Film: Dheepan

8 April, 2016


Winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or in Cannes, Dheepan tells the story of Sivadhasan, a former soldier fighting for the Tamil Tigers, who assumes the name of Dheepan along with a fake family, 26-year old wife Yalini and 9-year old daughter Illayaal, in order to escape the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka and start a new life in France. All three have lost family, are alone and need each other in order to apply for asylum in France. Yalini dreams of crossing over to England where her relatives live in peace but Dheepan is eager to settle down and needs his constructed family in order to secure a living. That they are relocated to a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northeastern suburb of Paris, swapping one conflict zone for another doesn’t faze him as he goes about his job as a caretaker for the block of flats. But both Yalini and Illayaal struggle in their new job and school. As well as pretending to show they are a family, they also struggle to communicate in French, a language in which only Illayaal is becoming fluent, depending on her translation to get by. As they slowly adjust to their new life, a grim reality far removed from their expectations, the gang violence which has been simmering under the surface of the housing project explodes, threatening to break their hard-won, fragile peace.

I was expecting a dark and depressing film about the horrors of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict transposed to the violent and terrifying banlieues of suburban Paris. But what I got was a beautiful, still film exploring the core values of family and belonging, strengthened by the extreme horrors faced and overcome by people. The Sinhala-Tamil conflict provides the backdrop from which Dheepan and his makeshift family spring into the contemporary and relevant refugee crisis facing Europe today; they are but one of many fleeing conflict to come to Europe believing it would provide a safe haven in which to start new lives. The desperation which drives them to undergo such a dangerous journey, the difficulties that arise once they reach their new country, the language barrier, the hostility and disinterest, make you re-assess your views on asylum seekers. That they dream of going back knowing there is nothing left of their old lives, the pain of having lost loved ones, their determination to carry on, all of this is shown beautifully in Jacques Audiard’s stark, spartan film. Nothing is over-emphasised or over-sentimentalised, nothing heavily pushed onto the viewer.

Surprisingly, and probably what makes the film work, is that it chooses to steer clear of the complex politics of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict instead focussing on the personal and Dheepan’s relentless need to escape, to find normality in a world that has gone crazy.

I loved how the makeshift family slowly coalesces and becomes a real one. Yalini’s cry that she isn’t Illayaal’s mother and her reluctance to look after her. Illayaal’s need for comfort in a cold, unfamiliar world of strangers. And Dheepan’s awakening interest in Yalini. You wouldn’t expect such a family to work, not with the anxiety accompanying the situation. But it slowly does and you feel for all of them. But while their ties grow stronger, the world outside grows ever more violent, once again putting their lives at risk.

What was particularly striking was the grim urban reality in which Dheepan and his family land in suburban Paris. It is nothing like what they were expecting, where the poor, mainly immigrant communities, noticeably absent from the centre of Paris, are trying to eke out a living. Although the Sri Lankan parts of the film didn’t seem as stereotyped perhaps because the scenes were shorter, those set in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais did feel a little reminiscent of films like Banlieue 13 and Le Haine with perhaps a slight romanticisation of gang life. But Dheepan, once a child soldier, is unafraid and eventually manages to wrestle a bit of autonomy in the housing project but this too seems a little unrealistic. With exceptional performances by Sri Lankan novelist turned actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan in the titular role, whose past mirrors that of Dheepan, South Indian stage actor Kalieswari Srinivasan as Yalini, French-born Claudine Vinasithamby as Illayaal and Vincent Rottiers as gang leader Brahim, these are but minor points in what is almost a perfect film.

You can read interviews of Audiard in the Guardian here and the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

I was kindly invited to a screening of Dheepan which is out in cinemas today. I strongly urge you to watch it.

