Saturday, July 25, 2009

Xiao chen zhi chun (Spring in a small town, Fei Mu, 1948)

Xiao chen zhi chun (Spring in a small town, Fei Mu, 1948) is, for the record, considered the best Chinese film ever made by both the Hong Kong Film Awards Association and by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society.

That's a fearful burden for any film to bear (even Welles' Citizen Kane), and the highest praise I can think of is that one understands its present high reputation (it used to be criticized by the Chinese government for not being sufficiently political, though one suspects the real problem is that, as Wade Major's essay accompanying the DVD puts it, the film emphasizes personal problems and interiorized drama over explicit issues and nationalist sentiments). Fei's classic is a haunted film, full of moons framed by drifting clouds, strange slow dissolves within the scene (what, you wonder, do the dissolves mean and why at that particular moment?) and sad, silent rooms drenched in wordless mystery.

Fei employs immediate setting as a reflection and extension of character. The broken house symbolizes not only the husband Liyan's poor health but the country's--it's set immediately after the Second World War, when China had yet to rebuild from the sufferings and devastation inflicted on it by Japan. The wife Yuwen finds herself often walking alongside a partly wrecked wall, and as the film progresses one can't help but suspect that she projects her view of her self on that wall, that she feels her life to be every bit as desolate, as useless, as that wall. When the doctor Zhichen arrives to pay Liyan a visit we first see him walking down an open road, a symbol of approaching change. When Yuwen comes out to greet the new visitor (who, as it turns out, was a former lover of hers), and is framed with broken wall to the left, green shrubbery to the right. It's as if she were already caught--or trapped--between the two worlds represented by husband and ex-lover.

The camera often moves in on characters to break up the often flat-looking black-and-white imagery. It attempts to bring the imagery to life, so to speak, by giving depth to empty space, solidity and thickness to objects and people.

Then there's the body language--Yuwen first introduces herself to Zhichen as a formal hostess, with both hands linked together under her breast (the hands look as if they were under great tension, ready at some signal to pull her apart). Liyan is often caught reclining on an ornate chair or canopied bed or against the rubble of a broken wall--resting, in effect, on evidence of his former wealth or evidence of its present ruin. Zhiyang is often photographed in relaxed, confident poses (save for one scene where he presses himself flat against a wall to hide from annoying, innocent Mei, Liyan's younger sister).

Perhaps the single most overwhelming impression one has coming away from a viewing is of a hypnotically leisurely pace. Fei almost always dissolves to the next scene (and as mentioned, will sometimes dissolve in the middle of the scene, for no apparent reason), he will hold a shot for as long as the character within the shot needs to finish his or her errand or bit of business. This languorous rhythm has the effect of heightening the realism (one thinks of the celebrated kitchen scene in Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, made six years earlier--strange, but that film seems so much more immediate and modern (despite its turn of the century setting) than this, Fei's masterpiece) and intensifying the eroticism (the often silent, often wordless meetings between Yuwen and Zhiyang have the breathless impact of outright sex in today's more explicit (unfortunately, in my opinion) age). When Zhiyang suddenly seizes a wounded hand and presses it to his lips, the act has the effect of curling one's startled toes.

Fei's film is often called subtly understated, with the exception of the voiceover by Wei Wei, the actress playing Yuwen; I tend to think of the device (describing a scene in words while presenting said scene onscreen) as something Robert Bresson will develop and perfect later, in his own films. Also think everyone from Wong Kar Wai to Edward Yang to the great Hou Hsiao Hsien must have been influenced by this little chamber drama (not to mention Tian Zhuangzhuang with his acclaimed remake).

One shot occurring early on in particularly stays with me: Old Man Huang looks for his Liyang, pokes his head through a hole in a wall, then walks around said wall to talk to the young master; the camera doesn't follow the faithful servant around but instead moves forward to peer through the hole in the wall.

