So Yong Kim talks about her strategies for directing young children and the memories of her grandparents' farm in rural Korea that inspired her intimate second feature, Treeless Mountain.
Out in Los Angeles to promote Camera Obtrusa, a companion book to his 1987 film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, director Hara Kazuo looks back at the film that made him a legend in documentary circles.
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Writer Rowena Aquino's filmic journey through LA Asian Pacific Film Festival includes stops at Manilatown is the Heart, Left Handed, The Convert, and the four-hour-long Love Exposure.
When you watch about three films a day (or one that is nearly four hours long) for several days straight, you reach a zombie state that is paradoxically productive to engage with images, characters, and situations. It's because when you get that vulnerable, you start to ask, "Why am I watching this?" (As opposed to taking for granted "I'm watching this," as you're sitting in a darkened room.) That's when you get all sorts of answers –- from yourself and from the films.
What follows further down are sketches of some of these answers in response to some of the films I had the opportunity to watch at this year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Sometimes it lead to more questions.
My first impulse for this film festival mini-review was to categorise titles by their country. But either this year's VC film program was more eclectic for my money, or I'm finally expanding the range of my viewing choices. Though we're far from having outgrown national categories (and I'm not saying that doing so would be a good or bad thing), I do relish the fact that I found myself connecting thematic dots to talk about these films that cut across several countries, more so than trying to link them according to a fulfillment of some national imaginary. And if there's a sense of an undercurrent of religion in the "looking for answers but only getting more questions" set-up, it's not wholly unintentional.
Undeniably, the only documentary I watched this year is more about celebrating poetic (pan-Asian American) imagination than upholding a national imaginary.
Prior to watching Curtis Choy's Manilatown is in the Heart: Time Travel with Al Robles, I had never heard of Robles, the vibrant and inspiring poet around whom this doc revolves. But by film's end, I knew who he was, for both the community of Asian American writers/poets and for the cultural space called Manilatown. Robles is arguably a significant historical and cultural space unto himself, which the doc demonstrates quite fluidly. Be it the intertwined social histories of Philippine migration to the U.S. through the manong, the Philippine and Chicano farm workers movement, the Asian American civil rights movement, or Asian American poetry interacting with the more well-known Beat poets, Robles serves as a point of reference and inspiration. By Choy's admission, Robles was a challenging subject because his whereabouts constantly shifted; Choy had to anticipate meeting him several days in advance to get some footage with him. A scheduled poetry reading helped to make the task a bit easier. Undoubtedly Robles' poetry performance –- which lasts more than ten minutes -– helps to make Manilatown less of the standard doc fare. It is a moving tribute to the varied histories in which he has made and participated. The news of Robles' death reached people just prior to the start of the film's screening at VC, making the film all the more poignant in its tender tribute.
"Tender" may not be the best word to describe the following films. Furthermore, what could a film noir-like film from Guam possibly have in common with a Japanese film on hikikomori helmed by a British director? Believe it or not, they're surprisingly linked in more ways than one, not the least through the themes of family angst and making choices. With Shiro's Head and Left Handed, we are knee-deep in existential crises brought about by the burden of the past and the burden of the future, respectively. Both films present everyday lives wrought with small measures of suspense along the way, and both take place in very insular worlds that threaten to cave in at any moment. Both are also debut feature films, and consist of non-professional acting casts. In the end, however, while one surprises by its muted yet affecting quality in tracing the lives of a family with a hikikomori, the other ultimately disappoints in its search and discovery of family secrets, due to a lack of emotional translatability.
