Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Every pronouncement that points to a Second Coming ruptures the human sense of linear temporal experience, pulling one out of the unending succession of days epitomized by Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. In the Pacific War in the Philippines, the most famous such line was General Douglas MacArthur’s “I came through and I shall return,” which no doubt had an altogether different resonance for Japanese forces. Though as we see at the beginning of Arthur Harari’s Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, which dramatizes the real-life case of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who remained stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines for three decades following the end of World War II, the dynamic is a universal one. (It is no doubt the basis of myriad studies in comparative religion.) The first line of the film is a diary entry dated 15th September 1974: “They had said: We’ll come back for you. No matter how long it takes, we will come back.” The voice belongs to wearied, older Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), and “they” presumably refers to his army superiors: the intelligence department under which he trained, particularly Major Yoshimi Taniguchi (Issei Ogata). Over the course of the film’s 165 minutes, we feel, through Onoda’s person, the sheer heft of this promise — as well as the crushing collapse of belief in it.
Indeed, Onoda is in some sense less about the belief itself than about its physical incarnations, the toll it takes on the body. Although we flash back early on to Onoda’s initial recruitment by Taniguchi, Harari does not try to pathologize him. We get a sense of why he was chosen — he was rejected from becoming a pilot because of a fear of heights — but his home life and background are intentionally obscured. His unwavering nationalism is accepted as a dramatic assumption, so the film doesn’t ask “Why?” but “What follows from this?” This focus, like that of so many castaway stories, is thrown onto the needs of survival: the ability of Onoda and his dwindling group of soldiers to face up, both physically and mentally, to each new vicissitude. The film thus works as both a procedural of island life and a kind of parody of the pastoral. The simplicity of life on such an abundant, undisturbed land is mirrored in the forced asceticism and order of a fanatical worldview, which is most starkly rendered in Onoda’s intermittent, but uniformly hostile interactions with the locals. When Onoda and his last-surviving companion Kinshichi Kozuka get a hold of a radio, left by a Japanese group (including Onoda’s father and brother) who try to get them to surrender, the film’s ironic vision becomes even more pronounced: A startling ellipsis shows us Onoda and Kinshichi now aged, having made a nightly ritual of listening to its broadcasts. It becomes, for them, a kind of oracle, portending an end that, in their interpretation, lies always in the future.
Still, Onoda’s watch must end eventually. As the film approaches this endpoint, Harari’s interventions — previously functional, if somewhat anonymous — make themselves felt more acutely. In particular, Onoda’s encounter with a young tourist, Norio Suzuki (Taiga Nakano), who set out in search for the now-(in)famous lieutenant, is a bracing mix of alcohol-fueled logorrhea and stoic silence. And the final collapse of Onoda’s worldview is as wrenching as any of the violence across the film, reminding us that cinema, like any other ritual of belief, is an inescapably physical experience.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
The Tale of King Crab
After a very brief intro, The Tale of King Crab (originally, Re Granchio) opens on a group of present-day Italian hunters gathering around a table in a cabin for food and drink, before they begin to recount a dark tale from the days of yore that has been passed down generation by generation. The debut fiction feature from directors Alessio Rigo de Righi & Matteo Zoppis, King Crab is a fairy tale told according to a specific narrative strategy, one that finds its modes of storytelling and precise structuring deeply rooted in the rich tradition of the Italian folklore — Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Giambattista Basile’s The Pentamerone are the two most prominent examples that jump to mind. And so, the hunters’ story soon casts viewers back to the final years of the 19th century, and right into the first of this two-chapter fable — titled “The Saint Orsio’s Misdeed” — which follows its antihero, Luciano (played by Roman contemporary artist Gabriele Silli), a strange, scruffy strongman replete with unkempt beard and who, according to legend, was known to be of many different personas: a madman, an aristocrat, a saint, a drunkard, and even a rogue. This first chapter, which is set amid the bucolic landscapes of Tuscia — filled with shimmering sunlight and glistening fields, and echoing with the inhabitants’ beautiful chants and songs — easily showcases how the directors’ previous experience in documentary filmmaking has provided a strong formal backbone here in working with both environmental and ethnographic aspects within the realm of fiction. Exquisitely lensed by DP Simone D’Arcangelo, this mysterious, atmospheric film manifests a very fine (and perhaps, rare) balance between rich visual perfectionism — most reminiscent of baroque paintings — raw, natural beauty, and evocative, poetic compositions, often of figures strewn across the immense landscapes.
