The Happiness of Idiots, the Dreamlife of Angels:

The 23rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Noel Vera

(Originally appeared in Businessworld and used with permission.)

Part I: Happy Idiots

1999's 23rd Hong Kong International Film Festival was a decidedly mixed bag.  No one country had a monopoly on good films, no one country had a bumper crop of bad films--and this at a time when the Asian economy is at its lowest ebb.  Just to give you an idea, Hong Kong film production fell from a hundred and forty plus pictures a year to just over eighty last year--a drop of about forty-three percent.  Filipino film production fared better with an estimated annual production of one hundred and thirty pictures--not bad, but once we made two hundred and forty a year.  It didn't help matters that Hollywood has flooded Hong Kong and Philippine markets with gigantic hits like Titanic and Independence Day; nowadays, Leonardo DiCaprio is considered God, Chow Yun-Fat is an aspiring divinity, and Fernando Poe Jr. is strictly a third-class idol, worshipped in the more obscure local backwaters.  The rest of the world, it may be safe to assume, is pretty much in the same situation.

Still, despite the economic crisis, despite the production drop, and despite Hollywood's seemingly unstoppable cinematic onslaught, good films continued to be made; this year's HKIFF was a chance to sample a few.

Not that every film shown in the HKIFF was a gem.  Nomad, made back in 1982, is considered important to the development of Hong Kong cinema.  It introduced tracking shots, closeups, and quick editing to the standard Hong Kong drama (before 1982, only kung-fu films showed any sign of a cinematic style).  And to be honest, Nomad is something to look at: you marvel at the film's fluent visuals, the same time you cringe at the unselfconsciously hilarious storyline--something about spoiled rich kids cavorting in a beach while Japanese fanatics plan the invasion of Hong Kong.  The gratuitously violent ending--which features a samurai sword, a harpoon, and buckets of splashing gore--is described in the program notes as "a shock to the system," though the only shock I felt was in how much the film resembled some of our more unfortunate Filipino melodramas.  You know what I'm talking about--unbelievably soapy weepers with impeccable production values, the producers of which are under the delusion that they're making films of international quality.

Circus Palestine is from Israel, and it's reportedly more coherent than most Israeli films.  The film is about a visiting circus, a horny escaped lion, the lion's beautiful redhead keeper, and "Intifadah," the interracial dispute that has caused so much violence among Israelis and Palestinians.  No obvious connections are made between the lion and the ongoing political conflict (which is a blessing of sorts) but then the film makes no strong connections with anything else either; it's a well-produced, rather careful movie with all the emotional impact of wet toilet paper.

Talking about wet toilet paper....  Alexi Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men has an intriguing premise: turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg is plagued by an outbreak of S & M pornography, mostly in the form of pictures.  The Russian film tells its story in a fairly intriguing visual style, with sepia-tinted film stock and title cards that suggest the look of a silent movie.  But Of Freaks and Men barely builds on its premise, and the style gets wearying much too quickly; I sat through thirty slow minutes before I gave the film up.

Which wasn't meant to insult the film; Of Freaks and Men just wasn't my cup of tea, plus there were literally hundreds of other pictures to look at.  And thirty minutes isn't so bad--I walked out of PJ Castellaneta's Relax...It's Just Sex, after a mere ten.

Not that there was anything shocking about the subject matter.  Americans have the most dishearteningly clean-minded attitude towards sex; they have no feel for the seductiveness of obscenity, the allure of sexual violation.  People in Relax practice sex as if it were a healthy form of aerobics; they discuss sex sitcom style, pausing for the obvious punchline, or the imaginary laugh track.  There's nothing at stake sexually for the people in Relax, and that's what I find so offensive; if I had followed the film's advice and relaxed a little more, I might have slid off my chair, fast asleep.

On the other hand, Ken Loach's characters always have plenty at stake.  If it isn't the right to be a mother in Ladybird, Ladybird, or surviving the cruelty of South American fascism in Carla's Song, it's coming clean from substance abuse in My Name is Joe.  The Joe of the film's title (Peter Mullan) is a recovering alcoholic; when he takes it upon himself to pay the debts of a drug abuser and her boyfriend, he finds himself with more than he can handle, and goes back to hard drinking.

Loach is in familiar territory here; he gets the grit and texture of blue-collar England right, but he still hasn't cured himself of the tendency towards shameless sentimentality and overwrought melodrama (tendencies Lino Brocka himself could never fully free himself of).  In Ladybird, the simple story of a mother trying to win custody of her children kept Loach straight and true; My Name is Joe doesn't have as strong a structure and you can see him struggling here, overreaching for the smallest effects.  Loach cares too much, and sometimes, as in Ladybird, his passion has real impact; other times, you feel like leaning away from the screen.

Then there are the ever-problematic, maddeningly perverse Japanese filmmakers.  Adrenaline Drive is as cool and precise a film as My Name is Joe is white-hot and out-of-control.  The director, Yaguchi Shinobu, favors long shots and deadpan acting, which should have made for yet another example of comatose cinema, except for the witty script.  Adrenaline Drive is essentially a caper film, with a young man and a pretty nurse finding a bag full of several million yen and running away with it, a gang of Yakuza hot on their trail.  The Yakuza members are a loony joy; their antics remind you of the Keystone Cops, or the slapstick police in Godard's Breathless, or the scatterbrained gangsters in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.  If the film were a little less lightweight, we might declare a new Kiyoshi Kurosawa, or a new Takeshi Kitano.  As it is, we'll have to settle for a cooler, more Japanese Quentin Tarantino.

