneurs hides the fact that, as [Atul] Kohli writes [in his 2012 book Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India], the Indian state since the 1980s has been “pro-business” rather than pro-market, responsible both for the dynamic forces at the apex of India’s economy and “the failure to include India’s numerous excluded groups in the polity and the economy.”

This “collaborative capitalism,” of which Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, is the most egregious exponent, consists of the state extending tax benefits to India’s largest businesses and facilitating their cheap access to national resources of oil, gas, forests, and minerals. In turn, “the disproportionate control over economic resources,” Kohli writes, “enables businessmen to ‘buy’ politicians,” shape decision-making through the media, and even enter politics themselves.

The spitting image of RT Erdoğan. If Modi acquires anything resembling RTE’s electoral base, he’ll be around for many years to come.

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra, in a column in Bloomberg View (September 29th), says that “Narendra Modi is a dangerous cliché.”

2nd UPDATE: Meera Nair, who teaches writing at NYU, has a post on one of WaPo’s blogs (October 3rd) informing us that “Narendra Modi was speaking in code when he visited America. Here’s what he was really saying to his Hindu nationalist base.”

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The Indian election

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

[update below]

I don’t follow Indian politics too closely, though am, of course, aware that a general election is underway there, and which will most certainly result in the victory of the BJP and accession to power of its worrisome leader, Narendra Modi. If one wants to get up to speed on this—as I’m trying to do—I can recommend a couple of good articles that I’ve read over the past 24 hours (h/t Mira Kamdar and Roane Carey).

The first is by the well-known South Asia specialist William Dalrymple, “Narendra Modi: man of the masses,” in the New Statesman (May 12th). The lede: Modi, implicated in a massacre in 2002 while chief minister of Gujarat, is poised to become India’s next prime minister. Is he a dangerous neo-fascist, as some say, or the strongman reformer that this country of 1.2 billion people craves?

Modi may be a lifelong member of the fascistic RSS but that does not ipso facto make him personally a neo-fascist. To me, he sounds like an Indian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—though with some blood on his hands—, which will be just fine for BJP supporters but not so fine for those who don’t support the BJP.

The other article is by Zahir Janmohamed, “Could a Hindu Extremist Become India’s Next Prime Minister?” in The Nation (May 13th). The lede: Narendra Modi’s role in the horrific 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat has never been properly investigated, but now a timely new study is raising the right questions.

Janmohamed, pour l’info, lives in Ahmedabad and is writing a book about the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and has previously worked as a foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) and as the advocacy director for Amnesty International. The “timely new study” Janmohamed reviews in his essay is The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, by Times of India journalist Manoj Mitta. Money quote:

In Manoj Mitta’s new book The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, published by Harper Collins India, Mitta argues that if there has been no real attempt to get to the truth of Modi’s actions during the riots, it’s because of the “cavalier” approach to justice. Through extensive documentation, Mitta shows that Modi might be on trial today, as opposed to campaigning for prime minister, if only he had been asked the right questions about his role in the riots.

If the US visa ban on Modi—which he was slapped with in 2005—is still in effect, one may assume that it will soon be lifted.

While I’m at it, for those who can get behind the NYRB’s paywall, Pankaj Mishra had a review, in the August 15 2002 issue, of Human Rights Watch’s report ‘We Have No Orders to Save You’: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (in which Narendra Modi is mentioned forty-eight times).

À suivre.

UPDATE: Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture, has a very good article, dated March 1 2012, entitled “The Emperor Uncrowned: The rise of Narendra Modi.”

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Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.

a_simple_life

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