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Attica! Attica! Top Films of 2009! (Part 5) March 14, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Hollywood, Indie Sine, Noypi, Yearender.
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IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

20. DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

Liking District 9 means being able to tolerate its racist (read: race related) appropriations. But race is everywhere; and race can never be avoided. It’s like the pavement we walk on everyday—it can’t be helped but be stepped on. While the issue on race is an obligatory discussion, it’s also as worthy to mention how District 9 is able to laugh at itself, to be ridiculous for ridiculous’ sake, to reveal a deeply political motive without succumbing to annoying motherhood dialogues and iffy global concerns. The derogatory way it mocks the media and the world’s multinational operations is pleasing to the point of chuckling at the sight of Sharlto Copley engaging himself in prawn-like activities after being accused of having sex with them. Being derogatory, like race, is everywhere; and Copley, along with the drama of alien eviction and nigger violence, might as well show off the Peter Jackson geekiness he’s known for. Despite lacking originality, District 9 catches up with a lot of scathing action, almost like a Transformers movie without the retinal damage and ear-bleeding explosions (and unfortunately, without Megan Fox too). It’s one hell of a filthy and unapologetic work, but clear-eyed and amusing at that.

19. UP (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

It’s too elementary to call it adventure, but all adventures are elementary anyway; so elementary, my dear friends, is always a good thing. But what counts is the fun, the ride, the thrill, the moments. Who cares about emotional bedrock? That bedrock is never meant to be noticed but it’s there; it makes the film work. Something about Mr. Fredricksen’s character that borrows from an old Spencer Tracy, or the way Pixar has always been brilliant in wordless scenes than in dialogues, that sets it straight from the start. But the cluster balloons—those cluster balloons that were made unforgettable in Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon—they seem to emerge out of a colonial understanding. Or is it the general knowledge of a dream? Or a misunderstanding? And why is the young mind always fascinated by colorful balloons? For Up to use it not only as a bookend device but as an element all throughout—it’s not just a trick but ingenuity.

18. ANG PANGGAGAHASA KAY FE (Alvin Yapan)

I think I said something inappropriate in my review of Fe a couple of months ago, which with the liberty I have now with this list I would like to make up for. Taken out of the Cinemalaya context—and not just because it stands out then—Fe still looks good. Yapan’s literary exposure is swell; but even without knowing so, his film reeks of letters, sublimity, and hidden happenings, without being too pedantic or excessive. In fact, a pulse can be felt as the film exposes its layers one by one, carefully until it reaches the end; a pulse that beats with rhythm and precision, thrusting forward and getting audible in total doppler effect. My memory of it makes me want to see it again.

17. VENGEANCE (Johnnie To)

It confounds me that while “Western” as a film genre is heavily established, there is no such thing as “Eastern” to speak of, the same way that “Western” has recognizable themes and motifs being revived, revised, and parodied year after year, Oscar after Oscar. Considering that theorists are keen on binary oppositions, this oversight (or Orientalism) reveals itself as characteristic of Western writings, often favoring America’s clinical influence and subverting less popular belief to the extent that even a film like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is just deemed a subgenre of American Western.

But at present, come to think of it, is there any active filmmaker in America working primarily on Westerns? Even John Ford and Akira Kurosawa didn’t work primarily on Westerns and Samurais, which just proves how able they really are, but is it an exaggeration to claim that Johnnie To, John Woo, Ringo Lam, and their company deserve an encompassing genre of their own? Aren’t they (oh, I cringe) auteurs who already earned their respective places in cinema?

Which brings this rant to To’s newest film, Vengeance. It is a mishmash of the filmmaker’s usual gimmick of slippery roads, colorful umbrellas, windswept gunslinging, and slow-motion sequences done in his trademark gracefulness, everything understated in an overstating way. Frankly, there’s nothing new about it except that it stars Johnny Hallyday (in a role that’s supposed to be for Alain Delon) and it’s a French-Chinese co-production, so one can easily feel the gravitating feeling of huge sum of money and marketing involved. Nevertheless, it still reveals To’s touch in the film: the humor, the dancing action, and the fray that concludes it. There is still that “devoidness” of much logic that audiences often complain about, and the preference of style to substance which is silly to elaborate on because again: style is substance. Suffice it to say, in Vengeance, To remains Asia’s most prized hipster.

As far as his previous films are concerned, however, Vengeance falls short in tightness. The holes are too big and the logic invites attention. The awkward English dialogues also get in the way, but other than that there’s a lot to appreciate in the film. No matter how deliberate some sequences are—for instance, when the gang assembles guns while eating pasta, or while shooting a bike as it pedals its way across the field, or that funny way they find time to smoke in the middle of firing bullets—To doesn’t lose his marbles; in fact, there’s that awareness that he almost has the same ambition that Kurosawa had while doing his best works, the way his confidence pushes the film to such heights. Vengeance ends in a shootout that is even better than Peckinpah’s famous shootouts: an awesome feast for the senses, the way the gymnastic gunplay of waltzing hay blocks steals the scene, cavorting, the wind capering the “heroic bloodshed” to bits. For a minute, it leaves an impression that  Johnny Hallyday is about to sing, but he didn’t—he really retired from singing. Oh, if he only sang—the vengeance would be infinitely sweeter.

16. WALANG ALAALA ANG MGA PARUPARO (Lav Diaz)

When me and the boys were out / We killed a thousand butterflies / So I put their wings into my mouth and said a prayer for our safe arrival  / And then a big black car crossed our path / And I wondered whether or not that shit was empty – Spencer Krug

Interesting sentiment raised by Dodo Dayao: he gets bored with Lav Diaz’s shorter films. But I will not be coming after that; what I’m after, which Dodo also raised as a concern, is that Diaz’s career as a filmmaker has now been synonymous to the length of his notorious films, that in colloquial language—and I admit to this—his name is being used to connote tediousness. Consider this conversation I overheard:

“Baka naman Lav Diaz ang gusto mong gawin na pelikula.”

“Hindi, itong sequence lang na ‘to ang gagawin kong Lav Diaz.”

“Siguraduhin mong hindi La Diaz ‘tong project na ‘to a. Ayoko nang may uuwing humihikab.”

But length also means dedication. Length means sacrifice. Length describes obsessive-compulsiveness. Length defines compromise. And length should not determine an audience (though in Diaz’s case I’m afraid it does). But would it have been different if the audience were not informed of the film’s running time? If they are unprepared? If they get engrossed in the film unmindful of time? Isn’t that what makes a film an experience, because of something that leaps out of the usual? Like Children of Paradise? Or Mirror? Or Seven Samurai?

Walang Alaala ang mga Paruparo doesn’t feel any less like a footnote, but along with other Diaz’s films since his debut, it feels complete, aches complete, and yearns complete. I am not ashamed to admit that it took Lav Diaz’s films for me to realize that cinema is different from literature, and that neither is mightier than the other. This one’s only an hour long so I’m sure you can not only find time; you can also make time to see it.

►► Next: Some {Random} Intermission

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