New Delhi | Updated: March 2, 2021 4:18:29 pm
Instead of trudging up and down the Berlinale Palast, I spent the first day of the virtual 71st Berlin International Film Festival, like all other accredited journalists, in front of my computer. Navigating the platform proved easy, the films ran smoothly, and by the end of the day, I was six films down, of which two stood out.
South Korea’s master of pleasing arthouse minimalism Hong Sang-soo is back in Berlin for the fifth time with his beguiling ‘Introduction’. The 66-minute film has three moving parts. It follows a young man as he visits his father, his girlfriend, and his mother. It sounds banal. What can be special about a young man, who doesn’t appear very special at all, waiting on a bench in his doctor father’s clinic, arriving in a town where his girlfriend lives, or staring at the waves on a windy beach as he absorbs the lessons his mother’s lunch companion imparts? And yet we listen, with attention, as these people converse, and start assembling into concrete shapes.
To use wispy dialogue in order to create significance is signature Hong. The director knows exactly how to reel us in, and to make us stay invested in a story which seems to flow with such fluidity that you never know where you are going to end. Switches in points-of-view come when you least expect them: the girlfriend appears to be driving the second segment, but by the time it finishes, we see the young man, who is the reason for the girl’s flushed, happy face, owning it.
As with all Hong’s films, ‘Introduction’ is not overtly concerned about plot. It is more interested in characters revealing themselves in life-like conversations. Why is Young-ho so distant from his father? Why does he show up in Berlin, out of the blue, where his girlfriend lives? What is his real reason for not wanting to become an actor? Is his mother’s famous actor pal, a ‘legend’ according to his fans, just a friend, or lover, or mentor, or all of the above? Hong doesn’t give us any answers. But then that’s not his way. We are left savouring this bite-sized offering, clearly made during the pandemic (there’s an oblique reference to the restaurant being so empty but essential for the safety of its patrons), and the intangibles that make our lives so interesting.
The prolific Hong won the Best Director award at last year’s Berlinale with ‘The Woman Who Ran’, and is one of the heavyweights of the festival’s line-up, clearly impacted and shortened by the unprecedented lockdown year.
‘Brother’s Keeper’, Ferit Karahan’s second feature, is everything that ‘Introduction’ is not. It has a strongly structured plot, and near-expository dialogue, but it also transports us to a place and time, like all good films.
A boys’ boarding school in Turkey is run by authoritarian male teachers who appear to enjoy cracking the whip. When 11-year-old Memo falls gravely sick, his anxious friend Yusef is the only one by his side. It’s not as if the teachers he goes to for help are actively cruel; as they shove the blame around, without taking any responsibility for the sick boy, it is clear that they are all complicit.
Okul Tıraşı Fragman / Brother’s Keeper first English Trailer for Berlinale Panorama @berlinale @berlin_talents @gulistanacet @melihselcuk @cansu_firinci #ekinkoç #kanatdoğrmacı #okultıraşı #brotherskeeper pic.twitter.com/n4SaCMxqL6
— ferit karahan (@karahanferit) February 19, 2021
Anyone who’s been to a boarding school will recognise the atmosphere of casual cruelty, bordering on sadism, that prevails in the bathing cubicles crowded by little boys, and supervised by an older student at communal bath times. Joshing around can turn swiftly into hectoring and bullying, and sometimes it can descend into hell. Little Memo is part of a bunch punished by a teacher with the ‘cold water treatment’, which means that they are not allowed to use hot water to sluice off soap. By the end of the enforced bath, we can see the boys shivering: at any other time, it may have been okay, but it’s snowing relentlessly, and everything is freezing.
Yusef lugs Memo, unable to walk or talk, to the sick-room. It isn’t a situation that the ‘sick-room monitor’, another older boy, is able to handle. ‘I can only give out aspirin for headaches’, he retorts, when a teacher turns upon him angrily. Implying, without saying, that anything more serious is the domain of the grown-ups. Karahan’s skill lies in steadily ratcheting up the anxiety and fear in the faces of everyone present in the sick-room, slippery with sleet, as they recognise that they are all to blame. And we are left with Yusef’s haunted eyes, and some questions: why is growing up so hard, and does discipline have to be so draconian?
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