The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Filmed in Mongolia, The Cave of the Yellow Dog is a simple and powerful film that captured my heart. The actors aren’t professional. They’re real nomads who live in a yurt and live off the land.

The oldest daughter Nansal, age 6 or 7, returns from the city where she’s going to school and while exploring finds a black and white dog that she brings home. Her mother allows her this pet, but her father later objects. He’s worried that since the dog was living in a cave, he may have lived with wolves and could attract them. Namsal does everything in her power to keep this dog, even though wolves have been a threat to the flock, which is the family’s source of life.

The film was a marvelous look at a culture that I know little about. It’s colorful and compelling. I was amazed at how much autonomy and responsibility these young children had to look after each other and after the herd.

Many thanks to the librarians at Skokie Public Library for challenging me to watch The Cave of the Yellow Dog. I think you’d like this family-friendly film too.

If you like The Cave of the Yellow Dog, you’ll probably also like director’s first film The Story of the Weeping Camel. 

 

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Wadjda

As I mentioned when I wrote about the must-see Loving Vincent, this week I asked for the Fall Film Challenge to suggest some “groundbreaking” films and received Wadjda, which depending on whom you talk to is the first or second Saudi movie to be made. In Saudi Arabia there are no movie theaters since films are prohibited (like a lot of other things).

Directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, who had to direct from a van via walkie talkie because passers by would make trouble for a woman giving orders to a man, Wadjda showed me what life is like for women and girls in the Kingdom.

Wadjda is an 11 year old girl who dreams of riding a bike, although it’s taboo because there’s a fear that a bike accident would affect a female’s virginity. That’s what they believe. Really. Nonetheless Wadjda is determined.

She’s a spunky girl, who though not defiant, just spirited gets in trouble at school a lot. The school is run by a principal who gets after any girl who isn’t covered enough, reads magazines or wears nail polish. Even being in the vicinity of such behaviors can get you scrutinized.

Wadjda’s closest friend is a cute boy, who’s about a head shorter than her. They strike a deal that if she lets him hang election materials for his uncle from her rooftop, she can ride his bike up there out of sight.

Wadjda gave me a look inside a Saudi family. Wadjda is an only child and while loved, something of a disappointment since she’s female. While her mother loves her father, who’s rarely home, she fears that the father will get a second wife to get a male heir.

There were no feminists other than possibly Wadjda in the film. Even the mother who wears jeans at home and works, is constantly scolding Wadjda for small “unload-like” infractions. Women were often looking at each other to judge any impropriety. The minute rules that must be followed to be considered a pure woman are overwhelming.

I was surprised that this oil rich country had such a shoddy middle class neighborhood. There were no sidewalks, new cars, or modern classrooms. Living conditions were on par with Indonesia. (Saudi Arabia’s GDP per capita is $20,890 vs. $3,817 for Indonesia). I wonder why the public roads and schools were awful in the capital city.

I rooted for Wadjda in her quest for a bike and would love to see this girl in other films. The plot took some unexpected turns for me. I’d say this is a groundbreaking film that anyone interested in other cultures should watch.

Here’s a reaction by a Saudi blogger to the film.

Rigoletto

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I was lucky to get $20 Lyric Opera tickets, on the main floor no less, to see Verdi’s Rigoletto. The Lyric Opera Chicago hosts College Nights upping their game from the previous years, which offered $20 tickets but no extras. For College Night undergrads and graduate students were invited for sandwiches and soft drinks at 5:30 followed by a talk by the Technical Director.

The Technical Director’s talk was fascinating. We learned how the shows are selected a couple years in advance. After that the set designers design a model of the sets, which are then finished the summer before the opera season. In the summer, all the sets for the season are set up and the lighting is arranged and saved in a computer.

Since opera singing is so exhausting performers can’t sing day after day. So different shows are shown in repertory. This means the sets have to be changed every day. One day Rigoletto, the next Die Walküre, the next The Pearl Fishers. The space at Lyric is able to store the other days’ sets in space above the current set and it takes 4 hours, on a good day, to set up the day’s set. We also learned about the special certification needed to oversee open flames, when that’s needed for an opera. The certification is the same as needed to oversee an oil rig.

After this talk there was the usual pre-opera talk in the theater. This was outstanding as usual. We learned about how the story for Rigoletti came from Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that was censored and closed after one performance, because it showed a licentious king. Verdi changed the king to a duke to be safe. Northern Italy was governed by Austria and they didn’t mind seeing an Italian duke made a fool of. While writing the opera, Verdi was quite secretive. He realized that the most familiar song from the opera, X would be a success. He wouldn’t allow the singer who was to sing it to take the music home with him.

As you’d expect the singing was divine. The story is about a court jester, Rigoletto, who gets in trouble for mocking the nobles and duke, which is his job. To get revenge, the nobles mistakenly kidnap his daughter who’s fallen in love with the philandering duke whom she met at church. She thinks he’s a penniless student, not a womanizing duke. The end is harsh and hinges on mistaken identity. I’ll write my thoughts below in the more section so there’s no spoilers.

The only criticism I have for this production is the set. Rigoletto’s home looks like a prison on the inside. Floor to ceiling, the rooms are concrete blocks with a concrete slab as the only furnishing. The stairs have metal handbags and are prison-like. Now Gilda is captive there so maybe the prison look was intentional. I thought it was just ugly. It’s a minor complaint.

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Sisters of the Gion

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While Memoirs of a Geisha painted a romantic portrait of geisha living in a Japanese Cinderella story, Sisters of Gion gives viewers a realistic view. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who’s fond of creating films about vulnerable women, the Sisters of Gion we see are the older, trusting Umekichi and the more perceptive, jaded O-Mocha. Umekichi’s patron has gone flat broke. He has to sell his store and his family has to move back to his wife’s hometown in disgrace. The wife isn’t the least bit happy about the shame that accompanies this fall.

The patron, Furusawa-san, accepts Umekichi’s offer to put him up. O-Mocha is incredulous and miffed. Doesn’t Umekichi realize that they’re just barely scrimping by? How can they take in a penniless former merchant? Quiet Umekichi ignores her younger sister, occasionally saying something about tradition or being good to people.

O-Mocha is the practical sister. She realizes that her sister needs a new patron, pronto and to get one she’ll need to be seen in an exquisite kimono at a top level party. O-Mocha gets her sister the needed invitation and figures out how to hustle an assistant in a kimono shop to help her sister. Later when the shop assistant is found out, O-Mocha cozies up to the shop owner who she wants to be her patron.

O-Mocha sees the geisha life for what it is — a way for men to have young playthings. It’s not a path she appears to have chosen, but she’s determined not to be a victim in the system, if that’s a possibility in a male dominated society.

The film was absorbing and often beautiful. I admired O-Mocha’s spunk and wished her sister would take some of her advice. It’s a classic, I’d love to see again.

Sugalabo

Simon and Martina, with the help of the very-talented Dan, have made an outstanding video about a chef in Tokyo, who has an incredible respect and interest in local ingredients and regional cultures.

I’d love to know how they got to join him in Ehime. Just start watching and see what you think. Would you want to try dinner at Sugalabo? I wonder how much that costs.