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Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

A Touch of Sin

a touch of sin

In my last post, on the documentary ‘Fidaï’—the subject of which is a single FLN fighter during Algerian war of independence—, I mentioned the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, who was the film’s executive producer. As it happens, the last film Jia directed was the excellent ‘A Touch of Sin’, which I saw almost a year ago, made my Top 10 best of list of 2013, and that I totally forgot to post on. So now I am, a year later. Mieux tard que jamais. In brief, the film consists of four stories—all based on actual fait divers over the past several years that Jia learned about via social media—of horrendous murder sprees committed in different parts of China, focusing on the murderers (and murderesses)—who appear to be ordinary people—and what caused them to snap and commit their crimes. In the film Jia weaves the fait divers together and casts them in the wuxia operatic tradition, of taking an actual event and fictionalizing it, rendering the actors as chivalric individuals crushed by oppressive, unjust power and reacting with violence that is both extreme and futile. There are no heroes or good guys here (i.e. this is not Hollywood). It is one of the most powerful films I’ve seen on contemporary China, of the anomie and violence of social relations there, and the utter absence of justice or any kind of ethical or moral code guiding the behavior of those in power. US reviews were good, French reviews excellent. Trailer is here. Very highly recommended.

On other films from China seen over the past year-and-a-half or so:

‘Mystery’, by director Lou Ye, who had been banned from making movies over the previous five years for transgressing taboos on Tiananmen Square 1989. This is a film noir-ish thriller set in Wuhan, of an upper middle class couple riven by infidelity and jealousy, and which results in murder—the story inspired, as with the above discussed film, by fait divers the director learned about via the Internet. Another tale of the violence, corruption, and amorality of a contemporary China sans foi ni loi. This US review was good but this one and this were mixed. I lean toward the mixed. French reviews were good enough on the whole. Trailer w/English s/t is here, w/French s/t here.

Mystery_2012_poster

‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’, by Diao Yinan. As this was the happy winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale this past February, I was clearly not going to miss it, and particularly in view of its top reviews in France. The film is, to quote one critic

a mystery story presented almost exclusively from the point of view of an ex-cop [named Ziang Zili; actor Liao Fan], and dealing with a series of grisly murders, with the victims’ bodies chopped to pieces and spread over a large territory, hundreds of miles apart.

Lovely. It’s the noir-est of film noirs, and yet one more cinematic portrayal of the dark underside of contemporary China. As Variety’s reviewer, who noted a “certain opacity” in the film, observed

Though…a less overtly political film than Jia Zhangke’s recent “A Touch of Sin,” “Black Coal, Thin Ice” does proffer a similarly dark and blood-soaked portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground. All that’s missing is for Diao to have someone tell our forlorn hero, “Forget it Zhang, it’s China.”

To be honest, I couldn’t get in to this film. I lost the thread of the story part way through, either on account of its above mentioned opacity and/or because I nodded off more than once (which happens) and possibly missed crucial information. In short, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. And my overall sentiments were manifestly not in the minority, as Allociné spectateurs were considerably less enthusiastic about the pic than were the critics. The Hollywood Reporter’s “bottom line” anticipated this reaction from the unwashed cinema-going masses, calling the film

A fascinating exercise in style that will entrance the critics and leave audiences scratching their heads.

I was seriously scratching my head at the end (and particularly with the way it ends). Further down, THR’s reviewer opined that despite the film’s undeniable qualities

as a detective story it verges on the incomprehensible, which will be a serious drawback to distribution, [though s]ophisticated audiences will enjoy its strange atmosphere as they try to puzzle out plot and characters.

I guess that means I’m not part of the sophisticated set, as I didn’t try to puzzle out a thing after leaving the salle. Perhaps it all goes to show that I’m finally just a regular movie consumer and with regular middlebrow tastes—as one Uber-highbrow cinesnob friend has been sniffing at me of late—, meaning that the incomprehensible will leave me uncomprehending. Oh well. Trailer w/French s/t is here, w/English s/t here.

black coal thin ice

‘Three Sisters’, by Wang Bing. A languidly paced 2½-hour documentary entirely set in a mountain top village in the fin fond of Yunnan province… Not exactly your Saturday night date film. I hesitated on seeing it, despite the top French reviews and having been impressed with the director’s previous film, The Ditch. But when it came to my local cinéma municipal, which is a mere ten minute walk from chez moi, I had little choice. But I’m glad I went, as it’s worth seeing. I’ll let NYT critic Jeannette Catsoulis describe it

Not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder, Wang Bing’s two-and-a-half-hour “Three Sisters” documents extreme poverty in rural China with the compassionate eye and inexhaustible patience of a director whose curiosity about his country’s unfortunates never seems to wane.

Filming for six months in a remote hillside village in 2010, Mr. Wang follows the spirit-crushing lives of a short-tempered peasant and his three little daughters. Their mother ran off long ago, and now Yingying, 10; 6-year-old Zhenzhen; and Fenfen, 4 — all so malnourished that they look years younger — spend their days doing chores and herding sheep. But when their father leaves for a job in the city, taking the two youngest girls with him, Yingying is left alone. A grandfather and an aunt live close by, but the girl’s isolation and sadness suggest a poignant hopelessness, as though she has reached the age at which she has begun to notice a future. And it’s not pretty.

Though less overtly political than Mr. Wang’s nine-hour masterpiece from 2003, “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” (which chronicled China’s painful transition from a state-run economy to a free market), “Three Sisters” makes its point in lice-infested hovels and with the bleeding feet of endlessly coughing children. A communal meal at a great-uncle’s house reveals village elders sniffing at the government’s proposed “rural revival,” knowing that it really means extra land fees for already strapped peasants. Clearly, the country’s economic boom is not trickling down, leaving them frozen in a way of life as ancient as the ground beneath their feet.

Not pretty, contemporary China. The film holds one’s attention, at least it did mine and despite the length and languidness, though it could have been shortened. Variety’s Jay Weissberg agreed, regretting that the film’s running time will likely limit its exposure beyond “Sinophile film nerds and scattered human-rights fests.” THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.

Trois-soeurs-Affiche-617

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Narendra Modi in the Big Apple

With my Mother

With my Mother

[update below] [2nd update below]

In my last—and only—post on Narendra Modi, from 4½ months ago, I opined that were he to become Indian PM following the general election there the US would no doubt lift the visa ban he was slapped with in 2005, for his implication in the infamous events in Gujarat three years prior. It is indeed hard to imagine an Indian Prime Minister being denied entry to the US and not welcomed at the White House with open arms. So PM Modi arrived in New York City yesterday for, as WaPo reports, a five-day “rock star-like U.S. tour,” which will involve, entre autres, a speech “to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a show replete with laser lights, holo­graphic images and former Miss America Nina Davuluri as co-host [and with the event being] broadcast in Times Square and 100 other venues around the country.” Moreover “[t]he Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [will add] extra trains to accommodate the expected crowds [and a] red carpet will be unfurled.” Definitely rock star-like. À propos, an academic gauchiste half-Muslim Indian friend—whose political views are the antithesis of those of Modi and his supporters—informed me today that, to her exasperation, her Facebook news feed has been inundated with links and comments by excited friends and relatives who plan to attend Modi’s US events. A post in the NYT’s The Upshot blog on Thursday indeed called Modi “A Facebook leader, too,” informing the reader that he had 21.8 million official fans on his FB page—two days later it’s over 22 (see above image)—, which is way more than any other political personality anywhere save Barack Obama (who has 42MM). By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was bragging recently about how he has more Facebook fans than François Hollande, has yet to hit a million…

On Narendra Modi’s US appeal, the très gauchiste historian Vijay Prashad, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford CT, had a comment in The Guardian yesterday on how “Tough guy Modi is the man of the moment for wealthy Indian Americans.” Money quote

For wealthy sections of Indian America, Modi represents a strong man who evokes pride in India. When Modi brags about his 56-inch chest, his machismo indicates India’s arrival in world affairs. Poverty is swept away by his braggadocio. Eyes are averted from the slums and instead rest upon his promises to toss environmental and labour laws in the dustbin. Trains will run on time, workers obey their supervisors and the armed forces will spread their testosterone along India’s borders. Experiences of racism and discrimination inside the US will be forgotten in the presence of Modi. If America sees Modi’s toughness, say his US supporters, the petty humiliations of life in the west will vanish.

As I observed in my post of 4½ months ago, Modi bears a distinct resemblance to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Poor India.

Pankaj Mishra, in the November 21st 2013 NYRB, had a review essay on the latest books (co-)authored by Indian economist frères ennemis Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, “Which India matters?,” in which he made observations similar to Prashad’s

Rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to such hard-line leaders as Narendra Modi, whose well-advertised toughness with labor unions and PR-enhanced business-friendliness make him the preferred choice of many corporate leaders, economists, and commentators as India’s next prime minister. Bhagwati, for instance, has described Modi as a “positive role model” with “an unblemished record of personal integrity.” As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was allegedly complicit in the killing of over a thousand Muslims there in 2002 and was barred from traveling to the United States as a result. But he still embodies managerial efficiency and iron discipline to those disturbed by the political assertiveness of the poor and the disaffected.

And Mishra writes supra that

India’s ruling class today consists, as C. Rammanohar Reddy, editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, defines it, “of large Indian businesses, the new entrepreneurs in real estate, finance, and IT, the upper segment of the urban middle classes, the upper echelons among the bureaucracy, and even large sections of the media.”

What’s immediately striking about this class of the relatively affluent is the degree to which it shares the same interests and beliefs, and its reflexive hostility to government spending on welfare—although political parties feel particularly obliged to indulge in such spending before elections. But the conservative rhetoric about buoyantly self-reliant entrepreneurs hides the fact that, as [Atul] Kohli writes [in his 2012 book Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India], the Indian state since the 1980s has been “pro-business” rather than pro-market, responsible both for the dynamic forces at the apex of India’s economy and “the failure to include India’s numerous excluded groups in the polity and the economy.”