Hong Sang Soo's The Power of Kangwon Province came highly recommended, so I watched this Korean film with great expectations.  Well, nobody's perfect.  Kangwon Province is a prime example of comatose cinema:  shots held practically forever while listless actors mull endlessly over their petty little problems.  There's the pleasure of seeing two stories dovetail into each other, and a few witty kinks in the plotline (like a goldfish that's somehow teleported from a bowl in an apartment all the way to the middle of a forest, to die there of asphyxiation) but they're small consolation for watching the equivalent of a hundred and ten minutes of Novocaine.  Hong Sang Soo was responsible for another comatose film, The Day the Pig fell in the Well, a film where you see neither pig nor well, much less one falling into the other (which would at least have been something to watch).  Both films might have been passable if the sex scenes showed some imagination (Koreans make superior soft-core pornography), but the men are either too drunk to make love, or they climb on top of their women and pump away for a few minutes.  Boring.

Kore-Eda Hirokazu was the filmmaker who made Maborosi--arguably the dullest film I've ever seen.  His After Life is marginally less dull, if only because the premise is so intriguing.  When we die, Hirokazu suggests, we go to a way station where we review our memories, and chose the one moment in our lives that we want to experience for all eternity.  Memory, Hirokazu further proposes, is analog, not digital; our memories have to be recreated and filmed in studio sets, and the films stored in canisters.  Hirokazu shows a marked obsession with death (Maborosi is about a wife whose husband commits suicide), which isn't exactly a big surprise, considering that he's a Japanese filmmaker.  By the most refined of ironic twists, Hollywood has bought the rights to remake the film--probably with Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan playing angels, a techno soundtrack courtesy of Madonna, and Leonardo DiCaprio trying to recreate his memories of the making of Titanic (James Cameron, playing his own obnoxious self, will probably direct the recreation sequences).  Somehow I have the feeling I'm going to prefer Hirokazu's version.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's The Small Town goes to prove that making comatose films isn't the exclusive province of Japanese, Korean, or Taiwanese directors.  The Small Town also came highly recommended and for the first thirty minutes or so, lives up to the recommendation.  Ceylan creates the texture of a lazy school morning, with ice-encrusted students crunching their way into the classroom, and the slow drip from wet socks sizzling on a stove lid.  A feather floating in the air reminds you of the offhand lyricism of Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct, and you glow with the warmth of the classroom stove, hoping Ceylan can sustain the poetry of that opening sequence.

Not quite.  Ceylan follows two children into a forest, where one of them casually turns over a tortoise and leaves him to die of starvation; then the filmmaker moves on to a nighttime picnic and just as casually leaves us, the audience, there to die of utter boredom.  The conversation at the picnic ranges endlessly from the villagers' past lives to politics to the deep imponderables of life; the debate goes on for so long I found myself looking enviously at a little girl curled up on her grandmother's lap, fast asleep.  Ceylan's film is a wonderful slice of life, an intimate, poetic look at how a small town spends its days and interminable nights. Ultimately, the film remains a mere slice: tantalizing, yet hardly satisfying.  The villagers' lives remain the same, life remains the same, we remain the same--touched perhaps, but not much moved by all that poetry we see on screen.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) is considered one of the most interesting Japanese filmmakers today.  His License to Live shares the same cool style of Adrenaline Drive, but with more bite.  License to Live is about a boy that falls into a coma for ten years; when he wakes up he has the body of a grown man, though emotionally he's still a child.

Any other director would've milked the situation for pathos, and many have, but Kurosawa keeps a witty, slightly surreal distance; he records in a precise, clinical style the absurd ways the boy turned young man tries to bring his scattered family together.  Yes, there is pathos in the end-- the boy's dilemma calls for nothing less-- but Kurosawa earns it honestly, with patiently accumulated details.  He approaches tragedy from an oblique angle, looking at the target with sidelong glances; you never hear him coming until he's right behind you, ready to blindside you with a single, overwhelming blow.

Even more interesting (or at least more entertaining and original) is The Excitement of the Do-re-mi-fa Girls.  Kurosawa takes a softcore porn film he made earlier in his career and gleefully deconstructs it, adding some scenes and turning the porn flick into a science-fictional meditation on the nature of sexuality.  The result has the loose, carefree look of Jean-Luc Godard's films at their most playful and erotic.  Incidentally, you can tell the sex scenes he added later from the ones he shot before-- they show less and suggest more, and they are, if anything, even more fiendishly inventive (the bionic dildo, for one, is a technological marvel).  That Kurosawa can do this suggest many possibilities for Filipino filmmakers.  Imagine someone like, say, Rico Mambo (Abbo de la Cruz) taking an earlier work and improving on it, adding surrealism, fantasy, even Dadaism or David Lynch to the mixture.  Why not?  The only limits to the imagination are the limits we impose ourselves; Kiyoshi Kurosawa shows us what can happen when those limits--call them inhibitions--are totally ignored.

Quick rundown of some of the faster-paced films, just to show you that not everything in the festival was slow and soporific: Walter Salles and Daniella Thomas' The First Day is an expanded version of Salles' hour-long millenium film Midnight.  It's December 31, 1999 in Brazil, and a man decides to disappear; his girlfriend can't stand it and tries to commit suicide.  She's saved by another man--the disappeared man's best friend, just escaped from prison, who has come looking to kill the man.  Complicated?  Salles (he directed Central Station) makes everything complex wonderfully clear; his style recalls Alfred Hitchcock (and Hitchcock disciple Brian DePalma).  Entertaining, if a little thin.

Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher is the complete opposite of comatose--this silent French adaptation of the famous story by Poe is all flourishes and outsized gestures, with slow motion, sudden lightning, flash explosions, and a white veil billowing in the wind.  The grandly operatic music score was created on the spot by Ernie Corpuz, a Filipino musician and one of the best silent-film composers I have ever heard.

If there's such a thing as "The Cinema of the Comatose" as I've been defining it, Shinya Tsukamoto is master of its diametrical opposite, "The Cinema of the Overdose."  The man who made the cyberpunk cult classic Tetsuo again writes, directs and stars in Bullet Ballet, a cinematic fantasia on the pleasures of owning a gun.  The film, shot in graphic black and white, is all flash cuts, handheld shots, and relentless, driving energy: just the title Bullet Ballet appearing letter by letter onscreen gives you anticipatory tingles, like a car crash you know is about to happen.  The film means no more than what it is--a nihilistic exercise in style--but it's the sensory blast that the film Adrenaline Drive promises and fails to deliver.

Fred Kelemen's Frost should qualify as comatose-- it moves slowly, and it goes on and on for an impossible two hundred minutes.  The story is simple enough to follow, even without subtitles: a woman (Anna Schmidt) is beaten by her husband or lover.  She leaves him, taking her son with her, and walks through vast wintry landscapes, ending up in a city where she takes up prostitution to support herself and her child.

One reason why I dislike comatose films so much-- not because they're so hard to follow, but because they give you so little reason to want to try.  You never felt that the wife in Maborosi loved her husband, or even missed him (you never felt that she was much of anything herself).  None of the characters in The Power of Kangwon Province or The Day the Pig Fell Down the Well seemed to have anything at stake, or show any interest at what little is at stake.  People in The Small Town are overtly emotional, but they never make an effort to resolve the issues, or at least change their attitude towards said issues-- they just talk about them, endlessly.

Frost is different.  Schmidt and her son suffer, and the grindingly slow pace serves to emphasize their suffering.  Kelemen shows a stubborn, freakish discipline in drawing out his narrative; it's clear that the film's slow pace and long shots are dictated by necessity, and not by some arbitrary sense of aesthetics on the director's part.  At one point the camera following mother and son pans ahead, taking in the hugely empty horizon little by little until it comes back to them.  Only then do you realize just how much more frozen land they have to walk through; just how much more emptiness they have to endure.

In one sharp scene, Schmidt gives a customer a handjob while her son sips a drink.  The child accidentally drops his straw, spots what's happening under the table, and walks away.  Schmidt rises to follow, but the customer forces her to sit down and continue masturbating him.  When he finishes, he leaves her at the table.  The camera lingers on Schmidt--not, you feel, because the director was feeling especially self-indulgent or sadistic, but because he wants to record the listlessness on her face, the sense she has of literally not having any strength left to deal with this latest humiliation.  He wants to record the minutest details of a human soul that has felt so much pain it's beyond feeling the pain--only an immense, enveloping numbness.  It's a great film, I think--the first of several I'll talk about in the next installment.
 

Part II: Dreaming Angels

Bennett Miller does two things right in his documentary The Cruise.  First, he shoots New York in black and white--which, as Woody Allen learned when he did Manhattan, is the only way to shoot the city; it aestheticizes the all-too-familiar New York skyline and gives it a lovely, melancholic feel.  Second, he uses as hero of his film Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a character straight out of Dickens by way of Robin Williams.

Levitch is tall and lean, and manages to look dapper even in a threadbare jacket; his tour-guide patter is chock full of literary references, historical facts of dubious accuracy, and juicy gossip about his personal life--delivered fast and funny, with a dash of lyricism.  He talks about how his parents can't even begin to understand him; how the Brooklyn Bridge is a close, personal friend; and how the Manhattan grid pattern of avenues and streets is a means of imposing conformity over the variety and exuberance of New York.

Gradually you begin to discern the outlines of Levitch's philosophy, and you realize that "to cruise" (any relation to "cruising," and does Levitch know the gay connotations of the word?) is to look at the world in a peculiar, particular way.  The film isn't quite a great documentary--it doesn't have the baroque, involuted beauty of Terry Zwigoff's Crumb--but in Levitch it has a great character.  He's more than just a Manhattan tour guide; he's a street-corner Plato, an urban Tennessee Williams, a James Dean rebelling against all kinds of causes, and an irrepressible exhibitionist of his own soul.

Shohei Imamura's Kanzo Sensei literally translates from the Japanese as "Dr. Liver"--which, when you think of it, better captures the fleshy, somewhat absurd nature of the film than the artier-sounding Dr. Akagi, the film's official English title.  Imamura is a Japanese filmmaker from an older tradition than, say, Kore-Eda Hirokazu (After Life, Maborosi) or Kurosawa Kyoshi (License to Live).  He maintains a fashionably modern distance from his subject but his storytelling style--lively, intimate, totally engaging--recalls Japanese masters like Ichikawa, Mizoguchi and the older Kurosawa.

