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Gully Boy

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Somewhere in the streets of Mumbai, up-and-coming Muslim rapper Murad aka Gully Boy (Ranveer Singh) lies down on his bed and dreams of an India free from social disparity. He sits with headphones on, not to drown out the sounds of his mother fighting with his abusive father about his second wife, but to unleash his frustration at a class system that defines impoverished people like him as unworthy.

His grandmother, who sleeps a few metres away from him, watches as the drama between his mother and father escalates into violence. If the heat of the argument didn’t make the room feel smaller than it already is, the tourists who pay to tour their house – buying into Indian struggle as a form of spiritual enlightenment – do not help the situation either.

These hardships inspire Gully Boy’s raps with lyrics flowing through him like lava in a volcano. It is not enough for these lyrics to remain hidden on his phone. For Gully Boy, he must be the change he wishes to see in India, or else he remains just another dreamer.

A hip-hop fairy-tale, the parallels between Gully Boy and 8 Mile are evident. Murad, a boy from a poor background, rises-up in the Mumbai hip-hop scene and uses the platform as a soapbox to inspire change. Anything less in Gully Boy’s mind would be an acceptance of oppression, with Director Zoya Akhtar cleverly using hip-hop as a voice of rejection towards classist norms embedded in Indian culture.

Gully Boy is frustrated at the state of modern rap – seeing it less as a voice of the people and more as a voice for materialism. He hears what the world thinks of him when he participates in rap battles, with competitors reducing him because of the status of his ‘servant’ father. Rather than be ashamed of his upbringing, Gully Boy celebrates the hustle his family goes through by turning all disses about his social standing into recognition of his fight to survive. These barbs have less bite when translated from Hindi to English (“Your biggest dog is a poodle on my street” being one of the many highlights) but when considered in the context of a male-centric Indian culture, they go straight for the jugular.

Despite being restrained by cultural norms that prevent complete independence, Akhtar ensures there is no shortage of strong women featured in Gully Boy. Student-doctor and love interest of Murad, Safeena (an impressive Alia Bhatt), is a driving force for change in the film thanks to her refusal to remain complacent. Safeena is frustrated by a regressive system that disadvantages women so much that she chooses to be defiant if-not independent.

The music in Gully Boy comes through as kinetic, creating a heavy vibe that matches the rising frustration felt by a new wave of young Indians fighting against discriminatory traditions. The continued use of high energy music helps keep the film burning, which when you factor in the two-and-a-half-hour length (half an hour shy of Avengers: Endgame), helps keep the viewers’ mind from any impending numbness.

All elements considered, Gully Boy exists as an important rejection of discrimination and represents a progressive foot forward for Indian cinema.

 
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The Great Battle

Asian Cinema, Film Festival, Review, This Week, Trailer Leave a Comment

Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Two Towers ‘Helms Deep’ battle looms large in this South Korean period action epic, loosely based around historical events from 625AD, during the Tang Dynasty when Chinese emperor Taizong was rolling across outlying nations unopposed. His armies attempted to annex the nation of Goguryeo, on the Korean peninsula.

In a version of the Thermopylae scenario (immortalised in Zack Snyder’s 300) where an outnumbered few stood against many, a rag-tag handful of crazy-brave warriors stand against Emperor Taizong (Park Sun-Woong) and his 200,000 strong army. The five thousand warriors take refuge within the walls of the Fortress of Ansi, commanded by Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung). The odds are not good.

While director Kim Kwang-sik goes for a fairly classical treatment of the material, there’s a good amount of creative liberty taken with the plot and execution. The story begins as a young officer named Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk) is despatched to the fortress of Ansi, where Commander Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung) has supposedly gone rogue and become disloyal to his lord, Yeon Gaesomun (played by Yu Oh-seong who starred in the recent South Korean film The Spy Gone North).

After spending time with Commander Yang Manchun, the young officer wrestles with his own loyalty to his orders and whether this man is a traitor or a well-loved leader of a large civilian populace and army. Once Emperor Taizong and his armies arrive, the testing of the people within the fortress begins and the young Samul sees real sacrifice and honour, first-hand.

Given the extensive battle sequences, it’s no surprise that their nimble execution is paramount. There’s a very stylised approach to the violence, including ye olde Zack Snyder-style ramping slow-mo effect (that 300 made famous) that ensures the audience can clearly see the jets of claret and slicing swords, something Kim Kwang-sik deploys with aplomb. CG aerial views and close-quarters combat meld with a visceral intensity that indulges in some CG enhanced bloodletting and hyper-stylised fight choreography that’s more than a little Manga inspired.

Overall, this rip-roaring battle epic has genuinely got the goods, with big emotions and accessible characters, while never descending into saccharine theatrics; it chugs along like a rollicking hybrid of Seven Samurai, 300 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Terrifically enjoyable.

 
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Rampant

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Horror, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Hyun Bin and director Kim Sung-hoon teamed up last year for the South Korean buddy cop actioner Confidential Assignment, which showcased Kim Sung-hoon’s keen eye for action filmmaking. Rampant sees them teaming up again, though this time it’s for a zombie extravaganza set in feudal Korea, in the kingdom of Joseon.

The setup is convoluted but in a nutshell: Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) summons his carousing, roguish brother Lee Chung (Hyun Bin) back to the kingdom after years spent away (for reasons unknown). The cause for the Crown Prince’s invitation is that his kingdom is besieged by a zombie infestation that he hopes his estranged brother (who’s also a renowned sword fighter) can assist in quelling.

Sumptuously photographed and with lavish production design, this fusion of historical epic and zombie gore-fest largely works on the level of spectacle and for the most part, it chugs along with percussive momentum, setting up and executing terrifically enjoyable set-pieces.

The performances are curiously unengaging in terms of characterisation, which is not to say they’re unenjoyable, it’s only that they lack any semblance of irreverent humour or a knowing wink at the audience but Oldboy writer Hwang Jo-yoon and director Kim Sung-hoon are playing this for its drama, the only issue being that the drama is deeply ordinary and devoid of emotional heft.

There is enjoyably gruesome zombie imagery and when it does kick into high gear during the many set-pieces, it never seems to fall headlong into being a satisfying all-out zombie actioner, which would sate the horror crowd; it instead prefers to maintain a statelier period tone and try to play to a wider audience.

For fans of the undead genre and the frenzied spilling of arcing jets of claret, this is an entertaining ride through a juxtaposition of genre tropes; for the horror uninitiated, it may be too much of a gory punch to the face that lacks the ‘feels’ to pull you through the story.

 
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Parasite

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.

Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.

By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.

Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.

Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.

The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.

There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.