The German woman ahead of me in the line (it was a public screening) said she liked to watch films that gave her a glimpse of other cultures. I don’t know if Henrika Kull’s Jibril qualifies exactly, given that it’s about Arabs settled in Germany, but then, one could make the case that any film that depicts events distant from our own experience is a window into another culture. Maryam (Susanna Abdulmajid), at first, seems unremarkable. She’s a single mother with three young daughters (the oldest is 12), and she has assimilated into her adopted homeland without forsaking her roots. She speaks fluent German and Arabic, and if she doesn’t wear a hijab, like her friend does, she does invite an imam to officiate her wedding. That’s where the foreignness of experience comes in — for Jibril (Malik Adan), the man Maryam is getting married to, over the phone, is in jail.
Maryam’s mother believes that true love is something that grows with time, like it happened with her and Maryam’s father — but Maryam isn’t about to dismiss more instant gratifications. You see the mother’s point. Which “sensible” single mother falls for a con? If it’s a physical thing, why doesn’t Maryam go out with the kindly colleague who clearly likes her? But then, does love ever make “sense”? The director divides her film into chapters: Spring, Summer… all the way to New Year’s Eve. And in this passage of time, we witness the passage of Maryam’s push-pull emotions. At one point, after dolling up to meet Jibril (her daughter says she looks like a clown), she decides not to. Jibril questions the very nature of love, and the constant close-ups give us the sense of being Maryam’s confidante. One part of you wants to knock sense into her. Another asks, who are we to judge?
Every year, the Berlinale section titled Culinary Cinema screens films that showcase food. It’s the kind of cinema where the reviews typically say “don’t watch this on an empty stomach.” Kim Ki-duk’s new film is also about food, but the reviews would advise you to not watch it on a full stomach. Even given the South Korean auteur’s fascination with blood and gore, Human, Space, Time and Human is quite something. This isn’t just about a man being shot through the eye, vividly demonstrating the advancements in prosthetics and makeup since The Godfather depicted a similar act of violence. This is also about the line: “I am sick of eating human meat.”
The film opens innocently enough, with blue seas and a ship filled with people. But soon, the political undertones become apparent. This is no cruise ship. It’s an old warship that, as a young man says, “reeks of blood… Many people must have died here.” There’s the man’s wife (that they have chosen to honeymoon here is a sign that this story is crammed with portent), a politician and his son, a few sex workers, a few gangsters. The disparate group suggests a microcosm, and at first, we seem to be witnessing a class struggle. Those lower in the pecking order resent the politician’s elaborate meals, with wine. Plus, he’s in a suite and they are packed together like rats. Soon, we slip into the promise of the synopsis: “a parable about the beast in humankind.”
The strong prey on the weak. The men prey on women. Even with this director’s penchant for excess, it’s debatable whether two instances of gang rape were necessary to drive home the point. But Kim keeps you guessing. Are we watching an allegory about a totalitarian regime (like North Korea) that crushes dissent? But at the end of the first part (each word in the title gets its own chapter), something strange and surreal happens. I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll just say we see why this stretch is called “Space.”
Human, Space, Time and Human is a fascinating mix of genres. At least, there are tropes we recognise from the haunted-house thriller (or the ones about a serial killer on the loose) and understated seventies sci-fi like Silent Running (where an ecologist maintains a greenhouse in outer space in order to preserve plants for future generations). There’s definitely a touch of Mutiny on the Bounty. Throw in a hijack drama, or even post-apocalyptic survival story. Most of all, Kim seems to have fashioned a Biblical allegory. The warship is the Ark. The woman survivor is Eve. It’s about rebirth, repopulating the earth. When food runs out, the politician urges his son to eat him. “Dying is not the end,” he says. “I will keep living within you.” Death nourishes life.
I wish some of these points had been hammered home less obviously (and less repetitively), but this is easily Kim’s most philosophical outing since Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring and it makes you chew on the question about art and artist. Last December, it surfaced that, on the sets of Moebius (2013), Kim forced an actress to perform an unscripted sex scene (shades of what Bertolucci did in Last Tango in Paris) and slapped her while demonstrating a violent sequence. He was indicted and fined. His press conference in Berlin was almost all about this, with irate journalists demanding to know why the festival had invited him, especially as it has made known its solidarity with the #MeToo movement. And yet again, you wonder: Is the work of a great filmmaker tainted because it was made by a not-great human being?
French directors have a way of, well, Frenchifying thriller novels. When René Clément took on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr.Ripley — the film was called Purple Noon — the emphasis was less on plot and motivation than the chilling sociopathy of the protagonist. Benoît Jacquot’s approach to James Hadley Chase’s Eve — the film is called Eva — abstracts the plot even further. The femme fatale, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is cold, mysterious, hardly fatale. Gaspard Ulliel plays the writer who made his reputation with a stolen manuscript, and what he feels for Eva is hardly the obsessive love from the book. I am not a champion of fidelity to source material, but Eva makes you wonder just what was it about the book that the director found so interesting. Frenchification is one thing. Frustration quite another.