Category Archives: Film Review

Dunkirk – Uncomfortable watching of Rewritten History

Christopher Nolan’s much awaited Dunkirk hit the screens last month marking the critically acclaimed director’s first foray into historical fiction. Three years after his space exploration film, Interstellar, Nolan’s presentation of an epic rescue was expected to be a human drama about survival. Despite being one of the darkest moments in WWII for the Allies, the rescue at Dunkirk is arguably one of the points where the tide turned against the Axis powers. The film turned out quite successful, as critics, academics and most importantly, filmgoers have embraced Dunkirk for its masterful execution as well as poignant story-telling that presents unconventional images of muted heroism not typically seen in war movies. Kristin Thompson talks about the atmospheric construction of narrative exposition where the emphasis is more on what characters want (Alex describing Gibson looking for a way out on the rescue boat instead of getting a piece of bread) rather than any totemic background details, including character names. David Bordwell sees a similarity between Nolan and Kubrik who are rare filmmakers capable of turning a genre film into an art film, and elevating it further into both a prestige and an event film.

These critical responses give shape to the overwhelming feeling of awe when a film-enthusiast encounters a Nolan film. The sheer technical brilliance of his work curmudgeonly steers clear of contemporary dependence on CGI and meticulously builds tangible movie magic with practical effects. From the innovative rotating camera-rig for the corridor fight in Inception, to the complex but clear fictional technology created in The Prestige, Nolan’s skill as one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the 21st century is unquestionable. I do not share the view that Nolan does not write well-rounded characters. Just the strikingly terrifying portrayal of Heath Ledger’s Joker suggests that he has an eye for unique and powerful characters. While the individual characters maybe plot-devices in a meat-suits, I find that the relationships between the characters evoke the much-needed drama that sustains us in the narrative. I was blown away by the tense dynamic between Robin Williams and Al Pacino in Insomnia, as I was with Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano in Memento. Come to think of it, the tension between male characters with opposing views has been the engine that drives forward Nolan’s films from The Prestige to the Batman Trilogy. This dynamic changes with Inception and Interstellar, where the relationship dynamic is between a male protagonist and a female family member – Cobb’s wife in the former and Cooper’s daughter in the next. In sum, there are few filmmakers who I can be certain of delivering a thrilling and entertaining film experience like Christopher Nolan.

I say all this, because I personally had a bit of a problem with Dunkirk. I enjoyed it as much as one could enjoy a tightly produced war thriller, but I also felt that there was some inexplicable gap between the film’s intention and its final output. I agree with much of Thompson and Bordwell’s assessments of the presentation of nobility in the place of valor, and the brilliance of Nolan’s craft of filmmaking. However, I find myself unable to reconcile the dissonance between the intended message of survival and the overtly heroic conclusion of the ending. Although Nolan himself has called it an “intimate epic”, the conclusion stresses the epic more than the intimate. I was particularly uncomfortable with Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech from 1940 juxtaposed with the dramatic success of the rescue operation, because I simply could not erase from my own cultural memory the atrocities conducted by his government during the Bengal famine of 1943.

The image of an underdog Britain who seemed to outsmart and out-luck the Germans because of some special (divine?) cloak of invulnerability was simply unpalatable to me. And, the British achieved this extraordinary victory, without a single non-white face in sight. Now, I am not a WWII historian, but I was pretty certain that one of the main reasons why the war was called a “world war” was because of the international scale in which it was fought, and due to the spread of the empire, how many diverse groups of people fought in it. Perhaps, I thought, this particular stretch of the war was fought exclusively by white British soldiers considering how close it was to the Isles. After all, have not the critics been raving about the accuracy of the details in the film from the kind of people who inspired the specific characters as well as the equipment and vehicles used in it? Surely, I was being over-sensitive and simply wrong-headed to expect diversity in a historically accurate film. And then I came across this article by Sunny Singh in The Guardian.

For those who did not read the article, here is the TL;DR version: it erases the presence of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies from the British side, who were not only there on the beach, but also tasked with transporting supplies to areas inaccessible for the motorized transport companies. Besides the Indians, the film also left out non-white soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies who fought on the French side. The article frames the exclusion of non-white characters in the context of a grand, selective mythologizing of Britain’s past in a post-Brexit world. More than anything else, the article externalizes the concerns that I had watching the film and makes me question the contradictory reaction that I had in doing so – how do I account for my enjoyment of the film when clearly I am uncomfortable with much of its politics? And in a broader sense, is being politically sensitive a mutually exclusive option to enjoying the film?

Indian Troops in Burma

When I look at the film and its publicity material now, I cannot help but feel irritated by its blatant jingoism. From a by-line that proudly claims Dunkirk to be “the event that shaped our world” to a description that explains “when 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” I cannot help but wonder if the reverse is also true, that is, if Britain is home only to those who were shown on screen as the ones waiting to be rescued. I will be the first to admit that movies are not reality but the narrative around Nolan’s film has time and again stressed on the attention to detail and historical accuracy. Nolan himself has prided himself on the fact that they used airplanes as close as possible to the real thing to get the same effect. Even in a fictional movie like Interstellar, Nolan’s obsessive efforts to bridge science fiction with science probability (if not actual science fact) was a big part of the buzz around the film. While we do not watch Ip Man expecting a true bio-pic of Bruce Lee’s master, Dunkirk painstakingly constructed metanarrative is a claim to history and a promise to tell a definitive version of that story. Nolan’s own words during interviews describe his desire to portray a moment of human victory amidst historical/practical loss, so the exclusion feels deliberate, jarring and painful. The absence of significant diversity in Nolan’s earlier films have not been a real concern to me, because they are fictional worlds and need only address the rules determined within it. While I wonder now how hard it is to write a non-white central character in any of his previous films, I do not think it diminishes the value of the films overall. Whereas the excision of non-white characters to obscurity is something that the director should be held accountable for. Even the absence of typical whitewashing where a non-white figure of history is rewritten for or simply played in earnest by a white actor, this removal from history is significantly more dangerous.

Moroccan Goumiers in Alsace

Ultimately, I have to recognize that, yes I enjoyed the movie, but I’m also uncomfortable with its politics. And while there is no recourse between these two poles, there is definitely a need to develop such vocabulary to explain the relationship between these ideas. It is easy to categorize things we find problematic under the same list as things which we dislike, but perhaps it is more important to articulate our complex feelings about the missteps in things we actually like. That is why it is important to talk about the mishandling of sexual violence as a throwaway plot-point in Game of Thrones, and spousal abuse in Breaking Bad and excessive police power in The Shield. The bigger the reach and influence that a pop-culture text enjoys, the more important it is for us to locate our criticism from a place of love, if our intention is to start a dialogue with the fandom as well as other critics. We should not have to ignore that ambivalence of our cinematic and televisual encounters and the response need not be defined in terms of either defending Nolan at whatever cost or bashing the film in its entirety. That is the purpose of criticism – it recuperates the flaws of art by expressing our reaction to it.

