My third week of the HK International Film Festival is filled with slightly more commercial choices than the previous 6 films. Religulous is a documentary directed by Larry Charles, who has previously brought us the notorious Borat movie. Continuing with what he does best – bringing out the ignorance, prejudice and bigotry in ordinary folk – he accompanies comedian Bill Maher on a trek across the world, trying to question religion. Not just the Mormon faith or Scientology, but the mainstream faiths too: Christianity bears a large part of the brunt, but Islam is not spared either. Essentially the ideas are similar to those expressed by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion: both the film and the book shine the light of reason and science on various faiths, and find most of them to be, well, religulous. A highly entertaining film (the mere sight of the Holy Land Experience in Florida, USA – biblical Disneyland, if you will – would make one break into uncontrollable laughter) which presents its arguments effectively without being overly preachy, Religulous is definitely a laudable effort in putting faiths to the test, though I doubt that there will be many converts. The pious will choose to ignore or condemn this as heresy, whereas the doubtful will find nothing new here (other than a good laugh). One is also acutely aware of the danger of sensational documentary editing, a la Michael Moore: interviewees often sound unbelievably arrogant or ignorant, but that could be due to his words being taken out of context of the entire interview, parts of which are edited out. That did not stop me from cracking up pretty much all the way through though!
Hunger, on the other hand, was definitely not aiming for laughs. An account of a period during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, when arrested IRA members went on a hunger strike to protest against the refusal by the Thatcher government to grant them political prisoner status. The audience is confronted with harrowing images of prisoner abuse, intercut with the assassination of prison staff by IRA paramilitaries, and the emaciated body of Bobby Sands, a leader of the hunger strike. These distressing scenes are often painfully long, as if we should ourselves experience the beatings, the bloodshed and the hunger. Only by going through it ourselves can we ask the question: was all this worth it? The British government refused to back down until several prisoners died in the hunger strike, and countless other lives were of course lost in those days. And for what? If only both sides could put aside their stubborness, the human (as well as other) costs could have been much reduced. Director Steve McQueen succeeded in making a discomfiting film, evoking so much with visuals only (you can almost smell the human excrement being smeared on walls), and the cast – led by Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands – should be credited with bringing authenticity to a film that would have failed without it.
青い鳥 (pronounced Aoi tori in Japanese, meaning Blue Bird) again contrasts sharply with the films mentioned above. The story starts with a school that has just recovered from an incident – one of the students attempted suicide (and failed). The young boy mentions in his suicide note that he was bullied by his classmates into shoplifting from his parents’ convenience store, and holds several classmates responsible. Having been made to write confession essays, heavily edited by the teachers, the boy’s classmates were told that they have been forgiven for what they did. Their lives at school was to start afresh – Noguchi, the bullied boy, has since left the school – until the arrival of a substitute teacher, Mr Murauchi (the excellent Abe Hiroshi, or 阿部寬). Murauchi is taciturn, and stutters severely when he speaks, provoking many giggles in class. However, as soon as he arrives, he puts Noguchi’s old desk back in its original position before the incident, and proceeds to greet Noguchi before every lesson. “To live as if nothing has happened is cowardly," says Murauchi. One particular student, Sonobe, is feeling particularly guilty because he joined in with the bullying even though he used to be close to Noguchi. He becomes increasingly disconcerted as Murauchi continues to remind him of his betrayal every day, by greeting the empty seat: one day he asks, “Does disliking someone count as bullying?" To which Murauchi replies, “No, but trampling on someone, noticing the pain in the person and choosing to ignore the pain, that is bullying." One line that particularly moved me was when Murauchi told Sonobe, “Because of what you’ve done to Noguchi, he will never be able to forget about you; even though what you have done cannot be altered, the least you can do is to always remember (what you’ve done)." It brings to mind great historical atrocities – the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the massacre of Chinese people by Japanese troops, all the way up to the Tiananmen Massacre – and the way that people try to rewrite history by, for instance, omitting these events from textbooks. I do hope that the director Nakanishi Kenji (中西健二) and screenwriter Iida Kenzaburo (飯田健三郎) had that in mind: the film is thoughtful but not too preachy, much to their credit. Abe Hiroshi is perfect as the almost angelic Murauchi, and the young Hongō Kanata (本鄉奏多) is precociously good as Sonobe. The film also features a beautiful song, called 鋼の心 (Heart of Steel), sung by まきちゃんぐ – one doesn’t have to understand Japanese to appreciate its sincerity (hear for yourself below). All in all, Aoi Tori is perhaps slightly cliched and proudly mainstream, but a highly enjoyable film nonetheless.