Thursday, August 31, 2006

Immoral Tales (1974)

Immoral Tales (Walerian Borowczyk, 1974)
French Title: Contes immoraux

Walerian Borowczyk's Immoral Tales is a collection of four episodes whose common theme seems to be first, an abundance of naked female bodies, and second, naked female bodies participating in what can be conceived as immoral acts. These four episodes belong to four different time lines, different settings, with different degrees of immorality. Despite its judgmental title, Immoral Tales is filmed in unembarrassed objectivity and seems to be more immersed in the portrayal of moving flesh than actual commentary, which isn't all that bad since Borowczyk's camera knows how to light these light-skinned nymphs to the most sensuous and most titillating degree that despite the film's shallow-headed nature, I can't really complain.

The first episode concerns a man who goes to a bicycle trip with his younger cousin. They stop by the beach wherein the man decides to consummate his fantasy with the girl. While teaching the girl how tides work, the girl performs oral sex on the guy. The episode finishes with the girl insisting that there's more time for fun, but is rejected by the guy who says that what they did was not fun, but education. Borowczyk loves to fill his screen with flesh and purposely closes up on the female flesh in frenzied fashion. He intercuts the lovemaking scene with images of the sea, of a duck trying to fight a humongous wave, of seabirds flying by. It's obviously softcore pornography dressed up in art film sensibilities and this is actually the tamest of the bunch. It gets better.

The first episode is followed by the tale of a young girl who gets vocal messages from what she thinks is the Holy Spirit. She is punished by her guardian for disappearing after church service and is trapped inside a room for three days. She doesn't waste the time alone, and starts to look around for things to do, discovering "Therese the Philosopher" by de Sade, while being commanded by the voice that talks to her to let go. In a bizarre mix of de Sade and ignorant religiosity, the girl finds erotic uses for the vegetable left to her.

The third episode is about Countess Bathory (Paloma Picasso) who goes around Hungary's cantons and hamlets to steal away girls and bring them to her palace. Along with her servant, she watches these girls bathe, play, and fight until the time she poisons them all and lets them kill each other over the pearl-adorned dress she has promised to them. Bathory's madness culminates with her bathing in these ladies' blood, and caps the night with ritualistic lovemaking with her female servant.

The last episode is probably the most substantial of the lot. It is set during the 1400's when the Vatican is ruled by a immoral pope who has sired two children, a cardinal and Lucrezia Borgia (Florence Bellamy). While the pope, the cardinal and Lucrezia indulge in incestuous sexual acts, Savonarola is preaching against the immoralities that are being committed within the church. The episode ends with Savonarola being burned and Lucrezia's baby (one can only guess if it is sired by her pope father or cardinal brother) being baptized into the Catholic religion.

There's not much substance in Borowczyk's collection of episodes. The tales breeze away like forgotten wet dreams filmed in the most fantastically erotic way. The girls seem to give off an incandescent glow that makes the film burst with erotic energy. It is also quite obvious that Borowczyk (like the other prominent European erotica master Tinto Brass) has a little fetish for the female bum as such is very much in prominent display in almost all the episodes (especially the one involving the Countess Bochary). There's so much to be offended at with what's being depicted on screen --- incest, debauchery, sacrilege. However, it is almost a sure thing that Borowczyk meant that the moral angle of the film be taken as an afterthought, instead of as a driving force for the film. It's primary motivation is to tittilate, despite the oddness and the patent immorality of what's on screen. He wouldn't have filmed those sinning girls in loving, tender, and an almost angelic light if his purpose was to preach.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006)

To say that the only reason to watch The Devil Wears Prada is for Meryl Streep's subtly intense performance is not really far from the truth. Streep, with the little time that she actually figures in the film, raises the pic from one ordinary chick flick to another level, a chick flick with one very good performance in it. But then again, The Devil Wears Prada cannot be accurately described as a bad film saved by an excellent performance because it is actually good.

Based on a novel by Laura Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada is about recently graduated journalism major Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) who finds herself employed as an assistant by the biggest name in the fashion magazine industry, Miranda Priestly (Streep). Miranda literally turns the office into an earth-bound hell. Other employees are mean and competitive and disguised in designer shirts, skirts and shoes. Her duties are tedious, whimsical and totally unrelated to what she initially wanted to become. But since Miranda is so big in the business, and so influential in other spheres, Andy is prepared to change herself and her wardrobe, last a year, and see to it that she makes something out of the experience.

But of course, the film is not totally about Andy Sachs and Miranda Priestly's love-hate relationship. Andy has a life of her own. She has a loving, if not cinematically boring boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) whose thick eyebrows kept me from enjoying whatever chemistry is happening between the also thick eyebrowed Hathaway. She has her college friends (Tracie Thoms and Rich Sommer) who are really negligible film-wise, they just serve the purpose of telling us that Andy is sacrificing her friends because of her toxic corporate job. Then there's a rather nice relationship Andy develops with the magazine's art director, Nigel (Stanley Tucci). Tucci's Nigel is the affectionate, stoic, suffering, and fatherly homosexual that keeps the workplace sane for the new employee. Nigel is the brain behind the make-over and is the heart of Andy's conclusive catharsis.

The filmmaking is fine, if not totally negligible. I'm quite appreciative of the fact that the creative team did not decide to pump up the romance, or to force a metanoia for the devilish magazine editor-in-chief. There's already too much pretty dresses and colors in the film that an extra dose of smooching or hugging from the big eyed Hathaway and Grenier would get me puking with too much sugar. And then I repeat myself, I'm really not sure if the film would've worked without Streep. Her Miranda Priestly is vicious yet at unexpected times, vulnerable. Behind the fur coats, the fashionable shades, the high heels and the thick make-up is a woman who sacrificed alot to get what she wanted, and in return for selling her human soul, seeks to tempt and lure other innocent dreamers to take her skin in an effort for heartless success.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (1976)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1976)
Japanese Title: Goddo supiido yuu! Burakku emparaa

Japanese cinema of 60's and the 70's can be characterized by the abundance of local films being released that tackled the youth of that era. Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, and other filmmakers started seeing the huge gap that was being created by a Japanese society that was fastly modernizing. It seems that the adults who have experienced the tragedies and the hardships of post-war Japan couldn't understand the newly found freedom and wealth that kept the newer generation of Japanese distant from their parents. As the distance is obvious, it an inevitable response that the youth would separate themselves from their parents and band together. Mitsuo Yanagimachi's Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a documentary that followed a biker group and sought to paint a clear and real picture as to who these alienated youth are and why and how they are doing it.

It starts out well and seemed to have a form. The biker group of interest here call themselves Black Emperors and they enjoy riding around Shinjuku with their loud bikes, carrying weapons and seeking fights with other gangs or if not, the city's police. Yanagimachi shows a member being accepted into the gang, with each of the existing members introducing themselves, proudly declaring that they are beggars, school drop-outs, or jobless loafers. It's not a pretty picture --- Japanese kids airspraying city walls with the swastika probably unaware what the symbol means, they shave their eyebrows, trouble their parents with charges of misdemeanors. Then, Yanagimachi shows an intimate picture of one of the members, Decko, who lives with his parents and one night, urges his mom to accompany him to the court the following day. The mother does not attend, and we witness Decko going out of the court, his driving license suspended, and comforted by his fellow gang member.

Then the film just stops and drags itself into a meaningless void. Yanagimachi details how the gang works. He shows footages of gangmembers selling dolls and tickets to people, and how the "elders" punish those who lie and pilfer gang funds. We are then entreated to a rather uninteresting and lengthy conversation between two of the younger gangmembers who wanted to quit Black Emperors. The conversations between themselves and then, with the gang's "elders" is not really something I'd like to spend my afternoon watching. It could've been trimmed down as most of the footage is negligible and quite irrelevant to the entire picture.

But the power of Yanagimachi's film isn't with the subject. Today, the Black Emperors seems mundane and not really special, given the fact that being caught for speed driving isn't really not much of a concern these days when kids would rather shoot classmates with a rifle to get attention. Yanagimachi shows great talent with how intimate he has come in showing his subjects. His subjects doesn't seem to mind that a camera is rolling and recording their meetings and their conversations. It's either everything is rehearsed or Yanagimachi has truly earned these gangmembers' trust and confidence that they let him into the gang. A recurring imagery used by Yanagimachi is of the teenagers fastly driving the city streets at night. It's a moving image, which has been often used in cinema to symbolize freedom and living life in the fast lane. Here, despite the fact that the recurring moving image of bikes crowding the streets would always put me in awe, I found it lacking given the fact that the entire film seems to fall short of what it tried to do.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

The Wicker Man has been acknowledged by some as the greatest British horror film of all time. Although such accolade might be arguable, there is no doubt that Robin Hardy's first feature film and adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's novel of the same title has garnered quite a cult following since its release, to the point of being remade by director Neil LaBute. The film has accomplished quite a feat as there is no visceral manifestation of horror in the film. There are no ghosts, ghouls, or demons. But as they say, the best horror films are actually those that play with your mind and leads you to believe or actually feel a lingering danger. That is actually what The Wicker Man is most successful in. It sucks you in a seemingly normal police procedural and then keeps you paranoid as to what may and can happen.

Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives by aeroplane to Summerisle to investigate a supposedly missing child. At first, the citizens of the island refuse to acknowledge that such child exists but upon further investigation, Sergeant Howie discovers that the island has rejected Christianity in favor of ancient paganism and somehow, the entire case of the missing child seems to be connected to the upcoming May Day Festival the Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and the island's citizens are preparing for. A devout Christian, Sergeant Howie makes it both an official and personal mission to find the missing girl and see that everything is put in their proper place.

