The good of 2002
One of my New Year's resolution is to start on a positive note, and as much as possible mention only the good of last year, so this may be a short article. Let's see how it goes--
The year began with its biggest of course, Peter Jackson's monumental first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy trilogy The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien fans had little to complain about: it was (mostly) faithful, (highly) intelligent, with just about the same level of (genuine) filmmaking talent Jackson demonstrated in previous works (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners). What a minority (me included) tended to miss was the little extra something Jackson brought to his own work, especially disreputable early titles like Bad Taste and Dead Alive: effrontery, humor, that mysterious debatable word "inspiration"--most say he has it, I say he don't.
Then there's Laurice Guillen's American Adobo, a fairly diverting, safe-as-houses entertainment on Filipino Americans--as an exploration of their psyche and troubled spirit, doesn't quite match Lav Diaz's 5-hour "epic" (word in quotes because it's such an intimate film) Batang West Side (West Side Avenue) but does show Guillen's canny commercial instincts to good effect.
There's canny commercial and then there's inspiration--what I felt Peter Jackson lacked and Diaz has in spades in Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus Revolutionary), released in February. Set 11 years into the future, Hesus has a military junta taking over the Philippines and our only hope is (who else?) Hesus--poet, warrior, philosopher, rocker. Made for roughly 100,000 dollars--about O nine-hundredth the amount of Fellowship--it's got twice the ideas and four times the passion of the bigger film.
Mowelfund's "Pelikula at Lipunan 2002" (Film and Society 2002) festival opened with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros, New Mexican Cinema's tribute to Quentin Tarantino's interlocking socially amoral 'edgy' style of filmmaking; Inarritu shows more skill and sophistication than Tarantino but doesn't quite transcend the limits of the genre. More impressive was the closing film, Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, a lyrical biopic on gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, with Javier Bardem giving an excellent performance as Arenas. In between was Apchatpong Weeresethakul's experimental Mysterious Objects at Noon (best Thai film I've seen to date), Aureaus Solito's beautifully shot documentary Basal Banar, and--as tribute to the late great Nida Blanca--the lovely musical-comedy Waray-Waray.
Eiga Sai 2002 in March showed Toshihiro Tenma's Many Happy Returns, worth seeing mainly for Takeshi Kitano's ironic script on religious cults and Kitano's performance as a cultist. The Italian film festival screened (on projected video) Luchino Visconti's epic The Leopard with a great performance by Burt Lancaster. Then there's Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums with a royal flush of performances (Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow--yep you heard me, Paltrow--and a blessedly substantial role for Gene Hackman as title character).
The one worthwhile film in multiplexes in April was Mexican horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's swift n nasty Blade 2; the Udine Far East Film Festival showed Chinese animation in the mornings (the best of which, Toe Yuen's My Life as McDull, was my festival favorite) and Japanese Pink Eiga (softcore porn) by night. The Philippines was represented through one of the better titles last year, Chito Rono's noirish La Vida Rosa (The Life of Rosa).
May brought us Sam Raimi's Spiderman, watchable mainly for the soap-opera and Tobey Maguire's lead performance (light-years better than George Lucas' Attack of the Clones--also a comic-book soap opera, but nothing recognizably human whatsoever).
June was a busy month: the Indian Embassy brought a wide spectrum of Indian films, from Satiyajit Ray's moving last film Agantuk" (The Stranger), to Shyam Benegal's electrifying Kalyug (Machine), a retelling of the Mahabharata as war between family corporations.
The glories of the festival however were the Bollywood musicals. Raj Kapur's Sangam (Union) is a three-hour kitschtravaganza about a love triangle with intriguing homoerotic undertones and Kapur himself as one of the lovers. Then there's Guru Dutt--all seven films including his two masterpieces: Pyaasa (Thirst), and Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers). The French Spring Film Festival tended to pale in comparison, though Francois Ozon's 8 Femmes (8 Women) stood out for being a musical--a colorful, entertainingly bitchy one. Trailing the tail end of June in more ways than one was Dutt's inferior Steven Spielberg with Minority Report, possibly the most faithful rendition of Philip K. Dick's mindtwisting fiction to date (which isn't saying much--apparently Dick's fiction contains more twists than Spielberg's mind).
July didn't bring a lot--well, Judy Dench and Kate Winslet's interpretation of Iris Murdoch, and Jim Broadbent's excellent performance as Murdoch's husband John Bayley, in Richard Eyre's otherwise flawed Iris. That, plus Yojiro Takita's mildly bizarre Yin-Yang Master.
August began with John Woo's flawed but watchable Windtalkers--flawed in that this is barely recognizably the story of Navajo codetalkers in World War 2, watchable in the sense that Woo's filmmaking blows Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor out of the water.
