“Get ready for a taste sensation.” Coffee in Winter isn’t for everyone. If you’re American, you’ll probably associate Manjeet S. Gill’s film with that British “a room with a staircase and a view of a pond” style of filmmaking with its slow pace and long takes. Even the back blurb of the dvd case mentions it’s slow-paced, which doesn’t do it any favors. The front cover also indicates the film’s heavy inspiration from the work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and, while definitely not doing it any favors either (this sort of thing just cries “fanboy”), it compelled me to research Hou, a Taiwanese auteur whose relaxed and poetic films I’ve learned have proved quite seminal in their own right, often described as beautiful and puzzling works of art. So with Coffee in Winter originating from the UK, being inspired by a Chinese filmmaker, and dealing with the central theme of India’s cultural obligations to family and marriage, I knew I was in for a treat.
Manjeet S. Gill’s story follows Rod, played by Roderick Masih, who has just resigned from his corporate job to pursue his dreams of being a photographer. Both British-Indian, Rod and his wife live a peaceful yet uneventful existence in middle class England. Rod’s wife is now the sole breadwinner of the household as her husband enrolls in classes at the local university.
It’s always a breath of fresh air to see a film succeed in the two departments that usually scare me away from micro budget features: sound and lighting. Coffee in Winter excels in these areas, so it should deserve anyone’s respect, really. Even when the natural and genuine dialogue meanders into “mumblecore” territory, voices are clear and crisp. Speaking of dialogue, there are some trivial exchanges between characters, and what they don’t accomplish in providing exposition, they make up for in adding realism to the situation. Keep in mind, this is a film about relationships and connecting, so count on a lot of talking going on.
In his photography class, Rod soon meets Kim, played by Kim Bormann, a sweet and young German girl studying abroad. The meat of the film is this growing friendship between Rod and Kim, where mutual photography sessions turn into lunches that turn into dinners. His marriage suffers as his wife spends more time alone, and scenes of husband and wife together are awkward and disjointed. Rod opens up to Kim about Indian culture, and the massive pressure put upon him in following such customs.
The acting in this film is above-par. I even felt myself questioning how much of the dialogue was actually scripted. Some of these scenes really do go on and on. And that’s the thing about Coffee in Winter: it’s a modern movie with actual scenes. Scenes with depth and substance that could be short films on their own. And this isn’t to take away from the cinematography, which is beautiful. The marriage scenes have a drab neutral color to them, and it’s not until we’re introduced to Kim when we start to see the warmth. The audience is more of a voyeur with this film than most. In a cunning use of negative space and depth of field, Manjeet S. Gill places our eyes in some downright creative positions.
One of the standout scenes involves badminton, with Rod reconnecting with an old friend who’s still in the dating game. As his relationship with Kim deepens, so does the pressure. We start to really question whether he’s pursuing a life in photography, or a life with someone his heart is compatible with. Rod and Kim’s time together is always strictly platonic, until she’s forced to verify the status of their friendship. This makes it all-the-more stressful since the actress playing Rod’s wife is crucially adorable.
Sitting through the film, you’ll probably wonder where all the music went off to. There’s actually only one scene with a music track. It’s a pivotal moment, and worth the wait. Don’t worry about relating with the theme of cultural pressure, as I believe the concept of pressure in general plays a stronger role in the film. This is a subtle story that takes its time. Be prepared to have your strength of focus challenged.
The camera doesn’t move much in Coffee in Winter. Even when I thought it should. I think many of the stationary setups can be justified by the particular style of the filmmakers, but there are instances where we seem to be enslaved by the difficulties of DSLR cameras. Additionally, a few close-ups could’ve made things interesting. Although the initial first meeting between Rod and Kim is made apparent, I feel the moment could’ve been pushed with a little more intensity. Also, I think the audience could benefit with more of the plot, the exhibition in particular seemed it should have been more important than it was depicted. Including Rod’s wife somewhere in the end of the story would also help bring about a better sense of balance.
Despite any shortcomings, Coffee in Winter shows serious potential in terms of entertainment value and technical skill. I’m looking forward to what Manjeet S. Gill has to offer in the future.