Why does the camera follow Huang, which would be the more natural choice? Is Fei celebrating some value through the move--elegance, perhaps, or economy of effort? I don't know; all I do know is that the shot is an inexpressibly beautiful one, that it haunts me to this day. My favorite explanation is that Fei does it because he simply can, that the move is Fei's way of expressing the freedom of the camera: to follow or not follow, peer or not peer, surprise or not surprise. Freedom to make personal choices, on the part of the filmmaker or characters--one of the film's central themes, and one of the reasons the picture got into trouble with the authorities. Seems to me Fei knew what he's doing, after all.

Maybe not my favorite (I'd have to set aside Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang, Tian Zhuangzhuang and King Hu among others), but definitely a great film.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)

My article on one of the films screening in Japan Foundation's 2009 Eiga Sai Film Festival, from July to August, at venues in Baguio, Cebu, and the UP Film Center:

Mr. Lonely

Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani (2004) is a deceptively slight, spare film--at an hour and fifteen minutes, with a cast of two actors portraying four characters, with most of the film consisting of the camera moving sideways, or of either of the characters standing in various moody poses, it's about as minimal a film as one can have and still be called a motion picture.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the picture begins with a brief biographical sketch of Tony's father, Shozaburo Takitani (Issei Ogata, who also plays Tony). The rest of the picture follows Tony on his doomed trajectory in life, a trajectory pretty much determined by the oddly outlandish name given him by his jazz musician father (the man had acted on the suggestion of an American major). With such a name one can either be a dashing hero type, or an outcast so rejected by fellow Japanese children (who would be hostile to unusual names, especially those evoking the presence of their American conquerors) that one is condemned to a life of loneliness.

Then real tragedy strikes: Tony meets Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), and suddenly Tony isn't lonely anymore--feels in fact the vague yet unsettling fear that all who fall in love feel, that this sudden surge of emotion and affection might somehow end. It's not a bad marriage--Murakami won't let Tony (or us) off the hook that easily; Eiko turns out to be a wonderful housekeeper, and loving wife. But she had this one flaw--she loves to buy clothes, lots and lots of clothes. At one point (about the time when an entire room in their house is turned into an oversized walk-in closet) Tony suggests that perhaps she should stop.

And that's it; that's all there is to the story, and the film made around the story. But Ichikawa with tiny brushstrokes (as if painting an illustration inside a tiny snuff bottle) has in miniature created a closed-off world of mute, inexpressible suffering. Doesn't seem that way at first, but when you arrive at the film's equally quiet conclusion (not once does anyone raise his voice above a whisper--well, only once, and the actual event occurs offscreen) you find yourself startled, looking backwards at the inevitable series of steps that led you here.

I'd mentioned tiny bottle paintings and you can't help but think of such brushstrokes, watching this film; Ichikawa is fond of gliding his camera from left to right, when he doesn't have it locked down. Noel Murray in The A.V. Club calls it an "illustrated Murakami text"--a sharp observation that doesn't fully account for the leisurely yet perfect pacing (as if the movie were a daydream, or shot underwater); nor does it fully account for the director's Bressonian knack of looking at people and objects at oblique angles, through hands and shoes and hair (as if observing through sidelong glances), or through medium shots (as if gazing from a discreet distance). Manohla Dargis in The New York Times speculates that the left-to-right camera motion might have historical significance: Japanese used to be written from right to left, in vertical columns. "It's no wonder Tony often seems headed in the wrong direction," Dargis muses; several critics have compared the movement to the turning of the pages of a book. I'm more inclined to think of the movement as riparian, the flow of life made cinematic flesh, a series of irretrievable moments pushing past each other in an unstoppable current.

Mention the roomful of expensive clothes and hundred-plus shoes Eiko buys to any Filipino, and his thoughts must turn to our own world-class shopper, former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. True, the scale of her shopping outclasses anything Ichikawa has the budget or inclination to depict (Mrs. Marcos abandoned around a thousand pairs of shoes when she fled the country), but tone is all and on those terms the stories of both ladies couldn't be more different: Ichikawa's is a whispered intimacy, while Mrs. Marcos' is a comic opera, full of grotesque details.

