The New Face of Melodrama

in 19th Busan International Film Festival

by Ashok Rane

“One who does not weep is not a human being.” – Ritwik Ghatak.

Except for Reason, Debate and a Story (Ajantrik and Jukti Thako Aar Gaapo), all of the films of legendary Indian filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak are full of melodrama. He is known for his mastery over the use of melodrama. Though he was sort of obsessed with the genre, his films were never described as tearjerkers and they are known as the best examples of restrained melodrama. I kept being reminded of this while watching most of the films in the New Currents Section of 19th Busan International Film Festival. With enough potential for melodrama, I found them as the best examples of restrained melodrama. It was especially significant to observe this fact as the filmmakers are from younger generations. It is observed world over that the present day young generation is not emotional, they are extremely casual in approach in any relationship, they don’t take anything to their heart, they are dry, and they are tearless and so on. On this background it is quite remarkable to come across films from younger generations with such use of melodrama and to such a masterful extent.

Most of the films in this competitive section deal with the troubles and wanderings of youth, the parent–children relationship, and the various issues surrounding them. Though there was a possibility for high melodrama, the filmmakers look at their subject matters with commendable objectivity resulting in this form of restrained melodrama. End of Winter (Cheol-won-gi-haeng) by Korean filmmaker Kim Dae-hwan is certainly the best among them. With just two short films under his belt, the way the filmmaker has come up with his craft and the way he has used nuances of melodrama in his debut film is absolutely adorable. He made this film while at Dankook University’s Graduate School of Cinematic Content, which is further laudable. 

3 is a film from Iran that tells the story of Bermani, a 13-year-old boy and victim of the fractured relationship of his parents. His mother has left home as she finds it absolutely impossible to carry on with his father, an abusive and extremely violent person. He does not allow his wife to take Bemani, with her and as a result the boy suffers with isolation and loneliness. In order to get rid of his sufferings, Bemani gets involved in all kinds of things that are motivated by his rebellious nature, which is the obvious end result of the situation he is in. Without knowing the repercussions, he gets along with desperate teenagers of the street and lands into severe problems he had never imagined possible. Kids who are neglected and isolated by troubled parents often try to find some solace somewhere else and find themselves in the situations Bemani faces. Here was a possibility of intense melodrama, but as I mentioned above the objective approach of the filmmaker keeps away from it and takes us around Bemani’s world in such a way that we look at the problems of the modern day society from a rational point of view rather than an emotional one. It does not remain a mere tragedy of a troubled kid, but of society as a whole. This was possible because of the restraint in handling the story by the filmmaker, Hooman Seyedi who is in his early thirties.

In Don’t Say That Word (Ganbare Toke Urusee), Natsu, a teenage girl is asked to step down as a soccer team assistant after a horrible tournament season, but she refuses and fights back. She believes that despite all the setbacks, each risk and challenge is a joy to her. She is determined and looks forward to the next season, but the fact remains that she is all alone and though she is with the team she is completely isolated. Here again there was a possibility to focus on intense emotional drama, but the filmmaker goes beyond that and refuses to depict his protagonist in a pathetic colour, instead he underlines her inner strength, which becomes the motivational force of the story. Sato Takuma, the director of this well-handled drama is in his mid-twenties and understands today’s youth so well that the film leaves the required impact. While everyone around Natsu, who are all her age, have a sort of casual approach, she is quitely focused, determined, and firmly believes that success is not that all matters in sports and life. Natsu’s conviction comes out so subtly and naturally and more importantly with absolute objective approach, that surely deserves kudos to the filmmaker.

Before I move to a few more films, let me underline the fact that the texture of melodrama is changing in a very big way with the emergence of the young generation of filmmakers. We have been observing this phenomenon reflected in their films from around the world for the last decade or so.

The Face of the Ash (Simay Xolamesh) from Iraq and Ghadi from Lebanon also have the potential for melodrama, but instead the filmmakers, Shakhwan Idrees and Amin Dora respectively, choose to use black humour to handle their stories, which I think is a very mature thing to do as they deal with their subject matter with commendable ease. This helped them a lot to do a post mortem of the society which is full of hypocrisy.

