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April 27, 2009

Good Cats, 2008

good_cats.gifSomething like Jia Zhang-ke's portraits of contemporary China by way of Hou Hsiao-hsien's stationary long shots and sense of landscape, Good Cats returns to the hybrid fiction of Ying Liang's previous film, The Other Half to capture the dislocation and moral vacuum left in the wake of China's rapid economic development. Similar to The Other Half, Good Cats is also set in Ying's hometown of Zigong, and like his earlier film, a frontal shot of the main character being questioned by an unseen interviewer also serves as the opening sequence (in this case, by a fortune teller looking to glean information for his palm reading), reflecting the interrogative nature of Ying's gaze. However, inasmuch as Ying frames the estrangement in The Other Half from a native point of view, the sense of displacement in Good Cats is also a geographic one - embodied by underemployed 29 year old, Luo Liang who works as a driver for light bulb salesman turned real estate investor, Boss Peng (his provincial upbringing is suggested in an early episode in which his co-workers tease him for not being able to eat spicy Sichuan cuisine), and also the villagers protesting their eviction from a tract of land that Boss Peng has targeted for redevelopment (in a tacit agreement with corrupt village chief Zong). Living in a dilapidated, gas-leak prone apartment with his over-critical wife (who, along with her parents, hound him to go to night school in order to land a more prestigious and financially secure job), continuing to support his neighbor and former mentor, Liu Xiaopei who has fallen into hard times, and assisting with the murky dealings of his increasingly unstable employer, Luo Liang is a marginal bystander to the country's alienating transformation - a figurative impotence that is reinforced in his extended family's strong arm attempts to goad him into starting a family as a means of saving face within their ancestral community. Moreover, Luo Liang's disconnection from his intrusive extended family also exposes a sense of rootlessness that reveal a broader cultural malaise - a despritualization that is suggested in the surreal shot of Luo Liang and Boss Peng impounding the disarticulated head of a Buddha statue into the back of a pickup truck as collateral for an overdue loan (in an absurdist convergence of spirituality and economics that recalls the failed crucifix venture of Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor). Framed in the context of Luo Liang staggering through a communal farm, his instinctual quest to return home becomes a potent image of marginalized struggle and uprooted ideology.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, New Chinese Independent Cinema

April 23, 2009

The Other Half, 2006

other_half.gifIn its fractured, interpenetrating (or rather, colliding) realities, Ying Liang's The Other Half foreshadows Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City, capturing China's transforming industrial landscape through its alienated and displaced humanity. The opening frontal shot of job seeker, Xiaofei being interviewed by an off-camera recruiter establishes a sense of division - the unseen economic, social, educational, and gendered "other half" - that resurfaces throughout the film. Having landed the job as clerk for a law office, Xiaofei is now, too, on the other side of the camera (the supplanted image of Xiaofei with the people, often women, seeking consultation suggesting their interchangeable status), listening to potential clients as they seek advice for their grievances, whether a way out of a loveless or abusive marriage (or the financial repercussions of divorcing a wealthy husband), revenge for an extramarital affair, work-related problems, or even just to have someone listen to them (in one episode, a woman takes advantage of the firm's free consultation service to talk about her everyday struggles before a befuddled attorney).

