Friday, September 29, 2006

Ashes of Time (1994)

Ashes of Time (Wong Kar Wai, 1994)
Cantonese Title: Dung che sai duk

In Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time, there is no present. Wong allows his characters to narrate their respective plots in a way wherein the imagery shown seems to be more like splices of memory rather than events taking place in the present. It's not the wisest of cinematic narrative techniques. For sure, it's not one to ensure commercial success (Ashes of Time was a box office failure especially when compared to its huge budget and the amount of time to make it). However, the technique ensures the film a detachedness that turns the beautiful visuals into moving poetic images rather than plot-driving mechanisms. Indeed the film feels and moves like a dream --- disconnected and inhabits a vague passionate form that sweetly blends into a mythical reality.

Ashes of Time took many years to make that Wong made Chungking Express (1994) in the middle of the former's production. It's every Hong Kong director's dream project. It includes almost everyone who's somebody in Hong Kong show business, and as cinematographer, Wong only had Christopher Doyle, arguably the best cinematographer around, to work with. Wong also had legendary Sammo Hung to direct the action choreography (although I really can't tell since the action is filmed like a mnemonic blur to insist on the artistry of the fight scenes). But in the hands of Wong, almost all of the intrinsic positive aspects of the production is completely wiped off, and instead, reshuffles everything to make a masterpiece that is completely his own, not Doyle's, not Hung's, not even the top actors and actresses that are in his employ. Ashes of Time is such a dizzying yet heartfelt vision that it is undeniably Wong's.

The plot is based on a traditional Chinese tale, but is transformed into an episodic glance of the intimate love lives of sword fighting heroes. It's a rather thoughtful transformation. When typical films of the genre would concentrate on virtues of brotherhood, heroism, and valor, Wong decides to pervade his film with non-virtues of romance, infidelity, burning passions, regret, and mistrust. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is an agent for mercenaries. People with problems would come up to his desert house to negotiate murders and assassinations. Yearly, his friend Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai) would visit him in his lonely abode. One time, Huang Yaoshi brings him a pot of magical wine which erases memories of the past. Ouyang Feng doesn't drink a drop of the wine, but Huang does so. One of Ouyang Feng's clients is Yang (Brigitte Lin), a warrior who dons both masculine and feminine attire and is known as Yin when she's female, who wants to have Huang Yaoshi killed for breaking a promise. Ouyang Feng finds work for a number of mercenaries. One of the mercenaries who used to be employed by Ouyang Feng is a swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) who longs to be back to his hometown before he turns thirty, the age wherein his doctor predicts he will lose his sight completely. Another warrior that is employed with Ouyang Feng is Hung Chi (Jackie Cheung), a bare-footed yet fast-handed swordsman who is constantly being followed by his wife.

It's not a very easy plot to follow, and Wong complicates the story by telling it with mere glimpses. However, Wong makes one thing clear --- that the film is not interested in heroics but in the repressed emotions and longing that are trapped inside the hearts of these powerful swordsmen. The cinematography tells it all. Wong shoots the action scenes with a sense of perpetual slow motion. It seems that the violence and the sword fights are mere blurs in the memories of these heroes, that it is impossible to coherently put them in visual form. Doyle's camera keeps on detailing faces and other objects of note rather than accurately showing each motion of the sword or piece of flesh that gets wounded or punctured. However, when scenes of intimacy occur such as during a night wherein a longing Yin caresses the body of a sleeping Ouyang Feng, and Ouyang Feng doesn't react since he's imagining the caresses to be from a woman (Maggie Cheung) he has left behing long ago, Doyle's camera suddenly oozes with a passionate intensity that is quite accurate with what humans really recall. It is those precious moments of intense emotions, and not those wherein emotions are heightened artificially by violence and adrenaline, that is retained in our memory.

Ashes of Time is arguably Wong's more ambitious film. With the film, he injects the genre with a very rich human emotional complexity sacrificing narrative coherence, choreographic grace, and literary resonance. Instead, Wong declares these genre caricatures as passionate human beings being tormented by a state of everlasting mnemonic religiosity. It is that torturous adherence to a sorrowful memory that drives them to seek an easy way out by downing a wine that relieves them from memories of the past like in Huang Yaoshi's case, or by merely following a fate dictated by an inescapable past like Hung Chi's travels with his wife would tell. But as Ouyang Feng states in the end, the magical wine is merely a joke, an unrealistic dream, that men wish for but can never really attain.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

Private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is woken up by his cat in the middle of the night. The reasons for the awakening are as mundane as possible --- the cat needs to be fed --- but the events that tail Marlowe's sudden awakening seems to be more nightmarish than real. After bringing home from the thrift store some cat food that doesn't match to his cat's taste, an uninvited friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, allegedly escaping some bit of trouble he has caused. The trouble seems to be a bit bigger than what was described when upon Marlowe's return, he is harrassed by the police who is investigating the murder of Lennox's wife. He is incarcerated for three days, and after release, is hired by a wealthy wife (Nina Van Pallandt) of an alcoholic novelist (Sterling Hayden) to locate and rescue the husband from the clutches of a quack psychiatrist (Henry Gibson).

The Long Goodbye is perhaps too bright to be a noir, but when night strikes and the mysteries start unraveling, it is almost indubitable that the film has noir roots. Set in Los Angeles where America is slowly mutating into a colony of new age fanatics. Marlowe lives in the penthouse of a tall compound building. His neighbors are a bunch of marijuana-smoking, yoga-practicing, and perpetually half naked women who seem to be catching the attention of Marlowe's frequently uninvited visitors. The Long Goodbye's Los Angeles is a town of degenerate weirdos, with Marlowe the biggest weirdo of them all. He frequently talks to himself when his only companion cat is in absentia. He is far too smart to be a private eye, and he states that his practice does not delve into divorce stuff --- probably the only client base private eyes have during the seventies. Like the gate guard of the exclusive beach side community who imitates noir screen actors and actresses, Marlowe seems to be living in a perpetual era of crime thrillers and murder mysteries when in fact, the seventies are slowly transforming into an age of police procedural and artless, mystery-less murders.

Leigh Brackett's dialogue, adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel, is populated with topnotch wit that oddly seems out-of-place underneath the bright California sun. The domestic drama between the writer and his wife is heightened by a sterling approach to the subtle emotions sparking between the two. The writer says that his writer's block is almost equal to his impotence, and the wife quickly alludes to the fact that their marriage has impotence written all over it. The net of connections between the original murder mystery and the beachside literary couple seems to be a lot looser than the noir of the forties or the fifties, but the written work, in the hands of Robert Altman flows with earnest ease, and welcomes parody and commentaries within the tense structure of the genre.

The Long Goodbye is supplemented by a repetitive playing of John Williams' somewhat incomplete song of the same title. The song never reaches a refrain or a second stanza but is often repeated in different styles and rhythm, and from different sources. Like Altman's film, the Williams song is smoky and nebulous in form. Altman's visuals inhabit a somewhat aerial form, often drifting in and out of locations then steadily concentrating on the face of Gould (and Gould's face isn't exactly one that matches the hardened faces of the anti-heroes of noir). It's an effective visual style, coupled with Altman's aural mastery. It's a dizzying roller coaster ride of perhaps the last murder mystery that Hollywood will make which is in the vein of the original noirs of old. Other films will follow suit, but I doubt they can replicate Altman's extraordinary vision and wit in telling this crime tale.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Gentle Woman (1969)

A Gentle Woman (Robert Bresson, 1969)
French Title: Une femme douce

Adapted from Dostoyevsky's short story, A Gentle Woman, Robert Bresson's first feature film in color, is as elusive as the title character's intentions. The film opens with the woman's suicide by jumping off her apartment. It's a suicide scene that is uncharacteristically filmed --- a sudden noise from the balcony erupts the serenely lighted apartment room, Bresson then cuts to the exterior, the woman lands violently while her white scarf floats in what may seem like a peaceful release. The rest of the film evokes the total opposite of the suicide: dark, trapped, and suffocating.

Dominique Sanda plays the woman. Her skin is pale and her gentle facial features resemble an delicate marble statue, worthy of admiration and idolatry. A pawnbroker (Guy Frangin) does exactly that. When she was living, the pawnbroker takes an attraction upon first sight. Impoverished, the woman pawns her crucifix. The pawnbroker takes the golden cross and offers back the statue of Christ, and paying the woman more money than what the golden cross is worth. Unaffected by the pawnbroker's expectant generosity, the woman gives back the excess of what the golden cross is worth. Undaunted, the pawnbroker offers something more: a life of happiness where the poverty she has lived through will never happen again. The two marry and try to live off a loveless relationship. Outwardly normal, the two challenge each other in bouts of jealousy and struggles for control.

Even at death, the woman is subject of adoration. The pawnbroker recalling their relationship to his elderly maid Anna (Jeanne Lobre) surrounds the body of the woman in pious reverence. The pawnbroker walks around the still beautiful corpse, trying to objectively determine the cause for the woman's emotional demise. He does point out several instances where an obvious emotional void is present --- the woman purposely puts herself in a position wherein the pawnbroker would catch her and consume himself of an unbated jealousy. Yet there are no outward signs of hatred or marital discord. Everything is shown in quiet touches and gestures that dictate a deeply rooted source of marital dysfunction.

