"Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” - Abrar Alvi (1962)

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) was one of the most polished and successful of the Bollywood “Golden Age” films, back when Guru Dutt was a star actor, director, and producer.  This was the last of Dutt’s great works, which also include Mr. and Mrs. ‘55 (1955), Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), and Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960).  Actually, because Kaagaz Ke Phool was a commercial failure at the time of its release, Dutt was not listed as the director of any his subsequent films; but it is generally conceded that both Chaudhvin Ka Chand (directed by Mohhamed Sadiq) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (directed by Abrar Alvi) bear the stamp of Dutt’s signature production values [1,2]. Dutt’s expressionistic mise-en-scene, as implemented by Alvi and cinematographer V. K. Murthy (also cinematographer for Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool), included
  • moody, shadow-laden set lighting
  • multi-plane image compositions with fluid camera movements
  • emotive closeups – often as unspoken reaction shots of the principal characters
  • narratively embedded songs

It is all expressed in highly expressionistic and theatrical fashion with dramatic music by Hemant Kumar [3] and exaggerated characterizations (particular in the secondary roles). This is not realism but is instead an emotional, subjective narrative journey.

In the past some of my Indian colleagues have remarked that Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is India’s Gone With the Wind (1939).  I am not sure what they might have meant by this, and there could be several angles from which to view this comparison – for example, both films may be considered to be widely popular romantic “classics” and both films show the decline and fall of a decaying aristocracy. But perhaps the most interesting parallel is the degree to which both films view the world from the perspective of a determined young woman breaking out of her constricted social role [4].  In earlier Indian films I have seen from this period, the perspective is that of a man struggling to find his place.  Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s departure from this trend lends it a special flavor.

The story of the film is based on the Bengali novel Sahib Bibi Golam (“Master Wife Slave”, 1953) by Bimal Mitra, which is set in Calcutta (Kolkata) at the end of the 19th century.  In the film, a young man from the provinces looking for work comes to Calcutta and finds residence at an aristocratic zamindar family’s haveli (villa mansion). Though he does get a job working in a sindoor (a cosmetic for married women) factory outside the haveli, the young man (the ghulam, or servant) develops an ambiguous platonic relationship with a zamindar’s wife (the bibi) living in the haveli.

Over the course of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s winding narrative about the ghulam and the bibi, there are several themes explored:
  • The decline of the decadent aristocracy and Indian modernization.   
    The zamindar families in this film are totally devoted to hedonistic pleasures and are ludicrously out of touch with reality. Because of the film’s expressionistic style, this characterization of decadence is more exaggerated than Satyajit Ray’s more nuanced (but still critical) representation in his The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958).  On the more progressive side of things, but essentially Indian-derived as opposed to being a Western import, was the Brahmo Samaj movement, which flourished in the 19th century.  This was a reform movement within Hinduism that, somewhat like Unitarianism and Sufism in other faiths, sought to be more inclusive and to free the religion from outworn practices such as idol worship and caste-restrictions; and it featured influential contributions from the ancestral families of Rabrindanath Tagore and Satyajit Ray [5].
  • Women’s role.  This is always a major theme in Indian culture, inasmuch as even women from the aristocratic social sectors were highly restricted.
  • Love.  Related to the role of women is the meaning of love and the expected forms that love will take.  I will comment more on this important theme below.
The story of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam covers many activities over the course of roughly six sectors.

1.  A Ruined Haveli   
An architect, whom we will know by his nickname “Bhootnath” (played by Guru Dutt), is overseeing the demotion of a decrepit haveli, which he recognizes as having been his home when he first came to Calcutta as an impoverished servant.  He sits down on a stone and lapses  into his memories.  The rest of the film is told in flashback.

2.  Bhootnath Arrives in Calcutta
On arrival Bhootnath joins his brother-in-law, who is a teacher working for and living with the wealthy Chaudhury zamindar family at their haveli, the same haveli that we have just seen later being dismantled in the opening scene.  The teacher arranges for Bhootnath to stay at the haveli and to begin working outside at a sindoor factory, whose proprietor, Suvinay, is a Brahmo Samaji.  

The zamindar familiy is headed by two debauched brothers, the younger of whom, Chhote Sarkar (played by Guru Dutt regular, Rehman), is totally dissolute.  At night Bhootnath hears the mournful singing (Song #1) of the man’s neglected wife, Bahu (Meena Kumari, in a memorable and award-winning performance). Bhootnath soon learns from his fellow servant Bansi that Chhote Sarkar comes home drunk in the early hours of every morning from a night of depravity at an upscale brothel featuring Nautch girls as courtesans (Song #2). 

