- Directed by Sherman Ong
- Starring Smith K. Kimaro, Link Reuben, Abdul Khalfan Malaika, Khalid Saleh Bilal, Mariam Rashid, Grace Mathayo, Miriam Emanuel, Raheli Augustino
- Screened at the 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival; website
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
A Singaporean director has made a movie in Tanzania. In Swahili. With a cast of non-actors.
And it's amazing. Kumbukumbu Za Mti Uunguao (Memories of a Burning Tree) is a multi-layered ensemble drama that cuts to matters of the heart and soul.
It's directed by Sherman Ong. He previously took his improvisatory filmmaking style to epic proportions in the four-hour Singaporean experimental drama Flooding in the Time of Drought. Burning Tree was made as part of the "Forget Africa" program, in which the International Film Festival Rotterdam commissioned filmmakers from Asia and other parts of the world to make movies in Africa.
Setting up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Ong collaborated with local writers Peter Mbwago and Nkumi Hamis Mtingwa. They assembled a cast of first-time actors for an ensemble drama about various personalities and their intertwining stories.
Smith (Smith K. Kimaro) is a young man looking for his mother's grave. He gets assistance from local tour guide and artist Link Reuben. Metal scavenger Toatoa (Khalid Saleh Bilal) house found some bits of metal in the graveyard. He's the angry young man of the story. He always seems to have carrying around a hunk of steel bar like he's spoiling for a fight. Food seller Mariam Rashid endures the persistent marriage proposals from some guy. She serves up dishes from behind a window with jail-like bars that sometimes block out her eyes. There's also Grace Mathayo as Toatoa’s sister, a schoolgirl clad in a red headscarf. And there's Miriam Emanuel, Toatoa’s girlfriend, who wants to get a job.
Slow-moving, methodical and mystical, more about the characters is revealed over the course of the 86-minute feature. And it's poetic. Literally. Excerpts of poems by Shaaban Roberts are read. Adding to the international flavor is the song played over the end credits, scrolled over a car's front window on what's presumably a drive to the airport. On the car radio is the foot-tapping Malaysian rock of Jaggu Singh, "Tribute to Mardana", announced by Miriam Emanuel. Seems she found that job.
In all, 13 films were made for the "Forget Africa" program, among them Unreal Forest, shot in Zambia by Thailand's Jakrawal Nilthamrong. Hope to see more of them.
Capsule reviews and notes
- First trip to Hong Kong -- I had intended to see Enter the Void during my trip to Hong Kong last weekend. I turned up at a place called the Grand Cinema, which was the venue I'd noted from the Hong Kong International Film Festival's website. But I was in the wrong place. It was playing at the Grand Theater in the Hong Kong Civic Center, not the Grand Cinema in the Elements shopping center. I wonder if I'm the only one who's made that mistake? I was in a rush and didn't check the website thoroughly. Though I was disappointed about not getting to see Gasper Noe's film, I did not waste any time. I crossed over to the Hong Kong side and met a former work colleague from my early days in Bangkok. We had coffee on a ferry pier overlooking foggy Victoria Harbor. And I finally met an longtime online friend face-to-face, Etchy, who I first encountered on the the long-gone Rotten Tomatoes Vine. He's now at Alive not Dead and on Twitter. More than seeing movies, I just wanted to experience Hong Kong, and staying in the Temple Street neighborhood of Kowloon made that easy. I also checked out Mongkok, and the late-night sea of humanity on the streets there. I didn't get to see much of the city's vaunted skyline, due to overcast skies and "China fog". Perhaps next time.
- The Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Went off the reservation for this one, and caught a regular commercial screening of Wes Anderson's latest at the Broadway Cinematheque. Don't know why it hasn't been brought to Bangkok. I guess Thai distributors don't "get" Wes Anderson. A talking-animal tale based on a Roald Dahl book, Anderson made it with stop-motion puppets, which suits his hermetic, exacting style of film production. Bit talky and contrived toward the end, but I enjoyed it more than The Darjeeling Limited. (4/5)
- The Bill Plympton Collection -- This was a chance to see a dozen or so of animator Bill Plympton's shorts in one go. Among the classic favorites are 25 Ways How to Quit Smoking and the two men punching each other in Push Comes to Shove (which I remembered from a piece of Windows 95 software) and four of his "dog" cartoons. Plympton was actually there for Sunday night's sold-out screening at the Hong Kong Science Museum, and he signed autographs for the entire audience, which dutifully queued up to collect a postcard or buy a DVD. (5/5)