Shiro's Head is the first directorial effort by brothers Don and Kel Muna, and it is an admirable one. Made purely on the strength and enthusiasm of DIY productions, the cast and crew came together through the desire to put Guam on the cinematic map and tell their (hi)stories. All good intentions aside, unfortunately the result is far from memorable –- and perhaps even less comprehensible. There's a love triangle, and a man, Vince, who tries to reconcile with his estranged family since his father's murder. Vince has a beef with the mohawked, pierced-ridden Imo Masakatsu; Masakatsu, in turn, follows attentively Vince's movements. Then there's a samurai sword, a metaphoric gateway to his family, and a historical one to a pre-colonised Guam. Sounds potentially interesting, but the execution is riddled with empty gestures: close-ups of actors meant to be stirring fall flat at best and seem pretentious at worst; the suspense buildup for a shoot-out never really begins; whatever dialogue is there ends up sounding like code that I can't understand; in short, the film is made of flourishes without much emotional force. Shiro's Head is not an entire failure, though: the animated sequence detailing the "legend of Shiro," the powerful samurai and original owner of the sword, is compelling. Too bad it wasn't longer. Honestly, I wanted to like the film, but I just couldn't bring myself to do so.
It's the opposite case with Laurence Thrush's own debut feature film, Left Handed. I was ready to write it off, with its low-key black-and-white camcorder-like images of the angst of school life. But the film stubbornly holds its ground even as it depicts the lives of those where the ground is giving way. It's told through the subtle and touching performances by the cast of non-professionals (with the exception of the mother played by Innami Masako). There's Hiroshi, who one day decides not to come out of his room; his parents and his younger brother Yuhei; and real-life social worker Kudo Sadatsugu, whose task is to draw out Hiroshi, physically and emotionally, from his room. I've seen hikikomori films before, but Left Handed is a standout. It never really states a flat-out reason for Hiroshi's decision; in fact, once he locks himself in his room, we don't see him again until the end –- and only in spots. What we do see, among other things, are everyday moments that take on a delicate hue: Yuhei's attempts to understand Hiroshi's choice; its toll on his mother; the mother's own choice to continue to tend to both sons accordingly; the decision to seek outside help. The film takes place nearly entirely at home, which achieves a depth of intimacy that is really the film's strength. Thrush also uses frequently tight framing to further accentuate this level of intimacy. In fact, coupled with the choice of black-and-white, the film reads almost like a video diary –- as if we're watching something meant only for the eyes and ears of those on the screen.
These next three films –- The Convert, Kolorete and Love Exposure -– form a kind of warped religious (mainly Catholic) triptych to challenge the eyes and ears (and faith) of its characters and spectators, each in their own way. Or better yet, think of Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon, where the faces of the women become more fractured and jagged from left to right, and you start to get the idea: the dramatic tone of the films ranges from straightforward, to otherworldly, to comic book extreme. Intrigues, chance encounters that can lead to (unrequited) love, explosions of violence, and resistance against oppression in the name of family and religion abound in varying degrees of cinematic spectacle and contemplation. Call it an awakening, a resurrection or insurrection, or what-have-you, but it's quite possible that Luis Buñuel is smiling.
Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad's The Convert represents the straightforward of the bunch. A kind of meditative thriller almost, with a pace reminiscent of post-accident Kitano Takeshi cop/gangster genre-benders, the film revolves around two devout Muslim sisters Rohani and Rohana (played by real-life sisters Amani and Aleysha Sharifah), in hiding from their abusive father. They befriend a young teacher, Brian Goh, who is also a lapsed Catholic. Brian eventually gets involved in the sisters' family problems, while at the same time begins to confront his own. The film is not necessarily great: at times the film moves more like a still life; less dialogue would've suited actor Brian Yap (as Goh), as delivery is not his forte; and the thriller plot is stretched in areas to the point of being contrived. But when the latter is more of a background to discussions on religion, to seeing Brian's curiosity grow towards the Qu'ran, to dialogues consisting of Biblical quotes –- or even just the verse/psalm numbers -– the film attains a strange, quiet elegance. To call The Convert a thriller is actually misleading. As heady as it sounds, it's more like a visual comparative religious studies piece, with some comic touches here and there, as when one of the sisters quotes Paul Simon.