The rest of August belonged to the Cinemanila Film Festival of which what more can one do than list down some of the films shown--from Tom Twyker and Krzysztof Kieslowski's poignant Heaven to Tsai Ming Liang's deadpan What Time is it There? to Fruit Chan's funny Hollywood Hong Kong to Takeshi Kitano's fiery Hana-bi (Fireworks) to Zhang Yang's intense Quitting to Bahram Beizai's heartfelt Bashu, the Little Stranger to Ashutosh Gowariker's extravagant Lagaan (Tax) to Alfonso Cuaron's sensual Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too) to Mohsen Makhmalbaf's inventive Once Upon a Time Cinema and masterful The Cyclist to Kim Ki Duk's odd Address Unknown to Hideo Nakata's eerie Ringu (Ring) to Zu When's spare Seafood to Ulrich Seidl's hideous Dog Days to Hou Hsiao Hsien's great City of Sadness. That, plus Cinemanila's granting top awards to two promising scripts--James Ladoray's witty satire Cut, and Mario O'Hara's supernatural epic Hocloban. Might safely be said that the festival was the high point of the year for Filipino film viewers.
(In the multiplexes, there was Al Pacino's exhaustion in Christopher Nolan's passable Insomnia and Mel Gibson's relatively unegotistic performance in M. Night Shyamalan's otherwise ridiculous Signs).
September brought a second Eiga Sai festival, the most interesting of the lot being Shinobu Yaguchi's mildly diverting Tarantino wannabe, Adrenaline Drive. Then there's Zhang Yimou's Happy Times, his oddly naïve take on Chaplin's City Lights; Andrew Niccol's Simone, a (rather lukewarm) satire on media, also starring an exhausted Pacino; and David Cronenberg's claustrophobic Spider with a fascinatingly opaque Ralph Fiennes as the movie's schizophrenic hero. Maryo J. delos Reyes also contributed the erotic drama Laman (Flesh) possibly the best recent film he's done.
The most exciting event of the month--possibly of the year--wasn't a film but a play--rather, a theatrical adaptation of Lino Brocka's slum classic Insiang. Mario O'Hara took his script of Brocka's film, fiddled with it, deconstructed it, changed the setting back to its proper location (Pasay City not Tondo) and fashioned a bleaker, more uncompromising ending--in effect O'Hara took what many call Brocka's finest and reclaimed it as his own.
The month ended on a weak note, with Jude Law enlivening Sam Mendes' otherwise enervating Road to Perdition.
In October, CineEuropa showed roughly three worthwhile films: Sandra Nettleback's mostly tasty (both girl and food) Mostly Martha; Julio Medem's stylishly erotic The Red Squirrel; and a repeat of Ozon's 8 Femmes. Jennifer Ehle was the most watchable face in Neil LaBute's Possession. Wong Kar Wei's In the Mood for Love enjoyed a commercial showing (after a premiere in Cinemanila), a film lovelier to behold than feel. Rajkumar Santoshi's The Legend of Baghat Singh is a more colorful, entertaining, stylish retelling of Gandhi's story than Attenborough's Oscar-winning behemoth but with a crucial difference--here the Mahatma plays a villain.
November started off on a thunderously wrong foot with Kenneth Branagh the bright spot Chris Columbus' otherwise dull Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Things get better with the French Embassy and Mowelfund collaborating to present shorts from the prestigious Annecy Festival, including Jan Svankmajer's unsettling Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue); contemporary French and Filipino works; animated features like Michel Ocelot's gorgeous Kirikou et la Sorciere (Kirikou and the Sorceress); Nonoy Marcelo's prodigious Tadhana (Destiny), and Paul Grimault and Jacques Prevert's Le Roi et L'Oiseau (King and Bird), one of the greatest animated films ever made.
December gave us a rather muted Christmas--a lovely Cate Blanchett in Gillian Armstrong's old-fashioned Charlotte Grey, a bewitching Ellen Pompeo in Brad Siberling's just-okay Moonlight Mile. Chito Rono's Dekada '70 (Decade '70)--adapted from Lualhati's Bautista's classic novel--rounded up the better films of the year.
It's a surprisingly long list, for a year that I remember as being generally disappointing. The year's best? Take your pick: everything from Tsai Ming Liang's What Time is it There?, Fruit Chan's Hollywood Hong Kong, Zhang Yang's Quitting (I'm sticking to recent films), Lav Diaz's Hesus Rebolusyunaryo. If I could, I'd argue for inclusion of Mario O'Hara's Insiang (technically a play but but but), and Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (no commercial screening in Manila, but there are DVDs floating about).
First published on 1.3.03 in Businessworld