A short film about books

10 September, 2011

This is AMAZING. Do check out Brainy Gamer’s post for more.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore Trailer from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

I’d picked up a copy of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale a while back when it was all the rage but somehow never got around to reading it. Considering I’m such a huge fan of crime fiction and mysteries and I used to read a lot of non-fiction about Jack the Ripper and the world’s wickedest murderers, etc. I just didn’t feel the urge. Maybe it’s over-saturation and I had immersed myself in the genre too long. Who knows, these things happen. But when I saw that they were going to broadcast a TV adaptation of the book on Easter Monday, I picked it off the shelf and thought I’d finish it before watching. I was on holiday too and should have had plenty of time, but oh no, it wasn’t to be. Too much time yet too many other things to do and I kept faffing around with my reading choices.

But I started reading the book a few days later and although I was overwhelmed by all the detail at first, once I got into the rhythm of the book, it fast became a page-turner. Although I confess I was at first surprised that a non-fiction crime book could have taken the reading public by storm, I can see why it took hold of the readers’ imagination. Summerscale is brilliant at keeping the tension at just the right level to keep you turning the pages. I too wanted to know who had murdered the little boy.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House is based on true events in the 1860s when 3 year old Saville Kent is found missing from his cot. His nurse who was sleeping in the same room with her charge, Saville’s baby sister, awoke to an empty cot and assumed his mother had picked him up and taken him to her room as his blanket was folded neatly and with care. However, the alarm was soon raised that little Saville was missing and he was later found stuffed down the outdoor privy used by servants and passing tradesmen. His throat was cut and there was a bloody flannel nearby. The local police are unable to find the murderer and, ever mindful of hurting the reputations of Mr. Samuel Kent, a local factory inspector, and his household, act in a questionable manner detrimental to the investigation. However, rumours soon begin to circulate regarding the household (which consisted of his second wife and his many children from his two marriages who were not treated equally) and Scotland Yard sends their brightest detective to rural Wiltshire to solve the case.

What I found fascinating about this book was the way Summerscale shows how the formation of detectives, still a new job description within the police, was met with suspicion from local police and journalists, and excitement from writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins who incorporated detective characters based on Whicher in their fiction. It was still a fine line as the the police kept clear demarcations as to what was considered acceptable when making enquiries whereas detectives who were in plain clothes were able to pry into household affairs previously thought of as private and beyond their reach.

As Mr. Whicher makes his enquiries, it becomes clear that he believes Samuel Kent’s youngest daughter from his first marriage, Constance, has something to do with Saville’s disappearance and murder. Constance, at sixteen, has had to deal with her mother’s apparent mental instability, her death, the marriage of her father to her former governess and the birth of their children displacing her father’s affections, and had previously tried to run away to sea with her brother. She is strong and intelligent and it seems Mr. Whicher has met his match. You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out the outcome.

What I was left with, which I found unexpected, was how solitary being a detective was, even if you were as celebrated as Mr. Whicher. You worked alone encountering obstruction from the suspects as well as from those who were supposed to aid you. And I was sad at how Mr. Whicher’s brilliant career unfurled due to circumstances beyond his control which, in my opinion, were grossly unfair. As you can see, I have a soft spot for Mr. Whicher.

I finally caught up with the TV adaptation after finishing the book and I have to say that Paddy Considine, who plays Mr. Whicher, did an admirable job at portraying the detective. It was a pretty good adaptation and I felt that it wasn’t as ambiguous as the book, which left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I guess that’s the difference between fiction and fact.

You may also want to check out teadevotee’s post about both the book and film.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

17 April, 2010

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, since I finished The Night Watch last year (which I loved, loved, loved), and had heard many nice things about it, and I finally did! And since I also wanted to watch the TV adaptation, I thought I’d post a joint review similar to that posted by su[shu] for Murakami Haruki’s Tony Takitani.

Unlike the majority of Sarah Waters’ fans, I fell in love with her writing starting with The Little Stranger followed by The Night Watch. I had previously read Fingersmith when it was first published in 2002 and don’t recall it having any serious impact on me. But it looks as though Fingersmith seems to be everyone’s favourite book, so I’ve got a copy on standby for a re-read in the near future.