If the first chapter — in which the ill-fated love of Luciano and a shepherd’s girl, Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), ends tragically after his rebellious acts against the local tyrannical prince — situates Righi & Zoppis’ film within the prolific lineage of earlier Italian masters like Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Taviani brothers, and alongside contemporaries such as Pietro Marcello, Franco Maresco, and Michelangelo Frammartino, the second chapter (ominously and farcically called “The Asshole of the World”) easily evokes the profundity of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, but in its own singular manner. It works as a logical aesthetic decision too, as from this point in the film forward the rural Italian setting of its first half morphs into the arid deserts of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago (translation: “Land of Fire”) in Argentina’s southernmost region of Patagonia — the relocation isn’t unlike a descent from some verdant paradise into the very bowels of hell. And so this is where the story continues forth from, as Luciano, now self-exiled and impersonating a missionary, finds himself among a bunch of pirates and mercenaries in search of a long-hidden royal Spanish treasure at the bottom of a faraway lagoon that only a giant crab can guide them to.
Almost entirely deprived of its initial pastoralism and folklorish texture, both King Crab’s change of physical and tonal atmosphere pitch its second half more as a fusion of Latin American magical realism and the classic adventure narratives from authors like of Robert Louis Stevenson or Daniel Defoe. To a further degree, it even tends toward the Western, what with its gold rush context and myriad gunfights that gradually give way to contemplative, patient rhythms, which function for Luciano — and viewers — as waves in a spiritual, or even existential, odyssey. So while the film’s initial chapter seems more interested in probing such classic literary themes of individualism, hamartia, loss, and sin, the latter shifts gears to encompass the more abstracted motifs of bewilderment, penance, and retribution. Indeed, The Tale of King Crab, just like its main character, can be regarded as many things: both a classical and distinctly modern film, connected as much to the oral traditions of storytelling as it is grounded in the novelty of the image. The successful interweaving of its two disparate threads feels almost effortless by the film’s end, its artistry consistently surprising as it manages to mingle its often contradictory forces in a purely organic way, never skewing into either cheap manipulation or pretentiousness. It’s all the more impressive a feat for such a young directorial duo to pull off. Luciano might have failed to get his hands on the desired treasure — at least, the one he went out looking for — but for viewers, it’s not an exaggeration to declare The Tale of King Crab one of the secret cinematic jewels of the year.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Paragraph 175 was a provision of the German Criminal Code enacted in 1871, in which homosexual acts between two men were made a crime and punishable by a minimum six-month prison sentence. In 1935, the Nazi party altered the law, increasing the maximum penalty to five years imprisonment and removing the stipulation that it only be applied to cases involving penetrative sex, with many of the convicted forced into concentration camps during WWII. In 1969, the law was reformed once again, limiting jail time to those individuals who engaged in homosexual prostitution, sex with a man less than 21 years of age, and the exploitation of a relationship of a dependency. Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom follows one German man over the course of twenty years as he faces imprisonment on three separate occasions for the “crime” of being gay.
The film opens in 1968, and we immediately witness Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski) engaging in a number of sexual acts with various men in a non-descript restroom, the footage caught on camera by local police. As he is booked and processed into the prison system, it’s obvious that this is not Hans’ first foray into incarceration. Little is said as he systematically enacts the required rituals before making his way to a cell that will serve as his home for the next year. The guards know him by name, as well as numerous prisoners, including Viktor (Georg Friedrich), an older gentleman with whom laughs and hugs are exchanged. It’s only when Hans is subjected to solitary confinement that the film jumps back to 1948, where we witness him enter prison for the first time as a physically slight and jittery man lacking in any sort of confidence. It’s also here that his relationship with Viktor is born, one that begins in a place of hatred and disgust and slowly transforms into something like shared empathy, as Viktor learns of Hans’ former imprisonment in a concentration camp (their bond is further developed in 1957 upon Hans’ second incarceration, and finally again in 1968).