Like most horror films, the general attack is claustrophobia but here, director Robin Hardy does not make use of narrow hallways or prison-like spaces. He uniquely achieves the desired claustrophobic feel even with the island's beautiful greens and clear skies and generally cordial villagers. It is achieved by placing a single individual within a wall of potentially obnoxious and jarring principles. The sergeant is a highly principled personality and when surrounded by a culture that derives existence from potentially damaging beliefs of pagan gods and rituals, sexual rites and forms of merrymaking, deviant education, he is left uncomfortable and inevitably defensive. It's brilliant filmmaking. During the sergeant's first night, he is bothered by the innkeeper's daughter knocking on his walls and inviting him to join in. It is clear that he is tempted, but when the director couples the scene of temptation with a lush song and seductive if not cinematically off-placed dancing, it is almost ludicrous that the sergeant does not succumb. The point here is that the sergeant is obviously out-of-place in the island and whatever images he might find offensive and weird to his outsider sensibilities, is actually quite normal. In Summerisle, he is the invader, the outsider, and everything that is in accord to his beliefs and principles is strange and unwanted in the community.

The plot further transforms from discomforting discovery in the first forty minutes, into an actual pagan orgy that leads to the film's twist. It's elegantly told. Hardy's visuals is quite clear-cut. Pagan rituals are depicted with an unnatural and almost magical quality while other scenes are mundane and straightforward. You can actually distinguish whether the scenes are real or not, based on the visual's dreamlike composition, but when the plot leads you to discover that there is actually no difference, and that the dream is actually taking place in the film's reality, its very disturbing and quite horrifying. Obviously, we take the stance of the unfortunate sergeant who finds himself a stranger in a time and age wherein he should supposedly feel in place and his beliefs are natural and common place. We are also turned off and shocked by the existence of pagan barbarism in an age of supposed civility and modern religion. It is that effective suggestion, and that arousal of suspicion, that makes The Wicker Man a fantastic horror film, even to this day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Shanghai Blues (1984)

Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 1984)
Cantonese Title: Shanghai zhi ye

Shanghai Blues, one of Tsui Hark's earlier films, is a romantic-comedy set in Shanghai right after liberation from Imperial Japan. It's a delightful romp that tickles the senses and amuses the heart. Shanghai is lit with neon lights, and citizens shield themselves from the rain with brightly colored umbrellas. Although the city is torn with post-war inflation, the atmosphere is pretty much hopeful setting the tone right for a cheerful comedy of errors. Beggars set-up their tents with money gathered from selling their blood, but still insist in camaraderie and music. Nightclubs are littered with perverts and thugs but backstage, the showgirls argue and fight in slapstick coordination. It's really entertaining despite the abundance of on screen corniness.

It starts just before the Japanese invasion. Do-re-mi (Kenny Bee) is a clown who quits performing to join the army and fight for liberation. During a stampede, he accidentally pushes a short-haired girl under the bridge. The two get to know each other's pasts and promise to meet at that exact spot right after the liberation. However, just before they know each other's names, they are again separated by a rioting stampede.

Ten years after, Do-re-mi returns to Shanghai and chances upon ill-fortuned girl Stool (Sally Yeh), who finds herself homeless and money-less when her wallet is snatched from her. Stool is taken home by kind-hearted Shu-shu (Sylvia Chang), a kind-hearted showgirl who coincidentally lives right below Do-re-mi's apartment. Do-re-mi thinks Stool is his mysterious soul mate, when it is actually Shu-shu. The result is a chaotically amusing love triangle that delights in moments and scenes of confusion.

There is constant motion in the plot. Tsui seems unrelenting and uninterested in momentary stops to at least invest in romantic air and silence. The film keeps on moving. A supposed scene that would have the audience sigh a romantically satisfied sigh is disturbed by a comedic punch. Tsui doesn't intend to please himself with rom-com conventions, and instead, picks up the pace of his setting, a Shanghai that has just survived the war and is trying to get back on its knees, only to experience another take-over (not really shown onscreen but you can feel the onslaught of Communism with the beggars calling each other comrades).

It's an impressive early feature for Tsui, who would later make a name for himself as one of Hong Kong's most important directors. Despite the use of typical Hong Kong comedic antics (meaning, there will be a lot of jokes and slapstick moments that seem irrelevant, lowbrow or just plain unfunny), its authentically charming. Tsui infuses songs and dances within the film, lending Shanghai Blues a melodic feel that usually erupts in downright silliness.

Tsui has a natural talent for editing. The final twenty minutes of the film is a frenzied collection of scenes that exclamate in a finale that satisfyingly concludes the entire set-up. Yet Tsui doesn't end the film in a peaceful conclusion but instead stages the reunion in a confusingly crowded train ride to Hong Kong. I know it's cliche but it just fits within the confabulated madness that Tsui stormed up. With all the cat fights, the misunderstandings, the miscommunication, the humorous song and dance numbers, the seemingly pointless plot maneuvering, it is quite understandable why Tsui decided to end with a note of romantic resonance in a backdrop of feverish rowdiness, inside a fast-paced train ride and within the vision of hundreds who are trying to escape the hopelessness of Shanghai for the initial promise of Hong Kong.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Mee Pok Man (1995)

Mee Pok Man (Eric Khoo, 1995)

Eric Khoo is credited for reviving Singaporean cinema with his first feature film, Mee Pok Man. The funny thing is Khoo isn't really satisfied with just reviving what was supposedly dead for almost two decades. He just had to stretch the limits of the Singaporean government's strict censoring body, and gratuitiously adds snippets that would most certainly raise the eyebrows of the censors. Mee Pok Man begins with a montage of fastly cut images of the dirt, the grime, the Singapore media wouldn't dare show us. Interspersed between the images of the neon lights of the red light district of the city-state, trashcans, meat, and food are pictures of a single nipple, a resting butt, and a female's pubic hair area. Just for that thirty seconds of bravery against a government that punishes gum-chewing and sidewalk spitting with lashes of bamboo canes, Khoo deserves all my praise.

Mee Pok Man, without the courageous opening montage, is quite intriguing. A mee pok (a noodle dish served with soup and fish balls) vendor (Joe Ng) is enchanted by street hooker Bunny (Michelle Goh), who usually spends the night at the food stall with her co-workers, where their pimp Mike Kor (Kay Tong Lim) will eventually pick them up and bring them to their booked engagements. One night, Bunny is bumped by a car and is rescued by the street food vendor and brought and taken care of in his place, resulting in a quiet and terminated romantic relationship that forces the morose vendor to open up and release his pent-up angst.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mee Pok Man is that it sort of tried to pierce the mythology that there are no poor people in Singapore, one of the richest cities in the world. Khoo's painting of Singapore's more impoverished districts is very much like that of crowded Hong Kong, or Bangkok where citizens live in unadorned tenements, and survive and eat at street food places. Khoo's characters are pitiful --- these are the Singaporeans who got left behind, the sad, forgotten ones. These are the citizens who didn't meet the requirements of success and are left to sell their bodies, or their food products, or steal, or rely on debts, or share in a collective hope of being something more than they are. This is the focus of Mee Pok Man, where dreams and ambitions of a better life are caged up in a society that takes pride in rigid rules of excellence, and that unless you catch up with everyone, you are left in the trash bin with other rejects.

Khoo's unflinching commentary of the almost inhumane rigid societal norms that have lead Singapore to success is subtly inputted in the mee pok vendor and Bunny's unaccomplished love affair. Bunny is a dreamer who hopes that her British photographer boyfriend will bring her to London. When her brother discovers her diary, we become aware of Bunny as a human being whose dreams and ambitions are carried over since her school days. The vendor on the other hand is a recluse. He barely speaks, but when he does, it is with wary satisfaction of the fact that this is only what he can do --- to cook noodles, and the only other thing he can aspire for, is not money, material things, or traveling the world, but love. When Bunny dies, he doesn't forgo of that accomplished goal and in a disturbing yet interestingly passionate way, nurtures that one night of human connection beyond death. It's a tragic consequence of being forgotten and kept secret: that notions of goal and ambition take form in a queer and almost unnatural form, but still distinctly very human.

Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

Vampyr is Carl Theodor Dreyer's follow-up to his most popular work The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Not wanting to be labeled as a saint's director, the Danish auteur decided to make an uncharacteristic horror film that stretched the film medium to its limits. Both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr failed miserably commercially, and the latter resulted in a nervous breakdown for Dreyer. It won't be a decade until Dreyer releases another film, the short Good Mothers (1942), and a year later, a feature entitled Day of Wrath (1943).

Vampyr might not have the same kind of chills and scares that are provided for by today's more mainstream horror fare. Vampyr's horror is mostly composed of psychological battles between two extremes: of nightmares and dreams, shadows and light, madness and sanity, calmness and paranoia, good and evil. The film's form itself middles itself in a limbo of silent and sound film. Vampyr marks Dreyer's exit from the silent era. The film shows Dreyer making use of bare sound elements, with added dialogue, sound effects, and other aural elements. Yet, the plot is forwarded by intertitles, and much of the film's coherence is gathered from that which is written and seen, than what is heard. The dialogue is cryptic and mysterious. The sound effects merely add ominous air to the already ominous atmosphere. It's a discordant marriage between a fleeting film style and the newly born sound film, and it's interestingly ugly and creepy, which makes the film transcend the narrative's bare sources for horror.

