Tuesday, December 9, 2014

LPFF 2014 reviews: The Jungle School, Shift, Madam Phung's Last Journey

The Jungle School

If it's been awhile since you've seen a Riri Riza film, then The Jungle School (Sokola Rimba) is a great way to get reacquainted with one of Indonesia's finest auteurs. Despite the gaps in his IMDb page – the last entry was 2008 – the veteran writer, director and producer is steadily working. His latest effort, making its way around the festival circuit, is based on the true account by teacher and community activist Butet Manurung, a determined woman who brought literacy to the loincloth-clad indigenous people of Indonesia's jungles. She's portrayed by martial artist, actress and model Prisia Nasution, who'll be in the next action film by The Raid director Gareth Evans. She rides a dirtbike into the mountains and with a blackboard strapped to her back, she hikes far into the forest. Pushing herself too hard, she collapses from exhaustion but wakes up in the tribal camp where she was heading. But she is then told she was rescued by a young man from a "downstream" tribe, a group the upstreamers are wary of. Butet wants to find this mysterious downstream tribe, and she does. But she's regarded with suspicion by the tribal elders, especially a mean matriarch who believes that the teacher's pencils and words will curse the tribe. Along with that conflict, Butet also struggles against the bureaucracy of her NGO and a boss who wants her to stage her classes for the media in the easier-to-access upstream village. The coverage means more funding for the NGO, but the money isn't really helping the tribes, which are under increasing pressure from encroachment by loggers, palm-oil plantations and national park expansion. Butet perseveres and forms a  bond with the downstream tribe boy, teaching him to read. It's a skill that comes in handy when the palm-oil guys come with their cases of packaged food to trade for the tribal lands. The looks on their faces when that kid starts reading the contract to them is worth the effort of seeking this film out. A fantastic animation sequence that illustrates the tribe's mystical beliefs adds even more visual loveliness to the picture, which is clearly lensed against a beautiful jungle backdrop that also includes many close-up shots of wildlife. (4/5)


One of the highlights of the Luang Prabang Film Festival is getting to catch up with the latest of the so-called "maindie" offerings from the Philippines, which churns out dozens of low-budget films that are aimed squarely at mainstream audiences. Shift, an entry from the Cinema One festival, which commissions original digital features for competition and then holds the broadcast rights to them, is an eye-catching romantic comedy about a rebellious young woman with a shock of punk-rock maroon hair. Directed by Siege Ledesma, who makes her feature directorial debut, Shift won the Grand Prix at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. Her main character is portrayed by TV talent show singer Yeng Constantino, who expresses frustration by running her hand through that crazy dyed mane. And she's frustrated a lot. Estela works in the Philippines' extremely competitive call center industry, but she'd rather be playing music or pursuing her hipster hobby of film photography. She's also under pressure at home, where her family's apartment is about to be demolished. Her folks are out of town, but they keep tabs on Estela through her tattletale younger sister. In the midst of company restructuring, Estela is assigned a mentor, a long-haired gay dude named Trevor (Felix Roco). The two quickly form a bond, and tomboyish Estela finds herself falling for the guy. Much confusion ensues over sexuality and gender roles. Fun as it is in the beginning, the energy of Shift slackens in the latter third, causing a few heads to shake in the LPFF screening. Like last year's LPFF entry, What Isn't There, which featured Felix in a cameo as a twin of the mute character portrayed by twin brother Dominic Roco, Shift looks at the trendy youth culture of the Philippines. It's a cycle away from the "poverty porn" of so many Filipino films a few years ago. At some point, I suppose there will be a shift back. (3/5)

Madam Phung's Last Journey

Making her remarkable debut feature, director Nguyen Thi Tham offers a glimpse at Vietnam's transgender culture in Madam Phung's Last Journey, following a travelling carnival troupe run by two ageing drag queens. It's a much different scene than the one I'm used to seeing in Thailand, where there is high tolerance for transgender folk and they are pretty much part of the mainstream even though discrimination does exist. It's much harsher in Vietnam, where queer and transgender culture is frowned upon by authorities. Men who dress as ladies aren't allowed to hold business licenses, and they generally aren't hired for any legitimate jobs. So the travelling carnival troupes are the only way for these marginalized people to make a living. Madam Phung's troupe travels the countryside and highlands, moving from town to town with their ragtag fair. While the veteran drag queens perform songs and sketches, pretty younger ladyboys roam the fairgrounds, flirting with the local men as they sell lottery tickets. There's kiddie rides and games of chance. One game has you guess which numbered slot a guinea pig will run into. Another attraction involves a shotgun being pointed at performers as they do skits on demand. Early in the evening, it's all good clean fun, with families taking in the entertainment. But later in the evening, after the families go home, the level of bawdiness rises and the audience is mostly drunk (and/or high) young men. Then it turns ugly. Fights break out. The police are called. The townspeople turn against the performers who entertained them, and the carnival troupe is forced to hastily pack up and get back on the road. It's a pattern that's repeated at each stop. In between, there are interviews with the colorful Madam Phung and another senior performer, who recall their hard lives as queers in Vietnam. And you get a general feel for what it's like to be in the troupe, who fill the time between performing and travelling with drinking and card games. It's a wild, rough existence. Nguyen began her project in 2009, spending years getting it together. The closeness of her subjects is palpable, and they frequently turn to the camera, feigning shyness in their padded bras and various other states of undress, and affectionately call her "little devil". Appearing at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, the tough and shrewd director was tight-lipped about what her next project might be. Whatever it is, it'll be one to keep a lookout for. (4/5)

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