Limiting myself to the nine Vimeo-based press screenings for this year’s NY Asian Film Festival is proving to be a mixed blessing. While the menu is more to the taste of the curators than my own, it does give me a good idea of developing trends in the Asian film industry not to speak of the convenience. While my comments on the films under review today are decidedly mixed, I still regard what I have seen so far as an indication of the industry’s overall health.
“Aberya” is representative of what they call the New Filipino Cinema. If so, I think that I will stick with the old—moldy old fig that I am. “Aberya” is a willfully obscure film that obstinately refuses to tell a story, any kind of story. The two main characters are a boxer (with a face as pretty and as unmarked as a male in a Calvin Klein cologne) and a time-traveling drug dealer. Except for an early scene in which the drug dealer brings over a package to the hedonistic boxer, their paths do not cross.
The most frustrating scene has the drug dealer visiting another client—a gangster surrounded by his menacing looking bodyguards. Since the gangster owes him money, the package he is delivering does not contain drugs but a kaleidoscope. The gangster holds it up to his eyes but we do not see what he sees—an incredibly lost opportunity. Furthermore, as the dealer stalks off without his money and minus his expensive briefcase that the gangster has expropriated, he is heard muttering to himself about revenge. Finally, I say to myself, some kind of story might be developing. No such luck. The two men do not encounter each other again.
The entire film consists of the two men having conversations with their girl friends over the kind of “trippy” matters we used to talk about at Bard College in the early 60s after getting high. All about god, the meaning of life, love, etc. It is enough to put you to sleep.
When I was watching “Aberya”, I made mental note to myself to find out about the director’s influences. I found the footprints of people like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze all over the film. As it turned out, I was pretty close. Asked to name his five favorite films, the director named one very much in their spirit as number one.
Off the top of my head:1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – What’s not to love? How the hell could you do those crazy things in a film and still make it accessible? The ending ‘okay’ still works for me no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
Wikipedia says that with the advent of digital filmmaking, “indie” productions have flourished in the Philippines but mostly intended for international film festivals. This obviously describes “Aberya” to a tee. It plays tomorrow at 1pm at the Walter Reade Theater. If your tastes generally clash with mine, this should be a must.
Back in April, I reported on “Investment”, a feature that was par of the Indian Film Festival. It was a scathing portrait of India’s materialistic and grubby nouveau riche, and particularly the evil embodied in a teen-aged boy who is a pathological killer that his parents protect. While the film is focused on the family’s drama, it is obviously an indictment of the rotten social structure that neoliberalism has wrought. The next two films to be considered are very much in the same spirit but aimed at the moral rot of the Filipino and Thai middle class.
Directed by Gino Santos, the aptly titled “The Animals” is described on the NYAFF website as an “indictment of the Filipino 1% via a decadent high-school party that degenerates into an orgy of sex, violence and class warfare.” Just my kind of movie, in other words. I loved it!
The plot couldn’t be simpler. It is the last day of school and a bunch of rich kids are getting ready to go to a big party that evening. Their conversation is utterly banal and you grow weary of them, even as you begin to wonder what will happen to them. There is a pervasive sense that they will get nailed in the conclusion since the director and screenwriter hate the characters so much.
Two of the characters are trying to get into a high-school fraternity where the hazing is utterly sadistic. You have no sympathy for them since their goal is obviously to be able to make life miserable for the next set of applicants. When one of the two boys is asked to smack a stranger at an adjoining table in a restaurant, he shows no remorse after smashing a beer bottle over his head.
The final hour of the film takes place at the party where the obnoxious female characters drink themselves into a vomiting stupor and generally degrade themselves. All of the principal characters have private drivers who take them to the party. As they are inside debauching themselves, the drivers hang around outside laughing bitterly at the “animals” they serve.
“The Animals” plays on Tuesday July 2nd at 2:45 at the Walter Reade. While superficially related to John Hughes, it has much more in common with Buñuel. Just think of it as “Los Olvidados” featuring rich kids instead of the poor.
Finally, there’s an entry from Thailand that is not all bad. Titled “Countdown” and directed by Nattawat Poonpiriya, it is also a go-for-the-jugular attack on rich kids, in this case three bored and decadent “hipsters” living in downtown Manhattan.
Two have conned their parents into believing that they are in school but have been wasting their tuition money on partying and smoking pot. About fifteen minutes into the movie, they contact Jesus—a man of undetermined ethnicity—who is the guy who used to supply their old connection who has gotten out of the drug trade.
Jesus comes over to sell them some killer pot but before after they have sampled the weed, things take a turn for the worse. Jesus turns out to be fluent in Thai, even though they had assumed he was an American (for some odd reason). The more stoned they become, the more menacing Jesus becomes. At a certain point, the film evolves into a fairly standard capture-and-torture grindhouse affair familiar to anybody who has seen Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” or “The Strangers”. But the genre is wedded to a kind of morality play in the spirit of Dostoyevsky with Jesus exercising the wrath of god against the wicked. Since nearly the entire film takes place entirely in an apartment, it has the character of a staged off-off-Broadway play.
Like the director of “Aberya”, Poonpiriya has made a film targeted for film festivals rather than the local Thai marketplace. At least it has the merit of being less pretentious than “Aberya” even if it is nowhere near as successful as “The Animals”. It plays on Wednesday 10:20pm, July 3rd at the Walter Reade. It’s worth a shot for those of you into the grindhouse genre.