The story is liberally adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu's novel. It concerns Allan Grey (Julian West), a student of the occult, who arrives at a town and spends the night at an inn. A mysterious visitor arrives announcing that "She must not die," and leaves a package that shouldn't be opened until his death. Being a student of the occult, Allan Grey naturally investigates and discovers images and sensations that display an unnatural imbalance in the town: an old man carrying a huge scythe ringing the bell upon Allan's arrival, a shadow of a peg-legged man, a moustached man and his strange companion. Allan Grey arrives at a faraway mansion where his night visitor gets killed, leaving behind two mysteriously afflicted daughters, and a go-signal for him to open the secret package: a book about vampires.

The narrative feels more like a ghastly nightmare rather than an understandable horror piece. The film is shot the same way, like an unforgettable nightmare where anything and everything can happen at a whim, where religious and cultic symbols take life-like forms, where logic is forgotten for visual impulses. Much more than almost every other element, the biggest contributor to Vampyr's level of hallucinatory madness is Rudolph Maté and Louis Née astounding camera work. With the aid of Dreyer's typical austere style of filmmaking, Maté and Née create indelible images that portray a striking and immediately memorable visual representations of what a nightmare should look like. The camera wafts through the claustrophobic corridors to reveal shadows gleefully dancing in ununderstandable joy. The camera patiently awaits a boat being revealed from dark thick fog. Perhaps the most memorable of all is the camera being used as a disturbing point-of-view of Allan Grey inside a coffin being carried and buried, in a strangely yet effectively chilling nightmare (within a nightmare).

Vampyr is truly a work of genius. It is an expressive result of experimentation by Dreyer and his crew with the newly emerged sound film, while still retaining silent film sensibilities, resulting in a confusing yet satisfying limbo that is also depicted in the limbo that Allan Grey suddenly finds himself in. The film is unescapably terrifying in its dreamlike aesthetics yet prayerfully pious in its reverent use of religious, symbolic, and literary imagery.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

To describe John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness as merely a fine piece of horror cinema is to give this film a huge disservice. Prince of Darkness is more than horror, it's actually a very interesting piece of science fiction, that dabbles in occultism and the age-old mysticism that have always surrounded organized religion. Although the film contains zombies, demons, roaches, worms, beheading, blood, and a lot of screaming, the main thrust, the oomph that makes Prince of Darkness special is the way Carpenter attacked the tired and almost cliche theme of the devil boss himself taking over the Earth.

Instead of doing the film in the conventional horror way: witches, Satanists or other demoniacs who urge for their master to make his apocalyptic entrance in our world, Carpenter cooks up this whole theory wherein Satan is actually a creature from another dimension, or planet, and the Catholic Church has kept hidden inside a glass structure (which looks like a cheaply made bright green lava lamp) the Prince of Darkness, which awakens just in that moment where a supernova just exploded and some light particles, or quarks, or whatever, lands in Earth to urge the ooze to turn into an actual living creature, which infects everything it touches like a mind-controlling parasite. Carpenter's theory is complex, he uses scientific banter to raise the film's standing much higher. There's talk of telepathy, visual signals from the future, quantum physics, Catholic history that Carpenter struggles to jive and mix into a coherent whole. Surprisingly, it works and despite the kookiness of it all, is actually very entertaining.

Carpenter starts it off wonderfully. A priest mysteriously dies leaving a key to a darkened chamber in a closed-down church. A man, Brian (Jameson Parker) stalks a beautiful girl Catherine (Lisa Blount)who turns out to be his classmate in a philosophy-physics class under Professor Birack (Victor Wong). The key left behind by the dead priest is used by another priest (Donald Pleasance), who troubled by what he discovered, contacts Professor Birack, who in return, instructs his students who are experts in physics and other scientists to spend a weekend in the abandoned church to measure the happenings in scientific terms, and find out what can be done.

The premise is fantastic and Carpenter's filmmaking is quite admirable. His script (using pseudonym Martin Quatermass) maybe heavy handed but Carpenter's filmmaking makes up for such, using deadpan humor, or expert scare and shock tactics to allow the viewer to swallow the implausibility of everything. It's fine horror, with tinges of Romero zombie-fest (with the homeless schizophrenics surrounding the church in hordes), Italian schlock (there's an abundance of worms, and other creepy crawlers), and American exorcism scares (the near-latter part reminded me a bit of William Friedkin's The Exorcist). The sci-fi angle is more for thrills and chills rather than serious thinking, but Carpenter's insistence on the far-fetched theory may give the film some sudden pauses to its near-perfect pacing, but everything is forgiven when Carpenter turns the last twenty minutes into a hair-raising, mind boggling, exhilarating ride to a conclusion that will leave you scratching your head by how Carpenter came up with an unexpected stroke of genius.

This post is my contribution to Lazy Eye Theater: John Carpenter Blog-A-Thon.

Bodyguard Kiba (1993)

Bodyguard Kiba (Takashi Miike, 1993)
Japanese Title: Bodigaado Kiba

Takashi Miike is probably Japan's busiest director. He makes around three to four films per year, and while most of them are cheap direct-to-video thrills, it can arguably be said that Miike's films are always entertaining. Miike started as an assistant director for Japanese TV and was trained to make numerous shows in very little time, with controlled budget. He only made his first feature film that was to be shown in theaters in 1995, with Shinjuku Triad Society, and ever since then, he's been getting recognition for his blunt depiction of violence and sex with the primary goal of mere entertainment. Bodyguard Kiba is one of Miike's earlier films, which inevitably was only released in video in Japan. Interestingly, the film is quite well-made, and despite its formulaic structure, is almost always interesting.

Junpei is an ex-boxer who got into trouble with the Okinawa yakuza when he decided to steal 500 million yen. He gets imprisoned for trying to kill his boss, and five years after, he is freed, wants to go back to Okinawa to claim the money he hid, look for his girlfriend, and live the good life he always dreamed of. But of course, the yakuza will be after him, and immediately right after he was freed from prison, a group comes driving by, kidnaps him, and tortures him to reveal the location of the loot. His hired bodyguard, Kiba, is late, but eventually rescues him from the clutches of his ex-colleagues and guards him from Tokyo, to Okinawa.

It's not much of an interesting premise, but Miike and his screenwriters keeps on adding surprising touches to this film that keeps it from being repetitive and boring. Right after Junpei and Kiba lands in Okinawa, Kiba gets a handful of challenges from different karate dojos in Okinawa. The result is a quick yet exciting mini-competition where Kiba's master defeats each and every Okinawa karate master (most of which would use different kinds of weapons) with embarrassing ease. Of course, despite not having to defend his dojo from the Okinawa challengers, Kiba gets a huge piece of the action. Loads of fight scenes depict Kiba in his top form, coolly and breezefully pummeling opponents right and left. One might criticize the titular character for being invincible, but that's the point of it. The character's pretty much underwritten, and he is portrayed as uninteresting, stoic, and with girly facial features for such a savage fighter. He is in the truest form, just a bodyguard and therefore, not much drama is expected from him. The drama comes from Junpei who despite being a boxer, is quite a sissy in the arena. If Kiba gets most of the action, Junpei gets most of the beating, both physically and emotionally. He reveals the most about himself, while Kiba is the silent listener. In the end, the two guys' chemistry becomes very watchable. Kiba's non-personality and Junpei's vulnerability delivers a partnership that is interestingly near-perfect.

Miike directs the film quite well. His visuals here would reflect his future bluntness. Although there's not much outrageous bloodshed here and the use of guns and other weaponry is quite limited, Miike still gratuitously provides for entertaining violence, and sex scenes that are filmed primarily for titillation. Flashbacks are frequently used, yet that doesn't hinder the easy flow of the plot elements. The film rolls by in clockwork fashion, and despite its emptyheaded goal of mere entertainment, Miike adequately provides for thrills that keep me from yawning in violent disagreement.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Hinugot sa Langit (1985)

Hinugot sa Langit (Ishmael Bernal, 1985)
English Title: Snatched From Heaven

Ishmael Bernal's Hinugot sa Langit (Snatched from Heaven) is a very challenging film to watch. Right from the start, the audience is introduced with scenarios of complex problems pressed after other problems. The characters are drafted from your typical melodrama stereotypes. The center of the drama is Carmen Castro (Maricel Soriano), the impossibly patient victim of the screenwriter-created dilemmas. Revolving around Carmen's personage and dilemmas are other characters that are seemingly cut from traditionally established cinematic stereotypes. There is Stella (Amy Austria), the liberated and seemingly modern cousin of Carmen. Juling (Charito Solis) is Carmen's overly religious landlady, an avid member of a charismatic prayer group. Jerry (Al Tantay) and Bobby (Rowell Santiago), are the two men in Carmen's life, the former, an irresponsible playboy-gambler, the latter, a traditionalist who is stuck to his life plans.

Hinugot sa Langit, on paper, sounds like your typical Filipino melodrama where histrionics and impossible scenarios abound, but fantastically, the film is far from that. Beautifully restrained, simple, and hard hitting, Hinugot sa Langit tackles a controversial topic with an uncontroversial control and a humanistic approach to a central character that has all the problems of the world to withstand.

During the first few minutes of the film, we are informed that Carmen is pregnant. Her cousin Stella scoffs and recommends abortion. The father of the child, Jerry, also recommends abortion. Her landlady, who is busy juggling her religious aims and her legal quarrel with the poor families illegally living in her land, suggests that she keeps the baby as killing it would be a sin against God. Carmen sees signs that would seemingly suggest an answer to her difficult decision. Her poor neighbors struggle for money to feed their children. She sees a physically malformed child vending goods outside the church. She loses her job at a financing company due to the struggling economy during that time.