Senegalese colonial troops in the French army, WWI.

A Note about the photos of the soldiers: They are not from Dunkirk, but I decided to randomly include them based on their color, in the same random way that Christopher Nolan decided to exclude them from his film.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

War for the Planet of the Apes and Post-Human Cinema?

Many films have used non-human characters as their protagonists. Pixar films have famously animated various things from toys, cars, bugs to even emotions with narrative agency and made us love every moment of it. We have rooted for toys to return to their homes, fish finding their family, cars regaining their glory, or even emotions achieving a balance. However, the recent Planet of the Apes films have achieved a further distinction in not only creating non-human protagonists that we can root for, but in making their quest for survival come at a direct cost of human characters. By turning the humans as the main antagonists, these films have achieved something of a landmark in post-human cinema – conceiving a fictional world where we can step out of our position of dominance and see the overwhelming impact we have had in shaping the world. Although this reflection still occurs in very human terms, where the protagonists are not replacements of humanity but inheritors of what it essentially means to be human, this reflection opens a new line of questioning about the effect of the cinematic image.

This cinematic image of the heroic ape riding a horse bareback, and still capable of wielding a machine gun when the situation demands it leaves the audience thrilled and excited. Here is a hero who is able to overcome the face of the oppressive overlords that we have faced in our own lives – that of humans in positions of authority and seemingly unending power. But our response to the heroic overthrower of human authority also makes us wonder if there is something essentially problematic with the seductive power of a film that can compel you to hate your own ‘kind’. Is it too close to propaganda films that totalize the human enemy into a monolithic figure-head deserving all our hate? Despite featuring sympathetic and likeable human figures in all three movies, are the Apes films in their own way – racist [against humans]? Do they bait our compulsive beliefs about cruelest and worst aspects of humanity and turn our justifiable anger against individual figures of tyranny toward all humanity?

A close look at the films show that these questions are not entirely baseless. The apes have all the narrative agency that has for long remained the domain of human or surrogate protagonists. Caesar, a noble leader who simply wants to find a space for his people, and preaches co-existence when it is possible strikes at the heart of our aspirations for a modest hero – one who would not look for a fight for its own sake, whose heroism always evaluates its cost. The more aggressive and violent among the apes are still largely justified in their anger as they had sustained years of abuse at the hands of humans. Caesar’s own outburst of anger in the third film marks the peak of unwanted human aggression and at many moments in the film we cheer on as he defies the humans.

Contrarily, the human characters are presented as monstrous and ruthless beings who are so deeply entrenched in their own desire to continue their domination of the world, that they disregard the changing landscape of evolution that had put them in a dominant position in the first place. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus in the second film is motivated by his survival instinct and goes to war only when provoked. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel in the third film is a raving megalomaniac whose opposition to the ape-kind is motivated by his belief in human superiority and the need to destroy competition. There is a rapid advancement of Ape-technology and a simultaneous degradation of human technology that makes the human position of dominance unsustainable, and they fight tooth and nail before they are dethroned. Even though all three films have a ‘good human’ figure in James Franco, Jason Clarke and Amiah Miller – they are progressively less influential in the narrative. Where Franco’s scientist is clearly more powerful as he directly turned Caesar to an intelligent ape, Clarke’s human survivor and his band of humans play a much-reduced part in the relationship, as they are equal who seek co-existence. Miller’s mute little girl in the third film reduces her position even further as she is completely under the protection of the apes, almost like a cherished pet.

Ape Caesar, better than the human ones.

However, such a reading of the films as positioning the viewers against humans misses a larger point about the film, or any post-human cinematic protagonists – the protagonists are not human replacements but merely human surrogates. The Pixar movies were successful because they dealt with human experiences even though the characters were non-human. They deal with relationships, success and failure in human terms, much like the Apes franchise. The Apes films may have turned humans the villains, but they have created a new type of humans in the apes, where the protagonists are human and humane in their behavior – in terms of their strategy, motivation and action. When we see the intelligent apes behave as humans do, we are not worried about the apes taking over, but rather see that the feature that has enriched the apes is their new-found humanity. And for this reason, we will continue watching a good overcoming-the-odds narrative regardless of the color of the skin or shape of the face of the protagonist.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Masterclass in Human Relationships – Bong Joon Ho’s Films

If you happen to be on the internet, chances are you have just survived the marketing blitz for Netflix’s recent project Okja. Directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho and featuring a star-cast of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, a mysterious animal and a sci-fi premise, the film seems to have all the trappings of a typical Hollywood creature feature. After all, this film is from the same director who also made The Host (2006) [however, those who know the acclaimed Korean director only through the monster-attack film have missed out on one of the best collection of movies by a director on a trot]. Bong Joon-Ho delivers a touching film about the relationship between a young girl and her animal friend. Okja offers satirical glimpses at corporate politics, the harsh realities of large scale animal farming and animal abuse, and the cynicism with which activism is comparably positioned with the industries themselves. Like his 2013 film Snowpiercer, Joon-Ho’s film offers a bleak world divided along class, geographical privilege and crucially, the randomness of birth. The melancholy in his films invite reflection and horror. This post takes a quick look at four films which unsettle narrative closure to leave the audience with questions rather than satisfaction.

Snowpiercer

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.

(MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION) Consider these four frames:

  1. A police officer returns to a scene of crime after 17 years, and looks at the ditch where the first murder took place, reflecting on the fact that they never caught the murderer.
  2. An elderly woman dances in a field to music with a remarkable sadness in her eyes, when she comes to terms with the truth about her son’s innocence.
  3. A young woman and a child exit a perpetually moving train after it has crashed to a halt to find themselves in a frozen world and see a polar bear at a distance.
  4. A young girl has successfully bargained for the life of her animal companion, while similar intelligent animals are designated for the slaughterhouse.

