Yes yes, I know, long time no blog. Actually, there was some new content over at EasternKicks.com, where I looked at an interesting short movie from Japan, although apparently the Boss has decided to take credit . However, hopefully we will get a couple of reviews over here this week, and we shall start with a really interesting movie from the Philippines that was given a rather unexpectedly lovely release on DVD a few weeks ago.
In “Independencia” we are taken back a little in time, to were a young man (Sid Lucero) and his mother (Tetchie Agbayani) take refuge from the American occupation of the islands in the Jungle. They are joined after some time by a beautiful young woman (Alessandra de Rossi), who may have been abused in every sense of the word by the invaders. Time passes, and the mother dies, but the two survivors have a son (Mika Aguilos). The raise the son alone in the jungle for a few years, but the power of nature and the final discovery by the Americans will eventually disturb their escapist idyll.
Sounds all rather simplistic right? And on one hand you would be correct. The thing is, I have been keeping a certain aspect of this film by Filipino director Raya Martin from you. You see this is the second of a planned trilogy of movies about the modern history of the Philippines, each looking at various occupations of the nation (by in turn the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese) and using a rather clever visual technique. In “A Short Film About the Indio Nacional” Martin made a silent black and white film, reflecting the cinematic era of the time. And here he repeats the trick, filming it just like an early era American black and white “talkie”***.
And when I say just like, I don’t just mean effecting the appearance of grainy film stock and clever effects to give the appearance of age and limited lighting. No, Martin went the whole way. Employing Jeanne Lapoirie as the cinematographer, he films it as if it was a 1920’s Hollywood sound stage. Painted backdrops. A fake jungle set. Real animals and birds wandering around. And all this against the fact that the one thing the Philippines have in abundance is jungle that can be filmed in! On the other hand, there is a scene told in flashback about the young woman’s past that is very much more explicit than you would expect in a film of that time. Which I suspect is actually the point and is designed to both shock and bring the point home.
The same care is taken with the casting, which he explains in detail in one of the extras on the excellent DVD from Second Run. For example, whilst Sid Lucero might not have the best Tagalog, he had utterly the correct visual look the director was looking for. The child actor may not have had any experience, but he was cast because of his obvious mixed race appearance, giving the film an important visual clue to certain events that are not actually spoken about.
All this care and attention to the detail (and the film, although with a tiny cast and running a mere 74 minutes) is shown when it turns out the movie actually took 3 years to make. However, al this is all window dressing if the actual movie isn’t up to scratch. Now my Filipino 20th century history isn’t really up to scratch, but it is clear what we have here is more an allegory than a story to be taken at face value. It is talking about the way the people of this country have to deal with outside invaders, how they often find refuge in the jungle against these interloping forces. It also has things to say about certain traditional ways of life, and maybe points to a ray of hope for the future of the people. It is a beautiful and clever thing, but I do wonder if it would play much deeper to a local audience.
The only mis-step in my opinion is a very fake newsreel that occurs at around the halfway point. It serves a number of purposes: for the sake of the style, it works as an old school intermission; for the sake of the story, it enables there to be a time jump in the main narrative, as well as explaining a character that will appear at the conclusion; and in terms of the underlying political message, it gives us a rather unsubtle nudge. Whilst I understand the purpose, I found it unnecessarily jarring when compared to the tone of the rest of the film.
However, the film is rather wonderful aside from that matter of personal choice, and comes as highly recommended. Martin is clearly a talented film-maker who is able to use the language of film to add layers to an important story that on first look might be far too simplistic.
*** I can’t find out if he ever got round to filming the final part, which would deal with the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and would be filmed in a format somehow equivalent to a Manga. Maybe someone could let me know?