Of all the International Feature submissions I’ve seen so far, Bangladesh definitely takes the crown for most unique, as it’s strictly speaking not a feature. Instead, Sincerely Yours, Dhaka is an anthology of shorts directed by 11 up-and-coming filmmakers from the small South Asian country. Each has its own style, but like the Pulp Fiction-inspired Simpsons episode I referenced in the headline, they all link together thematically around the people in the margins of Bangladesh’s capital city. Some of the shorts are truly something special, while others are more half-formed ideas that couldn’t be reasonably resolved in the 12-minute window the creators were given. If I had an Academy vote, this film probably wouldn’t get it, but I applaud the effort nonetheless.
In a bit of a departure from the normal review process I do here, I’ll treat this more as a breakdown like I do for Oscar categories during the Blitz, which is coming in just five weeks. I’ll give a brief overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each film before I give an overall ranking and critique for the whole project.
The Background Artist – Starting out very strong, this short tells the story of a background actor, one who distinctly opposes being called an “extra.” After years of struggling on the fringes, one of the leads on a gig offers him a fine role, so long as he has a nice suit. Going to a tailor, he finds that he can’t afford one, so the tailor makes him a deal: pretend to be him (a real-life acting role) and get his son into a nice private school via a convincing interview, and he can have the suit for free.
This is a fun, silly bit of perspective, carried by a really strong cast. There are some good jokes and misdirects, the lead is very charismatic, and even the kid has his moments. The bittersweet ending works for the story around it as well. And having done background work myself, it just made me grin with nostalgia, because it really is annoying how much you have to invest in yourself to make nothing in the work.
Cheers – A young woman gets dumped by her boyfriend after he cheats on her. Her rage is 100% genuine, and thankfully she has a friend to help her through her more irrational (yet totally understandable) moments. They eventually decide to get drunk to drown the woman’s sorrows, but since unescorted women aren’t allowed in bars apparently, another solution must present itself.
Another strong outing, the two female leads play off each other very well, and the ending is oh so satisfying.
Jibon’s Gun – A hotheaded young man named Jibon wants to gain street credibility with a local crime boss. When he’s mugged in the street, a moment of quick wit results in Jibon stealing the mugger’s weapon, hence the title. Now Jibon thinks he’s the hottest shit. When placated by his boss to pull the simplest of scare jobs to prove he can walk the walk, it ends with a hilarious miniature comeuppance.
The almost slapstick degree of violence and petty crime in this film is already a more convincing action capsule of Bangladesh than Extraction could have ever hoped to be. Also, I wasn’t kidding when I invoked Quentin Tarantino earlier, as Jibon’s sudden power rush is accompanied by a rap song that samples the siren blare music from Kill Bill.
Magfirat – Meaning “forgiveness,” this is the first truly dramatic short of the bunch. A man has moved to the city to be a chauffeur, but he’s continuously feeling overly hot, even when the air conditioner is on. He even cons one of his clients into helping him buy a new A/C for his apartment in hopes of relief from his own personal Hell. It is only when he can get a visit from his wife, travelling from the countryside, and seeing how she truly still loves him, that he’s able to process his grief and homesickness, and figuratively cool down a little.
This one is a little directionless at first, and coming on the heels of three comedic and/or lighthearted shorts, I originally thought this was going to be another gag with him being unable to feel cool. I mean, he sleeps in his car with the A/C turned up to max, and he’s so hot that his windshield steams up. But once things got a little more focused and his wife’s tenderness gets through to him, it ultimately comes off sweet.
Sounds Good – A sound operator on a film set tries to use the boom mic outside to pick up ambient sound, but instead he overhears a quarrel between two of the actors who also happen to be in a relationship. He then climbs the outside of the studio building to spy on the pair directly.
That’s it. There’s not much to this one, and honestly, the peeping is a bit creepy. I’m not sure what the goal of this one was, and sadly it starts to highlight a problem with the overall production. For some reason, the audio doesn’t always sync up with the actors’ lip movements (whether they’re speaking Bangla or English), and actors speaking from off screen sometimes have very distorted audio, like it couldn’t be synced up in stereo or corrected in the edit. Some very bad mixing going on here and in later shorts as well.
After 12 AM – This is a more Anglicized title change, it was originally called Obisshashe Dhaka, which basically means Dhaka in Disbelief, a sort of play on the phrase, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” In the wee hours of the morning, a man is locked out of his apartment building and threatened with arrest by the super for trying to get in. He then wanders the streets looking for a place to rest, but he’s shooed away by cops. When he sees a woman kicked out of a car by her boyfriend/husband, he tries to help, but some dickbag on a motorcycle clips her, giving her a head injury. When he tries to hire a rickshaw to take her to the hospital, the police stop them, see the woman’s injury, and arrest him for assault.
It’s the Bangladeshi equivalent of “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.” A well-meaning guy who’s done nothing wrong gets the Murphy’s Law treatment. It’s funny in places, but overall mean-spirited, and maybe that’s the point. This anthology goes to great lengths to show the good and bad of the low-to-middle class in Dhaka, and this is just another example of the bad. I’m more upset that the film really has no resolution to the plot, a problem that will plague the next few entries.
