Reagan’s Recs: The City w/ Bobby Varghese Vinu

The next guest column is here as Bobby takes a look at films where the city is a character all of its own!

Bobby Varghese Vinu is someone who very obviously loves movies. His passion for all film and most especially the films of Wong Kar-Wai is very apparent once you’ve talked to him for even a little bit. But more noticeable than his love for the films he’s already seen is his desire to learn more, to see more. I asked Bobby to guest on Reagan’s Recs because I knew that he would happily share that love with others if given the chance.

When Bobby came to me with the idea to cover cities all I could think about was how it was such a perfect idea with so much room to work with in terms of what could be chosen. After all, the topic of cities can cover everything from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to Oldboy. Much like with the real world, there’s just so much to explore.

I grew up in a city, but I lived in a housing colony, which is why I enjoyed going into the metropolitan area where I lived. I was excited when I moved to London to do my bachelor’s degree and whenever I go to Manchester (where I am doing my master’s degree) now that I live in a town near the city. And as someone who’s been indulging in his love for films, I find that the city is a tapestry to weave in a wide range of stories.

And so, without further ado, here are my picks!

Monsoon Wedding (2001) dir. Mira Nair (Delhi, India)

(CW/TW: While it is not shown, Monsoon Wedding deals with the ramifications of family child abuse with one of the characters being revealed to be an abuser)

When I was learning Indian geography as a kid, I remember asking why some people call it “New Delhi. If there’s a “New Delhi,” is there an “Old Delhi?”

Monsoon Wedding goes into that. With the premise circulating around a wedding in India, it does take place in Delhi at the turn of the millennium, which has changed considerably, there is the conflict of tradition and modernity, especially with families, thus creating an “Old Delhi” and the “New Delhi.” The city is a perfect tapestry for that kind of conflict.

That kind of conflict is messy, especially when considering the people who are affected by it on a psychological level. In its use of the tradition vs. modernity conflict, director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan tackle long-standing family issues with a sensitivity that I don’t think someone who wasn’t Indian would be able to pull off, such as the one I mentioned in my CW/TW. It’s uncomfortable for the characters involved to grapple with the truth, but it must happen.

But Monsoon Wedding is also a beautiful film about love, with its sincerity. It’s charming in the way romantic comedies can be, and love is a catalyst for change. It’s a way to break free of the shackles of the past and to enjoy the present while embracing the future.

Do the Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee (Brooklyn, New York City, United States)

(CW/TW for an ableist slur, racism, antisemitism, flashing lights, and nudity)

No wonder Spike Lee is the Brooklyn filmmaker.

I love how I got to know the community of characters in this film. The filming techniques utilised in Do the Right Thing, such as the use of the camera angles and the zooms keep this sense of movement with the characters. It gives them an active presence and it also helps with showcasing their mood, especially with the film’s story of racial tensions that are a constant across its Brooklyn neighborhood.

This is what makes the film timeless. These filming techniques aren’t just for show. Lee tells a story about racism, and he uses his techniques to get the viewer to understand Mookie, Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and the like when it comes to their grievances.

And that’s not even mentioning how well this film has aged. 

Heat (1995), dir. Michael Mann (Los Angeles, United States)

(CW/TW for flashing lights, a suicide attempt, and sequences of violence, which includes the off-screen death of a sex worker who’s underage. Some images may be triggering to viewers)

I remember first hearing about Heat when Christopher Nolan talked about how the film inspired his take on Gotham City where he wanted to tell a “city story.” Heat is very much that.

Heat is perfect when it comes to style. It has some of the best set pieces that I’ve seen from action films. And Mann does an excellent job at showcasing the quieter, more introspective moments in the film, such as the diner scene. It’s all to show the kind of characters that exist in his world of LA, where the criminals and the cops may be on the opposite sides of the law, but they have one thing in common: an obsession to do what they’re good at, no matter whatever shred of happiness it costs them.

Touki Bouki (1973), dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty (Dakar, Senegal)

(CW/TW for a racial slur for mixed-race people, scenes of graphic animal violence, and nudity. There are unsettling images involving skulls)

At first glance, Touki Bouki may be the usual story about two lovers wanting to move elsewhere, but what makes this film interesting is the fact that it’s about them wanting to move from the city of Dakar, Senegal, to Paris. It’s a poetic film about colonization and migration, with its innovative use of sound and jump cuts, all of which are used to grapple with the ramifications of post-colonialism. For Djibril Diop Mambéty, Dakar, and Senegal by large, is a place that may retain its own culture, but is also influenced by the decades of French colonialism. It’s not recognizable anymore. And you see that with the lovers, Mory and Anta, who see Paris as an escape from the dullness of their lives, especially since they don’t know if Dakar is a place they can call home. There are the scenes at the slaughterhouse, which are uncomfortable to watch, and while they don’t involve the characters, it makes sense in the context of their lives; they can try to change, but they won’t always be in control.

For most of my childhood and my teenage years, I used to move around a lot, and I remember how four years ago, I was excited to leave Trivandrum (the city I am from) for London, and I remember being conflicted as to whether I really wanted to leave or not. I felt like I was betraying my roots and this film reminds me of that time. 

And I think it’s something a lot of folks outside the West can relate to. 

Paddington 2 (2017) dir. Paul King (London, United Kingdom)

(CW/TW: Heavy use of marmalade)

When I first moved to London, I would constantly hear about the big bear and I never bought into it, until I watched the first film. And the second film is just as excellent.

I related to this film, especially since I live in a country where right-wing rhetoric is all too common to the point where it doesn’t surprise me anymore; it just adds to my ever-growing cynicism. I feel unwelcome as if my voice doesn’t matter.

And yet, I still feel my cynicism disappear for a moment with this film. In Paddington 2, London is a city where different cultures coexist and mingle with each other. It may not be a perfect city, but the filmimbues London with a humanistic warmth that just feels like a hug, especially with its title character’s presence, who’s just an amazing person. There’s also some incredible commentary on Brexit and prison reform. It’s a film that dares to ask hard questions of a country that has not done anything to stem the systemic problems it faces.

It’s a marmalade-infused charm of a masterpiece.

Chungking Express (1994), dir. Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong)

(CW/TW for the drugging of a character and flashing lights)

One of the best things to happen to me this year was discovering the work of Wong Kar-wai. There are numerous films I could pick here, but I wanted to go with Chungking Express, the film that captured my heart with its energized depiction of Hong Kong. 

In Wong’s depiction of Hong Kong, now a retrospective ode to the pre-handover days, you can meet someone with your eyes and in an instant, a connection is formed, with all the endless possibilities that come with it. Hong Kong is a character that brings different kinds of people together.

And with the use of bold colours, courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong uses the city to provide that insight into connections. I was drawn to the characters to the point where I connected to them in some ways, especially when it came to love.

Another aspect of Hong Kong that I loved in Chungking Express is how it’s “international.” Whether that be the depiction of the Chungking Mansions with its wide assortment of cultures that are in one spot, or the use of American music such as The Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin” or Dinah Washington’s “What A Difference A Day Makes,” it adds to the identity of Hong Kong. It adds to the exhilarating romanticism of living in the city.

California Dreamin’ indeed.

Now maybe it’s because I have Chungking Express on this list, but I think a certain thing is starting to become clear to me.

I moved around a lot in my younger years, and what always struck me was how I live in an interconnected world. I have friends around the globe, including the folks at GateCrashers and I think there’s something about the city that allows for that.

The city is global. And with that comes the terror of capitalist exploitation, but there’s also the beauty in talking to different kinds of people and understanding them.

I think that’s beautiful.

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