Hinugot sa Langit may be branded as preachy and anti-abortion but in reality, while its focus is that controversial issue, Ishmael Bernal and screenwriter Amado Lacuesta, populates the film with side stories that suggest a latter more pressing issue, which is societal hypocrisy. It just so happens that abortion is the most telling of issues. The Philippines being a prominently Catholic nation declares abortion as criminally and morally wrong yet funnily, the practice is unwrittenly accepted among women who are time-pressed with a decision. Such is the scenario here, Carmen is surrounded by suggestions of what to do but is left upon her own faculties in deciding. Each suggestion is clouded by a tinge of doubt. The characters surrounding her aren't naturally sure of their own lives. Stella is outwardly happy and wild but inwardly is insecure and lonely. Juling carries within herself an unerasable guilt which she tries to forget through her religious practices, forgetting that the world has deeper problems than her past. All the events and the characters have unnatural and seemingly impossible roots, but as a screenplay, as a dramatic film, Hinugot sa Langit works.

Thematically sound, Hinugot sa Langit also boasts of technical mastery. The music is sparse and controlled. Bernal forgoes the over orchestrated notion of what a drama should be and instead relies on his visuals and his actors talents to draw out emotions. The cinematography is simple but there are some very wonderful shots where the lighting, the blocking of the actors, and the framing, contribute to an impressive addition to Bernal's atmosphere of confusion and cynicism for this unsure Filipino society. The acting is very impressive. Maricel Soriano is wonderfully restrained, letting go of her usual histrionics for the more difficult style of acting that comes from what is felt within than what is outwardly presented. Charito Solis is a wonderful presence, and so is Amy Austria, who singlehandedly gives the film a lighthearted humor.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Golden Balls (1993)

Golden Balls (Bigas Luna, 1993)
Spanish Title: Huevos de oro

Bigas Luna's Golden Balls is dressed up as a melodrama about an ambitious man's rise and fall, but is really an effectively funny comedy that strips down the sexual male to the point of ridicule. The sexual male of Luna's critical eye here is Benito Gonzalez (Javier Bardem), who dreams up of erecting the tallest building in the city. Right after being cheated on by his prostitute girlfriend Rita (Elisa Tovati) for his best bud, he starts laying the groundwork for the realization of his dream. First, by hooking up with model-turned-secretary Claudia (Maribel Verdu), and pleading her to sleep with the city's banker to urge him to fund his project. When that failed, he marries the banker's daughter Marta (Maria de Medeiros). Before the film reaches its halfway mark, Benito accomplishes the two top fantasies of all men: number one, to be rich and fulfill a lifelong dream with no capital, no property, but just a set of golden balls; and number two, to have a threesome with two beautiful ladies.

However, despite the outward manliness of Benito, he's actually very inept with a some curious personality quirks. Benito, the ultra-macho man, indulges in the sappy music of Julio Iglesias. He idolizes Salvador Dali, and sees himself as artist in copulation, drawing lines and figures on the bodies of his women. He has a stern insistence that only a woman of a certain weight is perfect for his body type, and this compulsion for details and his ambition overpower his sexual libido. While his wife and his paramour start kissing and fondling, he disengages himself to remind his wife about ironing his shirt for an important business meeting the following day. His idolization of Salvador Dali is so immense to the point that when his fortune runs out, his nightmare feels very similar to Dali and Luis Bunuel's collaboration in Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog), with imagery consisting of him entrapped in gigantic testicles, ants invading a woman's genitalia, and other out-of-this-world confections.

The turn-around of Benito is so outrageous, its hilarious. He gets into a car accident which inevitably makes him less virile. He loses all his fortune, his women, and gets back a few when his right hand man falls from his building and dies, with him earning from his friend's insurance. He finally hooks up with a highly-sexual dancer (Raquel Bianca) who because of her immense breasts, are way above his weight requirement. The two of them migrate to Miami, and Benito ends up as the other guy in his girlfriend's threesome with a hired gardener (Benicio del Toro), the absolute opposite of every straight man's sexual fantasy.

The film is just so obviously patterned, so grandiosely contrived, that it's nearly impossible to take it seriously. I don't think Luna leads his viewers to treat the film as a drama but inadvertently ends up as a humorous attack on the pervading machismo that intoxicates men into thinking they're kings of the world. Luna makes use of visual innuendos throughout the film. There's a preponderance of metaphor and allusions to the phallus like the erection of the city's top building, that it's almost impossible for anyone to take any of the plot contrivances as purposely made to be taken seriously. Benito makes love to his wife and Luna pans his camera upwards to reveal a pillar, umm, a phallic symbol, and just as the end of the pillar is revealed, an orgasm is made apparent. The sex scenes are staged in overt frankness, that the artfulness of the film is upstaged by the ridiculousness. Nipples are pinched, underarms are sniffed, moanings are loud and sex talk is boisterous. And I honestly think it works best that way as Golden Balls is in a heartbeat, a really funny sexual farce, effective and highly enjoyable.

The Warrior (2001)

The Warrior (Asif Kapadia, 2001)

Director Asif Kapadia's first feature film The Warrior is what a person may unbashedly describe as a mongrel film. The story is based on a Japanese tale, adapted to an Indian setting, directed by a Brit-Indian who co-penned it with an Englishman, photographed by a German-Nigerian cinematographer, scored by an Italian, with a Bollywood star for the main lead, and hundreds of Indians as extras, all funded with money sourced from the Great Britain and Germany. Despite the confusion that may arise out of the mixed nationalities of the people behind the production, The Warrior is a simplistic epic whose raison d'etre can be likened to the recurring themes of Western-genre films.

It's basically a revision of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) trimmed down from sprawling historical epic to near-silent parable. That simply means that there's a lot less of the fun, the testosterone, and the adventure of the spaghetti western, and instead of Clint Eastwood who figures out a way to use his gunslinging skills for arguably moral ends, we have the titular warrior who completely erases violence from his vocabulary to live a life in the serene splendor of the foothills of the Himalayas.

The titular character (Irfan Khan) is a hired thug of the local landowner who exacts revenge from his non-paying tenants by ordering the warrior and his horde to pillage and burn the villages of those who can't pay. The point of catharsis for the warrior is when he almost kills a little girl who is wearing the necklace of his son. Almost immediately, he withdraws from his former life of killing to finally reunite with his hometown. The warrior's betrayal of his duty angers the landowner and orders the other mercenaries to hunt him down, and in the process, killing his only son. Instead of vengeance, the warrior quietly journeys to his hometown, meeting a petty thief (Noor Mani) and a perceptive blind woman (Damayanti Marfatia) on the way.

One thing that can be said about The Warrior is that it is gorgeous. Cinematographer Roman Osin captures the change of landscape from harsh deserts to the peaceful mountains with a touch of visual poetry. There's so much beauty to behold in the film that one may consider the film's visual touches a mirage to the barrenness of the material. It is acknowledged that The Warrior's story has meager roots. Co-writer Tim Miller describes the source as a fable about the son of a warrior who is killed for lying to save his father when a cruel landowner asks whether the beheaded man his minions has just killed is his father.

Kapadia and Miller muse as to what could've happened to the father, who doesn't figure anymore in the Japanese fable. Their conclusion is that the father suddenly leaves his life of violence, which is totally acceptable if Kapadia merely took a strong-willed insistence on the entire catharsis. In the film, the change is so sudden, far-too mystical and abstract, to have you suddenly rooting for the changed hero. All his life he led a life of violence, doing the bidding of his cruel master, and even training his son to follow his footsteps, and in a whim, he lets go of such without a care.

Kapadia insists on telling his tale as minimally as possible. He relies on Irfan Khan's subtle gestures to move his plot, but as such, he often stumbles in his struggle for simplicity. The result is quite a hefty bore. True, I was enchanted by the scenery, lullaby-ed by the musical score, and lead on by the afterthought of a parable, but in the end, it all feels so dull, so inherently pointless, that I adopted a conclusion that the film is mostly pretentious, insincere, and confused. Kapadia sought to utilize his European film theories learned from film school, with what he thought was an adept knowledge of his Indian roots, but fails to understand that his unvocalized tale staggers with the weight of his overly zealous visuals.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

I haven't read Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy," an 18th century novel from which Michael Winterbottom frames his film on. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story can be accurately described as an adaptation of Sterne's novel the same way Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002) is an adaptation of Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief." Instead of dwelling on the events that ensue in the novel, the film concentrates on the creative process, of writing ,with Adaptation, and of filmmaking, with Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a film full of surprises. We are aware that the title character is an 18th century creation, yet he begins his narration with a Groucho Marx quotation. Once we get the mood of what could be a period piece, characters start destroying what was effectively woven by directly talking to the narrator. In a way, the film feels more like a "Making Of" special feature in the DVD of the more faithful adaptation of the novel with Steven Coogan as the narrator who is tasked in discussing his experiences as an actor in this supposedly important and expensive period piece. Then, one thirds of the film, the film entirely shifts focus and wades away from the novel's storyline and follows Steven Coogan in his routine as an actor, and much more surprisingly, as a new father, a boyfriend, a celebrity, and as a private individual.