The film is about a World War II Japanese doctor who literally runs all over the small town that is his territory, diagnosing hepatitis left and right.  The town authorities think he has hepatitis in the brain, but that's because the disease is everywhere, in epidemic proportions.  The latter half of the film concentrates on Akagi's quest to isolate the hepatitis virus--he throws together a delightfully elaborate device involving flasks, microscopes, a slice of a dead man's liver, and (nice touch) a broken-down movie projector.  He almost succeeds (which would have made the film science-fiction) but fate keeps throwing distractions in his way--like the escaped Dutch prisoner all the soldiers are looking for, or the lovestruck nymphomaniac that insists he spank her bottom (Imamura's comic erotic scenes perk you up, like cortisone injections).  Akagi muddles through anyway, and achieves an ironic apotheosis--staring into an atomic mushroom cloud in the distance, he recognizes "a huge liver...magnificently hypertrophied!"  Kanzo Sensei is a tragicomic film about World War II Japan, seen through the befuddled eyes of a benign monomaniac.

Last year Dreamworks released Antz, while Pixar (in partnership with Disney) released A Bug's Life--both big-budgeted, computer-animated features about insects; this year Warner Brothers will launch the intriguingly titled The Iron Giant, while Disney unleashes its impressive-looking (at least from the trailers) Tarzan.  Hollywood studios may well be considered the world's greatest practitioners of the art of animation...unless you've seen Kawasaki Hirotsugu's Spriggan.

Noah's Ark is discovered in Mount Ararat, and the expedition that found it is immediately wiped out.  A powerful burst of electromagnetic energy sweeps the Earth, destroying three American military satellites up in orbit.  Thousands of miles away, a highly skilled seventeen-year-old assassin confronts his best friend...who has several pounds of high explosives strapped to his chest, and is suffering an irresistible urge to detonate them.  Throw in two powerful cyborgs, a child with demonic mental powers, and the End of the World As We Know It, and you have an idea of what Spriggan is all about.  More or less.

The level of animation--the textures and imagery involved--is unbelievable; you can almost count off in a lengthy list the number of impossible challenges the animators have set for themselves and brilliantly, gloriously realized.  I mean--action sequences set at night in a jungle; action sequences set at night in a snowstorm; action sequences set at night in a snowstorm, hurtling down a mountain slope at ninety miles an hour.  Incredibly real handheld shots (you have to struggle to remember this is an animated film).  An assassination attempt that takes place in a Middle Eastern city, painted a gorgeously subtle palette of the earth tones and desert colors.  A vision of the end of the world as an electromagnetic nightmare--as magnificent and surreally beautiful as anything described by the prophet Ezekiel, or by the Book of the Apocalypse.

At the same time, Spriggan evokes the true speculative spirit of science fiction.  It asks questions like: what was the real relationship between Noah's Ark and the Flood?  Why did the dinosaurs really die out, and how secure is our own foothold on this planet?  Spriggan isn't the greatest Japanese anime I have ever seen--it doesn't have the multilayered irony, the gentle sense of tragedy that's at the heart of Wings of Honneamise--but compared to the film, everything Disney has done from Beauty and the Beast to The Hunchback of Notre Dame look like crude charcoal sketches, scribbled by a child.

Three enjoyed the reputation of being among the most shocking films in the festival--Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone, Lars Von Trier's The Idiots, and Tod Solondz's Happiness--so of course I had to see them.  I Stand Alone is easily the grimmest of the three; it's ninety-two minutes of watching a former butcher go slowly, inexorably insane.  Philippe Nolan as the butcher gives a starkly intense performance--he's onscreen alone for practically the entire film, and if he was less than entirely compelling for even a second, the film would have died.  The best scenes are of Nolan standing alone or making his way down an empty street, delivering a never-ending monologue of bitterness and hate--a walking time bomb complete with its own relentlessly monotonous ticking.  There's horror in such relentlessness and monotony, and the fact that Nolan has eyes like everyone else in the film--tired and paranoid and utterly hostile--only drives home the fact that the horror can be inside anyone, anywhere.

Noe puts in a few cute touches--sudden camera movements, and ironic title cards--but they only serve to detract from the purity of his concept.  His most audacious gimmick works, though: when the bomb is ready to explode, a title appears onscreen that reads "YOU HAVE THIRTY SECONDS TO LEAVE THIS THEATER.  TWENTY-NINE.  TWENTY-EIGHT..."

Ultimately, a film like this depends on the shocks it can deliver, or on its visual style.  I Stand Alone suffers a little in comparison to Lance Kerrigan's Clean Shaven--which contained a scene so repulsive I jumped up and stood behind my seat--or to the classic of the genre, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.  But as is, I Stand Alone is still pretty strong stuff; you might want to sit down with someone over a cup of hot chocolate (coffee contains stimulants) after watching this film.

It would be interesting to try and screen Lars Von Trier's The Idiots uncut in this country [the Phillipines - Ed.], with its shots of nude men and women, erect penises, and unapologetically graphic sex.  Von Trier's latest work is pretty hard to take--not for the nudity, but for the attitudes that motivate the nudity.   It's about a group of perfectly healthy men and women who room in a large house and are involved in a kind of revolt against society.  They pretend to be retarded, attend and upset committee meetings, prance about in the streets naked, and indulge in public sex.  Their lifestyle reeks of self-indulgence--bored white Europeans with nothing better to do (there's a particularly depressing moment when they slather Beluga caviar on their faces, and you can't help but think how expensive that stuff is in this country).  But the film is ultimately about principles, not piggishness; what justifies all that frank exposure (and just might save the picture from the censors' itchy scissors) is the fact that everything pays off, in a sharp little scene near the end that brings the film into sharp dramatic focus.

The Idiots is shot in the uncompromising style of Dogma 95--no special effects, no fixed-camera setups, no music other than what's being played in a scene--and the visual rigor this entails helps offset all that self-indulgent hedonism you see onscreen.  The film isn't on the level of his Breaking the Waves--if it wasn't for that last scene, I would have written it off completely--but it's truer to the people in its story, where Breaking the Waves tended to distort its characters to fit the scheme Von Trier wanted.

