Archive for the ‘Global Cinema’ tag
The kiss is a risqué subject in the cinematic cultures of India. While nudity, sex and sexual violence might pass as acceptable, it is the kiss, or the ‘smooch’ in Indian English, that is most likely to trigger government agencies to censor films. Particularly Bollywood filmmakers are fully aware of the scandalous implications of kissing scenes and openly compete for pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in visual culture. They produce films that have the longest kissing scene, the most kissing scenes, the first French kissing scene, the first open mouthed kissing scene, the first girl-on-girl kissing scene, and, most recently, the first male gay kissing scene.
All the while, producers appear to utilize the ‘scandal’ associated with the kissing scene in order to promote a film well in advance of its release. In other words, the disclosure of the kiss is a key element in the promotional structures of Indian cinema. Here, censorship is not as much prohibiting certain scenes to be screened, but rather, the existence of an ambiguous and idiosyncratic censorship law is the platform that aides the promotion of a movie.
While Bollywood has discovered that kissing scenes are a key constituent in the economic success of a Hindi language movie, other Indian film cultures based in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi or Marathi appear to have a more innocent relationship with the kiss. Above scene from the Tamil language film Naadodigal is an example in which censorship guidelines appear to have been carefully obeyed. Despite not actually depicting the kiss in itself, this short scene from Naadodigal represents precisely the complex power relations that are at stake in the cinematic portrayal of the kiss. The innocent and slightly clueless man is lured by the female subject to give her a peck on the cheek. Here, it is clearly the woman who provokes the man into action which reflects an important gender relation in India: in court cases against films transgressing the kissing censorship guidelines, it is most likely the lead female actress that is being sued. In 2006, the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai was sued for ‘lowering the dignity or women’ by kissing Rai Hrithik in the film Dhoom 2.
The guilty party is, in most cases, not the male actor kissing, or the filmmaker depicting the kiss, but the actress herself for partaking in an activity deemed obscene. At the very end of the scene in Naadodigal, the man is prevented from kissing the woman by his ‘uncle’ who, in relation to Indian culture, represents the patriarchal and goodnatured state that seeks to protect its citizens from trouble. While the ‘nephew’ represents the everyday citizen, the ‘uncle’ represents the state, and by extension, state institutions such as the Ministry of Information and Broadcastings in charge of censorship.
It would be incorrect however to assume some sort of special case in Indian visual culture for the complicated relationship between cinema and representations of the kiss. Giuseppe Tornatore’s classic film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso for instance depicts the widespread censorship of kissing scenes in Italy during the 1940s. The film tells the story of the projectionist Alfredo who is required to cut kissing scenes from American and Italian movies following the insistence of the local Catholic priest in a small town in Sicily. Having collected these censored kissing scenes for a number of decades, the film ends with a touching scene in which Toto, Alfredo’s quasi-adopted son, watches Alfredo’s vast collection of kissing scenes. The kissing scene collection acts as a powerful allegory for Alfredo’s, Toto’s and the viewer’s shared loved for the moving image. In that sense, apart from sexual innuendo, the kiss is moreover a metaphor for the viewer’s passionate relationship with the cinematic apparatus. The various records broken by Indian filmmakers of the new millennium (longest kiss, most kisses etc.) thus represent stages in the maturing relationship between Indian cinema and its increasingly desensitized spectatorship. Despite representing the world’s largest film economy, the kissing scene still constitutes the metaphorical coming-of-age of Indian cinema.
For more on this topic, please read Theorizing World Cinema edited by Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam and Rajinder Dudrah.
How to represent trauma? This appears to be the overriding question in the movie Nobody Knows, or Daremo Shiranai, by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Nobody Knows depicts the lives of four children who were left abandoned by their mother. The oldest child is the 12-year old boy Akira who is given the task of looking after his younger siblings. Used to the frequent absence of their mother, the beginning of the movie shows the children coping well with daily tasks of running the household.