Ichikawa's style also causes critics to recall the minimalist storytelling of an earlier Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu. Good call: Ozu confined himself to domestic situations, and his quiet voice can range anywhere from light slapstick to monumentally understated tragedy. But Ozu's style is wildly conventional, while Ichikawa embraces more commonplace notions of the experimental and avant-garde (am I making sense here?); Tony and Eiko's psychology verges on the abnormal, whereas Ozu's characters are relentlessly, fascinatingly ordinary (a far more difficult feat to pull off, I think).

I like to think Murakami and Ichikawa were just as if not more inspired by an earlier, equally short text, Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Like Tony, Bartleby has the suggestion of a sad past; like Tony, Bartleby is invincibly surrounded by walls of alienation and loneliness. Unlike Bartleby, Tony has tasted something of love--but that makes his eventual fate all the more harrowing, a sudden fall after the depths and heights of feeling he has experienced.

Ichikawa adds a coda to Murakami's perfect little story, involving a phone and an annoying neighbor; one can call the addition lily-gilding, or seamless amplification of the man's sorrow (I think it's more of the latter, myself). Whatever; Tony Takitani is Ichikawa's testament to the power of minimalist cinema, how the slightest of narratives told in the most unassuming of manners can posses startlingly poignant power.

First published in
Businessworld, 7.3.09

Last Supper No. 3 (Veronica Velasco, 2009)

Maricel Soriano (in a hilarious cameo) with Joey Paras

My article on one of this year's Cinemalaya entries

Law and ordure

Veronica Velasco's Last Supper No. 3 (2009) starts out as a droll account of a semi-chaotic advertising shoot, causing my heart to slowly sink--no, I thought to myself; not yet another movie about the advertising industry. Doesn't matter how witty or well-observed they may be, I have a longstanding prejudice against advertising pictures…seen enough over the years to fill a Metro Manila phonebook. Seriously.

There's no challenge to making these movies; most people in the Filipino film industry work in advertising, which is their bread and butter when they're not involved in a feature film production. It's a not completely unfounded suspicion of mine that most characters in Philippine movies are in advertising because it's the business the filmmakers know best. It's worse than lazy filmmaking, it's knee-jerk storytelling.

Thankfully, Velasco's picture quickly becomes something considerably more interesting, a comic nightmare of an odyssey through the Philippine legal system. The story is based on Winston Acuyong's actual experiences involving a piece of lost property (in the movie, the iconic Last Supper tapestry that seems to hang over about 90% of Filipino dining tables) and complicated by a related case of Serious Physical Injury (the plaintiff attacked the defendant with a belt; the co-defendant fought back, injuring the plaintiff's nose; the plaintiff came back at both defendants with what looks like a knockoff sword). The picture feels like a portable Filipino version of Charles Dicken's Bleak House, with its own version of the novel's endless "Jarndyce and Jarndyce," a last will and testament case involving years of litigation and seventy thousands pounds sterling (the equivalent of fifteen million dollars in today's currency).

Bruno (Larry Charles, 2009), Catch Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Saw Bruno (2009) and maybe the diciest portion of the picture comes at its earliest stages, in Sacha Baron Cohen's portrait of a gay lifestyle. I can see his strategy--confirm a homophobe's worst fears of decadent homosexuals, parody said portrait, then show the humanity later on (it's the same approach used on Kazakhs in Borat), but where do you cross the line between spoofing and confirming homophobia, and does said line matter anyway?

This kind of comedy thrives on blurring such distinctions, but there are points where he doesn't so much blur as overstep completely into outright slander, and that is possibly why critical reaction is so hostile (boxoffice isn't doing so hot, either). Bluntly put, the gay community has considerably more media clout than the Kazakh community it appears (and I can't say either community is wrong to speak out, either), and their disapproval is hurting the movie's appeal.

