September 2004

Battle Royale II: Requiem

Battle Royale II
If Battle Royale is a warning of the vulnerability of democracies to overreacting politicians compromising – or even destroying – the values that make democratic systems worth defending, then Battle Royale II is an exploration of the consequences of political leaders abandoning liberal democratic values.

The film opens with what is probably its most shocking scene – the destruction of the Tokyo skyline by the Wild Sevens terrorist group, led by former Battle Royale survivor Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara). This is a deliberately shocking scene that explicitly apes the September 11th attacks and sets the tone for much of the rest of the film.

We then get into the film proper, with the inevitable busload of students, the gassing and the awakening with the horrific realisation that they are this year’s Battle Royale players.

And here is one of the places where Battle Royale II is much more overt than its predecessor. Rather than the students coming to in a deserted classroom, they awaken on the bus and have to face the sort of excitable press scrum that is usually reserved for sporting heroes of celebrities.

Whereas Battle Royale alluded to Reality TV and the consequence of constantly upping the ante among these programs, Battle Royale II makes explicit the brutal entertainment driven impulse that drives the competition.

We still have a teacher (played by an excessively over the top Riki Takeuchi) to explain the rules, which are slightly different this time around.

Instead of competing against each other, the students are sent to take out Shuya’s Wild Sevens group. Furthermore, the collars are linked into pairs so that whenever one student dies so does their “buddy”.

This seriously ups the body count in the early part of the film but also means that the students become cannon fodder rather than characters. The result is that, although Battle Royale II is more violent than its predecessor, the violence is less shocking.

In fact, the only characters that come close to being satisfactorily fleshed out are the constantly angry Takuma Aoi (Shûgo Oshinari) and the strangely intense Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda) - the daughter of Kitano (Beat Takeshi), the teacher from the first Battle Royale. Beat Takeshi does make a couple of cameo appearances in this film which – more than anything – serve as a reminder of how little characterisation is going on in the rest of the film.

It’s worth noting at this point that the students this time around are dressed in combat fatigues rather than school uniforms. While there are both practical and plot driven reasons for doing this, it also has the unfortunate effect of making it too easy to forget that these are just kids. The result is that, for at least some of the time, the film does look like a more conventional war film.

That said the on screen mission headings and the shaky camerawork of the landing and assault does serve to underline the “war as entertainment” aspect of this part of the film.

Of course, with a vastly increased body count, the carnage can’t be kept going for a full two hours and once the handful of surviving students get into the Wild Seven’s base things start to slow down.

There is a lot more pontificating this time around and I’m not entirely sure whether this is a good thing or not.

On one hand, the film is more overtly political and does clearly get across its ideas – that violence begets terrorism and that children are inevitably drawn into conflicts.

On the other hand, I can’t help but compare the film to its predecessor which focussed on the personal dynamics of the various students and left the audience to draw their own conclusions as to what the film had to say. And I can’t help feeling that Battle Royale II has gone a little too far in battering the audience over the head with what it is about.

At a time when filmmakers have become overly sensitive and often tread too lightly to avoid controversy, Battle Royale II deserves to be applauded for the sheer unambiguousness of its message. It’s just a shame that it’s not a better film.

Main Hoon Na

Main Hoon Na
“Grease” meets “The Matrix” in this all singing, all dancing tale of terrorists in India.

The film starts with a TV discussion of Project Milaap – a peace initiative that starts with the release of a number of Pakistanis held for border infringements. Not everyone is happy about this idea, specifically a terrorist group led by a character going by the name of ‘Raghavan’ who are violently opposed to the idea of making any peaceful overtures across the border.

Raghavan’s group manage to infiltrate the studio and violence ensues. The day is saved by special ops hero Major Ram Sharma (Shahrukh Khan), but not before Brigadier Shekhar Sharma (Naseeruddin Shah) – Ram’s father – is fatally wounded and the daughter of General Bakshi (Kabir Bedi) – the man behind Project Milaap – is threatened.

Since he’s close to death, Shekhar Sharma decides that now would be a good time to inform Ram that he has a half brother – ten years his junior. He also makes Ram promise to find this half brother and his estranged wife so that his family can be reunited when Shekhar’s ashes are spread.

Ram and Chandni
General Bakshi also has a mission for Ram: go undercover in his daughter’s school in order to ensure no harm comes to her before the Pakistani prisoners are released in ten days time.

