“Departures” - Yojiro Takita (2008)

Departures (original title: Okuribito, meaning “One Who Sends Off”; 2008) is a Japanese film directed by Yojiro Takita that has been immensely popular, both inside Japan and abroad [1,2,3].  It swept the Japanese film production awards, and it won the US Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2008.  Many viewers are brought to tears by the film, and Marc Savlov, of the Austin Chronicle, said the film was “particularly sublime” [1].  Roger Ebert saw the movie three times and listed it among his all-time great movies [3].  But I had a somewhat different take on the film.  The problem, you see, is that Departures is a film about death, and the issues I have are about the degree to which the film authentically engages with that profoundly troubling topic.

The story of the film concerns a young man who, though trained as an orchestral cellist, winds up stumbling into the profession of “casketing” – an assistant to a funeral director who ritually cleans and prepares dead bodies prior to their final placement in a casket.  This can also be referred to as “encoffinment”, and throughout the film we see a number of corpses being processed in this fashion.  As the viewer is informed early on in the film,
 “The rite of encoffinment is to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.”
Naturally, this process is for the remaining living, those relatives and loving friends who witness this encoffinment ceremony at the funeral and use it to say their final good-bye to the deceased.  

The story of Departures passes through three main stages.

1.  Finding a New Role
Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is a young cellist for a symphony orchestra.  When his struggling orchestra is shut down, Daigo is suddenly without a job.  He and his loving wife Mika (Ryôko Hirosue) decide to move back to Daigo’s old home town of Yamagata in he north of Japan and into Daigo’s boyhood home that his recently deceased mother has willed to him.  There they at least won’t have to pay rent while Daigo is looking for a job.  Daigo has to sell off the expensive concert cello he had recently purchased on credit, and now in his mid-thirties, he realizes he has to start all over.

Looking through the job ads in the newspaper, he comes across one for an “NK agent” to work on “departures” and with no prior experience required.  Assuming this is a job for a travel agency, Daigo rushes off to the job site, but when he gets there, he is shocked to learn that ‘NK’ is short for ‘nokan’ and means casketing.  Nevertheless, he is coaxed into staying for an interview, and after only a few words are exchanged with the boss, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Daigo is hired to start working for him immediately.

2.  Learning the Trade
As Sasaki’s apprentice, Daigo begins watching and learning what is involved in the ritual of encoffinment.  With the mourning relatives looking on intently, the casketer solemnly attends to the corpse, which is fully covered in sheets and shawls, before him.  The casketer reaches under these sheets and carefully and delicately cleanses the corpse’s entire body.  Then he carefully makes up the corpse’s face, shaving it with a razor if the deceased was a man.  Then the corpse is delicately lifted and placed inside an open coffin.  The decorative coffin can cost $1,000-3,000.

All this ceremonial cleansing is a ritual just for the onlooking mourning relatives, because immediately after the funeral, the coffin with its contents will be incinerated.  In Japan, 99.97% of the deceased are cremated [4]. 

After watching Sasaki do this several times, Daigo learns how to perform this ceremony, himself.  And it turns out that his experience as a skilled cellist is a natural fit for the meticulous nature of his new craft.  Although he has to overcome his instinctive revulsion at the sight and smell of decaying dead bodies, he gradually gets used to it.  However, he knows that despite the intrinsic place that casketing has in traditional Japanese death rituals, other people will generally feel the same natural revulsion for what he does that he, himself, felt when he started.  So he hides the nature of his work from his friends and associates.

At home, Daigo even conceals it from his wife, Mika, but he enjoys living in his old home again, and he even starts playing the old cello he used to play as a child.  In fact when he first opens the old cello case, he discovers the old “stone-message” he had received from his dad when he was only a little boy.  We later learn that exchanging stone-messages was an ancient practice that predated the advent of writing.  The stone that you gave to your recipient was one whose shape, size, and texture represented your inner feelings.  On that stone-message exchange with his father long ago, Daigo had also given his own personally chosen stone-message to his father.  However, his childhood memories bring to his mind how much he still hates his father, who deserted his family thirty years ago when Daigo was only six years old.  He tells Mika that he doesn’t care if his father is now alive or dead. 

Nevertheless, as it inevitably had to, the secret of Daigo’s profession eventually does come out, and his friends all snub him.  When Mika finds out about his handling of dead bodies, she he is horrified with revulsion; she leaves him and returns to her parental home.

3.  A Resolution of Sorts
Daigo continues his casketing work alone, and the viewer witnesses more examples of his work.  After several months, Mika returns to her husband and announces she is pregnant with his child.  When she witnesses his careful encoffinment of the just-deceased mother of one of his old friends, she sees how compassionate and dedicated he is to his practice, and she forgives him for pursuing this work.

Circumstances eventually work out that Daigo is informed of the imminent casketing of his father, who has just died.  Daigo and Mika go there, and Daigo reverently takes over the process of encoffinment of his own father.  When Daigo opens the clenched fist of his father, he discovers that stone that he had given to his father as a stone-message thirty years earlier.  Hopefully, this will help reduce the long-held resentment he had felt for his father.  At the close of the film, Daigo symbolically gives that stone as a message to his still unborn child.


Although many viewer are moved by that ending, it is not clear to me what the overall intent of this film is, and I think there were a number of missed opportunities.  As The New York Time’s A. O. Scott remarked [5]:
“It operates, from start to finish, in a zone of emotional safety, touching on strong feelings like grief and loss without really engaging them. . .”
It is true there are some virtues to the production.  Takeshi Hamada’s cinematography, featuring many high- and low-angle shots, has an atmospheric interpersonal quality to it.  And the cello-based music of Joe Hisaishi throughout moodily evokes the delicacy of Daigo’s work.  But I did have problems with some of the acting in the film.  In particular, the acting on the part of the two principal male actors – Masahiro Motoki as Daigo and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Mr. Sasaki – was disappointing.  Although some reviewers seem to have liked their performances, I found the work of these two actors to be flat and superficial.  After all, we’re dealing with death here, but Motoki just perpetually addresses everything with mouth-agape stares, and Yamazaki only offers blank-faced frowns.  We need more subtlety here.  On the other hand, the acting of the two main women, Ryôko Hirosue and Kimiko Yo, is much more emotive and realistic to the dramatic situations.  But beyond the acting, there are two other concerns I have about Departures the lie on the thematic level: the treatments of ritual and death.