However, as the absence of the mother turns into weeks and months, the movie also depicts that the life of the abandoned children is in a state of transition. The movie effectively represents the passing of time by focusing on small and detailed observations. In one scene, the eldest daughter holds up her hand to look at the nail polish her mom applied before she left. The same hand can be seen later when all but a tiny segment of the nail polish is visible. In other words, the vanishing of nail polish signifies the mother’s abondement of her children, but also, it signifies the child giving up hope that she will return. The nail polish reappears later in the film, when the mother returns one last time to pack her belongings. Instead of applying the bright red polish to her nails, the daughter paints her hand to make it look as if she is injured. Here, the polish signifies blood and the pain of alienation.
Filmed over the course of one year, the 2 hour 20 minute movie depicts the children not only growing older with regard to narrative of the movie, but also, growing older in a bodily sense. Thus, Nobody Knows not only focuses on the psychological, but also the physical transformation of the child. This transformation is most apparent in Akira, played by Yuya Yagira, who, in the process of the movie, turns from a boy into a young man. For depicting this transformation so realistically, Yagira won the best actor award at the Cannes film festival in 2004. In the movie, his hair is getting longer, he adopts a defiant teenager attitude, but also, he is getting physically bigger and his voice is breaking up. The representation of time in Nobody Knows has the eery effect that the movie appears to be like a documentary film, depicting the lives of real children in their struggle to survive.
The filmmakers have adapted various cinematographic techniques to represent life from the subjective position of the child. The height of the camera rarely exceeds more than one meter, which, in the history of Japanese cinema and visual culture refers to Yasujiro Ozu’s signature tatami perspective. In Nobody Knows, the low height of the camera is used to stress the subjective vision of a child. Similarly, by using a long lens with a wide open aperture, the narrow depth of field emphasis an almost dreamlike perception of everyday minutiae.
In above example, the cinematography of Nobody Knows appears to borrow from the work of the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Not only did Kawauchi work on the set of Nobody Knows as stills photographer, but her photographic methodology of focusing on detailed observations from a child’s perspective appears to be the visual strategy applied in the film itself. In psychoanalytical terms, this photographically fragmented view of the world also refers to a psychologically fragmented memory of childhood. In other words, the photographic technique of tight framing and soft focus underlines the very process of remembering childhood.
As the director Hirokazu Kore-eda points out at the beginning of the movie, the plot is loosely based on a real life event that took place in 1988. The ‘affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo’, was, in reality, far more horrific than it is depicted in the movie. While in 1988, the youngest child was brutally beaten and eventually killed by two friends of the oldest son, in the movie the youngest child tragically dies in an accident. A fifth child, never referred to in the movie, died shortly after birth and was wrapped in blankets and stored in the flat by the mother. While the cinematographic techniques of soft-focus and close-ups evoke a romanticized version of childhood, the actual trauma inflicted and experienced by the children of Sugamo is completely sidelined in the movie.
In psychoanalysis, trauma is not necessarily referring to a horrific event, but rather, it describes the subject’s failure to place an experience in the symbolic realm. In his Seminar I, Jacques Lacan describes trauma as following:
“Trauma, insofar as it has a repressing action, intervenes after the fact (apres coup, nachtraglich). At this specific moment, something of the subject becomes detached from the symbolic world that he is engaged in integrating. From then on, it will no longer be something belonging to the subject. The subject will no longer speak of it, will no longer integrate it. Nevertheless, it will remain there, somewhere, spoken, if one can put it this way, by something the subject does not control.”
Trauma is therefore characterized by not being able to articulate, nor being able to represent the experience retroactively. The complete disavowal of any physical or psychological violence in Nobody Knows is therefore a conscious act of recognizing that trauma is unrepresentable. Hirokazu Kore-eda thus comments on a deeply felt human fear: the dread of loss of the mother is commonly thought of as the very first trauma experienced by the subject. This unrepresentability of trauma is even recognized in the very title of the movie: because trauma cannot be situated into the symbolic realm, ‘nobody knows’ about the actual experience of the child.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
These are the last ten minutes of the movie ‘Syndromes and a Century’ (Sang Sattawat, 2006) by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The movie is mainly located in two hospitals: one in rural Thailand and and the other in Bangkok. The geographical distance between these locations is further emphasized by the temporal divide that separates the two parallel yet interconnected narratives: the Bangkok medical centre is representing the present and the rural hospital is set 40 years in the past. Throughout the film, Weerasethakul makes various references to Buddhist visual culture, iconography and theology such as reincarnation and an after life. The viewer is becoming an unwitting participant to the belief that life is lived in cycles as scenes set in the past are, towards the second part of the movie, repeated with uncanny similarity in the present. By this stage, the viewer is entranced by Weerasethakul’s meditation on the ambiguous division between past and present, life and death.
