X for Xiao Cai Feng

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Movie titles with X are not easy to come by, at least not the ones that I would like to talk about and share. As I was browsing through my collection I chanced upon Xiao Cai Feng, a Chinese movie set during the cultural revolution of 1966-1976. The message that comes out strong and clear  is that no matter what impositions are placed in the name of ideology, religion or politics, human nature will most certainly find a way to get around it.

Today’s movie is called Xiao Cai Feng, which is almost an autobiographical account of the filmmaker-author Dai Sijie. The central characters are two teenage boys, Ma and Lou, scions of urban reactionary intellectuals, who are sentenced to the far reaches of the mountain village for reeducation. Here their books are burnt and they are sent toiling in mines and sometimes climbing thousands of steps along the mountainside with buckets of foul liquid oozing onto their backs.

“To think that this is the dump where we may spend the rest of our lives,” says Ma, when they first arrive at the village where no one has ever seen a book before neither have they ever seen a clock. But the two boys do take advantage of their intellect and knowledge and there are a few humorous incidents, especially when their camp enforcer tries to throw away the violin thinking it’s a toy, Ma plays a sonata and tells him that it was composed in honor of Chairman Mao – therefore the violin becomes an acceptable instrument.


In the absence of any education the camp heavy starts relying on the two for their smarts. In fact they are allowed to go to the nearby village to catch North Korean and Albanian dramas and report back the story of the same. Since there are no radios, newspapers or books the two boys become the source of entertainment and the eyes for the outside world for the entire camp.

Things change when they meet the grand daughter of an ancient tailor who is much revered in the next town. The two boys are enamored by this feisty beauty who is as illiterate as the rest of the town. To be around the young beauty the two take recourse to educating her. Soon they discover a stash of banned books written by foreign decadent writers such as Dumas, Balzac and Flaubert. In secret they begin reading to her exposing her to a world she never knew existed. She is influenced to such an extent by these books and her impressionable innocent mind is so moved, perhaps by Madam Bovary (me thinks), that she decides to leave the town on her own much to the dismay of the two boys. Their intention was to come close to her through the books but on the contrary the written words and stories were so overwhelming that she decided to explore life on her own leaving everyone behind.

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In many ways Ma is modeled after Dai the author director who amidst hard labor did not lose his sense of humor. In one way the movie is explosive without going over the top, humorous without being absurd and romantic without being melodramatic. It’s all about life wrapped in a story about a country that the West imagines more than ever these days.

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W For The Wave

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Can Autocracy rear its ugly head and Fascism rule the land? We will say No because we can never fall prey to it and we can never stand up for it! We can say with conviction that we will not be pulled into it and the world will never succumb to it ever again. The horrors that took place is Germany so many years back is a lesson to us all and it will never occur, in our world as we know it, ever again.

Today’s movie is based on the true incident of a psychological experiment that went horribly wrong in a Californian High School in 1967. The German movie The Wave is based on this experiment. It is a seductively cautionary tale about the roots of fascism and it warns us about the dangers of a volatile political scenario of today’s world.

Dennis Gansel, captures the intoxicating power of conformity and crowd mentality in this powerful psychological drama “The Wave” or Die Welle with Jurgen Vogel as the charismatic teacher Rainer Wenger.

The middle aged, unconventional social sciences teacher Rainer Wenger is disappointed that he does not get to teach the class about anarchy but he is given the topic autocracy for the project week. Disgruntled he dives into preparing for his class on the subject but he find out without much ado that his is an indifferent and passionless class and as one student puts it aptly “What is there left to be against? All we want is to have fun.” Wegner tries to approach the subject with a textbook study of fascism and asks the class if dictatorship like Hitler’s would be possible in Germany today. The utterly disinterested students either say no or they don’t care. Hitting a wall with them Wegner tries to make the lesson more interesting.