With regard to ritual, it is my understanding that ritual has long been an important aspect of Japanese culture.  The Japanese tea ceremony, for example, is not just a nice practice for drinking tea.  Instead, the tea ceremony is a ritualistic instrument for helping to generate a Zen-like mindfulness on the beautiful aspects of everyday being [6].  One is supposed to perform the tea ceremony with total absorption in the existential purity of life [7].  In Departures we are presented with the ritual of stone-messaging, but that seems to be primarily only a game.  The main ritual here is encoffinment in front of the grieving  mourners, and one would think that the film would offer an occasion for exploring the depth and meaning of this ritual.  But the film skirts around this possibility, and it just shows a train of opaque, glum-faced mourners.  Are we just supposed to be left with the notion that the encoffinment ceremony merely offers an opportunity for each mourner to have his or her own personal moments of grief?  This, to me, would be a cop-out, but even this consideration is not made clear.  So examination of the nature of ritual was a serious opportunity lost in this film.

A second issue concerns the theme of death and the evolution of Daigo’s notions on its meaning.  Although this is something that is frequently touched on in the film, it is never really developed well.  The only moment of reflection on this topic is when the local cremator, i.e the person who sets all the coffins ablaze, remarks,
“maybe death is a gateway. . . you go through it and on to the next thing”.
But that and other possible ideas are never considered further.

As for Daigo, after being shown his initiation into the encoffining of corpses, we are sometimes shown sequences depicting  Daigo’s concerns about the deaths of animals.  On one occasion he is shown watching and presumably pondering salmon swimming upstream to spawn and die.  Another time he and Mika are disturbed to discover that an octopus they had purchased for cooking is still alive and wiggling.  And on still another occasion, the sight of a freshly killed chicken on his dinner table moves him to vomit uncontrollably.  Thus the thought that the meat he eats at his dinner table comes from the corpses of sentient beings not so different from the human corpses he is continually placing in coffins must clearly dawn on him. 

So one might expect that Daigo’s reverent practice on human carcasses might lead him to have a feeling that all dead animals once had conscious existences, i.e. we could imagine them to have some sort of souls, like humans.  And this realization would then hopefully engender in him a feeling for universal altruism and lead to a decision to forswear the consumption of meat [8].  But this is not what happens.  Instead he watches his boss Sasaki lustily tearing his teeth into animal flesh when they share a meal together, and Daigo gradually imitates his mentor.  Sasaki seems to think that death is just a normal aspect of the world, and we might as well not dwell on the idea.  So in the end, Daigo just seems to get used to death and killing.  It is as if he simply puts death out of his mind, even though he is constantly dealing with it in an intimate way.  This turning away from the key theme of the film represents another missed opportunity in Departures.

In the end, I get the feeling that rather than this film showing us a caring casketer who reflects and projects his altruistic love to all beings, living or deceased, it instead shows us a self-absorbed practitioner who deals with the dead bodies he has been assigned to treat in the same operational way that he had earlier treated his musical instrument.
½

Notes:
  1. Marc Savlov, “Departures”, Austin Chronicle (28 August 2009).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Departures”, RogerEbert.Com, (27 May  2009).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “Departures”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.Com, (11 December 2011).   
  4. “List of countries by cremation rate”, Wikipedia, (13 December 2019).   
  5. A. O. Scott, “Making a Living Handling Death”, The New York Times, (28 May 2009).   
  6. Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, Duffield & Company, (1906).
  7. “The Book of Tea”, Wikipedia, (6 December 2019).   
    •  “According to Tomonobu Imamichi, Heidegger's concept of Dasein in Sein und Zeit was inspired – although Heidegger remained silent on this – by Okakura Kakuzo's concept of das-in-der-Welt-sein (being-in-the-worldness) expressed in The Book of Tea to describe Zhuangzi's philosophy, which Imamichi's professor Ito Kichinosuke had offered to Heidegger in 1919, after having followed private lessons with him the year before.”
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015).  

Yojiro Takita

Films of Yojiro Takita:

“Drishyam” - Nishikant Kamat (2015)

Drishyam (2015) is a Hindi-language crime thriller directed by Nishikant Kamat that has been a huge hit with the Indian public [1,2,3].  The film is a close remake of the also-popular Malayalam-language film Drishyam (2013) that was written and directed by Jeethu Joseph and shot in Kerala.  The screenplay for the 2015 film was written by Upendra Sidhaye, but it is based closely on Jeethu Joseph’s original story, and indeed it is the relative complexity of that story that has fascinated most viewers.

Nishikant Kamat’s film features a high production gloss and a number of big-time Bollywood actors, including Ajay Devgn, Tabu, and Shriya Saran.  But a key to the overall production quality is the cinematography of Avinash Arun and editing by Aarif Sheikh, which interlace throughout the film a large number of brief flashbacks that are keys to the viewer’s unravelling of just what actually happened.

You might say that Drishyam is something of a whodunit, but this is a whodunit of no ordinary variety.  The viewer all the way along knows who committed the original crime of murder [4], so in that respect we all know “who done it.”  The police, however, don’t know who did it, and the key struggle in this story concerns the efforts on the part of the lead character to prevent the police from finding out the truth of what happened.  And unlike almost all other crime thrillers, the viewer’s empathy in this film is guided to support the original homicide crime’s perpetrators.

So the story of Drishyam then comprises two main, roughly equally-sized parts.  In the first part, the story is told of how and why the murder was committed. Considerable time is spent in this section showing the background and habits of a basically innocent and well-meaning lower-middle-class family of four and the circumstances that lead up to them getting involved in a homicide.  Essentially, it relates how a family’s teenage daughter accidentally kills a young man while he is trying to sexually molest her.  When her father learns about what happened, he commits himself to doing anything he can to preserve her innocence.