Todd Solondz's Happiness has earned Roger Ebert's highest rating, and appears on many ten-best lists, including ever-sacred Time magazine's.  The film revolves around the stories of three sisters--more or less--but its real subject is the moral rot eating away at the lives of all otherwise healthy and respectable Americans.  The plot's many-stranded and somewhat loosely woven together, but underneath the anecdotal surface Solondz's scheme shines through clearly enough--the high are to be made low and the low are to be made thoroughly, entertainingly unhappy.  Not bad, but under Solondz's direction the film's scheme tends to sell several of the characters short.

You notice it most with the two most materially successful sisters Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle).  In their early scenes they come off as smug and self-righteous, possibly because Solondz has assigned them to be the putative highs that the film will eventually make low--the true villains in a film full of more conventional notions of villainy (adulterers, pedophiles, sadists, and murderers, to name a few).  Then there's Kristina (Camryn Manheim), who Solondz seems to have given the thankless role of movie mascot (bow-wow); she's unconvincingly turned into a murderess and mutilator, and in the end is callously disposed of with a casual aside.  I think it's a failure of imagination on Solondz's part that he can't dig deeper under their skins; he withholds his sympathy from them, refuses to understand them as completely as he does the others.  He's willing to take shortcuts with his characters so that they can fit into his all-important scheme--hammering the round pegs of personality into the square holes of his film.

Despite which, Happiness somehow still breaks through and justifies its high reputation among the American critics.  In the opening scene the third sister, Joy (Jane Adams), gently breaks up with her loser boyfriend (Jon Lovitz); the man replies by giving her an ashtray meant for the girl he loves, then snatching it away from her.  Solondz is just about peerless at writing scorched-earth dialogue: when the man tremblingly tells Joy that she's shit and he's champagne, you laugh at the sheer hate in his words, the same time you wince at the sheer pain.  Plus there's the famous (or infamous) scene near the end where Trish's husband Bill (Dylan Baker) explains to his son why he's a pedophilic rapist.  It would have been easy for him to lie; the fact that he doesn't is a clear sign of his love for his son, and the one unselfish act in the film.  It's a measure of Solondz's talent that the scene contains no nudity, no violence, no out-pumping gore--simply two people on a sofa talking to each other--yet it's the strongest moment among many strong moments, in the three most shocking films at the festival.

One of the pleasures of attending a festival is discovering--or rediscovering--a filmmaker previously unknown to you.  Johnny To has been making films for the past eighteen years: martial arts, action, crime melodramas.  The first To film I ever saw was The Heroic Trio, a garishly campy special-effect extravaganza starring Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh--five minutes was about all I could stand.  To, I thought didn't have what John Woo, Ringo Lam, or Tsui Hark had; he didn't have a signature visual style, he wasn't a real filmmaker.

Then I saw The Barefoot Kid and realized how wrong I was.  The film is about a young man (Aaron Kwok) who walks into a violent town and cleans it up--kind of like Kurosawa's Yojimbo without the sandals and the black comedy.  The martial arts is up to par with Tsui Hark's Once Upon A Time in China series, and there's an intriguing affair between the beautiful owner of a dyeing factory, played by Maggie Cheung, and her loyal foreman, played by Ti Lung (shades of Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou).  Kwok's Kid trades up, from bare feet to worn-out work shoes to a gleaming-new pair of footwear--veritable state-of-the-art Nikes, for that special kung-fu master.  It's corny stuff, but To's use of the social-climbing shoe symbol (from Lino Brocka's Jaguar, perhaps?) is both sure and delicate.  He pumps up the volume on the Cantonese pop tunes and turns kung-fu soap opera into genuine opera, of a sweep and intensity that's within hailing range of Verdi.

Turned on to To, I tried his latest film, A Hero Never Dies, and found it, if anything, even better.  There's an especially impressive moment near the beginning--the wide-screen camera gliding low on the ground, the coconut trees surging high up into the heavens, the music sounding like Ennio Morricone, freaking out in front of a symphonic orchestra--and all the shot showed you was a row of men, urinating.  "Too much," I thought; "he can't possibly sustain the intensity for the next two hours."

But he does, brilliantly.  A Hero Never Dies is about two professional killers (Lau Ching Wan, To's answer to John Woo's Chow Yun-Fat, and Leon Lai)--the two best in their profession--and their misplaced loyalty to their bosses.  Throw in two beautiful girlfriends (who push the definition of "standing by your man" to unimaginable extremes); sufferings to break the heart of Oliver Twist; a bottle of red wine that by the film's end acquires the patina of legend--and you're deep into Sergio Leone territory, where every man is an outsized hero, every woman his greathearted companion, and every room or set in the film is emotionally and visually the size of a football field.  Johnny To is as exuberant as Tsui Hark, as intense as John Woo, as dark and grittily realistic as Ringo Lam; when you realize that, after making films like The Barefoot Kid and A Hero Never Dies he's still a relative unknown to the outside world, you may want to sit and steady yourself.  Some injustices are simply impossible to comprehend.

Johnny To is a great filmmaker, I think, and it's exciting to watch his (for me) newly found films, but sometimes you have to keep a sense of perspective about what the word "greatness" truly means.  Take the case of Sergei Eisenstein, who went to Mexico and shot 75,000 feet of film, then was sent back before he could complete the picture;  Oleg Kovalov's Sergei Eisenstein: A Mexican Fantasy is Kovalov's attempt to recreate the film Eisenstein might have made if he had the chance.