But Xiaofei's notes also prove to be transcriptions of her own imperfect reality: living with an aimless, trouble-prone boyfriend, Deng Gang whose only motivation in life seem to be gambling and drinking with friends (even as he boasts of being rich and important someday), estranged from her father (Liu Huibin) who had left years earlier to find work in Xinjiang, and goaded by her well-intentioned mother (Chen Xigui) to use her good looks to find a more marriage prospect-worthy suitor. In this respect, the running joke on Xiaofei's resemblance to actress Zhang Ziyi not only serves as comic relief, but also reinforces her role as a surrogate identity - the anonymous face of a marginalized working class and its idealization. This intersection between personal and professional, private and public spheres is also suggested in Xiaofei's earlier disclosure that she had applied for the job opening based on the employment agency's recommendation that is subsequently paralleled in her mother's (Chen Xigui) matchmaking attempts to introduce her to a wealthy businessman (despite still being involved with Deng Gang) - both reflecting a position of disempowerment and acquiescence towards her own future. Similarly, the incisive juxtaposition of a benzene accident at a Zigong chemical factory (made ironic by earlier broadcasts of the industry's commitment to environmental responsibility) against a kitchen fire in a neighborhood mahjong parlor also creates a sense of chaos and dislocation, illustrating the role of impersonal industries as manufacturers of artificial, uprooted communities - the residential evacuation of nearby districts as a result of windswept toxic fumes (leaving them to camp out in cramped tunnels, literally tripping over people in order to move ahead), that is contrasted against images of patrons hauling buckets of water to stamp out the blaze. Culminating with a long shot of Xiaofei's friend circling in and out of view (in a shot that evokes the poetic bicycle sequence in Jia's Unknown Pleasures) to offer her a ride home, the framing of a nearly indistinguishable Xiaofei against a vast, empty landscape becomes a paradoxical metaphor for erasure and persistence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 23, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New Chinese Independent Cinema

April 19, 2009

Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation edited by Marsha Kinder

Composed of three sections, Historical Recuperation, Sexual Reinscription, and Marketing Transfiguration: Money/Politics/Regionalism, Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation is a collection of essays that examine the ways in which Spanish cinema has both defined and constructed a national identity in the latter half of the twentieth century under a transformative climate of repression, democratization, social liberation, and globalism.

refiguring_spain.gifIn the essay, Reading Hollywood in/and Spanish Cinema: From Trade Wars to Transculturation, Kathleen M. Vernon proposes that the inscription of Hollywood films in Spanish cinema - the use of excerpted scenes and placement of iconic American images in such films as Luis García Berlanga's Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (that emulate Hollywood western and film noir aesthetics) and Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive (James Whale's Frankenstein), goes beyond simple pop culture reference and instead, conveys oppositional subtext that allude to the isolationism and xenophobia that marked Franco-era Spain, as well as the US government's enabling political climate against a shared Communist threat that reinforced the dysfunction. Vernon further examines the role of these inscriptions within Pedro Almodóvar's cinema that function, not only as tongue in cheek homage, but also reinforce the idea of illusive history as the country was undergoing a radical transformation to democracy (which culminated in the election of the socialist party, PSOE, that would remain in power until 1996). To this end, Vernon argues that What Have I Done to Deserve This? represents Almodóvar's most politically referential work, framing Bud Stamper's (Warren Beatty) dream of returning to a simpler life in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass within the context of Franco's parochial policies:

Finally, in an ultimate irony, the character's flight from the city at the end of ¿Qué hecho yo? though it marks the apparent fulfillment of their shared dream, reenacts the conclusion of the founding film of Spanish neorealism, José Antonio Nieves Conde's Surcos (Furrows, 1950). Hailed as the 'first glance at reality in a cinema of paper-maché', for its treatment of the problem of the rural exodus to the cities, in the hands of Falangist Nieves Conde, it also served as a cautionary tale regarding the moral corruption and destruction of family structures that awaited new immigrants to the city.

...Far from the instance of the postmodern denial of history through pastiche, as in Fredric Jameson's account of the mode, through its juxtaposition in filmic intertexts, the ironic American pastoral Splendor with the Spanish cautionary tale Surcos, ¿Qué hecho yo? casts suspicion on the workings of the cinematic imaginary. The longing for return is revealed as a return to the past of Francoism, a past Almodóvar's films disavow even as they actively re-evaluate its hold over the present.