The second part of the film concerns the extended cat-and-mouse game between the girl’s father and the police.  And this is where things get especially interesting.  The struggle shown  between the two principal contestants involves a number of dramatic thematic contrasts that enrich the story and that will tantalize the viewer.  In fact these thematic contrasts, taken together, are often in conflict with each other, and the way they are used here runs counter to many of our conventional narrative expectations. 

The film begins by showing Vijay Salgaonkar (played by Ajay Devgn) sitting at his desk at the small business he owns, the Mirage Cable TV Network.  Vijay dropped out of school in the 4th grade, but he has somehow managed to work his way into owning this two-man company.  Now he spends most of his time, including his evenings, sitting at his desk and watching escapist videos, many of them pornos.  But a peripheral benefit of all this video watching is that this is how the uneducated Vijay learns practical things about the world.
 
At home, he is shown to have a lovely wife, Nandini (Shriya Saran) and two children – a teenage stepdaughter, Anju ( Ishita Dutta), and a small, pre-teen daughter, Anu (Mrinal Jadhav).  Around the family dinner table Nandini and Anju manage to convince the reluctant Vijay to fork up the money to send Anju to a school nature camp.  Nandini also asks Vijay to take the family, just after the nature camp is over, to the city of Panjali so that they can do some shopping and also so that they can attend the sermons on Oct 2nd and 3rd of visiting Swami Chinmayanand.  But the stingy Vijay is reluctant to agree to this.

We also see that the self-made, independent-minded Vijay is not afraid to speak his mind when the occasion arises.  When he sees a corrupt local cop, Gaitonde (Kamlesh Sawant), forcibly extorting bribes from local residents, he threatens to report him to his authorities.  This invokes violent threats from the bullying Gaitonde, who says he will make Vijay pay for his impertinence.  
 
However, later at the nature camp, a serious problem arises from a different quarter.  A malicious fellow student, Sameer 'Sam' Deshmukh (Rishab Chadha), secretly films with his mobile phone a nude sequence of Anju taking a shower.  Then after they have all returned home, he attempts to use the film to blackmail Anju.  He tells her he will delete his film only if she will submit to his sexual demands that very evening. 

When Sam comes for his rendezvous in the evening, he expects to find Anju alone, but he is surprised to see her mother, Nadini, there, too.  Both Nandini and Anju plead with Sam to delete his video, telling him that Anju, as well as her family, will be ruined if he posts the film on the Internet.  But Sam simply ups his demands – he now wants sexual favors from both women.  There is an ensuing panicky scuffle, and in the chaos, Anju picks up a fire poker and swings it wildly at Sam, accidentally hitting him on the head.  The blow on Sam’s head kills him instantly.

Now the two women are even more horrified: they have just killed someone.  Nandini decides that they have to cover up the evidence, so they bury Sam’s corpse in a compost pit behind their home.  When Vijay finally comes home, the distraught women tell him what has happened and their fears of what will now happen to them.  But Vijay resolutely assures them that he will devote every ounce of his energy to protecting them and making sure nothing bad comes to them.  

So now the battle lines are drawn.  We know who did it, but can this secret be kept from the authorities?  That is Vijay’s task.  The magnitude of that task becomes monumental when Vijay learns that the deceased Sam was the son of the Inspector General (the head of the police) of the state of Goa.  So all possible police resources will be devoted to finding out what has happened to the missing Sam Deshmukh.  And Vijay also knows that the recalcitrant and corrupt Gaitonde will be especially committed to pinning the blame on Vijay and getting him convicted of the capital crime.

This brings us to the end of the first part of the story, one hour into the film.  But what elevates this film above that of most thrillers is the second part of the story – the struggle between two highly contrasting contestants.

The first striking thing we learn is that one of the contestants, the Inspector General of Goa, is a beautiful woman – Meera Deshmukh (played by Tabu).  So we are going to witness a struggle between an ignorant, schlumpy man and a beautiful, elegant woman.  And our sympathies will be surprisingly steered to side here with the man, who is trying to cover up a serious crime.  In fact the struggle between Vijay and Meera in Drishyam embodies several overlapping thematic oppositions that prevail in society:
  • Man vs. Woman
    As we have already noted, this is the most obvious opposition.  And Meera is glamorous, while Vijay is dowdy.
     
  • Class 
    Meera’s family is upper-class and privy to all the benefits her class status entail.  Vijay is lower middle-class and subject to the restrictions and prejudices that come with that class.
     
  • The Educated vs. the Self-taught
    Meera, given her exalted professional status, is presumably well-educated.  Vijay is a fourth-grade dropout, but his obsessive video-watching enables him to vicariously learn a lot about how things work on a practical level in society.
      
  • The System vs. the Lone Individual 
    Vijay has at his disposal only his own wits and his meager resources.  Meera, on the other hand, has all the resources of the legal and punitive systems supporting her.  And, in fact, she is willing to use these resources unscrupulously.
     
  • Criminal Justice vs. Personal Values 
    There is also another thematic opposition, but the poles here are not exclusively embodied by Vijay and Meera – and that thematic opposition is criminal justice versus personal values.  Both Meera and Vijay, each of whom is a dedicated parent, are willing to violate the stipulated legal norms of society in order to pursue what they think is right.  In Meera’s case, we see that she is willing to have suspects tortured in order to extract confessions.  Vijay would not resort to torture, but he is, nevertheless, still willing to conceal evidence that would lead to a criminal conviction.
Certainly in this extended contest Vijay has his work cut out for him.  Among other things he has to somehow dispose of Sam’s car, which Sam drove to his fateful clandestine meeting with Anju.  And he also has to try and find a way to convince the authorities that on the day of Sam’s death, Oct 2nd, he and his family were all away in the city of Panjali, attending the spiritual teachings of Swami Chinmayanand. 

