Sunday, June 06, 2010

Filipino films in Brazil; Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009); The World (Jia Zhang Ke, 2004)

Filipino films in Brazil!

From June 9 to June 27 in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and Brazilia, there will be a showcase of Philippine Cinema, both classical and new,which will include essays by yours truly and by oggsmoggs. If you happen to be in Brazil--check it out! Or click on those links for details.

Raising rugrats

Vincenzo Natali's Splice (2009) is all about the horrors of genetic manipulation and surprise, surprise, it's pretty good. The first ten or so minutes can be pretty murky as Natali gives us a brief precis of the ins and outs of private scientific funding--it's good, but it isn't exactly stuff that will keep us awake at night (or it should--research on possible cures for genetic disorders is shelved in favor of a growth protein for plant crops--but doesn't).

What might keep us awake are the consequences resulting from reckless experimentation by two scientists, Clive and Elsa (yeah, yeah, I know--the first names of two actors involved in what in my opinion is the greatest horror film ever made, not to mention a direct commentary and major influence on this picture). Clive and Elsa find themselves caring for a creature that looks something like a cross between an albino seal and a chicken, and run the gamut of nightmarish parenting experience from fussy eater to sudden chills and fever--anyone and everyone who has ever handled a child will be nodding their heads in recognition. 

The 'child,' now called Dren (their corporate name said backwards), grows up to be a slim young woman, beautiful and repulsive and graceful and awkward at the same time--yes it's that stage of growth, folks, the dreaded teen years, when hormones run wild and your gangly little girl will grow up in all kinds of startling, sometimes downright bizarre, ways.

I especially like the dynamic built into the script: Elsa initiates the whole thing, locking Clive out and having her own way with the fetus in the privacy of their work lab (Clive all the while pounding at the door and yelling impotently); when the child is 'born' Elsa is the nurturing mother, all coos and delight, while Clive stands back, resentful and even, at times, openly hostile. When the little chicken grows into a gangly and later strangely graceful young girl, roles are reversed: this time it's Elsa that feels threatened and Clive that steps forward to offer Dren advice and support. 

One appreciates the fact that Natali doesn't go for the cheap scare, the easy gross-out; if frightening and horrifying things happen (and they do), it's for a reason, it's because Dren (and even Clive and Elsa) are following their biological instincts, indulging in everything from power struggle to sexual play to the need to reproduce, to spread one's progeny. 

Natali has a gift for showing the occasional startling image--Dren, for example, hanging upside-down like a great albino bat; or Dren's face looking up through murky water, not a bubble issuing from her nose.

This sort of biological horror has been done before, of course, and better--David Lynch played on our fears of childrearing with his Eraserhead (at one point, Dren does resemble the horrifyingly smooth and gleaming monster child in Lynch's film). David Cronenberg has made the genre of gynecological horror his own, and one can see what part or stage of development in Dren was inspired by what Cronenberg film--the bag containing the fetus, for one (The Brood), the potent stinger with its venom that seems to induce some kind of anaphylactic shock (Rabid); even the gradual development of Dren according to some haphazardly created mutation process (The Fly).

Natali does his best, but he doesn't quite have Cronenberg's ability to give his monsters that quality of wrongfulness, that same sense of shame--one might call Cronenberg horror cinema's first (or at least finest) pornographer, his camera functioning as an unflinching record of the obscenities the human genital (male, female) is capable of producing (or reproducing). That said, Natali's film is a welcome minor addition to the genre.

Beijing Disneyland

Jia Zhang Ke's Shijie (The World, 2004) might have been the template on which Greg Mottola's 2009 comedy Adventureland (a movie I liked) was based. Both are about young men and women working in a theme park, both are basically love stories set in an unusual and metaphorically rich location, only with Shijie Jia captures an entire social movement--the migration of provincial workers to China's urban centers (in this case, the Fengtai district of Beijing)--while Mottola confines himself to the summer employment activities of high school graduates. There is a love story in both pictures, only in Shijie it's told in a considerably quieter, grittier manner, with fidelity to the way young men and women actually talk to each other, and with far less attention paid to the audiences' presumably brief attention span 

Adventureland is basically an entertainment, a teen movie that takes off on the idea that the backstage shenanigans in an amusement park are themselves a source of amusement. Jia's intentions for Shijie seem to be considerably more ambitious: the park stands for the freedom the people in the film strive for but never quite achieve; at the same time, at some level, the park also stands for the world--a considerably diminished world, a world where its wonders have been transplanted, their magic miniaturized and sanitized for safe-as-houses entertainment. 

And yet, and yet--various park attractions afford Jia the opportunity to play global traveler, to create odd juxtapositions and bizarre effects. The Eiffel Tower--at a third of its real height, the tallest single structure in the park--looms over all, from the rocks of Stonehenge to the Pyramids of Giza to the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) in Rome; St. Peter's Basilica rises to roughly man height, its colonnades welcoming inch-high pygmies (you imagine) into its all-encompassing arms; New York's Twin Towers stand proud and defiant, as if miraculously resurrected by the park's creators. This in effect is Jia's final paradox--that this film, so critical of globalization, is also a celebration of that same globe, of the world and all its wonders, and that there is magic and enchantment a-plenty, if only the people wandering amongst them could but see it. 


Levis said...

Hi Noel,

Thanks for reminding our showcase for all your readers! Just a little correction: the showcase starts on June 9 in São Paulo, and ends on June 27.


Noel Vera said...

Corrected, thanks!

H.M. Agustin said...

I just recently watched Natali's Nothing (2003) and made a short review on my blog:

I always think that Natali is something to watch out for ever since I saw Cube. I'm really excited about his latest. Nice review sir Noel! Can't wait to see the film

Noel Vera said...

Overall I think I prefer this to Cube--more flawed, but also more ambitious.

That said, there's Cronenberg. I can't see anyone trumping Cronenberg in gynecological horror.

H.M. Agustin said...

Been reading a couple of articles on Splice, and I think I'd love it. Cube though, in my perspective as a child them, was one of a kind. And also Nothing.