There is something magical about Waters’ prose. It starts out quietly, silently and slowly draws you in, deeper and wanting more. That was how I felt when reading Affinity. The Night Watch had such an impact on me that I thought somehow I may have been spoilt and not find Affinity as enjoyable. Certainly the style was different, and so was the setting and plot. But Affinity had such atmosphere and, like the main character Margaret, I was completely taken in.

The story begins with Margaret Prior, a spinster in her late twenties, who is recovering from her beloved father’s death. To occupy herself, she has volunteered to go and spend some time talking to and helping the female inmates of Millbank Prison. Here she meets women outside her social circle and discovers Selina Dawes, a spiritual medium who is serving five years for causing harm to a young girl and, indirectly, the death of her patron. Margaret is fascinated by Selina who insists that it was Peter Quick, her spirit conduit who was to blame. In the stifling atmosphere of Millbank Prison, Margaret finds herself drawn to the beautiful girl and soon experiences strange occurrences that can only be attibuted to the work of spirits. Can this be real? And will she be able to save Selina?

Although Waters’ writing is wonderful, I found the book to be rather slow at the beginning. It is only after finishing the book that I realised what a genius Sarah Waters is. The plot is constructed in such a clever way that you are Margaret, and you fall in love, you start to believe in the spirits Selina sees and then you realise suddenly what has really been happening. It all slots into place and you are left reeling, wondering why you never saw what was plainly there in front of your eyes.

Really, you have to read this book. And please read it before you watch the TV adaptation. Because although the adaptation was good, it just isn’t as good as the book.

I thought the casting of Anna Madeley and Zoe Tapper as the two main characters in the TV adaptation was brilliant. The script was written by Andrew Davies who also wrote the scripts for Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) and Bleak House, both of which I loved. But somehow, you lose something in the translation and I found it a little wanting. As so often happens, I noticed a couple of changes which I felt may have been necessary for the adaptation but changed the meaning of the story a little. However, the cinematography was beautiful and I think it captured the spirit of the book.

It was interesting to watch the DVD straight after reading the book to compare them, but maybe it might have been better if I had let a couple of weeks dampen my enthusiasm for the book so that I could have given the DVD a chance. What do you think?

Women who like science 2

25 March, 2010

Here is an interesting article about Hypatia of Alexandria, a renowned teacher of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. I’m looking forward to watching Agora starring Rachel Weisz about the life of this great 5th century thinker (if it’s ever released in the UK).

For February’s mini-challenge for Hello Japan! hosted by the lovely In Spring it is the Dawn we were asked to watch a Japanese film, and so I picked Goemon starring Eguchi Yosuke, Ōsawa Takao, Hirosue Ryoko and Okuda Eiji and directed by the talented Kiriya Kazuaki. Kiriya is also famous for being the ex-husband of Japanese pop sensation Utada Hikaru and has also directed Casshern starring Iseya Yusuke, a breathtakingly beautiful SF fantasy set in a dystopian future.

I wrote a little about the legend of Ishikawa Goemon here and was eagerly looking forward to this film which came out last year. We’ve come to expect slick and futuristic films from Kiriya and Goemon doesn’t disappoint. Although I was expecting a more historically accurate film, Kiriya’s steampunk/renaissance version of Japan’s warring state period (sengoku jidai) depicting the power struggle between the three great generals of feudal Japan, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu worked in a strange way. It was as though he had let loose the different story-telling potentials and created an amalgamation of different fables to tell this one tale (reminding me a little of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Purists may wince, but I really enjoyed this retelling where we get to meet the legendary thief, see some ninja action with Hattori Hanzo, catch a tea lesson with the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū and watch the political intrigues snaking through feudal Japan culminating in an epic battle which will establish 300 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

In this retelling, Goemon has severed his past as Oda Nobunaga’s shinobi (ninja) and is enjoying life as a thief who redistributes wealth to the poor together with his henchman Sarutobi Sasuke. However, he unwittingly steals a small wooden box which contains the secret to the assassination of the strong and wise Nobunaga by the renegade general Akechi Mitsuhide. Like Pandora’s box, this unleashes destruction and war.