(END OF MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION)

All these scenes are loaded with triumph and sorrow. The characters have failed in what they intended to achieve, and yet they have attained a fulfillment which brings them to rest in their minds. Their character’s story arc gets completed, even though none of these films allow their respective narratives to come to a successful completion. The director’s visual style has changed from one film to another, but his laconic storytelling remains central to his filmmaking. His stories seem to ask after our own discomfort – what does it mean when we feel so conflicted about the choices made by the characters? What does it say when we dread the uncertainties that the characters face in their future? These narratives achingly reach for the viewers’ concern for the characters and raise a grain of unease in our minds. The films do not answer any of these questions –they quietly raises a finger to point to those people that we know who also live in similar worlds.

Memories of Murder

Bong Joon-Ho’s command over subtle use of visual grammar in the 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder and its spiritual sequel Mother from 2009 prevents us from getting too relaxed while watching the them. Instead, we feel disquieted with the gentle flow of the narrative, which keeps preparing us for a dramatic jolt. While it is expected to see characters are challenged by the significance of their choices, these films push the audience to weigh the significance as well. Both films develop the audience relationship with the characters and their goals to a point where the resolution seems inevitable. And yet, the ultimate ending, while consistent with the narrative world, offers no solace to the characters. Similarly, in Snowpiercer and Okja, the success of the characters have come at a high price and their future remains uncertain regardless of the immediate outcomes the encounter.

A deep sorrow engulfs you before the film begins, Mother

The South Korean filmmaker’s measured pace and introspective narratives have been extensively discussed and praised. What I enjoy the most about his work is the sense of incompleteness that prevents the films from fully slipping away from your mind. Instead, the films linger with you, challenging your understanding of how narratives work, and mildly chiding you for your certainties about people and their behavior. The behavior of people who encounter situations way beyond the scope of their ability is perfectly captured in 2003’s Memories of Murder. When three under-prepared police officers try to solve a mystery while contending with an incompetent working environment, they elicit the audiences’ sympathy and anger at the same time. Their motivations may spring from a righteous desire to bring a murderer to justice, and yet their repeated failure seems a fair reward to their working methods. In Mother, we see an exceptional circumstance that stretch the limits of the everyday relationship between mother and son.

Okja

The most compelling aspect of these films to me, is not their ability to present a deep discomfort, but in the gentle humor they incorporate throughout the narratives. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous villain in Okja is prone to excesses that reveals her desire to be appreciated in comparison to her sister. The steely-eyed Giancarlo Esposito also plays a humorous turn involving a cup of coffee while delivering some classic supervising henchman role. In Snowpiercer, there are a plenty of terse moments undercut with double-take inducing gag-shots. And perhaps unforgettably, an interrogation scene in Memories of Murder begins with one of the policemen landing a near flawless dropkick to a suspect – knocking the breath out of the audience with surprise as well as laughter. The blend of humor and the inescapable atmosphere of horror elevate these films to near perfection. In moments of failure, of coming to terms with your grief or irredeemable position, of contemplating the significance of the greater world that is either altered or untouched by your individual actions – these films think visually and convey the most intimate human stories.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Baahubali 2: The Indian Epic Melodrama

Yesterday, we watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, and except for the uninspired title the film was stunning. Despite what the title says, it is S.S. Rajamouli’s strong arms that carry the film. Watching the film, I was thinking about the epic melodrama genre that the director has down to a pat. Here are some thoughts about the film…

1, Baahubali Opens the Door

Baahubali’s production shows that Indian cinema is ready to relook the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. The stunning visuals and rich detail of the practical effects and the mostly passable CGI blended tastefully into the landscape shows a maturity in technical and aesthetic sensibilities. Especially, I applaud the decision to not attempt to make the CGI life-like. The distinctly dreamlike quality adds to the visual palette without jarringly interrupting the experience of the film. I am sure that the next few multipart epic dramas will be oversaturated with CGI and hi-speed photography and not all of them will sustain the same quality as these two films – we can rest assured that when the right filmmaker decides to do it, the blueprint for an epic melodrama is ready.

2, The Dominant Queen Mother

Was I the only one who thought this part should have been more appropriately titled ‘Sivagami, the Queen Mother (also featuring Baahubali)’? The Queen Mother’s role is a strong and complex one, whose equal we have not seen in a while, and Ramya Krishnan is a strong performer who elevates the role to unforgettable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Prabhas or Rana Daggubati, who are memorable as icons – but are just as stiff and unchanging throughout the film. The supporting cast channel their energy to build the value of the main characters. Anushka Shetty as Devasena and Satyaraj as Kattappa seem to have landed roles of their lifetime and they are both awe-inspiring and sympathetic in turns.

3, An Epic Production

I could not help but smile when watching the movie and noticing where the director has spent the money. While the first film has an epic battle on a massive scale, he manages to construct beautifully choreographed small skirmishes that manage to capture the former’s glory and hiding the smart cost efficiency. By shooting two of the three epic fights in the dark, the film also glosses over other instances of careful budgeting. And yet, it is clear that these moves are not aimed at cutting the overall production cost – but to spend it on VFX (both practical and CGI) for the fewer elements on the screen. This trade has paid off, as only three moments (an odd gold statue, an awkward human catapult and an ugly bridge) are poorly produced in a film that runs for nearly three hours.

4, The Length

There are many movies that stretch their narratives to make more money – The Hobbit trilogy being the worst offenders – but Baahubali felt like a film which would have benefitted from an extra film with a couple of hours to flesh out the two Baahubalis. The father and son become indistinguishable in their characterization quickly, and as mentioned earlier, Prabhas is not the kind of actor who could salvage the roles with subtle distinction. We end up admiring the father more than the son, and that is clearly the filmmakers’ intentions as well. However, it is a bit sad that the son ends up being an afterthought in the second film, despite the fact that the film is about him finally rises to the mantle of the epic warrior. But again, a third movie could have fatigued the audience and affected the quality of the film’s reception. Not to mention the toll that it could have taken on the cast and crew if they were to shoot another film. Then again, there are some rumors about another film set in the same universe with new characters and that could be an interesting development as well.