Therefore he elects himself as the leader and demands that the students address him as Herr Wenger, obey all his orders and salute him. We see that the class jumps in with enthusiasm at the idea. They soon have their own dress code of white shirt and jeans, develop their own salutation, and create a logo and a motto that says “Unity through Discipline”. They call themselves “The Wave”


Unfortunately things escalate within a week and much to the surprise of Wenger himself that HE indeed likes this adulation and total power over his students. The movement takes on a cult status and soon students from other discipline join in to the Wave bandwagon. The movement gives the students something to believe in, an idea that they can bring in change, usher in social equality, until it all goes awry. As tensions increase, “Wave” graffiti appears all over the town including the Town Hall. The highly charged atmosphere in the school culminates in a fight at an inter school water polo match.


Much like the rise of Nazis it is the disenfranchised that latch on to feel powerful for the first time and those that seem the most damaged become the lieutenants. As the self – propelled program evolves; one of the troubled students translates his newfound feeling of pride into a dangerous obsession, which makes the Wave twisted and almost evil. The brilliance of the film lies in the climatic scene when the agreeable Rainer’s countenance hardens and contorts into a scowl as he realizes that he has become the dictator he detests so much.


The Wave shows us the Confront of a movement not necessarily fascism but about any movement that creates a community, that gives people a pride to belong in it. The concept is appealing because we can find our calling in this idea that lifts us and makes us believe that we can make a difference, only that some movements just get out of hand.

What makes this movie even more chilling is the not the fact that it’s been played out in Germany but that it makes  abundantly clear that the roots of fascism can grow anywhere.

Here is the trailer of The Wave 

V for Valentin

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Can one be a hero only by showing strength, might and power? Or is it heroic to fight the everyday little battles in our lives and emerge victorious? Well, maybe not in a conventional way but then what kind of heroism is expected from an eight year old!

Valentin is an autobiographical account written and directed by Aljendro Agresti, incidentally he also stars in this along with the little Rodrigo Noya. Valentin is a sweet and moving tale of a little boy’s yearnings to have a functional family. Unfortunately his circumstances force him to conjure a world where he dwells in peace with his rocket ships and playing astronaut.

Valentin leads a solitary life with his grandmother, who never tires of telling the eight year old that his mother was a Jew and hence not a good woman. In reality she suffocated the mirth out his father’s life leaving him commitment phobic. His philandering father did visit him occasionally with an ever-changing array of girlfriends but unfortunately his abusive nature was the marked highlight of his visits. On one such occasion Valentin’s father brings a girlfriend, Leticia, with who he immediately connects and yearns for her to become his mother.

Leticia and Valentin become friends and there is an instant rapport between the two. Valentin tries to convince both his father and Leticia to get married but the poor lad’s good efforts come to a naught. The couple split and his father is furious with him for letting out some of the secrets which led to Leticia backing out of the relationship. Valentin is heartbroken as well and this leaves him with a stronger desire for familial love and affection.

In his loneliness he becomes close to the Catholic priest who in one of the sermons pays tribute to Che Guevarra which enrages the congregation and results in them walking out in protest. Valentin witnesses all this but cannot fathom the reason for so. Neither can he fathom his father’s utter hatred for Jews. But these are circumstances beyond his control. The adult world doesn’t function like the child’s world and the child in most cases have to succumb to the unrealistic wishes and fancies of the adults.

The little boy despite all odds, perseveres to get a family but then an unthinkable happens (I will not spell out what it is) and it seems he will be left with only his memories. Fortunately the piano playing neighbour is sympathetic towards his cause and agrees to connive with him and they hatch a plan to make his dreams come true.

The movie underscores the fact that in today’s world of ephemeral marriage it’s the children who suffer and try to grapple with the adverse situation. All the money and power cannot help if families are falling apart and drifting away. The most important element of our society today is not money or career or status or prestige, rather it is the longevity of marriage.

Valentin is a sweet, moving Argentinian movie about a wonderful boy who struggles to realize his dream of a family, who struggles to adjust to situations beyond his control, who struggles to get around the secret and half truths yet comes out victorious and emerge a Hero.

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U for Usual Suspects

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The A to Z list is not complete without the mention of the path breaking suspense thriller “Usual Suspect”. It’s a sensational and mind-boggling, modern day noir about crime and a mythic gangster boss who no one has seen.

