By Devika Girish
This month’s picks include a buoyant queer romance from Germany, a Malayalam-language mafia thriller and a South African horror flick.
‘No Hard Feelings’
If you’re looking to watch something off the beaten streaming path this week, take a scroll through “New Directions: 20 Years of Young German Cinema,” a free online series hosted by The Goethe-Institut.
Among the gems in the lineup is “No Hard Feelings,” a sweet and sour queer romance from Iranian-German filmmaker Faraz Shariat. Parvis (Benjamin Radjaipour), a young gay man and the son of Iranian exiles in Germany, lives a proud and carefree life. We first meet him when he’s voguing at a nightclub, his bleached blond hair and white mesh top sparkling in the strobe lights. Later, when a man he meets via a dating app makes a racist comment, an unruffled Parvis puts him in his place — “I’m not into man-child krauts” — and walks out.
But Parvis’ self-assured sense of belonging is unsettled when he’s assigned community service at a refugee detention center, and he befriends a pair of newly arrived asylum-seekers from Iran, Amon (Eidin Jalali) and his sister Bana (Banafshe Hourmazdi). As Parvis and Amon begin to fall in love, and Bana is faced with deportation, Parvis reckons with all the ways in which he’s similar yet different from his new companions, thanks to nothing but an accident of birth.
Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, “No Hard Feelings” delivers profound insights with a buoyant pop sensibility. Shariat’s characters may suffer precarity and prejudice, but the director doesn’t deny them queer joy, capturing them in bright pastel colors, sun-kissed scenes of sensuality and music-video-style montages.
(Stream it on the Goethe-Institut website.)
This Malayalam-language mafia epic opens with a bravura long take: The camera winds through the rooms and hallways of a crowded house, dropping us in and out of stray, intrigue-laden conversations, before entering the office of Sulaiman (Fahadh Faasil), a grizzled gangster who’s decided to right his ways and embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The shot sets the scene for Mahesh Narayanan’s dense, breathless thriller, which plunges us with little exposition into its gritty milieu. The repentant Sulaiman is arrested when he tries to board his plane, and the police enlist his 17-year-old nephew, Freddy (Sanal Aman), to covertly kill him in prison. As the young man contemplates this fearsome task, he is visited by various relatives who recount the bloody story of Sulaiman’s rise from the poor son of a teacher to the righteous protector of a coastal village of impoverished Muslims and Christians.
A mob movie crossed with a Greek tragedy, “Malik” sets a moral test for viewers. As each new puzzle piece of Sulaiman’s sprawling back story is revealed, the film forces us to consider if his noble ends — uplifting his downtrodden community — justify his vengeful means. But “Malik” also invites us to widen our lens beyond individual actions to indict a whole system. Set against broader historical events in India — including the 2002 religious riots and the 2004 tsunami — the film unfurls as an audacious critique of opportunistic politicians who stoke internecine enmities for selfish ends.
(Stream it on Amazon.)
An unsettling gothic tale about a Black maid and her white employer, Jenna Cato Bass’ “Good Madam” exposes the ways in which South Africa’s apartheid past continues to haunt its present. The aging Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has spent the bulk of her life as a live-in housekeeper for a lady named Diane, while Mavis’ daughter, Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), was raised by her grandmother in poverty. As the film opens, Tsidi has been driven out of her family home after the death of her grandmother, and she arrives at Diane’s abode with her young daughter in tow.
An air of uncanny pervades the house right from the outset. There’s a dead dog that seems to have come back to life, and the colonial artifacts on the walls exude malevolence. Then there’s Mavis’ excessively obsequious behavior toward the bedridden Diane, an unseen presence who is hidden away behind closed doors. Is Mavis’ servitude, which Tsidi finds ridiculous and outdated, the result of some evil spell or just of decades of racist indoctrination? Re-imagining racism itself as a kind of dark magic, “Good Madam” milks plenty of chills out of this central mystery, turning the sounds of Mavis’ scrubbing and cleaning into terrifying refrains.
(Stream it on Shudder.)
‘The City of Wild Beasts’
A coming-of-age drama about a tough kid from a rough neighborhood, “The City of Wild Beasts” is devoid of both the sensationalism and the sentimentalism that usually afflict the “slumdog” genre. Instead, a rare tenderness courses through Henry E. Rincón’s feature, which centers on Tato (Bryan Córdoba), a delinquent 17-year-old in Medellín, Colombia.
When Tato’s mother dies, he’s left to fend for himself in the city’s hard-knock streets. Struggling to scrounge up money while avoiding the wrath of local gangs, our hero leaves town to seek refuge with a grandfather he’s never met. Curmudgeonly at first, the old man, Octavio (Óscar Atehortúa), a flower farmer in the countryside, eventually takes Tato under his wing, and the two form a close, taciturn bond. They work the land together and gaze out at the horizon, and at the end of the day, Octavio gives Tato a wad of cash and a precious life lesson: “Work is sacred.”
This moving portrait of intergenerational male affection grounds the film even as Tato returns to Medellín, and the plot takes some tragic turns. Rincón never loses sight of his protagonist’s hunger for love and beauty, which persists despite — or perhaps because of — a milieu in which both are hard-won.
(Stream it on HBO Max.)
A layered drama about a South Korean theater troupe rehearsing a play in Greece, Pak Ougie’s debut feature might be described as the evil cousin of “Drive My Car.” While Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning drama turned the theater-making process into a fertile site for personal and philosophical ruminations, “Clytaemnestra” offers a more salacious and cynical behind-the-scenes story, in which directing and acting emerge as tyrannical power plays.
An acclaimed (and unnamed) director gathers five actresses from Seoul in a house in Greece to workshop a production of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon.” The women are friendly, but the director’s bullying methods — which involve unhinged yelling and probing questions about the actresses’ private traumas — incite conflicts, particularly between Hye Bin (Kim Haru) and a sycophantic new arrival, Kim Ian (Kim Taehee). Both women are vying for the role of Clytaemnestra, the queen who murders her husband, Agamemnon, and his new conquest, Cassandra.
The lines between performance and reality begin to blur, as one might expect, but “Clytaemnestra” achieves something much sharper than simple allegory. Pak choreographs stark and spare rehearsal sequences against a backdrop rich with dramatic history (one scene takes place at the Theater of Dionysus), ironically undercutting the director’s assumptions of grandeur. While the character berates his actors for failing to appreciate his source text, Pak shows that the impulses that underlie even classical tragedies are much cruder and more banal than we might assume.
(Stream it on Mubi.)