It's an impossible project.  A film is never complete until the final cut; just rearranging the order of the scenes, or snipping out a few frames of film can change the tone and nature of the film radically--which is why I'm more than a little skeptical about calling Eyes Wide Shut a Kubrick film (according to some reports, he died before he could do a final edit).  This is true especially of Eisenstein, who in films like October and Battleship Potemkin practically invented the art of editing.

Having made the statement that Kovalov will never make the film Eisenstein intended--still, his Quixotic exercise is not entirely futile.  Kovalov must have seen Eisenstein's films enough times to approximate his style, and starting with this "approximation" of Eisenstein's editing style, the film's images, which are genuine Eisenstein, begin to take on a life and power of their own.  Kovalov does have one real inspiration--he lays on a totally new sound effects track on the film, most of which seem to have been done in an echo chamber.  Sound in the film is exaggerated, magnified--horses' hooves clatter on the hard desert floor; serapes snap and flutter like flags in a high wind.  The stark sounds emphasize the nonverbal nature of the images--no one has any dialogue, or even bothers to move their lips--at the same time giving the images a heightened dramatic tension, a greater emotional impact.

And what images!  A bull is killed at the ring, and at one point the camera takes the dying bull's point of view--toppling over to its side and being dragged away in a cloud of dust.  Revolutionaries hide out among giant cacti, with leaves so huge each one houses its own rebel; they stick their bullets in rows into the cactus flesh, the easier to snatch up and load into their rifles.  When the rebels start losing and someone dies, you see bullets smashing the cactus flesh, their juices spurting out in a thick fountain.  When the rebels are captured they are photographed in erotically contorted bondage postures, half-naked and gleaming with sweat.  Later they are buried up to their shoulders in the desert sand, and soldiers drive horses over their bodies, again and again and again....

Is A Mexican Fantasy a great film?  Maybe.  Certainly Eisenstein's footage is great, but it's Kovalov's editing that assembles the footage together into a coherent story.  Kovalov makes mistakes--some of the music is almost comically tragic, as if the film had momentarily turned into a telenovela--and there are irritatingly jokey, Tarantinoesque touches, like identifying arrows pointed at someone's head, or the occasional fast-forwarded sequence.  Someone who had seen the footage before, in an earlier attempt at reconstruction, reported that they had looked like rushes then; this time, the footage looks like it had been put together into a real film, and the overall effect is stunning.
 

Part III: Angels and Idiots

Yes, Theo Angelopoulos is a great filmmaker; that's the conclusion I arrived at after watching the Hong Kong International Film Festival's retrospective of his works.  He's great because he tackles the great subject of borders--the borders that divide countries, that divide people, that divide the young and the elderly--and he gives his subject the thorough and concentrated study it deserves.  He has a great visual style, his camera forever gliding and falling, rising and turning, in shots that last for as much as three or four minutes--as if he needed to envelope his subject, surround it, put it in its context, understand it.

Theo Angelopoulos is also a great bore.  His films don't go on for hours and hours; they only feel as if they do.  His latest, appropriately enough, is titled Eternity and a Day (someone called the Cannes Film Festival winner "totally refreshing--I caught up on my sleep").  To be fair, Angelopoulos never pushes the story--he makes his points quietly, with little rhetoric.  You have to lean forward and concentrate on what he's saying, which is something not everyone is able or willing to do.  It doesn't help that the typical Angelopoulos hero is a poet/writer/artist/filmmaker without a single shred of humor, musing endlessly on life and death and the other great imponderables.

But just when you feel like falling asleep or walking out, Angelopoulos comes up with a great sequence, like the wedding that climaxes The Suspended Step of the Stork.  Both sides of the wedding party hide while a border patrol drives down the river; when the patrol is gone, the parties run up to the banks of the river--the bride on one bank, the groom on the other--and a priest hurriedly marries them before the patrol comes driving back.  It's a richly absurd image--the bride, the groom, the wide river in between--and ultimately heartbreaking, as eloquent a metaphor for the inhumanity of borders as any ever filmed.

Landscape in the Mist may be Angelopoulos ' masterpiece.  It's simple, moving and direct, for the simple, moving and direct reason that his protagonists are children--a near-adolescent girl and her young brother, who leave their mother to look for their missing father.  Unlike most of Angelopoulos' heroes, children never philosophize; they're never self-conscious, pretentious, or wearisomely intellectual--they simply are.  They eat when hungry, shiver when cold, and cry when confronted with sudden, unknowable cruelty--as the boy cries helplessly, hopelessly, watching a blood-drenched horse die in the street.  Later, a truck driver throws the young girl into the back of his truck then climbs in after her, and this time it's us that watch--helplessly, hopelessly--until the girl crawls out, staring at her blood-drenched hand.  The children aren't just crossing the borders between Greece and Germany; they're crossing between childhood and adult life, between hope and despair, between happy innocence and full, devastating knowledge.

At one point the children are given a square of celluloid film showing a mist-shrouded landscape, and are told that if they look close, they can see a tree.  They don't actually see the tree--it's just one of the many lies adults have told them, time and again--or is it?  By film's end, Angelopoulos miraculously recreates the landscape on screen--this time with the tree visible through the mist--and the children head for it.  It's hard to explain why the scene is so satisfying; maybe because the scene completes the bit of celluloid (itself the missing piece from a film print) by adding the absent tree--a tree that perhaps marks the border of the children's imagined Germany.  Maybe the children's idea of heaven is a misty landscape beyond all borders and boundaries, where things once thought lost forever can somehow be found again.

Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels (a lovely title) tells the story of two women, Isa (Elodie Bouchez), and Marie (Natacha Regnier), who share a borrowed apartment together, fight, then drift apart.  It's the usual French kitchen-sink drama, filmed in the usual gritty, dreary realism.  Why, then, is it so unusually good?  Partly it's the performances of the two leading women, who are both terrific (they shared a Best Actress award at Cannes).  Partly it's the story--sometimes moving, sometimes unpredictable, always absolutely involving.

The least convincing moments in the film are between the two women--strange, especially when you read about how Zonca had the two live together to establish rapport.  They're chummy and comfortable with each other, but their friendship doesn't seem to go deeper than that.  Much more persuasive are their relations with other people--Isa with a comatose girl, Marie with an arrogant and abusive lover.  Isa seems to have had the harder life, but it hasn't broken her--when she learns that the owner of the apartment they live in was killed in an accident, she visits the owner's unconscious daughter in the hospital and keeps her company.  Bouchez's remarkably open face makes you believe in Isa's goodness, yet there's enough spikiness and spirit in her to keep her interesting--her goodness Bouchez suggests, was earned through years of rough living, not written into her by a script.

Marie, unlike Isa, was broken from the start.  Hers is the more difficult character to play--she's closed in and defensive, and when she opens up, you see nothing but self-disgust and pain.  Marie falls in love with a rich, handsome nightclub owner who treats her like dirt because she feels this is what she wants, this is what she needs--to be treated like dirt.  Regnier's performance is nothing short of miraculous.  She dives so far beneath this woman's skin and shows us so much of what's inside that you understand why she does what she does, the same time you're repelled by her masochism.

Critics have pondered over the film's title: let me offer my own humble explanation.  Isa and Marie and even the little girl Isa visits are the flawed angels.  Isa dreams of becoming a friend to the girl, Marie dreams of true love (S & M-style) with the man; when the little girl wakes, when the man calls it quits, their dreams are shattered.  Marie fares worse with disillusionment--Zonca gives her an abrupt, melodramatic end that does her character little justice.  He serves Isa better (perhaps he's partial to her) by putting her in the middle of a long assembly line in a factory, happily tinkering away.  The camera pans away from her to the faces of the women behind her, and we're reminded that we've witnessed the dreamlife of only two such angels--that there are hundreds of others behind her, their stories still untold.

Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole is Taiwanese and--surprise, surprise--it's superb.  I've always admitted to having a blind spot towards Taiwanese films--the only filmmaker from that country whose films I've actually enjoyed was Ang Lee's (The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility).  Tsai Ming-Liang is worlds away from Ang Lee's light, melancholic comedies; he's closer to the heavygoing style of Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-Hsien--slow pacing, deadpan acting, heavily philosophized filmmaking.  Yet somehow his film glows with excitement--with the excitement of a bold and truly speculative imagination.

The film is set in Taiwan, seven days into the next millenium, it hasn't stopped raining, and a new virus is going around, causing people to crawl and act like cockroaches.  A man living in an apartment above a woman accidentally has a hole dug into his floor, and the rainwater drips through his floor down the woman's roof--opening up possible contact between the two people, viral and otherwise.

The Hole is a brew of literary and cinematic references--the scuttling, roachlike victims come from Kafka's The Metamorphosis; the empty hallways and abandoned buildings recall J.G. Ballard's surrealist novel High-Rise.  The image of a man and a woman, alone and curious about each other in an enormous emptiness, feels like Buster Keaton's The Navigator--and in fact, the deadpan slapstick recalls Keaton's own imperturbable style.

But the artist The Hole most movingly and surprisingly evokes is Dennis Potter.  Potter was obsessed with the pop songs of the '30s and '40s, Tsai Ming-Liang with the '50s Cantonese pop tunes of Grace Chang.  Both use songs to comment on the narrative, to provide color and variety; both use songs to give their stories a potent mix of vulgar sentiment, poignant nostalgia, and a coolly sardonic distance.  The Hole is by turns futuristic parable, surreal comedy, ironic musical, and touching love story; it's easily the most outstanding, outré, outrageous film I saw in the festival.

Oh, and by the way--there were two Filipino films shown in the festival: Lav Diaz's Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion (Criminal of Barrio Concepcion) and Mario O'Hara's Babae Sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof--literal, but there you are).  They were given two screenings each, at two different venues; director Lav Diaz and his lead star, Raymond Bagatsing were invited to Hong Kong to attend both screenings of their film.

And the international film critics?  They came, they saw, they were barely conquered.

I'm being ungraceful.  Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion was somewhat well received--the film had already been invited to the Toronto International Film Festival by the late David Overby.  In Hong Kong it was nominated for a Fipresci Award as Best First Film and immediately after the screening was invited to the Fukuoka International Film Festival; later, Lav Diaz was interviewed on radio and on CNN news.

Tony Rayns of Sight and Sound magazine said he liked Babae Sa Bubungang Lata,and invited it to the Vancouver International Film Festival; Aruna Vasudev, editor of Cinemaya Magazine, invited it to a film festival in India.  After Hongkong, Babae Sa Bubungang Lata went on to the Singapore International Film Festival, where two film distributors asked to buy the theatrical rights to the film.  Martial Knaebel, who saw the film in Singapore, calls O'Hara "maybe the best filmmaker in the Philippines now" and invited it to his own Fribourg International Film Festival in Switzerland next year.  The film is also going to the Toronto All-Asian Film Festival in October.

