Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Kinatay (2009) de Brillante Mendoza
June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?
Brief impression: “La Mariée était en noir” aka “The Bride wore Black”
March 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
There’s no real point in re-treading the ground already covered by critical minds far more encyclopaedic and cineliterate than yours truly, individuals who have (probably) diligently and dutifully uploaded to The Cloud impressive and astute essays and think pieces that trace the lineage of influence that exists between Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films and Francois Truffaut’s 1968 kickass picture “The Bride Wore Black.” Sure, Tarantino denies having viewed Truffaut’s picture before writing and directing his Kung-Fu homages, but for someone as steeped in popular culture as Tarantino, who is as much a product of it as he is a producer of it, the possibility of him having internalised elements of “The Bride Wore Black” without having actually seen it is not entirely implausible. Thus all that really needs to be said here to adequately satisfy those who would consider this piece of movie trivia a ‘pop culture elephant in the room’ that shouldn’t be overlooked is to acknowledge that The Bride did indeed wear black before she began hopping across the globe wearing Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death” tracksuit and equally canary yellow Onitsuka sneakers, almost single-handedly slaying 88 crazy assassins at one point.
But the reason for this somewhat petulant, wholly cynical refusal to dredge up the fact that a widely seen, cultishly adored duology was inspired – and brazenly so – by a relatively unknown French film (at least among many contemporary film viewers) is largely due to the disappointing lack of influence Tarantino’s sleeve-worn cinephilia and movie championing seems to have on his legion of fans, or at least the legions that profess to be fans of his. “The Bride Wore Black” aside, did Tarantino’s appropriation of the title “Inglorious Bastards” to “Inglourious Basterds” for his own men-on-a-mission war flick cause scores of people to rush out and seek the 1978 Italian B-picture that inspired the 2009 hit? Frankly, in a world in which Quentin Tarantino’s remix movies (almost like cinematic versions of DJ Shadow’s “…Endtroducing”) have absolutely pervaded the mainstream and in which he has with his loud and garrulous voice been heard proclaiming his love for films old and new, too many kids have never seen “Taxi Driver” and know it only by way of a certain catchphrase whose origin they might not even be aware of; have never spared a thought for the brilliance of Jean-Pierre Melville and the French New Wave; have never truly ventured far if at all into Hong Kong cinema. Truly: how many lovers of “Pulp Fiction” have actually bothered to check out “Rio Bravo” after years of Tarantino yapping on and on about it?
“The Bride Wore Black” stars Jeanne Moreau – and her miracle of a face, one second dumpy and sad and the next sensuous and stunning as all hell – as a widow with a kill list. Having the love of her life, the one and only love of her life, Daniel, be taken from her literally minutes after she is declared his wife and he her husband doesn’t do Julie Kohler any favours, turning her first towards suicide, then homicide (with pseudo-suicidal implications). After (it seems) years spent quietly tracking down the whereabouts of the group of men she holds accountable for the senseless gunning down of her new groom, Julie embarks on a whirlwind mission to meet out revenge. The plot is that simple, but boy is it drawn with that very humanist lightness of touch and almost serendipitous narrative grace that distinguishes director Truffaut from some of his Cahier du Cinema/nouvelle vague contemporaries. Perhaps the most emotionally generous of the aforementioned cohort, Francois Truffaut also possesses one of the movement’s more naturally loose styles, loose both in the sense that there is a degree of naturalism to the look of his images and the performances his actors tend to give, but also in that his palette of techniques is broad and drawn from freely, the whole affair being tied together with an achingly rhapsodic score oddly reminiscent of what Bernard Hermann composed for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Truffaut’s styles seems to be defined by a surprisingly seamless patchwork of long shots, close-ups, freeze-frames, POV tracking shots, Hitchcockian camera waltzes, flashbacks, voice-over narration and scores of other techniques which coalesce into a whole which is strangely far less jarring than the aforementioned cinematic cocktail would suggest. Where Godard is punk and Resnais baroque radicalism, amongst others, Truffaut is almost serene in his virtuosity, a charming prankster with minty fresh breath. Simply put, he comes across as the New Waver most comfortable with the language of cinema, as though he was born speaking it, which is not to say that his grasp of the medium is necessarily the most rigorous. As is the case with his 1961 effort “Shoot the Piano Player,” the genre construct of “The Bride Wore Black”, specifically its propulsive storyline, is a beautiful backdrop against which Truffaut’s strengths as a painter of character is made even more evident. It’s while watching a film about a murdering widow that a scene in which said widow plays hide-and-seek with a five-year-old (without it being at all ominous or creepy) becomes noticeable in its simplicity, humanity and emotional generosity. Simply said, the joy of beholding Truffaut’s cinema seems to be much more acute when the film’s synopsis would have you expecting anything but.