Brian Synger directs an ensemble cast in Usual Suspects, written by Christopher McQuarrie. It starts with an explosion in a ship in San Pedro California where 27 people gets killed and a million dollar cocaine stash goes missing.

The story rewinds back to six weeks earlier when the Police call in for questioning five criminals who feature in their usual list of suspects they are ex cop Gabriel Byrne, sleepy eyed Kevin Spacey, entertaining henchman, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollack and Benicio Del Toro. It is learned that the the police have no dirt on them and have to let them go. The five men, gang up together to take revenge of their unceremonious insult.

Soon they get to know that they have to work for Keyser Soze, apparently a nasty and evil crime lord who has his hooks from Belfast to Pakistan.

I will not say much lest it gives away the plot but all that can be said is that the actions happen in flashback while the Customs Agent interrogates Spacey. Everyone wants to know where Soze is but can Spacey tell him? Does he know him? No one who has seen Keyser has lived to tell the world about him. Audience knows as much as the police, and he remain to be a myth.

Get a DVD of Usual Suspects and be prepared to be blown over and befuddled by the twists and turns and a jaw-dropping clincher.

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist”

Here’s the trailer.

T for The Devil’s Backbone

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 What is a horror movie? Is it all about ghosts and spirits jumping at you in the dark? Is it about loud and eerie noises and music that would make you jump out of your skin? No that’s just special effect. A horror story is about a ghost, a spirit, whose life was filled with pathos, who was tormented by evil and now, has a story to tell.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone at the very onset sets the premise of a ghost story when the narrator says, “What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion, suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”

With the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this movie is set in a leftist orphanage, in a rural area where the orphans of the left leaders and martyrs have been put up. Young Carlos is brought into the orphanage by his tutor because his leftist republic father is no more and he soon finds out that there is an ominous presence in that place. He is assigned the bed that Santi, who has now disappeared, use to sleep in. The orphanage also has Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) who run the place along with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) the groundskeeper and the lovely young teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo)


When Carlos arrives he sees a large undischarged bomb sunk in the ground. Though he is reassured that it will never blow off and he will be safe it’s presence is overpowering and reminds everyone at all times that no one is safe. Initially Carlos struggles to make friends and it takes the inmates too a while to adjust with the new boy. They tell him that they have heard eerie murmurs and felt a presence of a spirit. Carlos soon discovers that the mystery of the child who has disappeared is somehow connected to the basement, where the sighs and murmurs come from.

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The movie unfolds as Carlos discovers the secret of the haunting. We discover that Carmen has some hidden gold that can save them in the very near future; Jacinto starts a sexual relation with Carmen only to find the hidden treasure. And as Carlos finds out that Santi was murdered and drowned, Santi too warns him that there is much misfortune ahead and many would lose their lives.

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Soon we find Jacinto blowing up the safe to get the gold, the boys alluring him to the basement where the ghost resides and the ending  is almost a poetic justice. The Devil’s Backbone is a tale extraordinaire where the horror of the situation is not loud music and spirits that float in the air, the horror is very much real and alive in the garb of Jacinto. The horror is the evil we humans are capable of doing, the horror is the war. Spirits just come to tell us a tale, to perhaps finish some unfinished business.

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The Devil’s Backbone has a magical realism about it where everyday world has an impact and is changed due to an event that seems imaginary and fantastic to be real. It is a must watch movie where fantasy, ghost, reality all merge in one allegorical symphony.

Here is the trailer for one of my most favourite movies, one I can see a million times and still be awed. Decide for yourself!

S for School of Rock

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Wanted to write about a whacky and wild comedy that would rock your socks away. A movie that unleashes our inner child and brings out the rock star buried and waiting to come out at the slightest impetus. School of Rock is a comic movie that you can watch with your kid and have a hearty laugh together.

Directed by Richard Linklater, this quirky comedy stars Jack Black as the failed and ludicrous musician Dewey, thrown out of his unsuccessful and completely unknown band.

