This is the twentieth film I saw at the 14th Pusan International Film Festival. It had previously won the Leone d'Oro (or we say Best Film) at this year's Venice Film Festival.
It will probably be known henceforth as 'that Israeli tank movie', for as reported the film is located entirely inside a tank – and inside it are four young soldiers of varying experiences (none experienced enough to be jaded with war), as well as their sweat and their piss spillage and oil and other fluids mingling together to form vibrating puddles on the floor. Which the camera keeps going to for insert shots, to the point that you'd swear you could smell the tank. The events in the film are set during the First Lebanon War of 1982 (Israel invaded southern Lebanon).
It's a pretty high-concept idea. The point is to make an experiential film (like Cloverfield or Children Of Men) which allows the audience to understand what it's like to be at war while inside a tank. While certain things seem obvious while watching the film – of course it would be hot and dank and sweaty and dirty and smelly and uncomfortable – what is really the point is the limited point-of-view and the barriers of information that comes with being a soldier in a tank. You really are forced to take orders as they are (fire at that car, blow out that building), without questioning too much whether the orders handed down are accurate, or ethically sound. As the soldiers in the film find out, wait too long and you miss the opportunity to engage the enemy. On the other hand, you force yourself not to hesitate and just open fire in the direction indicated by the command, and you find yourself a murderer of innocent civilians – and seemingly losing control over what's left of humanity inside you.
At one point, I noted down that a soldier's contact with a bloodied body makes the expression "blood on his hands" very much literal.
As mentioned, the close-ups of certain parts of the insides of the tank shows you what it's really like; shows you how much the walls or the puddles on the floor vibrates, and in that spacing-out mode that many of us men sink into, these would be the sort of things that our eyes look at when we're in that mode.
Nothing is explained to the audience. It was nearly fifteen minutes into the film before I realised that there were 4 people in the tank, and not 3 – by counting the names that were called out, for there was never a wide shot. (There is no way to shoot a wide shot in a tank anyway.) Any image of the exterior is seen only through the tank's periscope device, with crosshairs, and as the tank suffer hits the periscope device takes on more cracks and shatter distortions.
The one exterior image that is not seen from outside the tank (and you know this because you see the tank in the shot) is of a sunflower field. It provides contrast.
The film really should be considered for the Academy Awards for its sound effects and sound mixing (sound designer is Alex Claude). The noise of a moving tank is deafening (and what's new is that this time we're hearing it from inside). But then there are the moments when the soldier in charge of operating the periscope device moves it or switches to a zoom, when you get this mechanical whoo-ing sound or a popping sound for the zoom. It gives the movie almost the same feeling you get watching a dystopian movie, when characters are completely surrounded by and depend on machines to live.
As for the four characters (Herzl, Yigal, Assi and Shmulik), the only way for us to have an inkling of what it's like to be them, is to think of our Singaporean male friends who've been through National Service – and imagine if they were actually called to go to war. Sure they were trained, but are they actually ready to fight, murder and pillage?
One surprising moment is when the troops get lost and needed help from a couple of Phalangist fighters, whom the soldiers don't seem to trust fully – and who should play the lead Phalangist but Ashraf Barhom, who plays Colonel Al Ghazi in Peter Berg's The Kingdom. While there he was a compassionate, exasperated Saudi officer trying his best to control a bunch of American FBI agents and eventually befriending them, here he plays a creepily demented but supremely confident soldier who totally buys the confidence of the four young Israeli soldiers (at least for a while) while completely stressing out a Syrian prisoner-of-war that was captured along the way. Honestly, I might be biased, but Barhom's performance here is something to look out for.
Nicolas Becker's score is very much geared towards building the atmosphere, and correspondingly doesn't vary much; since he is only using the same notes and the same tone, he makes it count and his composition is appropriately bleak and desolate and devoid of humanity.
Despite all the imagery of bleakness and hopelessness that this review has given, it has to be said, however, that this is utterly compelling filmmaking; and it's not depressing for the purpose of depressing you the audience, but it's depressing because war is and is thus not actually all that depressing; it has its poetic moments and it works because it is so well shot (the DP could totally pull off a noir film in the future); and you do come to sympathise and possibly even empathise with these four characters. I'm totally recommending this as a must-watch to anyone who has a chance to catch it.
Did I Like It? Yes.
Did I Fall Asleep? I couldn't.