Tell(ya)ride Express #1: Instant Revelations
SPOTTED: Slovenian hobo in a stolen YSL t-shirt, chugging a whole can of Diet Coke, looks like lonely boy isn’t going to be lonely anymore.
Tempting as it is to feed all my faves from this year 35th Telluride Film Festival through the Zizekian viewfinder, I’m going to refrain from such fanatic behavior and deliver a well-balanced account of what really happened…
HUNGER (Steven McQueen, UK, 2008)
What Firaaq failed to provoke during its Crash-inspired dissection of the ongoing Hindu-Muslim hostilities in India is the intimate kernel of individual suffering made unbearably palpable by the lingering shots of the open sores blistering and sputtering against the fine pale surface of a cadaver waiting to shed his last sign of life. It may be unfair to judge both films (the latter being Hunger) by some arbitrary aesthetic yardstick, since their creators belong to two completely polarized modes of filmmaking, on one hand, we have a famous Bollywood actress turned passionate chronicler of her country’s forgotten crimes against itself, and on the other corner, we have a video artist evolving from installation eye-candy to the loose narratives of the European tradition. Director Nandita Das employs shock tactics to externalize the pain of a Hindi housewife haunted by the banshee screams of her Muslim neighbors begging for help, so obviously, her only means of masochistic atonement is to sear her arm with hot cooking oil. Steve McQueen, on the other hand, creeps closer to the essence of horror, building dread not of death’s approach, but of apathy wearing away little by little of political conviction, and while many critics has cited the middle portion as being the most political and politicized, the now infamous 20-minute long take of two people conversing whether a hunger strike really achieves or motivates social change, for this reviewer’s opinion, where Hunger truly exceeds are the soft-focused texture of surfaces, from fingers probing the rusty iron bars to snow falling on the bloody knuckles of the prison guard, there lie its most gentle moments wrapped around extended tableaus of institutional brutality and frenzy protests (exemplified by the opening credits, the sound of drums are enough to cite historicity without all the cheap signifiers of that Thatcherite era). In the end, neither lofty philosophical conversations nor liberal ideals could rescue the body from flatlining, all that remains is the precious flashback of a childhood lost in the woods, a journey not into a man’s personal beliefs, but his mind right at the precipice of forgetting everything including himself.
I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Philippe Claudel, France, 2008)
Finally, a high-pedigree film that can be read in no other way than a French maternal melodrama centered on Zizek’s most belabored conceit: the inherent transgression. With drooping baggy eyes and quenched lips, never far away from a lit cigarette, Kristin Scott Thomas fulfills her duty as Oscar bait in another Fresh-off-from-Jail picture starring a strong female lead with a deep dark secret, but even as her most ‘heinous’ sin is carefully spelled out in calm bold letters to an inquisitive employer, we have already succumbed to the face of this pitiful creature that any audible gasp in the audience is a knee-jerk reaction than a sudden transformation of empathy to revulsion. [Spoiler alert] Simply put, Juliette is no cold-hearted murderer, taking a page out of the Euripidean playbook, she’s the modern equivalent of the tragic Medea, sacrificing her terminally-afflicted son in order to save him. Her proof of love is not diminished, but intensified by defying bourgeois notions of morality and confronting the harsh reality of mortality. There’s no better way to showcase pure maternal affection than through mercy killing. The film, in full Zizekian fashion, casts a suspicious eye on this enigmatic mysterious character of Juliette in order to scurry her away into the space of innocence with maximum approval by the audience…of course, how could she, look at this poster child of melancholia. However, we are the not the only spectators of this staged reversal of virtue, for the title points to one of the most banal yet powerful phrases in all of declarative speech, those precious three letter words, I-love-you spoken by a restless spirit: I’ve Love You So Long. Who else but Lea as the true addressee and addresser of this private confession between on the surface, estranged sisters, but symbolically, mother and child surrogates to one another. Is not one of the most poignant gesture of the waiting lover is to write the name of her beloved on each day of the calendar, when physical arrival becomes less important than the promise of remembrance, as time replaces space in all manners of treachery? One could extrapolate that the true monster of this film is the Janus-lingual mother, cast away in her dungeon of a convalescent home for separating the siblings at the first place, her disorienting switch from French to English serves up a cushion of sharp pain for Juliette, who pulls her crucified arms away from this Jane Birkin wannabe. While we could characterize I’ve Loved You So Long as a study on mourning, this intellectual euphemism can’t hold back the flood of what in layman’s term is a full-blooded weepie, you just gotta wait till the doves cry [first].