Parts are still funny, particularly the broadsides at conservative folk (Cohen's real targets), but we've seen all this before in Borat, down to the martial-arts training session where Cohen's character learns how to deflect an attack from a Jew (a homosexual, here). Some effects take your breath away--the car that nearly runs over a motorbike, the flung folding chair that lands inches away from a pair of grappling wrestlers--but there isn't that sense of transgression and shock you had from the earlier film. This is basically a retread; amusing, but not particularly instructive.

I remember listening to a brief program about Andy Kaufman, and Cohen does take a page from his take-no-prisoners brand of comedy, but Cohen doesn't quite have Kaufman's purity--as noted in the program, when Kaufman played "Andy Kaufman," the neurotic comic celebrity suffering a nervous breakdown, even Kaufman's close friends were wondering if he was really cracking up. Cohen's too smart and sane to go that far, more's the pity, and that I think is what's missing from this picture.

Onwards with my survey of movies Spielberg--Catch Me if You Can (2002) is easily the director's finest, most fleet-footed recent work, and further evidence that Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays Frank Abagnale, Jr., the picture's true-life protagonist) was growing out of the burden of supercelebrityhood imposed on him by the movie Titanic (not to mention its music score is easily John Williams' least characteristic, hence my favorite).

Part of it is the material, of course: a nineteen-year-old acting out the darker aspect of the American Dream by constantly reinventing himself--what's not to like? Spielberg's usually assertive camera plays an uncharacteristically subdued role here, and to my mind hasn't been better in years...especially love the shot of Frank on his first day of school standing by the blackboard as fellow students pass by, heaping wisecracks on his head. Spielberg holds the shot, recording Frank's intensifying resentment, watching his face and body language closely as he squares his shoulders, takes the various insults flung at him and on the spot creates the persona of a substitute French teacher. It's our first glimpse of Frank's capabilities, as simple and precise a summation of the man's brilliance as anything in the picture.

But more than the '70s milieu or the return of the old-fashioned Spielberg, what gave me the sharpest pang of nostalgia were Frank's counterfeiting activities. Worked in a bank some years back, and one of our activities involved applying for an externally-funded loan on evidence that was, well, manufactured (For the record the bank in question stopped the practice, and the loans involved have all been paid off by now). Smudging signatures, gluing-and-pasting, simulating printed text with hand and ink and magnifying glass (all that was missing in Catch was the copier machine, which has since added all kind of tricks to the counterfeiter's diverse bag), watching Frank at work brings back my semi-criminal past. Ah, life.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Andrew Sarris profile on The New York Times

O'Hara, in a less than cheerful pose

I remember my first interview of Filipino filmmaker Mario O'Hara was in this tiny dim sum shop on the third floor of Glorietta Mall in Makati City and just after a few minutes of talking, of what I thought of his work and the fact that he hasn't made a picture in two years, he laughed out loud and exclaimed (in Tagalog): "you're treating me as if I were already dead! I'm still alive, you know."

That was some fifteen years (has it been so long?!) and six films ago; far as I can tell O'Hara is alive and well, but living in his habitual mode, under the radar. Last I heard was through a niece, who passed on to me his recognition that his filmmaking days are probably over, and the young Turks with their digital cameras have taken over the filmmaking scene.

I'd love to pull him aside and yell in his ear "are you kidding? With that box full of scripts you haven't directed?" but I'm stuck here on the other side of the Pacific with no realistic way of getting in contact with him (he doesn't even have a telephone, much less Twitter). So I'm thinking violent thoughts, in the hopes of getting him off his ass and maybe working again, in any capacity (aside from directing he's a noted writer and actor, in theater, television and radio). I'm not writing him off just yet.

So it's probably premature to write off Andrew Sarris, even if in a recent New York Times profile article he's pretty much made it clear that he won't be writing for a major newspaper any time soon (though articles for Film Comment have not been ruled out). Why such a profile, now? Would like to think such people--institutions established after decades of struggle--are always newsworthy, though beneath the bravado one hears the whisper: this is a salute in honor of the man while he's still alive, and we can still do him some measure of justice.

I've never been so complacent as to think The Grim Reaper's clammy grasp would never find my neck, but there are moments--now more often than ever--when I feel those bony fingers brushing past my shoulders, reminding me that he'll be back. Nothing stops, nothing lasts, nothing remains the same; we survive, after a fashion.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Michael Jackson, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005), A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

Talk about strange developments--saw a broadcast of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) recently and two things struck me stronger than ever before: that the dramatic center of the film belonged to Charlie (Freddie Highmore), from whom this version of Roald Dahl's book rightly takes its name, and that Johnny Depp is basically channeling Michael Jackson:

You think?
I know I'm hardly the first one to notice the similarities, but in my own blinkered way I've started to realize just how deliberate and, well, inspired the choice may be. Burton and Depp tap into Jackson's lurid reputation to give their protagonist the kind of subtext Gene Wilder's Wonka was never able to exploit. Of course the earlier version had Wilder, no mean asset, who could play an infinite variety of lunatics to perfection better than Depp ever can--but beyond the actor's considerable abilities no, no tabloid unwholesomeness in that earlier effort.

This film's funnier this way, considering recent events; one thinks more and more about parallels to events in Jackson's life, and how they add resonance to Wonka's own story--Wonka's factory standing in for Jackson's Neverland; Wonka and Jackson's desire for secrecy competing against a pathological need for attention; the five Golden Ticket winners enjoying their tour, at any moment in danger of being invited to a sleepover at Wonka's private quarters...

And, finally, a comic justification for Burton's addition of Wonka's father, always to my mind the film's weakest element. Of course a man will suffer severe trauma, will develop into an eccentric (to put it kindly) introvert when the biggest single adult influence in his childhood is Dracula, or Joe Jackson; I for one am not surprised.

And it's not as if Burton's caricature were totally unkind. He grants Jack--sorry, Wonka--a certain amount of closure, plus the possibility of a surrogate family. It's the kind of benign ending one might have wished for Jackson, too.

Also saw again after many years (and much urging from fans whose opinions I respect) Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001). I'd dismissed it as a Spielbergian botch of Kubrick's (Philip K. Dick's?) ideas. This time around the film seems much more poignant (if still far from perfect), easily Spielberg's most ambitious and troubling work.

The film's first third (funny how Kubrick's projects--2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket come most readily to mind--tend to break down into sections of threes) is the most emotionally wrenching: a dark, domestic comedy about the sibling rivalry between boy and robot for mom's affections (come to think of it, aside from Lolita and The Shining Kubrick has done precious little drama or comedy, domesticwise--it's almost always genre fare). Here Spielberg to my mind most closely hews to the look and tone of Kubrick's films, at least in coldly recording the various emotional dislocations being inflicted on the hapless Swintons. The abandonment in the forest that climaxes this first third makes one think of the tale of Hansel and Gretel--a parent's mixed feelings of love and repulsion resulting in a scene as traumatic as anything Spielberg (or Kubrick for that matter) has ever done.

The middle third is said to be Spielberg's take on A Clockwork Orange. I don't quite see the similarity--despite the striking production designs, Kubrick's vision of future England displayed a sterility and desolation the other can't quite match. Spielberg may be aiming for a dystopia, at least where robots are concerned, but what I see here is a vibrant, colorful tomorrow, filled with technological marvels. The man can't help being what he is, I suppose; even in Minority Report (2002), where he relies heavily on Janusz Kaminski's gray color palette to make the future look unappealing, there are 3-D ads that call you by name, a marvel of an electric car that assembles all around you, and (lovely touch) creepy carnivorous flowers that nip at your fingertips. Spielberg, unlike Kubrick, has a difficult time evoking despair; there's just too much restless energy flowing out of his filmmaking, where Kubrick can sap the juice out of one's optimism through the sheer architectonic power of his images.