Moreover, Vijay’s efforts of evidential obfuscation will be considerably hindered by the surveillance recordings that Meera can dig up and consult.  These surveillance records include purchase receipts, phone records, security camera films, and witness reports.

Because this extended struggle between Meera and Vijay is involved and is what makes this film interesting, I will leave it to you to discover what transpires.  I will say, though, that the ending comes out a little different from what you might expect.

Overall Drishyam is a well-made production that is worth watching.  The coda that comes at the very end doesn’t seem to resolve anything, but that doesn’t deter me from recommending the film to you.
½

Notes:
  1. Meena Iyer. "Drishyam Movie Review”, Times of India, (18 December 2015).   
  2. Anirban Lahiri, “Drishyam (2015): Indian filmmaker Nishikant Kamat's film that lifts from multiple sources without citation”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (August 2015).  
  3. “Drishyam Movie Review”, Bollywood Hungama News Network, {29 July 2015).   
  4. Legally, we might refer to this as manslaughter.

Nishikant Kamat

Films of Nishikant Kamat:

“The Irishman” - Martin Scorsese (2019)

Martin Scorsese’s latest epic about gangland violence in America, The Irishman (2019), is one of his most ambitious works and has attracted widespread praise [1,2,3,].  With a massive production budget of $159 million and a running time of about 3½ hours, the film is seen by some as the capstone to Scorsese’s career, and a fitting final work that reflects on his famous earlier mobster masterpieces – Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995).  Indeed, viewers familiar with Scorsese will see more than just a thematic connection spanning those works, because The Irishman features two iconic Scorsese actors from those earlier films: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

The story of this film concerns the real-life experiences of a gangster hitman, Frank Sheeran (he is "The Irishman”), and it is based on the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004) by Charles Brandt, which is based on Sheeran’s account of his life.  Steven Zaillian adapted Brandt’s’ book for the screen, and the film features superb production values, notably the  cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and the film editing by Thelma Schoonmaker.  I also liked the moody background music, which featured many hit songs from the eras depicted.

However, a production technique used in the film that has particularly fascinated critics is Scorsese’s use of digital technology to touch-up the faces of some of his actors.  All three of Scorsese’s lead actors – the already-mentioned Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as well as Al Pacino – were over 75 years of age at the time of the making of this film, but the characters they had to portray in some flashback sequences (the bulk of the film) were much younger.  In fact in the case of Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), some scenes even show him in his 20s and 30s.  So Scorsese employed digital technology to “de-age” some of his actors.  In my opinion, this doesn’t work very well, but you can decide for yourself, and in any case this is not a major drawback of the film.

The story of The Irishman is told by switching back and forth across three narrative threads. 
  1. The film begins in the outer thread showing Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) about eighty years of age in a nursing home (Sheeran died in 2003 at the age of 83).  Sheeran directly addresses the viewer and commences giving his account of his life.
     
  2. The second narrative thread covers a long car trip that Sheeran took in 1975 from Philadelphia to Detroit with his Mafia “boss” and friend, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), along with their two wives.  The ostensible reason for their trip is so that they can attend the wedding ceremony of  the daughter of Russell’s cousin, union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano).  However, Frank and the viewer will learn that there is also another reason for making this drive and that a major event takes place at the end of the trip.
     
  3. The third narrative thread, and the one that constitutes the bulk of the film material, covers the events surrounding Frank’s life from sometime in the 1950s up to that fateful 1975 road trip, at which point threads 2 and 3 are merged. 
All of this material comes from the real Frank Sheeran’s first-hand testimony and will naturally be assumed by the viewer to be true.  However, since the publication of Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, there have been a number of revelations indicating that Sheeran fabricated key elements of this story [4].  So it is best for us to take this material as an interesting story, but one that does not necessarily constitute documentary truth.

The film begins in the first narrative thread with the elderly Frank Sheeran in a rest home and launching into the telling of his story.  He starts off by recalling his 1975 road trip to Detroit to attend the wedding of Bill Bufalino’s daughter, and the presentation of the beginning of this trip moves us into the second narrative thread.  Then, presumably in order to provide background on how Frank met Russell Bufalino, we move quickly into the third narrative thread.

Frank was a truck driver in Philadelphia in the 1950s, and he began illegally selling his loads to a local crime family.  He was eventually charged with criminal activity, but union lawyer Bill Bufalino manages to get him off.  Bill Bufalino then introduces Frank to local crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, now aged 80 and also e-aged) and to his cousin Russell Bufalino, who is the Mafia head of Northeastern Pennsylvania region.  Soon Frank starts working for Russell.  In a discussion with Russell, Frank affirms his commitment to always following orders by recalling how he ruthlessly shot surrendered prisoners in World War II when  he was ordered to do so.  Gradually, Russell and Frank become friends.

There follows a series of episodes detailing how Frank served as a hitman for the Mob.  Although these tales don’t seem to advance the storyline much, they provide some of the essential atmosphere and color for the film.  All along the way, we see that Frank is a ruthless killer who will murder anyone, even acquaintances, who he has been told the Mob wants erased.  There are a lot of different characters introduced here, and the viewer almost needs a background document to keep track of them all [5].

Eventually, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the important Teamsters Union and a person with close ties to the Mafia and Russell.  Hoffa takes a liking to Frank, and he ultimately hires Frank as his personal bodyguard.  This now sets up a potential conflict that will eventually prove crucial in this film.  Loyalty is a fundamental trait and posture in Frank’s world, and he now must be loyal to two different masters: Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa.  What will happen if those two masters come into conflict?

The film now traces some historical events likely to be familiar to many viewers.  After the election of John F. Kennedy as U. S. President, his younger brother Robert Kennedy, serving as U. S. Attorney General, carried out a campaign to root out corruption in labor unions and specifically targeted Jimmy Hoffa.  Hoffa is finally convicted of criminal activity and sent to prison in 1964.  