5, The Business of Baahubali

Lastly, a note about the film’s significance to the film business in India. Baahubali is a testament to the director’s capacity to produce a technically competent film at a fraction of its international counterparts’ costs, and its record-breaking business shows that the Indian market has not yet reached its peak. The two films are reported to cost a total of 430 crores INR, which is roughly $68 million USD. Their combined revenue is just over 1300 crores INR (about $203 USD); a figure that is still growing fast, as the second film has been at the cinema for just a week. Additionally, the TV rights of the two films have also reached unprecedented heights in the Indian market. Perhaps the most impressive point about the film’s business is that its opening weekend took home over a $10 million haul at the US box office, despite being shown in only 425 screens. Albeit, some of this staggering per screen averages are due to the inflated premium ticket pricing of the film aimed at cashing in on the phenomenon (I paid a little over twice the normal fare in Singapore). The hype machine was balanced with the actual attention to quality in the film, showing that the recent trend of big openings weekend culture cannot dampen a movie that genuinely earns its must-see tag. The two Baahubali movies stand as the only non-Bollywood movies on the list of all-time highest grossing Indian films. However, Baahubali 2 (Currently standing third) should easily end its theatrical run at the top of the list. The massive success of the film is a step towards dispelling the myth of treating Bollywood cinema as an Indian national cinema. The second biggest movie industry in India has delivered a film that has caught the nation’s imagination, and we can only hope that more are to follow.

SPOILERS

BONUS: Now, it is SPOILER TIME: If you have not seen either of the movies, then definitely don’t read this last section. However, if you have seen the first and not yet the second, you will be surprised at how non-spoilery the epic reveal turned out to be. The biggest question at the end of the first film was the classic cliff-hanger, Why Kattappa Killed Baahubali (#WKKB)? However, what the filmmaker did not anticipate was the adoption of this phrase by the meme-culture on social media. This question became such a big deal, that people were overlooking the obvious clues in the first film that clearly explains why Kattappa, a man whose family has sworn to abide by the King’s word over many generations, killed Baahubali, a man who is definitely not the King’s favorite person. The second movie could have gone in many poor directions where the question takes over the narrative. We have seen many films where the audience’s expectations, and the producers attempts to subvert or satiate that expectation dominates the sequel – often rendering the film as an underwhelming outcome. Baahubali 2 brilliantly used the hastag only to the point of promoting the film. When you watch the film, there are no surprises as to the WKKB question. Instead, the film masterfully changes the question through its narrative. It strengthens the Kattappa-Baahubali relationship in many light-hearted moments, heightening the tragic significance of the final betrayal. Through the camaraderie built through characterization, the film switches the question from ‘Why’ to ‘What does it mean’ – we have always known why he killed Baahubali, but the film explains the stakes of that betrayal. That is a brilliant narrative strategy that does away with the marketing strategy and tells us a more honest story.

Overall, this is not the best Indian film or the most important. If you have never seen an Indian movie in your life, then there are far more subtle and brilliant films that you could watch. However, if you are a fan of the broadstrokes Indian epic melodrama, this movie is unparalleled. It fully embraces the technical affordances of the 21st century and shakes off the underwritten and overproduced history of the 1990s and heads towards a new kind of Indian entertainer.

Which are your favorite Indian melodramas? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Get Out and Cinema of The Unexpected

The most horrifying thing about Get Out is how real it all feels. The events depicted are not just possible and imminent, but have already occurred just outside the field of vision. A piece of forgotten history that is 400 years-old looming large, laughing at our presumptions about a world that will not willingly let go of its violence. Jordan Peele’s outstanding commercial and critical success bodes well for the director’s future, as he has become one of the most sought after names in Hollywood. The strength of the film is unique because it is not an outright rejection of Hollywood tropes or another attempt at reinventing the Horror genre – but in its ability to shift the lens through which we are generally used to viewing such films.

Get Out’s use of traditional horror elements tells a story about contemporary social encounters which could be cringe-worthy and horrifying in their own right. The film elevates the alienation and tension in inter-racial encounters as a trope that is strange enough to become a horror movie setting. The first half of the film could be recut as an awkward fish-out-of-water comedy, like an updated version of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Instead of smoothing over differences as quirks and ‘misspeaks’ of a different generation, Get Out satirizes and highlights the deep-seated ways in which we think about racial difference. Daniel Kaluuya has a star-making turn as Chris Washington, one of the most likeable protagonists we have seen in a horror movie in a long time. This British actor balances subtlety with strength, as he delivers on the heroic pay-off with the same ease as he delivers an emotionally tender and vulnerable moment.

That is not to say that the film is without humor, because it is persistently funny, even at moments where laughing out should feel like wrong. Its bleak sense of humor makes any commentator think twice before categorizing it as ‘black’ or ‘dark’ comedy, because such a comment invites another layer of self-examination. The most outrageously funny moments of the film come from Lil Rel Howery’s turn as the most competent TSA agent in the States. In a genre that is not usually known for its self-reflexivity, Howery’s character pre-empts every turn of the film in his own humorous way while resisting traditional pitfalls of stupidity reserved for comedic side-kicks.

[SPOILER] Get Out’s greatest achievement, however, is the reversal of every ugly stereotype about inter-racial relationships (and the larger context of racial relationships). It challenges the fantasy of the black assailant on a white sub-urban paradise by inverting the home-invasion horror genre by making the protagonist fight his way out of the situation. Cruder predatory norms are switched around when the terrifying Rose Armitage (played to perfection by a dangerous debutante, Allison Williams) sits in front of a shrine of other black men she has led to their doom, while searching for ‘Top NCAA prospects’. Yet, the film humorously subverts our expectations about the hateful characters when Rose calls out to her ‘grandpa’. [SPOILER]

There are so many more brilliant moments in the film that discussing all of them would be a disservice to those who have not yet seen the film. In short, I would like to commend on Get Out delivering one of the rare ‘Cinema of the Unexpected’ moments that have become almost impossible to achieve in an era of market-testing and clear branding. I experienced Get Out in a completely different and richer way because it satisfied the norms of both the promised horror genre as well as delivered a rich social commentary. I was wondering when was the last time I was pleasantly surprised by a movie that was advertised as one genre but secretly had another style hidden in it. Just like the film, let me swap genres and turn this review into a list. Here are some movies that came to mind that surprised me with their subtle and enriching act of successful genre-swapping.

Ex Machina (2015) promises a riveting sci-fi tale, but emerges as a film about consciousness and identity. The philosophical turn in the film adds to the bizarre, other-worldly tone of the film, extending the mystique that few sci-fi films are able to offer.

Audition (1999) is perhaps the most horrifying film I have ever seen. The laconic style and the lingering malevolence of the film is thoroughly chilling and it makes you rethink all the certainty you have about the people you have met in your life. There are no surprises in this film, even though there are plenty of opportunities for it, the film targets a different level of viewing. It gives just an ever-growing sense of dread that will make you look over your shoulder and send a tingle down your spine. Interestingly, like Get Out, this film too features a human antagonist scarier than any supernatural threat. Their actions maybe monstrous and yet it is their human position that is worrying.