I questioned the high level of intelligence of the existing mechas in my article on the film. Actually, I may have missed the more complex view Spielberg and Kubrick had in mind--these robots are smart, very smart, capable of a high level of logical reasoning; what the film's diminutive hero David (Haley Joel Osment) possibly represents is a robot able to jump tracks, use imagination, connect seemingly disparate elements to form a cohesive whole. The heart of this segment--of the film's debate on what constitutes genuine intelligence, I think--is the "Dr. Know" sequence where in the space of seven questions (three of which are wasted) David manages not just to track down his Blue Fairy, but also point up the qualitative difference between his mind and other robots'. David's companion Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) may provide crucial information (where Dr. Know can be found, how much each question costs), but it's clearly David who drives the interrogation--bringing up the subject of "fairy tales," suggesting it's possible that what they're looking for is both "fact" and "fairy tale," formulating the final, crucial question that gives them their first real clue.

Later Gigolo Joe brings up a disturbing possibility--what if what David's looking for isn't real? In the face of doubt, David professes faith ("My mommy doesn't hate me! Because I'm special! And unique! Because there's never been anyone like me before, ever!")--something robots are supposedly incapable of doing. Joe replies to David: "She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them." Sharp observation, but that's all it is: an observation, a distillation of what he's seen and known.

Joe does conclude with these words: "We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That's why they hate us, and that is why you must stay here, with me." Joe turns out to be prophetic, and seems to display some evidence of affection, or need for David's companionship (true Joe is programmed to show affection--he's a love 'bot, after all--but David is presumably not in the category of clients he's supposed to show affection to). Which brings us back to my original objection, or question, or whatever: just how special is David, and why does he represent an advance in artificial intelligence?

The middle third climaxes with the presentation of the story's ostensible final solution--a solution David ultimately rejects. The last third begins with yet another of Kubrick's 'magical journeys' (think 2001), here through time, not space. On my first viewing I was unhappy with the possibility that David will hibernate through his tedious trip on low batteries; this time I managed to ascertain that David is conscious, and will be for for a possibly very long time before he runs out of batteries (But what happened to his DAS, or Damage Avoidance System, and his ability to find creative solutions? Do they just run out, like the batteries?).

As for the ending (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film)--yes it's sad, tragic even, but I'd love to have seen Kubrick's take. According to Spielberg, Kubrick wanted to produce the film with him to direct, and I'd love to have seen more of Kubrick's influence (of this scene, at least). I know Kubrick intended for Strauss to play in the background (did he intend the ending to mimic so closely the final scene of 2001?), but knowing Kubrick and his handling of drama and accompanying music (see, oh, the finale of Paths of Glory, the farewell scene between Humbert and his beloved in Lolita, the climactic duel in Barry Lyndon) he would most likely have handled it in a different manner--the emotions of the scene as merely an element (a disciplined element) of a precisely composed whole, and not threatening to overwhelm everything as it does here. As mentioned before, I suspect Spielberg despairs of ever doing despair properly.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Los Ultimos de Filipinas (Last Stand in the Philippines, Antonio Roman, 1945)

Last man standing

For years now Instituto Cervantes has been presenting Antonio Roman's Los Ultimos de Filipinas (Last Stand in the Philippines, 1945) and no matter how many times I have seen it it's still a hoot, a real jaw-dropper. Imagine this: it's the middle of the Philippine Revolution in 1898; the Filipinos are winning the war on land, the Americans winning the war at sea. In the town of Baler, formerly of the province of Nueva Ecija (since re-allocated to the province of Aurora), fifty soldiers abandoned by their hard-pressed government (Spain was too busy surrendering to the United States) hold out in a yearlong siege, representing the country's last stand in the country (hence the title).