The closing scene of ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is set in the Bangkok hospital: the harsh fluorescent lighting and the formal symmetry of the hallways are emphasizing the reality of living in a modern city. Somehow lost in this maze of corridors and hallways appears an elderly lady sitting at a desk. In the next shot, the movie cuts to a young woman exiting a door. The sound of the door banging in the frame and the woman’s heels clicking on the linoleum floor penetrate the otherwise monotone background music. The same door opens again shortly after and a young man sheepishly enters the hallway. This ambiguous and rather hidden reference to a possible sexual encounter between two doctors in the basement of the hospital also underlines the difficulties of working under strict censorship laws in Thailand. When the movie was released in Thailand, censors demanded that a total of four scenes should be edited out: one showed doctors consuming alcohol, another showed doctors kissing.
As the music intensifies, the camera documents a patient seemingly lost in the hallways and a member of staff daydreaming at her desk. As the camera pulls away from the desk, the viewer is invited to join the director on a meditative and hypnotic exploration in visual culture. Set in a smoke filled room in the basement, the camera turns in a circular motion as it depicts the harsh fluorescent lighting mounted on the ceiling. A drilling machine briefly shown in the corner of the room is emphasizing the point of this hypnotic scene as the director wishes to penetrate the viewer’s mind. The camera then slowly focuses on a vent that is ominously sucking in the smoke filling the room. As the smoke is being sucked through the vent, the spectator as well is closing in on the vent via the tracking shot. Here, the director engages in a visual analogy by substituting the smoke with the gaze of the spectator. The vent isn’t as much sucking smoke, rather, it’s sucking our gaze. By holding that shot for a considerable length, it appears that Weerasethakul insists on displacing, confusing even alienating the viewer. The mise-en-scène creates a position of vulnerability and even hauntedness.
Despite appearing to break from cinematic conventions, some comparisons for this key scene in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ can be made in global cinema. The hypnotic music for instance is strongly reminiscent of a movie by David Lynch – a director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is often compared to. More specifically in reference to the tracking shot, Jean-Luc Godard for instance made inventive use of it, most famously in ‘Contempt’ (1963) or ‘Weekend’ (1967). Other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’ (1972) or Martin Scorsese in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) appear to use Godard’s method of tracking the camera quite unexpectedly away from the cinematic narrative. In these cases, rather than following the plot, the viewer is forced to follow the vision of the filmmaker. In ‘Frenzy’, the camera moves away from a door to an apartment in anticipation of the suspense hidden from the viewer unfolding inside the apartment. In ‘Taxi Driver’, Robert de Niro talks on the phone with his girlfriend as the camera slowly moves away from him, focusing on an empty hallway that de Niro is yet to enter. Here the tracking shot helps to foretell a narrative that is yet to unfold.
It is the hypnotic character of the tracking shot in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ however that appears to have very few cinematographic precedents in global cinema (an exception might be Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ from 2006 where a long shot shows a prison guard scrubbing the floor). Rather than guiding the viewer through the plot of the movie, the point of the hypnotic tracking shot is to create a complete visual and narrative break. It becomes the visual equivalent of an exclamation mark. By the time the smoke sucking vent is shown in ‘Syndromes and a Century’, the viewer has already suspended all preconceived ideas what the experience of cinema should be. While the cinematography could be read with reference to a Buddhist signifying system (the smoke might refer to incense symbolic for the fragrance of pure moral conduct), I believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wishes to literally pull the viewer into his world, no matter what their belief system might be. In a sense, the hypnotic tracking shot is more about the art of cinema than it is about the film itself. This playfulness, an aspect Weerasethakul inherited from his practice as exhibiting experimental film artists, allows us to re-consider the parameters of global cinema which is, rather than merely depicting a story, first and foremost a visual experience.