The film begins with Steve Coogan (portraying himself) and Rob Brydon (also portraying himself) seated while their prosthesis and make-up are applied. They engage in mundane banter regarding the color of Brydon's teeth, and whether Brydon's role in the film (as Toby, uncle of the fictional Tristram Shandy) is a starring or a supporting role. The obvious butt of the film's larger-than-life joke is with Steve Coogan, who is one of those very good actors who haven't quite reached super star status. He can be aptly described as a B-class movie star, his most recognizable Hollywood work being Around the World in 80 Days with Jackie Chan. There's a whole lot of humor about Coogan's inadequacies and insecurities as an actor. He insists on getting higher heels for his shoes as he admits he has insecurities with his height. He gets a bizarre nightmare when his co-star Rob Brydon gets a meatier role upon his absent-minded suggestion that another novel's character be written on the screenplay to allow another star to topbill the film. For that, kudos must be given to Coogan for being so game and having what could have been uncomfortably too personal aspects of his life committed in this film, a comedy, at that.

What's more wonderful is that Coogan doesn't merely lend his personal life to the film, but also performs as himself, and as Tristram Shandy and his dad, quite well. His arguments with Brydon, his internal and external conflicts, his personal angst and professional neediness, all of these aspects burst in due fashion for our enjoyment and quiet discernment. The other characters are memorable too. Rob Brydon's presence is discomforting for Coogan, a likely competition, not only for popularity and topbilling, but also for romance and to a certain degree, machismo. Yet Brydon in the film is not a dashing fellow. He acts by the book, and in the end credits, he tells how his acting is a mixture of Al Pacino and Barbra Streisand. He's not attractive, nor is he that much taller than Coogan, yet he is a formidable competitior. Although Coogan gets the role of Tristram Shandy, Brydon's Toby has a much meatier presence, and gets a macho battle sequence, and a romantic interlude with none other than Gillian Anderson.

Michael Winterbottom's body of work notions of a recurring theme of blurring the lines of reality and fiction through cinema. In The Road to Guantanamo, he supplants a straightforward documentary about the Tipton Three with reenactments that enunciates the harsh realities sought to be hidden from the public eye. In This World tackles the concerns of refugees with Winterbottom's near-documentary cinema verite style of filmmaking. 9 Songs is both pornographic and artistic, using actual sex scenes filmed for effective titillation and as a convincing criticism of the lifelessness of romantic relationships. 24 Hour Party People is a mockumentary about rockers. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story fits Witnerbottom's filmography like a glove as it easefully simplify the complex delineations between reality and fiction in the zany world of filmmaking.

Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)
Japanese Title: Narayama bushiko

Tidings of good fortune apparently surface at the beginning of Keisuke Kinoshita's adaptation of the stories of Shichiro Fukazawa. A messenger from a neighboring town arrives at the house of old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), announcing the widowing of a female in their town which is a possible mate for her son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takehashi). She breaks the news to her son and suggest that she undergo the ceremonial climbing of the mountain of Narayama which all aging members of their mountain village should do. Tatsuhei seems disturbed by the news, but with the wishes of his mother, adheres to the marriage and practices carrying his mother on his back.

Tatsuhei is left with a handful of dependents. To add to this, his eldest son insists on taking in his pregnant girlfriend, which the latter family has abandoned. At that instance, there will be two additional mouths to feed, not counting the fact that the girlfriend is pregnant and eats for two people. The mountain village adheres to tradition, mostly concerning food. White rice is only eaten once a year during the festival. Harvests are collected and are distributed to the villagers in corresponding amounts. Although implicitly addressed by Kinoshita, we cognize the fact that in the mountain village, food is scarce and as a result, survival is primary objective overtaking virtues of compassion, respect, and familial ties.

This concept of survival is enshrined in the traditions, the festivities, the laws, and even the general mores adopted by the village people. The wife becomes a useless member of society once widowed, which is why she is immediately offered by her brother to the neighboring town. A thief cannot go unpunished, and such trespassing may result to banishment or total annihilation of the erring clan. An elderly individual becomes useless, and is therefore, forced to climb a treacherous height to meet her unnatural fate, in the guise of religious sanctification. The system works, but the criticism is the resulting idea of dehumanization.

Kinoshita's Ballad of Narayama is filmed in traditional kabuki style with a narrator singing portions of the actual ballad to enunciate what is adequately portrayed visually. The narration is accompanied by the strumming of the traditional Japanese string instrument which is feverishly played to elicit heightened emotions. Kinoshita uses sets and artificial lighting, evoking a feeling of staginess. Time passes not through natural means, but by sudden brightening or darkening of the sets. Everything feels unnatural, the backgrounds are obviously painted, and are mechanically changed upon advancement of the plot. However, the acting is very much controlled, leading to a notion that it is not merely a filmed stage play but a stylized film. Kinoshita is discouraged from using close-ups except when such is proper and needed. His storytelling is disattached and formal but the emotional pullings are tremendous.

Shohei Imamura will later on direct another adaptation of Ballad of Narayama in 1983, and that version will inevitably win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Imamura's version feels more cinematic, as he settles for more traditional (or Westernized) approaches to cinema, rather than Kinoshita's stylized adherences to traditional Japanese artistry. Kinoshita's version may be marred by cultural uniqueness, hindering a more complete appreciation of the film unless a deeper knowledge of Japanese culture is achieved. However, it cannot be denied that the film is truly wonderful. Despite the unfamiliar trappings of the film, one cannot help but ache when Tatsuhei pleads his mother to talk to him on their way to the mountain of Narayama.

One cannot help but feel a tinge of devastation when the first few snowflakes carefully fall, knowing that the mother is atop with only a single blanket and a lump of rice. One cannot help but acknowledge the sacrifices of humanity for mere communal survival, as the son goes back to his village, sees his sons indifference to the entire sacrifice, and listens to his new wife telling him that they too, will have to climb the peaks of Narayama, in adherence to cruel yet needed traditions.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Snakes on a Plane (David R. Ellis, 2006)

There was a whole lot of interest surrounding Snakes on a Plane before it was released. There was this whole issue about the title which the producers sought to change, but was retained with the insistence upon by star Samuel L. Jackson (who accepted the role without having read the script, mainly due to the title). The producers were actually endangering their project when they thought about changing the title, as it is the title that carried the unquestionable charm of the film. It's just so direct, it's genius --- the entire plot, its conceits, the full film, within the confines of the two major words of the four-word title: snakes and plane.

To even describe the plot will be an insult to the intelligence, but since I'm in the mood for insults, here I go. FBI agent Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) accompanies prosecution witness Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) on a Hawaii to Los Angeles flight aboard a commercial jet plane. Top thug and enemy of the state Eddie Kim devices a plan to prevent the witness from ever reaching the court by, umm, filling the plane with different types of poisonous and dangerous snakes. It is up to Flynn, crew, and the passengers of the flight to ensure that they survive the journey with those pheromone-high slitherers.

Those seeking to find something deep or intellectual from this film will be sorely disappointed. This is what you may accurately describe as brainless fun. It is a B-movie creature feature that got late a few decades when those type of features were the toast of the movie-going town. Of course, it got some help from the advent of computer technology and animatronics, and it is actually quite obvious which of the snakes are real and which aren't. The fakeness of the serpents however does not dampen the experience, as it is not the snakes which bring out the fun in the film, but the manner of their attacks, and the multitude of deaths, all gory and wonderfully humorous.

The screenplay doesn't bother to provide rich characterizations. The writers basically point out which of the characters are mere annoyances, and which are probably favorable for survival, and which of them are plot-movers. The annoying characters all get ghastly deaths, and their deaths are usually coupled with a dose of sarcasm which doubles the fun. Those favorable for survival are those characters wherein you are sort of iffy if you want them alive or dead. Their characterizations are much thicker than most of the cardboard cut-outs, but they're basically there since a creature feature won't be a whole lot of fun with only a couple or more characters for the truckload of snakes to snack on or at least frighten.

Now, I'm not saying that Snakes on a Plane is great cinema. It's merely enjoyable. Direction is passable, writing is mostly for laughs as it garnered a dose of chuckles from me. Technicals is quite nasty, but that goes hand in hand with B-movies wherein cheesiness and corniness in production composes part of the charm. Acting is bad, in a good way. Jackson joins the pack by actually acting quite horrendously, which in this case, is quite good since at least, he's not sticking out like a sore thumb by trying hard to make something serious out of this ridiculous film. Jackson's personality carries the film. His inherent coolness drives the film into a delirious madness that will erupt in what will probably be the coolest line in the film, "Enough is enough, I've had it with these motherfuckin' snakes in this motherfuckin' plane." I can't imagine any other actor delivering that line with comfortable and believable ease as Jackson.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Decameron (1971)

The Decameron (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971)

The Decameron is Pier Paolo Pasolini's first film in his Trilogy of Life, a trilogy of cinematic adaptations of classic collections of stories. Pasolini's adaptation of Boccaccio's collection of stories forgoes of the entire framing of the stories within the context of a group of men and women huddled up in a villa while the rest of Italy is dying from the plague. Instead, Pasolini merely glances upon such historical context (we get glimpses of people suddenly dying without any logical reason why, and corpses abound this film), and instead cooks up his Italian setting as forever sunny, beautiful, and green --- entirely ripe for friendliness turning into treachery, piety into debauchery, sinners into saint, love into lust, and vice versa.

The film starts with Ciappelletto (Franco Citti) bludgeoning a man inside a sack to death, and then drags the corpse and disposes it into the pit. We later learn that Ciappelletto is a hired thug who is used by usurers to force loan payments out of the people, usually with violence. His tale ends with him being sanctified by the high priest for confessing what might seem to be sins of innocence. Then there's the tale of an unfortunate young man whose riches are stolen by a beautiful swindler, and is later on trapped inside an archbishop's tomb, while trying to steal a ruby ring from the adorned corpse. In Pasolini's adaptation of Boccaccio's work, there is no permanence in fortune, or in virtue.