To momentarily indulge in comparing Truffaut’s film to Tarantino’s, where “Kill Bill” essentially justifies the motivations of Uma Thurman’s The Bride by establishing (1) that she was betrayed by a group with whom she believed she shared an honour code and (2) that her unborn child was murdered by said group, in addition to her husband, “The Bride Wore Black” is bathed in complete psychological abstruseness. Whether or not one condones The Bride’s actions, her vengeful rage is perfectly understandable, and in combination with her training as a killer it’s not surprising that this rage would lead her where it does. On the contrary, Moreau’s bride calculatedly eliminates, one by one, a group of men who – if their story is true, which it most probably is in the context of the film – shot someone by mistake and permanently disbanded thereafter so as to avoid being apprehended. What is striking and somewhat shocking about Julie is her apparent lack of interest in learning the ‘truth’ about that fateful day. She simply knows that she was robbed of her life and as far as she is concerned she’s a dead woman, which she explicitly states to one of her victims. Her mission may be in honour of her husband, but it may also be an utterly irrational expression of emotions for which she has no other satisfactory outlet. By rendering Julie’s mission questionable from the outset and then later revealing that she may in fact be avenging an accident (reckless, yes, but accidental), “The Bride Wore Black” really seems to be questioning the true natures of justice, nihilism, and the very human instinct to get one’s own back, questioning the degree to which these are in service of morals or a genuine worldview versus being simple expressions of the otherwise inexpressible. Admittedly, the men’s cowardly response to the incident is enough to encourage debased viewer satisfaction as this bride offs her victims with far more inventiveness and certainly more slyness than does her modern American iteration. It’s also very interesting to witness Julie’s discovery – one by one – that these men are not saints in the slightest but a collection of arrogant, narcissistic, womanising, (possibly criminal in the case of one) chauvinists who are at the very least guilty of some kind of weapons offense if not manslaughter, and the penultimate block of the film which sees her engaging very unexpectedly with one of her targets casts the psychological fabric of this film even further into the shadows. Julie’s interaction with this particular individual, Fergus, an unapologetically skirt-chasing artist, may suggest that she is still capable of being curious about other people – men other than Daniel – or at least about the artistic process (which suggests that she is not entirely nihilistic) , but that she has chosen to focus on revenge so as not to have to consider living, or to even consider the fact that she has life in her yet (which is made crystal clear in several scenes), and that there are men other than Daniel who could love her and whom she could love; people other than Daniel with whom she could be intimate. At the risk of overreaching, “The Bride Wore Black” ultimately seems to be some kind of lament not only for the nihilistic amongst us, but for those whose sense of person is entirely external as opposed to internal, excessively dependent on a person or a thing or a mission as opposed to their status as a sentient being who thinks and feels and is very much aware of this. Julie reminisces about her lifelong love affair with Daniel and recalls how she’s waited – all the way from early childhood – to marry him. In some films, this would be hopelessly romantic, the stuff of fairy tales; but in “The Bride Wore Black” it represents a needlessly sad, needlessly bleak existence, sad not because she loved Daniel so deeply and for so long, but that she lived him…and then he got shot.
Dredged up: “A Woman is a Woman isn’t so bad” (another piece written circa 2011)
March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
As soon as I hit play on this 1961 Godard picture, a wave of dread came over me. This was followed swiftly by shame. I was supposed to be excited and energised. I’m meant to like Godard, aren’t I? Well, I do. Well, I appreciate him, his prodigious influence, his eschewing of rules and dogmas, his sometimes irritating passion for the form. His pure balls. I think “Breathless” is to cinema what the monolith was to Stanley Kubrick’s ape-men. Not the best analogy perhaps, but the best I could come up with. 1964’s “Vivre Sa Vie” was interesting, meaning my sister hated it but I thought it was kind of awesome. I retract my earlier statement. I was pumped for this movie.