Contagion (2011) is another horror film that jumped out of a medical drama and showed how the most mundane things are potentially more dangerous than we can ever comprehend. This film also features humans as the antagonist, but not as intentionally evil but an inevitably dangerous. The palpable fear is in the fact that this movie is both the history as well as the future. Unlike earlier movies like Outbreak where cases were easily contained to a single location by an all-powerful governmental machine, Contagion demonstrates the unpreparedness that eliminates any possible resistance against the virus with one sweeping blow.

Which are the movies that surprised you with their genre-bending? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Looking back at 2016, a splendid family entertainer that did not quite hit the mainstream radar was a little gem from New Zealand, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This little gem from Taika Waititi is a sensitive, colorful and personal story about relationships and it presents the magnificent vistas of New Zealand that we first encountered awe-struck in The Lord of the Rings. It is just as magical, even without all the magic. The lively bush is threatening and enticing at the same time. Sam Neill is in top child-hating form as he gruffly lumbers on screen with a kid he would rather not be with (not like real child-hating but his Jurassic Park style ‘I would rather do this adventure without children’ style child-hating). And talking about children, very few movies manage to draw out a good performance from a kid – and this movie does a fantastic job with (then 12-13 year old) Julian Dennison – an unapologetic city-slicking rogue that you cannot help but adore by the end of the film. Dennison’s impeccable acting chops aside, it is refreshing to see a movie with a protagonist who does not look like a ‘movie-star’ – a trap that Hollywood often falls into. The main bush-survival plot is simple and effective. It lives up to its promise of offering grand vistas as well as thrilling moments of adventure. But the thing that the film does best, arguably better than many of other films is to [SPOILER] kill off a beloved main character within the first ten minutes of the film. [/SPOILER]

To state the obvious, killing off a fan-favorite or major character is something that many TV shows and films have done over the years. It is used as a necessary plot point to further the story. However, the sudden demise of such characters at the beginning of the film or TV show are rarer, simply because to build a convincingly significant pay-off at such a short time is one of the rarest things in cinema. While some films have taken on this challenge to deliver a tragic blow tragic (such as in the Pixar animated classic Up) or to bait and switch for comedic effect (as seen in the obscure film version of Reno 911, where The Rock makes a fantastic 2-minute cameo). At times, such early departures are used to simply jolt the audience out of their complacency – as famously handled by Game of Thrones. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of best uses of this difficult to master trope – as it uses to the exit of a favorite character to highlight the character’s lingering presence throughout the film. The kind foster-mother’s unexpected demise sets the remaining main characters on a course of recognizing the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their two lives. While the film uses some familiar tropes of the Odd Couple, the main narrative of the film is not one of against the odds reconciliation; instead, it is a recuperative narrative where two characters come to terms with their shared loss by recognizing that their loss is the only thing that connects them. With unconditional generousity and non-judgmental love, Rima Te Wiata’s performance as Aunt Bella is true to the name, it is simply beautiful.

The supporting characters who try to “rescue” the boy they assume to have been kidnapped are consistently hilarious without being reduced to caricatures. At the end of the film, unlike others where authority figures look for children, you get a feeling that these characters genuinely are looking out for the best interests of the kid. The child services officer Paula (Rachel House) is a formidable presence who steals every scene she is in. The film portrays authority with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the influences from popular culture. Paula in her domineering best, reads out the Miranda rights at a certain point in the film, only to be reminded that they don’t do that in New Zealand.

The film’s director Taika Waititi made his feature length debut with another amazing small film Eagle vs. Shark and is currently making a not-so-small film for Marvel, Thor: Ragnarok. While many see this as a great opportunity for the filmmaker to move to a bigger budget and a wider canvas, I also see it as an important step in the evolution of Marvel movies, as this could be their chance to bring his small film charm and intimate character aesthetic to their inter-planetary monster. Of course, that might be a lot to ask in a movie where the Hulk is set to have gladiator battles, but one can always wish for a better product.

To sum up, if you are Instead of a trailer (which you can see here), I am convinced that this clip conveys the spirit of the movie:

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Thoughts on Tamil Cinema – The Hindu’s Top Picks for 2016

Tamil cinema is something I wish I paid more attention to – considering that quite a lot of interesting films are being made amidst the mainstream ‘Kollywood’ style movies. However, I lack the expertise and the familiarity to keep pace with the sheer volume of films produced – considering that the bulk of the movies are still aimed at the lowest common denominator. To help me steer clear of such a mess, I often follow recommendations from The Hindu’s film critic – Bharadwaj Rangan. Recently, he posted his picks for the best movies of the year – and I thought I would share my thoughts on some of the movies that I have seen from the list.

Irudhi Suttru – The songs of Santhosh Narayan shine in this well-made sports movie. Madhavan’s effort to shed his image as a romantic lead seems successful. However it is the boxer turned actor, Ritvika Singh who punches her way through the film, entertaining at every turn and presenting a lead who convinces you that she can speak the language.

Visaranai – arguably the best film of the year. Gripping and horrifying, Visaranai is an interrogation of the audience as it is of the characters. You can read my full response here.

Sethupathi – Vijay Sethupathi seems to be attempting to create an oevre, where he is experimenting with different genres. This film is also a meta-response to an earlier film Naanum Rowdythaan – where he played an aspiring gangster. As a cop, Sethupathi is loud and abrasive, but surprisingly restrained. This movie would have been more at home in the late 90s rather than mid 2010s. However, it is an enjoyable throwback with very little cringe value.

Vetrivel – Yet to Watch

24 – The sci-fi genre needs to explain the rules of the film very clearly to the audience. While this is necessary, Tamil cinema often repeats these rules multiple times as it takes upon itself to treat the audience as if they were idiots. 24 is guilty of such moments, but it is slick, stylish and regularly inventive. AR Rahman’s score is remarkable.

Uriyadi – Yet to Watch

Iraivi- A standout film that explores the fragility of masculinity, Iraivi (Goddess) is a character study that is more criticism than narrative. The caper plot is somewhat irrelevant except for lending the titular Goddesses – the movie should have trusted the audience to be mature enough to understand it at a metaphorical level. Karthik Subburaj makes another film that defies industry conventions in creating something timeless.

Oru Naal Koothu – Yet to Watch

Joker – other than the misnomer of a descriptor which calls this film a ‘political satire’, Joker is a subtle film despite its comical appearance. Dealing with perhaps the most important problem in India – sanitation in rural areas – Joker is an unflinching movie that is timely and important, even if at times, melodramatic.

