Sunday, November 08, 2009

More Vancouver Festival Films (Serbis; Face; Lebanon; ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction)

Merly (Mercedes Cabral) and Alan (Coco Martin) and unruptured boil in Brillante Mendoza's Serbis

Did I mention that almost nobody I talked to in the festival liked Kore-eda's Air Doll, not even David Bordwell, who's an admirer of the director?

Ah well. Bordwell finds the execution "overcute" and "underdeveloped," but what's "overcute," anyway? The film plays into male notions of female fantasy figures, the same time it offers some kind of critique (the doll herself finds her owner's attentions distasteful, preferring the company of a gentler, geekier video store clerk), and there is something faintly prurient about the early scenes of Nozomi (Du-na Bae, in a courageously unselfconscious performance) standing in her (squeaky clean, rather breathtaking) altogether, totally vulnerable and defenseless, because the idea of putting on clothes doesn't even begin to occur to her.

But I submit that Kore-eda avoids excessive preciousness by focusing on the details--the latex squeal when her hands rub against objects, the occasional moments when she can't help but notice her translucency (either her shadow isn't dark enough or the gases flowing within her fingers are visible), the running gag about another woman's pantyhose lines, which she mistakes for latex mold lines. If one can imagine an American remake (and god knows, the idea of an inflatable sex doll come to life is asking for just such a catastrophe), one can imagine these details being simultaneously sanitized ("not so much nudity, please, and no shots of her cleaning out her removable vagina") and pumped up for slapstick content, with Jim Carrey mugging his face off to plenty of loud music cuing audience laughter.

Bordwell compares the ending to that of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. Truth to tell, Oshima's ending left me cold (as I think Oshima intended); Kore-eda's comes off more as a tragic misunderstanding, the kind found in doomed romances or tragedies. Kore-eda's film attempts, as does Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence, to evoke the pathos of the unanimated--how, we imagine, they might be helpless to determine their own fate, and how, we imagine, they would suffer accordingly (beyond that, I think , is an attempt to evoke the pathos one feels when empathizing with inanimate objects--when, at one time or another in our lives, we ourselves feel helpless to determine our fates). Between Spielberg and Kore-eda, though, I think the lighter (and hence more effective) touch is Kore-eda's.

After Air Doll I decided to hell with it and attended a midnight screening, which can often be fun; the crowd is rowdy, the movie usually of the lowbrow, grindhouse persuasion--in this case Kevin Hamedani's ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction. Easy to say Hamedani is no George Romero, and that his zombie picture is too clunky to gracefully shoulder the weight of political metaphor and satire that it is meant to bear, and that anyway the zombie effects are second-rate (owing to a presumably low budget), but zombie flicks are judged more by their gut impact than their subtlety (until we come to the more recent fast-moving remakes, in which case I go all medieval on them). But the picture burns with the fire of a filmmaker out to prove a point, and easily the movie's most unsettling image isn't of the beheadings or flesh-eating or the swinging zombie guts, but of a half-crazed (all-crazed?) man threatening to hammer a young Iranian girl's foot to the floor if she doesn't confess to being involved in some evil Middle-Eastern plot to convert all Americans into zombies.

Hong Sang-soo's Like You Know It All is his second feature on HD, and am I imagining this or has Hong become more ostensibly funny? The film tells the story of a director named Koo Gyung-nam (Kim Tae-woo) invited to sit in as jury member at the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival. It adds something if you've ever been to a film festival before, or served as jury in one--the ubiquitous shoulder bags filled with goodies, the neverending round of polite greetings, the endless catalogs and promotional handouts and calling cards--Hong gets every detail right (Jecheon as depicted onscreen seems like a modest-sized festival, though it could have grown since, or maybe Hong didn't have the budget or inclination to use bigger sets). Add attractive, eccentric, possibly insane festival programmer Kong Yun-hee (Uhm Ji-won) into the mix, and Hong in effect puts poor Koo through the metaphorical and literal wringer, with women alternately enticing and rejecting him, men either inviting or threatening him, fans at times praising, at times humiliating him, and Koo himself wondering just what he had done the night before when he was drunk to deserve this kind of treatment.

Add to this the unmistakable hint of melancholy (Koo is always finding something to regret in either the recent or distant past in his relationships with women (with concurrent repercussions on his relationships with men)), and one might say Hong has executed a light but satisfying omelet of a film--deceptively simple, but flavorsome.

Programmer Shelley Kraicer made it clear (on the Vancouver catalog and when he spoke to me) that he regarded Tsai Ming Liang's Face, about a film crew attempting to stage a film version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, a masterpiece; everyone else, apparently, begs to differ. I wanted to like it, I really did, but where the pacing in Tsai's previous films was leisurely and uncompromising here it felt soporifically slow; where his storytelling was deadpan unpredictable here it felt obtuse and nonsensical. I wondered what made the difference and someone offered this explanation: "He's cut himself off. Where before he was full of angst towards his life and sexuality, now it's all about his love for French cinema. Moreau, Baye, Ardant, Leaud, references to Truffaut--it's all magic and new to him where we've been familiar with all this Francophilia for years, even decades. It's killing his films."

Possibly--all I know is that something's seriously missing in this picture whatever it is. To be fair the imagery is often heartstoppingly beautiful, and there is one sequence--Salome kissing the dead head of John the Baptist--that's incredible, even great (don't want to say too much about it except that instead of using dramatic music or even music of any kind, Tsai employs the ambient sounds found in a deserted abattoir to terrible, unforgettable effect).

