Last week, my friends and I went to check out Cine Europa at Shang Cineplex. Ever since we went to our first Cine Europa together back in college, we made a tradition out of this yearly event. Even when we are all busy with work, we try to fix our schedule and meet up to watch a film or two from the list of European movies.
Since last year we weren’t able to stage a ‘mini-reunion’ (everyone seemed busy with other stuff and we had a hard time arranging a fixed day for us to go together), we were hoping this year would be more successful. It turned out only four of us were available. Just the same, it’s better than going through the tradition alone.
The opening of the festival was last Thursday (September 9) and the first day of screening started the next day. Friday being a holiday, we agreed to meet up and check out the 3pm screening.
The movie scheduled for that time was the Czech film Empties (Vratné Lahve). I made some background check to find out what this movie was about. A few searches led me to discover that the director of the film was the son of the protagonist (and screenplay writer), Zdenek Svera. It’s the third film made by this father and son tandem. It’s a comedy-drama that features the life of a man after he retires from teaching and searches for s new meaning of his life.
What I like about these film festivals (aside from the fact that they are free admission, of course) is that you get to take a glimpse on the kind of culture other countries have. Watching movies allow you to live another kind of life. These films show us the culture, the way of life in the country where they came from.
The movie opens in a public bus where Svera’s character, Josef Tkaloun, a literature teacher, has to urge his student to offer him his seat. It continues with Josef discussing Czech writer Jaroslav Vrchlicky’s quote “for a little love, I would go to the edge of the world bareheaded and barefooted.” With one of his students making fun of this line, Josef wasn’t able to control himself and after being castigated by the school headmaster, he ended up resigning from teaching.
So what’s next for Josef, who has been accustomed to dealing with various people? Will he stay at home with his wife and accompany her with her household chores? Definitely not. What he does is look for a job and thereon, he discovers more about himself and other people, touching their lives as the story goes on.
The film shows us how capitalism and modernization in the Czech Republic affect its people especially someone of Josef’s age. He has to deal with the changes in the school he used to teach in (students becoming more bold in expressing themselves, using computers in the classrooms, school administration giving more bearing to students who ‘donate’ to school than its teachers), the community where he lives in (the local library becomes a whitening teeth business) up to the company where he finds work in (eventually Josef and the others will lose their jobs as the store owners adapt machines in place of ‘human bottle sorters’).
It’s not enough that he has to deal with these outside forces. His family has problems of its own. His wife, Eliska, complains that he wants to be anywhere except to be at home with her thus pushing her to entertain romantic propositions from a local businessman. His son-in-law leaves his daughter and grandson for another woman, making her aloof to second chances at love.
For his part, Josef has been having these dreams of various women in a train’s compartment, women whom he got acquainted with in his everyday affairs (his headmaster, a familiar customer at the grocery, etc.). The funny part is that every time he gets to the juicy part, he is awakened by his wife who gets distracted with the sounds he makes at sleep. Old age has indeed takes its toll on our Josef as he shares to his son-in-law (who happens to be a doctor, by the way) that “the eyes are willing but the body is weak” describing his fantasy to be sexually active again.
Through this movie, you’ll get a glimpse of the impact of freedom and capitalism on Czech Republic since the 1989 revolution (known as the Velvet Revolution). Here we see Czech people trying to adapt the modern life after being tied to communism from quite some time, changing old business to what they think are more appropriate with the times. We see how the younger generation seems to be losing touch with the older generation’s past and the parents and grandparents are worrying. We also see how television programs affect the relationship of a person to one family member. Finally, we see how parents like Josef accept the fact that his son-in-law found another person who bring more ‘excitement’ to life, hence the separation.
We discover how an old man like Josef copes with the modern society. As he deals with his own problems, he re-discovers himself and gets the people he is surrounded with together. He plays a match-maker to his shift-mate and a customer; he sends his co-worker to his fellow headmistress after she gives Josef sexual invitations; and he even devises ways for his co-teacher and daughter to end up together.
The theme is serious yet they incorporated the right amount of humor to keep the audience laughing at the characters’ witty antics. The plot is easy to comprehend, a breather from the brain-wracking films we seem to be getting these days. It’s so simple yet you still find yourself smiling after the credits finished rolling, a clear signal that you enjoyed the movie.
I also love the picturesque shots showing some of the famous places in the country (even the countryside which was highlighted during the hot air balloon scenes). I have always wanted to go to Czech Republic, especially Prague.
The title empties not only symbolizes the work Josef has in the local grocery (taking empty beer bottles from customers). It also portrays how we, as humans, want to have another shot at life as we get older.
The movie won first prize during the 2008 Damascus International Film Festival. It also took home three Czech Lions for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Audience Award in 2007. During the 2007 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, it received a Special Jury Mention. When this movie was shown in Czech, it was said that it was a hit that it became “the most popular movie in terms of theater attendance”.
I’ve also found out, I don’t know if it’s true though, that the number OK-5060 on the balloon has been made that way to tell the viewers that one can still have a great life even if one is in his 50s or 60s (this was Sverak’s age when he wrote and produced the film, apparently).
I hope I can catch the movies from other countries as well. Watching films like Empties is one distraction I’m willing to entertain.
“Movies are something people see all over the world because there is a certain need for it.”
— Wim Wenders (German film director)