Kutrame Thandanai – The director who made Kaaka Muttai (if you have not watched Tamil cinema, watch this to be disappointed by every other Tamil movie you may watch after it), follows up with a slow-burn film about crime, punishment and morality. Of course, when your title is a succinct philosophical dictum it seems like there is little space to negotiate a narrative. But the film will surprise you in its steady, minimalist storytelling.

Aandavan Kattalai – Yet to Watch

Ammani – Yet to Watch

Kodi – Yet to Watch

Other films from 2016 that I saw

Besides the films in Rangan’s list, there are a few films that came out this year that I managed to see, and here are some thoughts about them:

Kabali: The movie of the year, when it comes to marketing and branding. Where Kabali shined was in presenting an alternative image that could be successful for the superstar Rajinikanth. Hopefully we will see more of this character actor in the future, rather than the ill-fitting and outdated cliché from Lingaa. Here is a more detailed response.

Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum: One of the funniest films I have seen, KKP chips away at the glamorous presentation of thugs and goons in Tamil cinema. The songs are brilliant and Vijay Sethupathi shows that he still is the must watch actor we saw in Soodhu Kavvum. A responsible remake, it resists the temptation to present an overly dramatic or romantic alternative.

Kashmora: Despite its funny first half, the film is truly a pain to watch. It confuses an inconsistent tone with irreverent comedy. Karthi remains the only watchable thing on the screen, but that is not enough to save the movie.

Iru Mugan: I can’t believe that a film like this gets made in 2016. It is terrible and boring.

Devi: Surprisingly entertaining. Prabhu Deva returns to the screen after a stint behind the camera.

Theri: When I watched last year’s Kaththi, I was stunned by the movie’s quick pace and entertainment value. I expected Vijay to continue the streak with Theri. Unfortunately, this makes me wonder if my time would have been better spent watching Kaththi a second time.

I seem to have watched 13 Tamil movies this year – a high number than usual. Hopefully you find something that interests you in the list. Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Star Wars An Epic Saga’s Personal Journey

The first time I watched a Star Wars movie was during the mid-90s when they were re-released in the theaters after a digital restoration. My older brother and I watched the film with his friends – in hindsight, clearly because my parents would not let him go if he did not take me along with him. We watched this relatively old movie and were still impressed by the stunning visuals and the exciting adventure. We were really looking forward to watching the next two films, whose trailers were played before the screening.

A New Hope: or as I knew it, the Star Wars movie.

However, since it was a re-release, the screening of the three movies were done in quick succession; that is, the next two films followed their way to the cinema in consecutive weeks. Now, those among the readers who know the difficulty of convincing overprotective parents to let a 14 year-old and a 10 year-old to watch a movie with friends, would realize that there is simply no way that such a miracle would occur three weeks in a row. So years passed – and I kid you not, the next time I ever saw a Star Wars movie was in the year 2000 when the Phantom Menace (which I could not watch in the theaters a year earlier) was about to make its TV debut. In the run up leading to the film, the TV channel telecast the original trilogy over three weeks and this time – I could watch all of them. Empire was enjoyable and Return of the Jedi was a fun conclusion, but New Hope remained my favorite for its ability to set-up a fantastic adventure. Having completed watching the original trilogy, I was very excited for Phantom Menace. And no, this post is not going to go the way you think it would.

Star Wars Prequels (1999 – 2005)

Growing up with the prequels

The Prequel trilogy was mind-blowing for someone who did not grow up with the original trilogy. Also, the idea of watching a film that called itself ‘Episode I’ felt very special. Despite being the most reviled of the lot, The Phantom Menace was spectacular for someone who was accustomed to the deliberate pacing of the Originals. Although it gets a lot of negative attention, I really enjoyed seeing the all-powerful Darth Vader as a plucky 10 year-old who could fight for his own freedom in an entertaining pod-race. Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jinn had a calming gravitas and Ewan McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi was a much more interesting protagonist than the very plain Luke Skywalker. Both Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley did a convincing job of being believable resistance fighters despite their young age. Jar Jar Binks was not so much a character, but a novelty of seeing a fully CGI character interact with live-action. The multi-scene climax where the underdogs try to fend themselves against multiple fronts was impressive too – as we waited trying to figure out how exactly the combination to victory would be reached.

Perhaps the most compelling moments in the entire series for me comes in the final lightsaber duel between Darth Maul and the two jedis – especially in that frame when the light doors separate them mid-fight, Maul prowls menacingly, Qui Gon simply kneels down to meditate. That moment shows the stark difference between the Jedis and the Sith. We have been told that the Sith are evil because they have given into the dark side. But this moment best captures the journey to the Dark Side – the impatience, the cruelty and desire for conflict. Of course, Maul may be a better fighter, but his will never be one with the force – he merely seeks to control it for his own purposes. And the music for that scene is one of the finest deployments of a cinematic orchestra.

The second and the third episodes were enjoyable but not as remarkable as the first film. The final moments of the third film hurtled towards its inevitably tragic conclusion. The film achieved something it does not get much credit for – delivering a compelling story where the evil empire has to fully come to power, without destroying the good. Obi Wan’s victory in Mustafar is a poignant moment where his victory is simply a facet of defeat – his failure as a teacher and friend is symptomatic of the Jedis’ inability to fully comprehend the way the Sith have usurped power. Also, the ethical questions of a clone army that follows blindly, is dealt with surprising subtlety. The prequels were not perfect but they introduced the galaxy far, far away to a new generation of audiences – without losing its magic.

The New Star Wars Era

In the hands of the juggernaut Disney studios, I was very skeptical about a new wave of Star Wars films which we were told we would not see the last one in our life-time. That kind of legacy talk usually is between the lines of madness and greed. Despite that, the first two films in the new era have been very impressive. The Force Awakens managed to walk the fine line between nostalgia and looking forward – but Rogue One was particularly stunning in telling a story outside of the Skywalker saga. While the jury is still out on whether Rey is a Skywalker or not, Jyn Erso is a protagonist who is born on the other side of the conflict. Her journey (as well as her father’s) from familiarity with the Empire lifestyle in their early years, apathy with the way things have become and decision to engage with the conflict, all make the Empire more interesting – as it shows that the members of the Empire are not just a monolithic army of clones. This complexity also makes her and her ragtag band of rebels all strikingly different from the protagonists in the Skywalker saga who usually enter the story with a manifest destiny to do something significant. These are not heroes seeking their big moment – but small characters who have done important things with great courage.

