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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (28/7/2023)

Reviews of Mavka:The Forest Song; The Secret Kingdom; and Baato)


MAVKA: THE FOREST SONG.


Ninety-seven years ago, Ukraine's first animation studio, Ukranimafilm, was established under the auspices of the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration (VUFKU). Its first picture was Vyacheslav Lewandowski's The Tale of the Straw Bull, a long-lost short that made use of hinged paper cut-outs. Among the dozen or so films he made was Ukrainization (both 1927), which promoted the Ukrainian language.


Fortunate to escape censure when VUFKU was closed down in the early 1930s during a crackdown on Ukrainian culture, Lewandowski directed his country's first sound animation, Tuk-Tuk and His Friend Zhuk (1935), which can be found online. Wonderful thing that Internet. Also lurking in its recesses is Volodymyr Dakhno's How the Cossacks Cooked Kulesh (1967), the first in a nine-strong cartoon series that so offended the Kremlin with its patriotic sentiments that it was banned.


So, Oleh Malamuzh and Oleksandra Ruban's Mavka: The Forest Song belongs to a noble tradition of Ukrainian animations that fly in the face of Russian oppression. Malamuzh is best known for The Stolen Princess (2018), a CGI reworking of Aleksandr Pushkin's Ruslan and Ludmilla, and this folkloric fantasy similarly draws on The Song of the Forest, a play by Lesya Ukrainka that was written in 1911 and first performed in Kyiv seven years later.


Narrator Nina Matviyenko describes how a sawmill owner once got into the forest through the Dark Mountain to request a spark from the Source of Life in order to help his newborn daughter. However, he returned with an army to seize the Source for himself and the forest folk decided to seal the portal and banish humans from their domain. As the story starts, however, the green-haired Mavka (Nataliya Denisenko) brings spring to the woodland after waking from her winter slumber, with ice and snow being replaced by foliage and floral hues.


She's joined by Swampy the kittyfrog, as Hush the log-like noise keeper (Mykhallo Khoma) swoops overhead on a large bird. Nature's restoration is also a cause of celebration in the human world and Lucas (Artem Pivovarov) plays the flute in a band setting the toes of the villagers tapping. However, he receives news that his Uncle Leo (Oleh Mykhailyuta) is ailing just as Kylina (Sarah Natochenny ), the sawmill heiress, returns home for the first time since her father perished in a tragic wildfire.


The locals know that he really died trying to take over the forest and they blame him for the spirits turning against them. She is furious with them for refusing to work in her rebuilt sawmill and venturing back into the forest and curses being back in the old family mansion, with Frol the foppish French factotum (Serhiy Prytula) and her footmen, Eric and Derek. She perks up, however, when Lucas comes asking for a job, as he needs quick cash to pay for Uncle Leo's medicine.


As Lucas agrees to find a tree with a particular leaf that Kylina seeks, Mavka frees a lynx cub's paw from a mantrap. Lesh the Guardian (Nazar Zadneprovskiy) smashes it in fury, as he calls a gathering of the forest-dwellers to inform them that he is going to step down because someone younger will be needed to cope with the challenges that are coming.


Ondina (Yuliya Sanina) and her two nymph sisters scoff at the idea of Hush or Mavka becoming Guardian. But Derek and Eric take a pot shot at a bison and the herd stampedes, it's Mavka who calms them down. Donning a scary spirit disguise, she goes to investigate and sees Lucas sitting on a rock. She is enchanted by his flute playing and takes care of him when he knocks himself out on a low-hanging branch.


Hush has misgivings about sheltering a human, but Mavka is in love and takes Lucas on a woodland walk to a Eurovisiony duet on the soundtrack. When Lesh comes across them, Lucas hides in the undergrowth and cobbles a disguise in claiming to be Hush's distant cousin, Shmucas. He is invited to the assembly at the Source of Life, where the four spirits who protect the forest nominate Mavka as the new Guardian. Ondina is suspicious about Shmucas, however, and he has to flee when he's exposed as a mortal.


Meanwhile, Eric and Derek have got lost and they are taunted by the nymphs. They arrive back at the mansion, where Kylina is singularly unimpressed. She is also afraid, however, as the tincture that is keeping her alive is almost finished and she needs the leaf from the Source Tree to make some more to keep her looking young.