By a happy coincidence, Ram’s half brother, Laxman (Zayed Khan), attends the same school as Bakshi’s daughter, Sanjana (Amrita Rao).

And now the comedy – which centres on Ram’s attempts to pass himself off as a mature student and fit in with his classmates - can start. But there’s more, much more.

The school staff provides a wealth of comic characters, from the forgetful and excitable principle (Boman Irani) to the Hindi teacher (Bindu) who doesn’t speak Hindi and the phlegmmy Physics teacher who’s ambition in life appears to be to see every student expelled.

And there is action aplenty.

Chandni and Sanjana
In much the same way that Jackie Chan subverted the deadly serious martial arts of Bruce Lee and his imitators to come up with an over the top, excessively acrobatic style of kung fu that is both entertaining and very funny, director, Farah Khan, has taken the ‘Bullet Time’ effect from “The Matrix” and turned it into a very effective vehicle for slapstick comedy.

The film has fights, tensions, comedy and romance. And with the arrival of new Chemistry teacher, Chandni (Sushmita Sen), the romance and comedy combines in ways that are both hilarious and endearing. And the musical numbers between Ram and the jaw droppingly gorgeous Chadni really do set the screen alight.

In fact, both the soundtrack and the big song and dance scenes are consistently excellent. It’s the sheer diversity of the soundtrack – from uptempo dance numbers to nostalgic love songs – that keeps the film bouncing along for its three hour running time.

Khan started out as a choreographer and, in these sequences, her talents really do come to the fore, keeping things moving along entertainingly and quickly enough that you really don’t have time to question the sheer silliness of some of the scenes.

Credit should also go to songwriter Anu Malik, for coming up with a series of consistently catchy tunes.

It would probably be a mistake to try and read too much of a message into a film such as this, but it does present an interesting point about the skewed beliefs that motivate many terrorists and their inability to give up on violence regardless of how irrelevant it or their cause it has become.

And the final moments of the film really do pull together its themes of unity and reconciliation in a manner that is genuinely touching.

Overall, with it’s consistently entertaining mix of action, comedy, music and mayhem, “Main Hoon Na” really does have something for everyone. Enjoy.

The Christmas Party

The Christmas Party
Its a tough time for young Gabriel (Austin Labbe). His alcoholic mother is unable to look after him and he finds himself spending Christmas in the care of his grandparents.

In an attempt to cheer him up, his grandfather drops him off at a Christmas party advertised in the local paper.

However, this isnt your average childrens party, as is immediately apparent from Gabriel’s initial conversation with the hosts of the party - Don (Tom Reid) and Betty (Stephanie Foster) - which leads to the boy being relentlessly questioned, and made to feel very uncomfortable, over the issue of his church attendance.

Throughout the party, the religious agenda of the hosts is both explicit and overt and Gabriel soon finds himself on the receiving end of some high pressure evangelism. Not surprisingly, all of this adds up to a confusing and unnerving experience for a lonely 9 year old who misses his mum.

The Christmas Party is an absorbing and genuinely unnerving film that admirably manages to avoid the easy option of taking cheap shots at exaggerated caricatures and, instead, portrays the characters very realistically and allows them – and their emotions - to develop naturally.

The score is also worth a mention here – noticeable but never quite becoming intrusive, it provides a very effective reflection (often downbeat) of Gabriel’s emotional state.

The characterisation is superb throughout and it’s great to see the acting is completely up to the task of bringing these people to life. As Don and Betty, Tom Reid and Stephanie Foster manage to reflect the precise balance of overt normalcy, frightening intensity and sheer inability to understand that someone wouldn’t understand exactly what they are talking about that makes these types of people so unnerving.

And, in a roundabout way, this brings me to a second theme that runs through the film - that of insincerity. From Gabriels mothers forced cheerfulness and alcohol fuelled protestations of love, to the artificial grin worn by Betty throughout the party, right down to the other kids unenthusiastic singing of hymns disguised as carols, many of the characters come across as doing or saying what they feel is expected rather than risk rocking the boat.

Special mention should go to Austin Labbe who does an excellent job of reflecting the confused mix of emotions – confusion, optimism, disappointment – that Gabriel goes through over the course of the film.

The Christmas Party is an examination of the way adults communicate their religious beliefs to children. But more than this, it is also a thought provoking and disturbing look at the way that religions exploit the lonely and vulnerable in order to sell their message.