Sunday turned out to be Philippine Day for me. As a kind of companion piece to “Ilo Ilo,” there’s “Transit,” a first feature by Hannah Espia about migrant workers in Israel, more specifically the ones who are determined to stay–which seems to be all of them, according to the film. Though I imagine it’s not a problem exclusive to Israel, children of migrant workers, even if born in the country, are not guaranteed residence. They can be deported before the age of five if the parents don’t have the proper work permits. (Could this be true, in principle, in Japan, too? Probably) The movie revolves around one household containing two adult Filipinos, one male, one female, who have been in Israel for a while, and their respective children, who were born in the country. Four-year-old Joshua has already absorbed the survival mindset, wearing a scarf to look “invisible” whenever outside and avoiding figures of authority at all cost. The topic itself is forcefully presented but Espia’s structural means are a bit annoying. She basically tells the same set of stories through the eyes of each of the characters in succession, which means we have to sit through the same plot developments several times. I’m sure there’s a more graceful way of doing it, and since this is Espia’s first film I’ll assume she’ll learn how to avoid these kinds of basic technical issues.
Brillante Mendoza solved his own technical issues years ago. He’s so stridently confident that his last four movies have varied widely in tone and theme. “Sapi,” his latest, was described to me by another writer earlier this week as a horror movie, but while it does contain some elements common to horror films–creepy, suggestive music and disorienting POV–the movie seems to be trying to get at something different. The problem is I’m not sure what that is. Two major TV stations are competing for news ratings as Manila is beset by End of Days circumstances: a big storm, widespread flooding, and lots of reports of demonic possession. The two stations send out film crews to try and catch the most dramatic example of the latter they can find, and when one of them can’t get something gruesome on tape, they hire a freelance cameraman to help them and he gives them a tape of a woman in the throes of possession that he shot for their rival. When the thing is aired, it causes all sorts of problems, but the incident also seems to have spread the possession to the principals in the scandal. Mendoza may be saying something about the infectious dishonesty of the media, but he mainly seems to be having fun with style. The documentary aspects are quite well done, and the idea that news people play up poverty to make their stories sexier is convincingly presented. When a crew visits a poor village to report on how the flooding has affected it, they ask the inhabitants to throw more garbage around. “It looks too clean,” says the producer.
Adolfo Alix Jr. is also a veteran Philippines filmmaker, and his technical control is evident in “Death March,” but on the whole it’s a misguided project. A stylized recreation of the Bataan Death March of 1942, when surrendering American and Filipino soldiers were forced to march for days to their place of captivity by Japanese forces, it adds nothing illuminating to what we already know about this terrible event. The Japanese are cartoonishly cruel because they think that “only dogs surrender” (except for one token intellectual who pays for his compassion with his life), thus sort of guaranteeing that this movie will never be shown in Japan. For reasons that aren’t really clear, Alix decided to shoot on a soundstage with painted backdrops, making the whole enterprise feel even more like a cartoon, which defeats his dramatic purposes. Because the real horror of the Death March is compromised by the phony-looking mise en scene it lacks power, and the dialogue doesn’t make up for it. There are too many scenes in which ghosts of dead soldiers come back to haunt the living, which I suppose means that it’s easier to die under such circumstances than endure, but that idea could have been put across more successfully if the style used more verisimilitude. In the end, it just becomes repetitious and boring, and about half the audience had walked out by the time the credits rolled. It’s a good thing the director wasn’t on hand for a Q&A.
I try to catch at least one big budget Indian movie while at BIFF and this year’s was “Kadal.” Directed by veteran Mani Ratnam, with music by A.R. Rahman, it delivered exactly what it promised, a big romantic melodrama that served every sentimental desire an audience would bring to it. Usually my difficulty with Bollywood isn’t the constant comedic and musical distractions, but rather the way the story rarely sticks with one thing long enough to keep me interested in it. I like Rajnikanth’s movies because the music and comedy are all there really is, since the story is often incomprehensible anyway. “Kadal” has a good setup that pulls you in right away. A man of privilege decides to give up material things and enters the Catholic priesthood. At the seminary he meets an earthier priest who is also a genius Bible scholar, but one night he catches him with a woman and reports it to the head priest, who kicks out the miscreant. He pledges revenge against the new priest. But the movie is really about a young orphan boy, the son of a prostitute in a fishing village, who grows up to be a petty criminal. He eventually comes under the tutelage of the good priest, who is sent to the village to take over its moribund church. Of course, the boy is eventually made a pawn in the bad priest’s machinations to destroy the good one. It’s a rip-roaring tale but there’s only one real good musical number. It also has an uncomfortably patronizing approach to mental illness, a problem shared by “Ceylon.”
The movie of the day was “Moebius,” the already infamous new feature by the always infamous Kim Ki-duk. Originally banned in South Korea, it was eventually allowed in theaters after Kim uncharacteristically cut 2 and a half minutes. Given what remains it must have been quite a scene, and so far I haven’t been able to find out what made it so offensive. Once you get past the opening section, in which a woman, driven mad by her husband’s blatant infidelity, cuts off her teenage son’s penis, the movie isn’t that difficult to watch. She runs away and the father, wracked with guilt, tries to help his son by offering his own member for transplant and then finding ways that the son can experience sexual pleasure without a sexual organ. He does that by teaching him that extreme pain can lead to pleasure, thus the reason for the title. This is pretty much prime Kim, and the sexual stuff approaches Three Stooges levels of ridiculousness. More interesting is the fact that there is no dialogue, only grunting and crying and screaming; and that the same actress plays both the mother and the father’s mistress, who eventually becomes the son’s mistress (after he rapes her–yeah, it’s that kind of comedy). I didn’t realize this until the end when the mother returns and seduces the son and I noticed she had the same breasts as the mistress, which are sort of unmistakable, and, I assume, one of the main reasons Kim cast her. Yeah, he’s that kind of director.