At the sindoor factory owner’s residence, Suvinay expresses great curiosity when he hears Bhoonath mention the town that he comes from.  This is an early clue about something that will be revealed later. Bhootnath also meets Suvinay’s perky daughter, Jabba (Waheeda Rehman), who immediately makes fun of Bhootnath’s provincial manners.  But the independent-minded Jabba also takes an immediate fancy to Bhoothath and tries to charm him, too.

At this early stage, the narrative seems to be about Bhootnath and his development.  But as the story progresses, we will see that the focus will shift primarily to the two women – Chhoti Bahu and Jabba – as seen from Bhootnath’s point of view. Unlike other Guru Dutt-starring films, where his agency is critical to the narrative, Bhootnath in this film will remain essentially a male ingenue, a witness to the unfolding drama around him.  Throughout the  film, the story switches its focus back and forth between Chhoti Bahu and Jabba, and we are exposed to a profound difference not only between the two women but also between the kind of love that they offer.

3.  Chhoti Bahu’s Loneliness
Bansi comes to tell Bhootnath that Chhoti Bahu, whom we still haven’t seen, has arranged for him to come to her private quarters in the evening. Having learned that he works at a sindoor factory, she wants him to bring him some special sindoor that she feels may have some magical attractive power to keep her husband from wandering to the nautch girls at night.

That afternoon Bhootnath runs into Jabba again, who has been composing delightful lyrics about a naive and flighty bee (Song #3).  In the evening he visits Chhoti Bahu and agrees to fetch her some sindoor that she seeks.  This is the first time, about fifty minutes into the film, that we actually see Chhoti Bahu, who is the most important character in the story. Although nothing untoward happens between the two, it is clear that Chhoti Bahu is charmed by Bhootnath, and in turn seeks to charm him.  So at this point there appear to be two women interested, to some degree, in Bhootnath: Chhoti Bahu and Jabba.

On the way out of those quarters, he happens to come across another courtesan performing a dance in front of the older zamindar brother, Majhaley Babu, and his entourage (Song #4).

When Bhootnath secretly comes to Chhoti Bahu the next night to give her the requested sindoor, she explains to him that she has been brought up as a proper Hindu wife to worship her husband as a god. Bhootnath is now her confidant and the only person she can explain herself to. 

While Bhootnath and his brother-in-law are later outside on the street, they stumble into a disturbance involving some wantonly violent British soldiers, and in the ruckus Bhootnath winds up getting shot  in his legs.

Later back at the haveli, Chhoti Bahu is prepared with jewelry and the sindoor makeup by her servants to meet her husband.  In anticipation of that hope-for joyous event, she sings a beautiful song (Song #5). When Chhote Sarkar does come, though, he is totally unresponsive to his wife’s charms and rejects her seductive entreaties.

Jabba comes to the haveli to attend to the wounded Bhootnath and has difficulty concealing her jealousy over Bhootnath’s continued attachment to Chhoti Bahu. She suspects that her lower caste separates herself from Bhootnath.

So by this point we see that both of the two women principals are deeply frustrated.

4.  Desperation and Decline
Chhoti Bahu’s husband explains to her that the reason he won’t spend time with her is that she doesn’t sing, dance, and dink wine.  So she decides to succumb further, and she beckons Bhootnath to bring her wine.  Reluctantly, he agrees.  Later, in a disturbing scene, we see the inebriated Chhote Sarkar brutishly forcing wine down his tearful wife’s throat.

Meanwhile Bhootnath learns that Suvinay is critically ill and is closing his sindoor factory, but he is told that Suvinay has secured a position for Bhootnath as an apprentice architect and has also arranged for his daughter, Jabba, to marry a fellow Brahmo Samaji. Bhootnath is surprised but accepts these arrangements.   As he departs, Jabba sadly watches him go and sings a song of regret (Song #6).

Bhootnath comes to visit Chhoti Bahu and sees that she has become a hopeless alcoholic.  When he tries to snatch a bottle from her hand and accidentally touches her skin, a forbidden act, it causes her to banish him from her quarters.  As he leaves, she drunkenly tells him that she is proud to have reclaimed her husband, even if she is now a drunkard.

