Background: Film Movement is a company run by a small group of people that love movies, especially small independent movies, from all around the world. They have a service that allows you to join for a reasonably low rate and receive a movie each month delivered to your door. Having picked up a number of their titles over the last three years (both as a reviewer and as a consumer), I can honestly state that more often than not, I really like what they have to offer, with a wide variety of styles by directors from all over the world providing the shows (with each month providing a short film as an extra too). Today's review is on a movie from India by Mani Ratnam, a director known for his intricate studies of the human condition as applied to a distinctly Indian point of view, called A Peck on the Cheek (Kannathil Muthamittal); a story about a young girl coming of age.
Story: Amudha is a 9 year old gal seemingly born of privilege with a famous author for a father and a newscaster mother. She is both a bright star in the eyes of those around her as well as a troublesome prankster who is considered difficult by her peers and family alike yet a leader in many ways too. It is the dawn of her ninth birthday and she dreams of presents and being the center of attention (even more then usual) but it's clear that her parents are troubled about something. Unbeknownst to Amudha, they have had a long standing pact to inform her that she was adopted once she turns 9 years old. Their extended family cautions them against this course of action but they consider it to be a difficult path that was set in motion years prior, accepting that it's better to find out now rather than from some external source in the future.
Were that they were any other couple, the possibility of such a discovery might be unlikely but Amudha was the basis of her father's award winning short story that literally put him on the map and skyrocketed him to fame. That he has always been open and forthright in his dealings means that numerous people know this "secret" so they carry forth their plan with predictable results. Amudha is at the age when her natural curiosity about life is at its peak and this throws her world into turmoil. All the questions about who she really is, why her mother gave her up, and so many more flow from her with her parents truly unable to answer them fully. The viewer learns how her biological parents met as well as her adopted parents, each coming from a completely different world. Her biological mother's name is Shyama and comes from the war torn area of Sri Lanka where separatists had for generations fought central government authorities in bloody guerilla warfare. A very pregnant Shyama is shown struggling as a refugee only to be forced to leave her daughter behind when she went to search for her true love and mate, thought to have been lost in a battle. The story picks up showing a young writer making waves with his work on the orphan, marrying a girl next door in large part to save the baby from the horrors of state run care. Both couples are shown as imperfect but truly caring people that are forced to do things they don't want to do in order to coexist with the forces competing around them like the war.
Amudha runs away and is caught so her adoptive parents promise her that they will bring her to Sri Lanka in order to see her "real" mother and learn more about her heritage; a promise that proves difficult and dangerous because the fighting has gotten even worse with the passing of time. Having to balance out their ideals with the possibility of leaving their own two sons as orphans, the couple brings the girl into a world far removed from the life she has grown up in, soon to realize for themselves that the news reports barely touched the immediacy of the danger from both sides of the conflict. Each of them gets hurt in the struggles they encounter and the possibility of any, or all, of them dying without notice hits home really quickly when they run into a variety of situations (like an artillery barrage, a strap on bomber, and a terrorist cell that leads them to Shyama's brother, a leader in the armed conflict).
The back DVD case put it like this: "A little girl's search for her biological mother who had abandoned her as a newborn baby is brought out poignantly in A PECK ON THE CHEEK. Amudha, adopted by Thiru and Indira and growing up with the couple's two sons, is blissfully unaware of her parentage, until the couple decides to inform her of it on her ninth birthday. At first shocked into disbelief, Amudha then expresses her determination to seek out for her biological mother. The search takes the family to strife-torn Sri Lanka, where Amudha comes face-to-face with reality, and reconciles herself to it. With films like Mouna Ragam, Alaipayuthe and now A PECK ON THE CHEEK, director Mani Ratnam proves once again that he is at his best when tackling human emotions and relationships."
Meeting her biological mother starts to look less appealing as time wears thin since the multitude of near death experiences take their toll but they still take one last chance in order to at least let the idea go in Amudha's mind, not truly knowing if Shyama still exists. In all, there was a lot going on and the majority of the movie made excellent use of the lush areas the movie was filmed in as well as the interpersonal relationships of the characters seeking to reconcile their feelings. It struck me as funny that there were a few musical dance numbers in the show since the movie didn't seem like the type of show such material would be put in but at least they lightened up the mood, even if they seemed out of place to me.
In terms of the acting, direction, and themes addressed, the movie was another winner for the Film Movement series though more editing might've made it a tighter, leaner flick that more of you would enjoy. Still, Amudha's situation is quite common around the world and universal themes strike a chord in many of us, especially when they are as well done as this was in most ways. I rated it as Recommended even though there were some technical issues arising from the production and the issues raised above but like Ratnam's previous works, a lot of people will dismiss those problems as relatively minor in scope given the importance of the topics handled.
Picture: A Peck on the Cheek was presented in the same 2.35:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color it was shot in by director Mani Ratnam with the domestic distribution rights picked up by Film Movement. The fleshtones were accurate and the cinematography in general showed a great deal of care put into it with some sweeping visuals that I would have liked to have seen in a theatre. That said, the source material used for the DVD transfer was not always all that great with a few spots even looking like the film had been damaged and the DVD transfer having some compression artifacts (making it one of the worse looking movie in some ways of any I have seen by the company to date). The subtitles struck me as loosely translated at times too and practically glowing in the darker scenes.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Tamil with burnt in yellow subtitles. The DVD case and ending credits mention the production as having a DTS track but none was present here. If a foreign version in another region code becomes available, it may have such an audio option but sadly, that wasn't the case here. In any case though, there was some separation between the channels and the music was pretty interesting in advancing the story but the audio as presented was not nearly as skillfully made as the visual elements appeared to be.
Extras: Film Movement releases are perhaps best known for their inclusion of a short film on each DVD. This being the Year 4, Volume 6 disc, I expected another winner and in this case, it was an animated tale from the USA called The Mantis Parable. The story was about 9 minutes long by first time filmmaker Josh Staub detailing a non-spoken need for help by a caterpillar to a praying mantis. The parable of the story relates to the golden rule and told it in a non-preachy way that I found endearing. There were also some biographies, a double sided DVD cover, and trailers to other releases by the company worth checking out.
Final Thoughts: A Peck on the Cheek made excellent use of a talented cast, a well thought out script, and a visually stunning style that pushed the story forward as few movies these days seem able to do. Film Movement might not have the definitive copy of the movie (the lack of the dts track speaks to that) but it was certainly a good movie worth picking up now until a better version comes along, if that ever happens. Keeping in mind that warfare and natural disasters have been separating families since the dawn of time, the themes addressed in the movie were about as universal as could be and while sometimes handled in a manner I wouldn't have tried, I have to admit that A Peck on the Cheek provided some insight into man's ability to make tough choices under the worst of conditions, even choices that are regretted years later. Give the movie a look and I think you'll see why the movie won so many awards and created so much buzz at various film festivals.