It's a questionable salvation, the woman's suicide. But in Bresson's mind, it perhaps may be a valid release from the earthly pains of a loveless relationship. One may argue that a more rational resolution for the woman's dissatisfaction is a legal divorce or an informal separation. In my opinion, the release or salvation that is sought here should elicit permanence. In Bresson's claustrophobic portrayal of a dead end relationship where the beginning is already met with a misunderstanding of the primaries of a smooth marital relationship, the woman's choice of release seems appropriately (although questionable in terms of morality and social acceptability) realized. The woman's face upon death evokes a quiet peace that cannot be found when she was living. During her lifetime, her eyes contain a fiery and purposeful force that antagonizes her gentle outwardly ways. In her death, she is truly an immobile idol, her soul released from an earthly prison that is also imprisoned in a marriage that is unevenly invoked. The pawnbroker pleads for the woman to open her eyes for at least a second, praying to the idol for a momentary miracle that can never happen. Why succumb to a second of human conflict when the soul has already reached pacification?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2001)
Japanese Title: Katakuri-ke no kôfuku

The Katakuris operate a guest house in the middle of a remote mountain where a highway is supposedly to be built. The family is composed of the grandfather (Tetsuro Tamba), father Masao (Kenji Sawada), mother Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), and granddaugher Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki). There hasn't been a single guest in the Katakuris' guest house, until a morose traveller makes an appearance and in the middle of the night, decides to kill himself by stabbing himself in the neck with the room key. The family decides to just bury the body in order to salvage the guest house's business feasibility. Guests do flock in, but meet the same morbid fate.

The plot comes from Kim Ji-woon's The Quiet Family (1998), but in the hands of Japanese schlock-meister Takashi Miike, becomes a musical extravaganza that is both weirdly entertaining and surprisingly touching. The family whose core seems to be best suited for a dysfunctional family: there's the idealistic dad and the supportive mom, the criminally callous son and the flirtatious and hopelessly romantic daughter. Yet in the hands of Miike, the dysfunction becomes utterly charming. Their bantering and frequent arguments only humanize what may seem like a totally ridiculous familial relationship that can never ever exist in this rational world of ours. And when they start positioning themselves to initiate an absurdly over-the-top musical number, one can't help but both giggle and nod by the fact that despite the weirdness of it all, it works in a totally ununderstandable way.

Miike is at his schmaltziest here. Instead of using CGI to create blood fountains or other gore visual fests, here, computer technology is used to pump up the colors. The Happiness of the Katakuris looks like a 50's musicale in the vein of The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) with its bright greens, pleasant blues, and other striking hues. Miike also uses claymation to probably excite the toddlers or to make more palatable the more violent and objectionable portions of the film. The claymation sequences are haphazardly done, but that only adds to the cheap charms of the film. The changes in visual style might be a bit too gratuitous but that's better than turning the film into a drab and lifeless feature.

If you intend to watch The Happiness of the Katakuris to grab something deep and subtle, be ready for disappointment. The Happiness of the Katakuris is nothing more than an absurdist fantasy whose only aim is to entertain and while doing so, add some moralistic lesson on what really makes a family happy. It's something you can learn a dozen times while watching the features shown in Hallmark Channel, or reading through last month's issue of Reader's Digest. The only proper way to watch The Happiness of the Katakuris is with an open mind ready for whatever visual and other sensory attacks Miike has devised and just enjoy whatever (positive or negative) effects it has on your intellect (which I assume you've already put at an all time low to get ready for the film). The songs are musically bad, the actors' singing even more so. Yet in the insane hands of Miike, these songs fit perfectly well in the stew pot of kitsch, bad taste, abnormally childish antics, and almost every other thing and gimmick that should never ever be used in a fare like this.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005)

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (Auraeus Solito, 2005)
English Title: The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

A pink orchid is salvaged by twelve year old Maximo Oliveros (Nathal Lopez) from a dirty canal. That delicate act by Maximo opens Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros). Maximo, lovingly referred to by his neighbors as Maxi, is gay. Despite his traditionally unaccepted gender, he is doted by his father (Soliman Cruz) and two older brothers. Maxi's family is engaged in a life of petty crime, ranging from the peddling illegal drugs to snatching cellular phones.

Despite this shady means of livelihood of the Oliveros family, the father keeps a code of discipline that each of the family members should follow: that while it is true that they are thieves, they are not murderers. The father has maintained a reputation within the community, earning the respect of the local police chief who gives him some sort of leeway to conduct his shady activities. Similar to orchid he plucks from the garbage, Maxi is the singly innocent person in that community that thrives in crime and poverty. He relishes in spending nights with his other gay friends, reenacting beauty pageants, or watching movies in the neighborhood DVD shop. One day, while walking alone at night, he is harassed by a couple of neighborhood thugs, only to be rescued by Victor Perez (JR Valentin), an idealistic cop who was just reassigned in the area.

The film is beautiful, carefully addressing the delicate coming-of-age of this atypical gay kid who is living in a world of complete disarray. There are no formal rites of passages, no overly elaborate plot that push him to grow up. Maxi's metaphoric blossoming results from what essentially is an innocent crush that curiously develops into an ambiguous attraction. Maxi's unabashed admiration for the upright policeman slowly changes Victor's officer-like and stoic predisposition, melting into a charming friendship. The friendship causes Maxi to unwittingly shove himself in a tug-of-war where his loyalty to his family is on one side and his immense admiration to the righteous cop on the other.

Solito tells the story in a tender yet assured fashion. There is no notion of exploitation despite the several instances where Maxi's admiration for the cop slowly erupt into a sort of sexual longing. Both humor and innocent romance are at work as Solito quietly puts into music Maxi's almost maternal tending to Victor's needs, especially when Victor falls victim to Maxi's family's rage, rendering the cop disabled for a few days. It's undeniably heartbreaking that despite that Maxi's homosexuality being almost a non-issue in the entire film, poverty, tradition-dictated morality, social and street justice, have impeded his search for true happiness, which at that point, cannot be achieved with relative ease. Maxi's dilemma seems easy as most gays in intolerant societies would imagine the slums area in the film as a Utopian paradise wherein homosexuality is exposed and is ultimately treasured.

Like all coming-of-age stories, Maxi's tale is eventually climaxed by a heartwrenching tragedy that forces that twelve year old to turn into an adult in a matter of days. Michiko Yamamoto's story and screenplay bursts with memorable anecdotes that proves her growth as a screenwriter since her amazing debut in Maryo J. delos Reyes' Magnifico (2003). She blends into the story a side plot of former rivals finally meeting again to rekindle and inevitably end, with fatal results. This side plot culminates in one of the film's most riveting scene, draped in a mixture of urban illumination and shadows by Nap Jamir's admirable digital cinematography, enunciated in the way the policeman and the new sergeant appear from complete darkness. The scene involves the new sergeant (Bodgie Pascua), who turns out to be Maxi's father's former bane. The father initially wanted to negotiate his son's arrest using words at first, then his gun, but upon meeting his equal, succumbs to become the victim of a long-planned vengeance.

Despite its meager roots and with a budget that would be microscopic if compared to Hollywood movies of the same theme, Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros triumphs with its built-in sincerity and its refreshing emotional depth. The film does not wallow in melodramatics, or cheat itself and turn itself into an angsty and anger-ridden gay film. Instead, the film treads the more difficult path by putting a spotlight on the heartbreaking involuntary puncturing of the innocence of the only person that is pure and beautiful in the dirty slums of that Manila neighborhood. The gay boy we see picking up the flower from the canal in the beginning is completely different from the gay boy we later see walking past a longing policeman, stops, and eventually walks forward. Upon witnessing the events that ensued in his fateful blossoming, one can't help but feel a slight remorse knowing that there's a crack in Maxi's precious innocence. That Maxi has been pushed by a need to grow up faster than his peers.

Requiem (2006)

Requiem (Hans-Christian Schmid, 2006)

Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem is the second film made based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a student who died after an exorcism in Germany. The first one is The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Scott Derrickson, 2005), the horror film from last year which used the trial court proceedings against the exorcising priest as a frame to narrate the otherworldly events that transpired. Requiem is more simply told. It doesn't rely on flashy narrative techniques, or even special effects, but instead centers on the psychological complexity of the girl in question. Despite its austere filmmaking methods, Requiem remains to be more engaging than the creepy exorcism film.

Schmid films the events that transpire as it is. In fact, the notion that the film was based on the same true story that inspire The Exorcism of Emily Rose did not dawn on me until the middle, where the similarities start to surface. Almost documentary-like in his visual style, the film achieves an arresting sense of realism which separates it from the horror film that preceded it. Requiem's goal is certainly not to sensationalize the Catholic tradition of exorcism, or to put into scientific perspective demonic possession. Instead, Schmid becomes more interested in the psychological make-up of the personality who is possessed. Schmid is successful in burrowing through the possessed's history. In a way, the film serves as a convincing case study of possession: primarily pinpointing a specific familial structure and devout Catholic upbringing as root causes for the girl's psychological demise.