A whole host of people are looking for the box, including Ishida Mitsunari, a subordinate of power-hungry Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi comes from peasant stock but succeeded Nobunaga and now rules most of Japan. Mitsunari is aided by his army of shinobi led by Kirigakure Saizo, Goemon’s childhood friend. As Goemon stumbles upon the secret of Nobunaga’s assasination, he is pursued not only by Saizo, but also their mentor Hattori Hanzo who is now working for Tokugawa Ieyasu. At the same time, Hideyoshi has been accumulating weapons including guns and cannons from the Europeans and is itching for war to establish his power once and for all. He is also courting Nobunaga’s niece, the beautiful and young Lady Chacha, to continue his bloodline and link it with that of the once mighty Nobunaga. As war looms, Goemon must decide what is important to him and choose between saving his country and the woman he loves.

Kiriya’s films are achingly beautiful to look at, his action sequences slick and smooth and the costumes in Goemon are a mixture of the traditional Japanese and haute couture. Although in places the film seemed a little like an RPG game with lots of CG, it is saved by the superb acting of the cast, especially Ōsawa Takao who plays Saizo and who has the most heart-wrenching role, closely followed by Eguchi Yosuke as Goemon, Okuda Eiji as Hideyoshi and the gorgeously evil Kaname Jun as Mitsunari. In addition to these big names in the Japanese entertainment industry, the film also starrs the Kabuki actor Nakamura Hashinosuke as Nobunaga and veteran actor Ibu Masato as Ieyasu.

Although I felt the film could have been a little shorter, I’m just nit-picking because I enjoyed it tremendously and urge you to watch Goemon if you can, especially if, like me, you happen to like alternative historical fantasies. Although fleshed out with various legends, Kiriya’s film is based on actual events in Japanese history. Just in a way you’ve never seen before.

It’s almost the end of the year and the time for lists, so I thought it would be appropriate to list my most enjoyable reads of the year. There haven’t really been any duff reads and I think I only gave up on two books earlier in the year before I started my blog in July.

1) The most enjoyable thing this year was starting my blog! I was really nervous about this and, having been surreptitiously reading book blogs for about a year beforehand, I felt rather intimidated at the professional manner in which many blogs are maintained. They are all so lovely, funny and well thought out. But I took the plunge and I’m really glad I did, because it’s so much fun and I’ve met some incredibly nice bloggy people.

It’s made me think a lot more about why I read and the books that I choose. I also found it surprisingly hard to write a negative review and made me think about the honesty in my writing.

2) OK books, here we go. In 2009, I really liked reading and writing about:

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
The Boat by Nam Le
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert
The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I also liked the following which I didn’t write about, as I read them before I started blogging, but highly recommend:

The Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson
The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith
Alexandria by Lyndsey Davis
All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
In the Woods by Tana French
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace
Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

I realise that I haven’t written about my favourite book of the year, Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson since I read it way back in January, but as I’ll be reading the second installment in the 10 book sequence next year, I promise to write a big juicy post about the Malazan Book of the Fallen series when the time comes.

3) I found some amazing book challenges this year including RIP IV and the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 which put me in touch with some lovely people, the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge which actually motivated me to read something off my TBR shelf and the Women Unbound Challenge which has made me veer towards some thoughtful reading. I’m also enjoying the Hello Japan! challenge which has made me look at Japan anew.

4) I also reconnected with my love for Japanese drama and film. This year’s favourites were Crows Zero, Sakuran and Gokusen.

♥  Thank you to everyone who has taken their time to read my blog and post comments. I always enjoy hearing from you and I look forward to getting to know you all a lot more next year!

And I’ll leave you with my favourite book and cover art of the year.

