November 04, 2005


Directed by Deepa Mehta Starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray and John Abraham

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Following Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), director Deepa Mehta finally completes her acclaimed and controversial "elements" trilogy with Water. Mehta's devastating depictions of gender disparity and religious turmoil in India provoked right-wing Hindu fundamentalists to stage protests, ransack theatres, issue death threats and even force the shutdown of Water's production five years ago. The director went on to make the lightweight Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love before returning to Water - this time filming secretly in Sri Lanka.

Hindu holy texts dictate that a wife has only three options upon the death of her husband: She must either burn along with his remains, remarry his younger brother, or live the remainder of her life in self-denial. Set in Colonial-era India inside a house for spurned widows, Water continues the trilogy's exploration of the culture's unspoken and unchallenged hypocrisies.

Eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) doesn't recall ever marrying, but the passing of her husband nevertheless divests her of sari, jewelry, hair, parents, a normal childhood and the possibility of happiness. The wretchedness of the women who keep her company allows her to grasp the bleak existence ahead: Elderly Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar) fritters away her last days craving some sweets. Obese Madhumati (Manorma) bitterly abuses everyone. Beneath her resilient exterior, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas of Bandit Queen) still tries to reconcile her faith with her predicament as a widow. Lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray of Bollywood/Hollywood) gets to keep her locks only because she must work as a prostitute to support the household. Handsome and erudite Narayan (John Abraham) takes a liking to Kalyani, but her circumstances threaten to keep them apart.

With a story that recalls both Romeo and Juliet and A Little Princess, Water has the surface trappings of a timeless tale. But by using a child's perspective (à la Earth), a doomed romance, a dastardly villain and an unsettling tangent about coerced prostitution, the film often seems to drip with manipulation. Furthermore, it endlessly bludgeons the audience with disconcerting scenes of widows enduring taunts and discrimination. With all the tragic turns of events and the uniformly cardboard characters inundating the picture, Mehta unwittingly invites skepticism from wary viewers. Landing the coveted opening spots at five festivals across the country (Vancouver and Toronto included) and a high-profile American distribution deal with Fox Searchlight, Water is one of the most prodigious Canadian films of the year. Mehta's gallantry and determination deserve admiration, and her new work is certainly an eye-opener for outsiders. At the same time, it lacks the moral ambiguity and multidimensional characters of its two unforgettable predecessors.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Desolation Sound

Directed by Scott Weber Starring Hélène Joy and Jennifer Beals

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Remember those ads pitching British Columbia as "The Best Place on Earth"? No? Come on, roughly a million of our tax dollars went into those. Check out the Sunshine Coast-set film Desolation Sound for a reminder. A few establishing shots in this movie are enough to help bring back memories of the campaign that allegedly gave us the bragging rights we get for living in this province, the best place to sea-kayak and watch the orcas!

Desolation Sound goes on to reveal some shady goings-on amidst the quaint picturesque surroundings. Tweenager Margaret (Emily Hirst) walks on the roof in her sleep, yet her parents Laurel (Hélène Joy) and Michael (Ian Tracey) aren't in a hurry to fix the latch on her bedroom window. They also seem unfazed by her klepto tendencies and her playdates with creepy ex-con Benny (Lothaire Bluteau of Black Robe). Apparently dad is often away on wildlife photo shoots and mom is coping with painter's block.

The last thing they need is for evil Vancouverite Elizabeth (Jennifer Beals of Flashdance) to abruptly show up and wreck their home life. She’s a maniac, maniac, who takes her passion and makes it happen by foretelling her own impending death and confessing her tryst with Michael. No thanks to Margaret - who purloins her necklace and then does the rooftop somnambulist routine - Elizabeth and Laurel wind up tussling up there where Elizabeth soon slips and falls to her death. With Benny's help, Laurel buries the body underneath a rose garden and begins channeling her inner Elizabeth. She picks up smoking again, sleeps until 4 p.m., dyes her hair black, smears black paint all over canvases, and bangs Sheriff Doug Shepard (Ed Begley Jr.) when Michael's gone.

Will Laurel get caught? Is she innocent? Is she possessed? Will she spew green vomit and throw Doug out the window? Should we care? Not likely, since she's not a particularly identifiable protagonist. First-time director Scott Weber is so busy planting bread crumbs along the story's trail, he simply forgets about developing characters and brewing suspense. He goes through the motions by cramming as much as he can into 100 minutes, so even the beautiful Sunshine Coast scenery only flashes across the screen for a few seconds at a time. Screenwriter Glynis Davies - who also appears on screen as shopkeeper/Doug's wife/Laurel's yoga partner and hairdresser Kathy - dumps a pile of ill-fitting puzzle pieces onto the plot. Since she doesn't divulge these hints with any subtlety, the film has no surprise to speak of. The amateurish filmmaking explains why Desolation Sound first premiered on American cable television in June. Why it merited a spot at last month's Vancouver International Film Festival and why it's now getting a Canadian theatrical release are the movie's only mysteries.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.