In the middle of the film's success is Sandra Hüller who takes on the role of Michaela Klinger, the education student who suffers bouts of epilepsy, hears imaginary voices, and finally implodes into a psychiatric mess. Her performance is not at all showy and does not attribute to typical and cliche ideas of possession. Whenever she twists and turns in pain, there is nothing supernatural about it. Whenever she starts addressing religious symbols or disrespects her mother, it all feels very natural and well-deserved. With the help of Schmid's careful and meticulously objective direction, and her other co-actors and actresses, Hüller completes a picture of the woman which the filmmakers in The Exorcism of Emily Rose merely touched the surface on.

Schmid resists every bit of temptation to turn Requiem into anything like The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Catholic symbols and ceremonies (Michaela idolizes a saint, up to the end) are a constant visual sight in the film, but that is the closest Schmid does to sensationalize Catholic belief. The Catholic imagery is merely one of the many facets that constitute the complexity of Michaela's person. Other facets include Michaela's closeness to her father and cold distance to her mother, her overly trusting nature, and many more. In the end, Schmid makes the more fascinating film with probably less than half of the budget. Requiem however is not merely good compared to the American horror film. It is a good film, period. It features an impressive performance from the female lead, and equally impressive performances from the supporting cast. Schmid's filmmaking (the other Schmid film I saw Distant Lights (2003) is an equally interesting take on immigration) is consistent throughout the entire film, and doesn't try to achieve more than what he intends to do.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Art School Confidential (2006)

Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff, 2006)

Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) wants to become the best artist of the 21st century. Right after high school, he enrolls at the Strathmore Art School hoping to be the one out of the one hundred students who'll make it big in the art scene. He rooms with a film student and a closet gay fashion student, falls in love with the beautiful nude model Audrey (Sophia Myles), and finds a rival in city boy-turned-art boy wonder Jonah (Matt Keeslar). While the angst and vile competition inside art school is happening, a murderer roams the streets and strangles random victims at whim.

It's a brilliant idea: setting a murder mystery inside the microcosm of nerds and freaks that is the art school. Zwigoff, who is no stranger in telling the stories of outsiders trying to find a niche in this human world --- Robert Crumb in Crumb (1994), Enid in Ghost World (2001), the conniving conmen in Bad Santa (2003) --- creates a world wherein everything is weird and everyone's a freak, and in such a way, in order for one to stand out, one has to be utterly normal. The art school in Art School Confidential is teaming with lifeless hacks (both students and professors) that most of the humor Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes cook up are sourced from the fact that aesthetics is an informal creature. Yet, in the art school, aesthetics is learned and in a way, for a piece of trash to be considered art, it has to be criticized not with objective notions of beauty but with subjective and somewhat warped sense of equalizing originality with outsider viewpoints. When the art professor (John Malcovich) praises an artwork which is mostly a badly drawn automobile plastered in drab yellow, one can't help but chuckle at the irrationality of the praise.

It is that unpredictable nature of human aesthetics that sum up the conflict in Art School Confidential. The talented Jerome enters the art school confident with his talents and is literally humbled by the idea that his realistic drawings are shit compared to pentel pen scribbles. Ultimately, once permanent notions of what is art is broken and Jerome is left in a black hole of perpetual discernment as to what direction he should take. To add misery to the defeat and the untimely humbling, his love for Audrey is also taken away with the instantaneous celebrity status that attaches to being the "new voice" of art. Instead of earning a learning experience, Jerome's stint at the art school has proven to be a damning experience wherein he would naturally take in the fact that art is not art, but commercialism boxed up in pretty lines and attractive colors. The ending wherein Jerome achieves his ambition with the added attraction that the art comes from what it seems to be a demented individual indicates the idea that his art is only art world-worthy art if he is a public figure of some notoriety, the same way as Van Gogh's works are art because it comes from a guy who cut off his ears, or that Picasso's works are art since it comes from a chauvinistic bully.

It's an excellent film, I think. Zwigoff and Clowes again created a film that is both funny and insightful at the same time. There are some ugly spots in the film though. I thought Minghella was a miscast. He looks like a hybrid of Enid's misanthropic outsider and an up and coming matinee idol. He can't seem to inhabit his character with self-assured ease and instead, leans on Clowes' dialogue to dictate what kind of human being he is. There are some jokes that seem to be a staple in the genre that the film could've done without --- the film is already funny as it is, and the jokes are just extra calories to an already fattening confection. But it's still a pretty interesting pic, notwithstanding the abovementioned comments and the other tics that bothered me throughout the film. It's quite amazing how Zwigoff and Clowes can come up with so many variations of these tales of misanthropic, anti-social outcasts and still remain amazingly original and fresh.

Hard Candy (2005)

Hard Candy (David Slade, 2005)

An internet chat conversation opens Brit-born director David Slade's Hard Candy. The two anonymous chatters engage in various flirtatious discussions, leading on to an agreement that they meet in a local dessert place. Hayley (Ellen Page), fourteen-ish dorky looking little girl wearing a red hooded jacket, await her dashing date, Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a thirty-something professional photographer who is both suave and suspicious in his ways. Their initial meeting is pervaded with a feeling that something is not right. It's just not normal that an adult meet up with a teener over an internet chat conversation, and later on, discuss matters ranging from pop music to sexual innuendos.

The setup is awfully familiar. It reminded me (both visually and narrative-ly) of the fairy tale "The Little Red Riding Hood" where the wolf (often used as a metaphor for staling pedophiles) woo the crimson-clad girl to give off her freshly baked goods. The photographer wins the flirting battle and successfully brings home the innocent girl, and further engage in revelatory conversations. The film makes a surprising U-turn when predator becomes prey, and is suddenly victimized with various mental and physical tortures. Hayley unveils herself as a sort of vigilante defender of all those who have been victimized by various sex offenders.

Slade, who previously worked for MTVs and commercials, styles the film with loud colors backdropping the various conversations and acts that constitute the film. It's interesting to look at, and at times, it contributes to the overall emotional direction the film wants to take. Unlike other MTV directors-turned-feature film helmers who seem to have no patience when it comes to editing, Slade seems to have an idea that shots (especially those wherein he plays with colors and backdropping to dramatic effect) shouldn't outrightly be cut after a split second of exposure. Instead, he relishes in his compositions. But like most directors like him, he also have that ailment of using too much jarring camera movements especially in scenes wherein much action is involved. It's a confusing tactic that is unpleasant to the eyes at times.

Hard Candy's most difficult hurdle is that there's not a single character in the film that deserves a bit amount of sympathy. Moreover, the film's rather sensitive topic instantly dictates that sympathies cannot actually be dictated by the film's narrative, unlike let's say, other recent sadistic torture films (Hostel or Wolf Creek) wherein the victims (although ignoramuses and idiots) are all unwilling victims. Here, the victim is someone no one can really root for. In a way, there's a part of you that says that he indeed deserves everything that is done to him (especially the film's centerpiece punishment which most people would actually consider a just retribution to similar crimes). There's a void of pleasant emotions in the film, and in turn, makes the film a very negative and angry piece of work (with little sprinklings of sadistic and sarcastic humor). One might justifiably consider the film outright exploitation of what may seem a universal hatred for pedophilia, and in a way, Slade and writer Brian Nelson do exploit the Oprah Show-fueled anger against sex offenders to imply a sort of justification for the sadism and violence shown and implied onscreen. If it is exploitation, I really don't care much, because it's well-made exploitation.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (1980)

Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (Pedro Almodovar, 1980)
Spanish Title: Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón

We are first introduced to Pepi (Carmen Maura) dandily placing Superman stickers in her sticker book. She grows marijuana plants on her apartment, attracting stern policeman (Felix Rotaeta) to conduct an investigation through his parallel apartment, and later on an arrest. Pepi resists arrest and instead invites the policeman to just have sex with her. Again, she resists her offer and in turn, loses her virginity through rape. She plots revenge and hires the punk band of Bom (Olvido Gara), a liberated lesbian singer, to beat up the policeman. They do beat up someone, but it turns out to be the policeman's twin brother, who due to the amount of harassment befalling him because of his resemblance to the unlikeable policeman, moves to the Canary Island. Undaunted, Pepi befriends Luci (Eva Siva), unsatisfied wife of the policeman, and turns her into a masochistic sex-crazed woman.

At first glance, much of Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap doesn't make sense. The city of Madrid is turned into a punk paradise with transsexuals, weirdos, and freaks roaming around in liberated abandon. Bom's band, while walking towards the victim of their cruel beating, insists that they sing so as to not arouse suspicion. In a normal world, a crew of weirdly-dressed individuals belting out opera choruses would instantly arouse suspicion but in Almodovar's world, such is completely normal. Almodovar's world doesn't require notions of common sense or societal norms. There is nothing permanent. Gender preferences, fetishes, religion, logic change in a wink of an eye.

Almodovar will continue this style of filmmaking throughout his career. Absurdist scenarios and characters deriving decisions based on their Freudian impulses would inhabit Almodovar's films, even his later, more tamer ones. In Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap, Almodovar is nursing the world in its infantile stage, which is probably the reason why much of it looks amateurish, crude, and in a way, unrestrained. The film comes off as merely a film that is delighted in eliciting shock reactions based on its irreverence to popular notions of propriety, instead of being something deeper or more thought-out. Pepe, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap feels more like a John Waters film instead of a Pedro Almodovar one. Sure, it's Almodovar's first legitimate feature film, and it features Almodovar actor Maura (who would later feature in many of the director's films), but despite its auteur theorist-satisfying themes, it falls short in depth and even freedom and control, which is what primarily differentiates Almodovar's vision from Water's experimentations to the limitations of bad taste.

