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Liar's Dice

Kino // Unrated // July 5, 2017 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted August 26, 2017 | E-mail the Author
Liar's Dice, India's unexpected submission to the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, is admirable in its combination of ambition and unwavering devotion to a specific vision, but the ambition is frequently stunted by a lack of resources, and the vision is more frustrating than rewarding. Making her debut as a feature writer/director following an acclaimed short film (Kelkkunnundo, aka Are You Listening?), Geetu Mohandas, strives to craft an unusual, uncompromisingly bleak road movie. Dice achieves that bleakness, but also a heavy dose of tedium as well.

It has been five months since Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa) has heard from her husband, who has taken a job in a city far from the tiny village where they live. She has a cell phone, and calls his number, but he does not answer. Desperate to determine his whereabouts, she bundles up her daughter Manya (Manya Gupta) and a pet goat and sneaks out of the village, against the advice of the locals, to go to the city and track him down. As she is leaving the village, she crosses paths with a drifter, Nawazuddin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), whose surly demeanor and constant demands for money that Kamala is reluctant to give him does not deter him from providing his services as a guide.

There's no reason to expect Liar's Dice, a tiny independent, would ever have been made with an eye toward international audiences, but certain context creates holes in Mohandas' story. Kamala's job is vague and her home life is barely shown, robbing the viewer of crucial class context. Nawazuddin constantly prods her for more money, insisting she has more than she'll admit, but even though each additional bill she hands over feels desperately important and they're constantly bartering to pay less for transportation and lodging, she also never appears to run out. The nature of the arrangement for Kamala's husband is also hard to follow (he is staying with some sort of relative, or was), as is the relationship between the people Kamala knows in the city with the people living back in the village, who want her to return. It's clear that social norms are being violated in various ways, but those with no pre-existing awareness of them won't get much of a grasp on what they are.

While the cultural confusion is understandable, it makes the movie more frustrating when the film begins to integrate Mohandas' desire for ambiguity. As the film begins, we see a man that seems to be Nawazuddin running across the icy tundra, and moments before his path crosses with Kamala's, he is caught stowing away aboard a truck and robbed of various things, including a rifle. While he is relatively decent to young Manya, he is constantly rude and demanding of Kamala, and there is a suspicious aimlessness to his investigation into Kamala's missing husband. Still, his boldness creates a contrast against Kamala herself, who seems perpetually helpless despite being driven to search for answers. She is constantly and frustratingly indecisive, a trait which might be more tolerable if we knew anything more about her. Instead, Mohandas leaves her a blank slate, with little more than the need to know informing her actions. (The child, as most children are, is adorable.)

Silence and unaddressed tension permeates most of the movie, which is both tiring and anxiety-inducing. The performances are strong, and the film feels raw and real, but between the vague character development, the cultural confusion, and the film's intentional ambiguity, no larger themes or subtext seems to emerge. The film concludes with an ending which Mohandas clearly positions to allow the audience to interpret however they see fit. Nothing against art allowing viewers to see what they want in it, but Liar's Dice presents a closing scenario with such a range of possible meanings (including a cold-blooded killing) that it's almost impossible to say the film was about anything at all.

Not sure who made the decision to go with a distinctly "indie film" illustrated cover design, but it doesn't really reflect the harsh, unforgiving tone of the movie, not to mention it has a subtle whitewashing effect where at a glance, it's less obvious that the film is foreign. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
The limitations of Kino's DVD, which offers 2.39:1 anamorphic video and Hindi Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, are all source-related. Liar's Dice was a low-budget, independently-produced film, and the source for both reflects that. The picture has the hallmarks of consumer-grade digital video, including mild aliasing, softness, interlacing, and crushed bright areas of the picture, with bright sunlight glowing and obliterating detail. The film has minimal dialogue, a sparse score, and little to no artificial sound effects. Except for the music, there isn't much in this track designed to craft an atmosphere; this is more of a raw environmental piece that puts function first.

The Extras
None, except an original theatrical trailer.

Liar's Dice is handsomely made for a micro-budget drama, and there is a strength of tone that speaks to the vision of its director, which is impressive for a first-time filmmaker. At the same time, the ambiguity she wants to imbue the ending with leaves so much up to the viewer that they might as well be rolling literal dice. Skip it.

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