The two films didn't exactly set the Hong Kong International Film Festival on fire with their world premieres--they weren't invited to Cannes or Berlin or Venice--but they did cause a modest splash, and the ripples are still being felt.

So are the criticisms.  Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion was considered an impressive debut, though some considered certain scenes unnecessary and the beginning slow.  Babae Sa Bubungang Lata caught more heat; it was called "theatrical" and "too melodramatic," and its subject matter was considered "too local and specialized to be of general interest."

Truth of the matter is, cinema has changed since the heyday of the mid-'70s to mid-'80s, when the films of Lino Brocka were shown internationally.  Since Brocka,  we've seen the blossoming of (among many others) the Tarantino film, with its rapid-fire dialogue and extreme violence; the Hong Kong action film, with its beautifully choreographed action scenes; and what I've been calling 'The Cinema of the Comatose,' the most prolific practitioners of which are the Taiwanese (Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien), the Japanese (Kore-Eda Hirokazu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa), the Koreans, and (sometimes) the French and Germans.  Tastes have changed, and while appreciation for conventional narrative survives (thanks to world-dominating Hollywood), festival filmgoers have to some extent gone the other way--embracing the less commercial static visual style and slow, slow pacing of the comatose film.

Which is why Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion fared better, criticismwise.  It's not a comatose film--far from it--but its moments of stillness and silence and understated acting (embodied in Raymond Bagatsing's extraordinary performance) made it a more acceptable, more familiar fare to festival filmgoers.  Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion, you might say, is the future of world-class Filipino filmmaking; it rides on the zeitgeist of world cinema, yet retains a sensibility that's recognizably Filipino.

Babae Sa Bubungang Lata is a different case.  O'Hara hasn't been keeping up with the latest cinematic trends; he's been too busy hanging out on street corners, talking to people right and left, steeping his eyes and ears and nose in the psychosociocultural stew that's Metro Manila.  He's a throwback to the '70s filmmaker, armed only with the latest in '90s gossip and a near-photographic apprehension of the state of the Filipino soul.  Babae Sa Bubungang Lata is one such photograph, of the Filipino film industry; what O'Hara saw was the passing of a once-glamorous filmmaking culture and the coming of a younger, grittier, more desperate breed.

The film blindsides international filmgoers on several levels.  First, they sense the many in-jokes and local allusions and probably resent being left out of the joke.  Second, they've seen this 'social realist' style of storytelling before, in Brocka and his contemporaries, and they perhaps believe they've moved beyond that style.  Third, they watch the many scenes of screaming and conclude the film is too melodramatic.

It's true in-jokes and local allusions are difficult to translate well, and the film does indulge in them enough times to possibly become annoying.  But Babae Sa Bubungang Lata lives in a world all its own, with its own time and context, even its own language; you have to take the effort to enter that world--not erase every obscure, anachronistic element that makes it unique. The critics focussing on the untranslatability of Babae Sa Bubungang Lata are possibly ignoring the film's larger, more universal story--that of marginalized people trying to survive in a dying industry.

As for the 'social realist style'--it's old, and I think, going to get even older.  Social realism traces its roots beyond neorealists like Vittorio DeSica, way back to novelists like Thomas Hardy and, even before him, to Victor Hugo.  Social realism survives because it's a good style, and it tells certain stories well that still need to be told.  Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels breaks no new ground, visually and cinematically speaking; is it a bad film just because its virtues are so traditional and old-fashioned?

And is Babae Sa Bubungang Lata really so old-fashioned?  I could point out the Anita Linda passages, shot in a more gothic style (though it's near-impossible to create much style on a budget of US$60,000).  I could point out that the admittedly abundant dialogue, musical bridges and sound effects aren't as conventional as they seem, mainly because they come from radio, where quick and fluid transitions are a matter of course.  Rather than slow down the film's pace the dialogue serves to sharpen it, a strategy Orson Welles himself once used in Citizen Kane, and a strategy so few films use today--the rest straining mightily to be 'cinematic' and 'nonverbal' while their audience has long since fallen asleep.

Ah, and melodrama.  Roger Ebert and other heavyweight film critics praised Ken Loach's My Name is Joe; I've seen it and I think this much-admired film is much overrated.  O'Hara, in comparison, has a finer ear for what's drama and what's not--even in his lesser films, even when directing a soap like Flordeluna.  Maybe it's because he's directed so much melodrama that he knows, with an absoluteness that comes from total immersion, the shiny stuff from the shit.

I could note that the most melodramatic passages in Babae Sa Bubungang Lata--the husband and wife screaming at each other--are filmed without music and in long shot, as if they were being observed at the end of a microscope, or opposite a proscenium arch (hence the complaint of being "theatrical").  I've read the original play, which is a creature of its time, a time when prostituting wives were a shocking subject; I can see how the play might feel melodramatic and slightly absurd today in the '90s.  O'Hara must have felt it too, and visually encapsulated the material in a theatrical style to give it--that comatose term!--ironic distance.

If an international critic can consider all this and still consider Babae Sa Bubungang Lata (which I still think is the best Filipino film ever made since 1986) melodramatic--well, all I can say in reply is that Brocka himself can come back from the dead and find a less favorable reaction to his films in festivals today.

Take that any way you will--as a defense, as an insult, or as a recognition of the reality.

Finally, I feel I should end with a quote Lav Diaz who, after watching many of the films I mentioned above, said: "we have a lot to learn, and a long way to go."



Back to Full Alert Film Review home