Pepe, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap would interest primarily those who are curious as to how Almodovar enriched his vision. It's a very brave first feature and it's actually very hilarious. Almodovar throws in a lot of surprises which includes a penis-measuring contest, a love-at-first-urination scene, a humorous dialogue between a bearded wife and her closet homosexual husband, and many more features that seem to come out of thin air --- especially since the plot seems to steer into so many directions, it's almost impossible to follow what Almodovar is really trying to say.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Overture (2004)

The Overture (Ittisoontorn Vichailak, 2004)
Thai Title: Hom rong

Thai filmmaker Ittisoontorn Vichailak's The Overture is inspired by the life of 18th century ranad-ek virtuoso player Luang Pradit. The events and characters presented in the film are entirely fictitious, giving Vichailak much liberality in creating a story so pleasant and admirable that I sometimes wonder why the film was even made at all. There's not a single ounce of authentic conflict or a granule of anything sincerely exciting that I wished for the impossible: that the main character start discovering the pleasures of opium and steer this overblown Thai film into its proper niche consisting of recent treacles Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004) and Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005).

The Overture is basically the life story of fictional Sorn (Anuchit Sapanpong), a naturally gifted musician who discovered his affinity with the traditional Thai musical instrument ranad-ek when a butterfly led him to the instrument. From then on, Sorn just keeps on improving and improving until he finally meets his match with the nearly invincible Bangkok-famous ranad-ek player Kun In (Narongrit Tosa-nga), who literally conjures mighty winds and strong rain when he plays the traditional instrument. Sorn is discovered by a local monarch and is recruited to the royal band, finally testing his playing prowess against Kun In, the local monarch's rival's champion player. Sorn's story as a young ranad-ek player is interweaved with the experiences of an older Sorn (Adul Dulyarat) with the Cultural Revolution of Thailand. Just before the Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia, the Thai government released an order forbidding the playing of any traditional music insisting that such is obsolete and is not in tune with the government policy of "civilizing" Thailand.

It's all very uninterestingly told. No narrative surprises, it's as if Vichailak was conjuring scenarios out of nowhere, the determinant of the scene's being screen-worthy is if it can compare to the cheesiness of the worst family fare Hollywood can come up with. The writing doesn't add anything to the whimsical quality of the plot. Most of the characters merely serve as instruments to further the emotional whoring Vichailak seems to be interested in: we have the trustful and intellectually sub par friend (both in the young and old Sorn's story lines), there's the indefatigable teacher, the stern yet ultimately humanist opponents (Kun In in the young Sorn's storyline, the military officer in the old Sorn's storyline).

Perhaps the only saving grace for the film (well, aside from the beautiful music which should be a requirement for any music-related film) is the gorgeous cinematography. The film is beautifully photographed, perhaps too beautifully photographed. There are certain scenes wherein the characters are so luminously shot that it no longer looks like a feature film, but probably a commercial for a shampoo or a beauty product. While the film is always easy on the eye, it adds to the level of implausibility for the film, which probably adds to the reasons why i disliked the film so much.

In the end, I must insist that despite all its faults, there is still a way to enjoy the film. If one doesn't take the film seriously, forget the fact that Vichailak actually made this as a historical drama, and regard this as a Shaolin Soccer-clone (only this time, wooden xylophones are the subject of deathly battles), it can actually be quite enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Angela Markado (1980)

Angela Markado (Lino Brocka, 1980)
English Title: Angela the Marked One

Seeing Lino Brocka's Angela Markado (Angela the Marked One), one is immediately reminded of Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968), or Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood (1973), which were Quentin Tarantino's sources of inspiration (or copycatting) of his Kill Bill films (2003-2004). Actually, Angela Markado was adapted by Jose Lacaba for the screen from the comics written by Carlo J. Caparas. It's probable that Caparas could've borrowed the storyline from the Truffaut film, as Caparas is no stranger from copying (he would later become a film director of no serious merit, mostly rehashing of genre works by other directors to much dismay and boredom). But the comics, honed and most probably improved by Lacaba, and visualized by the exciting camera work of Conrado Baltazar, and ultimately put together by the seamless talent of Lino Brocka is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking: part noir, part social commentary, part vengeance film, and all fun.

Angela Delmar (Hilda Koronel) works as a waitress for one of the seedier bars in Manila. There she meets five patrons of the bar, who also turn out to be a gang specializing in drugging and raping girls and later on selling them to prostitution. Angela is the only one tending to her mother, a laundrywoman who stopped working due to tuberculosis. One night, she gets kidnapped, raped, and kept for five days by the five men. The men tattoo their names on the back of Angela, before selling her to a brothel. Angela escapes, and is taken in by a kindly hostess (Celia Rodriguez). However, upon returning to her home, she discovers her mother has died, her best friend has also been raped by the same five men and later on committed suicide. From then on, she makes it her life's mission to kill the five men by wearing wigs and costumes, and stalking the men with a handy switchblade.

Despite the plot similarities between Angela Markado and The Bride Wore Black, I thought Brocka's style is more akin to Italian giallo, most notably of Dario Argento. The careful editing, the generous amount of bloodshed, the musical score paving the way for a violent eventuality, the way the actual murders are filmed --- all of which point out to Italian giallo-filmmaking. Brocka also brings forth some noir expertise (mostly thankful to cinematographer Baltazar). Manila is mostly at night: very little illumination (mostly coming from scarce street lamps), the seedy clubs and its neon interiors, the brothels and their lonely denizens, shadows in almost every corner. Moreover, the plot is certainly a downward spiraling of Angela's life when fate decided that she be marked by the five men (not when she was physically marked by the tattoo), but when one of the men (somewhat metaphorically) determines her future when he reads her palm in the beginning of the film. From then on, Angela is pulled away from the path of righteousness, and turns herself into the film's femme fatale and victim at the same time.

It's a very cruel joke Brocka is playing here. He presents the film initially as somewhat of a melodrama, with Angela making ends meet, having to do with rowdy bar patrons, and taking care of her sickly mother. We see where Angela lives: a little wooden shack full of religious items but is ultimately filthy and poor. Brocka, a master in portraying the lives of the downtrodden and the oppressed, already shows Angela's life as impossibly difficult due to her poverty. Then, when we think things couldn't get worst, it does, and in the most cruel way. When poverty and her mom's tuberculosis has taken away all hopes for a better life by forcing her to quit school, the five men take away the last thing she can treasure, her dignity --- and that is not something anyone can take from her easily, thus turning her into a savage vengeful monster.

Brocka is mirroring a Manila that is devoid of anything pleasant. Even the good Samaritan who saved Angela from the brothel, is closely connected to her victimizers, and is also in a sense, a victimizer of men, cruelly keeping a neighbor in love with her for his everyday favors, but keeps another man on the side. The law student/police informant, who is probably the single signal of righteousness in the film, is the brother of one of Angela's victimizers and even then, there is a notion of impossibility of a better life for Angela with all the murders that she has committed (as shown by the court order in the end of the film).

Quill (2004)

Quill (Yoichi Sai, 2004)

Yoichi Sai's Quill is a screen adaptation of a novel about a real life "seeing-eye" Labrador. It was a hit when it opened in many Asian territories, even getting a Best Asian Film nomination in the Hong Kong Film Awards. In many ways, it is quite understandable why this Japanese film would gain so much popularity with its viewers. It's cute from first screen to the last, yet it doesn't put up antics to titillate the younger viewers ala Hollywood dog films. It is also very sentimental, yet it doesn't utilize unnecessary melodramatics to induce tears and sobs. Yoichi Sai has finally made a mature pet movie: one that paves events in a natural way without reducing itself to turning its animal actors into clowns or drama queens.

Quill is one of the five puppies of an ordinary Labrador mom. What makes Quill special from his siblings is that he has a black spot in his belly that is shaped like a bird, and that he is stubbornly intelligent. He is sent to training school, but is first kept by a couple until he turns one year old. In training school, he is paired with a grumpy old bling man, Mr. Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi), who at first dislikes the idea of being pulled around by a dog but later decides to get Quill as his "seeing-eye" dog

The humans in Quill merely serve as supporting cast for the dog, which is obviously incapable of communication except for cute stares and growls. Sai makes use of narrations by the female characters to impart the story of the dog, to great advantage. Although it might seem awfully like spoonfeeding especially when the narration is far too convenient when the visuals are already enough in dictating what is happening in the story. Also, the narrations seem to be a bit too emotional, which is really not a bad point since these narrations come from people who have been touched by the Labrador.

Quill is the type of film that is so easy to hate but you just couldn't. It dodges every opportunity to cheat tugging the heartstrings and instead utilizes the dog's story as the primary reason for sympathy. Moreover, Sai takes great lengths to accurately portray the process on how an ordinary dog is turned into a trained "seeing-eye" dog. It's truly an emotional journey for the dog and one can't help but feel for the animal, despite the fact that there is a sense of limitation to the emotional capacity the face of an animal can bring as compared to a human. Quill's partnership with the grumpy Watanabe might be a bit too predictable and Watanabe's sudden change from stubborn man to still stubborn yet more affectionate blind man is quite a feat for a mere "seeing-eye" dog, but then again, the film is really not about Watanabe but the dog, and the dog's journey is truly a heartwarming one.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Prefab People (1982)

The Prefab People (Béla Tarr, 1982)
Hungarian Title: Panelkapcsolat

Béla Tarr's third feature The Prefab People is often considered the Hungarian's best out of his early documentary-like fiction films. The film is a concise and personal look on a dying marriage in the midst of a socialist country on the verge of impending commercialism. Tarr's palette consists of residential buildings, smoke belching factories, dance clubs, and of course, the harshly claustrophobic interiors of a middle class flat which houses the couple and their two young children.

