2 Nov 2013
Departures (Okuribito)

Director: Yôjirô Takita (2008, Japanese, 130 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (81%), IMDB (8.1), Amazon, Roger Ebert.

Watch online: YouTube.

Similar movies: death, intense.

Summary: The movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2009. Heavy, poignant but great.

Plot: A cellist loses his job. Through a quirk of fate, he takes up the job of performing the last rites for those who just died. It involves cleaning the body, decorating it and placing it a coffin. These rituals are performed with great love and respect for the departed.

While watching the movie, at one point, I imagined that many of the people I know are no more. I was surprised at who popped up in my memory :) At another point, I remembered physical objects that I have kept with myself as memories of people I know. These are some of my attachments.

The movie interweaves multiple threads in the cellist's life: his wife, his friends, his mom who is no more and his dad who abandoned the family many years ago. The ending is beautiful. Highly recommended.


Serving Life

Director: Lisa Cohen (2013, English, 85 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (N/A), IMDB (7.0), Amazon.

Watch online: Hulu.

Similar movies: death, documentary, illness, intense, old age.

Summary: A beautiful documentary, emotional and insightful. Prisoners in a maximum security prison in USA volunteer to become hospice workers. They take care of other prisoners who are dying. Everybody is authentic. Nobody is acting. Highly recommended. Amazon reviews are helpful in understanding what feelings the movie evokes. The title of the movie has double meaning: the prisoners are "serving life".


Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället)

Director: Ingmar Bergman (1957, Swedish, 91 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (95%), IMDB (8.3), Wikipedia, Amazon.

Watch online: Hulu, YouTube.

Similar movies: death, depressing, old age.

Summary: Wild Strawberries is a great but depressing movie by Ingmar Bergman. The main character is an eighty year old guy who keeps remembering his childhood and early years in flashbacks.

A great movie on old age that is uplifting is Ikiru (1952, Japanese). The main character is Watanabe, who has lived a dull, lifeless existence for over fifty years. Suddenly, he learns that he has about two months to live. He struggles to find meaning in his existence.

I tell my friends that they should watch both movies: Wild Strawberries and Ikiru. Both movies explore the meaning of life: what makes us happy? In Wild Stawberries, the main character does not find answers. In Ikiru, the main character does find answers.


My Life As A Dog (Mitt Liv Som Hund)

Director: Lasse Hallström (1985, Swedish, 101 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (100%), IMDB (7.7), Amazon.

Similar movies: childhood, death, family, illness, intense.

Summary: A beautiful movie! A 12-year old boy named Ingemar is the main character. He is faced with his mother's illness, puberty, relocation to another town and separation from his dog, all at once. In the midst of turbulence, a panorama of joyful, sorrowful and comic moments unfolds in Ingemar's life. Lasse Hallström has handled the storyline well. The movie is delicate, touching and authentic.

Character development is pretty good. Other than the main characters, there are queer townsfolk which add spice. Landscape shots of Swedish homes in snow are gorgeous. The movie won the Golden Globe Award for the Best Foreign Film in 1987.

An ongoing thread in the movie is innocent exploration of sexuality at young age. The scenes in the movie may surprise Indian audiences who have to realize that sexuality is handled very differently in Sweden. For example, an effective sex education program is in place since 1956. Kids who grow up in USA and relocate to Sweden are shocked when they attend these classes. At the same time, they find them rewarding because Sweden's program is more in touch with reality than the equivalent US program. Straight Facts about the Birds and Bees in US News, 2007. RFSU is the organization behind Sweden's sex education programs.


The Case is Closed (Kharij)

Director: Mrinal Sen (1982, Bengali, 95 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (43%), IMDB (7.3), Amazon.

Watch online: YouTube.

Similar movies: death, depressing, family, intense, suspense.

Summary: The story is simple: a servant boy dies in an apartment. What happens next? There is a little bit of suspense as events unfold but the focus is on how various people handle the situation. The social fabric of middle class life is portrayed very well. Even though the theme of the movie is intense, there is no melodrama.

