Saturday, November 14, 2009

Karaoke (2009)

Karaoke (Chris Chong, 2009)

Midway through Chris Chong's languid chronicling of a young man's homecoming, something unexpected happens. As Betik (Zahiril Adzim), a recent college graduate from Kuala Lumpur who suddenly returns to his village to help her reluctant mother tend to the karaoke bar his father left her mother, walks through perfectly lined rows of palm trees, he gets lost. The film, for around ten minutes, steps away from the narrative and meanders to expose hectares of palm trees, all perfectly lined to make the most efficient use of the earth, before pursuing the nearby oil processing plant, where tons and tons of palm lumber are being hauled by a combination of gargantuan machines and workers into conveyor belts, furnaces, dumps, and trucks, for whatever purpose. The sequence ends in a light note, with a farmer asking the security guard if his goats can graze in the soccer field while the students are away; a joke that is so subtle yet so humorous in its acidic irony.

Urban alienation has been a consistent theme in Asian cinema during the past couple of decades. The alienation depicted in these films (like Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), Tsai Ming-liang's What Time is It There? (2001), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and The Wayward Cloud (2005), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo (2001) and Cafe Lumiere (2003), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse, 2001) and Bright Future (2003)) is not so much as people do not belong to their adopted surroundings but that the consequences of the abundances of the lifestyle have turned these urban dwellers into inert beings, absent of any particular identity and have become lonesome creatures whose ideas of connection are limited to momentary glances, a hand slightly grazing a loose fabric or unraveled skin, maybe some passionless lovemaking, and at most, ambitions of intense affection shared between the two lovers that are brewed and exclusively existing inside their minds. This cinema of alienated individuals is perhaps a reaction to the continuous progress in Asia, predominantly in its large yet crowded urban centers where the proximity of people with each other have become incongruent to their capacity to relate. With the region's cities imploding as a result of the unnatural pace of economic and population growth, it is inevitable that progress and the consequences that accompany it to seep into the rural areas. Cinema has served its purpose of documenting its aftereffects. Films like Jia Zhangke's Still Life (2006) and Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation, 2007) have tackled the repercussions of this counter-migration and the encroaching of progress into the countryside, often exposing the ills of development in terms of moral, physical and cultural degradation.

Karaoke belongs to this cinematic movement. Chris Chong's first feature film however is never didactic. While it visualizes the artificiality of the hectares of man-made forest, the industry, the perks of such industry (schools, fields, employment), he never does more than alarm with the power of his images. Emphasized with a clarity and confidence that is particularly astounding for even the more experienced directors, the numbing disconnect between Betik and his palpable surroundings lingers, providing a certain degree of unease to Chong's relaxed aesthetic. In one scene, Betik readies himself for bed; his makeshift bedroom is connected to that of his mother (Mislina Mustaffa). He peeks at his mother, his eyes mirroring a desire to connect. The mother, on the other hand, continues her nightly routine, sees her son shyly communicating through his gaze, and rejects his efforts, completely separating himself from her son with a curtain. Chong observes a family whose members, as we learn later was temporarily separated from each other, have become so far removed from each other that gestures and conversations have to be timed and designed. The scene, which lasts a little less than ten minutes, is completely wordless but the information derived, from the conflicting emotions, the mysteriousness of the disconnect, the discomforting distance amidst their physical and relational closeness, is tremendous.

Various songs about love and religious faith are played in the karaoke bar. For the love songs, lovers are shown walking in picturesque locales backgrounded by lush greens or vibrant sunsets. For the religious songs, garbed men are shown singing and dancing in admirable unison. As Chong removes the focus from the kitschy videos and into the karaoke bar patrons, he breaks the illusions he momentarily concocted. From the love song and its gorgeous lovers, he then shows Betik, sitting alone and pleading to his erstwhile love interest to give him another chance at romance over the phone. From the religious song and its synchronized devout worshipers, he then displays a group of intoxicated patrons lazily wasting the night after a long day at work. There is a gargantuan gap between the life these people live and the life that they wish they could live. That these images of perfect living intertwine with a pastime that serves as a convenient and cheap avenue for escape from the hardships of living only emphasizes these illusions as part of reality, a nagging reminder of how imperfect and unsatisfactory everything else is. This is probably the impetus for unhindered development, which only furthers the gap of what was and what is, with people like Betik fantasizing about retreating to an abandoned life only to discover something entirely different, something completely foreign to him.

Betik takes a job as a model for the karaoke videos. This allows us a glimpse of the mundaneness of the production, where a ragtag crew of videographers shoot their paid models to act out the uncomplicated emotions of the songs that they are making videos of. The final few minutes of Karaoke features Betik in close up. His face is backgrounded by the calm blue sky; he seems to be in a state of contemplation as the events the happened before require that kind of meditation as he is left alone, without his mother or a loved one, in a village that he is no longer familiar with. The silence is broken by spoken directions, urging Betik to smile a bit, to move his face a little to the left, to look happy, and he follows. The ending is both funny and poignant; funny because it caps the film's central theme of film as illusion, where audiences are led to believe a certain thing only to find out that emotions are manufactured, stories are fabricated, and cinema is not real life; poignant because notwithstanding Chong's insistence on playing around with cinema as both a tool for illusion and as a tool for purging this illusion, he creates a character so real, with conflicts so palpable, that it is impossible not to feel for the utter pointlessness of his existence when his wordless soliloquy ends and we are brought back to our own respective realities.

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