Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Double Suicide (1969)

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". 

Masahiro Shinoda, a prominent figure of the Japanese New Wave, gives the above phrase from William Shakespeare's "As you Like it" (1600), its most literal interpretation in his "Double Suicide" (1969), where Shakespearean tragedy meets Bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theatre.

Adapting Monzaemon Chikamatsu's "The Love Suicides at Amijima", a 1721 play originally written for the Bunraku puppet theatre, Shinoda transcends the boundaries of experimental cinema by seamlessly fusing two great forms of art, theatre and cinema, while retaining its traditional Japanese ethos. The story revolves around a paper merchant Jihei, who is madly in love with Koharu, a courtesan. Only Jihei is a married man, with two children and hence their love is a forbidden one. Since Jihei is not financially well off to redeem or buy out Koharu, the two decide to end their lives in a suicide pact, seeing death as the only possible conclusion to their ill-fated love story. There are twists and turns in the narrative that unfolds with an operatic intensity, as it marches towards its inevitable, bone-chilling culmination.

But the tale is an age old one, depicting the classical conflict between duty towards society and personal feelings/desires, and it is not really what catches our attention. What stands out and towers over most other products of cinema is Shinoda's unique vision, his realization of this vision and the medium he chooses to tell this story. And hence, in an opening that throws us off guard, we are treated to what looks like a 'making of' feature of a puppet play with the crew's verbal exchanges regarding certain acts and set design of the play. We are given a glimpse of the Kuroko, the stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre, preparing for this puppet play. The Kuroko are actually people dressed up entirely in black, from head to toe. They are so dressed, for they are supposed to be invisible to the proceedings on stage and are merely there to hand out props to the players, move sets between acts, and assist in quick scene and stage changes. 

Post the credits, the story begins, only not with puppets but with human actors, with a deliberate, stagey set design that looks like a stage in a theatre, while retaining the Kuroko anyway, who double up as stagehands as well as puppeteers! Thus, throughout the film, these hooded black figures are omnipresent, sometimes providing a voice-over narration between scenes, or explaining a particular prop in a scene, by literally freezing the action! This device in no way distracts and in fact, makes our jaw drop, for little by little, we realize what Shinoda really intends with this deliberate technique employed in the case of "Double Suicide". The way these figures appear during some key sequences and hand over objects to carry out the next inevitable scene, spell out their role in this entire affair. They are literally the hands of fate, puppet-masters, angels, or Gods, if you must, manipulating these characters and executing their destiny.

There is never a dull moment in the proceedings, and if the acting seems theatrical and the drama heightened, it is only to accentuate the roots of its literary source. The events move at a breathless pace, and there is a rawness as well as an opera-like flourish in the amplified, energetic performances. While the sets are non-realistic, the characters realistic and the drama intensely hyperbolic, the inclusion of the Kuroko give the film its surrealistic touch, and hence makes us witness a stylized, artistic blend hitherto unseen! The sets look grotesque and claustrophobic at times.

In the beginning, we get a glimpse of sets with walls painted with the ukiyo-e style black and white figures. Later in the scenes taking place in the abode of Jihei, there is a strange inkblot background. The central conflict troubling Jihei in his love affair is that between duty towards his family, i.e. his wife Osan and his own personal passion towards the prostitute/courtesan Koharu. In an ingenious casting decision, both Koharu and Osan are played by the same actress Shima Iwashita, Shinoda's real life wife, thus, symbolically giving equal weight to both ends of the spectrum with Jihei in the center, being torn apart. A similar casting choice in which the wife and the mistress is played by the same actress was used in the recent Kim Ki-Duk shocker "Moebius" (2013).

It is noteworthy how the action moves entirely from the claustrophobic interiors of most of the film to the open, spaced out landscapes when death becomes finally inevitable. A metaphorical choice of backdrops, depicting the internal turmoil of the lovers, perhaps, as death symbolizes freedom?

Noted composer Tôru Takemitsu has composed the music for the film and is also credited as a co-screenwriter. No surprise then, that "Double Suicide" illustrates one of the most perfect marriages of sound and visuals. The chiaroscuro lighting effect with sharp cinematography emphasizing the high contrast between black and white enhances the bleak beauty of the imagery, especially in the stunning final frames in which light and dark appear at their most disparate extreme, as dark silhouettes are seen from a distance in a bright background. It is also during this time that the musical score soars up to a hair-raising intensity and overwhelms with its powerful impact.

Apart from the offbeat narrative technique, the performances are a major driving force in cementing the status of "Double Suicide" as essential cinema. Kichiemon Nakamura who appeared in Kaneto Shindo's werecat horror film "Kuroneko" (1968) delivers a powerhouse performance that almost rivals the fantastic Shima Iwashita's impassioned act in a dual role.

"Double Suicide" is a masterpiece of the much revered Japanese New Wave of cinema. It is a rare film that stays firmly rooted to its country's traditions but takes giant leaps with a confidence of winning universal acclaim. Do yourself a favour and witness this bold and beautiful film spectacle. In all probabilities you may have never seen anything like it.

Score: 10/10

Monday, May 19, 2014

Graceland (2012)

The overpowering effect of the Sean Ellis film "Metro Manila" (2013) had barely faded, when this reviewer had the pleasure of coming across another grim tale set in the heartland of the Philippines. "Graceland" (2012), written and directed by Ron Morales also takes the viewer on a gut-wrenching tour of the debased, sleazy and squalid side of Metro Manila. While Ellis's film showcased the plight of a gullible country farmer ravaged by a greedy and corrupt urban environment, "Graceland" is a complex kidnap drama which revolves around two fathers in a similar predicament, albeit separated in their socioeconomic status and stand in society.

Moving at an unrelenting pace, Ron Morales cooks up a heady broth rich with ingredients such as corruption, scandal, kidnapping and murder. Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) is a top politician in Manila, a congressman with a sordid secret life. Almost regularly, he picks up girls from the illicit red light district that is involved in the sex trade of underage girls, drugs them and has sexual relations with them. Changho is a powerful man who knows how to buy his way out of a backlash on his career, because inherently, everyone is willing to sell out and submit to his power.

His faithful driver Marlon (Arnold Reyes) has been in his service for 8 years. Apart from being a regular chauffeur for him, he is also the clean-up guy. He clears the mess left by his boss, and drops the girls to their respective homes. Ironically both men have daughters the age of the girls who are exploited by Changho. Marlon clearly doesn't like this, but he is under an emotional and financial pressure.

He has an ailing wife in the hospital with a prolonged illness that can be cured only by an organ transplant. Despite his reservations about his boss' filthy acts, it is the salary and the extra buck as the assistant that he can't seem to pass up. Marlon's daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) and Changho's daughter Sophia (Patricia Gayod) are great friends, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Marcy Changho (Marife Necesito). But the girls are barely at an age where they can understand the inherent class divide between them.

A twist of fate disturbs the status quo, and Changho's little sex secret makes headlines in the form of yet unproved allegations. This is followed by Marlon's dismissal from his job. Things couldn't get any worse, when in their final trip home, the kidnapping of the girls occurs, part of which goes horribly wrong. And yet the kidnapper assigns Marlon the task of delivering the ransom message to his boss. A panic-stricken Marlon finds himself in a big soup as he becomes a potential suspect, being the only witness and having just been fired from his job. The scene gets murkier and twistier as it begins to appear that ransom isn't the only motive for the kidnapping.

Morales' story may seem to be a routine kidnap and hostage drama on the surface, but there's a lot more going on in this elaborate scheme of things. He first sets the stage by introducing his audiences to the system which is the universe in which the film is set. All the squalor, the protagonists' dingy abode and humble living conditions, the sicknesses, the corrupt officials and the shady state of affairs, the seedy red light areas, little children begging for food outside posh clubs, all give a pretty clear image of how such surroundings may influence the people living in it and how almost everything that transpires could be a systemic effect.

The gap between the rich and the poor, and the weak and the powerful is huge. The powerful have it way too easy, while the weak have no option but to be submissive. There is also a disturbingly close and realistically uncompromising look at child prostitution that could make you lose faith in humanity. Morales sometimes uses the handheld camera technique, especially in moments brimming with urgency that are filmed in a style that makes it look like a docudrama. The colouration gives off a dreary air, almost highlighting the hopelessness of some of the characters.

As the plot thickens and more characters make their way into the story, including Detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz), it is realized that there is hardly any grace in this land! There is nary a soul around who is completely pure. And given the architecture of this system, it doesn't come as a shock to see morals being compromised and rules being bent by almost everyone as they exhibit their respective shades of grey.

No one seems to play it totally straight and everyone has an ulterior motive. But as strange as it may seem, we tend to find empathy with some of these characters and it isn't entirely difficult to understand their motivations. The plot itself centers around a kidnapping gone wrong, and while we are more or less certain that it is headed for a definite doom, there are some very intriguing, aptly timed, game-changing twists that catch you unawares. It is the narrative trajectory that keeps us on the edge as a turn of events sees all three men involved, Ramos, Changho and Marlon make the case their personal agenda.

As the distinction between victim and perpetrator gradually becomes invisible, we find ourselves rooting for Marlon as he gets suffocatingly cornered into a quagmire from which there seems to be no escape. It is Reyes' towering performance that makes Marlon's pain and anguish palpable. This is one spectacular turn of a lead act that is applause-worthy. He is very well supported by Menggie Cobarrubias as the seedy politician, Dido De La Paz as the not-so-straight cop and Leon Miguel as the kidnapper. Little Ella Guevara excels as Elvie with her heartbreakingly sincere performance.