Bhootnath is now assigned by his architect boss to go supervise a project in Munger, another town up the Ganges.  He first goes to visit the ill Suvinay, but he is too late: Suvinay has died.  His daughter Jabba glumly informs him the news and tells him that she has spurned the planned marriage with the fellow Brahmo Samaji, in part because she has just learned that long ago her grandfather had had her married to someone, now unknown, when she was just one year old.
Meanwhile the Chaudhury brothers continue their decadent lifestyle, engaging in elaborate homing-pigeon contests with the detested Cheni Dutt zamindar family and foolishly selling their land and investing the money in a bogus coal mine.  Chhoti Bahu is still drunkenly worshiping her husband, but he has become bored with his pushover spouse and decides to go back to his courtesans.  She fruitlessly beseeches him to stay at home with another poignant song (Song #7).

When Chhote Sarkar arrives at the brothel and sees Cheni Dutt cavorting with his favorite mistress, a fight breaks out, and Chhote Sarkar is severely beaten by Dutt’s henchmen.  

5.  Return to Calcutta
Some time has passed, perhaps more than a year, and Bhootnath returns from Munger to Calcutta to see that the Chaudhury family is almost penniless and their haveli is rundown and shabby.  He learns that Chhote Sarkar is now paralyzed from the beating he had earlier received.  The still tipsy Chhoti Bahu vows to give up alcohol at her husband’s belated request, and she asks Bhootnath when she sees him to take her to a Hindu “saint”, who she believes can miraculously cure her husband.  But proper Hindu wives are not supposed to go outside with another man, and when Majhaley Babu sees Chhoti leave in a carriage with Bhootnath, he order his few remaining retainers to assault their carriage.  Bhootnath is severely beaten and Chhoti Bahu disappears.  When he wakes up in the hospital, Bhootnath learns from Bansi of Chhoti Bahu’s disappearance and that Chhote Sarkar has died and Majhaley Babu has abandoned the family haveli.  So the flashback sequence ends in desolation.

6.  Return to the Present

Returning from his lengthy flashback, Bhootnath is informed by workers dismantling the Chaudhury haveli that they have discovered a hidden grave.  When he goes to examine it, he sees a skeleton with the same bracelet Chhoti Bahu was wearing on their last day, thereby revealing that she was murdered by Majhaley Babu’s men and secretly buried there.  

Then he leaves the haveli and goes out to his carriage, where his now-wife Jabba is waiting for him.  It is at this last closing shot that we get the confirmation of what had been hinted earlier –  that Jabba was married to Bhootnath when they were both tiny children and had only discovered the truth of their marriage much later.

At the end of the film, we are left to reflect on the natures of the two women and how their love relationships were affected by social restrictions. Now usually societal restrictions block options for love, so it is ironic in this story that Chhote Sarkar’s freedom from social restrictions allowed him to be unfaithful to his wife, thereby thwarting her love efforts, and the restrictiveness of an arranged child-marriage enabled Jabba to attain her true love. This seems more like serendipity than any lesson to be learned, so  it is more interesting to look at things from the more personal perspective concerning the respective ways the two women loved.
  • Chhoti Bahu was a woman steeped in Hindu tradition and desperately wanted to live fully the role to which she believed she was assigned – that of a loving and devoted wife. But did she truly love her husband as a soulmate, or was she simply fanatically devoted to her culturally-assigned role?  She seemed more naturally attracted to Bhootnath, but she was bound to treat him as nothing more than a friend.  Her love for her husband seemed more like an abstract religious devotion than the kind of love we usually see between a man and a woman.
  • Jabba, who was from a progressive, Brahmo Samaj family, was essentially a modern woman who felt free to express herself.  She was the one more likely to be a truly equal marriage partner in the kind of marital relationship we seek today.  
And yet Bhootnath was more attracted to Chhoti Bahu than to Jabba.  One might attribute this preferential attraction to the glamorous status of the zamindar family, but apart from that angle, I think that most viewers also find something especially magical about Chhoti Bahu, too, Waheeda Rehman’s evident beauty and vitality in the role of Jabba notwithstanding.  Chhoti’s love was total thralldom, a manifestation of what it means to fall in love.  And Meena Kumari’s heartrending portrayal of Chhoti Bahu gave life to a kind of burning passion that lurks somewhere in the hearts of all of us, I think. We see it, and we feel it. Even if Chhoti was only in love with a dream rather than a person, Meena Kumari’s performance makes us feel for her and want to reach out to her.

I mentioned in my earlier review of Kaagaz Ke Phool [6] that one of the enduring fascinations of that film is the degree to which it mirrored Guru Dutt’s own tragic downfall.  He died of a drug overdose in 1964 at the age of 39. In an eerily similar fashion, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam mirrors the tragic life of its soulful star, Meena Kumari. Like the role she played in the film, she also had a tempestuous private life, became an alcoholic, and also died (here, cirrhosis of the liver) at the age of 39.   

But that’s only interesting background stuff and not intrinsic to the film as shown.  Overall, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is a well-realized and fascinating love story – an evocative and expressionistic presentation to fire the imagination.  
  1. Karan Bali, "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam", Upperstall, (31 March 2001).  
  2. Gitanjali Roy, “Indian cinema@100: Five facts about Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, NDTV Movies, (25  April 2013).   
  3. Dutt’s usual musical composer, S. D. Burman, was unavailable due to illness, but the songs in this film, which  entirely voiced by women, are excellent.
  4. Philip Lutgendorf, “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam”,  Indian Cinema (philip'sfil-ums), University of Iowa, (n.d.).   
  5. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press 
  6. The Film Sufi, "'Kaagaz Ke Phool’ – Guru Dutt (1959), The Film Sufi, (22 January 2015).   

"The Salesman" - Ashgar Farhadi (2016)

Ashgar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Forushande, 2016) is another dramatic tale of evolving marital disharmony that has almost become this Iranian writer-director’s trademark.  Similar to his previous films – such as Fireworks Wednesday (2006), About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), and The Past (2013) – Farhadi presents in The Salesman a young middle-class couple whose relationship is subjected to a tragic, disruptive event.  What makes all those films particularly interesting is the way Farhadi presents multiple perspectives with respect to what is going on.   So what may seem to be clear-cut from one point of view may look entirely different when seen through a different contextual lens.  Although it takes awhile to get there, this multiple-viewpoint tableau comes to the fore in The Salesman, too.

In addition to, and related to, this multiple-viewpoint issue are social themes that often show up in Farhad’s films.  Some of them are particularly significant for the Iranian social context, but they can be appreciated by everyone.  Here are a few of them:

  • Establishing and declaring what is "true".  When there are multiple perspectives, there are likely to be multiple interpretations concerning what is factually true.  In the physical world of nature, there are often statements that are either true or false.  But in the world of human sociality, there are overlapping social layers, each with its normative context, and we are all accustomed to seeing things from multiple vantage points.  Getting along in larger society, then, often means making some pretenses or obscuring some private information in order to obscure ethical conflicts that arise.  Thus we selectively offer some “edited” information to others in order to make things go smoothly.  Iranians, in particular, are often inclined to obligingly tell people what they think their audience wants to hear.  This issue is notably important in About Elly and A Separation, but it comes up in The Salesman, too.
  • The importance of a private living space.  We are all aware of the distinction between public space and private space, which are governed by differing norms. In Iran this is very important.  Many Iranians greatly value the sanctity of their privates spaces, where they can act relatively freely and not be subjected to oppressive societal restrictions [1].  A violation of one’s private space can be felt as a personal and distressful affront.
  • Maintaining face.  Although people treasure their private lives, they also want to be respected in the public space.  This can mean engaging in some form of social salesmanship in order to maintain their public image and not be subject to social ridicule. (It can also mean that people are deterred from going to the police when criminalized in order to avoid having their lives opened up to public inspection.)
  • Revenge.  Vengeance is often a big issue with men, and losing face is one of the primary motivations for it.  Often the desired revenge is to humiliate and emasculate the offending party, thereby making that person suffer the horror of losing face.
  • Forgiveness.  An alternative, but seldom seen, response to an offense is forgiveness. All religions commend acts of forgiveness, but how often do we see it unless the offending party humiliates himself by begging for forgiveness
The story of The Salesman concerns the events surrounding a young married couple, Emad (played by Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti).  By day, Emad is a charismatic teacher of literature at a senior secondary school.  In the evenings, both Emad and Rana are actors in a theatrical company, which is currently engaged in rehearsing and performing Arthur Miller’s prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman (1949).  In the play, Emad plays the role of the ill-fated main character, Willy Loman, while Rana plays the role of Willy’s wife, Linda.  Throughout the film, Emad and Rana are sometimes shown engaged in their theatrical stage performances.  In the course of these presentations, we see how their dramatic personae give both of them masks that serve two seemingly conflicting purposes: 
  1. to hide their true selves and present their public faces
  2. to partially shield themselves so that they can express their true emotions as if  they were coming from someone else. 
The film’s narrative passes through four somewhat disjointed acts.