The film also mirrors two portraits of love, differentiated by class. The first one concerns two young lovers who finally meet in the girl's terrace, and make love, only to be discovered by the father who surprisingly acknowledges the two young lovers and blesses them, as long as the rich man marries his daughter. The second one has almost exactly the same plot, but instead of a rich man, we have a laborer who is in love with a girl of higher standing. The girl's brothers discover the laborer's love for the girl and murders him. Two similar stories of youthful romance only differentiated by social class, the results are as different as night and day. Pasolini's Marxist leanings are at work here.

Pasolini himself acts in his film, as a painter commissioned to paint the walls of a cathedral. He goes around town and discerns the faces of the townspeople, looking for inspiration for his tremendous work. In the final stages of his project, he dreams of divinity, where the Virgin Mary is in the center, with a host of angels beside her, and beneath her are the mortals forced into work and debauchery. It is curious to note that in Pasolini's next film, The Canterbury Tales (1972), he would imagine hell, and in Arabian Nights (1974), cook up both paradise and hell in Earth through magic, mysticism, and a cycle of tales. The film ends with the painter celebrating his work but finishes with a line that suggests that the process of dreaming while working is better than the final artwork.

Later on, Pasolini would disavow his Trilogy of Life as his least favorite works mainly because these are pedestrian fare, where commercial success is the result of an abundance of flesh and sex rather than artistry. I'd like to think that Pasolini disavowed the trilogy merely because the process of making them was tremendous in his part, and the success that ensued was not commensurate to his artistic processes, and the commercialization of these films turned them into moneymaking schemes instead of actual artistic products. I disagree, these films are from the first scene of a man violently bludgeoning a debtor trapped in a sack to death, to a young man being reunited with his beloved slave inside a golden palace, are all magnificent works of cinema and in their entirety, a joyful experience to behold.

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

The Canterbury Tales (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)
Italian Title: I Racconti di Canterbury

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini's middle entry to his Trilogy of Life (also consisting of cinematic adaptations of The Decameron (1971) and Arabian Nights (1974)) won the Golden Bear, the top prize in the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. Obviously, it is an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's beloved collection of tales as told by different travelers who are in a pilgrimege to the English town of Canterbury. Chaucer's work is supposedly telling of morality in both serious and humorous ways, but Pasolini decides to withdraw from Christian morality and use the tales as fervent attacks on religious institutions. Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales may very well be deemed blasphemous as religious symbols are pitted against acts of amorality, where holy men are shown as greedy, where the only language understood is that of sexual appetite and avarice. Yet, despite Pasolini's strategy of overblowing the more libidous aspects of Chaucer's tale, the adaptation remains to be faithful, which is quite a feat.

The Canterbury Tales may be the most pedestrian of Pasolini's films. Humor is mostly achieved through unsavory methods, and Pasolini does not shy away in graphically detailing his comedy. We are forced witnesses of several pissing, farting, adulterous sexual acts, and much much more. Yet, despite Pasolini's questionable methods, the film still feels grounded and does not let its boisterous values to drown its storytelling roots. Moreover, the film does give a certain notion that Hollywood does not have a patent as to making use of farts, piss, and other bathroom matters as sources for cinematic humor, Pasolini was way ahead, and did it much better.

What The Canterbury Tales lacks is a form or structure. Although Pasolini tries to provide for a logical continuation of the tales, by beginning the film with a tavern encounter, and showing little glimpses of Geoffrey Chaucer (played by Pasolini) working on the compilation, most of the tales are randomly stringed together without a clue or a guess how they are supposedly linked. It's probably Pasolini making use of the literary source's given popularity that he decided to forgo of formalities and just see the tales cinematically told in whatever manner. The randomness somewhat works, but Pasolini showed how good a storyteller he can be with Arabian Nights were the tales flawlessly spring forth like infants from other tales. Here, the storytelling is erstwhile interesting, but mostly dull.

While the film as a whole is good, the parts are of various quality. "The Cook's Tale" turns into an annoying Chaplinesque slapstick comedy with one of Pasolini's frequent actor prancing around town with a bowler's hat and a stick, inviting trouble all around, and ending his fate while atrociously chanting in a very annoying manner. "The Miller's Tale" is deliriously obscene. The last tale is visually and nightmarishly inventive, with friars being farted out of Satan's red buttocks in outright comedic fashion.

The Canterbury Tales is one of those films you'd either love or hate. I'm one of those who thought that it's brave filmmaking, that Pasolini's irreverent rendition of Chaucer's tales of piety and morals is not done out of bad taste but with a primal passion for portraying man as creatures of desire, and desires as weapons for violence and trickery. Others hated it, and I really can't blame them. The literary source is a revered tradition, taught in different schools from around the world, and is considered as England's most important contribution in world literature. That its cinematic adaptation is this raunchy, oftentimes obscene, and even rather plainly photographed feature is a mighty hard stab to the enriched tradition of Chaucer's work.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Arabian Nights (1974)

Arabian Nights (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974)
Italian Title: Il fiore delle mille e una notte

Arabian Nights is Pier Paolo Pasolini's final entry to his Trilogy of Life, consisting of filmed adaptations of classic literature, The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972). The films in the trilogy are supposedly Pasolini's least political films, whose main intent is to straightforwardly tell the stories in the film medium without any social or political fuss. The trilogy also shows Pasolini in his most sensual, where his gift for poetry does not merely exist in the beauty of words but in lush colors, exotic locales, and sexual charge. It is said that Arabian Nights is the laurel in the trilogy, as it is the most beautiful and most lyrical of the films. I'd have to agree, Arabian Nights is a towering achievement in storytelling.

The film starts with a young boy purchasing a slave, but eventually falls in love with the slave he bought. The girl is kidnapped and finds herself in a kingdom where she is proclaimed king. The boy then travels all over looking for the girl, and on his way, meets different personalities with different tales. Arabian Nights does not use the literary source's means of telling the story, wherein a princess is tasked to tell stories for a number of nights. Instead, Pasolini celebrates the vibrancy of life by infusing the primary tale with the ability to give birth to different tales. The primary tale gives way to a tale, and a character from that tale, gives way to another tale, and so on, and in the end, everything wraps up beautifully and one gets a dreamy feeling of satisfaction one usually arrives at as a child.

However, Arabian Nights is nowhere near a children's story. It is in fact very graphic in its portrayals of the chosen entries of the literary source. Instead of repeating the stories of Aladdin or Ali Baba, Pasolini chooses the more sexually charged entries and depicts them with a candidness that makes the scenes both unusually magical despite the rawness of the topic. Yet again, Pasolini strays away from magic and religion. Although some of the tales do involve a certain element of mysticism (a demon flying and turning a curious human into a monkey, a metal-plated night being destroyed by a young man who follows a whispered prophecy), such is kept to a minimum and is balanced by a healthy dose of accurate anthropology and cultural diversity Pasolini mastered in the two films (Medea (1969) and Oedipus Rex (1967)) before the trilogy of life. Arabian Nights is delightfully accurate, with Pasolini not limiting his settings to Arabic palaces, deserts, but goes to far-off places like Nepal or Africa, where most of the original tales of the literary source were set.

Arabian Nights is truly a celebration of life for Pasolini. To a certain extent, I can probably declare this as Pasolini's accurate portrayal of his wet dream. The storytelling is vibrant and his visuals are full of bright colors. His characters are young and robust. The boys are laidback and inutile, lazy and oftentimes mainly instructed by hormones instead of intellect. The females are cunning and sly, some are virtuous and some are flirts. When the characters collide, one can easily predict that they will copulate, or at least engage in violent combat. Pasolini does not make room for his usual political discourse, but instead lets the images and the scenery depict his humanity. No wonder Pasolini decided to end his Trilogy of Life with this, a gorgeous and appetizing orgy of man's innate nature to tell stories.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Prolific actor Charles Laughton's only directorial work The Night of the Hunter begins in darkness, with the stars providing illumination. From the night sky appears the faces of children, and in the center, the calm and tender face of silent film superstar Lillian Gish telling biblical passages as an introduction to this parable-like tale of good and evil, and of innocence and sin. The film then cuts to an overview of a riverside community where playing children discover the body of a woman. Then it cuts to the film's most memorable character, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), driving down the road and conversing with his supposed God. We get the impression that the man is possibly deranged, and is either a self-righteous vindicator of Christianity, or merely a petty criminal who conveniently hides behind a mask of piety. Either way, we do know he's evil.

Powell finds himself imprisoned with a certain Ben Harper who killed two men and stole ten thousand dollars, and hiding them in a secret place his two children only knows where. After release, Powell travels to town and tries to squeeze from the children the location of the loot, even to the point of marrying their widowed mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), killing her, and then chasing the two children from their hometown to another riverside haven.

The Night of the Hunter is possibly one of the most terrifying films ever made. Laughton possesses a confident visual style that mirrors Orson Welles in his debut feature. Laughton's visual compositions are twisted, atmospheric and beautiful. Moreover, his distinctive artistic style is flawless. One just has to watch young John Harper (Billy Chapin) tell his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) the story of an African king, when he is suddenly interrupted by an imposing shadow. He looks outside and discovers a man standing by the solitary oil-lit street lamp. That seamless mixture of flawless direction, impeccable photography, graceful acting, and delirious writing makes every scene in this film classic suspense filmmaking.