Rogue One
[BEGIN SPOILERS]

While trying to avoid sounding entirely like fan-fiction, I only wish that the epic concluding scene in the film did something more than just create a moment of viewer indulgence by showing Darth Vader in his peak as the Empire’s top enforcer. That moment felt as if the producers did not want the audience to become too uncomfortable with the fact that Vader was indeed a ‘bad guy’ – someone ruthless and evil, who killed remorselessly. The squeamishness could be due to a fear of affecting toy sales or simply deciding to keep Vader as a specter above the actual plot of Rogue One. While this is a great strategy that keeps the newly forged world separate from the larger fabric of the Star Wars galaxy, it is also a moment of missed opportunity that could have further complicated the audience’s ambiguous relationship with Vader. If I were to rewrite the closing scenes of the film, I would have a few of the main characters (Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and Bodhi) escape the fateful explosion and bring the files to the rebel ship themselves. And just as they are about to make a successful getaway, Vader lands on the ship. In a final stand, two of them decide to try and fight Vader to allow one of them (Bodhi or Jyn) escape with the plans. Their effort should be inventive but completely ineffective against Vader, and they die in battle. This would have elevated their sacrifice to a more compelling and heroic finish. However, in choosing to give a moment of victory despite the inevitability of death, the narrative grants them obscure deaths from distant explosions. In attempting to preserve their ‘success’, the film undercuts the heroic journey that they have taken to reach that moment. Also, having them replace the nameless victims that Vader plows down in the final scene would also make us care a lot more about his god-like power and the significance of his redemption from the dark side.

So here I am at the other side of 20 years and 8 movies – still looking forward to the next episode in the Star Wars franchise. And I am sure that there are many who are also waiting to return to the story that happened, A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away…

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Captain Fantastic Wasted Potential

Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic promises us an intellectual cinema – by setting up two poles of parenting and living that tease the most interesting of conflicts – but pulls back and offers a Hollywood ending of sweet resolution that reduces a complex philosophical outlook to a simplistic ‘quirk’ of parenting. Thoroughly entertaining, Captain Fantastic ends up as a little more than a gritty Mrs. Doubtfire due to its inability to sustain the engagement with the contradictions of a “return to nature” style of living.

The premise is simple; as reclusive father Ben Cash and his wife have taken their family into the wilderness away from society and technology. They intend to create ‘Philosopher Kings’ in the vein of Plato’s Republic, by training their children to be physically fit and be attuned to the natural world. However, the question of whether such a living is good for the children is raised when they have to come into contact with society. The film falters when trying to address this ambitious question, as it offers a weak, romantic conclusion to a lofty question. White masculinity is central to the film, to the point that we do not see any important characters of color, and the women are reduced to marginal supporting roles – or as Peter Bradshaw calls it “women are either irrelevant, saintly or dead.

Captain Fantastic, a fun watch and little else.
Captain Fantastic, a fun watch and little else.
Misguided Extremism

At the beginning the film, the narrative promises to expose the problems of being an extremist in whatever style of parenting one pursues. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has lectured the children about things that other kids older than them may not know about, from Quantum Physics to hunting and boning an animal [SIDE NOTE: There is a smug elitism in the presumption that only people who can read Dostoevsky and understand Quantum physics are the only ones who can be good parents]. They have also adopted his rigorous values of skepticism and “sticking it to the man.” However, his values that challenge organized religion are also followed as if it were an organized religion – and he berates the children who question his position. And the critical tools that he has given the children do not let him escape, as one of the younger children question why their mother is in the hospital if they think that Americans are over-medicated. The inability to completely address the nuances of the argument reveals a gap between the parents’ intentions and the effects of their actions. Just when the viewer is primed to watch a complex portrayal of alternative parenting, the film reduces everything into a heroic rhetoric. Unfortunately, the film suffers because of its attempts to be “fantastic”.

Ideal Father or A Misguided Sentimentalist
Ideal Father or A Misguided Sentimentalist

One of the scenes which are meant to demonstrate the superiority of the protagonists’ natural living is when Ben questions his nephews about the Bill of Rights. His daughter, younger than her cousins both, is much more articulate about the question and that moment is offered to the viewers as a triumph to Ben’s methods. However, a true examination would have exposed his the flaws in his methods – such as when the son was unable to talk to three girls of his age because of his crippling social anxiety. The film lets Ben off the hook by becoming complicit with his neglectful approach. This also reveals a fundamentally flawed approach to education itself, as stage by stage introduction of material to students is no accident – if we can all skip ahead to the ‘good stuff’, then we will have a generation that has a clear understanding of ideas but no schema of how to situate their understanding within an empathetic framework of human interaction. While the child can speak about the bill of rights, would she be able to ask if the questions apply to her own life? Ben is proud that he encourages his children to read a lot of books ranging from scientific journals to classic novels. One wonders if they also read about the history of civilization and question him about why they are leaving in isolation when human beings throughout history have lived collectively in societies. That question is begging to be asked, but never gets fully articulated in the film.

Worst Offense Against Humanity

[SPOILER] The following clip is the most damning offender in the film, despite providing a sweet resolution to the arc of the mother’s funeral. It presents one of the most naive moments of the ‘return to nature’ motifs in the film. The daughter who had broken her leg due to a poorly conceived rescue-mission of a child who no longer wants to live in the wilderness, was originally using crutches. But for this scene, she has given up her crutches for a misshapen stick as a staff. This moment is both unscientific and hypocritical, as she had recovered through the emergency attention of a public healthcare system. It implies that a metallic crutch – designed expressly to evenly distribute one’s weight and offer some dependable durability – is to be mistrusted in favor of a brittle old stick that offers no proper handle or is constantly under the threat of skidding. It treats scientific progress as a sign of human failure at a symbolic level. [SPOILER]

However, this is inconsistent with their behavior as they inadvertently use many things that science and technology has produced. The weapons that the father gives his children are clearly store-bought – participating in a capitalist world that he critiques at his own convenience. Nor is there a contradiction when he drinks from a wine-glass even while on the road. I am not saying that we have to be absolute in our rejection or belonging of the civilized world; however, if the discourse of the film is strictly against it, then it cannot be oblivious to its own cherry-picking.

