Zhang Yimou's Ying (Shadow; Chinese) plays like an all-action, zero-psychology take on Kurosawa's Kagemusha (which shared the Palme d'Or with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival). The latter film was about a shadow warrior, a lookalike used as a body double (especially when the "original" warrior is wounded or dead) to prevent political chaos. In Ying, the shadow warrior is employed by a weakened commander, and despite the occasional character shading (the shadow warrior is afraid of the darkness; he sleeps on the floor, with the lamp lit all night), Zhang isn't after what it means to be a shadow warrior, and so forth. The narrative strokes are simpler, broader: betrayal, jealousy, revenge. It doesn't matter. Kurosawa, in the twilight of his career, made an existential epic. Zhang makes a martial epic.
The set-up is too long for a story this basic, but then, like many of Zhang's latter-day films, Ying is primarily about the fetishistically colour-coded look. The film is visualised in the style of a Chinese ink brush painting, and it unfolds in a desaturated, black-and-white world, the only colours coming from the actors' skin, or the green vegetation on a grey cliff, or the red of blood spilled in battle. (The cinematographer is Zhao Xiaoding, who also shot Zhang's House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower.) The central action piece is a stunner. A huge raft — big as a building — floats through a gorge, with apparently only the shadow warrior inside. But… I'll leave that for you to discover, but worshippers of the carefully designed frame should keep themselves alert for the taichi design on the raft's roof. It's why the overhead shot was invented.
Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale (in English, Palawa kani, Gaelic) — also known as the only Competition film, this year, directed by a woman — makes you wonder if it's part of the lineup only because of that gender consideration. We have to have at least one film that's not directed by a man, so… Even if that was what happened, there are many women-directed films in the other sections (say, Mary Harron's Charlie Says) that you could pick over this one. Then again, instead of talking about female filmmakers, isn't it more useful to talk about female representation on film? Of course, we want more female filmmakers. But if male filmmakers make strong female-oriented films — The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos, Soni by Ivan Ayr (see below) — does that not count? What's more important — more women behind the screen, or more stories about women on the screen?
The Nightingale — Kent's second directorial effort after the smash-hit horror film, The Babadook — isn't a bad film; merely an unremarkable one we seem to have seen many times before. (This isn't an issue at the local multiplex, but surely one desires uniqueness at a film festival celebrating the best of world cinema. The same complaint could be levied against the male-directed been-there-seen-that crime drama, Close Enemies, which I wrote about a few days ago.) In a loose sense, The Nightingale is an arthouse variation on Neil Jordan's The Brave One, in which Jodie Foster turned vigilante after her fiancé is killed by a bunch of thugs. Here, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish former-convict in Australia (the year is 1825), is determined to make British officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin) pay for wiping out her family. Add to this premise a touch from Ron Howard's The Missing, where Cate Blanchett, in the Old West, was helped by an Apache tracker in her quest to hunt down a bunch of evil Indians. Here, Clare is aided by an Aborigine named Billy (Bayakali Ganambarr).
The lack of an original story isn't a sin when there are so many original touches — it's chiefly the feminine gaze. Clare's breasts ache for her dead baby. They seem to be weeping with milk. Even Clare's revenge isn't the kind we saw with Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films, which were directed by a man. There, it was a physical act. Here, it's an emotional assertion: "I belong to me and no one else." And unlike Kill Bill's heroine, Clare isn't a superwoman. In an amazing stretch, she butchers one of Hawkins's associates, but where Uma Thurman would have relished the kill, Clare recoils from it. You can see she wants her revenge, but it was easier when it was just an idea in the head. In real life, men are stronger, flesh is tougher, blood is ickier. You can almost hear her think: "Can I keep doing this?"
But touches can only take you so far when the material is so basic, so generic. And some of the touches are downright embarrassing, like how the mystic connection between Clare and Billy is emphasised by their bird-related nicknames. (She's a singer, called Nightingale. He's a free spirit, called Blackbird.) The director tries for Jane Campion stylisations, like artsy nightmares set in rugged terrains — these come off like student-film excesses. Most eye-rolling of all is the bond that slowly develops between Clare and Billy. At first, she says, "I am not going with a Black." But slowly, the initial mistrust gives way to grudging admiration and affection — yes, like the relationship between Rod Steiger's bigoted sheriff and Sidney Poitier's "noble savage" in In the Heat of the Night. That film came out in 1967. Coming five decades later, shouldn't The Nightingale give us at least a little that's new? I walked out of the screening, wondering how the film would have been received had it been made by a man.
The Orrizonti (Horizons) section of the Venice Film Festival has seen Indian entries like Chaitanya Tamhane's Court (2014) and Vetri Maaran's Visaranai (2015). This year, we have Ivan Ayr's feature debut, Soni (Hindi), which revolves around a New Delhi sub-inspector (Soni, played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and her supervisor, Kalpana (Saloni Batra). This is a rare kind of feminist film. On the one hand, we have masculine oppressors of every stripe: a man who harasses a woman on a bicycle at night, men who do drugs in the ladies' toilet, schoolboys who play a cruel joke on a classmate having her period, cops who demand a bribe, a man who abandons his wife after a trauma, a Navy hotshot who drinks and drives, and even idiots who crank-call the police helpline and ask for the woman-cop's number. But there is no anger against them. Soni is less of a polemic, more of a quiet character study. It's more interested in observing Soni and Kalpana as they negotiate these men, these situations.
Like Chaitanya Tamhane and Gurvinder Singh, Ivan Ayr speaks the language of international cinema, and yet, services the inherent Indianness of his story. We are seeing a new generation of filmmakers who aren't simply aping an accepted arthouse style, but instead respecting the rigour and craft it takes to tell a story while also respecting the audience. Despite the horrors listed in the paragraph above, there is no melodrama. Soni is a fly-on-the-wall observation of the days in these women's lives, with each scene captured in a single take. (The cinematographer is David Bolen.) It's an artistic choice that isn't about showing off so much as immersing us in these events without editing manipulations (like reaction shots). It works beautifully.
Even the clash of personalities isn't a device to bring about fiery drama. Soni is the quintessential middle-class Angry Young Woman, who acts first and thinks later. (Geetika is phenomenally real; she brings to mind the early Anita Kanwar.) Kalpana is an upper-class cop with a penchant for protocol. When Soni beats up a harasser, Kalpana says she should have followed the rules, but later, we see there's concern, too. What if the man was carrying a weapon? Soni is a true "women's film." It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, and yet, there are man problems. Soni is estranged from her husband. (Her badge doesn't have a last name.) Kalpana has to keep crossing the personal/professional boundary with her husband (also a senior cop), while fending off hints that it's time she had a baby. I kept thinking about the matter of gaze. Soni proves that the gender of the filmmaker isn't as important as the sensitivity, the empathy they bring to the table. That's a good thought with which to close this year's Venice Film Festival.