On the verge of being evicted Dewey in utter desperation impersonates as his friend for a substitute teacher’s position. Here he meets his fifth graders all of nine or ten years old. His students don’t really know what to make of the new teacher because he doesn’t teach them anything worthwhile. They are especially flummoxed when Dewey asks them to take an entire day of recess and bums a sandwich off his student. He finds that his students know more about, math, science and other subjects but Dewey is not bothered. He has his own agenda. He wants to teach the class how to Rock and feel great about it and in the end win the ‘Battle of the Bands’.

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He listens to the lifeless performance of the class and decides to give them a complete makeover. Dewey assigns instruments to the talented students and selects Tomiko, the overweight girl in the class, as the lead singer. It is noteworthy that though this is an out and out comedy, School of Rock, makes an attempt to do away with stereotypes. Though Tomiko is shy in the beginning, Dewey encourages her by saying “You know who else has a weight issue? Me! But I get up there on the stage and start to sing, and people worship me!”  He gives a job to everyone in the class and it becomes their mission to work at it passionately and succeed.

Then there is the school principal Rosalie Mullins and though she is a prissy she is not an over the top caricature of a strict and evil principal. She is rumored to be capable of getting up on the table and do an imitation of Stevie Nicks after a few beers.

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When the parents get to know about the ‘Battle of the Bands’ they are furious that behind their back the children were rehearsing for some silly music competition. The disgruntled parents take the first row during the competition and are quite surprised to see that their children are so talented.

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One of the underlying messages amidst all the goofiness and laughter, is do we really know what our children are interested in doing, what talents nature has bestowed upon them? We just thrust them in the throes of schoolwork and academics and propel them towards excelling, smothering their real talents.

Get the DVD of School of Rock and delight yourself and your child for the evening. I leave you with the trailer of the movie.

R for The Reader

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Why do we refuse to accept our intimate relations before the world? Are we hidding something dishonorable that gives us pleasure or are we keeping mute because the association is humiliating and guilt ridden.

The Reader addresses many such questions in the garb of a War movie. Directed by Stephen Daldry, it is based on the German novel by Bernhard Schlink called Der Vorleser, and stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross.

The fifteen-year-old Michael meets the stunning Hanna, a tram conductor twice his age. They have sexual relationship and yes its absolutely wrong but the movie in not about that. It is about truth, lies and deception and how their lives change and are affected by it.

The two meet when the young Michael is sick and retching up, Hanna see him and brings him to her apartment, cleans him up and takes care of him. Thus begins the illicit affair. During his visits to Hanna, Michael discovers his own sexuality. Enamoured by Hanna he gets embroiled in a torrid sexual relationship. Hanna on the other hand makes no pretences of any emotion towards him. She is well aware of their age difference and calls him ‘kid’ too. Then why did she plunge into it? Did she only want sex? Or was it in exchange for Michael’s reading classics for her. If she had money she probably would have offered him for reading out to her but she only had herself to offer.

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Anyway, Hanna suddenly disappears and Michael finds her apartment deserted. She didn’t even bother to leave a note behind for him, their relationship just stopped as abruptly as it started. It was quite a blow to the young and impressionable Michael; after all he did love her passionately.

Years later, when he is a law student, he encounters Hanna in the courtroom. She is under trial with other Nazi prison guards for war crimes. He is shocked beyond belief but as the trial progresses he finally understands why Hanna, wanted him to read to her, why she didn’t leave a note for him when she left and most importantly why she became a prison guard and is in all probability innocent. But even after uncovering her secret, Michael doesn’t stand up to speak on her behalf. He doesn’t want the world to know of their associations; firstly their affair was unlawful and a crime in itself secondly she was now a wanted war criminal. It was best to keep their secret where it was – deep into the closet.

Michael finds Hanna’s savings kept for the  war ravaged Jewish girl, now a woman. She is outraged at his audacity and refuses to take anything from her tormentor. Nevertheless he strives to undo the wrong done by Hanna and the Germans at large, and tells her to donate it to an organization that works for the rehabilitation of the Jews.

