Cure is about a mad society, where both cure and sickness might be one and the same. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa subverts the police procedural into an interrogation without definite answers, an abstract study on the evil that resides and is suppressed in every person’s heart. Unlike most horror films, Cure’s scares are left in plain sight, hypnotically mesmerizing as they are gruesome, with a sense of mundanity associated with other Japanese masters like Ozu or Kore-eda. “At the time it just seemed the right thing to do,” a man answers when asked why he killed his wife, and it is this contradictorily calm, nonchalant demeanor that creates a feeling of unease in the film’s horror aesthetic.
13 Contributions by: Gerald Cajayon
Fear of abandonment is at the heart of The Vanishing. Lovers Rex and Saskia are separated on their way to France after the latter vanishes without a trace. For the next three years, Rex dedicates his life to finding out what happened to Saskia in whatever way possible, endangering his own safety in the process. George Sluizer’s chilling psychological thriller shows the evils that curiosity and obsession can bring, and is a uniquely perverse look at the ugly side of truth-seeking.
Everything about This Is Not a Film revolves around state censorship. Documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb records Iranian cinema giant Jafar Panahi’s life under house arrest, maneuvering through the legal loopholes on Panahi’s 20-year ban on filmmaking and screenwriting. Here Panahi describes one of his unmade films that was rejected by the Iranian ministry, creating makeshift sets out of tape and his apartment’s living room, further emphasizing the ridiculousness of the state-imposed limitations on his artistic freedom. The result is a quasi-documentary that functions paradoxically, its un-cinematic quality essential for aesthetics as well as narrative. That this film had to be smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake is a testament to political cinema’s power to be a vessel of pro-democracy sentiments, a fist raised proudly against state censors.
How do you get rid of an irremovable stain? In Lodge Kerrigan’s psychological thriller, characters shave the dirt off in hopes of returning things to their original pristine state. In the process of doing so, however, permanent damage is incurred, which begs the question: is the eradication of filth correspond to cleansing?
Through erratic editing and an unsettling sound design, not only does Clean, Shaven put its audience in the disturbed mind of the protagonist Peter Winter, it also effectively depicts his struggle (and inability) to retain sanity amidst a prejudiced society. The film contrasts post-Cold War paranoia with the nobility of paternal love, and finds tragedy in Peter’s futile attempts to prove his “cleanliness” in a world intent to brand him as dirty.
Sisters Martine and Filippa, daughters of a founder of a religious sect, live a simple and quiet life in a remote coastal village in Denmark. Throughout the course of their lives, they reject possible romances and fame as part of their commitment to deny earthly attachments. This is upended by the sudden arrival of a French immigrant named Babette, who served as their house help to escape the civil war raging in her country.
Babette’s Feast is an inquiry into simplicity and kindness, and whether these would be sufficient to achieve a life of contentment. The religious undertones perfectly fit with the film’s parable-like structure, where bodily and spiritual appetites are satisfied through a sumptuous feast of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.
“It is better to live miserable than to die happy,” or so says one of the characters in Jia Zhangke’s anthology film A Touch of Sin. On its surface, the “sin” referenced in the title might pertain to the acts of murder that the four protagonists commit, but in the context of China’s rapidly changing capitalist landscape (a theme explored in the director’s other pictures), it reveals itself as a malady shared by Chinese laborers treated as dispensable resources by the powers-that-be. Murder, then, is explored as an extremity, the effectual breaking point of people no longer able to contain the injustice within themselves. Beneath the splatters of blood is a plea for empathy and understanding, at once remorseful and full of conviction.
Forlorn longing envelops Days of Being Wild, where the act of dreaming is as valuable as its actual fulfillment. “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams,” Yuddy tells Su Li-zhen on their first meeting, and indeed, this line of dialogue sets the film’s main contradiction: would you rather trap yourself in the trance-like beauty of dreams or face the unpleasant possibilities of reality? Wong Kar-wai’s characters each have their own answers, with varying subplots intersecting through the consequences of their decisions. In the end, happiness comes in unexpected ways, granted only to those brave enough to wake up and dream again.