Samuel Moaz's Lebanon might be described in the catalog as a "cross between Waltz with Bashir and Das Boot;" I would call it a transposition of Kevin Reynolds' The Beast to Lebanon, albeit with a greater intensity and claustrophobia--much of the film takes place inside a tank, and any contact we have of the outside world comes through the driver's tiny periscope, or through the upper hatch, a moon-shaped aperture through which authority (an Israeli troop commander who seems to have all the answers (at least for a while)) and terror (a Christian Phalangist full of unreliable information and even less certain loyalty) enter from the outside world. One might see the tank as a steel womb inside of which the men overstay their welcome (their gestation period?), wallowing in their own increasingly unbearable filth and refusing to leave the safety of their armored uterus.

Moaz captures the stench of waging war inside a tank--the ever-rising level of rancid water on the vehicle's floor, complete with a flotilla of cigarette butts and paper wrappers floating about its oily surface;
the ever-thickening layer of grime and sweat covering the tank men's wide-eyed faces like so much makeup; the increasingly congealed gluey mess dripping from the interior walls (an explosion had sent foodstuff (Matzoh meal?) flying everywhere, and in the film's one hilarious running gag (and, come to think of it, politically weighted line of dialogue) the troop commander keeps demanding that the men "clean up this mess").

One festival viewer had hesitated to go see Lebanon; he said he didn't want to watch Israeli propaganda. I can see it being propaganda all right, but aimed at whom I'm not quite sure--the Israeli commanders order the use of illegal phosphorus shells and order the tank to fire on innocent civilians; the men inside the tank are frightened and barely know what's going on. We know only as much or less, because Moaz has made sure that everything we see and hear are what they see and hear; the experience is a harrowing one.

Managed to see Brillante Mendoza's Serbis, about a day in the life of a provincial movie theater, where they show uncut versions of softcore porn movies and the action in the darker corners of the auditorium are far more interesting than what's happening onscreen. In terms of hygiene the theater can give the tank in Lebanon a run for the money; it's almost as claustrophobic (a dark cavernous space surrounded by an intricate network of rooms and stairways), it has its share of rank sewer water, and people have terrifyingly red and swollen boils growing out of their behinds (come to think of it the relative darkness in the tank made the mess there a touch more tolerable). There's graphic sex aplenty and fellatio plunked front and center for those who appreciate that kind of action, and there's the slapstick interlude of a thief running up and down the theater's stairways seeking escape (if he got lost I don't blame him).

One less-then-enchanted viewer told me "I can tolerate the sex, the boil, the endless stair-climbing. What I can't stand is the goat--why is there a goat in the theater? I don't understand the goat."

I sympathize. But anyone who's actually attended a screening in one of these brokedown movie palaces knows that the occasional non-biped often wanders into its reassuringly shadowy interior--I've heard birds fluttering about in these places, even the occasional bat, and once in a while you hear a cat meowing for leftovers. Plenty of odd things can happen in a Filipino grindhouse, including a patron urinating into an empty soda cup beside you (apparently he couldn't be bothered--or didn't dare--to look for the men's room).

Should we understand the goat? I think these places are beyond understanding, just as I suppose Filipino life can be beyond understanding--like the theater it's full of lust and filth, and everyone's too demoralized to bother trying to keep it fully, continuously clean (the moment when the men's room is flooded is strangely the single most moving moment for me with its silent despair, its patient mop sweeper standing ankle-deep in dark water). The script by Armando Lao--who I used to call the Philippines' most underrated scriptwriter, now less underrated (and thankfully more active)--seems shapeless, lackadaisical, and Mendoza directs his script with a general lethargy, punctuated by the occasional surge of energy (a bursting boil, a bout of oral sex, a thief dangling from a balcony). But Lao and Mendoza (with the help of a wonderfully unglamorous cast that includes Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz and Gina Pareno) have carefully attained that lethargy, it's the kind of everyday rhythm fellow Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz strives for and achieves in his hours-long epics, set in the countryside.

Call this then, like Lebanon, an elaborate womb metaphor, with the people trapped inside too self-absorbed and terrified to seek escape, only too happy to wallow in their own waste and fester.
If there's anything at all compensatory in these less-than-ideal conditions, it's that the theater snack food seem tastier than the cardboard pap found in most movie theaters, with hot meals over rice, pork rinds sprinkled with spicy vinegar, and boiled duck egg (complete with feathery, days-old fetus for a protein surprise) available at the lobby. Just don't use the men's room afterward.


Anonymous said...

I think Air - Dool its the most interesting film from this post. Even if I don't trust Asian filmakers like some years ago. But I got the instict that Air Doll will make me feel something.

But I m so tired with al these Romero's desperate rip - offs on his zombies triumph. I prefer old zombie classics. Anytime when I get the risk for something new it was the same story.

Sometimes I feel like that I am the only person that prefer The Realm of Passion and not the Real of Senses,

Noel Vera said...

Actually not crazy about either film--prefer Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights, which was obviously inspired by Oshima's film. It's less explicit (on a far smaller budget, mind you), but there's a similar political subtext, plus a level of suspense (a student and housewife fucking behind a security guard's back--literally fucking in the face of death) that Oshima's film doesn't have.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the suggestion.
I' ll catch it.
The least problem for me is a film budget