Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2015

Court; A Hard Day

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

New Yorkers have an extraordinary opportunity to see Asian films at their best this week. Opening at the Film Forum on Wednesday July 15th is “Court”, an Indian film about a judicial system that functions as an arm of the police by making it impossible for radicals to enjoy the rights of legal protection supposedly guaranteed in a democracy. In a real sense, the title of the film might have been “Kangaroo Court”. Two days later the Korean film “A Hard Day” arrives at the Village East. Once again if we play with titles, it has an affinity with “A Hard Day’s Night”, Richard Lester’s classic about the Fab Four given its comic inventiveness and visual panache—all the more surprising since it at first blush it seems like just another policier.

If you walked into the theater in the middle of one of the frequent courtroom scenes in “Court” without knowing anything about the film in advance, you might assume that it is an Indian documentary in the Frederick Wiseman cinéma vérité style. It lacks the melodramatic style of something like “A Few Good Men” or “Erin Brockovich”. With almost no rhetorical flourishes of the sort that would help some actor get singled out for a best acting award, most of the dialog sounds exactly what you would hear if you were serving on jury duty. There is minutiae about evidence and instructions from the judge who looks like the human equivalent of the dormouse in Alice’s tea party. You almost expect him to fall asleep at his bench.

Director Chaitanya Tamhane explained his approach in the press notes:

When it came to shooting these scenes, we wanted to maintain a certain distance and objectivity. Instead of fiction films of the genre, which often aim for a subjective experience, we referred to documentary footage of actual trials. Since you cannot get permission to shoot in an actual courtroom, we had to build a set, which recreated the atmosphere of a lower court. No photography or documentation is allowed in the courts, so the production designers had to work from memory and rely on the notes they had made secretly while attending trials.

The matter-of-factness of the film actually serves to accentuate the human drama not only of its main characters but the state of justice in India as a whole today. In the opening seen that takes place in a Mumbai slum, a protest rally featuring the song performance of a 65 year old radical is broken up by the cops who charge him with arrest for abetting the suicide of a sewer worker.

In court the DA pins her case on the testimony of an eyewitness who claims that the radical singer Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar, a long-time leftist and trade union leader) sang a song urging sewer workers to kill themselves because that would be the only solution to their misery. The eyewitness turns out to be someone the cops have lined up in previous cases to tell any lie that would help convict a leftist.

Vivek Gomber plays Kamble’s lawyer Vinay Vora, an aging bachelor whose parents nag him to get married and who leads a humdrum life outside of the courtroom, falling asleep in front of his television most nights. In one very unusual scene that lasts for about five minutes, you see him shopping for groceries. Going against ordinary expectations of most courtroom dramas, nothing happens in the store except him putting food and drink into a cart. In a Hollywood film, you would expect an assassin to open fire on him with bullet riddled-bottles and cans falling to the floor to the accompaniment of a hard-driving film score. As it turns out the quotidian nature of his shopping roots the film in reality and makes the courtroom scenes that more dramatic.

Vinay Vora is the hero of the film alongside his client, two men who are willing to defy India’s wretched court system. For his part, Kamble is stoical about the prospects of spending time in jail awaiting the outcome of the trial since he understands the costs of challenging the status quo. His lawyer, like most committed to human rights, is willing to go the extra mile to help his client, including putting up the bail money that comes out of his own pocket.

In a way, the director has taken on the same kind of responsibility as the defense attorney by making such a film, one that puts the spotlight on judicial abuses in a country that supposedly adhered to democratic norms.

In a statement that illustrates the director’s commitment to making a film about Indian realities in Mumbai, he emphasizes the need for verisimilitude:

Each character in the film belongs to a different, and culturally peculiar reality of the city. These cities within a city co-exist in a densely packed metropolis and yet, they never overlap with each other. The film tries to depict these gradations whenever we see people outside of the courtroom. In fact, when we decided to show the public prosecutor’s personal life, we tried to recreate a Mumbai that was part of my childhood memories, from the 1990s. And this is a Mumbai that does not exist anymore. The pace of transformation and so-called ‘development’ is so rapid here, that certain people and their Mumbai will soon become extinct. A few of the old chawls (the traditional tenement buildings that house the working class) that we shot the film in, were razed just two months later in order to make place for new high-rise buildings. So for me, COURT is also an attempt to capture the memory of some of these people, as they struggle to survive.

In other words, this is not “Slumdog Millionaire”. It is instead a film about India today from a perspective that takes the side of the oppressed. It is worth seeing not just for its politics but for its superb acting, done exclusively by non-professionals. Dispensing with conventional understandings of how to make a courtroom drama, Chaitanya Tamhane has redefined the genre as well as making a damned fine film in the process.

At the risk of sounding like a mainstream film reviewer whose blurbs appear in commercial, I must states at the outset that “A Hard Day” is the first laugh-out-loud comedy I have seen in years. That is also a roller coaster of a cops-and-robbers ride is almost incidental.

Whether or not it was director Seong-hoon Kim’s intention, he has made a film that has the comic sensibility of Buster Keaton at his best. Despite all the hand-to-hand combat and convoluted plotting that are staples of the Korean crime movie, this is a film that has the same kind of visual imagination and comic genius as “Sherlock Jr.” or “The Cameraman”.

A brief description of the opening minutes should give you a feel for the offbeat humor of “A Hard Day”.

On his way to his mother’s funeral homicide detective Go Geon-soo swerves his car in order to avoid hitting a dog that is in the middle of the street. Unfortunately, this leads him into hitting a pedestrian instead. Since he has had a drink earlier (Korea’s drunk driving laws are apparently very stringent), he feels the need to conceal the body. He is not aware at the time that the pedestrian was not only already dead but a gangster wanted by the police.

He stuffs the body into the trunk of his car and resumes his ride to the funeral parlor where a stroke of brilliance hits him. He will insist that he be allowed to spend an hour with his mother’s casket in order to experience some personal moments of grief, a ploy that will allow him to dispense of the other body–killing two birds with one stone.

Borrowing his daughter’s GI Joe type toy, a soldier crawling on his belly that is activated by remote control, he ties one end of a rope to the dead man’s leg and the other to the toy soldier and sends it into the vent of the funeral parlor that connects to the room where his mother’s casket resides. Once inside the locked mortuary, he activates the toy soldier that begins its descent down the air vent. Once it arrives at its destination, the mourning detective can then pull the body down into the air vent and then finally concealed into his mother’s casket.

Suffice it to say that one mishap after another takes place in this scene, reminding you of silent comedy at its best.

I should add that the film does not only evoke Buster Keaton (or Laurel and Hardy for that matter); it will also remind you of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s relatively obscure works “The Trouble with Harry” that also had a corpse serving as a MacGuffin, the term used for an object in a plot that helps move the plot along. It is usually an inanimate object like the Maltese Falcon but it can also be a human being—as long as he or she is dead (“Weekend at Bernie’s” was another film using such a MacGuffin but by no means as good as Hitchcock’s.)

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