Millennium Actress, from famed animation director Satoshi Kon, is about lives lived and unlived. It follows Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress from Japan’s golden age of cinema, as she recounts her life to two documentarians making a film about the history of the now-defunct Ginei Studios. Kon employs a metafilm narrative approach, framing Chiyoko’s lifelong search for her great love through the movie roles she has played, all interweaved through Kon’s stunning genre switches and signature match cuts. Millennium Actress poignantly explores the bittersweet irony of “larger-than-life” cinema, how it can contain a multitude of lifetimes and still be lacking, and how films serve as extensions of memories and yearning.
Two elderly gay men, Pak and Hoi, start a secret relationship during their twilight years. The catch: Pak is married and both are, well, old. Beneath their shared moments of tenderness, there is an undercurrent that the romance is ultimately futile, their remaining years too short to start life anew. Yet at the same time, director Ray Yeung uses the protagonists’ old age as justification for their love affair. Having dedicated their entire lives to their families and loved ones, romance is presented as a rewarding experience indicative of queer freedom, no matter how ill-fated or short-lived it might be.
Based on the short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” by Leo Tolstoy, The Woman Who Left is a film about people with nowhere to go. Set in 1990s Philippines, the film follows Horacia, an ex-convict seeking revenge on her former lover who masterminded her unjust 30-year imprisonment. Along the way, she meets various people—a hunchback balut vendor, vagabonds, and an epileptic trans woman, among others—all downtrodden in their own unique ways and united only by their nightly wanderings, with whom Horacia’s true nature is revealed and reconfigured with every encounter.
Lav Diaz’s signature slow cinema minimalism and sharp chiaroscuro lighting allow for a meditative experience, further enhancing the film’s immersive quality. Despite its bleak atmosphere, The Woman Who Left remains hopeful amidst moral quandaries, where things eventually fall into their rightful place, albeit in unexpected ways.
Film direction—at least in the traditional sense—is all about establishing control. In Even the Rain, however, the crew led by director Sebastian faces a problem larger than what they can manage when they become embroiled in a local conflict over water supply while shooting a period film in Bolivia. The situation escalates into a violent uprising between the residents and the Bolivian state forces, which then endangers the completion of Sebastian’s film.
Even the Rain exposes the hypocrisy of urban filmmaking, questioning its exploitative and selfish tendencies. “Some things are more important than your film,” the actor Daniel bluntly tells Sebastian in one scene. This meta-commentary extends to the audience and encourages us to reevaluate the importance we put into films, especially with regards to the current socio-political context.
For the background singers featured in 20 Feet from Stardom, music is a vocation. It is not merely an occupation or a pastime; it is a way of life, a “higher calling,” as the legendary Lisa Fischer would say. For 90 minutes, director Morgan Neville superbly maps out the development of back-up singing in the US throughout the decades, exploring its deep connection with African-American culture and women’s history. It’s fun to finally put names and faces on the oohs and aahs we hear on records aplenty, but the film always finds its grounding on the singers’ own unique voices, where its true soul lies.
On his first day of class in the remote village of Lunana, the city teacher Ugyen asks his students what they want to be when they grow up. One of the children, a young boy named Sangay, answers that he aspires to be a teacher “because a teacher touches the future.” Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, however, subverts this thematic by spending most of its runtime showing how the villagers touch Ugyen’s heart through genuine acts of kindness, forcing him to rethink his long-term dream of becoming a singer in Australia.
Not only does Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom succeed in its heartfelt dramatization of a Gen Z finding his place in the highlands, it also serves as a propagandistic validation of Bhutan’s “happiest country in the world” epithet. In doing so, the film presents the Bhutanese mountains in as breathtakingly picturesque a manner as possible, limning a paradise through the grassy meadows and children’s faces.