Monday, December 14, 2009

Still more Vancouver Festival Films (Oliviera, Hui) --and one Filipino (Ad. Castillo), just because

Yang Ik Joon's Ddongpari (Breathless, 2009) does, at times, induce that eponymous state, especially when debt collector Sang Hoon (the director doing triple duty by also writing the film's script and playing lead actor) goes into action. I don't know what Yang is like in person but onscreen he's a singular presence, small eyes taking a steady bead on you (his moving target), jaw settling into a particularly grim line, hands working themselves into fists, prior to letting them fly. He talks insolently, contemptuously, his language a string of firecracker profanity; he collects debts by beating the money (and will to resist) out of his clients. He's dedicated enough (or unstable enough) to work overtime, pummeling his next-door neighbor or even a passerby gratis, without even expecting a fee.

This portrait of a near-sociopath bully would be compelling on its own but Yang goes a step further by introducing Yeon-hue (Kotbi-kim), a teen-aged schoolgirl who, as it turns out, is his match in foul language and possibly his superior in perverse fearlessness (he has his fists to back him up; she has nothing but sheer attitude). She defies him, wins his respect, and later his trust; the film plays out like Beauty and the Beast with the lovers suffering a severe case of potty-mouth; the effect is startling and unsettlingly funny at the same time.

Yang tries to go a step further--tries to explain Sang and Yeon's personalities by showing either their past or home life. These scenes seem trite and sentimental; seem like the kind of melodrama Sang and Yeon would rather laugh at than accept as their respective back stories. It's a measure of their appeal that we would prefer to take Sang and Yeon as they are--straight, no chaser, no sympathy or psychotherapy or any such syrupy nonsense.

Yuri Nomura's eatrip (2009) is a lovely documentary but no less substantial for being beautifully shot and lit--witness the sequence at the Tsukiji fish market where a seller talks about the lightness of tuna in spring, and how much richer the flesh is in winter when the fish eats fattier foods, then in a sudden change of tone notes how the supply of fish is dwindling all the time. It's a sobering moment, balanced by the woman who grows her own produce theorizing that it's best to eat root vegetables during the new moon, when all energy is drawn downwards, and best to eat leaf and fruit during the full moon, when all energy is drawn upwards.

The central section depicts a tea ceremony, where the tea master explains that "water and mountain are the essence of the Earth and of Buddha...what is Buddhism? It's all living things. Therefore all living things are a part of Buddha!" He's far more persuasive when explaining that a light blue sweet on a plate represents the Earth, with the translucent blue outer dough representing water, and the bright green bean center representing solid ground. "Eat the sweet first," he explains. Eating the sweet first, apparently, prepares tongue and throat for the tea, allows one to taste the tea's best flavors, instead of only its bitterness.

The film ends with a visually ravishing meal--light brown chicken poached in a green broth; what look like sauteed gizzards mixed with grain which are then steamed above the poaching chicken, picking up the flavor of both chicken and broth; a plate full of sliced radishes is lightly seasoned, is topped with gorgeous slices of raw whitefish; is in turn topped with a bowl of bright red strawberries--easily one of the most beautiful dishes I've ever seen. Does the film have some kind of overarching plan, a coherent point to make? I don't know; I suspect not. It rambles here and there, picking up other people's voices and opinions, at times pausing to show us how something is made. Much like the best dinner conversations, come to think of it.

Ann Hui's Tin shui wai dik ye yu mo (Night and Fog, 2009) was the rare festival film that I didn't like. Hui this time takes on wife-beaters, and like her Filipino contemporary Marilou Diaz-Abaya she goes about dealing with the subject in an impassioned, rather heavy-handed manner. These films are more about script and acting than about visual style, which is unremarkably competent--the script scrupulously goes about building the case against the husband (Simon Yam), closing along the way all avenues of escape for the girl (Zhang Jingchu). It's a case of city boy resents country girl, constantly putting her down, constantly undercutting her sense of security, and of self.

Mind you, it's not an especially bad film; it goes about its business with brisk efficiency and in its best and most moving moments gives us a glimpse of the kind of happiness the pair had (a quiet scene, for one, where Yam washes Zhang's hair) before everything goes horribly wrong. When they do go wrong though Hui pulls out all the stops, and you can feel the film slipping swiftly out of her control: Yam's angry husband becomes a teeth baring-monster, and Zhang can only gasp in humiliation and pain. We wince as well--partly in sympathy for Zhang (and what her director puts her through), partly in embarrassment for Hui. Subtlety like this belongs more in a Rob Zombie flick.