I wasn’t planning on writing about Crows Zero (2007) but, thanks to a vicious cold, I’ve recently been on a Japanese drama and film binge and watched it’s sequel Crows Zero 2 (2009). So then I had to go back and watch the first film again which shows just how much I liked it. Absolutely. It was probably one of the best films I saw this year. Based on the manga series Crows by Hiroshi Takahashi, Crows Zero is an original prequel written by Shogo Muto and directed by Takashi Miike and features some of the original characters from the manga but is essentially a different beast. And it’s a beast of a movie, but one with a heart.

Starring Shun Oguri and Takayuki Yamada, Crows Zero opens with the arrival of Genji Takiya, son of a Yakuza boss, at Suzuran Boys High School, one of the toughest and most violent schools in town. Genji has a difficult relationship with his father and to prove his worth, he must take on and unite the warring gangs at Suzuran, something that has never been done before. His ultimate goal is to fight Tamao Serizawa, the monster third year student who is currently the strongest boy in the school.

Like with Gokusen, I don’t know why I like watching dramas and films about delinquents so much. Maybe when I was growing up, they seemed to have a thirst for life and freedom which I never sought in the simple and happy environment I grew up in (not that I’m complaining – what with all the travelling, I had a pretty exciting childhood). Maybe you’re just drawn to something which you’re not. I definitely wasn’t a delinquent, so maybe I just find it exotic.

Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi as he’s better known in Japan), famous Japanese comedian and film maker (Sonatine, Brother, Zatoichi) once said that he makes films about the yakuza because they are the only people that embody the Japanese spirit (kokoro) which has vanished from modern Japan. I don’t agree with him (because the underworld, when you come down to it, is criminal and feeds off people’s fear and suffering, plus they kill people), but I do understand what it is he is trying to say. These people (in the fictional world) live whole heartedly and give their all. Every day is life or death for them. There is no mask one wears in public and private. In the same way, when I watch dramas and films about high school delinquents, they tell me about the problems in Japan’s society, and how the young people try to understand and overcome the issues thrust upon them by the adult world. And they do it with all their being, maybe not in the best or politest way, but in an honest way. Like crows, these boys follow their own rules, freely and not bowing to a society that despises and refuses to understand them.

Pondering this issue, I began to wonder why so many Japanese tales are set during adolescence as opposed to the West where people are more focussed on life as an adult. And I realised that it had to do with freedom. In Japan, you are essentially free to follow your dreams and live freely until graduation, only having to follow the rules set down by your parents and school. Upon graduation, you become a shakai-jin, a person of society, and must now live within the rules of society, which are numerous and severe. You join the working masses and most people give up the dreams of their youth. In the West, it is only once you graduate that you can earnestly begin to pursue your dreams. The working life is more flexible and people can shake off the ties of family and school. I’m not saying that there are no societal rules in the West, but that people don’t necessarily feel as shackled. Maybe I’m simplifying this too much, but it’s why I feel that there is always this nostalgic view of school life, this yearning for a simpler time filled with hope and dreams. What they call their seishun jidai.

Anyway, back to Crows Zero, we follow Genji as he tries to beats his foes into submission and gather allies. In the process he is befriended by a low-level yakuza named Ken, a likeable fellow who dropped out of Suzuran many years ago. He shows Genji how to make allies by earning their respect and friendship. However Ken belongs to a rival yakuza family and is ordered to kill Genji. Unable to kill his friend, Ken visits Genji’s father and returns to his own boss to face the consequences.

Genji also meets Ruka, a singer at the dive he frequents, with whom he forms a tenuous friendship. When Ruka is kidnapped by one of Serizawa’s gang, all out war begins, and Genji and Serizawa must battle it out to see who is the strongest.

When I first watched Crows Zero, I was struck by the violence and the amount of fighting in the film. But it melts beautifully into the story of Genji and what he learns about friendship, respect and loyalty. With Crows Zero 2, however, there was a lot more scenes of violence and a little less story.