During the time Hoffa is in prison, other personages take over running the Teamsters Union, and the Mob families come to terms with the new union leaders.  However, in 1971 President Richard Nixon pardons Hoffa, and when he is released, Hoffa sets out to reclaim ownership of his union.  This makes the crime bosses unhappy, and Russell Bufalino urges Frank, who he knows is close to Hoffa, to get Hoffa to back off from reclaiming his union.  This Frank tries to do, but the headstrong Hoffa scoffs at such a suggestion and says he knows so much about his enemies’ nefarious activities that they will be afraid to touch him.

This brings the story to join up with the second narrative thread – the trip to Detroit, where, it is revealed, Hoffa happens to be.  On the way, Russell gives Frank instructions from the Mafia to kill Hoffa.  Why Sheeran was chosen for this job has been questioned by some, but perhaps the Mafia felt that Hoffa’s friendship with Sheeran would allow his assailant more freedom to carry out his attack surreptitiously. 

In any case, we are now confronted with the fundamental narrative conflict/issue in the film.  Frank Sheeran, for whom loyalty is his ultimate badge of honor, must choose between loyalty to Russell Bufalino and loyalty to Jimmy Hoffa.  They are each not only his direct superiors but also his two closest friends.  Oddly, Scorsese doesn’t spend much time showing Frank wrestling with this conflict.  Frank just goes ahead and follows Russell’s orders.  The sequence showing Sheeran’s murder of Jimmy Hoffa is abrupt and brutal.  And it shows to the viewer once more just how cold-hearted Frank Sheeran really is.
Hoffa’s corpse is quickly cremated, and the police never do determine who committed the murder.  However, Sheeran, Russell Bufalino, and various other gangsters shown in the film are later convicted of unrelated crimes and sent to prison to serve long sentences.  In the end Sheeran is released from prison and winds up in a nursing home.  The final sequences show Frank alone and seeking release from the final “legal case” against him – absolution from a Catholic priest for all the sins he has committed.  But even here, Frank admits that he feels no real remorse for what he has done.

This ending points to a fundamental problem with this story.  Our main character, Frank Shearen, on whom almost all of the focalization is devoted, is a cold and opaque black box.  He seems to lack any kind of compassion, and we never get much of a handle on what he may be feeling.  The other two principal characters, Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, are selfish, it is true; but they are sensitive, they have passions, and they reach out to other people.  Of those two characters, we are more likely to prefer the Hoffa character, who is more straightforward and authentic than the more manipulative Russell Bufalino.  Both Joe Pesci and Al Pacino give outstandingly fervent performances in these respective roles of Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, and they are the one we want to see more of, not Shearen.  Instead, we are left for much of the film to dwell on De Niro’s uncharacteristically wooden personality as Shearen.

Another weakness is the absence of women in this tale.  Even though mafia types are mostly male chauvinists, they still usually have passions for women.  Here the women companions are  barely seen.  The one woman we do see, Frank’s daughter Peggy Sheeran (played by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin at different stages in the girl’s life) is given almost no words to speak in the film, but we do at least see from her usually frowning glances that she is persistently put off by her father’s thuggish behavior.

Some people have seen The Irishman as a comedy [3].  Others have seen it as a further pursuance of the American fascination with Mafiosi family life [6].  But I would say the presence of either of these themes is very limited.  Instead, in my opinion, the predominant themes in the film are loneliness and emptiness.  If this is Scorsese’s swan song, it’s an incredibly bleak and sad one.  The whole tenor of this film is one of hopelessness and of the ultimate futility of life.

Notes:
  1. Richard Brody, "Watching "The Irishman" on Netflix Is the Best Way to See It", The New Yorker, (2 December 2019).   
  2. A.O. Scott, “The Irishman’ Review: The Mob’s Greatest Hits, in a Somber Key”, The New York Times, (27 September 2019; updated 30 October 2019).   
  3. Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Irishman”, RogerEbert.com(1 November 2019).   
  4. Jack Goldsmith, "Jimmy Hoffa and The Irishman: A True Story?", The New York Review of Books, (26 September 2019).    
  5. Nick Allen, “Who’s Who in The Irishman: A Character Guide”, Vulture, (27 November 2019).   
  6. Richard Whittaker, “The Irishman”, The Austin Chronicle, (8 November 2019).   

Shoja Azari

Films of Shoja Azari:

Zheng Hua

Films of Zheng Hua:

Chris Smith

Films of Chris Smith:

Vahid Mousaian

Films of Vahid Mousaian:

Brett Gaylor

Films of Brett Gaylor:

Nati Baratz

Films of Nati Baratz:

Loveleen Tandan

Films of Loveleen Tandan:

Sarah Kernochan

Films of Sarah Kernochan:
  • Thoth - Sarah Kernochan (2002)

Daniel Ross

Films of Daniel Ross:
  • The Ister - David Barison and Daniel Ross (2004)

David Barison

Films of David Barison:
  • The Ister - David Barison and Daniel Ross (2004)

Havana Marking

Films of Havana Marking:

“The Game Changers” - Louie Psihoyos (2018)

The Game Changers (2018) is a documentary film dedicated to the idea that not only is a vegetarian diet generally good for overall health, but it is also, in particular, a key contributor to increased strength, endurance, and general athletic success [1].  This is intended to counter the conventional belief that in order to be a real he-man, you have to be a heavy-duty meat-eater.  The film is directed by past Oscar-winner Louie Psihoyos (The Cove, 2009 [2]), is written by Joseph Pace, and features a long list of celebrity cast members (more than forty) and  production contributors (more than sixty) that includes:
  • film producer/director James Cameron
  • actor and body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • actor Jackie Chan 
  • actress Pamela Anderson
  • racing car champion Lewis Hamilton
  • tennis champion Novak Djokovic
  • NBA basketball star Chris Paul
  • Martial arts and UFC star James Wilks
  • Patrik Baboumian, the “World’s Strongest Man”
I am not sure about the extent to which all these various producers contributed to the final product, but the film certainly has excellent production values and is very well paced.  So some credit for this must also be given to the film editors, Stephanie Mechura and Dan Swietlik.

