Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cinemanila 2011 (13 Assassins; Dario Argento; Jafar Panahi; Nora Aunor)

Cinemanila 2011: Cup runneth over

It's that time of the year again, and Cinemanila--running from the eleventh of November 2011 (All those ones! Put that in your lottery ticket) to the seventeenth at the Market! Market! Cinemas at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, Rizal--is easily the best show in town, everything from the latest by Wim Wenders (Pina (2011), about famed dance choreographer German Philippina "Pina" Bausch--in 3D, at that) to the latest by Park Chan Wook (Night Fishing (2011), a 30 minute short shot entirely on an iPhone). Plus films by Lav Diaz (Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)), and Chang Dong Lee (Poetry (2010)).

There are retrospectives on Dario Argento (Suspiria (1977)) and Nora Aunor (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), Himala (Miracle, 1982), Bona (1980)), both of whom are to receive lifetime achievement awards; films by Jaffar Panahi (Offside (2006)) including the latest he did while officially prohibited by the Iranian government from directing films (This is Not a Film (2010)); the latest by Raya Martin (Buenas Noches Espana (Goodnight Spain, 2011)); by John Torres (Mapang-akit (Seductive, 2011)); by Kim Jee Woon (I Saw the Devil (2010)); by Takashi Miike ((13 Assassins (2010)) and by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)). The latest in independent shorts, digital films by Southeast Asian and Filipino talents. And many, many more.

Pick a title, any title...possibly the most audacious aspect of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (a remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 'jidaigeki' (period samurai) film, about twelve samurai plus one hired to kill a shogun's psychotically sadistic son) is its unapologetic invitation--dare, almost--to be compared to Akira Kurosawa's three-hour epic Seven Samurai (1954).

Does Miike measure up to Kurosawa's definitive statement on war and violence? Certainly jacks up the numbers--from seven to thirteen heroes, facing at first seventy, then two hundred soldiers, their battle involving not just swords and arrows but slingshots, guns, booby-traps, bursts of flame, huge explosions, giant sliding fences that block off the action and redefine the battlefield again and again. Unlike Kurosawa, Miike doesn't strive for strict realism; the sliding fences look impossibly high, and digital effects help simulate a stampede of burning bulls (no, really). Unlike Kurosawa, Miike doesn't even bother to keep the battle's village setting spatially coherent--he has a main avenue where most of the killing is done, then opens up all kinds of back alleyways and side passages and courtyards for heroes and villains to run through and die in as, if, whenever necessary.

Like Kurosawa Miike follows the classic form, or at least gives passing acknowledgement--there is a recruiting sequence, and some of the characters recruited stay in mind (two that do are drunken nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada) and forest hunter Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya)); a preparation sequence that doesn't really explain much (but is fitfully entertaining); and a showdown that takes up almost half the picture (you can tell where Miike's priorities lie). The endless scenes of close combat are long, carefully choreographed (if outwardly chaotic) affairs, with coherent camerawork and editing in the classic Kurosawa manner (Miike may be crazy but he isn't stupid); the final showdown is as operatic and overblown as anything one might wish for from Kurosawa, or Sergio Leone, or any of the classic Western (in both sense of the word) filmmakers.

What makes this exercise in relatively straightforward jidaigeki most distinctly Miike is his villain, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu. Naritsugu enjoys plenty of screen time, enough to establish him as one of Miike's more baroque creations--a hedonist with limitless appetites, a sociopath who finds absolutely no value in human life, a sadistic pervert with (and this may be the most shocking detail of all) no real experience of the real world, completely unaware of how other people think or feel (one speculates that he's lived a sheltered life where his every whim is obeyed, no matter how unreasonable). Played by the blandly handsome Goro Inagaki--it's the nondescript prettiness covering a seething nihilistic innocence that makes the character so unsettling--Naritsugu dominates 13 Assassins in a way that no character in Kurosawa's film ever did; he galvanizes the picture, gives it urgency and a sense of impending doom (the man is on his way to receive a high position from his younger brother, the present Shogun; once promoted the man would be untouchably, monstrously powerful). More, he provides a detached god's eye view of the battle, relishing with greater and greater appreciation his enemy's increasingly desperate tactics (viewing a particularly bloody struggle, Naritsugu asks Hanbei his chief samurai:

You think the age of war was like this?”


It's magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei; something wonderful has come to my mind.”


Once I'm on the Shogun's council, let's bring back the age of war...”).

As Naritsugu's chief samurai Hanbei Kitou, Masachika Ichimura makes for the perfect foil, a noble samurai who doesn't hesitate to protect his lord, even if his lord is crazy. Theirs (as the poem goes) not to reason why, theirs but to do or die--you can feel Hanbei's distaste, yet he's warrior enough to swallow his sentiments and stay true to his master. Partly because of the loyalty (fanaticism?) of men like these monstrous governments, administrations, kingdoms are made possible, are granted bloody birth.

Perhaps the worst criticism ever leveled at Kurosawa's masterpiece was that it provided little insight into the forty bandits facing the samurai. Miike addresses that lack many times over with his Lord Naritsugu; he manages to give the man his own inimitable point of view, one that survives a final confrontation with the assassins, even affords him a morsel of sympathy. A great action film? I don't know; Kurosawa's shadow looms large over the landscape. But Miike does throw a few clever ideas in, giving the material an interesting spin.

Of Dario Argento--what else can be said that hasn't already been said? Don't consider Suspiria his best work but it's easily his best known: a parody of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) where instead of a massive Oedipal complex we have a malevolent witches' convent; instead of austere black-and-white we have an operatic palette of colors, hue, textures. The shadows are as deep and velvety as outer space, the sound and music (compliments of the band Goblin) as eclectically precise as a collection of surgical instruments; you find yourself strapped metaphorically to your chair with Argento bent over gazing at you, scalpel in one hand. Screaming at this point would be a blessing.

Jafar Panahi is by turns politically astute, irrepressibly satirical, restlessly experimental; to the edict that he be forbidden from directing a film, for example, he responds with a work titled This is Not a Film.

Offside is about a group of girls trying to sneak into an Iranian soccer game (where women are banned). Not just any soccer game--it's the game where Iran qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Comedy this sharp is almost impossible to describe, the way a beautiful kick past a goalie can be impossible to describe: there are no words there are only the motions as the filmmaker sidesteps all restrictions in his production (He can't film the girls in the game, for one thing, he has to hope for the purposes of his script that Iran wins, and for budgetary reasons (not a lot of money for extras) he has to shoot during the actual games). The ending, a victory for the record, is both exuberant and bittersweet.

If there isn't much to add to what's been said about Argento, there's even less to add to the considerable amount of ink that has been spilled over Nora Aunor, on her umpteenth comback with a successful 'teleserye' (Mario O'Hara's Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) recently wrapped and a major film (Tikoy Aguiluz's Manila Kingpin, a remake of The Asiong Salongga Story) coming soon. Aunor in this retrospective can be seen in at least three different aspects, as handled by three major filmmakers: as object of adoration and religious icon (Ishmael Bernal's hallucinatory Himala); as downtrodden maid in an urban melodrama (Lino Brocka's Bona), and as provincial lass turned Japanese collaborator in Mario O'Hara's period epic (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos).

Aunor broke the tradition of using light-skinned screen stars with Westernized faces; hers is the face and figure of the masses, dark-skinned and diminutive, and they love her dearly for this, love her success because it's their success too. She's not only an accomplished actress in the silent-screen manner (those dark eyes!) but an accomplished producer as well--one of her own projects, O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is arguably and in my book possibly the finest Filipino film ever made.

So; go see. Have fun...

First published in Businessworld, 10.10.11

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