1.  Emad and Rana 
The film opens disturbingly with Emad and Rana in their apartment, which starts shaking violently.  What seems like an earthquake turns out to be a destabilized foundation caused by nearby construction equipment, but the results are no less ominous.  Their building nearly collapses, and Emad and Rana are forced to evacuate and look immediately for new living quarters.  All of this is presented very realistically by Farhadi, and it sets a tone about how one’s comfortable home can be suddenly disrupted by an external event.

Also shown are Emad and Rana’s activities, including their work on the locally-produced staging of Death of a Salesman.  One of the issues of staging such a play, by the way, is getting it past the restrictive government censors, who are always demanding scene cuts, and this is briefly depicted. 

One of their fellow actors in the play, Babak (Babak Karimi), arranges for Emad and Rana to get a newly available apartment, no easy task on short notice in Tehran.  The apartment’s previous tenant has left some of her personal belongings in a locked room, the inconvenience of which irritates Rana.  Emad, however, is more respectful of the woman’s private items and tries to mollify his wife. 

2.  An Intruder Comes
One day while waiting for Emad to come home, Rana hears the downstairs entry buzzer go off, and assuming it is Emad, she pushes the button allowing entry and unlocks the apartment front door.  Then she goes to take a shower.  What happens next is unclear, but we know that an intruder entered the apartment and assaulted Rana.  It will later be revealed that the previous tenant of the apartment they are now occupying was a prostitute who had many male clients.  When Emad comes home shortly thereafter he sees bloody footprints on the apartment staircase and learns that Rana was discovered by neighbors after the attack and taken to the hospital.

Rana is soon released, but it is clear that the attack has shattered her.  She doesn’t want to talk about it to Emad (Farhadi was probably limited in what he could portray anyway), and she seems dazed and confused.  Although Emad is solicitous, he seems more concerned about his own impotence in this matter than willing to attend to Rana’s agony.  In short order he begins to lose patience with her silent suffering.

3.  The Hunt for the Perpetrator
Now the focus of the narrative shifts over squarely on Emad. They are not going to go the police about the matter, assuming this would only bring more trouble upon themselves, so Emad sets about trying to find the culprit.  Rana says she cannot remember what happened or even what the assailant looked like, so Emad doesn’t have much to go on.  But he does discover some money, some keys, and a mobile phone that were left in haste by the assailant, and with these he starts trying to hunt him down.

This part of the film evolves more like a conventional detective story, with Emad bumbling away but gradually uncovering some clues.  He also appears to be becoming more obsessed with taking revenge as he starts get closer to catching someone.

4.  The Perpetrator Found
Eventually and after a number of improbable events, Emad does discover and trap Rana’s assailant.  He turns out not to be the person Emad originally suspected, but instead a very unexceptional and vulnerable individual (well portrayed by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini).  It is at this point that the viewer starts seeing the vengeance story line from multiple perspectives.  This is also the most interesting and moving part of the film.  Emad is unsure of what he wants at this point, but since he feels he, himself, was humiliated, he wants to subject the assailant to maximal humiliation.  This is the revenge mentality.  If a man loses face, he wants his enemy to lose even more face.

The final events are disturbing, and you are left at the end to reflect on the states of mind of Emad and Rana, as well as on the fate of their relationship and whether any forgiveness will be forthcoming.

In some ways The Salesman is more like Fireworks Wednesday than Farhadi’s subsequent films, and this is unfortunate [2].  About Elly, A Separation, and The Past had social fabrics that were more sophisticated and multilayered than what appears in The Salesman.  What we witness in this film is a decent man with respectable, civilized values who gradually and unwillingly, debases himself.  It can be painful to watch.

There are also some weaknesses to the film.  Babak appears to be a significant character over the first part of the film, and the viewer is given some information about him that seems likely to be important later.  But in the final parts of the film, Babak more or less disappears from sight, and that seems to leave a hole in the story.  In addition Rana is gradually overlooked as the film progresses.  Whether or not Emad sees her as “damaged goods”, he doesn’t seem to be much of a sympathetic partner.  Although some reviewers seem to empathize fully with what Emad’s frustrations over Rana [3], I find Emad to be ultimately too self-obsessed, and this reduces my engagement with the film.  This is another aspect of The Salesman that harkens back to Fireworks Wednesday – focalized characters from whom we disengage.