TULPAN (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstan, 2008)
How can I truly encapsulate the experience of watching Tulpan, a sort of all-knowing homage to Nanook of the North, as if its director’s humble start in documentaries reveal itself through the winding long takes of nomadic kinship set against the desolate plains of Kazakhstan, while the story is languidly propelled by the coming-of-age ambitions of Asa, the returning naval officer in search of a bride. The title of the film refers to ‘tulip,’ the elusive beauty, prized among the scattered inhabitants, but kept offscreen, out of sight, not necessarily out of mind, to drive Asa’s hopes of starting his own enclave of animal husbandry extraordinaires. While the film culminates with a mesmerizing and squirm-inducing birth of a lamb, in which the lack of cuts produces its own brand of realism, not in the order of authenticity to reality, but the other A: aware admiration for the actor’s ability to endure such extraneous demands, a miracle of photography that would raise Bazin from his grave. Thematic consideration aside, what makes the film so pleasurable is the repetition of the disco hit, “Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M, which enters the film only at times of euphoria, when the City, as both urban space and dream realm invoked in the song, promises easy passage into adulthood. Interestingly, the director rejects the hipster flavor of today’s pop tunes for an antiquated sound, an already too late nostalgia, an opportunity missed and never to be recovered, perhaps the inclusion of the folk ballads sung by Asa’s niece is a much required listening session: a counter siren call that lures him back to discover a rite of passage still waiting for him in the present, in his own home, and what the film promotes to be more viable than the hanging gardens of Babylon. Guess which route he chooses?
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD (Kim Ji-Won, Korea, 2008)
Would it be wrong to indulge in a excessively violent action movie while knowing all too well that it consists of thinly-coherent setpieces, like dots on a blank paper with lines connecting to form nothing but more meaningless scribbles? Of course, my description could fit any Hollywood blockbuster from the last five years, including those heading towards the Nicholas Cage’s retirement funds, but what makes The Good, The Bad, and The Weird different from the lot isn’t its intrinsic value as a Kimichi Western, a national appropriation of a bygone genre, resurrected occasionally like its clown-whore cousin, the Musical. Unlike his Asian compatriot Johnnie To, director Kim Ji-won revels in his inconsistency, jumping form one genre to another, and reinvents himself not as an auteur of fresh originality, but as a refiner of form, a distiller of borrowed styles to their most effective luster. As if parodying academic reductions of Korean cinema to nationalist readings of trauma and historicist hoopla, the film accounts for its interpretative posterity by inserting a random scene that takes place in a roadside brothel, even proffering a lecture about the fractured identity of Korea during the 30s. What’s more, we are given everything we expected from the Western, including quiet reflections on what outlaw men dream of, while leaving The Good in the middle of his thought. What does he really want? The film answers this question with the final draw between all the titular leads, their desire is mutual, a chance to challenge each other, whatever hokey bullshit spoken before comes down to a moronic duel-to-the death existence.
Forget about the ‘Melville’ Kim of The Bittersweet Life, or the ‘Kobayashi’ Kim of The Tale of Two Sisters, there’s no dramatic grace or terrifying ambience here, only a topsy-turvy road to perdition, punctuated by perfectly choreographed sequences of deranged shootouts, epic train robberies, and chaotic chases-within-chases. If the Tarantino signature (an oxymoron) is awfully apparent in his recent excursion, it’s only because of their shared passion for Santa Esmeralda, a song that truly blends with the visual spectacles of men running after each other on horses and jeeps, to almost ridiculously laughable duration. I could never articulate my sheer ecstasy in rewatching (infinitely if possible) these scenes of sensory overload, but what I realize in my second viewing is the unique technique Kim brings to Hollywood plot devices that could have called for split-second editing, instead, he decides to keep the camera rolling, extending the moment of gory impact for not only objects on camera, but of the camera itself blown into smithereens. It reminds me of the film’s own vulnerability, its materiality, its mortal inevitability in the filmmaking process rather than only being a omnipresent window to a fictional world. For instance, when the Japanese army starts shooting at all the bandits, our perspective is bound with that of the machine gun, jittering across the frame, but right there, you start to feel the “frames” of the film running every 24 seconds. Like an amusement park thrill ride, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird refuses to play into the dialectic between full form and empty content, we have here a reconciliation of form as content, spectacle as narrative, and a feast even the eyes would think twice about before attending.