A celebration (consisting of a musical band playing a joyous melody) preempts the film sarcastically. Right after the final notes of the joyous song ends, Tarr pits his audience immediately on the hopeless marriage by introducing the couple in a point of discordant intimacy. It's something you'd rather not see. The husband (Robert Koltai) suddenly storms inside the flat, grabs his things and tells the surprised wife (Judit Pogany) that he's leaving them for good. Sounds of weeping and wailing ensue after as the wife begs the husband to rethink his decision. Tarr abruptly ends the sequence, by showing something that seems a bit sweeter, the couple's ninth anniversary. We really don't know if the anniversary precedes the dramatic introductory sequence or if that was after the husband has finally returned to the begging wife. The celebration turns sour when the wife suddenly decides to use the anniversary as an avenue to nag on the husband's domestic inadequacy.

It's not really an engaging film. It's more depressing than revealing. The couple come and go ending every bit of something good with an opportunity to disagree. A vacation turns sour when the husband suddenly decides to visit a friend and becomes unaware that he has left his wife and children for about an hour and a half. When he shows up, he gets a verbal lashing from the nagging wife. The film is basically a repetition of scenes wherein the couple would lash out in disagreement. It's obvious that they are both in love with each other, but perhaps due to some societal or psychological reason, they always end up in conflict.

Depressing, repetitive, taxing and sometimes unwatchable due to its saddeningly intimate content, The Prefab People however showcases unmeasurable talent from the young director. His camera captures the emotional angst as it transforms from pleasant and normal relations to erupting and bitterly unbearable domestic drama. In one fascinatingly done sequence, Tarr begins by catching the couple enjoying an entertainment show which leads to a night of frenzied dancing. Tarr then lets time pass by, catching the husband in drunken ecstasy singing songs to pass time as the wife downs a glass of liquor, letting her tears out in the film's single most honest image. It is in that melancholic scene wherein Tarr lets alcohol dominate celluloid, catching the characters in their most sincere and their most quiet repression of pent-up emotions.

Family Nest (1979)

Family Nest (Béla Tarr, 1979)
Hungarian Title: Családi tüzfészek

Béla Tarr was only twenty two years old when he made Family Nest, a very mature look at the housing problem that pervades late seventies Budapest. Despite his young age, he was able to make a truthful and at times, heartbreaking commentary on how a supposed political problem has invaded the nucleus of Hungarian society, the family. His style is typical to Eastern European Cinema: a cinema verite style wherein he uses primarily non-actors and the visual appeal is almost non-existent, suggesting a documentary feel to the entire exercise. Tarr would later on develop a style that is completely his own, and would become a pillar in world cinema, his unique style becoming a source of inspiration for filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, Lav Diaz, and perhaps Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The center of the aftershock of the Hungarian housing project is Laci, a newly released soldier and his wife Iren, who has lived in her father-in-law's pad for the entire time Laci was away. Iren and Laci's father don't exactly have the most perfect of relationships. The father insists that Iren raise her daughter the way he wants him to, and dislikes the fact that Iren would bring home some of her friends from work. Later in the film, the father would poison Laci's mind by saying that Iren is cheating since she's been out for periods of time at night, and that she's not exactly contributing enough money to the household.

It's an almost impossible dream for the couple to get a flat of their own. After all, a flat of their own will keep them away from the father's nonstop nagging, or Laci's brother's irresponsibility. However, getting a flat would require them to fall in line, and face the heartlessness of the government's bureaucracy. Tarr would spend some time showing how this works. Outside, his camera would catch other women telling their plights on the housing problem. A woman was forced to squat in a vacant flat, to miserable results. Inside the interview room, Iren would plead and beg the office worker to grant her the flat she wants or else, her marriage would suffer. But the office worker is merely a low ranking bureaucrat and he is in no position to hear the plight, and suffers through Iren's reasoning and tears. It's a double-edged sword Tarr is playing here, we see the plight of the house-needy residents, and also the virtually useless office workers forced to hear out the complaints and the destroyed lives of those in the mercy of an impersonal society.

It's an amazing debut feature from a very young director. Tarr dissects his society with an experience that would've suited a far more older analyst. The claustrophobic feel of the father's crowded flat, the banter upon banter heard evertime there's a family dinner, the alcohol consumed to temporarily relieve the tension at home, Tarr sees it as truthfully as any filmmaker could and his camera shoots it with any cinematic falsity distilled from the scenario. It's really an amazing feat which Tarr would eventually top in his later features.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Life is Sweet (1990)

Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh, 1990)

Forty minutes through Mike Leigh's family drama Life is Sweet, you get a feeling that Leigh's title to his film might be a tad bit too sarcastic, as what's been shown so far is anything but sweet. We've already been introduced to all of his colorful characters. First is Wendy (Alison Steadman), introduced teaching a bunch of little girls some choreography, is the bubbly matriarch of the film's dysfunctional family. Andy (Jim Broadbent), is the impossibly hopeful patriarch who works as a chef for a hotel, but insists on putting up his food business by buying a wreck of a fast food caravan from shady businessman Patsy (Stephen Rea). Wendy and Andy have twins, who aside from their pale skin and their lifelessly blond hair, are nothing alike. Natalie (Claire Skinner) has a boyish haircut, prefers long sleeve shirts to dresses, but is admirably helpful and empathic to her family. Nicola (Jane Horrocks) has disheveled hair, ticks and twitches, and is impossibly anti-social.

There are other characters to this film. Aubrey (Timothy Spall) is the family friend who has just started his French restaurant, urging his long-time fantasy Wendy to serve as waitress. There's Nicola's secret lover (David Thewlis), who prefers to know the anti-social twin rather than serve her curious kinks and fetishes. Lastly, there's the part-time cook (Moya Brady) in Aubrey's new restaurant, a sort of competitor to Aubrey's sexual advances to the uninterested Wendy.

It's a delightful film that slowly unfolds in interesting paths as it goes along. Although the talkative brandishing of several insults between the family members, the unending nagging, and the sweet nothings, thrown from and to by the characters to each other make this film a bit repetitive and in a way taxing to watch, Leigh makes up for it by slowly unveiling a very sweet emotional core that is only revealed when the film is viewed as a whole. The film seems like an episodic TV sitcom, and I think the film's premise may provide for an interesting sitcom pilot, but it is still very much a Mike Leigh film wherein he tries to reveal the lower-middle class dilemma within the context of a highly unusual British family. Here, he squeezes the characters to reveal their innermost angsts, their dreams (for Andy, to start his very own business, for Wendy, every mother's wish for her kids to be happy), and quirks. Leigh does not outrightly proclaim these as Britain's lower-middle class' aspirations, but the message comes off as strongly as if he painted the words of his message in bright neon red.

Leigh is gifted to have Britain's most outstanding actors to complete the film. Jim Broadbent's Andy is aptly gullible with his bright blue eyes giving off a childlike warmth to the father figure. David Thewlis, Stephen Rea and Timothy Spall provide excellent back-up to the family, putting up an outsider's view to the outlandishly stylized family. For Rea, the family is a source of exploited income. For Spall, a release of sexually repressed energy, and for Thewlis, an urge to uncover but just couldn't. But Life is Sweet primarily belongs to Alison Steadman who in a scene suddenly changes from biting, sarcastic matriarch to a hopeful sweet mom to a child in trouble. It is during that beautifully acted and staged scene wherein Steadman and Jane Horrocks exchange explanations as to why things are going that way, and that despite that, the family has become intact, is when I acknowledge the fact that the title to the film is not in fact, sarcastic but is the theme of Leigh's message: that despite everything, life is still sweet and one must learn to treasure it and to hope to truly appreciate the hidden delicacy of life.

All Under the Moon (1993)

All Under the Moon (Yoichi Sai, 1993)
Japanese Title: Tsuki wa dotchi ni dete iru

The fascinating thing about Yoichi Sai's All Under the Moon is that it focuses, not on the everyday life of Japanese citizens, but on the lives of those who seem to live anonymously in a society that seems unicultural, the foreign immigrants. The main character in All Under the Moon is Tadao (Goro Kishitani), a North Korean immigrant who works in a taxi cab corporation wholly owned by another Korean immigrant whose dream is to build a golf course (turning him into a probably victim for the yakuza's shady business proposals).

Tadao's mother owns a karaoke bar. Connie (Ruby Moreno), a Filipino immigrant, is the newly hired bartender who can fluently speak Japanese. Love-starved Tadao takes an interest on the homesick Connie to Tadao's mother's dismay. It's a realistically if not too comedically pumped romantic relationship. Tadao moves in suddenly into Connie's apartment and from then on, they share an almost normal relationship, except for the fact that their means of communication is not their native tongues, but a language they adopted due to the constraints of their financial incapability. Both foreigners in a land that sees them as second class citizens, and among their class, there are subclasses (Tadao's mom insists that Filipinos, Chinese, and other nationalities are too lazy to be successful; In a Korean wedding, the North and South Koreans wage a war using their folksongs). It's a whirlwind romance that is the heart and the soul of the movie: the homesick girl insisting that her Korean lover come home with her to the Philippines, the Korean driver whose directionless satisfaction keeps him comfortable enough to resist any change.

