Mumbai Musings: Day 1 – Sacrificing pace for character development

The films I caught yesterday, the first day of the Mumbai international film festival — On Body and Soul (Hungary), Loving Vincent, and On the Beach at Night Alone (South Korea) — are all united in their evident disregard for swift pace. Loving Vincent, which is about the circumstances surrounding the death of Vincent van Gogh, needn’t even have bothered with any aspect of storytelling, given how gorgeous its handpainted visuals are. Nevertheless, for someone over-exposed to the garden variety of commercial Tamil cinema, this general languorous pace of the aforementioned films was quite unsettling. The good news is that about half hour into these films, you get used to the director’s pace or its lack of it.

For example, in Ildiko Enyedi’s On Body and Soul, the lead characters encounter the jaw-dropping realisation that they have the same dreams at night -of a couple of deer grazing by an icy river. Each time you’re shown this dream, you get nothing particularly explosive. The deer are in no imminent danger. They aren’t in a tearing hurry to move from one place to another, much like the film itself. In short, there’s no testosterone. The director instead draws your attention to the sensory aspects of the scene: the sound of the deer’s breathing, the texture of its skin, the shape of its hoof, the grace of its movement.

Meanwhile, Hoon Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone takes an even more meditative approach in dealing with the conflicts of its main character, an actress who’s coming to grips with life and love. The film is full of conversations — generally between two people — and mind you, these chats don’t always seek to propel the plot forward. Much like in real life, there are extended periods of silence sometimes. The characters take a break from conversation to dwell on the seemingly mundane. For instance, a character, after sipping some water, says, “Water is good for you. It’s refreshing.”

Quite amazingly, the audience at all these screenings betrayed no sign of restlessness. And there were rewards for such patience. In On the Beach at Night Alone, there’s a scene in which a bunch of friends are drinking and chit-chatting. Somewhere towards the middle of the conversation, a character gazes at the heroine in admiration and says that her struggles have made her look prettier. A side-character, a workhorse of a woman, wryly responds, “I struggle, but don’t seem to get any prettier.”

I know what you are thinking. This isn’t a particularly funny joke, but fascinatingly, given all the work that had gone into establishing each of these characters, that offhanded line had the entire theatre laughing. Day 1 of the Mumbai international film festival showed that the price of immersion, of character development, is sometimes pace.

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