Then there's the famous river scene which begins with a feverish chase between Powell and the two kids. Amidst the calm starry sky, little Pearl sings an equally calming lullaby. Yet we are all aware of what happened and what may possibly happen, but Laughton has the gall to sequence this dreamy scene that might probably be confused as a scene out of a fairy tale, if not viewed in the film's concept. The result is something nightmarishly surreal, a thing of cinematic beauty. The whole river sequence is wondrous, and it makes one wish that Laughton directed more films, but alas, The Night of the Hunter failed at the box office and Laughton swore he'd never direct another film again. James Agee supposedly adapted the screenplay from a David Grubb novel, but Robert Mitchum says in his autobiography that Laughton actually disliked Agee's screenplay, and just paid the screenwriter, and completely rewrote everything uncredited.

The Night of the Hunter is arguably one of the best films that purely depict good and evil. It bravely features children who are targets of violent and traumatic harm, over money they'd probably never ever use. There's an abundance of biblical allusions in the film, and the last third of the film features what probably may be the most simplistic yet captivating battle between good and evil. No, it doesn't feature a host of demons hording the children, being protected by beautiful angels. It actually just involves Harry Powell guarding the estate of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a kindly old woman who adopts children, including the two Harper kids. They engage in a duet that might very well be as detailed as warring factions of good and evil. Powell's baritone and Cooper's grandmotherly voice marrying in an enchanting gospel song: Laughton's cinematic tactics is just so deliriously magical that the film might very well be declared as sinful.

Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters (1997)

Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters (Nonzee Nimibutr, 1997)
Thai Title: 2499 antapan krong muang

Nonzee Nimibutr's debut feature film Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters is probably the influential Thai director's best film. Nimibutr's usual faults, his haphazard style of storytelling, his overly emphasized sense of cultural mood and atmosphere, his incomprehensible editing style, are at an all-time low here. The film, while good, is not exactly a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It lacks subtlety, but it does effectively evoke the chaotic discord of 50's Bangkok where social and political unrest reflects in the city's youth's lack of direction.

Dang Bireley (Jesdaporn Pholdee) killed his first man when he was thirteen, while trying to defend his mother, a street prostitute. Growing up, he mixed with the wrong crowd and inevitably formed a gang with his friends, Lam (Noppachai Muttaweevong), mercurial Pu Bottlebomb (Supakorn Kitsuwon) and his trusty lapdog Dum. Dang's best pal is Piak (Attaporn Teemakorn), the son of a Buddhist monk. He tries his best to keep Piak from joining his gang, even to the point of lending him money for his schooling, but after Piak middled in a gang war between Pu and his college friends, he is expelled from college, and breaks up Dang's friendship with Pu, causing a lifelong rift between the two.

Dang Bireley is an actual gangster who lived in Bangkok in the 50's. The film is told from the point of view of an middle-aged Piak who narrates the tale while reminiscing his youthful days. Dang Bireley's idol is James Dean and his life basically mirrors that of the Hollywood bad boy. Dean died in a car accident, and Dang dies the same way, of course, after figuring himself in a couple of adventures, which is the bulk of Nimibutr's film. Nimibutr recreates 50's Bangkok with unassuming ease, using costumes, settings, props and music that effectively capture the decade.

The film is beautifully photographed, further emphasizing the colorfully exciting era. Nimibutr doesn't plunge the film within Thailand's political landscape and centers mainly on the lives of the young gangsters. Whatever notion of social unrest is told from Piak's remorseful narration, and from there, we get a sense of what's really happening in the grander scale. Nimibutr's intimate portrait of the Thai youth is actually quite engaging. Although Nimibutr tends to direct overbearingly, using different lens, or slow motion, in different levels of success, the film still comes off as surprisingly coherent, and the characters, although psychologically simple, don't make decisions based on karma or fate, which is usually my complaint over Nimibutr's film characters who tend to do things not out of logic, but out of principles that may be foreign to non-Buddhists.

Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters is violent. There's no constraint in depicting bloody battles, which range from alleyway rumbles consisting of student fighting it out with lead pipes and chains, to street wars where bullets fly and bottle bombs explode. Nimibutr's filmmaking reenacts the mindless wanton, the unrepressed angst that pervades Thailand's youth who take American pop culture much too seriously. It is as if these young gangsters do not really see the need to become gangsters, but out of trying to emulate their idols, gravitate towards the overhyped myths of these rock and roll and celluloid legends. I doubt James Dean and Elvis Presley will figure themselves in these youth wars that involve actual deaths and somewhat politically motivated attacks, but the tall tales surrounding their personalities provide inspiration for wrongly-placed notions of righteousness and blank bravery for the youth who circumstantially find themselves in a troubled era of political and social confusion.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Manhattan Murder Mystery (Woody Allen, 1983)

The script to Woody Allen's Academy Award Best Picture-winning Annie Hall (1977) was supposed to have a sideplot involving a murder mystery, but that never materialized in the final film. That sideplot would materialize a decade or so later as the central plot of Woody Allen's aptly titled film, Manhattan Murder Mystery. Manhattan Murder Mystery also features a reteam-up of Allen and actress Diane Keaton, as a couple who lives in an apartment building where a supposed perfect murder took place in the apartment just beside theirs. The team-up between Allen and Keaton surfaced when Allen and his ex-wife, and frequent lead actress in his films, Mia Farrow are currently in a custody battle after a disastrous divorce.

It can be said that Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of those films that are products of an auteur's unfortunate personal incident (very much like David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979) where we find the Canadian director balancing his personal aches and the very personal approach to the horror film). However, Allen seems to be rather disinterested with his personal stuff while doing Manhattan Murder Mystery as the film is quite oddly cheerful and features a couple surviving the trials of a boring marriage intact until the end.

The couple, Larry (Allen) and Carol (Diane) Lipton live in an apartment beside that of a suspicious philatelist Paul House (Jerry Adler) and his sweet wife. One night, they discover that Paul's wife died of cardiac arrest, which is highly unlikely as the wife maintains a healthy lifestyle despite her sweet tooth. This leads to Carol investigating Paul's actions and discovering a likely conspiracy involving Paul, his actress lover, his wife's twin sister, and his movie theater's crippled manager. Of course, Larry disapproves of Carol's intrepid investigations as he just wants a normal, though boring to the brink of dissolution, marriage. However, ideas of Carol falling for his recently divorced friend Ted (Alan Alda) force Larry to get into the mystery as well.

The beginning and the middle of Manhattan Murder Mystery didn't give good signals for the Allen film. It was restless, talky, and quite banal. It features Larry and Carol, who are most of the time arguing about Carol's involvement with the investigation that might not even go anywhere, switching back and forth, from life's banalities. It's quite unhealthy and one can almost feel Allen's angst with his recent divorce with Mia Farrow in the frequent conversations between the film's couple. Brian di Palma's cinematography is rather loose, and doesn't help to liven the tired commentaries on married life vis-a-vis the murder mystery.

Also, Allen and Keaton's chemistry seems to have laxed over the years. It's probably due to the fact that Allen had such a good time with high-pitched lovely actress Farrow, that it took a while for Allen to finally revive the beautiful chemistry between him and Keaton. Keaton seems to be out-of-character most of the time, her energetic and hyperactive performance seems to overshadow Allen's more reserved acting, which is quite uncomfortable to watch as one has acquired the taste for Allen's neurotic tics taking over the film, rather than have a poorly underwritten female character boisterously squeak about things that might or might not have happened.

The film is salvaged when the actual mystery ensues. Once Allen gets to his groove and starts throwing witty jokes about his inadequacy, it suddenly looks brighter for the film. The actual murder mystery is mostly a hodgepodge of different films. There's a lot of Allen giving tributes to his favorite noirs: there's a scene where Allen and Keaton are watching Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), a bus where a Mrs. Hous look-a-like appears features a sign for Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1957), The climactic ending seems to have been borrowed from Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947). One can actually say that the entire film is Allen trying to figure himself and his directing style over the very stylistic yet highly combustible genre. It almost works, but Allen's lack of visual control over his film and his need to figure Manhattan neurosis into all of his works turn the film into simply a tribute to the genre, rather than a genre piece itself. It's still indelibly a Woody Allen film --- still drably shot, aptly scored, inconsistently edited, purposefully acted, and more importantly, still a lot of fun.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983)
Cantonese Title: Suk san: Sun Suk san geen hap

Although Tsui Hark has directed a few features before, it was Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain that catapulted him to Hong Kong's pop consciousness. It's no surprise, Tsui's previous efforts were mostly trashy, genre films that didn't rake in enough money at the Hong Kong box office. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a success from the start. It starred up and coming up Hong Kong superstars and is a variation of a genre that Chinese moviegoers delighted in: the wuxia. Moreover, the film boasted of Hollywood-level special effects, and that certainly aroused the curiosity of those who were enchanted by George Lucas' Star Wars (1977).

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is a cinematic adaptation of an old Chinese tale. It is about a young soldier, Ti (Biao Yuen), who finds himself tired of the endless fighting between the different factions of Zu. Upon luckily escaping a battlefield, he chances upon a cave wherein he is attacked by an evil force, only to be rescued by traveling swordsman Ting Yin (Adam Cheng). The duo then enters the temple of evil, with a monk and his student, and fights out the leader of all evil, which eventually escapes, only to return as the Blood Demon, which is momentarily encapsulated by an aging kung fu master (Sammo Hung), giving the heroes a month to look for the twin swords that will supposedly stop the Blood Demon from hatching and destroy the world.