Note that with regard to vegetarianism, I have earlier discussed some other films that promote the advantages of being vegetarian (Eating, 3rd Edition (2009) [3], Forks Over Knives (2011) [4], and Loving the Silent Tears (2012) [5]).  And in this connection, I have noted [4,5] that there are really four main spheres of increasingly more personal interactive compass that underlie why you should become a vegetarian:
  • World. It takes more than ten times both the land acreage and energy from fossil fuels to produce a calorie from animal food than from plant-based food.  We are currently facing a worldwide food crisis due to the use of land and water resources devoted to animal farming. The world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people. If humans consumed a plant-based diet, there would be no such crisis. In addition, animal farming contributes significantly to global-warming gas production . . . .
     
  • Community. Every year roughly 70 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Yet animals are sentient beings like us that feel pain. They are existentially our brothers and sisters and do not deserve to be killed for our pleasure.
     
  • Body. . . . a diet with more than a tiny amount of animal-based food (meat and dairy) is harmful to human health.  Following a vegetarian will make you stronger and healthier.
     
  • Soul.  Most small children are instinctively alarmed when they first learn that they are eating flesh from dead animals, but adults persuade them to accept it. That initial alarm that you felt back then was the voice of your inner soul – the essential core being who you really are. When you resolve to give up eating animal-based food, you are responding to that inner voice and following the path of your true, compassionate nature. You are becoming the complete person that you have always wanted to be.
Different films may focus more specifically on one or two of those spheres (for example Loving the Silent Tears focuses on the Soul sphere).  Here in The Game Changers, the virtues of pursuing vegetarianism with respect to all spheres are discussed, but the real focus is definitely on the Body sphere.  The idea is to encourage the people who are most concerned about strength, stamina, and performance that following a vegetarian diet will give them the best results. 

In order to cover all the information and topics on this subject effectively, Psihoyos and Pace have to setup a narrative scheme to guide the presentation.  So the viewer is first introduced to James Wilks, a combatives and mixed martial arts (MMA) expert who describes his experiences in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC).  This is one of the most macho of activities, and all the participants are shown to be ruthless competitors.  However during a practise session, Wilks suffers an injury that debilitates him for several months.  So during this downtime, he decides to investigate more thoroughly into the truth of the rumours he has heard that being a vegetarian is good for you, and this survey makes up the rest of the film.

To his surprise, Wilks first learns from recent archaeological studies that the ancient Roman gladiators, those symbols of classic manhood, were almost all vegetarians.  Later on we also learn that the real paleo diet – the diet on which our palaeolithic-period human ancestors lived – was a plant-based diet, too.

Wilks then goes on to talk to a number of high-level athletic practitioners, for whom maximal physical fitness is essential and who have decided for that very reason to commit themselves to vegetarian diets.  These athletes include
  • Nate Diaz, a famous MMA and UFC fighter;
     
  • Morgan Mitchell, a champion woman sprinter from Australia;
     
  • Dotsie Bausch, a famous women’s cycling champion;
     
  • Lucius Smith, a former National Football League cornerback, holder of four black belts, and now at the age of 60 still in perfect physical condition;
     
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famous actor, body-builder and former governor of the state of California;
     
  • Many members of the Tennessee Titans National Football League team who have collectively converted to a vegetarian diet;
     
  • Scott Jurek, a renowned ultramarathoner, who recently set a speed record for completing the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail in the U.S. in less than 47 days; and
     
  • Patrik Baboumian, an Iranian-born Armenian, who has won many strongman competitions and is now known as the “World’s Strongest Man”.
Each of these athletes has had to rely on maximal physical conditioning in order to achieve their respective athletic successes, and each of them has an interesting story to tell about themselves and about how being a vegan or vegetarian has been a crucial ingredient in their lives, both in and out of the competition arena.

But Wilks covers some other interesting people, too.  One is Damien Mander, a former member of the Australian Royal Navy, who has since taken up the cause of endangered wild species whose continued existence is threatened by poachers.  In this connection Mander founded and heads the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (cf. https://www.iapf.org/).  In the course of his efforts out in the field to save the lives of rhinos and elephants, Mander came to reflect on the fact that all animals are sentient beings who do not deserve to be killed, and so he became a vegan.  So here the film’s arguments in support of vegetarianism are extended beyond the Body sphere listed above to those of the Community and Soul spheres, too.

Other topics covered include testimony from well-known heart doctors like Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn advocating vegetarianism and even evidence from other healthcare studies that a vegetarian diet can enhance masculine sexual prowess. 

In spite of all the evidence supporting the advantages of a vegetarian diet, though, the meat and dairy industry, through its lobbies like Exponent, Inc., has persistently funded misleading advertisements and questionable reports that claim animal products are essential for good health.  The film likens these activities to the earlier misleading claims on the part of the tobacco industry denying the damaging health effects of cigarette smoking.

The final part of the film briefly takes the viewer up to the World sphere regarding the reasons for vegetarianism, and it makes the following points concerning global issues: 
  • 3/4 of all the agricultural land in the world is used for meat-producing livestock;
     
  • Meat, dairy, eggs, and fish farming use up 83% of the world’s farmland, but provide only 18% of the world’s calories;
     
  • 70 billion animals are consumed globally each year;
     
  • The livestock sector is responsible for 15% of all the global manmade carbon emissions, which is about the same as that from all human-made transport in the world
In the end, Wilks convinces his own initially-sceptical father to join him in becoming a vegetarian.

Overall, The Game Changers makes an excellent case for the benefits of plant-based diets, particularly in connection with a vegetarian diet’s contribution to athletic success and overall physical prowess.  If you want to be physically fit, forget about meat and follow a vegetarian diet.
½

Notes:
  1. The Game Changers (Official website), (2019).  https://gamechangersmovie.com/ 
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘The Cove’ - Louie Psihoyos (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (26 July 2009).    
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Eating, 3rd Edition’ - Mike Anderson (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (19 September 2010).   
  4. The Film Sufi, “‘Forks Over Knives” - Lee Fulkerson (2011)”, The Film Sufi, (16 November 2012).   
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Loving the Silent Tears’ - Vincent Paterson (2012)”, The Film Sufi, (13 May 2016).   