Aside from the opening moments and the film’s final ten minutes, Hans is never seen outside of prison walls: he is a man completely defined by his lack of freedom, a fitting metaphor for homosexuals in Germany during the era of Paragraph 175. Meise and co-writer Thomas Reider set out to highlight a deplorable period in gay German history, one that made the very act of love illegal, but their choice of (sub)genre within which to frame their explorations, unfortunately, comes beholden to no small number of limiting conventions and cliches. But despite the distracting prison-flick template, Great Freedom is still an affecting treatment on the strength of its two main players: Rogowski once again crafts a soulful performance, thanks largely to his soft, delicate voice and ever-haunted eyes, while Friedrich transforms what could have been stock caricature into something both layered and nuanced. Their relationship forms the film’s crux, even turning into something resembling a profound love by film’s end; their bond is never judged, and instead presented with a matter-of-factness that ultimately renders it all the more heartbreaking. Theirs is a relationship born out of necessity, but director and writer understand, and clearly articulate, that this doesn’t make it any less genuine.
Meise’s direction, for its part, is unobtrusive, lacking in showmanship as it opts for a committed observational mode. Any stylistic devices are saved for film’s end, as Hans makes his way out of prison and into a gay club for the first time in his life, where men openly dance, kiss, and hold one another. As Hans is beckoned into the nether regions of the club by a handsome stranger, the viewer is treated to sights of various men engaging in graphic sex acts, with the basement made to resemble a prison, filled with brick walls and steel bars. The metaphor is heavy-handed, to be sure, but somehow Meise is still able to find a certain beauty within it, as Hans finally becomes cognizant of the cost of his happiness, leaving the audience in a rather conflicted emotional state as the credits roll. Freedom doesn’t innately exist in the absence of prison walls, and specifically not in the immediate wake of inhuman laws that seek to condemn nontraditional love. Yet Great Freedom is nothing if not an ode to that very unconventionality, with specificity here, but extending in celebration to all of its complex and varied incarnations. It’s a film that understands and captures how the heart can soar even as it breaks.
Writer: Steven Warner
At first glance, Aleksey German, Jr.’s House Arrest is a satire aimed squarely at Russian state repression and censorship. David (Merab Ninidze), a University professor, awaits trial under house arrest, accused of embezzling state funds intended for an academic conference. The charges are trumped up, or else entirely fictitious, and have more to do with social media posts David made accusing the mayor of theft and corruption using information leaked to him by his estranged wife’s lover. His health is failing, his family falling apart and, occasionally, thugs break into his apartment to assault him or worse. But German is not satisfied with mere portraiture of a whistleblower against the system. Instead, he reserves some antipathy for the prickly David, a man whose outsized obstinance and moral certitude push everyone around him to the side. Put bluntly, he’s a pain in the ass, a righteous curmudgeon who sees himself as a crusader when really he’s just a fly, agitating but relatively unimportant, causing trouble by posting drawings of the mayor fucking an ostrich.
No matter the scale of his campaign or his self-regard, David is a victim of the state, and House Arrest asks us to acknowledge the messy truths that not all righteous thinkers and activists are good hangs without complication. Most of the time, German keeps his camera tight on David, forcing intimacy with the viewer and allowing the clutter of his apartment to fence him in. The people that come in and out of his abode — his mother, his wife, his lawyer, his doctor — can’t see why David has to keep agitating as his case increasingly takes a toll on each of their lives. His doctor insists she’ll be able to treat him better if he simply confesses and takes probation, and he’s told that in prison, he’d at least be able to shower, something his ankle bracelet currently prevents. His idealistic students who visit outside his home are more hip to the cause, but also far less affected by his actions. As dramatic incidents slowly pile up and push House Arrest toward its ending, the relative smallness of his struggle dawns on David, further compounding his grief. Even if he is to go free, he won’t have accomplished much, and the cost of his house arrest is already immeasurable and irreversible. Ultimately, for David, that he might be denied martyrdom is as unsatisfactory a possibility as any pyrrhic victory won in the courts.
Writer: Chris Mello
La Traviata, My Brothers and I
Yohan Manca’s La Traviata, My Brothers and I presents a side of Italy rarely seen in modern cinema, one that lies just beyond the picturesque beaches filled with luxurious yachts and frolicking tourists. Low-income housing filled with struggling locals dots the sun-dappled horizon, creating a sharp contrast both visually and metaphorically, as one person’s idyllic getaway gives way to another individual’s desperate bid to stay afloat. Unfortunately, this unique setting is the only novelty My Brothers and I has to offer, its remainder a rather cliched coming-of-age tale about one fateful summer that forever changes a young boy’s life.