Where, Nowhere – A middle-aged woman has stolen money to bail her daughter out of a potentially shameful situation where she has been surreptitiously filmed for a porno site. The theft costs the woman her job. Meanwhile, her son has been arrested, and she needs a loan to bail him out. The bank won’t loan her money without a job, and she can’t get her job back without paying back the money she stole. It’s a whole vicious cycle of people taking advantage of this distraught woman.
Yeah, I could barely follow this one. I’m not even completely sure my recap is fully accurate. That’s how confusing it is. It goes in so many different directions and everyone talks so fast that the subtitles can’t keep up. Like the previous short, this one doesn’t have an ending. It just stops at the 12-minute mark without a resolution.
Dhaka Metro – A used car dealer tries to make a big sale in order to pay for emergency abdominal surgery for his wife. She will die if she doesn’t get the operation, but the doctors insist on upfront pay while “housing” the patient in a hallway. It’s the sort of for-profit medical system you only see in Third World countries and the USA. The car he’s trying to sell gets stolen, so he hires some goons to track it down. They decide to buy him out of the car for half the price he was expecting to get, and it turns out they stole the car anyway. Just for fun, the man gets mugged and loses the money he did get after the whole ordeal on his way to the hospital.
Damn, and I thought After 12 AM was mean-spirited. This one kind of has an ending, in that the man finds his car, hot wires it, and steals it back, but then he just drives off. We have no idea if his wife lives, or if he gets tracked down by the gangsters who hustled him. None of it makes any sense.
Money Murder – A quasi-noir, filmed in black and white, shows a corrupt banker plotting the murder of his boss, who is even more corrupt, for trying to get him to take the fall (and up to a decade of jail time) for malfeasance. After the deed is done, a jammed door and the sound of power tools makes the killer think he’s trapped with no way out, so he kills himself as well.
Going with the Tarantino theme, this short had a sort of Robert Rodriguez feel to it, which is good. Unfortunately, it’s mishandled in its attempt to be ironic. It’s never explained why the office door jams up (although the film does feel the need to explain the drilling noises), and the killer narrates the story in real time, which only makes his suicide more confusing. Is he speaking from beyond the grave? Did he record his plot in advance, not knowing he’d die? An ambitious short that clearly gives homage to the greats, but the execution doesn’t quite get there.
Jinnah is Dead – This is about the conflict between racial classes in the city, mostly Bengali Hindus and Bihari Muslims (native Bangladeshi from when the country was known as East Pakistan). Many Bihari still live in refugee camps. One, who works as a “sweeper” (read: plumber), is called to unclog the toilet at an apartment building owned by a Bengali landlord. A bunch of racial and ethnic slurs are bandied about, and there’s a brief slap fight, before the landlord’s son – who hangs out with Bihari to smoke weed – clears them all out.
Yeah, that’s it. No real plot to be had, just a bunch of insults. The Bihari plumber begins the film by showering in a public toilet, which is apparently his only luxury, but since he didn’t take his infant son with him, the child shit his pants. His wife yells at him, and he slaps his children on the way out the door to wait for a job. I have no idea what all that was supposed to be about, because there’s no character for him even after he’s called in to unstop the Hindu’s toilet, and it wasted half the runtime. Another short with no ending to the story, such as it is.
Juthi – The anthology recovers just in time for the end, as a young couple is seen at a cheap motel. The man, who rented it, wants a quick lay from his girlfriend, Juthi. He’s been promising to marry her, but has put it off for almost three years. On this night, he gets what he wants, but after being embarrassed in public, Juthi puts her foot down and decides that if she’s only good for a rental fuck, he might as well pay her as well as the hotels. If he wants a real relationship, put in the effort.
Nice. Love this one. Apart from this, only Cheers sought to give women any real agency, and this one just soars because it’s about asserting one’s value in a way that doesn’t seem cheap. In America, this would have turned into a Beyoncé video. Here, it feels genuine and honest, while still offering a shade of nuance.
1. The Background Artist
3. Jibon’s Gun
5. After 12 AM
7. M for
8. Dhaka Metro
9. Sounds Good
10. Where, Nowhere
11. Jinnah is Dead
The reason this doesn’t quite earn a full recommendation is because out of 11 films, only the top 4 are all that good, and the bottom three are just misfires. Basically half of the films don’t even have a proper ending, not to mention the tech issues. Bad audio mixes, odd lighting schemes, hell, there’s even a moment in Jinnah is Dead where it’s clear they superimposed a program onto a TV during the edit, because the screen shot glitches and covers up the actor’s torso for half a second, so even the few visual effects on display weren’t rendered properly.
If this is supposed to be a screenshot of life in Dhaka, the filmmakers appear to not really like their city. I’m not saying this had to be a polished, shiny tourism video, but life can’t suck that much, can it?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you like anthology films? Would you want to visit Bangladesh after seeing this? Let me know!