The idea of a post-Franco reframing of official history also serves as a basis for Marsha Kinder's examination of Spanish documentary filmmaking, Documenting the National and Its Subversion in a Democratic Spain. Tracing the origins of what Kinder characterizes as the distinctive "Spanish inflection" of contemporary documentaries, Kinder cites Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread and Carlos Saura's Cuenca as early examples of subverted documentaries that sought to create historical record even as they underscore the inexactness and malleability of such representation. The complex nature of historical reconstruction is also illustrated in two Civil War-themed documentaries, Jaime Camino's La vieja memoria and Gonzalo Herralde's Raza, el espíritu de Franco, which, as Kinder proposes, "not only provide an archival record of popular memory, ...but they also perform a historical and ideological analysis of this material."

Kinder further examines two noteworthy, 1990s transition-era documentaries, José Luis Guerín's Innisfree and Víctor Erice's El sol de membrillo as examples of highly regionalized documentaries that, nevertheless, reflect the impossibility of mediated representation:

Erice's film is preoccupied with the serial performance of self-representation, which (no matter how narcissistic) must inevitably be historicized. The film demonstrates that no matter what subject you are documenting (on canvas or on celluloid, on paper or video), you are still representing yourself and your medium and bearing witness to the historical and cultural moment that shaped your subjectivity. Like Innisfree, both López's painting and Erice's filmmaking capture the traces of what is perceived and remembered.

Roland B. Tolentino's essay, Nations, Nationalisms, and Los últimos de Filipinas: An Imperialist Desire for Colonialist Nostalgia, in some ways, expounds on Kinder's thesis on cultural inscription - in particular, the systematic refiguring of cultural identity under Franco. By placing Antonio Román's film in the context of Franco's nationalist agenda, Tolentino proposes that the film's revisionism reflects Spain's campaign to rehabilitate its postwar isolation by invoking the shared colonial history of allied Europe, reframing the handover of the Philippines to the US as a geopolitical strategy rather than a defeat that marked the end of the Spanish empire. Moreover, by examining the integral role of religion in colonialism (in its moral rationalization of enlightened mandate) as reflected in the film, Tolentino presents an insightful parallel to Franco's regime, which drew support from the Catholic church.

The troop's isolation in the Philippines is analogous to the isolation of the Francoist regime from other nations. The value of defending the empire to death is the latent hegemonic nationalist call. In the construction of the national ego ideal, the film narrative glorifies the 'conversion of the historical massacre into a religious sacrifice, one that is focused on the 'fetishization of virility and sacrifice.' Catholic orthodoxy is entwined with militaristic adventurism.

It is interesting to note that while Tolentino discusses Spanish colonial influence through its increasingly marginalized role in contemporary Filipino culture (which has been increasingly supplanted by American imperialism), the ideology behind the colonialist nostalgia of Los últimos de Filipinas with respect to Spanish society - the film's intended audience - is only indirectly broached in the essay, alluded in a comment on Catalan speakers and Basque nationalists' (apparently) tempered response to the film. Indeed, inasmuch as cultural erasure reflects the legacy of colonialism, it also represents a motivation for Franco's social policy, where the assertion of regional identity is seen as a threat to national unity.

The role of regional identity in the national discourse is further explored in Jaume Martí-Olivella's Regendering Spain's Political Bodies: Nationality and Gender in the Films of Pilar Miró and Arantxa Lazcano. Examining the parallels between Pilar Miró's El pájaro de felicidad) and Arantxa Lazcano's Urte ilunak, Martí-Olivella proposes that both films redefine the notion of center and margin through their non-dominant, alternative points of view. This occupation of shared space is illustrated in the use of interchanging language in both films (enabled by the standardized use of subtitles in the original language), creating an environment where multilingual dialogue is part of the cultural norm:

What is the reality that these two films try to 'normalize'? It is the reality of a shared political space, Spain, that still resists being reimagined and thus represented as a plurinational, multicultural, and heteroglossic community... They underline a common goal to reimagine the different languages and cultures of Spain as an essential richness rather than a constant source of national struggle.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 19, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