In Mariquina, Imelda is in her late thirties and runs a successful garment business when she gets news of the lonely death of her father. Her parents were separated long ago when she was a little girl because her mother found it difficult to get along with her workaholic father who was a famous shoemaker in The Philippines. While Imelda prepares for her father’s funeral, she reflects on her past with him. In the process she tries to understand him as a father, a husband, a workaholic to the extent of neglecting his wife for his passion, his reluctant relationship with other woman and so on. In addition to this, there is her desperate struggle to get a perfect pair of shoes for her father’s burial, providing enough material to dramatize everything with intense emotion. Director Milo Sogueco prefers not to indulge in melodrama and in the process brings out all the ethos and pathos of the story with amazing dexterity. Imelda sheds all the bitterness she had experienced during her childhood due to her father’s love life when an old lady, her father’s love interest, turns up for the funeral. She does not forgive, but does understand. The film objectively looks at the complexities of life, which is a medley of all kinds of emotions and as to how it can be seen and analyzed if need be.

Safi Yazdanian’s debut feature film, What Is The Time In Your World? (Dar Donyaye to Sa’at Chand Ast) finds Goli returning to her hometown in northern Iran after twenty years in search of memories again has the potential for emotional drama but the filmmaker prefers to look at her and her journey from a distance and get into her psyche and in the process analyze it in an amazing way.

Baek Jae-ho’s protagonist in his debut film, We Will Be Ok (Geu-deul-i-eot-da) is an actor who has yet to get his commercial success, but has an ambition to make it to Busan International Film Festival. Things are not easy and in the process he goes through frustration and depression, which leads him to end his life. This is a kind of situation artists face universally and hence there is a lot of possibility to create yet another intense melodrama. What we get instead is just as I have been discussing here: an objective way of looking at things and understanding them, rather than overflowing with emotions.

Nezha (Shao Nv Ne Zha), a Chinese film by debutant Li Xiaofeng, has a story of friendship of two teenage girls; how they connect instantly, fall apart, and kind of come together again. This is a dark portrait of unstable and confused youth where reality of life hits them hard, and it seems even their friendship and love cannot lead them towards a brighter future, remaining only a thing of the past.

In Sunrise (Arunoday) from India, filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta chooses to get into the psyche of his protagonist, a police officer, touching the nuances of melodrama that are very much prominently present in the story. The film states that a hundred thousand kids go missing every year in India, and the protagonist`s daughter is one among them. He is haunted by the presence of a kidnapper all the time all around him in the form of shadow and that makes him more and more frustrated, depressed and helpless.

The best among the lot in terms of melodrama is, End of Winter Dae-hwan. In a family get-together after the retirement ceremony of a teacher, the father declares that he wants to divorce his wife, which naturally turns out to be a bombshell. The wife is devastated by the unexpected and totally uncalled for decision by her husband. She is hurt, embarrassed and furious. Their elder son, his wife and younger son, too, are disturbed initially, but for them their own problems are more important than their parents, especially their mother. Father is very calm, quiet, and very much composed as if he has asked for a glass of water. No transport is available due to heavy snow, which adds more drama when they all have to stay together in one place resulting in increased awkwardness of the situation. In between so many things keep happening at a very slow pace without providing any clue to the decision of the old man, which further intensifies the awkwardness and tension in the atmosphere, and reflects on the minds of everyone except the old man himself. Keeping aside the great possibility of intense melodrama, like all of his fellow filmmakers in New Current Section of BIFF 2014, Kim Dae-hwan looks at the family, their relationship, individuality, their desires candidly, which is quite remarkable.

The younger generation filmmakers from around the globe are bringing changes in the world of cinema in terms of content and form. What is more important for me is their approach in handling the melodrama, an age old genre, their own way. At one level they are not shying away from it, but they have their own way of looking at it which is extremely objective, having a scope for a rational approach to the life in general and the art in particular.

Edited by Glenn Dunks