Nour (Maël Rouin Berrandou) is 13 years old and desperate to quit school, seeing education as nothing but a roadblock to steady employment and a chance at escaping his withering neighborhood. Nour lives in a small apartment with his three older brothers: Abel (Dali Benssalah), the stubborn and hot-headed alpha male who supports and protects his family; Mo (Sofian Khammes), a self-obsessed gigolo; and Hedi (Moncef Farfar), the fuck-up. Their father long dead from cancer, the four brothers have taken it upon themselves to care for their ailing mother, who lies in a coma in the main bedroom and who requires constant medical attention. As the bills begin to pile up and each family member tries to do their part, Nour finds escape in an opera class offered at the local school. The young man has long held a fascination with the genre, as Nour’s father would often sing it to his mother as a proclamation of his love. Building further conflict into the film, Abel sees the class as nothing more than a distraction and forbids his brother from attending, with predictable results.
My Brothers and I at least has the wherewithal not to take this material into full Billy Elliot territory, with Abel’s rationale being that he simply wants his little brother to make a few extra bucks and not become distracted by “superfluous” things. It’s honestly a pretty understandable and pragmatic point of view in reality, but in the film’s fiction, this seemingly pointless hobby is so obviously cast as Nour’s salvation. Or perhaps not. Manca clearly wants to present a more authentic loss-of-innocence tale, but so slavishly adheres to the cliches inherent within the genre that whenever he chooses to color outside of the lines, it feels wholly inorganic. And as a portrait of family, the film is incredibly hit-or-miss, as Nour’s brothers are presented as two-dimensional lunkheads defined by a couple broad characteristics. Only in brief moments do the quartet ever feel like a familial unit, but even then the chemistry comes across as forced when it’s existent at all. Berrandou, in his feature-film debut, at least brings a naturalism to his performance that hints at the film Manca strived to make, and he will rightly come out unscathed.
For all that, My Brothers and I isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just that, despite obvious intent that separates this from also-ran coming-of-age fellows, it can’t shake its deeply familiar trappings, and any realism the film brings to its prescribed formula is mere veneer. Put differently: don’t be surprised if this is ultimately picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and snags a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Oscars next year. That’s as succinct and telling a summation of La Traviata as there is.
Writer: Steven Warner
A Night of Knowing Nothing
Beautifully dispatched through its entanglement of formal hybridity, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing burrows her contemplative sensibility into the archiving of a contemporary reality. On the fiction end of the work, if it can be called fictitious, we glean ephemeral insights into the perspective of an unknown narrator, catalogued simply through her anonymous letters. She documents her relationship with a lover, in conjunction with observations on the seething political tensions brought to the fore by India’s Modi regime. Weaving through this is a collection of vérité images, whether broadcast or iPhone-shot, edited to coalesce into an aesthetically uniform amalgam of lo-fi monochrome. What is then rendered can be described as a reconciliation with the disembodied, an intervention into the innate estrangement of the image. For that’s what lies at the core of her film: a discourse of the image, its immateriality in confrontation of real, material politics. Two quotes from our narrator come to mind: “Our memory cannot keep up with these times, it seems,” along with, “each image vanished as quickly and violently as it had appeared.”
Falling in and out of memory is certainly an act that mirrors the oscillating forms of the film. The vigor that anchors our position, that of students being systematically disenfranchised, their politics utilized as images by the state, against them — an image of pessimism persists. But what is the counter-image to be? For Kapadia, it is the impenetrable dreamscape: dreams, in their abstraction, in their sensitivity to our senses, are an enticing analogy for her montage. But that is also not wholly accurate; the film offers something far more tangible than the illogic of phantasmagoria. Here are instead dispersed images, commingling as a structure vying to represent the imagination of what it might be to exist tangibly, in reality: the dialectical image of independent filmmaking, versus the homogenizing image orchestrated by an ethno-nationalist state. In a dogfight for the ideology of the image, A Night of Knowing Nothing situates us in an uneasy attempt to reckon with the how, inquiring how we might be able to reconvene with the image, scrutinizing the past as something ductile, a spectre of unknown form, caught in-between the stasis of a lost history and an echo striving for someone, right now, to reclaim it.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind