Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I am in a book about cheese

Quite a while back I was contacted out of the blue by a fellow named Gordon Edgar. Gordon is the cheesemonger at San Francisco’s foodie mecca Rainbow Grocery, as well as a blogger and all around authority on the subject of cheese. It turns out that he was in the process of writing one of those food memoirs that are so popular these days and needed my help. What?

You see, Gordon, a punk rocker since way back, wanted to inform some of his book’s anecdotes and observations with quotes from a couple of old punk songs. One of these was by a still revered and vastly influential early 80s San Francisco band called B Team. What, you’ve never heard of them? Cuh! Okay, maybe less “revered” than “invisible”, and more “almost universally unremembered” than “vastly influential”. But the salient point remains that I was the singer and bass player in B Team, and that Gordon, bless his soul, still not only remembered B Team, but had also somehow managed to maintain a fond place for them in his heart all these years later.

So the long and short of it is that Gordon was contacting me because he was bound to by law; I was the author of the lyric that he wanted to quote, and he needed my permission in order to do so. Hardened by years of fielding endless such requests for the musical treasures that comprise my vast songwriting estate, I played hard to get, and debated the issue for almost a full five seconds before saying yes. Gordon then graciously asked what I might like in return. The idea of a meet-and-greet sprang to mind. My wife is something of a budding cheese aficionado, and a get-together with Gordon would allow her to pick his brain on the topic while he and I shared boozy reminiscences about the SF music scene. Not surprisingly, upon meeting Gordon, I found him to be an all around swell guy.

Gordon’s book Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge finally hit the shelves a few weeks back, and I was antsy to get my hands on it. Of course, anyone who knew me might think that, beyond the fact of its mentioning ME, I would find little of interest in the book. And it’s true, I am anything but a “foodie”; I don’t even really eat cheese all that often. But I am a nerd, and as such harbor a deep appreciation for, and identification with, the consuming enthusiasms of others. I may not know cheese, but I do know the joy that comes from immersion in a subject about which one is passionate, as well as the thrill of sharing that passion with others. It’s for this reason that I can find delight in the way my wife’s face lights up when she describes a particularly exciting cheese she’s sampled, or be fascinated by Keith’s writings about fine single malts, despite my being perfectly happy to curl up with a bottle of Famous Grouse.

And cheese, with the intricacies of its production, and the wide variety of factors, large and small, that come into play in giving each type its distinctive qualities -- in other words, those things that provide each cheese with its own individual “story” -- can make for especially fascinating subject matter in this regard. Gordon’s blog postings had already demonstrated to me that he was a witty and engaging writer, but, as Cheesemonger makes clear, he’s also a very generous one. The man is simply a natural communicator. Add to this a principled lack of pretension -- Gordon’s punk roots have lead to him being much more of a gatecrasher than a gatekeeper -- and you’ve got a rare example of food lit that is at once surprisingly accessible and completely entertaining, regardless of what you bring to the table (um, so to speak).

More important to me, though, is the fact -- referred to again and again throughout Cheesemonger’s pages -- that punk rock changed Gordon’s life, very much as it did my own all those years ago. Gordon relays how it was his adherence to the politics and ideals of punk that in part lead him on the path to becoming a cheesemonger. (And, by the way, the word fetishist in me has totally fallen under the spell of the word “cheesemonger”. I keep meaning to ask Gordon if, upon finding before him an especially fine and worthy cheese, he might see fit to say something like “Man, I am going to mong the shit of that cheese!”) I can’t help but see that as a perfect testament to punk’s transformative power -- the way it opened our minds to seeing connections and possibilities that mainstream culture, with its focus on narrowly defined ideas of success, might have otherwise blinded us to. That the paths opened up by such a way of seeing would eventually lead to places as unpredictable as they were varied only drives the point home that much more.

So, basically, what I’m saying is that, despite being something of an anti-gourmand, I loved this book about cheese. As a result, I’m very proud to have contributed to it, even if in an incredibly tiny, weirdly retroactive and entirely indirect way. (And, by the way, I was quite pleased to see that the B Team lyrics were not only quoted, but also supplied the title for one of the book’s closing chapters.) This is why I’m taking precious time away from reviewing Indonesian cannibal movies and Ismail Yassin comedies to tell you to go buy it. We will return shortly to our regularly scheduled idiocy.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Rani is her name