Kylina sees Lucas return to Leo's hut and sends Frol to check up on him. Lucas uses the leaf that Mavka has given him to make medicine for Leo, who instantly becomes 20 years younger. While they celebrate, Frol jousts with an angry rooster to steal the leaf and reports back to Kylina that he plans to return to the forest. She thinks he's going back to harvest the tree and decides to follow him. But he just wants to thank Mavka, who is contemplating a trip to the human world to return the flute that Lucas left behind.


She changes her hair colour to brown and borrows some clothes from a scarecrow and wanders into the village with Swampy. He upsets Lucas's puppy, Dot, but soon finds a table full of pastries when Lucas takes Mavka to the village festival so she can hear him play with his band. Frol spots her and reports back to Kylina, who whips up the villagers who want to burn Mavka as a witch. Lucas tries to help her, but is knocked cold by Eric and Derek. Fortunately, Lesh appears to snatch Mavka away. But Kylina convinces the peasants that the evil spirits will attack them, unless they strike first.


Moreover, she disguises Frol as Mavka to trick Lucas into marking the Source of Life on a map. She also floods his cell, just as Lesh tells Mavka that he did a deal with the spirits of the underworld to confound the sawmill owner and his army and that is why the two worlds have been kept apart in mutual mistrust and fear. As he tells his truth, Kylina lies to the villagers that Lucas has been abducted by the spirits and that they need to invade the forest to rescue him.


Dot sees Lucas through the bars of his dungeon and runs off for help. However, Kylina is rampaging through the forest with bulldozer and flame-throwers. Mavka tries to stop her by jamming the wheels with creepers and appealing to her to remember that the forest saved her when she was a baby. Cackling, Kylina reveals that there was no dying child, just a wife with a yen to be young forever. She also tells Mavka that Lucas readily took money to betray her and laughed at how pathetically naive and trusting she was.


Crushed, Mavka lets her spell drop and Kylina and her mob advance wielding chainsaws. Dot finds Swampy and Hush in the middle of the battle and, while Hush fights Frol, they free Lucas just as he is about to drown. Back in the forest, Leo has a change of heart about supporting Kylina when he saves a little critter. But Mavka becomes convinced the only way she can save the forest is by summoning the spirits and asking for the power of rage.


Despite being warned that she will be consigned to the Nothingness, Mavka accepts her fate and is transformed into a swirling fireball that rages through the village. Informed by Hush that she can't hear his pleas to desist, Lucas plays his flute and the whole village becomes a chorus in order to soothe her. In detonating the fireball, however, Mavka passes out and Lucas fears all is lost.


The spirit (Oleg Skripka) commends Mavka on her courage and wisdom in detecting good in humans. But he demands she pays the price for her rage. She refuses, however, because love conquers all and she wakes to kiss Lucas and start a new age of co-operation between humans and forest folk. As a bonus, Kylina finds the Source and bathes her face in the pool. But she overdoes it and becomes a toddler.


Showing around the UK in subtitled and dubbed versions, this handsome folkloric fairytale feels far more exotic in its native Ukrainian. As is often the way, the English-language version apes the vocal style of Hollywood animation, with the result that it feels much more generic. Younger viewers aren't going to notice this, however, and will be much better off with the dubbed edition, especially as the subtitles aren't always legible against bright backgrounds (when are they?).


Older patrons will detect veiled references to the Russian invasion, but this is much more universal in its pleas for people to live in harmony in order to protect the environment. In this regard, it recalls Bill Kroyer's Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992). But Malamuzh and Ruban are prepared to borrow both thematically and stylistically from a range of American and European animations. Yet, despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, it's been much more warmly welcomed than The Secret Kingdom (see below), which has been damned for being derivative. Critics, eh?


Some of the character design is a bit Flanimalistic, while the doe-eyed Mavka and blandly personable Lucas are Disney fotofits. There's also something calculatingly Cruella about Kylina and more might have been made of the envious Odina and her siblings. But the backdrops are enchanting, with the thaw sequence showing what CGI can do when it's utilised with a little soul. Yet the co-directors couldn't resist one of those swooping video game travelling shots, while they seem to have run out of inspiration by the time it came to staging the battle scene. Thoughtful and enjoyable, nonetheless.


THE SECRET KINGDOM.


Renowned Down Under for his special effects work, Matt Drummond made a little bit of screen history when his directorial debut, Dinosaur Island (2014), became the first feature to contain a prehistoric creature with feathers. Now, following My Pet Dinosaur (2017), he has put palaeontological matters to one side for The Secret Kingdom.