“Une Femme est une Femme” features Godard favourite (read: lover and muse) Anna Karina as Angela, a burlesque dancer whose cyclist partner, Emile, scoffs at her deep desire to become a mother. Completing a love triangle of sorts is Alfred, a professed admirer of Angela’s who courts her incessantly and would possibly go to great lengths to win her affections, perhaps as far as agreeing to knock her up. New-wave silliness ensues.
Funnily, everything I feared this movie would throw in my face turned out to be the very reasons I was utterly charmed by it. An erratic almost cheeky soundtrack, twee use of colour, fourth-wall breaches, Hollywood rom-com stylings, offbeat visual gags…”Une Femme est une Femme” is the work of a toddler of an artist cavorting in a cinematic playpen with his buddies, and I had a ball watching them. Where “Breathless” was a newborn sprinting on Day 1, this film is baby Godard content having a whole lot of fun in the sand. The first thing you notice is the colours, vibrant, lush almost. Not quite as punk as I’d anticipated. Later on, I’m to be reminded of P.T. Anderson and Bob Elswit’s use of colour in “Punch-Drunk Love” — Emily Watson’s orangey blouse and Adam Sandler’s cobalt-blue suit, both of which evoke outfits worn by this film’s two leads. That movie was also modelled around the classic Hollywood musical, but I am not suggesting any lineage of influence here.
You’re then hit with the music. Either it makes you cock your head and wonder a little, or it pisses you off from the get go. It’s almost like a component of dialogue, a mish-mash of pop tunes and orchestral flourishes that don’t simply underscore happenings but are part of their very architecture. Personally, I cocked my head, perhaps getting a little miffed, but then I was promptly swept away. There are even moments that teeter on the edge of dance while others openly allude to Technicolor umbrella numbers of the 50s (I assume). One of the final scenes in Angela and Emile’s apartment has a very choreographed feel with its gliding cameras and swelling strings, and at one point earlier in the film, Angela actually mentions Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse while holding dance poses. Which brings me to the next and most obvious observation. That Godard tops Tarantino when it comes to referencing both himself and pop culture. This movie is awash with references. Half of them did not ring a bell, but I was certainly aware of their presence. But unlike, say, his later, more political/philosophical films, these references are the loving touches of a chain-smoking geek, not the indignant jabs of a pseudo-intellectual (which, of course, there is nothing wrong with being, at least not always).
“A Woman Is a Woman” is incredibly playful and that’s the best way to approach it. That being said, Anna Karina, I think, makes an incredibly assured turn as Angela. She seems so damn comfortable in front of the camera, so at ease you might think she was born in front of one, a statement which would automatically make a fifth of the world’s population natural-born actors. But honestly, Karina carries this film, an achievement which was recognised at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival in some capacity. All the performances are good, but there is not a forced moment in hers. To perhaps preface everything I’ve said, I wouldn’t be surprised if every spoken word was improvised. There is a care-free yet heightened naturalism in the characters’ interactions. Regarding Angela and Emile, there is an almost childish quality to their relationship. It’s clear from their bickering and non-verbal name-calling (you’ll see) that they’re crazy about each other, but that this might equally be the reason for their coupling being a tenuous one. To me, Alfred doesn’t stand a chance, never did. But like lichen on a tree or one of those birds on the ass of a rhino, good on him for trying, for sticking with it.
As to what this film actually says or suggests about femininity and love, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. When I watch films I tend to focus on style on first viewing, taking more interest in the actual story and content on subsequent sit-throughs. But if anything, my off-the-cuff impression is that Angela is nostalgic for a fading feminine ideal, that of the woman with strong nesting and maternal yearnings, a sexuality that commands the male gaze, and a sense of unerring devotion to the one she has chosen to love. Perhaps in an age when women will soon burn their bras and stick it to their ovarian cycles with The Pill, Angela feels that despite all these modernisations, a woman is a woman. Or maybe it’s simply Godard who thinks this.