Another problem is shaky hand-held camera work, particularly in the first half of the film, that is more than just bothersome.  There seems to be little motivation to these movements, as if the camera operator were just wandering randomly about the set and trying to keep the principals in frame.  Presumably this jittery movement is supposed to induce emotional agitation, and it can be justified in some circumstances, such as when a building is collapsing.  But unfortunately the jerky camera is used in far too many situations in this film.  The camera movements here are not comparable to those of people like Antonioni and Mizoguchi, for whose films the camera movements actually enhance the psychological immersion of the viewer.  There are also fixed-frame closeups that should be filmed with a fixed camera, but are instead evidently hand-held.  All of these things call unnecessary attention to the camera work and reduce the viewer’s psychological involvement in the narrative. 

Farhadi’s earlier films also suffered from an over-use of jittery hand-held camera techniques, but this was significantly reduced in his preceding film, The Past.  That film had a different cinematographer, Mahmoud Kalari (he was also the cinematographer for A Separation).  For The Salesman Farhdi’s cinematographer was Hossein Jafarian, who had been the cinematographer for Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly. Whomever Farhadi uses as his cinematographer in his next film, I hope that he attends to more controlled and fluid camera usage.

Despite these shortcoming, Farhadi’s The Salesman is worth seeing, though no match for his sublime About EllyThe Salesman does come together as approaches the end, and the pacing and acting performances are first-rate. Especially effective is the use of Taraneh Alidoosti’s silent but expressive countenance in reaction shots to convey a mood, echoing a visual technique Farhadi used with her in Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly.  They all contribute to the film’s presentation of a gradual unraveling of a man we can understand and to whom we can relate. 

At Emad’s school where he taught literature, he was a respected role model who seemed to know what is right.  And at one point earlier in the film, Emad is traveling somewhere in a taxi cab with one of his students, and he is insulted by a self-righteous woman sitting next to him (taxis in Tehran usually take multiple fares and have them all sit together).  Afterwards, the student expresses his angry sympathy for his esteemed teacher in the face of the woman’s rude behavior.  But Emad takes the high road on this occasion and tells the student that we should forgive the woman – she probably had suffered from some earlier incident in a taxi that had ruined her civility.  This was the high-principled Emad talking, before he himself lost face and began to lose his bearings.  At the end he has become a salesman (of himself) who doesn’t believe in what he is selling.

  1. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, (2009), Anchor. 
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “The Salesman review: Asghar Farhadi offers layers of Willy Loman”The Guardian, (21 May 2016).
  3. Owen Gleiberman, “Cannes Film Review: ‘The Salesman’”, Variety, (20 May 2016).

Hirokazu Koreeda

Films of Hirokazu Koreeda:

“After the Storm” - by Hirokazu Koreeda (2016)

After the Storm (Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, 2016), a domestic drama written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, is another one of the director’s leisurely examinations of an ordinary (sort of) Japanese family.  In this case the focus of attention is on a fortyish man struggling to hold together his life despite its long, slow downhill slide. 

The man in question, Ryota Shinoda (played by Koreeda favorite Hiroshi Abe), had won a prestigious literary prize with the publication of his debut novel, but that was fifteen years ago.  Since then, Ryota has not written anything and is now impoverished, although he claims to be researching material for his next novel by working as a part-time detective. At some point during this long downslide and before the start of the film, Ryota’s attractive wife, Kyoko Shiraishi (Yoko Maki), apparently got fed up with his irresponsible time-wasting and obtained a divorce.  Now his only brief contact with her is when exercising his once-a-month visiting rights to see their 11-year-old son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa). 

Since the focalization is mostly on Ryota, we see things from his perspective, which involves problems along four dimensions: writer’s block, lack of money, family breakup, and loss of respect.  At the root of these problems and a significant exacerbating factor, is Ryota’s serious gambling addiction, a trait he seems to have learned or inherited from his recently deceased father.  Whenever Ryota does earn a little money, he immediately blows it all away via gambling losses at the bicycle racetrack.  He is three months behind on his alimony payments and seems to have failed to pay back loans he received from all his friends and relatives.

