‘Ini Avan’. This is a fine movie from Sri Lanka I saw last week—the first I’ve seen from that country (can’t think of any other). The title (Tamil) translates as ‘Him, Here After’—which is what the pic is called in English—, though when written as one word (iniavan) means ‘sweet man’. The double entendre is deliberate. The story is about a former LTTE fighter—his name is never mentioned; he is simply ‘avan’ (him)—who returns to his village near Jaffna after having done time in a government rehabilitation camp (he likely surrendered or was captured in the final Sri Lankan army offensive in 2009, that decapitated the LTTE and put an end to its three decade-long insurgency). The former fighter
[hopes] to find meaningful work, reconnect with his lost love, and create a new life as an “iniavan” in his old village. But the village has turned against Avan and the separatist cause he fought for. From the first moments in the film, his old neighbours, all believably portrayed by amateur actors, stare at him in disapproving silence, and a child runs away from him. An old man comes to shout that Avan “killed” the man’s sons by luring them into the LTTE; we learn that he recruited everyone in the village who supported the cause, and they all died in the war. It was only Avan who survived to return and face those who were left behind to mourn their relatives while living in fear of LTTE extortion and government violence. He doesn’t want to face them, though. When anyone tries to talk to him, he replies, “piraiyosanam illai”: “no point”.
The scene could be from the aftermath of so many civil wars, where villagers supported the insurgents when they were in the ascendancy and the village sons had joined—not always on their own volition (there is a significant degree of impressment in these conflicts or offers one can’t refuse)—, suffered the actions of the army—killings, rape, destruction of property—but also of the insurgents themselves (their “revolutionary taxes”—i.e. extortion—, high-handed behavior, killings, and the like). And, in the case of the LTTE’s insurgency, it was all for naught. ‘Avan’, who was a gun slinging local big shot during the insurgency, is now a pariah. He tries to find work in Jaffna but his identity is known and he has no particular skills—apart from being a fearless tough guy who can be entrusted to do jobs outside the law. On the streets in Jaffna he encounters men from his insurgent past; they don’t look nice and he doesn’t want to deal with them: and they clearly have issues with him. And no one wants to hire him, except a local mafia-type who precisely knows his past. And a story thus ensues. The film is engaging, hangs together, and ends as it should. It has only opened in France so far (reviews here). Hopefully it will make it to the US and elsewhere. Trailer is here and interview with director Asoka Handagama is here.
Another film from that general part of the world seen in the past week was ‘Metro Manila’, which is from the Philippines but written, directed, and produced by the Englishman Sean Ellis (who’s made a couple of films I hadn’t heard of). It’s a sort of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ set in Manila, as more than one critic has observed. French reviews are mostly good—though Le Monde panned it—and Allociné spectators have given it the thumbs way up, so I was definitely going to check it out. But I regretfully had to agree with Le Monde’s review and part company with the Allociné spectators, whose collective assessment of films is normally on the mark. I did not like this movie and almost from the get go.
It begins in a village in northern Luzon, with a (good-looking) young rice farmer who can’t make ends meet and thus decides to migrate to Manila. So he sets off to the big city, with (attractive) wife, (adorable) five-year-old daughter, and (cuddly) baby in tow. There were several problems right off the bat. First, the family was too well-groomed and scrubbed to be dirt poor farmers. Peasant-wise, they didn’t cut it. And one learns in the course of the film that the husband, named Oscar (actor Jake Macapagal), had worked in a factory before becoming a peasant. Not too credible. Usually it’s the other way around. Secondly, they seemed to have no family in the village—or anywhere (a bit odd for folks from the sticks)—and knew no one in Manila. But when people migrate—whether rural-urban or cross-border—they are invariably imbedded in networks—family, friendship, village—, with knowledge of where they’re going—and that determines that destination—, a place to stay when they arrive, and information about employment. Migrants, even the poorest, possess a degree of social capital. But this couple clearly had none. They were entirely on their own. Thirdly, they were utterly clueless once in the chaotic Manila-Quezon City metropolis—where they’d clearly never been—, both enthralled by it and with no idea of what they were doing, thereby leaving them easy prey for the inevitable predators and swindlers. Again, peasants may be peasants, but they’re not that naïve when in the big city. The clichés here were a little much. Fourthly, Oscar, despite being a rube, had served in the army, so one learns—which normally should have provided some sort of network—, knew how to find the employment office, and make phone calls in English. Again, not entirely credible. Fifthly, they find digs in a particularly fetid, malfamé shantytown, though manage to keep clean, cook food, get the baby’s diapers changed, etc. Not clear how they did all that, and while being flat broke to boot. And finally, they were so nice. Such good people: decent, honest, trusting, ethical, moral… Even the daughter protects a kitten that is being abused by neighborhood boys. And on this level, the film grated, as it tugged at and manipulated your emotions (and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing). And you just knew, almost from the outset, that bad things were going to happen to the family. Bad things happening to good people. I hate that. For this reason alone I found the pic excruciating to sit through—angoissant—and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
And the bad stuff does happen—though not entirely and definitively. The way the bad stuff happens—and the film ends—is also contrived. Somehow I can’t imagine a Filipino director making this movie. It took a ‘Slumdog Millionaire’-inspired Westerner to do so. Now the film does have a certain “authenticity”—it is entirely in Tagalog; the script was in English, with the cast translating as they went along—and one does get a feel for Manila in its teeming, bustling sprawl, seaminess, violence, concentrated wealth and mass poverty—the technical feat of shooting the movie in that city during the workweek is to be commended—, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. US reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.