There are other characters of note here, mostly Tadao's wacky co-workers. There's Hoso (Yoshiki Arizono), a no-good Japanese cab driver who insists that he hates Koreans, but likes Tadao. He never seems to have any money, as he keeps on pestering everyone to loan him money, or to give him a free stick of cigarette. In one hilarious scene, Tadao and Connie were having sex only to have Hoso bother them by calling Tadao multiple times and insisting that he loan him money. What seems like a character primarily used as a comic relief blossoms into a character of poignant resolution. He is the only Japanese character in the film that is fully fleshed out. Sai, also a Korean-Japanese citizen seems to be making a point here: Hoso, the only fully characterized Japanese character ending up in a loony bin, and still trying to siphon affection and money from what he considers a hate-worthy foreign immigrant.

All Under the Moon is predominantly a comedy. Sai, with the help of Goro Kishitani's commendable comedic timing, cooks up scenes of varied hilarity. In a scene where Tadao is ripped off by a Japanese passenger, he chases the erring passenger through the city just to insist that he gets paid. In an effort to show his honesty as compared to the Japanese swindler, he even gives the change and politely delivers the customary "thank you" amidst the furious panting and sighing. Another continuing joke is about another Japanese co-worker of Tadao who consistently gets lost in Japan's major landmarks. Every time he gets lost, he would call the aging receptionist of the taxi company and ask for directions. There are several other delightful scenes that deserve a healthy chuckle, and when Japanese comedy is not your thing (comedy that ranges from crazy slapstick to far fetched scenarios), you can always treat the film as a semi-autobiographical work from a director who accurately sees the immigrant's plight in a society that somehow doesn't know that they exist.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Temptation Island (1981)

Temptation Island (Joey Gosiengfiao, 1981)

Joey Gosiengfiao's cult classic Temptation Island has often been compared by local critics to the Pedro Almodova's early works. The comparisons maybe due to the fact that Temptation Island is a bizarre and absurd sexual romp where genre elements merge into a hodgepodge that is surprisingly effective and hilarious. Temptation Island is pure unadulterated fun. Even with all its technical faults, one can sense that what may be regarded as a cinematic hiccup by the uninformed critic is actually something more, a delightful embellishment to the film's inherent camp.

The story is simple. Four girls, each for their own reasons and aspirations, join a beauty pageant where they are observed while socializing in a cruise ship to determine who among the contestants are deserving of the beauty title. The ship bursts into flame, forcing everyone to abandon ship. The four girls, a gay millionaire, one of the contestant's maid, and two men are then marooned in a desert island where social and sexual politics are prime, and erotic energies, class struggles, and personalities whirlwind while all of them are satisfying that animalistic need to simply survive.

As mentioned above, the haphazard execution of the film has added a rustic, if not entirely humorous, dimension into the already absurd scenario. The production cannot afford a real ship to burn and sink; in fact, the budget cannot even make room for decent special effects. Instead, flames are cut and then superimposed into the windows of the cruise, as the delegates jump for their dear lives. The other sets are much more ingeniously crafted. A paper mache giant fried chicken turn into an opportunity for the lady survivors to pose and flirt amidst the lifeless desert. Gosiengfiao achieves perfection despite the restraints of low-budget studio filmmaking. Exploitation, social commentary, and escapist entertainment mix in what seems like a senseless romp, but in time, has been discovered to be one of the real gems of Philippine mainstream cinema.

One can just watch the film and enjoy the fact that everything happening onscreen is utterly ridiculous. The helicopter spreading flyers for the upcoming beauty pageant, the disdain between social climbing aspirant and the impossibly rich spoiled brat, the romance angle between one of the virginal ladies and her love partner, these elements meld to form a coherent but essentially playful mix of the absurd and the more glaring social anomalies of its period. Gosiengfiao then injects homosexual politics in the map, with the character of millionaire pageant director whose object of admiration, his hunky laborer-turned-life partner, has become infatuated with one of the pageant competitors. The gay man's tale is tragic, alluding to a life that seems disposable in a culture that idolizes female beauty.

The gay man's life might have ended in tragedy, but Gosiengfiao imposes that his demise be draped in the same absurd air that pervades the picture. The survivors consider the gay man's suicide as an act of generosity, cooks the meat from his corpse so that they may survive. Minutes later, they are rescued. While the gay man's suicide was converted into a selfless sacrifice, this sacrifice was then converted into an unnecessary act of depravity, where human eat fellow human only to learn that had they waited a few more minutes, they would not have inflicted upon themselves that act of cannibalism. History has trained humanity for civilized comforts to the point that society has become an instrument for wastage. Gosiengfiao ends his masterpiece with this candid observation, which would probably be drowned by the endless laughter that precedes and proceeds from this realization.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Orapronobis (1989)

Orapronobis (Lino Brocka, 1989)
English Title: Fight For Us

Lino Brocka's French-funded production Orapronobis (Fight For Us) starts with a priest aboard a scooter, driving to a remote town where there's supposedly some trouble happening. The soldiers in the checkpoint warn the priest that it's dangerous there, and if anything happens to him, it is out of their hands. Nighttime, the priest finally arrives inside a house where a bloodied man is dying. The priest gives the dying man his last rites, until the same soldiers in the checkpoint arrive to stop the proceedings. The leader of the group, Commander Kontra (Bembol Roco) burns the priest's scooter, and finally shoots the priest.

Start opening credits backgrounded by the People Power Revolution which overthrew Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship. We can now place the introductory events in their proper place in Philippine history --- those were turbulent times, pre-Revolution days wherein vigilante groups were cognized by the Philippine military to quell Communist insurgents. The People Power Revolution is burdened with promises and it seems that the introductory atrocity has finally met its end with Corazon Aquino's assumption to the presidency. Marcos' political prisoners are released. Among these political prisoners is Jimmy Cordero (Phillip Salvador), an ex-priest who two years after the Revolution, has married human rights activist Trixie (Dina Bonnevie), now very pregnant with their child. Everything seems dandy until we learn that the same group who killed the priest has been released from prison and is now even regarded by the government as stalwarts of democracy. Another atrocity is shown, a group of men thought of us Communists are gunned down while running for their lives.

Jimmy remains in the middle ground despite the many atrocities that he witnesses. He remains to be a passive observer of the events that supposedly shouldn't be happening after democracy was regained. Director Lino Brocka centers on Jimmy's chosen non-affiliation. It is true that after Marcos' dictatorship, lines have been blurred: political prisoners turn into apathetic politicians, communists turn into simple citizens, activists turn into satisfied common people. While Jimmy is not an ordinary citizen (he gets invitations to talk in shows and symposiums about his human rights activism), he has become stagnant and an idle believer in the supposed change (in one of the TV shows he guests in, he reveals his naive belief of the significant changes that the new administration has brought with it). He shares the same complacency with his wife. When Jimmy revisits the remote village where he used to fight, he personally witnesses that things have not changed. Learning that he has sired a son with his former sweetheart Esper (Gina Alajar), both of whom are being continually harassed by the newly released vigilantes, he has found a reason, personal and actual, to actually fight, but still remains an intellectual, a euphamism for being in the safe middle ground.

Orapronobis details how Jimmy finally realizes that his decision for quiet aggression and diplomatic means of fighting oppression will not work within a system that is so corrupt to its core. Citizens in the rural areas are not safe. They are being shot and harassed in areas where they are supposedly immune from harm, their homes and even the town church. Even the citizens are not safe in the city. Human rights workers are kidnapped and are never heard from again. Ambushes are frequent and people Jimmy and his wife become actual victims of what was previously mere news articles read in the newspapers.

The film is interesting because of that. The film's strength is its bravery to banish the myth that the People Power Revolution has espoused. The film's beauty is the fact that it depicts Corazon Aquino as inutile (although indirectly), wherein havoc is being wreaked by the little trickles of power that the woman president couldn't handle and shares with cultic vigilantes. That is also this film's weakness. Jimmy, the central character, is an uninteresting mess whose troubles and eternal unsureness keeps the film from achieving its potential in its political message.

Sure, Jimmy is more of a symbol rather than a complete character: He is the symbol of the ordinary Filipino who has become lax in the skin-deep safety the weak democracy has promised. It is only during the final ten minutes of the film where Jimmy becomes interesting. The moment he carries the dead body of his son and marches to the church (beautifully filmed by Brocka with quiet intensity). When he goes back home to see his sleeping wife and newly born baby, and finally opens the atache case where he kept his former comrade's gun and the piece of paper where he wrote that comrade's telephone number. Those final ten minutes are the meat of this film, and the only time wherein Jimmy becomes human rather than a mere symbol.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Gerry (2002)

Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002)

Right after three commercially viable and successful films, one of which earned him an Oscar nomination (Good Will Hunting, 1997), it's very surprising that Gus Van Sant follow it up with a film like Gerry. Gerry is basically a film about nothing, but despite that, it's always fascinating. From the lengthy opening sequence of two guys (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) driving past the highway accompanied by the music of Arvo Pärt, you instantly get hypnotized by the alluring non-predicament. Once the enchantment of filmed car rides wears off, Van Sant instantly brings you back to mundane Earth by having the two men alight their car and follow a track. Everything seems normal (they even meet fellow trackers which they return a friendly hello to), until the predicament of this non-predicament film creeps in. The duo gets lost in the middle of Death Valley.