Nevertheless, Ryota is presented as a nice guy.  Though perpetually somewhat disheveled, he  is tall, good-looking, and amiable.  He looks eminently employable.  First impressions are that he seems to deserve better.  But gradually we are exposed to his relentlessly self-centered and irresponsible nature.  His sister (Satomi Kobayashi) is fed up with his failure to pay her back the money that she loans him.  When he goes to visit his mother’s, Yoshiko Shinoda (Kirin Kiki), fourth-floor walk-up condo to pay her a visit after his father’s death, his main goal appears not to be consoling his mother about his father, but searching the condo for things that he can steal and take to the pawnbroker.  He even surreptitiously pilfers some unused lottery tickets while he is there.

Ryota’s job as a private detective turns out not to be as glamourous as one might expect from reading detective fiction.  Ryota’s work is mainly spent surveilling and spying on suspected adulterous spouses.  Ryota’s lackadaisical sense of morality manifests itself here, too, when he covertly tells one unfaithful woman that if she pays him enough money, he will write up a false report and affirm her fidelity to his client.  Thus Ryota is quite willing to use blackmail and double-cross his employer in order to fatten his wallet. 

Ryota also spends some of his detective time spying on his ex-wife in order to see whom she is dating at the moment.  He is disturbed to discover that she is currently seeing an aggressive and wealthy arriviste who seems to have serious intents about hooking up with Kyoko – the man has beaten Ryota to the punch and purchased an expensive baseball glove that their son Shingo wants to have.  Ryota suspects that if Kyoko marries this man, then his once-a-month visitation rights of Shingo will disappear. 

So on his day-long visit with Shingo, Ryota makes a big effort to establish a vital bond with the boy.  He spends the day treating Shingo to things and revisiting his own adolescent mischief-making, which Ryota thinks will make Shingo feel closer to his father.  At end of the day, they go to dine with his mother at her condo, where Kyoko is supposed to come and pick up her son.  But just at that time an earlier forecasted strong typhoon sweeps through Tokyo (the 23rd one of the year, we are told).  With such vicious weather, everyone will have to spend the night at the Yoshiko’s condo, and this gives Ryota a chance to have separate, private moments with both Kyoko and Shingo. 

This is the moment we have been waiting for in this slow-paced film.  After all, the title suggests that there will be a big change “after the storm”.  However, Ryota hasn’t changed or become more enlightened over the course of the film, and the scope of his horizon is still limited by his own selfishness. 

Everything is told in a slow, easygoing manner, with lots of little local-cultural details about this slice of Japanese society offered along the way.  This fits well with the generally good-natured and easygoing natures of all the people on display.  A particularly important secondary character in all of this is Ryota’s mother, Yoshiko.  Like Ryota, Yoshiko is cordial and good-natured almost all the time, but she also has a calculative, selfish side, too.  And she shows no sense of sorrow or bereavement over the recent death of her husband (neither does Ryota).  True, her husband gambled away all the family’s household money, but Yoshiko’s totally nonchalant and callous attitude about her husband’s passing seems odd to me.

In fact I get the impression that the displayed attitudes of Ryota and Yoshiko are intended to be amusing and that we should view After the Storm as a comedy. Ryota is just a perpetually naughty boy, and he is not showing signs of growing up.  In fact his son Shingo seems more mature than he is.  When Ryota spends the day with Shingo, he seems to want to show Shingo his naughty side.  Shingo goes along with it primarily to humor his dad. 

However, this idea of a comedy is not what comes across from reading the early reviews of the film from the Cannes Film Festival.  They mostly praised the film as a genuine slice-of-life depiction of Japanese culture, and they often invoked comparisons to the earlier, and seriously intentioned,  work of Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu.  Other than the fact that all these films are concerned with Japanese family relations, I don’t see a strong connection.  Ozu’s films, in particular, have more compelling themes to them than After the Storm.

In fact this points to the real problem with After the Storm.  Although the technical production values are strong and the characters are likeable, there is no real narrative development in this film.  What we have is a potentially interesting social fabric that could be the basis for an interesting story, but no such story is forthcoming.  At the end of the film, we are pretty much right where we started. 

Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe also played mother and son in Koreeda’s earlier Still Walking (2008) – but here we are just given a collection of cinematic bits and pieces that dwell on their characters.  For a film to be a truly successful experience, one needs more than interesting characters; one needs their participation in an interesting story.  This is what Ozu, for one, offered to his viewers.