Sunday, October 18, 2009

More on Jang Kun-Jae's "Eighteen" and Ralston Jover's "Bakal Boys"

Announcement of Dragons and Tigers winners

I'm the hairy dude that makes the dramatic announcement. For some strange reason the focus of my eyes had changed, hence my dramatic whipping off of glasses prior to reading out the director's name.

As for Bakal Boys
(which, for the record, I liked very much)--perhaps the film's one major weakness, apparent on first viewing, is the director's seeming admiration--perhaps too much so--of the camerawork of frequent collaborator Brillante Mendoza (Jover had written the script for Mendoza's Foster Child, Tirador, and (easily my favorite of Mendoza's work to date) Manoro). The Dardennes brothers' style of handheld long takes has, for better or worse, become the signature style of the Filipino independent film production.

Jover does develop his own distinct light, a burnished sunset glow where Mendoza usually opts for a harsher, more realistic palette. Paradoxically, while Jover confines himself to warmer colors, his setting is noticeably bleaker than Mendoza's--a desolate concrete landscapes dominated by gigantic rusting machinery, with makeshift shacks that cover the concrete like an encrustation. The sea is the only other major presence, an endlessly roiling, rhythmic mystery, a source of both danger and possible delight for the people living nearby; in the distant horizon are cityscapes of northern Manila, an urban world familiar to us and other Filipino audiences.

As in his scripts for Manoro and Tirador, the last thing Jover seems to want to do is judge these children. In the Q & A that followed, he notes that attempts were made to try put these children in school, and that in a matter of months they were back to what they were doing, diving in Manila Bay for scrap metal--for many of the youths, scrap metal diving was a way of putting food on the table; if they didn't dive, they didn't eat. Diving was what they knew, was in many cases all they knew. As for parents, Jover cited a case where the father was crippled; I don't know about the other children (are all the fathers similarly helpless?), but you do notice in the picture the almost complete lack of adults--these kids, like the kids in Bunuel's Los Olvidados, are left to their own resources, to fend for themselves as best they can.

And yet, and yet, and yet, and this was the most startling thing about the picture, it wasn't completely grim; it wasn't all despair. You come away with an impression of the extraordinary strength and resilience of these children, of their ability to survive the horrifying harshness of their lives (Jover notes that one or two of these boys drown or simply disappear every week) and still be children, laughing, playing, teasing, having the time of their lives. You see a world that continually neglects if not actively oppresses these boys, and they and their kin and friends respond with courtesy, kindness, even love. Amazing film.

We knew Jang Kun-Jae's Hwioribaram (Eighteen) was something special (which was why we gave it the Dragons and Tigers Award) from the very first shot: a gas station late at night, pumps lined up to the right, a white-lined rectangle just below the camera frame, dark city night beyond. It's a shot full of promise, as if anyone could drive in and take over the picture, and someone does--a motorcycle rolls in, and a station attendant buzzes around it, topping off its tank. The rider kick-starts his bike and the camera pulls back, following him through the streets. The protagonist Tae Hoon has just arrived, in effect, and it's his story we follow as the film proper begins.

I'd been quoted as saying it's an old story--boy meets girl, boy and girl have a short affair, boy breaks up with girl. Familiar--too familiar, it's true, but one advantage of familiar old stories is that we don't waste too much time and attention on the narrative, we've seen it all before; instead we concentrate on the details, on how the story is told, visually as well as dramatically. For a plain meat-and-potatoes narrative, this one is told extremely well: understated melodrama, nicely modulated acting, some smartly staged set-pieces. The look is distinctive, in a quietly old-fashioned way (few quick cuts, and only a few instances of the all-too-common handheld camera)--no small achievement on digital video.

Perhaps the first time the story really hooks its audience is the scene in the living room when the parents of Tae-Hoon's girlfriend Park Mi-Jeong confront him and his family (the two had gone off on a seaside winter break without telling anyone), and Mi-Jeong's father loses it--he's pulled a knife from an ankle holster and is stabbing the coffee table. Handheld shots (one of the few instances in the picture and one of the few times it's perfectly justified, I think) convey the chaos; jump cuts keep us startled, off-balance--suddenly he's slapping his daughter; suddenly he's smashing glass with a golf club. Suddenly--the most effective shot in the sequence, I think--Jang cuts to a television set turned up full volume, and the roar of the set suggests the panic inspired by violence better than any onscreen act (and people's reaction to the act) possibly could. It's as if everyone's mind were tuned to the same station and someone accidentally sat on the remote, sending the tuner skittering across several channels.

Yet another example--Jang cuts to a sudden shot of the girl's younger sister, face puffy for some reason; the camera pulls back and we realize that she's being strangled, the hands tight around her neck belonging to Mi-Jeong. The two sisters fight, and their kicking and spitting and shrieking--with the mother desperately trying to pull them apart--seems more authentic than any family interaction I've seen on recent mainstream movies.

While we're at it, I might as well point out that the adults here, from Mi-Jeong's parents to Tae-Hoon's patient, put-upon boss, seem more authentically sketched-in and performed than most other adults in recent teen pictures (a rare virtue for the genre, where adults are usually abusive or ineffectual cartoons rarely given their due, much less a point of view).

Towards the end, we see how the incident (their impromptu seaside vacation) and their subsequent enforced separation has shaped both Tae-Hoon and Mi-Jeong's lives. Tae Hoon can't seem to accept the death of their relationship; he goofs around, tries to follow Mi-Jeong, tries to see her outside of school, or outside her home; Mi-Jeong for her part seems to have made her decision and moved on. But our final glimpses of their respective lives seem to suggest that matters are more complicated--Tae Hoon after struggling so long has (as suggested by the serenity with which he rides away) apparently come to terms with his loss. Mi Jeong puts on an equally brave face, but as she sits on her gym bench we hear the soft sigh of surf, and we see her hair ruffled, as if by an ocean breeze. Jang seems to suggest that Mi-Jeong was every bit as affected as Tae-Hoon was by the experience, only she's done a better job of repressing it; the memory, however, may haunt her for some time, perhaps all her life. Sad, lovely little film.

Finally, after googling around for articles and pictures and videos concerning the award, I found this. Recorded during the Jeonju International Film Festival, in 2006.


jayclops said...

I saw Los Olvidados on YouTube 2-3 years ago. I remember pitying the children but while society has pushed them aside Buñuel has made it as if also to celebrate childhood. Maybe that is why many depictions of childhood in the midst of harsh realities are patterned. Even in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the young girl’s fate concluded with her death. Even in cinema, the world is harsh for kids.

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Noel,

I finally got to see Bakal Boys last night in Cinemanila. I mostly agree with you. I thought it had a fascinating first half, where all we see are the boys diving and scavenging for scraps, playing along, fooling around, and being kids. I thought it fell apart when the adults stepped into the picture. But yeah, it's an interesting film.

Noel Vera said...

I liked it better than you did, then. That L'Avventura thing, where the boy's friend disappears seemed interesting. And I like it that Jover didn't make such a big deal out of the boy's disappearance. There's sadness and mourning, but up to a point. Life goes on.

Oggs Cruz said...

Yeah, the disappearance was played very well. The sea being such a mysterious place, it felt like Jover was trying to do a Picnic at Hanging Rock, and with all the innocence played up despite the onscreen poverty, it worked tremendously. I probably need to see it again, think about it more, probably understand why the film had to involve the adults when it was working very well without them.

Noel Vera said...

Picnic might apply, but I thought L'Avventura was especially apt--only one person disappeared and basically only his friend (and his grandmother) cared.

I don't think the adults were too intrusive. Basically there were really two--Gina and that security guard. The guard was a lovely touch. Gina was I think a necessity--someone had to mourn the lost child.

Notice how the lost child looked out for his friend? Bit much, maybe, but I liked it, it wasn't overdone I thought.

Oggs Cruz said...

Yeah, the relationship between the two boys was lovely... and the boy's way of coping with the loss (that adorable scene where he reasons out persistently to explore below the pier; the way he becomes Gina Pareno's support; the way his loss transforms from something mundane --- observe how he tells his mom about the loss -- into something bigger, more tragic --- that ominous ending).

I still think the adults could have been more in the background, or could have been played by non-actors, so they didn't stick out that bad.

Still, it's a striking film. It's not my favorite Jover script --- that belongs to Manoro, but it's well-directed.

Noel, do watch Bing Lao's directorial debut and write about it.

Noel Vera said...

It's a loss and at the same time a kind of gain for him--his friend becomes a kind of guardian angel (atheists go ahead and groan now). I like how that is downplayed, though.

If I can get a copy of Bing's film I'll see it. I've got a boatload of DVDs to get through.

Noel Vera said...

"I saw Los Olvidados on YouTube 2-3 years ago."

Isn't that available on DVD? It should be.

I think you mean Bunuel celebrates childhood as well as showing the harsh reality? I agree with showing reality, not sure he celebrates anything--doesn't sound like him.

That said one can't really hate unless one is able to love intensely, I believe, and I think you can see in the film that Bunuel cares about those kids very much. There could be something in what you say, celebratorywise.

Areum Jeong said...

Hi Noel,

I recently saw "Hwioribaram" -- a poignant film that strongly reminded me of my grade school days.
Also, most of the filming took place in my very own neighborhood, which was interesting, too. I wonder if the filmmaker lives nearby.

Noel Vera said...

Great to hear from you, Areum! But--does that mean you ran away from home with your boyfriend too?