Many years back Michael chose to do wrong by getting involved in sexual relation as a teenager with a much older woman while Hanna chose to become a Nazi prison guard. Could this one act wash away or atleast alleviate their wrong doings? Perhaps yes, or perhaps in the eyes of the world the insurmountable wrong can never be undone.

The movies greatness lies not in narrating a war story of an uneducated woman and a young boy but in bringing out human truths about associations. Did Hanna have a choice of not afflicting pain on the Jews or where her German associations forced her to do her job as perfectly as possible and look the other way? Could Michael have saved Hanna at the court by giving away her secret and if he had how would the discerning world have regarded him? Well these are questions we still don’t have the answers to.


Q for Quills


Sex and cruelty, pleasure and torment go hand in hand – our animal instinct lying dormant under layers and layers of civility, education, modernization and progress (the list can go on). What is more intriguing is the fact that there is absolute and utter bliss in outright bestiality. When this sleeping giant of desire wakes up, we shun it, we frown upon it and we label it “Sadism”.

Quills is the story of Marquis de Sade, yes you have guessed it right, he has unleashed the term sadism upon the world. Directed by Philip Kaufman, it stars Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Cain.

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What begins as a whimsical farce ends in a disturbingly haunting note. Quills is a fictionalised account of Sade’s life, where he writes impassioned feverishly about sex and cruelty and his pornographic material is smuggled out of the asylum he is incarcerated, by an equally virginal laundress Madeleine. He finds a sympathetic friend in Abbey Coulmier, who urges him to write to purge his obnoxious delusions.

His graphic writings find covert audience amongst Napoleon’s subjects and therefore he appoints the physician Collard to crack down and silence the troublemaker. The physician’s tyranny brings out the best in Sade, as he mocks, taunts, outsmarts, outwits indefatigably and remains invincible up until his death.

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To keep Sade’s insanity and profanity in check, his quills are taken away from him but mere quills cannot limit his expression. He writes with whatever tool he has around him, sometimes wine, sometimes blood and when in deep anguish; his own feces.


The movie is a passionate poetry on artistic freedom within a repressive political regime. What holds true even in contemporary times too is that pornography and graphic content is still frowned upon and censored. The methods are different but intent still the same. The message that Quills perhaps wants to convey is that we are all expressions of our nature and we are best served not by control and suppression but by letting ourselves free so that the laws of nature can take its course.

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The trailer of Quills

P for Pan’ Labyrinth

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What does a child do when she is trapped in war, bloodshed, cruelty, pain, turmoil – she conjures her own netherworld where a fairytale unfolds!

Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie grounded on the fascist Spanish War on one hand and fantasy on the other. Both seem true and real on their own terms. While a devastating battle is raging outside, a fairytale is shaping up somewhere in a forest labyrinth. Where there is a bloodthirsty Captain marauding and murdering the republicans there are the devious fawns and fairies giving gruelling tasks to a child. Is this a war movie weaved in with fantasy or is it a fairytale weaved in with war? It’s your take at the end of the day!

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Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie by Guillermo del Toro, which is similar to his previous The Devil’s Backbone, in its war setting and using children to bring out the pathos and pain. The significant difference in these two movies is that here he does not talk about morality and values but deals more in surrealism.

The movie is set in Madrid, after Spanish Civil War when Franco and his Fascist army attempted to quell the rebel uprising. Though it has a surreal fantasy realm, it nevertheless does not tone down the brutality of that period. The film opens with Ofelia and her mother Carmen, played by Ariadna Gill, arriving at a garrison commanded by Captain Vidal, Sergei Lopez. Vidal is a sadistic barbarian who executes the guerrilla rebels with savagery beyond comprehension. The Captain is not just brutal with the rebels but Carmen and Ofelia too have to suffer utter humiliation at his hands. It is clear that he has no kind intentions for them and has brought them along because Carmen is pregnant with his child who he hopes is a boy.

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One evening following a dragonfly Ofelia finds herself inside a maze hidden somewhere in the forest ruled by Pan the faun. The other world also has a goatish creature with menacing horns, a giant toad and a Pale Man who holds his eyes in his hands. They give her series of tasks which she must complete or face dire consequences .