A succinct summary of the movie is here.


Hachi, A Dog's Tale

Director: Lasse Hallström (2009, English, 93 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (62%), IMDB (8.2), Amazon.

Watch online: YouTube.

Similar movies: death, family, true story.

Summary: Simple story. Touching. Based on a true story from Japan about a dog and his master. The main character in the movie is a dog named Hachi who is discovered by Richard Gere on a train station. The movie showcases the strong bond that exists between Hachi and Richard Gere.

Hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon.


Christmas In August (Palwolui Christmas)

Director: Jin-ho Hur (1998, Korean, 97 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (N/A), IMDB (7.8), Wikipedia, Amazon.

Similar movies: death, romance.

Summary: Christmas in August is popular among Korean film students for its symbolism, camera work and character study. The movie is gently paced. Towards the end, there is a 15 to 20 minute long scene with almost no dialogues. The beauty of the movie lies in what all is unsaid. The actions and facial expressions of its characters convey everything. The main character in the movie is a photographer. The Wikipedia article explains the symbolism of his photos, picture frames and their locations in the movie.

Storyline: A photographer in his early thirties is terminally ill. He is living his remaining days peacefully. He has an infectious smile and from his outward appearance, he looks just fine. One day, a lovely young woman in her twenties walks into his studio. She is a parking violation officer and implores him to develop some photos quickly. The photographer obliges. The woman starts coming to his shop repeatedly. As they continue to meet, a gentle romance develops between the two. The movie is essentially a character study of these two persons, without much of a plot. Their friendship is smooth and natural, with no melodrama, no tension, no struggle. But they never hug or kiss or verbally express their fondness for each other. All along, the photographer continues to live a normal, routine life. Once or twice, he expresses anger and frustration, but only briefly.

Early in the movie, there are lovely scenes of three little boys arguing and fighting over who really is the most beautiful girl in their class. Then there is a grandmother who comes to the studio twice for her portrait shot, a young girl who wants to bury her face in her hair locks, and a family who wants their picture together.

Overall, a watchable movie. Other movies with a similar theme are Geethanjali (Telugu), Ikiru (Japanese) and Wild Strawberries (Swedish). In Geethanjali, the characters are young. In Ikiru and Wild Strawberries, the characters are old.


Ballad of Narayama (Narayama Bushiko)

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita (1958, Japanese, 98 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (100%), IMDB (7.9), Wikipedia, Amazon, Roger Ebert.

Similar movies: death, family, intense.

Summary: Yet to write.


Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka)

Director: Isao Takahata (1988, Japanese, 89 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (97%), IMDB (8.4), Amazon, Roger Ebert.

Watch online: WatchAnimeMovie.

Similar movies: anime, death, depressing, intense, war.

Summary: Yet to write.



Director: Akira Kurosawa (1952, Japanese, 143 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (100%), IMDB (8.4), Wikipedia, Amazon, Roger Ebert.

Watch online: Hulu.

Similar movies: city life, death, illness, old age.

Summary: Fabulous movie. One of my all time favorites. The story revolves around Watanabe, a city bureaucrat who has lived a purposeless, listless life for over three decades, pushing paper around. Suddenly, he discovers that he has stomach cancer, so he has about six months to live. He is rattled. He doesn't know what to do. Drink? Spend time with women? Relive his youth? What will give him peace of mind? Is 'khao, piyo, aish karo' the right approach? Or is Leo Tolstoy's short story 'The Three Questions' the right approach? As the movie progresses, Watanabe discovers his answers and comes alive :) Cinematography, acting, story development, the theme - everything is superb.

The structure of the movie is quite unique. There are two distinct parts. In the first part, time moves forward chronologically. In this part, Watanabe discovers that he has stomach cancer and looks for answers. The last scene in the first part is in a restaurant where Watanabe has an intense and honest discussion with a younger female friend on what he should do! He suddenly hits upon an idea. Within seconds of his aha! moment, he starts alighting a staircase while a 'Happy Birthday' song plays in the background.