Manoel de Oliveira's Singularidades de uma Rapariga de Loura (Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl 2009) shows the filmmaker celebrating his 100th birthday still in full control of his faculties. A little over an hour long, the film is a masterpiece of economical and graceful storytelling--not a single wasted image or gesture. The very first shot shows us a conductor punching tickets; the camera following left to right, right to left, as if asking us to guess who this story will be about, with the conductor presenting each candidate for our inspection. We finally settle on Macario (Riccado Trepa), who tells his sad story to a fellow passenger (Leonor Silveira). He is an accountant working for his uncle, and looking out the balcony of his office one day he sees in the balcony of the opposing building a blond girl (Catarina Wallenstein) playing with her fan.

That's all it takes: two balconies, a girl, her fan. Macario falls madly in love with her, of course, and for most of the film's running time Oliveira toys with the image framed by the two doorways and the space between the two balconies, the way fate toys with Macario's life. The opposite balcony is always tantalizingly close--you feel as if you can reach over and grasp the railing--yet Oliveira keeps us constantly aware of the gulf between them, as of the obstacles that must always be put in the way of two lovers in all romantic comedies (this one more dryly comic than most). At one point we listen to the girl reading Macario's love letter as across the way a different accountant occupies Macario's former office--Oliveira mocks her with the image of someone other than Macario sitting in his accustomed place; she keeps faith by facing pointedly away, reading the words of his letter aloud to herself.

The ending, of course, is purest irony (the script was based on a story by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz
, a nineteenth century writer oft called the Flaubert of Portugal), with the film's final image possibly being Oliveira's best jest: The train pulling away from the camera, a joke on the joke Hitchcock pulled in the final image of North by Northwest (1959). Instead of cinema's longest penetration shot we have cinema's longest withdrawal shot, receding rapidly towards the horizon. Talk about onscreen lovers that feel blue, Macario possibly has the bluest pair of anyone I can remember.

Finally--not because it was in the festival but only because I just saw it again--Celso Ad Castillo's Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara
(1974), about a dead woman's determination to wreak unholy vengeance on her poor sister, is not a perfect film, not even a particularly good film, certainly not the finest of Ad Castillo's work (which at worst can politely be described as 'inconsistent,' at best goes beyond the reach of any other filmmaker in the Philippines, perhaps the world). Rosanna Ortiz's Ruth is the very definition of overwrought; Ad Castillo dwells over her jealous hysteria the way a sadistic police officer might over a criminal's interrogation, pressing foot to miscreant's neck and grinding his face into the dirt (we feel as if our face were being ground into Ms. Ortiz's). Some of the horror effects seem ludicrous today--the doll with glowing Eveready eyes, the rather monotonous 'twanging' sound indicating evil is afoot (if it's on foot, why would it twang?).

Difficult to say what happens next, but Ad Castillo, after playing with dolls and cheesy sound effects in the film's first half lays aside the childish toys and tries a different tack--silence, shadows, the stretching of a moment of tension to sadistic length. At one point he evokes the scene where Arbogast (Martin Balsam) climbs the stairs in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)--only unlike many a Hitchcock imitator, he manages to pull it off.

After all the bloodletting and screaming and buried corpses, one remembers Barbara declaring to Ruth (rough translation): “yes I love Fritz, but never at the cost of your happiness! Our love was a quiet love, a tender love, giving, self-sacrificing, concerned for the other's welfare. It was not based on anger, or hate, or jealousy! It was not based on vengeance!” The film's true horror lies in Ruth's all-consuming jealousy towards her sister, how she must possess everything Barbara has on her own terms even if it cost her everything, even if it costs her her life.

(poster from


Vancouver BC realtor said...

Hi. Thanks for review of these movies. Despite the fact that I'm from Vancouver I didn't know about these festival movies. My favorite one seems to be the Yuri Nomura's eatrip. I'm looking forward to see it on the next occasion, especially the part about the tea ceremony.

Best regards,

Noel Vera said...

Vancouver Film Festival is in October. Check it out. Doubt eatrip will be there again, but there are always new, maybe better films.

oprimistic said...

Hi Noel,
I'm wondering if you liked the re-make of "Patayin sa Sindak...", the one with Lorna Tolentino, (not Kris Aquino, please). I don't know who directed it, but I find some parts really scary. I think that movie didn't had that doll.

Noel Vera said...

The 1995 one is by Chito Rono.

Uh--no. Overproduced, galumphingly slow. Ad. Castillo's may be overwrought and hysterical but at some point it starts getting to you. At least it started getting to me. I think you have to see it on the big screen,tho (I saw both on the big screen).

Unknown said...

Hi Noel. Just stumbled upon your site recently. Keep up these film reviews! Provides a great alternative to the so-called "reviews" that mainstream columnists are fond of churning out in the papers. Do you mind if I re-post some of them on my website (it's not yet up though), or perhaps provide a link in my site to yours? Thanks!

Noel Vera said...

Sure thing, Jerome. Gomez, is it?

Unknown said...

Sorry it took me a while to check back. Thanks! Nope, I'm another Jerome, I'm afraid. Just a random film enthusiast from QC. :) Thanks again!