Any Spaniard watching this film will probably discover a quaint but nevertheless stirring hurrah for Castilian courage; any Filipino watching will stare, wide-eyed, at the way Filipinos are portrayed--as a tireless, implacable, near-invisible enemy, quick to exploit any mistake or risks taken, and willing to wait out a desperate opponent running low on food and ammunition. To find a more recent and familiar equivalent to the picture's view of the unstoppable foe, one might look at American movies on the Vietnam War. In films like Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), and John Irvin's Hamburger Hill done a year later (my personal favorite of the genre), the enemy is faceless and mysterious, an unknown quantity that will pull down and kill the unwary given half the chance. In each of these as in Roman's film the emphasis is on the American (or Spanish) soldier, on his crisis of faith and morale, his physical and spiritual suffering, his eventually bitter Pyrrhic victory.

Strange to think we Filipinos--who are rarely implacable and who almost never give the impression of being quietly mysterious, not when there's a chance for food and drink nearby--should be seen this way; stranger still to look at the landscape behind the Spaniards as they fight their lonely, drawn-out battle. Never mind the studio sets, one can forgive those for their airless, artificial quality, but when the action moves outdoors the countryside, while recognizably hot, has plenty of palm trees--no end of palm trees, from the towering kind to the chest-high variety, roughly half of them visibly drooping. One wants to ask--where are the forests of coconut trees, with gracefully swooping trunks? Where are the banana trees with their oar-like armsand heavy necklace of fruit? Where are the mango trees with their spreading limbs and distinct spearhead leaves? One badly wants to believe the film is set in the Philippines, but every once in a while you see a palm frond with dried-out leaves and your fingers twitch, wanting to reach for a hose or watering can. Actually, American films about Vietnam look more persuasively like they were shot in Southeast Asia, and no wonder--most of them were shot in Southeast Asia, in the Philippines to be specific, with perhaps the most notable exception being Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (made the same year as Hamburger), which was shot entirely in London, with (what else?) visibly drooping palm fronds.

Still! Antonio Roman is a formidable craftsman who directed most of his thirty-plus films in the '40s, and is a friend of horror master Mario Bava. Watching the film one thinks of Michael Curtiz, and his way of advancing and retreating with the camera for dramatic effect; one also thinks of Curtiz whenever Roman uses shadows expressively--to add mood or atmosphere, or throw a cruciform shape on soldiers, suggesting the comforting presence of Christ.

The film isn't so much a war film as it is a siege drama (think Cy Endfield's Zulu (1964), only not as claustrophobically confined, and with less emphasis on siege tactics)--instead of drawn-out battles, we have men standing around, looking wearier and more dispirited with every passing minute; instead of flag-waving, we have mournful musical interludes. At one point the hymn "Ave Maria" is sung while the camera trucks past a sea of melancholic soldiers wearing a scraggly collection of 5 o'clock shadows, pans past the walls of the distinctly dilapidated church, comes to rest on the figure of the Catholic priest saying mass--again, the film reminds us of the invincible, unyielding hand of the church, sustaining its supplicants (Roman, one might dare observe, is no Bunuelian skeptic, at least not here).

A later and more affecting sequence is of a beautiful lass sitting by the window, singing a melancholic song. The camera pulls back, taking in the small nipa (dried grass) hut she inhabits, then cuts to several men in various stages of exhaustion and despair, listening to her sweet voice. Cut to the camera descending from its vantage point back to a more intimate view of the girl as she ends her song, bowing her head in quiet resignation.

I said the film is a hoot to watch, and it is; part of the pleasure is in watching a Spanish filmmaker struggle to portray a country he obviously has not once visited (and probably received little support from) during the length of production; part of the pleasure is in watching ourselves as the bad guys, the Implacable Other seen in so many Hollywood-made Vietnam war movies. But the keenest pleasure, I suppose, is in watching the Spanish ultimately hold their heads high as they leave their beleaguered fortress, finding victory in defeat and honor in humiliation; in a way it's a left-handed compliment to the Filipino freedom fighter, and the dismay he is capable of inspiring.

First published in Businessworld, 6.26.09