As a narrator describes how a young king's disappearance divided the world into the `Above' and the `Below' and a darkness descended over the latter, 12 year-old Peter Drawmer (Sam Everingham) wakes up in the backseat of a car taking him, parents Viviane (Alice Parkinson) and David (Christopher Gabari), and younger sister Verity (Ayla Brown) to a new house in the 1960s Australian countryside.


Already a nervous boy, Peter's anxiety is exacerbated by David and his French wife arguing over money. Verity, however, is irrepressible and she drags her brother off to a curio shop whose owner (Gabrielle Chan) thinks he smells of fear. He buys something he knocks off a shelf and scuttles off to bed after Viviane gives him the compass that had saved her father during the war.


During the night, Verity comes into Peter's room and offers to buy the item he had bought in the shop. However, they find themselves surrounded by pangolins after his bed plunges downwards and Peter is greeted as the returning king who will rid Below of The Shroud (Gabrielle Chan). The General is sceptical, but Elwyn (Matt Drummond) is convinced by the golden fragment in Peter's possession, as it's one of five pieces needed to restore light via the Great Clock of the Citadel.


Elwyn entrusts Peter and Verity to his nephew, Pling (Darius Williams), who takes him to visit Luminaire (Drummond), who teaches him how to interpret the seemingly blank pages in a book that will guide him to the other four segments. Having given the General the slip, the trio follow some hieroglyphs from an ancient prophecy and find Luminaire in the depths of the forest. Verity can't understand why she can't be queen if Peter doesn't want to be king, but Pling assures her that she will have her part to play.


Luminaire tells Peter that courage must come from within and shows him how to decipher the book and its riddling clues. The first takes them to a ruined arena from the Time Before and Peter thinks through the clues to find the fragment behind a wall painting of the Three Blind Mice. Suddenly, a shadow is cast across the edifice and Mendax the Dragon (Drummond) appears. He cowers when Peter gives a royal command to stop threatening Verity and promises to be a loyal servant.


Pling has misgivings, as there is no mention of a dragon in the prophecies. But Mendax offers to fly them to their next destination and even wins Peter's confidence by copying his coping mechanism of daring himself to complete a task within a given number of seconds. They arrive at the Temple of Lympus, where Mendax asks to wait outside, as he doesn't like confined spaces.


Inside, the three friends meet a two-headed tortoise and Verity is delighted that Ego (Beth Champion) and Ergo (Rowland Holmes) speak in rhymes. She also reminds her sibling that it's possible to be scared and brave at the same time in urging him not to get flustered and to think clearly. While she goes to check on Mendax, Peter cracks the code involving some push stones in the wall and retrieves the next piece. However, he rushes outside when he hears Verity calling his name.


A skeleton army awaits them and its commander (Charlotte MacInnes) demands that Peter hands over the fragments. He refuses and, while Mendax flattens the soldiers with his tail, Peter zaps the leader and recovers the snatched segment. Verity, however, has been infected and is slowly turning into a statue. So, Peter orders Mendax to fly them north to locate the missing piece.


With the tortoise now part of the band, they fly to the coast, where rock formations reach the sky. Pling tells Peter to prevent Verity from falling asleep, but she is tired and he has to concentrate on solving the riddle. Inside a cave, Peter plays a memory game with the floor shifting on each mistake. He eventually cracks it, but finds the piece has already been taken. When he asks Pling what's happening, he admits that things are not panning out according to the prophecies. But, while Peter may not be the promised king, he is a friend and Pling vows to remain by his side.


Emerging to see Verity turn to stone, Peter panics and drops the book off a cliff. Ego and Ergo try to help, but succeed only in falling over and cracking their shell. Conveniently, the lost piece falls out and Mendax recovers the book in time to fly Peter and Pling to the their final destination, while the tortoise remains to watch over Verity.


On arriving, Pling reveals that the Citadel is guarded over by unconquerable sentinels known as The Gauntlet. These turn out to be giant hands and Peter confounds them by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. Before he can fit the pieces into the clock, however, Pling turns to stone and Mendax reveals himself to be The Shroud.


It gloats that it controls Peter through his fears and the Citadel starts to crumble as it speaks. But Peter works through his trauma and remembers that Verity had died some weeks earlier before her 10th birthday. Coming to terms with his loss frees him from The Shroud's power and it disintegrates as Peter turns the golden key in the clock's lock and resets time.


Pling is restored and Verity is there to receive the crown that Peter insists on giving her so that she can become queen. As they hug, Verity tells Peter that the time has come to let her go and he wakes in his bedroom with a new perspective. He jumps out of bed and begins telling his father the whole story.


Snootily dismissed in many quarters for being woefully derivative, this poignant children's adventure merely does what every fantasy has done since the days of Antiquity in borrowing from other sources. Admittedly, Drummond might have used more finesse in lifting from the likes of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Star Wars (1977), The NeverEnding Story (1984), Labyrinth (1986), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), The Golden Compass (2007), and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole (2013). But how many of these can honestly claim to be entirely original?


Working with a modest budget, Drummond has produced some admirable visual effects, with the pangolins, the tortoise, and the dragon being particularly effective. The settings are also creditably atmospheric, while the Pythonesque encounter with the quipping Yellow Submarine-like fists would be a worthy addition to any mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster. Aylya Browne would also be able to hold her own with any American child star, while Sam Everingham grows into the role of the fallible hero.


He's not always well served by the dialogue, which can get a little fortune cookie-ish and contains far too many anachronistic phrases. There are also lengthy expository passages that might have been tightened or more imaginatively illustrated. But the premise has to be explained in a way that pre-tweens can readily grasp and Drummond largely trusts his audience to enter into the storyworld and go along with its quirks and contrivances.


As is often the case in films of this kind, the score works overly hard when providing emotional cues and kickstarting a plot that frequently pauses for ponderous reflection. But, while this has its shortcomings, it's not the worst way to spend 98 minutes during the school holidays.


BAATO.


Lucas Millard and Kate Stryker come together for their first directorial teaming from very different directions. Since spending a year in Nepal in the mid-1990s as an anthropology student, Millard has been part of several camera crews and has photographed such features as Paul Gordon's The Happy Poet (2010), Sara Jordenö's Kiki (2016), and Rebecca Stern's Well Groomed (2019). He has also directed a couple of shorts, Frank & the Box (2006) and Western (2008), which respectively centred on a lovelorn man cursing the postal system and a cowboy waiting for an old friend.


Stryker is a research planner for community development projects. However, she has two shorts to her credit, Roadside Gospel (2007) and Ananda (2013), which profiles a young artist from Kathmandu who specialises in mythological images. The latter brought her to Nepal, which is also the location for Stryker and Millard's Baato (2020), which not only follows a family from the Upper Arun Valley on an arduous 300km journey, but also explores the socio-economic issues that shape their changing existence.


The `kavela' has been part of life in Chyamtang for hundreds of years. Each summer, the villagers navigate the steep, narrow trails leading to the city of Dharan with the medicinal herbs they have collected from the jungle lining the valley slopes. The local economy depends upon the revenue from this week-long trek. But, with so many men having left the region in search of lucrative work, the trade is now largely the preserve of women like Mikma Bhutik Bhotia.


Packing the heavy wicker baskets on the night before the party departs, grandfather reminds Mikma about getting permits to sell their produce because some of the officials are corrupt. She is taking along her young son and his puppy and he chatters happily while scampering down rocky slopes and crossing a rickety wooden bridge spanning a rushing river. Pausing for a rest in an isolated village, they hear about the Koshi Highway that will make the annual trip easier. But an old woman fears that the link will destroy the nature of her picturesque home.


The views are majestically bucolic, as the Bhotias head south with some others joining them. A caption reveals that ground has been broken to the north on a highway near the Tibetan border. Cutting away, Millard and Stryker show us the road crew making haphazard calculations before unleashing a mechanical digger. An unimpressed local looks on, as a pull away shows the implacable terrain, which justifies one of the men joking that he'll be in his eighties before the project is finished.


On the second day of the kavela, running repairs are carried out on the baskets, while Mikma cooks and outlines her plans to reach

Namuchhe today and then strike out for the villages of Pathibahra and Num. She hopes they can find transport or they will have to walk on to Khandbari, which will delay them reaching Gola, where they will have to secure their permits. The puppy sleeps, as the radio plays and the family tucks into its meal. But they're soon back on the march and a sudden cut to pitch darkness shows someone inching along a pair of wobbly planks over a gushing river. One of the young girls cuts her finger, but they camp for the night without undue alarm.


With 265km still to go, Day Three begins with a caution to hide certain herbs, as they will be confiscated at checkpoints. Mikma re-packs her load and they depart, picking up more walkers en route. By now, they are in the Mid Arun Valley, but they still have a long way to go before they can catch the bus known as `the Moran Tiger'. We cut away to the depot, where men complain about the state of the roads and a small boy looks on with intimidated fascination.


