Sunday, September 27, 2009

BKKIFF '09: Capsule reviews and notes part 1

With this year's Bangkok International Film Festival split between two cinemas, with double the screening slots but crammed into just six days, everything seems rather perfunctory and abrupt. And that's just how it's going to be. There are movies playing. And I've seen some of them.

Double Take
With the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, as both a focal point and a MacGuffin -- a plot device that he discusses -- this documentary by Johan Grimonprez looks back at the Cold War and the early days of television and how the politics of fear shaped media coverage of the Soviet Union's superiority in space and in the nuclear race. Even more fearsome it seems, was the inability of American housewives in the 1950s to the 1970s to make a cup of coffee that would satisfy their husbands. To think -- the horror of it! -- that they would resort to using instant coffee to win back their hubby's love? Double Take seamlessly blends the old Folger's commercials, newsreel footage, clips of Hitchcock's TV series and interviews with modern-day Hitchcock double Ron Burrage to dizzying effect. With Nixon and Krushchev, as well as Kennedy and LBJ, it's a rollicking ride through history that doesn't quit. As the end credits role, it's a fast-forward through the Carter and Reagan years and then George HW Bush, Clinton and the other Bush, ending with the inscrutable Donald Rumsfeld and his rationalizing about "unknown unknowns". Hopefully that will be a springboard for another take. (5/5)

The Moon at the Bottom of the Well
Veteran director Vinh Son Nguyen opens a window -- okay, several windows actually -- on the historic central Vietnamese city of Huế in this beautifully composed, methodical and engaging portrait of a devoted wife and her fall after her husband is involved in a scandal. A popular schoolteacher, Hanh (Anh Hong), spends her days making sure that everything is just so for her fussy husband Phuong, the school's headmaster. She awakens early to make his lotus tea from fresh petals, go to a food vendor to buy breakfast because he won't eat on the street and grind fresh chilies for fish sauce that she serves but he never uses. "It entices him," she explains later. The couple, who are childless, live in an old-style wooden house, fronted by a wall of perhaps a dozen or so narrow wooden door-windows that are ritualistically opened and closed. Scandal breaks and all is not what it seems. The perfect wife Hanh is infertile and has allowed her husband to take a second wife to have children with. The other wife lives in a village outside the city, with the headmaster's mother. Word about this eventually reaches the Party officials, and it's an arrangement that simply won't do. Her husband and focal point of her life taken away, co-dependent Hanh struggles to find a replacement. When a stray dog proves too fickle, she finds her match in a general -- but not the type of military man that the Party would approve of. Hanh's solution, involving mysticism and spirituality, is a side of contemporary Vietnam that seems at odds with its pragmatic communist rule. (4/5)

Thai politics -- the pre-coup yellow-shirt rallies of 2006 -- makes a Singaporean man snap and strangle his wife. The episode causes him to lose his voice, and he's deemed criminally insane and taken the Island Hospital. Actually, the guy was reading the paper, about the Bangkok protests over the sale of Thai assets to a Singapore company, and then the story is coincidentally on TV when his wife switches the set on. He thinks the TV, via cracks in the ceiling, is reading his thoughts. Now the only way his thoughts will be read is if he writes them down in a little black notebook. This wonderfully existentialist rumination blurs the lines of reality and fiction as it interviews the patients and staff of the mental hospital, where they practice a revolutionary treatment -- the "videocure" -- in which each patient re-enacts the moment where they went crazy on video. They then edit the short film and it's screened for the rest of the patients and staff. As each character is introduced, they sign a release form to participate in the film Here. There's a sleepy, dreamlike quality to the proceedings and if you nod off for just a bit, then probably experimental filmmaker and video artist Ho Tzu Nyen will consider his job done well, because in the Q&A that followed the film, he explained that was one thing he set out to do. It's as if everyone is being drugged to make them calmer. Oh, the scenes of the yellow-shirt protesters are actually taken from Pimpaka Towira's documentary, The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong. (4/5)

Each year at South Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival, three directors are commissioned to make short digital films, and this year South Korea's Hong Sang-soo, Japan's Kawase Naomi and the Philippines' Lav Diaz were tasked with making shorts under the theme of Visitors. The visitor of Hong Sang-soo's Lost in the Mountains is Misook, a young woman writer visiting Jeonju, where she meets her old college professor, her old boyfriend, also a writer, and another female classmate. It gets pretty awkward when Misook is spotted coming out of a short-time hotel with her old professor, and even more awkward later when she and her old boyfriend get back together for an embarrassing public snog during a night of drinking, the other female classmate hooks up with the professor and they all meet by coincidence at the same restaurant in the morning and try to pretend neither are there. The visitor of Kawase's Koma is a Korean man in Japan, who visits an elderly couple in a mountainous district, to return an ancient hanging scroll that his grandfather had been given long ago as a reward for saving child's life. The young man finds himself attracted to the couple's adopted daughter, who takes the man on a tour of the area. I liked Lav Diaz's Butterflies Have No Memories the most. The visitor here is not the protagonist, but a plot device. It's a young Canadian-Filipino woman who grew up in an impoverished former mining village and is back for a visit and to take photos. One of the girl's father's former employees then hatches a scheme to kidnap her. The angry gun-toting man recruits two other men to help, but the youngest -- a childhood playmate of the girl -- is reluctant. They wear masks, but it all seems so stupid and useless. She will know who they are. Surreal, absurd and sad -- all hallmarks of a Lav Diaz film -- Butterflies, and indeed there are actually butterflies, is all the more haunting in that it seems to be foreshadowing a real-life event -- the killing earlier this month of Canadian-Filipino film critic Alexis Tioseco and his partner Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc, likely by people they knew, but were not wearing masks. (4/5)

This controversial film is neither as bad as Roger Ebert makes it out to be nor as fantastic as the jury of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival would have us believe for awarding director Brillante Mendoza the best director prize. Unrelentingly dark -- literally, it's just dark, like all the time, in keeping with Mendoza's "indie" aesthetic -- Kinatay matter-of-factly follows a young newlywed criminology student (Coco Martin) on his rite of passage in a gang of criminal cops as they abduct, beat, rape and kill a prostitute and then hack her body up and dispose of the pieces in various places around the city. Oh, there's an arm. And there's a foot. And there's her head. Martin's character and the audience are more a victim than the woman is. He is unwillingly dragged along on this crime. The implication is that he can't escape the situation because even as a cadet or whatever, he's already resigned to the fact that corruption is a fact of life and is the only way he'll get paid enough to keep his new wife happy and their baby fed. Mendoza's message is that this is taking place, all the time, and has been going on for a long time. And so? Yes, it's taking place, and thanks for sharing Mr. Mendoza, but it all seems rather pointless and hopeless. And maybe that is the message if there is one. Maybe he should have added a few butterflies? (3/5)

1 comment:

  1. " Mendoza's message is that this is taking place, all the time, and has been going on for a long time. And so? Yes, it's taking place, and thanks for sharing Mr. Mendoza, but it all seems rather pointless and hopeless. "

    Yep, this Mendoza is a hopeless sort. He is a very troubling precedent: a fine, true representation of the abyss that is the Gloria Arroyo regime, and the self-immolating nihilism which she and her sympathizers have doggedly pursued for the Phils these past few years. His works are symptomatic of that banal corruption he slaves over for with his French backers.

    Ultimately, his works are a product of the impunity of not recognizing the public…


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