When the second part of the movie starts, Watanabe has died and people have come to pay their respects. It is at this point that people put together Watanabe's story, discussing how he changed in the last few months of his life. This is a long scene with many flashbacks.


Pather Panchali

Director: Satyajit Ray (1955, Bengali, 119 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (97%), IMDB (8.1), Wikipedia, Amazon, Roger Ebert.

Watch online: YouTube.

Similar movies: death, family, village life.

Summary: Pather Panchali is one of my favorite movies. It was the first movie by Satyajit Ray and one of his best. The story revolves around a poor family in Bengal. Every character in the story is a combination of good and bad qualities. They interact with each other, just like normal people in a village. The strength of the movie is in showcasing simple, routine events in the lives of its characters in meticulous detail, without any moral judgment.

Satyajit Ray chose ordinary characters for Pather Panchali, not artists who had been trained in acting. Acting is superb, camerawork is great. Something that I really liked was that emotions were conveyed through gestures and facial expressions, with minimal or no dialogue.

A recent movie, Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Hindi) also showcases poverty in India. I was quite put off by this movie. First, Slumdog Millionaire is neither fiction nor realistic; it is somewhere in between. Pather Panchali is realistic. Second, the portrayal of poverty in Slumdog Millionaire was distasteful, as if poverty is a disease or a curse. Satyajit Ray showcases poverty in a dignified way. The characters in his movie shine through their circumstances. I felt uplifted after watching the movie.



Director: Mani Ratnam (1989, Telugu, 142 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (N/A), IMDB (7.7), Wikipedia.

Watch online: YouTube.

Similar movies: death, illness, romance.

Summary: A romantic movie that touches upon the theme of death. The storyline reminded me of a Buddhist tale:

A woman anxiously told a monk, "My doctor has given me only a few months to live. Can you help me? I am dying." To her surprise, the monk began to chuckle. Then he said quietly, "You see, we are all dying. It’s only a matter of time. Some of us just die sooner than others."

The movie is entertaining. Like a Hindi masala movie. Acting by the lead actress (Girija Shettar) is pretty good. Songs by S P Balasubramaniam and Chitra are "wow"!

An awesome song in the movie is Om Namaha by S P Balsubramaniam and Chitra. It sounds like a Sanskrit prayer but it is actually a romantic song filmed around the two protagonists absorbed in a three minute long kiss. Translation of Om Namaha. Lyrics are by Veturi, Gulzar of Telugu Cinema.


North Face (Nordwand)

Director: Philipp Stölzl (2008, German, 126 mins)

Reviews: RottenTomatoes (84%), IMDB (7.4), Wikipedia, Amazon, Roger Ebert.

Watch online: Amazon Prime.

Similar movies: adventure, death, depressing, intense, true story.

Summary: A riveting, tragic true story of a team of two German and two Austrian climbers who attempt to climb the Eiger in 1936, a peak that had not been climbed before. Shooting was done near the Eiger itself. The movie has superb scenes of snow covered mountains and climbers making difficult decisions as they encounter one challenge after another. The movie ends on a tragic note when all the climbers die, one after another. Also, the love story sub-plot is quite unnecessary and detracts from the main story, which is about climbing.

Touching The Void (2003, English) is an equally great movie on climbing but more inspiring and positive. The expedition in Touching The Void is successful and everybody makes it, injured but alive. Still, North Face is a great movie that reminded me that mountain climbing is not about the winners alone; there are fatalaties as well.


Monsoon (Mazhakkaalam)

Director: Vinnie Ann Bose (2017, Malayalam, 1 mins)

Similar movies: death, old age, short.

Summary: A sweet, 1-minute short film! Watch here.


© Copyright 2008—2018, Gurmeet Manku.