It's now Day Four and the group has to help with some bulls crossing a high bridge. One animal is terrified and lies down halfway across and has to be levered upright and pushed to the end. Some of the children are scared, but they all muck in and the way is cleared. Having performed a ritual Barun Festival washing in the river, the Bhotias press on. The small son is bought a skyrocopter toy at a small rural market and his joy is contrasted with the dismay on the face of the woman watching the roadworks, as she realises that it's going to pass through a neighbour's potato patch and that nothing is going to be the same again.


The villagers gather to decide how to stop progress, but they don't know what to do. As the JCB gouges its way forward, we see people standing outside houses that have been marked with an X. One man offers the surveyor a goat if he bends the route around his property. No one seems to have been consulted in advance, with the result that people are facing the immediate loss of their livelihoods and homes.


Day Five dawns, with 239km still to go, Mikima is frustrated in her efforts to obtain a permit. Meanwhile, a bus has broken down and the passengers complain they are being ripped off when they change for another service. It's chaotic, but seems par for the course and most people just shrug and get on with it.


As we're informed that manual labourers are piling in from surrounding areas to work on the highway, Day Six arrives and the Bhotias pile into a minibus after convincing the driver they're not carrying anything illegal, Rather than stay with the family being bounced around on the rocky winding road, Millard and Stryker cut away to some men chewing the fat while a couple of JCBs are refuelled. We've no idea who they are, so their banter feels redundant, as we watch the diggers pushing rubble over the side of the slopes without any thought to the wildlife it might disturb or the long-term damage it might cause.


Having passed through a police checkpoint, the Bhotias sing to make the journey go faster. They reach the Makalu Barun National Park Permit Office and phone home in relief that everything is going well. Further along the road, the broken-down bus is repaired, while we cut to a shot of a JCB stuck in the river. One of the operators calls base and explains the problems they've encountered in justifying why they've only gone about nine metres.


Pack horses pick their way along a mountain path, as the Bhotias reach a village for the night. They discuss the road with the locals, who aren't holding their breath for its completion. There are still 183km to go, but a caption reading `Final Day' takes away any doubt that they will make it to Dharan on time. Clambering aboard a bus at first light, the family settles back. All is bustle on their arrival and their baskets are lowered from the roof. But we don't get to see where they're going before a transition takes us to an empty street, with an ape bounding across on all fours.


A static market shot follows, with numerous bicycles being wheeled past the camera. One can only presume that Mikma has sold her produce. Back in the mountains, a figure wanders into shot, as the sound of digging can be heard in the distance. Following a fade to black, a caption informs us that the road now rooms 150m from the Bhotias house.


This should be alarming, but there's little sense of panic, as the film ends on a close-up of Mikma singing cheerfully with her family. A monochrome still is accompanied by some Bhotia names, but it's uncertain whether the line-up corresponds with the list order of Jeba, Jyabu, Kinsang, Pasang Lenduk, Shijek and, Sumjok. In truth, we don't feel as if we've got to know them, despite spending so long in their company. We don't even know how they are related or how they spend their time or even subsist either side of the kavela. Basic things. But they don't seem of interest to the co-directors, whose statement focuses on the need to give a voice to those `affected by large scale infrastructure projects'.


This would be fair enough and a noble aim, were it not for the fact that the whole road scheme aspect of the documentary feels to have been slotted in at random intervals as an afterthought. The action is structured around the seven-day Bhotia odyssey, but the slow progress being made by the JCB crews clearly takes longer and obviously happens at another time, as Millard and Stryker are the only credited camera/sound team.


Obviously, poetic licence has a role to play even in actuality film-making. The press notes acknowledge the influence of the Direct Cinema pioneers of the 1960s, as well as later observational practitioners like Frederick Wiseman, Michael Glawogger, and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. But there often seems to be no rhyme or reason for the decisions taken by the co-directors and editor Eric Daniel Metzger in manufacturing their parallel storylines.


When it comes to depicting the terrain, the photography is often sublime. The use of handheld footage to make incidents like the bridge bull run and being bounced around in the bus feel intimate and immediate. Andrey Netboy's sound design and Roger Strauss's mix similarly reinforce the sense of place, while Craig Chin's score is unobtrusively complementary. It's just a shame that the whole thing feels like such a muddle, as Mikma is a remarkable character and the points about tradition and progress, depopulation, the disregarding of ecological integrity, and the spoliation of natural beauty are all made with sincerity and passion.


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