April 16, 2009

Sex, Okra and Salted Butter, 2008

sex_okra.gifSimilar to Pierre Yameogo's Me and My White Pal, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's crisp, lighthearted satire Sex, Gumbo and Salted Butter reflects on the challenges posed by dislocation, estrangement, and cultural assimilation. For old-fashioned family patriarch and Malian expatriate, Malik (Marius Yelolo), the belated culture shock of immigrating to Bordeaux comes when his attractive, much younger wife, Hortense (Mata Gabin) decides to run away with one of her patients - an oyster farmer (a not so subtle reference to her sexual awakening after a passionless marriage) named Jean-Paul (Manuel Blanc) and, in the process of enlisting his eldest son, Dani's (Dioucounda Koma) help to help find her, discovers that Dani has not been harboring his mother in his apartment, but rather, a gay lover. Meanwhile, having neglected his younger sons in pursuit of his wayward wife - in a hopeless display of romanticism that included surprising her at work and serenading her with a kora from her hospital window (followed by a swift ejection from the grounds by security) - the boys have begun to search for their own surrogate caretaker, first, in the genial, if repressed, widowed neighbor, Madame Myriam (Lorella Cravotta), and subsequently, in Dani's troubled friend, Amina (Aïssa Maïga). Resigned to a life of dodging questions from his ever-disapproving, busybody elders, and tolerable, if unconventional living arrangement with Amina, Malik finds a glimmer of hope for reconciliation with the arrival of Hortense's aunt, Tatie Afoué (Marie-Philomène Nga) from Africa, only to find that the headstrong Afoué has her own ideas about tradition. As in Yameogo's film, the comedy of errors in Sex, Gumbo and Salted Butter stems from misperceptions of identity - gender, familial, and racial roles that, rather than upholding culture, ends up distorting it in its rigidity and exclusion.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 16, 2009 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 15, 2009

Sacred Places, 2009

sacred_places.gifDuring the Q&A, Jean-Marie Téno remarked that he was inspired to shoot Sacred Places as a result of seeing dramatic changes to the format of the 2009 FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso, where the practice of holding open-air simulcasts of featured films for public viewing around the festival grounds in Ouagadougou - often, their only means of seeing these native films on their first run - had been essentially discontinued, and the proliferation of marketing agreements had resulted in the wholesale inclusion of too many officially sponsored films that diluted the overall representation of African films and, more importantly, abandoned the spirit of the festival's founding principle to host a worldwide showcase for Pan-African cinema. For Téno, the displacement of native films to accommodate the interests of multinational corporate sponsors is a reminder that, with ever-encroaching globalism, African culture itself is at stake, and its salvation lies in creating novel, sustainable paradigms that reflect the realities of a developing economy. Examining the interrelation between globalism and cultural crisis from a grassroots level, Téno visits the working class district of St. Leon, a town that had been suggested by a local audience member as proof of the changing face of cinephilia that, in their limited access to big city venues and high-profile international festivals, has been largely ignored, even by native filmmakers. The first of these enterprising cultural warriors is Bouba, a cinephile and local businessman (granted, a tenuous label given that his business barely breaks even each month) who runs the humbly named Votre Ciné Club with a DVD player, a VCR, and modest television set, screening a different feature program each evening - complete with marquis-styled, home-made movie posters - to an appreciative crowd. For Bouba, the murky business model of using pirated DVDs is a necessary evil, explaining that his customers would prefer to see more African films but, at a retail cost of $25 for each home video - coupled with the limited popularity of the films abroad that makes them less desirable for piracy (and its significantly lower street price) - he is forced to compromise by programming more affordable Bollywood and martial arts films. Another is Jules César, a musical instrument craftsman who literally drums up support for the ciné club by announcing the evening's slate of films with his djembe. Preferring to continue making handcrafted instruments even as mass production becomes an increasingly popular alternative, he sees his role as a guardian of the griot tradition - a conduit between the ancient tale-tellers and modern ones (filmmakers). Paralleling the age of African cinema to the average lifespan of an African - 50 years - Téno presents a sobering assessment of a native film industry in crisis, struggling to communicate the story of - and communicate with - its people. It is this integral connection that is insightfully reflected in the portrait of an eccentric engineer turned public writer who posts literary passages and assorted musings on an outdoor chalkboard each day, a fleeting act of cultural reinforcement and assertion of identity in the face of erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 14, 2009

