Though assembled in a rather prosaic fashion, Julien Plantureux’s interesting film provides a much-needed study of one of Asian cinema’s neglected masters, Lester James Peries. The Sri Lankan octogenarian is filmed in his Colombo home speaking about his work, while clips and stills illustrate his story.
Born in 1919, Peries become interested in film through screenings at the Colombo Film Society (which was started in 1945, making it the oldest in Asia). Here he saw Hollywood classics and was introduced to the work of masters like John Ford, William Wyler and William Wellman. But the film that excited him most, and instilled in him his love for cinema, was Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” which he saw more than once.
In Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, there was no film production at that time, unlike the huge industry which flourished in neighboring India. The first Sinhalese film was made in 1947, but by then Peries had joined his brother in London.
Peries returned to Ceylon in the early 1950s to work for the Government Film Unit, where he made some uninspiring documentaries before he was able to make the feature “Line of Destiny” (1956). Significant as the first “serious” Sinhalese film, “Destiny” was selected to screen at Cannes. This was followed in 1963 by “The Changing Village,” firmly establishing Peries as a leading director.
Peries also made “Village in the Jungle” (1979) and the current “Mansion by the Lake,” which is screening here out of competition. He acknowledges his debt to filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson, and talks very knowledgeably about their work. His is a cinema of contemplation, and he notes that the most important moments in his films are moments of silence.
Plantureux has obvious affection for this talented, tenacious old man and has made a modest but useful tribute to him. The quality of some of the film clips is poor, but Peries explains that film preservation in Sri Lanka has never been done well.
In current docu, the name of French film critic Michel Ciment, who is referred to a couple of times by Peries, is incorrectly spelt “Michel Simon” in the sub-titles.