Louie Psihoyos

Films of Louie Psihoyos:

“Rang De Basanti” - Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (2006)

Rang De Basanti (literally “Color it Spring”, i.e color it with the hues of spring (saffron) – 2006) is an Indian comedy/drama that has achieved great popularity, due in part to its invocation of Indian patriotism via mainstream Bollywood cinematics [1].  Based on a story by Kamlesh Pandey, the film was directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and co-scripted by Mehra, Pandey, and Rensil D'Silva.  It featured a top cast of performers, headed by popular actor Aamir Khan.  Indeed there are some interesting features of this film that contribute to its popularity; but there are also some problematic issues, which I will discuss below. 

The story of the film is about a young English woman’s (Sue McKinley’s) efforts to shoot her own historical docudrama about heroic acts of patriotism on the part of some young Indian activists seeking Indian independence from Britain in the 1920s.  The woman was inspired to make this film after reading the diary of her grandfather, who was a British prison official in India and oversaw the executions of some of these freedom fighters.  However, since the woman is unable to secure commercial funding for her filmmaking efforts, she goes to India on her own to see if she can recruit some nonprofessional actors to act in her movie.  Ultimately she hires a ragtag collection of wiseacre college students to play in her film, and this is where the comedy elements enter into the picture.  But after awhile, an event takes place that causes these cynical goofballs to reassess their own responsibilities towards the furtherance of social justice.

With respect to this narrative, there are two interesting elements that stand out.  One is thematic and concerns the question of what issues may be worth dying for.  In particular, are there social issues in this regard that go beyond the immediate concerns of self-preservation and self-gratification (including just the concerns for family and close associates) and that encompass a much wider social scope?  And in this respect, how far should one go?  These are the kinds of questions that young college graduates might ask themselves in connection with what, if anything, they should dedicate the rests of their lives to.

The second narrative element of interest concerns the multilayered structure of narrative reality that exists in this film for the viewer.  (I have earlier discussed such multilayers of narrative structure in connection with my review of Wim Wenders’s The Salt of the Earth [2]).  Here in this film there are four levels of reality that the viewer may be semiconscious of:
  1. The external, “real world” of the viewer.  At this level, the viewer is aware that he or she is watching a film directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.  The viewer, of course, may construct his or her own fabula as to how this film was made.   
     
  2. The “reality” of Sue McKinley’s filmmaking activities.  This is the immediate narrative level of the film.
     
  3. The world depicted in Sue McKinley’s docudrama.  This is the syuzhet of Sue McKinley’s story, which is always presented in sepia-toned images in this film. 
     
  4. The “objective” reality of what actually happened back in 1921-31 in India in connection with those doomed, heroic freedom fighters.  This is sometimes supported by old newsreel footage and photos.
Mehra sometimes blurs the boundaries of these levels by intermixing images from them, and this calls the viewer’s attention to these various narrative levels and makes for interesting viewing.  For example in the first scenes presumably showing what actually happened back in 1931  (narrative level 4), we are presented with shots that we will later infer are apparently drawn from Sue McKinley’s later-to-be-made docudrama (narrative level 3).

The story of Rang De Basanti (narrative level 3) plays out over approximately five segments. 
  
1.  Starting a Film Project
The movie opens with sepia-toned images in 1931 in British India, showing prison official James McKinley (played by Steven Mackintosh), describing his supervision of the executions of Indian activist Bhagat Singh and a couple of Singh’s revolutionary partners.  McKinley remarks, and records in his diary, that he had always thought there were just two kinds of people in the world – those who faced their own deaths silently and those who faced death with a scream.  But now with Singh he had encountered a rare third type – someone who joyfully embraced death with a smile.  This he found extraordinary.

Then the scene shifts to the present, with McKinley’s young granddaughter, filmmaker Sue McKinley (Alice Patten, who, as you might expect, is a blonde), reading from her grandfather’s diary and drawing inspiration from Singh’s evident steadfast adherence to his revolutionary principles.  She resolves to make a docudrama about these historic activities, but she is unable to persuade her TV studio superiors to fund her project.  So she travels to India on her own in the hopes of making a low-budget film on the subject.

On arrival, Sue is met by her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), who is studying at university, and together they try to recruit amateur actors for the film project.  The young buffoons who tryout for her film are shown to be hopelessly inadequate, though, and this is where comedic elements first appear in the story.

2.  Recruiting Sonia’s Friends
Later Sue meets and socializes with Sonia’s university friends.  Although these boys are all cynical, self-indulgent pleasure-seekers, Sue feels they have “character” and decides to hire them to play in her film.  They are 
  • Karan Singhania (Siddharth Narayan) to play the role of Bhagat Singh
  • Daljit 'DJ' Singh (Aamir Khan) to play Chandrashekhar Azad
  • Atul Kulkarni (Laxman Pandey) to play Ramprasad Bismil
  • Aslam Khan (Kunal Kapoor) to play Ashfaqullah Khan
  • Sukhi Ram (Sharman Joshi) to play Shivaram Rajguru
  • and also Sonia will play Durgawati Devi
They are an eclectic lot.  Karan is the son of a high government official.  Aslam comes from a poor Muslim family.  And Atul is an active and fanatical member of a violently far-right Hindu nationalist party (incidentally, Atul’s political leader and boss reminds me of somebody).

This part of the film, which is also bent on being heavily jocular, is spent dwelling on these friends and is apparently intended to signify Mehra’s conception of carefree joy.  But it mostly just shows these people incessantly goofing off, exchanging high-fives, and engaging in narcissistic jigs of self-celebration.  Some viewers have apparently been charmed by these antics, but I found this over-the-top, nonstop ceremonial admiration of self (mostly on the part of Aamir Khan) to be tiresome and overwrought.