The Prodigal Son, 2008

prodigal_son.gifLike Katrina Browne's earnest and impassioned essay film, Traces of the Trade, South African filmmaker Kurt Orderson's The Prodigal Son is less a journey to find ancestral roots - albeit from the other side of the slave trade - than an invitation for an open dialogue on race and reconciliation. Having lived his youth in the waning days of apartheid in Cape Flats, a designated "Coloured Labour Preference Area" (a transplanted community in Cape Town that, a generation earlier, had been forcibly uprooted from a once integrated District Six that was being converted to a whites-only area during the government's implemented segregation in the late 1960s), Orderson embarks on a journey to trace the origins of his heritage beyond the adopted notions of home that the Cape Flats resettlement community represents. Researching the family lineage back to his great-grandfather, Joseph, a merchant sailor who had apparently jumped ship and decided to forge a new life in South Africa, Orderson soon discovers that his great-grandfather did not come directly from West Africa as the family commonly believed, but rather, from Barbados where, as a descendent of emancipated slaves who had been brought to the island to work in the sugar cane plantations, he had sought work in the transport ships in order to seek a better - if equally racially problematic - life away from the cycle of indentured service on the islands. But rather than finding long lost members of an extended family, Orderson's visit to the island instead leads to more ambiguity as his seemingly personal link to his ancestry - his surname - proves to have been an arbitrary identification by former slaves to convey their association with the plantations from which they were emancipated. At the core of Orderson's unresolved quest is an exploration of African diasporic identity, where national and cultural roots serve as convenient signifiers that sidestep engagement with broader issues of race and identification. This evasion is trenchantly illustrated during Orderson's conversation with a pair of older generation Barbadians - one of whom bristles at the comment that his race is African - implicitly revealing not only ingrained ideas about racial hierarchy (measured by degrees of separation from one's continental roots), but also the perception that identity is binary and exclusive, contributing to divisions that continue to undermine Africa's transcendence from a corrosive legacy of colonialism and exploitation.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

The Fighting Spirit, 2007

fightingspirit.gifIn an episode in George Amponsah's insightful and compassionate documentary The Fighting Spirit, a boxing trainer from the Ghanian fishing village of Bukom, having arrived with his protégée to England for an international competition, marvels at the technological achievement behind the gleaming urban landscape, commenting that the problem of African stagnation does not stem from a lack of ingenuity to build such impressive structures, but rather, a collective failure to nurture a "culture of maintenance". It is a change in mindset that he also strives to instill among the young boxers in his gym who, like homegrown hero, world champion, and hall of fame inductee Azumah Nelson, see professional boxing as a means of improving the quality of their lives and giving back to the impoverished community. For 22 year old boxer George, the UK match represents the first step towards building name recognition and legitimacy as a contender in Europe with an eye towards the title fight circuit (and their high payouts) of US boxing championships, as well as his own maturity, enabling him to earn enough money to build a house so he can marry his girlfriend. Across the Atlantic, Joshua now occupies the role of unofficial ambassador and standard bearer for Ghanian boxing, having left friends and family back home for a modest life in New York City to train for a highly anticipated contender match that will pave the way for a title fight in Las Vegas. For thirty-something female boxer, Yarkor, international boxing represents her best shot at breaking free from traditional roles to forge her own identity and financial independence, but struggles to launch her career after running into red tape in obtaining a passport, where an age discrepancy could render her too old to compete. By capturing the everyday lives of the three boxers away from the ring, Amponsah frames their personal stories within the context of the community's broader struggle for dignity and survival, where losses provide opportunity for character-building and soul searching - a re-alignment of priorities that is reflected in George's reconciliation with his girlfriend after his ego-inflating trip abroad (and subsequently deflating homecoming) following his first professional fight.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2009 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival