Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reviews: Birth of the Seanama, Sea the SEA Part II

  • Directed by Sasithorn Ariyavicha
  • Produced in 2004; screened at the 2004 Thai Short Film & Video Festival, 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival, 2005 International Film Festival Rotterdam and 2005 Hong Kong International Film Festival; reviewed at Bangkok Fringe Festival 2008, February 16, 2008
  • Rating: 5/5

Birth of the Seanama is a cinematic language all its own. Literally. A special alphabet was invented, just to tell the strange, fantastic story of a city that rose up out of the primordial ooze and then was swallowed back up again.

In this totally silent (no music, no dialogue), black-and-white, 70-minute feature, Bangkok is seen in a unique context. The modern city, with its fancy new cars, ribbons of highway, skyscrapers and Skytrain, is primeval. These stark images are sometimes shot from viewpoints on high, from the observation deck of a skyscraper, or perhaps out the window of a commercial airline flight. The perspective also hones in on the mundane - the view out a taxicab window, or from the backseat, of the driver's shifter hand. At one point, the camera freezes on the rubber handrail of a down escalator, with hands riding past in slow motion.

These urban scenes are juxtaposed with natural settings - the beach, and ocean waves lapping in, some birds perched on branches (probably the migratory swifts that roost in trees along Bangkok's Silom Road for a few months each year), bare tree branches, and the sky. The effect is mesmerizing.

The story set down in the Seanama alphabet is a strange, hypnotic one, talking about a girl who changed into a kite, and a man whose tears became the sky's. The Seanama text is superimposed over the scenes. Helpfully, English subtitles were included. Combined with the trance-inducing images, it's a lot to take in.

Also viewed
The Bangkok Fringe Festival 2008 hosted Sea the SEA, a program by the Thai Film Foundation of short films and independent features from Southeast Asia and Taiwan over two weeks. Here is a look of the rest of program from the second weekend on February 16-17, 2008:

S-Express Malaysia - Four shorts: Pool by Chris Chong Chan Fui; Qalam by Hadi Koh; Westbound by Kubhaer T. Jethwani and A Day in the Life by Syed Omar. Pool is an artful documentary about a concrete reservoir built after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia with funds by USAID. Local kids swim in the tank, and some of the traumatized ones are taught to regain their confidence in the water. Next, the powerful Qalam is about a Buddhist monk who is meditating, but can't concentrate because the name "Allah!" keeps popping into his head. He then goes on a pilgrimage in search of Allah, first to a Hindu temple where he is thrown out. Then to a Catholic Church, where he runs away when confronted by the severe priest, and finally to a mosque, where they lock him outside the gate. Perhaps the monk is Allah, reincarnated. Westbound is the whimsical tale of an ethnic Indian actor whose truck runs out of gas while driving to Kuala Lumpur. He is rescued from his predicament by a mysterious little man who lives in the forest, and after the man pours less than a liter of fuel into the actor's tank, the truck need never stop at a filling station again. But the perpetual energy only works as long as the gas cap is never removed. I'm sorry to say I can't remember anything about the last film in the S-Express Malaysia program, A Day in the Life. If anybody could comment and jog my memory - something specific, not just the program synopsis - I'd be grateful. Rating: 5/5 (on the strength of Qalam alone)

Tuli - Directed by Auraeus Solito, this gorgeous drama, set in an isolated rural Philippines village, mixes a lesbian love affair with Christian mysticism. The story is about luminous young woman named Daisy (the captivating Desiree Del Valle), who grew up helping her father circumsize all the boys in the village. She's seen everything there is to know about them. In the flower of her womanhood, she is facing the prospect of an arranged marriage with one of these boys, but isn't too keen on the idea, which makes her drunken, abusive father all the more frustrated. She is more interested in the abused wife of another man, and the two become lovers, scandalising the whole village. Strange Christian rituals, like self flagellation and crucifixion play a part in the proceedings. Ultimately, Daisy's quest for true love, and to break the cycle of violence, brings her to the one man in the village who was never circumsized. Rating: 4/5

S-Express Taiwan - Three shorts: Shopping Cart Boy by Hou Chi-Jan; Street Survivor by Lin Jing-Jie and Waterfront Villa Bonita by Lou Yi-An. This was a very strong package of films from 2007, all with cool stories. Shopping Cart Boy followed the life of a trolley boy in a supermarket, and his daily routine of rounding up the shopping carts from the parking lot and surrounding neighborhood, as well as his contemplative breaks on the store's rooftop. Street Survivor is about a prostitute who is entrapped in a police sting. The craziest of the bunch was Waterfront Villa Bonita, which involved a bank robbery, a shop-lifting incident, a Christian activist and a weird, underground cult. Rating: 5/5

The Last Communist - Director Amir Muhammad revisits the historic stomping grounds of Chin Peng, the leader of the Malaysia Communist Party, from his childhood, through World War II, the post-war years, Malaysian independence and his exile in Thailand. It is a very unusual documentary, in that the subject is not interviewed, rather it visits present-day locations where Chin Peng had been in the past, and interviews people who were around at the time. The documentary covers the length and breadth of Malaysia, and encompasses the country's diverse population. Quite entertaining are the musical interludes, which play like karaoke videos. Who knew that a song about the "malaria massacre" could be so catchy? Seemingly unthreatening, fair and gentle, the film has been banned in Malaysia, as has its sequel, The Village People Radio Show. Rating: 5/5

A Short Film About the Indio Nacional - Directed by Raya Martin, this 2006 Filipino docu-drama is an appropriate bookend to Birth of the Seanama, and is likely just as polarizing. It is also black-and-white, and also silent, though it does have a color sound segment, and there is musicial accompaniment. The film seeks to recreate historical footage of the "Indio Nacional", the common man during Spanish colonial times. The short vignettes follow the Indio's life, from his childhood as a bell ringer, to adulthood and his joining the revolution. There are also other scenes from rural Filipino life, which play like anthropological studies of primitive cultures. Adding to the retro atmosphere of this silent film is the piano accompaniment, which sounds like it is being played right there in the theater, on a rickety, out-of-tune upright, which has the sustain pedal permanently depressed, by a slightly drunk pianist with a strong right hand who pounds the highest notes with reckless abandon. Rating: 4/5

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