Oblivious Parenting

Their comment about the grandparents’ house as an inefficient use of space ironically reeks of blind privilege, because their own forest-land is an inefficient venture compared to say, city living. In these moments, the film is completely oblivious to its characters’ ability and fails to censure their unwillingness to play by any rules that do not appease them. The grandfather, played effortlessly by Frank Langella, comments that he is keeping the children at a stage where they cannot be prepared to face the real world. The frustratingly stubborn Ben stoically replies that he thinks that the opposite is true. However, just a few scenes earlier, his son demolished his certainty saying that he “did not know anything that did not come out of a book.” Ironically, in an effort to challenge bookish learning, he has led his kids away from the society – to become experimental subjects who can never fully relate to a wider community in subtle and coded ways.

Interestingly, this is the problem with the idea of preparing Philosopher Kings even in Plato’s Republic, for he espouses an education that excludes things that he does not think are suitable. However, children growing up in that system will never really know what has been excluded and how it has been selected to be excluded. In turn, the logic of the educator preparing a superior intellect fails, because the educator will always know more than the student – creating generations of diminishing value. That is seen when Ben has a clever ‘mission’ to steal food or evade a police officer – skills he has clearly picked up living amidst people, and something that the children can never really come up with on their own due to their exclusive education. And at this point, the viewer is most hopeful that the film is going to turn its critical eye on the thing that it has presented, but it stops short – because it feels no responsibility towards exposing the hypocrisies of a life that excludes the world while still benefiting from it. The survivalist who celebrates Chomsky’s birthday comes across as pretentious when we consider that Chomsky’s philosophy revolves around trying to make the world a better place for everyone.

At the beginning, I compared this film to a gritty Mrs. Doubtfire, but at least that film comes to terms with the misguided nature of the parent and offers no resolution. In this film, we are presented with an idyllic fantasy which has no consequences for the children who have been separated from the society. They integrate seamlessly and they magically come to be in possession of official documents and skills that have prepared them for the wider world. The film has completely abandoned trying to present the tension between our desire to leave the city and our inability to fully move away from it. That gives us an entertaining but flawed film that could have been so much more.

The views expressed here are a result of a discussion between me, my wife and our flatmate.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Horror to Disaster in Train to Busan

Train to Busan is stunning genre-bending film that makes the best possible Zombie movie by doing something very simple – it stops trying to be a Zombie movie. Instead, director Yeon Sang-ho delivers a thrill-ride of a disaster movie, that offers hope, redemption and heart-pounding suspense. It creates heroes that you can root for and villains that you hate. In short, Train to Busan achieves something that a lot of Hollywood movies seem to struggle to create in their tent-pole movies. This is a quick look at some of the ways in which the movie transcends its premise in a predictable, but enjoyable manner.

A Disaster movie masquerading as a Horror
A Disaster movie masquerading as a Horror

How to Make a Disaster Film?

1, Get to the point quickly

The first three minutes of Train to Busan sets up the entire premise of the film. There is no unnecessary background or details about how the disaster came about. There are no annoying plot points about the origins of the Zombies. Once we enter the train, things do not slow down to introduce the characters. The character introduction happens concurrently with the plot development and the arrival of the zombies.

2, Give every character something to fight for

Every character, from the best to the worst have clear motivations that prompt them to action. While this situation would have been easily exploited by a less artful director to present a series of cliches, Yeon Sang-ho adds subtle touches that make them unique characters. The characters are compelling because each of them are on a journey – literally and figuratively. They all desire something that they seek amidst the challenges of the disaster. The disaster does not become the main point of the film, but serves as the background against which interesting stories are presented. The incorporation of characters that do not have noble motivation deserves a special mention, as they do not serve as just challenges for the protagonists to overcome. Kim Ui-Seong’s Yong-Suk (featured below) is the worst kind of villain that selfishly manipulates characters to his own end; and yet, he adds a certain urgency by grounding the action of the protagonists against the bleak reality of human cruelty.

Yes, even this guy has a convincing character secret
Yes, even this guy has a convincing character secret

3, Establish the rules of the world clearly and simply

This is something that would be useful to many films, not just the horror/disaster genre. The rules of the disaster are kept very simple – 1, people turn into zombies when they are bitten by the zombies. 2, the zombies attack primarily on visual cues. The clarity of the world creates a simple strategy for the characters to navigate and trying to secure their own positions. The protagonists do not have any specialist knowledge that makes them equipped to fight the zombies – they just react in a manner that is more successful due to luck and circumstance. This makes the film that much more thrilling.

4, Surprise the audience’s expectations

Once the rules are explained clearly, the film starts to gently play around with the level of complexity in which the rules are deployed. At times, it holds off a few rules that come as logical extensions of the previous ideas but still manage to surprise us with their inventive simplicity. [SPOILER] When we realize that the zombies can only see in bright light, the protagonists have a chance to succeed where they had none before [SPOILER]. However, any change in the rules presents a fresh set of challenges that reinvigorate the way the characters are required to play the game.

5, Deliver on the Obvious

Of course, the biggest problem with Zombie or any horror genre movie is the obviousness of the litany of characters that are going to die. The sequence is where the film stretches the viewers’ anticipation. We have characters that are best suited to be in a Zombie film, like Gong Yoo’s character Seok Woo, who is flawed and petty at the beginning of the film. The disaster gives him a chance to evaluate his priorities and exceed his limitations when the moment comes.

6, Create Unlikely Heroes

The film succeeds in capturing the spirit of survival as the most precious of human traits by calling upon the heroic in the most ordinary people. Ma Dong-Seok’s Sang-Hwa enters the film as a brash macho stock-character whom we expect to exit the film quickly. But he rises to the occasion in a way that is unexpected over the course of the film. From a homeless man to a baseball playing youth, the heroes of the film are not experts. They surprise themselves with their heroic deeds that spring from necessity. When they succeed, a part of us succeeds as well.

Enter, Unlikely heroes. Exit, Legendary Zombie fighters.
Enter, Unlikely heroes. Exit, Legendary Zombie fighters.

I am not particularly fond of the Zombie movie genre for a simple reason – I usually get bored watching them. Despite renewed public interest in the genre due to The Walking Dead franchise, Zombie movies like the Resident Evil series and the divisive World War Z have followed the path of least resistance when it comes to plot development. My favorite Zombie films have been the ones that deliberately deconstruct the genre, like Zombieland (2009), Shaun of the Dead (2004), or 28 Days Later (2002). Each of these films subvert established conventions to build a compelling narrative. Some of the best films blend genres so convincingly that you do not even realize which genre you are watching , like the bloodlessly horrifying Contagion (2011). In the same vein, Train to Busan uses the frame of the Zombie film genre but brilliantly exceeds it with its simple, but moving plot. The record-breaking success of the film that has already grossed more than 100 times of its budget stands testament to the film’s popularity.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.