I originally meant to write up Rani Mera Naam for 4DK. But, as I wrote, my love for Telegu action director K.S.R. Doss, scrappy star Vijaya Lalitha, and crazy Indian female vigilante movies from the 1970s overflowed the boundaries of what a simple blog post could contain. Clearly, I realized, this movie deserved nothing less than the full-fledged Teleport City treatment. Check out my review, just posted over at TC.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jungle Virgin Force (Indonesia, 1983)

The opening narration to Jungle Virgin Force gives us some idea of what it might be like if the already overly-verbose, smugly paternalistic narrator of a 1950s faux-anthropological exploitation film -- like, oh, Gregg G. Tallas's Prehistoric Women, say -- were allowed to expound unchecked, and as such deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
"In Southeast Asia there are vast, unexplored jungle areas inhabited by native tribes whose lives are untouched by civilization. And on one small island there dwells a tribe so isolated that it has never made contact with other jungle tribes of that region. Their language is so ancient that it cannot be understood by any other people of the world. Their lives are primitive, and they worship gods and powers long forgotten by the rest of mankind. In recent years, there have been many stories told among these tribes' people about a mysterious woman of the jungle who many claim to have seen from time to time. There are many debates about the mystery woman. Is she an intruding menace who should be hunted down and destroyed, or could she be a goddess come to bless her people with her protective presence among them?"
What plays out on screen as all of this nutritionally dubious thought food is being ladled out is a pretty standard nudie cutie scenario involving a group of woman in leopard print fur bikinis doing a leisurely striptease before going for a naked frolic in a nearby lake. All of these women's naughty parts, I should point out, have been fogged over -- perhaps at the behest of Indonesia's strident censorship board -- a circumstance which some of this film's reviewers on the IMDB have found very upsetting. However, like any Indonesian exploitation film worth its salt, Jungle Virgin Force perversely compensates for its lack of nudity by being exactly the type of movie that you would think would be loaded with nudity. Gratuitousness, I'm delighted to report, is the go word here -- this being, after all, a film in which red leather hot pants are deemed appropriate attire for a woman undertaking a lengthy expedition through uncharted jungle.

Anyway, as one might suspect, our narrator has not shot his wad with that sermon-length opening salvo, and so continues, as such narrators will, to describe in detail things that can clearly be seen taking place on screen as they happen. Yes, narrator, I can see that the skinny dipping cave women are now being attacked by an alligator. And I must concur with your observation that said alligator is in turn being attacked and subdued by that very same mysterious jungle woman that you were just yattering on about minutes ago. Oh, and by the way, narrator, what you did not mention is that this Sheena-like jungle heroine is played by Indonesian action starlet Lydia Kandou, who has already received more than her fair share of coverage on 4DK this month by way of having also starred in the previously reviewed Darna Ajaib.
The mysterious jungle woman, we soon find out, goes by the somewhat mystery-dispelling name of Jelita, and the skinny dippers are so grateful to her for rescuing them that they take her home and announce to the rest of their tribe that they are making her their god. This does not sit well with the tribe's high priest, as it well might not. After all, the very fact that the tribe has a high priest suggests that they already have a perfectly good set of gods and religious beliefs -- even if those beliefs sometimes involve a bit of cannibalism. Because of this rift, a bloody battle ensues, and the women of the tribe are driven away by the priest and his horned foot soldiers. The men then hang a "He-Man Woman Haters Club" sign over the cave entrance and begin giving free reign to their cannibalistic ways -- which is a fanciful, but in essence accurate representation of what we men get up to when left to our own devices, free from the civilizing influence of y'all bitches.

Then, as the narrator goes off on a "but are we modern city folks any more civilized than these so-called savages? ARE WE?" riff, we are whisked away to Jakarta, where we learn that the narrator is actually a college professor, and that his narration is simply him verbally preparing a group of his students for an expedition they are about to take to the very island on which all of the action he has just been somewhat preposterously describing as it took place took place. Amazingly, these students are actually awake and paying attention, which suggests heavy Vivarin habits on their parts, no doubt fostered by the need to sit through countless of this man's lectures. "Bla bla bla ANCIENT MAGICS", he says. "Bla bla bla DEVIL'S TRIANGLE bla bla CANNIBALISTIC RITES." Oh and, "Ignore anything you might hear about the tribe having a PRICELESS TREASURE."
Amazingly, these students -- among whom are red leather hot pants girl, hot headed guy who wants to shoot everything, hunky guy, and girl whose name I think is "Maserati" -- seem perfectly willing to ignore the treasure. Fortunately, there is another group of bad kids who want to do the opposite of ignoring it, and who are also convinced that the pro-ignoring-the-treasure kids can show them where that treasure is so that they can find it and very actively not ignore it. This leads to all kinds of stunt-filled fights and a great dumb car chase involving pyramids of oil barrels sitting in the middle of the road for no reason and a conveniently located, skull-and-crossbones covered shack filled with dynamite just waiting for a car to crash into it so that it can blow up.
Soon both groups arrive on the island and, after enduring some boilerplate "perils of the jungle" -- white rapids! snakes! pointy sticks! -- have alerted both the cannibal tribe and Jelita to their presence by way of hot headed guy's shooty-ness. Carnage follows, and while the spectacle of callous city folks being torn apart like fresh baguettes by savages with a taste for flesh makes clear that Jungle Virgin Force is inspired by grim Italian grue-fests like Cannibal Holocaust, its treatment of the subject comes across more like an Archie Comics adaptation of same. And, of course, this being an Indonesian film, this all gets discarded in the end for a crazy mystical battle between the evil high priest and the group of exiled women, who have all since become imbued with cartoon-assisted magical powers thanks to the benign intervention of a powerful sorceress and some 80s rock video choreography.

The fact that Lydia Kandou's female Tarzan character ends up getting pushed aside somewhat by the rest of Jungle Virgin Force's silly goings on is an indication of just how generous the film is in its hokeyness. In other words, folks whose expectations have been primed by other Indonesian exploiters like Lady Terminator and Virgins From Hell should find plenty to holler about here. The gore is plentiful and ridiculous, but also weirdly imaginative, including, among other things, spontaneous disembowelings and a "magic fire" that turns a woman's body into a pool of pulsating soup. And if it's hilarious English dubbing you want, well, let's just say there's a scene in which a man with a giant spear driven through his midsection is asked "are you okay?", and that the cannibals on more than one occasion are heard to say "Mabooga! Mabooga! Mabooga!"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

He rules you all


I bet that, back when he was just a page in a nature magazine, the Subliminal Marmoset never imagined that he would see such heights, beating out a popular favorite in a contest voted on by literally tens of people. Attribute it to his good looks, the high incidence of crack addiction among 4DK readers, or the high esteem in which Pyasa Shaitan is universally held (uh, no, that's definitely not it), but, whatever the case, the fact remains that the SM is the anipal you have chosen as the one who towers head and eyeballs above the rest.

And, as for our runner-up, when asked for comment he responded at first with shock...

...then denial...

...and then despair.

And then...


Well, I hope you're all happy.

So, now that the Animalympics is out of the way, let's move on to other important questions:

How will I live without the Animalympics?

Over the past seven months, the Animalympics has become a regular feature of our lives. For some, it might even be said that it has become a way of life -- a refuge, perhaps, from life's trials and disappointments, or a reminder of the beauty that can still be found in a world that sometimes seem harsh and indifferent. For some it may even have become a reliable and relatively easy means of providing regular content for their cult cinema themed blogs.

In any case, now that it has come to its close, I think it's important that we see the event as a beginning rather than an ending, an opportunity to once again start washing our hair, talking to our families, and maybe finally getting that weird rash looked at (for example). True, these have been heady days, and the chances that we in our daily lives will ever again see such heights are slim to none. But we are human beings, and this is what we do. We carry on.

Good luck and may gosh bless you all.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Darna Ajaib (Indonesia, 1980)

It used to be that there were two types of Filipino popular cinema. There were those films made by men like Bobby Suarez and Cirio Santiago with an eye toward international distribution, and those Tagalog language productions intended primarily for the entertainment of the local audience. I think it's safe to say that both Dolphy's wacky spy movie and superhero parodies and the Darna movies rest securely within the latter category.

Still, it's not all that surprising that love for Darna seeped beyond the P.I.'s borders. After all, the Filipina superheroine has been a popular favorite here at 4DK for some time now. Thus we have the 1980 Indonesian film Darna Ajaib, the first example I've come across of a Darna film made outside the Philippines.

Darna Ajaib (or, as Google Translator parses it, Darna Wonder Girl) was directed by Lilik Sudjio -- who previously helmed the maggot-ridden Queen of Black Magic, starring Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna -- and stars Indonesian model-turned-actress Lydia Kandou in the title role. Kandou had made her screen debut just a year earlier at the tender age of seventeen, and would go on to star in such top grade Indonesian trash as Jungle Virgin Force and Five Deadly Angels. Nonetheless she seems to be as, or even more, well known in her home country for her controversial marriage to Muslim actor Jamal Mirdad (Kandou is a Christian), and the couple's subsequent ten year struggle to have that marriage legally recognized. So I imagine that, for those with an interest in religious freedom in Indonesia, she's a bit of a superheroine in her own right.

Not surprisingly, Darna Ajaib offers a somewhat different take on Darna than those Filipino productions starring Vilma Santos that were just wrapping up around the time of its production. Not only does it play pretty fast and loose with the whole Darna mythos, but Sudjio's obvious comfort within the horror genre also insures that it is instilled with a much higher level of flat out creepiness than we're used to seeing. And, of course, there's also a generous infusion of the Indonesian mysticism that somehow seems to find its way into pretty much every Indonesian exploitation picture. This is, after all, the country that somehow managed to fuse a female-fronted Terminator cash-in with the tale of an ancient, man-hating sea sprite.

In that spirit, Darna Ajaib kicks off with a spontaneous pregnancy and proceeds, in very short order, to the subject of said pregnancy giving birth to a snake with a human head. Yikes! When this woman's husband comes home and tries to capture the snake baby -- presumably to flush it down the toilet -- he is kicked to death by a giant caveman who appears out of nowhere. Meanwhile, in another part of Darna Ajaib's obviously very twisted world, another woman is giving birth to an apparently normal baby, albeit concurrent with the passing of a green comet over her house and the blossoming of a mysterious white flower outside her window.

Both of these offspring grow up to be apparently normal children with special hidden powers. In the case of Maria (Dian Ariestya, I think), that special power involves her being a creepy little girl who turns into a snake and kills people when she gets angry. In the case of Darna, it's the ability to run like the Six Million Dollar Man and twirl bad guys around her head like a sack of wiffle balls -- and later, upon clutching an amulet hanging around her neck, to transform into a flying, costumed superhero version of herself. Circumstances eventually conspire to place Maria and Darna in the same school together, and by the time they reach high school -- when the main portion of Darna Ajaib's action takes place -- they have become total BFFs.

During this early portion of Darna Ajaib, we're treated to a couple of musical numbers, including a sorrowful lament sung by the younger version of Maria. Despite the initial appearance that Darna Ajaib is going to be a full fledged musical, this exposition through song is dropped entirely for the remaining half, which is for the best, really. The staging of these musical numbers just isn't very interesting, to the point where they could be in essence described as, respectively, "Sad song sung by freeway guardrail" and "Disco song sung in car".

Maria is indeed portrayed as something of a tragic figure here, and, as such, we see -- between instances of her losing her temper, turning into a snake and killing people -- evidence of her struggling against her evil impulses. Nonetheless, it is clear that a confrontation between her and Darna is inevitable. And things are helped along in this regard by the fact that both Darna and Maria share the same love interest in the form of High School chum Dodi (Dony Nurhadi). Eventually, the giant cave man, who Maria addresses as "Papa", makes a reappearance -- or at least his floating, disembodied head does -- to give Maria her marching orders, which I think have something to do with getting a hold of Darna's magic amulet. (As you've probably already guessed, this film had no English subs.)

After this, Maria's already considerable creepiness hits critical mass:

Finally, Darna is forced to have a weird superwoman to snake-girl heart-to-heart with her erstwhile gal pal, after which she does battle with the giant cave man, impaling him on an electrical tower in a scene pretty clearly inspired by the earlier, Vilma Santos fronted Darna and the Giants.

Even without subtitles, Darna Ajaib is a hugely enjoyable example of world pop cinema hybridization, engagingly mixing good-natured Pinoy superhero goofiness with an equal amount of lowdown Indonesian freakiness. While Lydia Kandou can't match the perky charisma of Vilma Santos (or the perky everything else of Anjanette Abayari), she's still an appealing presence, and shows evidence of the very combination of guilelessness and good sportsmanship that carrying such a vehicle requires. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that she, or anyone else, ever made a repeat attempt at bringing this version of Indo-Darna to the screen. Nonetheless, the existence of Darna Ajaib has raised hopes in me of finding other indigenous versions of Darna created by other non-Filipino film industries. Right now, my money is on the Turks.

Friday, March 19, 2010


The advent of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is always a bittersweet time for me. Sweet for the obvious reason that I get to spend a week watching all kinds of cool Asian films. Bitter because, at the end of that week, I then feel compelled to write about those films. And, because among those films there are usually works of a more somber and serious nature than what I typically write about -- i.e. the kind of movies that I can’t just make a bunch of dumb jokes about, put up some screencaps of, and be done with -- writing about them requires that I actually have to pretend, however momentarily, that I’m a serious reviewer. And that makes Todd’s brain cry.

The selection of films we watched this year was a bit different from that of previous years (and by “we”, I’m referring to my wife and me, rather than using the royal “we”), in that it leaned a bit more toward retrospective entries and less toward newer films. It also included a lot of those more seriouser and somberer films that I was talking about. Suffice it to say that I did a lot of drinking between these screenings.

You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (Philippines, 1974)

If this blog was your only source of information on the topic, you might be forgiven for thinking that Filipino cinema was all about Darna, Weng Weng, and the occasional heavily armed nun. It’s a good thing, then, that the SFIAAFF, with its retrospective spotlight on Lino Brocka, has given me the opportunity to write about the P.I.'s most internationally recognized and acclaimed director.

While more Dickensian in scope than much of Brocka's work, You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting provides a good example of the director's style, which combines an empathetic eye and a penchant for melodramatic trappings with a keen outsider's awareness of the intolerance bred within tight-knit communities. The film tells the story of a bond forged between the two most marginalized inhabitants of a small Filipino town: Berto, a leper played by screenwriter Mario O’Hara, and Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), a homeless, mentally ill woman who harbors an explosive secret in her past.

In a manner that is at once both sensitive and unflinching, Brocka documents the ill-fated attempt by this pair to maintain a fragile bubble of happiness and safety within a community whose pious sanctimony only serves as a cover for its crueler, and more sadly human, impulses. Future superstar Christopher De Leon makes his screen debut here as the privileged son of a philandering politician who bares witness to Berto and Kuala’s fate and has his eyes opened to the hypocrisy of his fellow townspeople as a result.

This is indeed tragic, powerful stuff. But trash fans need not necessarily shrink away, as there are also a few familiar genre film faces on board to hold your hand through all of the comparatively arty proceedings. Most notable among these is Eddie Garcia, esteemed star of Horrors of Blood Island, Black Mama, White Mama and scores of other exploitation titles, as well as director of several of the early Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 films. Also bearing mention is the haunting, minimalist score by Lutgardo Labad, which provides fitting accompaniment to a film whose images and characters linger with you long after they have faded from the screen.

Insiang (Philippines, 1976)

This film, widely touted as Brocka’s masterpiece -- as well as being the first Filipino film to screen at Cannes -- portrays the lives of the desperately poor, but avoids those depictions of the triumphant human spirit that so frequently leaven other cinematic treatments of poverty. Instead Brocka mercilessly details the hardening of that spirit that poverty can produce, in this case within the stifling, overcrowded confines of one of Manila’s worst slums. Hilda Koronel gives a memorable performance as the film’s title character, as does Mona Lisa in the role of her mother, a monumentally bitter figure whose calcified meanness makes her the main link in a chain of casual cruelty that even the young and beautiful Insiang ultimately can’t avoid becoming part of. All in all, it’s a bleak and uncompromising film that, in its refusal to allow the viewer any easy escape from the world it presents, perhaps offers a glimpse of what those more lighthearted products of the Filipino film industry were offering their intended audience escape from in the first place.

Not that Brocka’s films avoid the language of Filipino popular cinema, mind you. In fact, I noticed that a number of the audience members at the screening of Insiang I attended seemed uncomfortable with some of Brocka’s more melodramatic techniques -- specifically his use of shock zooms and drama heightening, slow-burn reaction shots -- and responded to them with awkward laughter. But I think that anyone capable of digesting the fact that this is a film made over thirty years ago for an audience with different expectations from our own shouldn’t find that an obstacle to emotional engagement with the narrative – or, at the very least, not find it a cue to detach his-or-herself from it with ironic laughter. At least, I hope so. I’d hate to think that we as an audience were becoming less capable of entering into the contract with the filmmaker that enjoyment of some of these older, more mannered forms of movie storytelling require, because the rewards for such a small investment of effort are so great.

The Housemaid (South Korea, 1960)

For me, the central image of The Housemaid is that of a pair of rats, jerking through their death agonies as they lie on either side of a white dinner plate bearing a serving of poisoned rice. From the forty-ish music teacher and his young family at the story’s center, to the unhinged young woman who comes to serve as live-in help in their newly built dream home, the characters here are one and all rats in a trap. And, as the film never tires of reminding us, there’s plenty of rat poison to go around

While, on its surface, The Housemaid seems to frame its story as some kind of morality tale about midlife male philandering, director/writer Ki-young Kim’s true vision seems to be more that of a family fallen victim to their own middle class aspirations. For it is their correspondingly exaggerated sense of propriety that continually prevents them from alerting the authorities as their situation goes increasingly, preposterously off the rails.