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Little does the Captain know that the guerrilla sympathisers are in his own household; the housekeeper Marcedes , played by Maribel Verdu, and the doctor, Alex Angulo, who attends to Carmen, represents the movie’s alternatives to the militarised population. Mercedes’s clandestine visits to the rebels coincide with Ofelia’s sojourn into the fairyland, which suggests that the vanquished Spanish Republic is now almost a dream and a fairytale in itself.


With Ofelia trying to complete her tasks, one of them being, keeping her mother safe, and her step father antagonising the rebels the story moves ahead with a haunting pace. In fact the ending is etched in the minds and lingers on much after the movie ends. The story finishes in an eerie tension. What happens to the princess of the labyrinth? Does the faun keep his promise? Is the throne restored and does a new era of peace begin or is it the culmination of our existence as we see it.

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Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth juxtaposes two untenable materials that plays true on both sides. On one side there is the inhuman Captain and on the other side the Faun, both playing the weaker ones. One grounded in reality, the other in fantasy of a child or perhaps the fantasy of the collective consciousness of Spain itself.


Whatever it is that you find,  in the end it is unquestionable horror, fantasy, history all weaved into one compelling yarn that pulls us into the labyrinth making us hope and making us cry but, staying in our minds for a long, long time.

I leave you with the trailer of Pan’s Labyrinth

O for Omar


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In times of political unrest, war and turmoil, can love, friendship and loyalty thrive and flourish or are treachery and deceit the only outcomes. Breaking all polemics is a story of three friends in the strife-ridden Palestine. Will trust wither or is there hope for everyone.

Today’s movie is the all Palestinian star cast Omar, a romance with many melodramatic moments but is essentially a thriller set amidst the stark reality of Israel – Palestine conflict. Directed by Hany Abu Asad and starring newcomers like Adam Bakri in the titular role of Omar.

The movie opens with Omar running over the wall that separates occupied Palestine from Israel. It looms like the evil, intimidating omnipotent and omnipresent object that not only separates Palestine from Israel in thought, ideology, religion, culture and animosity but also divides Palestinians from Palestinians. The Wall symbolizes not just the strife but also all that is withering within people.

Scaling the separation wall is as unexceptional in the life of the baker Omar, as his and other Palestinians being treated miserably by the Israeli soldiers. Dodging bullets, another very normal matter of fact event in the daily lives of Palestinians, Omar goes to meet his friends and the high school girl he is in love with. Though the young Omar can scale the walls in a few lithe actions the slightly older, out of practice Omar is unable to do so almost like is signifies that he is dejected and frustrated with the life he has.


The three friends Amjad, Tarek and Omar are barely beyond twenties with dreams of a normal life, which includes killing an Israeli soldier. Swift with revenge, the Israeli’s get hold of Omar and he is strung up and savagely beaten. Agent Rami offers him a way out; get Tarek and gang or get tortured inhumanly.

Though Rami could easily have been depicted as the monster, but his humanity comes out when he talks to his wife or enquires about his boys. There are two aspects to it, either talking to family while a grueling torture session is only but normal in these abnormal times or he is like anyone else trying to do his job as best as he can while being a loving family man too.


Omar is released by his tormentors and he heads back to where he belongs to his friends and his Nadja but the situation escalates leaving a trail of suspicion, deceit and betrayal. The essence of the tumultuous lives is captured well where people confront the bitter flavor of truth every second of the day. The film quickly progresses to a narrow and harrowing chase where each side exhibits questionable ideas.


The ending takes one by shock but then we realize that the only way to hunt down a prey is to entice him to your own territory. During these unspeakable times where everything is breakable, does Omar remain loyal, I will not give away the ending to an almost John Le Carr kind thriller. Find a copy of Omar and experience the movie. It will shock you, make you cry but will entertain you thoroughly just as a thriller should.


It is one of the rare movies that show us the Palestinian perspective and their everyday life will make our troubles look puny and laughable. Though Asad is not making any political commentary it is true of any section that is weak. The powerful will do everything in their might to break the weak and keep them voiceless.

Leaving you with the trailer of Omar