3.  Rehearsals 
Although the boys are all cynical, their self-absorption makes them each want to amount to something, and they begin taking their acting assignments seriously.  This section of the film shows some of the sepia-toned sequences that are produced, including a scene covering the famous Kakori train robbery undertaken by the revolutionary activists in 1925.  Reference is also made to the notorious Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, which made Bhagat Singh commit himself to revolution.

4.  Ajay Rathod  
Now more attention is paid to Sonia’s boyfriend, Ajay Rathod (R. Madhavan), who is a MIG-21 pilot for the Indian air force.  He proposes marriage to Sonia, and all the friends celebrate.  Also, Sue and DJ seem to be falling in love.

We are also shown further sepia-toned images of Sue’s docudrama production, including one sequence showing James McKinley’s supervising torture of his captured activists, all of whom fail to crack and give away their fellow conspirators.  Another sepia sequence shows the Indian activists planning and then carrying through with an assassination of British police officer J. P. Saunders.  Gradually, our carefree college boys are being asked to portray more and more desperate acts of revolution.

In the midst of all this production, they get the heartbreaking news that Ajay’s plane crashed and that Ajay had heroically refused to bail out when his plane was malfunctioning.  Instead, he had sacrificed his life in order to steer the falling plane to a safe location where there would be no civilian casualties.  Although we soon learn that the plane crash was actually due to faulty plane parts purchased by corrupt government officials, the Indian defence minister goes on TV and wrongfully blames the crash on what he claims was Ajay’s recklessness.

Later the people hold a peaceful candlelit march in honour of Ajay, which is brutally broken up by baton-wielding police.  In the course of their mayhem, the police beating puts Ajay’s mother in a coma.

5.  The Boys Are Angry 
So now the boys, who in their film work have been portraying dedicated activists fighting social injustice, are facing injustice in their own lives.  They are all fired up. 

Supposedly emulating the historical figures they have just been role-playing in their film work, the boys quickly decide to assassinate the Indian defence minister to avenge Ajay Rathod’s death.  This they carry out in a brutal shooting.  Then Karan, having learned of his father’s involvement in the corrupt purchase of faulty MIG-21 airplane parts, goes home and murders his dad. 

However, the media depict the defence minister as a heroic victim of terrorists, and the injustice he has committed is not publicly recognized.  So the frustrated boys go and violently takeover an All India Radio talk show so that they can report over the air the “truth” concerning the wrongs they have supposedly righted.  When they do so, Karan also confesses also that he has just killed his father.  But time is short; the police quickly storm the radio station building and kill all of our actor-boys.  Nevertheless, the boys did get their message out, and the final shots show people expressing their anger about the social injustice that the boys had complained about.


Rang De Basanti has achieved considerable popularity with the public, but from my perspective there are a number of problems with this film.  And these problems span several dimensions of the film’s storytelling.  Considering five of these issues, in order of increasing importance, we can start with some technical elements.

First, we might mention Binod Pradhan’s flashy cinematography, which I found to be mildly disturbing.   The film is littered throughout with swish-pans and rapid-fire montages that only distract the viewer.  These visual pyrotechnics lack motivation and just interfere with what is going on.

A second issue of concern is the already-mentioned overacting on the parts of the recruited college boys.  I accept that Bollywood movies can often feature strenuous histrionics, but here the exaggerated swaggering of these incessantly high-fiving, self-admiring clowns is just too much and counterproductive.  It reduces the viewer’s likelihood of empathising with these key characters.

Moving up to the narrative level, there are two further problems.  One concerns the disconnect between what appears to be Sue McKinley’s simplistic filmmaking means and the presumably sophisticated film production support that she would have needed to make her docudrama scenes that we see in sepia tone.  For example, what other people and equipment were available to help her shoot that complicated Kakori train-robbery sequence?

And another problem is associated with the all-too-sudden characterological shift on the part of the recruited college boys from good-for-nothing wiseguys to dedicated, selfless patriots.  The film needs to spend more time motivating this shift and showing how the boys were psychologically transformed.  As it is, it’s all just too quick.

But the biggest problem with the film, and the one that ultimately condemns it, is the film’s identification of justice with revenge.  I have commented earlier in connection with my review of Tangsir (1974) [3] on the wrongfulness of celebrating the visceral feelings of vengeance and advocating vengeance as a means to achieving social justice.  In fact, all that revenge does is answer one wrongful deed with another and thereby accentuate feelings of resentment.  When we see grave injustice being perpetrated around the world [4,5], the way to respond is not to go to war and somehow punish the evil-doers.  This will only perpetuate the continuation of injustice.  The best path to follow is to make a concerted effort to achieve harmony by following an altruistic path.  As Matthieu Ricard has observed [6]:
“If a patient suffering from mental disturbances strikes the doctor examining him, the latter won’t hit back but, on the contrary, seek the best ways to cure him from his madness.”
. . .
“True altruism consists of wishing that the harm-doer become aware of his deviance and thus stop harming his fellow beings.  This reaction, which is the opposite of the wish to avenge and punish by inflicting more suffering, is not a sign of weakness, but of wisdom.”
India ultimately achieved its freedom from Great Britain and its remarkable social harmony, not by means of terrorist acts of revenge, but by following the path of Mahatma Gandhi.

So despite Rang De Basanti’s other virtues, including its sometimes interesting mingling of multiple narrative levels, I cannot endorse this film.


Notes:
  1. G. Allen Johnson, 'Rang De Basanti', SFGATE, (5 May 2006).  
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘The Salt of the Earth’ - Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado (2014)”The Film Sufi, (12 October 2015).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Tangsir’ - Amir Naderi (1974)”, The Film Sufi, (1 April 2016).   
  4. Arundhati Roy, “India: Intimations of an Ending”, The Nation, (22 November 2019).
  5. Adrian Zenz and Bernhard Zand, “China's Oppression of the Uighurs: ‘The Equivalent of Cultural Genocide’”, Der Spiegel, (28 November 2019).   
  6. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 34-35.