The film does fumble a bit with one fatal flaw and some heavy-handed approach to storytelling, especially in the final frames that spoonfeed the audience with flashbacks. For an otherwise mature approach, such a device wasn't necessary. But these problems need to be overlooked, for "Graceland" is an edgy, morally complex tale with a sharp script that certainly accomplishes what it sets out to achieve, and leaves us stunned, as we are left gathering our thoughts and regaining composure.

Score: 8/10


Monday, May 12, 2014

Metro Manila (2013)

Despite a premise not too unfamiliar, British filmmaker Sean Ellis, with his "Metro Manila" (2013), packs a mighty solid punch in a genre-bending work of cinema that combines elements of neorealist cinema, noir crime thrillers, social dramas and family melodramas.

So when Oscar (Jake Macapagal), a poor farmer from the rural Philippines, struggles to feed his family of four with meager returns from the year's crops, he decides to move to the capital city of Manila in order to try and make ends meet. Not surprisingly, it isn't all meant to be hunky dory, as the naive, gullible village-folk begin to experience the big bad urban world in all its ugly glory. The film chronicles the hardships of the family as they become victims of swindling and exploitation in the ruthless new environment they get pushed into.

Ellis shoots the film in a territory foreign to him, with actors foreign to him and in a language foreign to him. Yet he appears to be quite comfortable at the helm and it doesn't seem like he is working with foreign material or that we are watching a motion picture that isn't a native Filipino production. The film unfolds in a gritty style with camerawork that gives off a very realistic feel to the proceedings. 

It is noteworthy how Ellis presents a striking contrast as he moves the action from the country to the city. While the first few minutes in the village are soothingly serene to look at and to feel, the family's migration to the city is followed by a jarring din of vehicular traffic and the bustling life of the city exploding with people. This distinction in the quality of life in both settings is also juxtaposed against a tremendous gap between the rich and the poor in the city, caused due to rapid urbanization, economic globalization and uncontrolled immigration. This huge divide and the resulting insensitivity, cut-throat competition, selfishness and an overall dog-eat-dog atmosphere is very accurately portrayed in some minor but memorable sequences.

So while the urbanized viewer may know that Oscar might be falling for a trap when something comes alarmingly easy to him, it is very much believable why Oscar himself may not be aware that he is being taken for a ride. He is from the country, after all. In his experience, the very few people that they come across out there, stand up for each other, and are friends. But then little does he know that the guys who he helps get jobs, would refuse to even recognize him when their time comes to help him, for everyone is out there to fend for themselves.

It is interesting how, in a couple of scenes depicting Oscar taking a step that could be a gamble that may or may not pay off, there are messages on walls or hoardings that speak of submission of one's fate to higher powers. So in a way the script itself is praying for Oscar as he makes that phone call and a big sign that reads "God Bless" is seen right above him. In another scene, a glow sign screams "In God we Trust"!

Setbacks follow and even a hand-to-mouth existence becomes increasingly difficult. Driven to the edge, Oscar's beautiful wife Mai (Althea Vega) ends up working in a seedy nightclub as an exotic dancer, while Oscar secures himself a job as a security personnel in an armored vehicle company for transporting valuables. He becomes a protege of, and befriends Ong (John Arcilla), a man who showers a great deal of kindness on Oscar, but not without a hint of dubious intentions. 

By this time, Ellis' strong narration and characterization has ensured full emotional involvement from the audiences. The viewer watches with bated breath and awaits any moment of respite or a ray of hope for the Ramirez family, as every setback that befalls them doesn't fail to make one feel an emotional surge. Part of the gripping nature of the screenplay stems from how much we find ourselves rooting for these characters. Moreover, Ellis keeps everything under control and doesn't veer into extreme melodramatic territory.

This social drama blends seamlessly into the crime thriller domain while retaining the inherent moral conflicts, in an almost invisible transition, and culminates into its crushing but clever finale. The narrative is taut and tense with its fair share of twists, some predictable ones while others shockingly unpredictable, holding the audiences on tenterhooks.

One wishes that the occasionally stagey and stilted dialog and acting was restrained a little. Some repetitive interchange, which is almost hammered into the audience, also does disservice to the film by making at least one event quite predictable in the film. A couple of more intense moments, especially, important flashback sequences come off as heavy-handed and over-the-top, thereby taking away from the otherwise naturalistic look of the film.

However, Ellis does a commendable job of capturing the murky, sleazy underbelly of the city and the moral corruption of ordinary individuals that comes with it as they attempt to shape their existence. He infuses the right kind of emotional quotient that resonates well with the viewers, enough to demand their complete attention. This is accentuated, of course, thanks to a strong performance from Jake Macapagal, who delivers an incredibly balanced act that makes one instantly connect to his situation.

Do take a trip to this "Metro Manila". It is well worth your time, not only as an engrossing and powerful film experience but also as a thought-provoking social commentary, a cautionary tale and a heartbreaking account of struggle and sacrifice.

Score: 8/10