The rest of the film is a repetitive sequence of the two walking past the rocky landscape or the barren desert, and again, despite that, it's still very fascinating. There are occasional breaks in the repetition. Conversations between the two are captured. These are mostly discussions on mundane non-topics yet in these conversations we gather that both of them are named "Gerry." Yet, we are really unsure of that since the characters use "gerry" so many times that the term might not even mean their names, but some kind of a mysterious code which we might never ever find out. The breaks also have moments of humor: One of the guy finds himself "rock-marooned" and insists that the other guy make him a dust mattress so he won't break his ankle. Other than that, it's mostly quiet and dull sequences of them walking, and the brown landscape baking.

Is the film, like the surroundings it shows, lifeless? Not really. In fact, despite the fact that the austere plot is stretched to fill up the running time, there's a gradual growth in Van Sant's visual pallette that I find very interesting. Little by little, the landscape's life is sucked by the two characters' eventual demise. Green plants disappear, tumbleweeds make an entrance, and everything becomes deathly white. In one surreal sequence, we find the two walking in an uncomfortable stance and pace amongst the paleness of their surroundings. Again, it's a very quiet moment but is not without the thunderous gasps for life, the only reminders that they are not zombies but actual human beings who find themselves dying in the middle of the Death Valley.

That troubling scene is repeated by Van Sant in his next feature Elephant (2003) wherein one of the students would play a computer game where the characters being shot and killed look frighteningly similar to the dying men in Gerry amongst the bare desolate backdrop. It's almost exactly the same, except for the fact that in Elephant, the two Gerry's are transformed into bitmap images, but in the same way, are unwitting targets of the unpredictability of death. We later know that the computer images being shot are representative of their victims in their planned shooting spree in their school. In Gerry, death arrives in casual and almost luxurious fashion, spending almost two hours of relaxed and gradual pacing to sink its teeth in its victims' sorry necks.

Café Lumière (2003)

Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)
Japanese Title: Kôhî jikô

Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière, his tribute to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, ends with a spectacular image, trains criss-crossing each other. It's spectacular because it is so simple yet undeniably powerful: those noisy transportation vehicles chugging along in their sure paths all at the same time and in the same frame. Despite these trains' existence in that exact moment of time in that contained space of cinematographer Lee Pin Bing's frame, it seems that each of the train is not aware of the other's existence.

Like the trains are the characters in this Hou film, curiously opaque in their dealings with others and unable to relate emotionally. Yoko (Yo Hitoto) has just returned from Taiwan and is now in Japan researching about Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye, who spent some years in Japan, even marrying a Japanese girl who he would later on abandon forever. Helping her is bookshop owner Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) whose hobby is to record the sounds of trains. There seems to be something going on between the two of them; something more than just mere companionship and less than a romantic relationship.

When Yoko arrives in Japan, the first in her to-call list is the geeky Hajime and while everyone (including her parents) gets a Taiwanese umbrella, Hajime's present is an expensive looking pocket watch (commemorating the anniversary of the building of the railways in Taiwan). Within the deliberate blurring of Yoko and Hajime's relationship is the preoccupation to discover the existence of the cafe Jiang Wen-ye frequented, a pastime that feels like the lifetime of their relationship. When the search ends, their trains depart from each other (not without a final visit; again, a rather opaque visit to a sick friend, than a burst of emotionality). Again, it is summed up in a beautiful scene: two disconnected trains meet up in a moment of time in the same tight frame. On one train is Yoko, and the other is Hajime unaware of each other's existence in those disconnected trains.

Then there's Yoko's relationship with her stepparents. After visiting Hajime in his shop, she visits her parents in their home and announces that she is pregnant to a Taiwanese student. This is Hou in his most Ozu-like. The blocking, the tatami-shots (low angle shots, just below the head), the hefty air of familial conflict that pervades the space that separates the characters. There's an undeniable tension that erupts when Yoko, and her parents are at the same frame: the silent and clearly disappointed father, the overly maternal stepmother, and the daughter who has distanced herself quite considerably from her family.

Ozu is clearly the most Japanese of all the Japanese directors. His films, despite their universal themes, depict a certain visual appeal that sits very well with Japanese culture. His style is relaxed, deliberately meditative, and conscious of the little patterns and routines. It can be argued that Hou's style is comparable to Ozu's. However, Hou's themes are distinctly Taiwanese or implicitly universal. In Café Lumière, Hou removes himself from the language and the familiar locales and its rich history that he's been so good with. The result is not always perfect. Hou's pacing is so painstakingly detailed, his characters so disconnected with the world, the story so slight, that the film feels inconsequential. Then Hou creates these beautiful images, like the final scene, that suddenly wakes me up from a near-slumber that the filmed inaction almost lured me to.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Little Norse Prince (1968)

The Little Norse Prince (Isao Takahata, 1968)
Japanese Title: Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken

It was a rocky relationship between Isao Takahata and his producers at Toei Studios. The studio bigwigs wanted an animated film styled after the ones made by the Disney Studios in America. They wanted to have song and dance numbers, talking animals, and a story that would cater predominantly to young kids.

The story Takahata wanted to film was an Ainu folktale, translated to the screen by puppet-theater drama writer Kazuo Fuzakawa, but the bigwigs thought that setting it in aboriginal Japan would turn off the masses, thus a more Westernized (more specifically Scandinavian) setting was used. After three years of development, the film was released and it was a financial flop. However, little did the bigwigs in Toei or even Takahata (or probably even Hayao Miyazaki who also worked in this film as "chief animator and concept artist") that The Little Norse Prince would spawn an entire culture of Japanese anime and animated films that have in them a natural literary quality as compared to the comedy-oriented ones that are being created in the West.

The Little Norse Prince quickly springs up as soon as the studio credits end. Horus is fighting a pack of wolves with his trusty axe and ends up being rescued by an rock golem. Stuck in the rock golem's shoulder is a rusty sword which Horus removes ala King Arthur. When his grandfather dies, Horus, along with his talking bear friend, travels to a village which is being pestered by a fish monster. Horus rescues the village, brings to them a mysterious girl named Hilda, and protects them from an evil demon named Grunwuld who is behind all the wolves, the fish monsters, and the rats that hound the human village.

The animation of The Little Norse Prince, if compared to the later efforts of Takahata and Miyazaki, might feel a little bit outdated. However, knowing that the film was finished in 1968, it is quite astounding how the movements of the characters, and the colors, and the concepts are so very fluidly developed. The animation feels a bit more Western (the lines on the characters are much more distinct as compared to the more recent anime efforts, the designs also look very Disney-esque), probably to the insistence of Toei Studios. They did get their talking animals, with Horus' best pal bear, and Hilda's companions, a talking squirrel and owl. They also got their song numbers, which I must say give the film a very literary and mythical quality that I very much enjoyed.

Probably more important than the technical advances of The Little Norse Prince is the fact that the film, despite its straightforward narrative, is very much deeply-layered (probably to the annoyance of the studio bigwigs). The character of Hilda is not merely the romantic partner of the hero, but is also the center of a psychological and moral battle. Hilda is an embattled character who has to choose between the inevitability of death by siding with the humans, or eternal life by siding with Grunwald who lets her wear an amulet of life. It's a stirring dilemma that is quite revolutionary at that time, especially when narrative animation is mostly restricted to children fare. Also, The Little Norse Prince feels especially epic. Horus' battles with the different monsters and demons create a folkloric or mythical depth to the entire feature that I was quite surprised to find out that the film's story was not sourced from Norse mythology, or even a richly adorned children's book, but from an Ainu folktale.

Many might say that The Little Norse Prince's value is more for its historical contribution rather than its inherent artistic merits. I disagree. Even if let's say, the entire anime revolution didn't erupt from the film's growing cult status, the film still holds a powerful storytelling sincerity that is very much affecting and resonating even to adults. The film's narrative simplicity transcends the cutesy animation, or the fact that animals do talk in the feature, or the plentiful songs. Forgetting it's important place in film history, watching The Little Norse Prince feels like being told a sprawling epic tale where good always triumphs against evil.

This post is my contribution to Joe's Movie Corner: Ghiblog-a-thon.

Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975)

Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Lino Brocka, 1975)
English Title: Manila in the Claws of Neon

Lino Brocka is arguably the Philippines' most recognizable director. Aside from the widely released Macho Dancers (1988), one of the few Filipino films that have been distributed internationally most probably because of its gay content rather than its quality, his films get showcased in Filipino cinema retrospectives in different film festivals. The usual suspects are Insiang (1976), Bona (1980), and Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon), Brocka's arguably most complicated work which landed in some international critics' lists as one of the most important films ever made.

The acclaim is not undeserved. Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is a tremendous and powerful film. It's plot is derived from a serial published in a local magazine, knitted together by screenwriter Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. The result is something that can easily be seen asa derivative of the Greek myth of Orpheus' traveling to Hades to rescue his wife. Brocka's Hades is of course Manila, with its injustices hidden by affluence and commercialism as paraded by the several high-rise buildings and the neon lights that dot the metropolis. Orpheus is Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco). Orpheus' wife is LigayaParaiso (Hilda Koronel). Julio, a fisherman from the province, travels to Manila to look for Ligaya, who was whisked away by a certain Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagalbago) from the province to work and supposedly study in Manila. However, Ligaya was prostituted to a Chinese merchant who would trap her and threaten her every time she thinks of escaping his clutches.

Julio would be stalking Mrs. Cruz for months to look for his beloved Ligaya. However, his money runs out and he becomes forced to look for work. Julio starts working in a construction site. There, he gets immersed in the troubles of the common laborer. The other laborers complain as to how the foreman would exploit them by lending them their own money, substantially depleting a portion of their wages to atrocious money-making schemes of those above them. Julio befriends Atong (Lou Salvador), one of the laborers who welcomes homeless Julio to his house in the slums.

There's an interesting comparison Brocka drives at here. Atong's fate is tragic. He is practically killed for a mere squabble leaving his sister to prostitute herself in a bar, and his paralyzed dad to burn to death when the slums area suspiciously catches fire during the Christmas season. Another of Julio's companions in the construction site however hits it big and is employed in an advertising company. In a stroke of circumstance, the lucky one gets to meet Atong's sister in the girly bar, and presumably pays for her services. Interesting is the fact that former companions become each others' oppressors, and a stroke of luck might change one's status, and from there, turn himself, probably unknowingly, into one of the victimizers in this urban hell.

Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is structured into episodes. After the episode with the construction site, homeless Julio is wooed into becoming a street hustler for a chance for quick cash. He sells his body, his dignity, his manhood for the original promises of a bright future by the neon lights that tempt everyone to enter the city. Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is basically a film that threads together snippets of melodramatized chunks of reality. It's a huge cake to chew on and one might actually consider the film a bit too painful to watch, much too depressing and too tragic. The tale of Orpheus is subjected to the test of modern reality where hell is not another world, but a city where sweat, blood, and tears are within commerce, and those who are ignorant enough to get enchanted by its grandiose promises are oppressed and forever trapped in its clutches.

In the end, Julio is trapped in a dead end right after committing a murder. A mob gathers ready to beat him up, probably to death. Brocka shies away from showing Julio's violent demise but instead centers on Julio's face. It's a ghastly sight. Julio, trapped and wide-eyed. It is that moment in the film where the character can adequately predict his future. During the entire film, Julio walks around Manila not knowing whether he'll ever meet Ligaya, or he'll have a place to stay for the night, or what odd jobs he'll eventually end up doing. But at that final moment, you can tell from the horror painted in his face, he know very well that he's done for.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sarong Banggi (2005)

Sarong Banggi (Emmanuel dela Cruz, 2005)
English Title: One Night

Emmanuel dela Cruz's first feature film Sarong Banggi derives its title from a Bicolano folk song that one of the characters used to sing to her baby as a lullaby. It's a melancholic song that sets the mood of the film, which partakes of the song in different variations in tempo and rhythm. The film, is by itself, more interesting than profound. It has the quips of Filipino independent cinema that I hope these young directors would eventually drop or outgrow. Other than that, it's pretty harmless. It tries too hard to emulate but falls flat when it suddenly treads on originality. It's not really a successful film, but it deserves much kudos as it was made with an almost non-existent budget and it does include a truly memorable performance by Jacklyn Jose.

Melba (Jacklyn Jose) is an aging prostitute who is hired by a group of friends for Nyoy (Angelo Ilagan), the group's birthday boy and only virgin. When they discover that Melba isn't actually the mid-twenties hottie she described herself to be, they diss her and head out to the nearest bar to catch younger girls for the birthday boy. Nyoy who seems to have something more in his mind, wanders from the bar and back to Melba. Melba and Nyoy develop a bond that we later discover, is something more than friendship.

It is quite obvious that dela Cruz's influence is Wong Kar Wai. Benefitting from Mayor Lito Atienza's lighting up campaign of the infamous Roxas Boulevard, dela Cruz was able to film as much colorful neon lights to serve as backdrop to his tale. Dela Cruz also frequently uses slow motion and mirror images (which reminds me very much of In the Mood for Love). Again, it's not entirely successful. Dela Cruz is bound by the limitations of digital filmmaking and at times, his Doyle-emulating techniques looks more messy than beautiful.

The tremendous shifts in visual tone jar what could've been a point of heightened emotion. The slow motion sequences look really terrible and I thought dela Cruz could've done without these techniques. Music plays an important role in the film. There are beautiful moments where music and the incongruent visuals match up in a delightful marriage but these moments seem off-place. Dela Cruz derives excitement from making use of the title song and its many versions that it's quite offputting.

There's one wonderful scene in the film though that I thought was enough to consider the film not entirely unsuccessful. Ala Wong Kar Wai, dela Cruz's characters speak up their mind in witty yet in-character narration. Melba, while waiting for the group of kids who hired her services, try to entertain herself by creating stories out of the people walking by her. It's a lovely device, I thought. It opened up Melba's character more than the implausible machinations dela Cruz would have the character suffer through later in the film (I really disliked the illogical twist which I thought ruined the serviceable first half of the film). It showed Melba as a woman who has ripened enough to be confident of the woes and facades of life, that she is able to render judgment and stories of people just by looking at their faces and their actions. Sadly, when Melba and Nyoy meet up and discuss, Melba asks Nyoy to do the same. Nyoy does a fantastic job in making up a story about a man dressed formally and Melba says th Nyoy that he might be a writer someday, like Ricky Lee, one of the most successful Filipino screenwriters. I suddenly remember my screen writing class under Ricky Lee where he taught the technique of making up stories out of the ordinary people we see everyday. I suddenly had a notion that Sarong Banggi is a complete product of that exact exercise taught by Lee. Dela Cruz seeing a seductively dressed yet middle aged woman sitting next to a normal and naive looking teenager, and cooks up this wildly imaginative tale on how those two met, and the bunch of links they may have with each other. Wong Kar Wai, Doyle, Ricky Lee, twist plot developments, not really original, I thought.

Shatranj ke Khilari (1977)

Shatranj ke Khilari (Satyajit Ray, 1977)
English Title: The Chess Players

In an early scene in Satyajit Ray's only Urdu language film Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), General Outram (Richard Attenborough) interrogates Captain Weston (Tom Alter) regarding the conduct of Oudh monarch Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). The English-speaking Outram, curious of the supposed incompetencies of the Oudh king as shown by a report stating that the king spends an entire day poetry-reciting, songwriting, and tending to his impossibly large harem, requests that Weston recite one of the king's verses and the latter does so. He translates it to English as per request, and Outram thinks of the verse as not really of exceptional merit. Outram then reveals the British India Company's plans to depose the king of his crown and the administration of Oudh. The scene sets the conflict in the film while showcasing the outright clashes of culture of the invading British and the Muslim citizens of Oudh.

Shatranj ke Khilari is set in the last days of King Wahid's rule over the province of Oudh. The British has expressed to renege on the centuries old agreement that assured the royal family of the throne while providing gold for the British to advance their military. The agreement has made the ruling king lax and instead of actually administering to his subjects, he spends most of his time tending to his poetry, kite-flying, and his many wives and concubines. While the king is troubling over the impending advancement of the British military to conquer his kingdom, aristocrats Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Meer (Saeed Jaffrey), descendants of brave warriors of a venerated past king, spend most of their time playing chess while their domestic lives and their nation suffer.

Shatranj ke Khilari is considered one of Ray's weaker efforts. It is notably different from Ray's most famous films as first, it is not in Bengali, second, Ray lets go of his neo-realist roots to create a film that feels and looks like a colorful and richly-adorned pageant, and lastly and connected to the second point, it is historically grounded paving way for more intellectual discussion rather than humanism. In fact, the film begins with an academic opener narrated by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The opener feels more like a teaching tool for history students complete with intricate discussions on Urdu culture, Urdu-British relations, and an instructional (if not simplistically humorous) short animated portions.

The rest of Shatranj ke Khilari plays out like a confused Bunuel film, only there are no bourgeoisie or any structured religion to poke fun on. The two aristocratic friends insist on playing a game of chess no matter what, and their efforts to do such is actually quite funny. Mirza's wife is so jealous of the game that she steals the ivory pieces, leading the two friends to try to borrow the pieces of their dying lawyer, and then finally ending up using household vegetables just to continue their pastime. Similarly, Meer doesn't acknowledge the blunt fact that his wife is cheating because she leads him to think that she's also enthralled with the game. Those clever bits by Ray flush out the dulling gravity of the history lesson Ray insists upon.

The film ends with Oudh being delivered to the British without any resistance and violence. The two friends find themselves in an abandoned house just outside the capital city of Lucknow. While the entire kingdom is being served out to the Brits on a silver platter without any hesitation whatsoever, tension is created when in a fit of losing, one of the friends lash out to personally insult the other. The only gun blast heard when Oudh was finally invaded by the British was when in the tensest of that momentary tension, Meer accidentally shoots his friend in the sleeve of his arm. That the entire political history of India has been mere minds playing a long winded game of chess, and it is an expected eventuality, that through stratagems and notions of friendship, that one will finally shout "checkmate" and corner the opponent to withdraw.