Crows Zero 2 is set one month after and begins with the release of an ex-Suzuran student from juvie. Upon his return to town, he is chased by a gang from Housen High School, a rival school whose leader he had stabbed and killed and for which he did time. He flees straight into Serizawa and his boys, and when Genji turns up, he inadvertently breaks the truce between the two schools culminating in a dramatic fight to avenge the murder of the Housen leader. In the meantime, Genji’s father is gunned down and Genji’s world slowly falls apart as he tries to deal with his complex feelings for his father and the heavy burden of being the leader of his group and trying to gather support for the fight against Housen. For someone who has always fought alone, Genji must learn to trust the people around him and work as a team.

It’s still good, but not as good as its prequel. The best thing about these two films is Shun Oguri who plays Genji and Takayuki Yamada who plays Serizawa. They outshine everybody and deserve the critical attention they both received for their roles. Oguri won the 17th Japan Movie Critics Awards for Best Actor for Crows Zero and Yamada was nominated for his supporting role for the 50th Blue Ribbon Awards.

Even if violence is not your thing (and it really isn’t mine, although I like a bit of kung fu and kickboxing), if you give Crows Zero a go, you might be pleasantly surprised.

A Tale Within A Book

24 November, 2009

I found this amazing video by the New Zealand Book Council on BOOKLUST. I don’t normally condone defacing books, but this is just too beautiful. Enjoy!

Film: Sakuran

21 November, 2009


I seem to be on a Japanese drama and film binge. I cannot seem to get enough of the stuff. And it doesn’t help that you can watch so much Japanese TV (from the new to the very nostalgic 80s stuff from my childhood) with a click of your mouse pad. But, I’ve been eyeing Sakuran for a while now since it was first released in 2007. There was a lot of publicity, and although I hadn’t seen any of Tsuchiya Anna’s work at that time, I have since watched Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) which I really liked. The costumes, the visuals and the soundtrack (especially the main song by Shiina Ringo) of Sakuran all drew me to the film. Plus I was also watching a lot of Ōoku (or Oh-Oku), a Japanese historical drama series about the great interior of the Shogun’s palace where the women resided and into which only the Shogun could enter. It was riveting stuff with lavish costumes, traps and manipulative women all vying for love and power.


Based on a manga by Anno Moyoko, Sakuran follows the tale of Kiyoha who is sold to Tamagikuya, a brothel in Yoshiwara, the pleasure quarter in Edo (old Tokyo) frequently depicted in the ukiyo-e of some of Japan’s most famous artists such as Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai. Once in, no woman can leave unless they have paid off their debt or their contract bought out by a client. Kiyoha resolves to leave one day when the sakura blossoms in Yoshiwara where there are no cherry trees except for one gnarled stump. She becomes a successful courtesan eventually becoming an oiran, the highest level courtesan in the pleasure quarter. Sakuran is a play on the word oiran (made up of the two kanji for flower and best/first) which substitutes the word for flower with cherry blossom (sakura). So oiran becomes sakuran.

The feel of the film was in keeping with Shimotsuma Monogatari with its technicolour brilliance and a very modern soundtrack courtesy of Shiina Ringo. The directorial debut of photographer Ninagawa Mika, Sakuran is a very pop and slick film, yet it manages to retain the poignancy and bittersweet edge from which you cannot totally escape when telling the tale of an oiran. Kiyoha is such a strong character yet has a vulnerability which keeps you hoping that one day she will find happiness. You want her to succeed even within the harsh and confined world of Yoshiwara.

I loved this film. It was cool and beautiful yet pulsating with energy. It’s a film about longing, and Tsuchiya Anna’s portrayal of Kiyoha is a mixture of charm, coquettishness and sorrow and is wonderful to watch. And did I mention how divine Ando Masanobu is? As well as his killer looks, his character Seiji reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr. Thornton. Enough said.

And finally, the difference between an oiran and geisha is explained here.

You can see the trailer for Sakuran here.