The captain of the ship

Posted on February 11, 2017


Sensing the director’s touch, at the recently concluded Bengaluru International Film Festival.

At a film festival, the brochure is invaluable. It gives you a plot synopsis of the films being screened. It gives you a note about the filmmaker. This not only helps in deciding whether you want to give this particular film a shot, but in the case of something like The Age of Shadows, which I caught at the 9th Bengaluru International Film Festival, it provides a narrative framework that helps you hold on even as the film overwhelms you, threatens to slip away into a maze of characters and subplots. Every time the 140-minute film, directed by Kim Jee-woon and set in the late 1920s, turned too sprawling for its own good, I just had to recall what the brochure said was going on: the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them. 

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I cannot recommend this film enough. The plot isn’t new (replace the characters with Americans and Germans, and it’s the plot of any Hollywood-made WWII movie about a dangerous mission), but the film is a great answer to the question: Just what does the director do? Yes, we all know he is, as the cliché goes, “the captain of the ship,” but there isn’t one particularly obvious aspect of the film we can attribute to him. You look at the visuals, and you know that’s the cinematographer’s work. You see a dissolve or a cut, and you know the editor’s done that. You see an actor act, delivering lines written by the screenwriter. But what do we point to in order to say this is what the director did?

In The Age of Shadows, you could point to the opening sequence, featuring a small army in pursuit of a single man. Even if you haven’t read the plot synopsis in the brochure, even if you don’t know who’s chasing whom, who these people are and why it’s so necessary to capture this man, the stretch works beautifully. Or perhaps we should say that the stretch works even better if you know nothing and are absorbing the sequence as just pure, abstracted action. One man runs. These other men chase. He runs. They chase. And on and on it goes. On passageways. Over rooftops. The camera angles, taking in the formations of the army, are astounding – but wouldn’t this be the work of the cinematographer, the action director? Watch the rest of the film – especially a stunning, suspenseful, Hitchockian set piece on a train, lasting about 30 minutes – and you’ll know it isn’t just them, that the director’s vision has been the guiding force, the glue.

It’s like how you know that, despite the extraordinary contributions by everyone in the cast and crew, The Godfather is really Francis Ford Coppola’s film. The way scenes go on without a background score and the next scene is hinted at by sound that comes a few seconds early, the way scenes breathe between dialogues – it all points to a central vision. That’s how you know what the director has done. You can feel it.

You can feel it even in a film that doesn’t work, like Carlos del Castillo’s Colombian drama Between Sea and Land, which is about a man, Alberto, confined to bed due to a condition called distonia, which causes a gradual degradation of muscles. A key scene between Alberto’s mother and the girl who’s his childhood friend (but, in his mind, something more) is shot at night, in very little light. It’s a hugely emotional scene, but we don’t see the faces, and without facial reactions to latch on to, we are guided by the lines, the voices. One scene like this may be an accident, but two point to a deliberate pattern. When we see a second emotional scene shot the same way – this one’s between Alberto’s mother and her old friend – we sense the touch of a director.

A much better “director’s movie” I watched at the festival was Revelations (Tamil), by Vijay Jayapal. I didn’t care for the last 15 minutes, where, as if realising what the film’s name is, the story lurches from one melodramatic revelation to another. But till then, Jayapal exhibits masterful control. The story revolves around neighbours, and through his careful shaping of scenes and rationing out of information, Jayapal achieves the effect of spying on neighbours, giving us a sense of who they are and what they are up to but not really being sure of anything. You sense the director’s presence in the pace, the length for which shots are held, in the way the geography of the multi-storey house – up, down, in, out – becomes a character. With a good director, plot is almost beside the point.

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