Like The Convert, Ruelo Lozendo's Kolorete speaks of this world, while at the same time referring to and taking inspiration from other(worldly) ones. The film takes place in Spanish-colonised Philippines, in a small town whose inhabitants are in preparation for a zarzuela as a farewell ceremony for the Spanish mayor. Because of its black-and-white images and very minimal camera movement, the film also refers to the world of silent cinema, in particular the so-called "cinema of attractions," where scenes are shot frontally, as if on a theatre stage. In the Q&A, Lozendo shared with the audience that his initial inspiration for the film was the concept of a zombie musical, and part of his reference was the world of German expressionism. Zombies and Caligaris aren't exactly the first thing you think of, regarding colonial-era Philippines. But that's the great thing about Kolorete. It presents the everyday of that era outside of far-reaching, over-determined platitudes; in other words, it doesn't revolve around the national hero Jose Rizal, whose novels helped to fuel anti-Spanish revolutionary sentiment (to put it mildly). And it's refreshing, because not everyone could have been a Rizal at that time -– or even wanted to be one. If I haven't mentioned religion yet, it's because its presence in this film is more tacit than addressed. Catholicism in colonial-era Philippines is so embedded in the everyday that it goes without saying.
Having a friar as one of the main characters is practically a requirement (Kolorete has one). And yes, part of the story is that beneath the songs, dances, formal attire and politeness simmer jealousy, desire, schemes, and resistance to the Spanish presence. But Lozendo gives the film a kind of double existence, beginning with the choice of black-and-white (an ironic counterpoint to the film's title, which means "make-up," or more specifically, "blush"). I would go so far as to place Kolorete obliquely to the side of Werner Herzog's Herz aus Glas; it possesses a similar magnetic quality that keeps your eyes glued to the screen even during moments when you ask yourself, "What's going on?" Given the blindingly white make-up on some of the actors, their sometime zombie-like carriage, and seemingly trapped state, one could equally accuse Lozendo of hypnotising his cast. That's a good thing.
Not too far from the initial idea of a zombie musical is Sono Shion's latest output, Love Exposure. Frankly, I haven't appreciated a film that takes on Catholicism, fetishism, and mad love since Buñuel. Whatever The Convert and Kolorete had begun, Love Exposure takes to delirious heights. Virgin Mary fetishist, ninja-voyeur photographer of what lurks underneath women's skirts, cross-dresser, a sinner only to please his Catholic priest father.... That describes just one of the characters, Yu, played with astonishing energy by Nishijima Takahiro. The first hour-and-a-half or so of the film is pitch-perfect that I laugh even now as I remember it. It's due in no small part to Nishijima's no-holds-barred performance. His orgasmic zeal in going to confession to get his father's love and forgiveness, and in training to be an acrobatic photog, is unmatched and absolutely wondrous to watch. The other main credit must obviously go to Sono's vision of an unusual love story set against the often dangerous and hypnotic capacity of religion and religiosity, a love story that by film's end has accumulated a force just notches below Romeo and Juliet's. Because the thing is, you don't realise it's about a redemptive romance until maybe two-thirds into the film (did I already mention that this film is nearly four hours?). Various plot branches get in your face so that you don't immediately see the grand scale of the forest. There's Yu's father and his own religious conflict and romance with a vine-like of a woman, Saori (played to the hilt by Watanabe Makiko); the for-profit religious cult masking as a non-profit spiritual haven, headed by Yu's arch-enemy, Koike (Ando Sakura); and Yu's Virgin Mary, Yoko (Mitsushima Hikari) and her men-hating lifestyle. But they get in your face in a good way, like the blood-spattering collective suicide with which Suicide Club begins. Of course, Sono brings all these strands together to build up one of several climaxes where Virgin Mary Yoko, the religious cult, cross-dressing Yu, come together. If it sounds more like a new, exotic cocktail, let's call it the "Miracle" – if you watch the film, you'll understand. Watch responsibly.
Date Posted: 5/22/2009