If my attempt to make a synopsis of the film is confusing to you, I can't really blame you, as I had a difficult time following the film's plot which changes in movement in a sudden flick of a finger. Tsui's pacing is feverish, obviously making the story suffer in exchange for visual tricks and grandiose set pieces. But from what I gathered from the fast forwarded fantasy, the film is actually quite straightforward and lacks a complexity most film viewers are aching for in current cinema. Tsui throws away any notion of time, making the eventualities in the film, more fluid, thus creating an illusion that the lines between good and evil are simple and thick. Characters find themselves switching sides in constant variation. Ting Yin starts out as a virtuous swordsman, then ends up as a possessed demon. The ice countess (Brigitte Lin) is first encountered as a fiery witch, then turning into an indistinguishable side character, and finally sacrifices herself in the name of everything good. Virtues are learned in up tempo manner, and the same are discarded even faster. The only person who stays the same is Ti, the hero who is tired of unclear sides. He is after all the young soldier for a side that is distinguished by just colors, instead of moral rights and wrongs, or even ideologies of justice and its opposite.

Tsui remakes Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain for the new millennium replacing the outdated special effects of 1983 with an over-reliance to CGI. I haven't seen the remake in its entirety, but from the little of what I saw, I just gave up. It literally looked like shit, and lacked the earthiness, the fanciful mindlessness of Tsui's filmmaking less than two decades ago. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is far from being the masterpiece others would like to have it. I actually didn't like it, despite having a lot of fun watching the characters fly in ease, and do magic kung fu in frantic fashion. It's more of a historical curiosity, an example of how to mesh special effects and filmmaking in an almost seamless marriage, without the benefit of an understandable and definable story.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2005)

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, 2005)

Brit commercial director Andrew Douglas is probably most popular for remaking (to reportedly atrocious results) the classic horror film, The Amityville Horror. However, his first foray to American pop culture is through a pseudo-documentary that details the rustic American South through its byroads, its scenery, its people, and most importantly, its music. The story goes like this, Douglas receives an album entitled "The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus" and becomes instantly enchanted with the music, to the point of going to the United States, looks for the album's creator, musician Jim White, and finally goes on a road trip to the real American South (White says that to truly experience the South, one has to be a few miles away from the highway) with White as his tour guide, and experience the source of the music from the album. The problem is, White is not real southerner (he explains that he never actually grew up there, but was merely returning to find his soul, or something), and Douglas is European. The result being this conclusion: Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus feels heavily staged, to the point of being fake. But having declared that, the music is undeniably great.

So Douglas and White borrow a rusty car for one hundred dollars a night, buys a concrete Jesus statue for sixty-five dollars and shove it right into the car's trunk, and drive for miles and miles down the South's byroads, and interview ordinary folk, artists, and other interesting people. It's quite an easy proposition, and Douglas gets it right most of the time. His attempt at creating a mood is by having his camera (he also serves as cinematographer) waft through the outdoors, or have his interview subjects' faces or bodies off camera. His camera more often than not floats in an almost mindless and random way, that it creates a feeling of airy levitation, the exact same feeling when one is listening to a long story and finds himself drifting into La-La land. That is exactly what one feels when listening to Douglas' subjects, they are so damn uninteresting and their banter is quite pointless that you never wonder for a second why the camera suddenly shifts focus, most probably out of boredom and drowsiness.

But that is exactly what the film is about, the South, and these people talk about the South, its religiosity, its simplistic virtues and vices, its music. Sure, but it does get tiring and Douglas edits his film like a madman, shifting attention to one subject to another in wild abandon. He even plays around with the music, shifting interview to music to scenery in again, wild abandon. If there's one thing that annoys me the most, it is when good music is interrupted with boisterous commentary, no matter how interesting the commentator may be. Here, the unfortunate commentator is musician White who attempts at wisdom but comes off as a mere stranger to the South as most of the viewers are: no help there.

Then there's the music, which is the only saving grace this documentary offers. We are entreated to some undiscovered music, homegrown and unadulterated by American consumerism. The music ranges from a woman fiddling her saw to the tune of "Amazing Grace," to some really interesting blues music that would remind you of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles. Douglas' filmmaking shows a bit of intelligence here when he stages the musicians in interesting positions and blockings while they perform. The documentary works best as a collection of glossy music videos of artists who would never ever dream of having a music video. The music of the South is an interesting enigma.

They're like Nordic epics, or Greek myths that are heavy in local color, and land-inspired tales that delineate its origin's moral and social norms, only this time, it is inspired by quiet notions of American culture enriched by history and poverty. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus may be a failure as a film, but it is successful as a portrait of how surreal and anachronistic it is when one is traveling the roads of the American South, where stagnancy in development has created a culture of stories, tales, and a brand of religiosity that dictates morality in simple terms as bad and good.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Kubrador (2006)

Kubrador (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2006)
English Title: The Bet Collector

A local film reviewer, after watching Jeffrey Jeturian's latest film Kubrador (The Bet Collector), declared the director as the next Lino Brocka. Brocka, one of the most famous directors who emerged from the Philippines' second golden age of cinema, is internationally known for portraying the lower class citizens of Manila: the slumdwellers of Insiang (1976), the male prostitutes of Macho Dancer (1988), and the urban outcasts of Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975). However, limiting Brocka to such genre is a grave offense to the artist who also dabbled in melodrama, comedy, and period pieces. Jeturian's works are similar to the genre Brocka is most known for, his Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001) and Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999) are scathing examinations of the cruelties of poverty. Like Brocka, Jeturian also made two comedies, Bridal Shower (2004), and the delightful mockumentary Bikini Open (2005). He also made Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004) a Visayan love story that is pregnant with potential emotionality that I immediately declared it as one of the finest films the year it was released when I walked out of the theater in solemn awe. Jeturian may not yet be Brocka, but he is on his way there.

Jeturian's Kubrador is a result of his collaboration with lawyer Joji Alonzo (who also produced Minsan Pa). I'd like to think that their collaboration is a sort of revision for Jeturian as he has grown in subtlety and artistry when his works are financed by the film-loving esquire. It features Gina Pareno as Amy, a bet collector, and is set in a squatters' area in Manila. The time frame of the film is a few days before All Souls' Day, where most Filipinos would take the day off to visit the graves of their departed loved ones. Amy, however continues to collect bets for the game of jueteng, a numbers game, dodging policemen, and urging the poor dwellers of the squatters' colony to hand over the few pesos they have in the hopes of winning.

Jueteng is a game that has transcended the few pesos wagered in its name because it is always linked to Philippine politics. The game after all, caused the overthrowing of then President Joseph Estrada when he was accused of collecting money sourced from the numbers game. Up to now, jueteng hounds the current president whose husband is rumored to be linked to the illegal gambling game. Kubrador can easily be misread as having political motivations, but it is clear that outside the opening information given regarding the game and a few linkages to bribery of local congressmen which is already of common knowledge, the film is clearly humanist. One just has to observe and absorb the detailed portrayals of Amy's daily routines to sense the virtues that still exist within the pervading stench of poverty of the slums of Manila.

Jeturian's film is considerably slow-paced and the plot is quite sparse. Aside from the introductory sequence where the cops chase down a jueteng operator atop the roofs of the slums area, the film patiently follows Amy as she goes about her routine. Through the routine, we are introduced to the few slumdwellers, and the other personalities who populate the clockwork operations of the numbers game. Jeturian clearly doesn't want to label these people with conventional notions of morality. His interest is first and foremost the human condition. The policemen aren't jerks and they also subscribe to betting in the illegal game while Amy is in their custody. The higher up of the game, a busy man kept inside an office where piles and piles of money are literally shoveled to be deposited to the bank the next day, is unusually friendly and even exchanges in erstwhile jokes with the underdressed Amy and her companion for that day. There's a point of humor that runs throughout the film - Amy, who deals with numbers and needs to memorize number combinations for her clients, has a mnemonic technique that has her linking numbers with everyday situations and observations: grief and death, a frog and a cowardly kid, and a toddler and testicles. Jeturian has clearly mastered depicting real humans in his film with Kubrador, and this meditative observation of these humans is more watchable than tired contrivances that dominate Philippine mainstream cinema.

Yet one can critique Kubrador as pointless, without a political or a social bite. However, such would denote a lack of perspective on the critic. Kubrador is not merely a "slice of life" film. It does not sit idly as a film that is satisfied in documenting a bet collector's life in its truest sense. The film is after all a narrative, and in a way, Jeturian cooks up a fantastic angle wherein Amy's dead soldier son occasionally visits her as a ghost. The device may be perceptively be seen as old and tired but I disagree. The ghost merely shows Amy's life as a life that is constantly in the claws of death. She literally walks with death beside her. Whenever she collects bets, the police might just suddenly rush in and arrest her. Whenever she attends a grand draw, a dangerous raid might ensue. Her abode cannot be accurately described as a safe haven: kids run around, criminal elements abound, and the alleyways twist and turn like an impossible labyrinth. The film ends in a powerful note where we find Amy visiting her son's grave. She witnesses two men arguing over a vehicular accident. The man grabs his gun and shoots at the other driver but misses. The bullet scrapes a little bit of Amy's shoulder (a mere hand away from her heart) but kills a man behind her. Jeturian ends the film with Amy's realization that she is living life dangerously and that she is traversing a dangerous road where her life can be taken away almost immediately. Logic dictates that that might not be the first time Amy has realized that, but Jeturian directs the scene with power that has cumulated from the contemplative scenes that came before, that the audience might take the final scene as an impetus for change, or a mere eventuality of life that Amy will shrug off and merely continue her pathetic existence as the bottom dweller, a mere bet collector who earns a mere 52 pesos ($1) per day. I suspect Amy will opt for the latter, as Kubrador is not a film of sudden miracles and instantaneous changes, but of grim realism.