Eun-shim Lee gives a memorably unrestrained performance as the titular match to the already simmering tensions within this nuclear unit, sparking a rapidly escalating family conflagration fueled by adultery, depravity, murder and madness. Granted, the term “WTF” has been overused to the point of losing its impact completely, but I will tell you in all honesty that my jaw literally went slack with astonishment during this movie’s closing minutes. Crazy. Absolutely fucking crazy.

Independencia (Philippines, 2009)

What I can say about Independencia is that it is beautiful to behold, and well deserving of praise for what it achieves visually. In telling his story of a turn-of-the-century family seeking shelter from encroaching U.S. occupation forces in the lush wilds of the Philippine jungle, young director Raya Martin avoided the easy route of simply filming on location and instead built an elaborate indoor set, mimicking the highly stylized look of Hollywood jungle adventures from the 30s and 40s. He then shot this phantasmagorical landscape in soft black and white, using stark, expressionistic lighting, with the end result that his historically-based tale is leant a darkly enchanted, Grimm’s fairytale feel, bringing to mind the dreamlike ambience of Hollywood films like Night of the Hunter, White Zombie, and even, to some extent, King Kong.

Unfortunately, as much as I loved the look of the film, I personally found it hard to maintain interest once the characters settled into their largely dialog-free jungle routine. They eat, they sleep, they forage, and then eat, sleep, and forage again. You could describe the tone that the film takes at this point as either “hypnotic”, if you’re feeling charitable, or “narcotizing”, if you’re feeling less so. A clumsy stab at exposition via an anachronistic newsreel-style sequence further broke the spell for me, leaving me a bit alienated by the time things took a less somnolent turn toward the film’s end. (To be fair, I may just have been mentally exhausted by the sheer what-the-fuckery of The Housemaid, which I had seen immediately previous.) Still, despite my moments of feeling underwhelmed, Raya’s alluring aesthetics insured that I’ll be paying close attention to whatever he comes up with in the future.

City of Life and Death (China, 2009)

We felt lucky to get a chance to see City of Life and Death, due to the Chinese government’s recent pulling of it from the Palm Springs Film Festival, a move taken in retaliation for that festival’s showing of the Tibet documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds. (A planned U.S. theatrical release has also been scuttled as of this writing.) I guess the film’s status as a internationally acclaimed prestige production makes it an effective political cudgel, but, given its depiction of the suffering of the Chinese people at the hands of a foreign occupier, it seems like an odd subject for this kind of tit-for-tat, as making it so seems to invite comparisons that people might not otherwise be inclined to make. It also does a disservice to both the film and its subject matter, which deserve consideration free from any of the shiftings of context that making the movie a political football achieves.

In portraying the massacre at Nanking -- in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking were brutalized and killed by Japanese occupying forces in the early days of the war -- director Lu Chuan makes no attempt to address the “whys” of what happened over the course of those several weeks in 1937-38, but instead takes on the difficult task of at once conveying the staggering scale of the tragedy while at the same time portraying it with an intimacy that allows us to see its true human dimensions. In doing so he makes viscerally clear to us the plain but easily obscured fact that those thousands of anonymous, abused bodies littering the bruised landscape of post occupation Nanking were those of beloved sons and daughters, spouses, doting parents and siblings – just as were the perpetrators of the atrocities that put them there.

This last point has caused not a small amount of controversy in China, but the fact that Chuan tells part of the story from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers should not be taken to imply that he offers any kind of rationale or excuse for their actions. Instead he merely suggests that at least some of them were not left unscarred by the horrors that transpired. That even this small concession was a source of pain for some is an indication of just how raw the wounds left by the tragedy still are.

City of Life and Death is a difficult film to talk about, because the resounding success of its makers in achieving their aims is precisely what makes it so damn hard to watch. Anyone expecting an exploitative, Men Behind the Sun style treatment of these events will be either relieved or disappointed, depending on their mindset. The film just doesn’t allow for the kind of emotional distance that would allow for the horrors presented to be in any way titillating. Instead one can only respond with revulsion, profound sadness and a devastating sense of loss.


So that, folks, was my experience of SFIAAFF 2010. To recap, we had a film about a community callously destroying the lives of two of its weakest members, another about people having their spirits crushed by poverty, one about a family being torn apart by adultery and murder, another about people having to resort to a life of near-savagery in order to survive, and, finally, an unflinching depiction of the rape of Nanking. For my next review:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Chimp vs. ????: The 4DK Animalympics - The Final Battle!

Our finalists:

This is exciting, because I imagine that, in the real world, a fight between Pedro and the Subliminal Marmoset would involve Pedro leaping out from behind cover with a blazing pistol in each hand, John Woo style, while the Subliminal Marmoset fired laser beams out of his eyes.

In any case, if the 4DK Animalympics has taught us anything, it's that it pays to have a gimmick. In the Subliminal Marmoset's case, that gimmick involved him being a still photograph that popped up completely out of context at random times throughout the running time of a bizarrely haphazard Indian horror film. Let this be a lesson to all aspiring still photographs of difficult-to-identify small primates then, because it is that very quality, apparently, that lead to the Subliminal Marmoset winning Tier 2 by a landslide, taking a whopping 40% of the total vote. Only Dharmendra in a bear suit (again, a gimmick!) came close, at a distant 30%, while strong contenders like Moti (20%) and Charles the boob-fixated cobra (5%) made startlingly weak showings. The results are unmistakably clear: You people are fucking crazy!

So now it's time for the big showdown... And remember, you will have to do whatever the winner says for the next year, so choose carefully. Do you want to spend that time fetching highballs for Pedro and being the nerve-addled subject of his constantly insisted-upon drunken games of "William Tell", or do you want to spend it being constantly freaked the eff out by the SM's continual staring and harsh-though-unspoken judgment?

As before, get thee to the polling gadget perched atop yon sidebar. Voting will go on for only one week this time around, with our winner making his/its victory lap next Tuesday.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Music from the shadows

I've put my music critic hat on again over at Teleport City, this time for a brief review of Shadow Music of Thailand, an entrancing compilation of Thai guitar music from the 60s. Check it out, won't you?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ismail Yassin's Phantom (Egypt, 1954)

After subjecting myself to the indefinable creepiness of Super Batman & Mazinger V, I thought that Ismail Yassin’s Phantom might be a nice film to cozy up to, and I was right. As I’ve said before, I don’t subscribe to the whole notion of the “guilty pleasure”. If you want to curate your personal tastes like some kind of trophy case, with an eye toward public approval, that’s your business. But, to my mind, there is so much in this life that is neither entertaining nor titillating that I can’t feel bad about seeking out that kind of stimulus in my chosen diversions. (Also, I can buy, like, ten old Indian stunt movies from Induna for what one Criterion disc would cost, so duh.)

Anyway, the point that I am laboriously working my way toward is that, if I did have a guilty pleasure, it would be a film like Ismail Yassin’s Phantom. That’s because, unlike most of the other artifacts of world pop cinema covered on this site, it neither opens a window onto another culture or holds a funhouse mirror up to my own, so there’s no justifying it with any highfalutin language suggesting some kind of feigned interest in cultural anthropology or whatever. In fact, if you were to turn the sound down on Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, I think you’d have a hard time distinguishing it from a low budget studio programmer made in Hollywood during the 1940s.

Of course, once you turned the sound up again you would notice the Arabic scales and rhythms in the musical numbers that the film’s performers are constantly tap dancing and jitterbugging to -- that is, when the number isn’t a boogie woogie or a rumba -- or the trilling ululation that Ismail Yassin’s mother lets out in celebration of his wedding announcement, or the occasional, exasperated exclamations of “Allah!” So there are cultural markers to be found. But, nonetheless, a movie like Ismail Yassin’s Phantom gives you the distinct impression that, as the Arab world’s hub of popular filmmaking, the Egyptian film industry. in the “golden age” preceding its nationalization, placed a much higher premium on pure entertainment than on the assertion of National or cultural identity. And the model that was drawn upon for that entertainment lay somewhere significantly West of Cairo.

So, yes, Ismail Yassin’s Phantom is indeed an unadulterated and unapologetic piece of fluff, and an endearing and engaging one at that. The story centers around a Cairo nightclub where the star attraction is a dancer named Kitty, played by the Greek dancer and actress of the same name. While, as the title makes clear, Phantom is a vehicle for beloved Egyptian screen comic Ismail Yassin (last seen here at 4DK in his space travelling romp A Trip To The Moon) it is Kitty who really makes the film. During her dance numbers, she’s a classic Hollywood vamp in the mold of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, but offstage exhibits a gift for feisty, screwball comedy. Either way, she’s both an infectious presence and a perfect foil for Yassin’s put-upon sad-sack routine, lighting up the screen whenever she show ups. And this is especially true once the film takes a decidedly supernatural turn in its second act.

You see, it turns out that this nightclub’s manager has driven the place to the brink of financial ruin with his gambling habit, and so his right-hand crony, Hamido (Faried Shawki) convinces him that his only hope is to murder Kitty in order to cash in the life insurance policy the club has taken out on her. In short order, Hamido tries to blow up Kitty’s car as she’s driving to a dancing engagement at a wedding in an outlying village, only to have the bomb he’s set explode underneath the car of the hapless Ismail, who just happens to be driving behind her at the time. Taking pity on him, Kitty takes the now vehicle-less Ismail with her to the wedding, where he sings a song insulting the groom and his family and promptly gets the both of them thrown out. Nonetheless impressed with Ismail’s singular talents, Kitty gets him a job at the club, where the two of them end up becoming a popular stage duo.

Once he’s been made part of the act, Ismail continues to unwittingly foil Hamido’s various schemes to murder Kitty. At one point, Hamido substitutes a real gun for the prop gun that Ismail is to use in a skit in which he’s playing Kitty’s cuckolded husband, but the plan fizzles when Ismail decides at the last minute that the husband forgiving his wife would make for a better ending than him shooting her as scripted. Finally, a frustrated Hamido opts for taking the direct route and stabs Kitty in her sleep after stealing into her apartment. Kitty proves to be a truly indomitable spirit, however, and almost immediately rises in spectral form, after which she very matter-of-factly goes about the business of seeking out the startled Ismail, demanding that he find her killer and see that justice is served.

Though Ismail, albeit amid much protestation and audible self-pity, essentially agrees to help Kitty, the who-done-it aspect of Phantom’s plot quickly takes a backseat to other developments. For it’s not long before Kitty, in the course of haunting the put upon Ismail wherever he goes, decides that she’s fallen in love with him. Furthermore, Kitty, who seems to have embraced her spookified state with childlike enthusiasm, doesn’t appear to get why Ismail doesn’t immediately warm to her suggestion that he let her strangle him so that he can join her on the other side.

Complications reach full boil when Ismail’s fiancé arrives in town, bickering parents in tow, for their pending nuptials. (Said fiancé, by the way, is portrayed as a grotesque overgrown child who carries a doll around with her everywhere, making for one of the few instances where Phantom’s comedy just got a little too broad -- not to mention weird -- for yours truly to bear.) Unfortunately for all, while Kitty can be seen only by Ismail, she is still perfectly capable of interacting with the physical world, and so is well equipped to go all Poltergeist on her love object, his bride-to-be, and his in-laws in order to squelch the wedding plans.

As I indicated before, it’s Kitty’s presence that really carried this film for me, as Ismail Yassin’s performance is largely confined to a lot of screaming and anxious sputtering. That said, I’ve got to say that I found the insult songs he performs here pretty hilarious. My favorite is a lament, sung after Kitty has succeeded in scuttling his wedding, in which he ticks off all the aspects of her devilry with the defeated weariness of Job. (Favorite line: “Your eyes are like antiseptic.”) It also helps that, as he wails his way through this catalog of iniquity, the ghostly Kitty can be seen dancing delightedly on the wall above him.

In other respects, the film is, like I said, similar to an old Hollywood B programmer: not lavish, but slickly executed and generally nice to look at. Director Hassan El-Seify and cinematographer Mossoud Issa bring a suitable amount of small-scale glamour to the nightclub sequences and prove that they know how to showcase their starlet to optimum effect. The transitions in tone -- between the comedic, suspenseful, and spooky scenes -- are also handled deftly, as are the simple optical effects required to realize Kitty in her spiritual form. All in all, you won’t see anything new here, but if you’re in an undemanding mood, the complete package makes for a winsome little dose of unabashed, old school escapism.

So, in sum, Ismail Yassin’s Phantom -- or, as the DVD’s subtitles translate it, Ismail Yassin’s Ghost -- is a charming and fun movie, nothing more, nothing less. Sure, after you watch it, you can tell your friends that you’ve been sampling some Egyptian cinema, and they’ll probably think that you’re kind of cultured and sophisticated for it. But you and I will know the truth, won’t we?