This “collaborative capitalism,” of which Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, is the most egregious exponent, consists of the state extending tax benefits to India’s largest businesses and facilitating their cheap access to national resources of oil, gas, forests, and minerals. In turn, “the disproportionate control over economic resources,” Kohli writes, “enables businessmen to ‘buy’ politicians,” shape decision-making through the media, and even enter politics themselves.

The spitting image of RT Erdoğan. If Modi acquires anything resembling RTE’s electoral base, he’ll be around for many years to come.

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra, in a column in Bloomberg View (September 29th), says that “Narendra Modi is a dangerous cliché.”

2nd UPDATE: Meera Nair, who teaches writing at NYU, has a post on one of WaPo’s blogs (October 3rd) informing us that “Narendra Modi was speaking in code when he visited America. Here’s what he was really saying to his Hindu nationalist base.”

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The Indian election

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

[update below]

I don’t follow Indian politics too closely, though am, of course, aware that a general election is underway there, and which will most certainly result in the victory of the BJP and accession to power of its worrisome leader, Narendra Modi. If one wants to get up to speed on this—as I’m trying to do—I can recommend a couple of good articles that I’ve read over the past 24 hours (h/t Mira Kamdar and Roane Carey).

The first is by the well-known South Asia specialist William Dalrymple, “Narendra Modi: man of the masses,” in the New Statesman (May 12th). The lede: Modi, implicated in a massacre in 2002 while chief minister of Gujarat, is poised to become India’s next prime minister. Is he a dangerous neo-fascist, as some say, or the strongman reformer that this country of 1.2 billion people craves?

Modi may be a lifelong member of the fascistic RSS but that does not ipso facto make him personally a neo-fascist. To me, he sounds like an Indian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—though with some blood on his hands—, which will be just fine for BJP supporters but not so fine for those who don’t support the BJP.

The other article is by Zahir Janmohamed, “Could a Hindu Extremist Become India’s Next Prime Minister?” in The Nation (May 13th). The lede: Narendra Modi’s role in the horrific 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat has never been properly investigated, but now a timely new study is raising the right questions.

Janmohamed, pour l’info, lives in Ahmedabad and is writing a book about the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and has previously worked as a foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) and as the advocacy director for Amnesty International. The “timely new study” Janmohamed reviews in his essay is The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, by Times of India journalist Manoj Mitta. Money quote:

In Manoj Mitta’s new book The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, published by Harper Collins India, Mitta argues that if there has been no real attempt to get to the truth of Modi’s actions during the riots, it’s because of the “cavalier” approach to justice. Through extensive documentation, Mitta shows that Modi might be on trial today, as opposed to campaigning for prime minister, if only he had been asked the right questions about his role in the riots.

If the US visa ban on Modi—which he was slapped with in 2005—is still in effect, one may assume that it will soon be lifted.

While I’m at it, for those who can get behind the NYRB’s paywall, Pankaj Mishra had a review, in the August 15 2002 issue, of Human Rights Watch’s report ‘We Have No Orders to Save You’: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (in which Narendra Modi is mentioned forty-eight times).

À suivre.

UPDATE: Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture, has a very good article, dated March 1 2012, entitled “The Emperor Uncrowned: The rise of Narendra Modi.”

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Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.

a_simple_life

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Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The TPP. Any idea of what that is? Most likely not. I hardly knew myself until today, and I like to think that I’m well-informed on international affairs. It’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement the Obama administration is presently negotiating below the radar screen with several Asian and Latin American countries (map below). And it is very important. So important for the business interests that are driving it—and of the governments doing their bidding—that, from their standpoint, it best be kept way below that public radar screen. The redoubtable Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who has been organizing around trade and globalization issues since the ’90s, explains what’s at stake with the TPP in this Democracy Now! interview. It will take 14-minutes of your time to watch it (it starts at the 13th minute) but is well worth it if you’re a citizen of any of the countries involved. So please watch it now.

Re Lori Wallach: Talk about being well-spoken and having your facts and arguments down cold. I would dread being on the opposing side of a debate with her. For more by Wallach on the TPP, see the article she wrote last year in The Nation, “NAFTA on steroids.” The lede: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would grant enormous new powers to corporations, is a massive assault on democracy.” If Wallach’s characterization of the TPP is at all accurate—and I have no reason to believe that it’s not—, it represents, at the very least, a significant, European Union-like transfer of national sovereignty to a supranational entity. Except that, unlike the EU—until the enlargements of the past decade plus Greece—, the TPP involves countries with vastly different standards of living, political institutions, systems of governance, and economic legislation (labor, consumer, etc), to name a few, but without any EU-type supranational institution (commission, parliament, council, court) and absent any pretense of democratic accountability. Moreover, one has a hard time imagining what benefits could accrue to significant numbers of citizens in the countries involved, and particularly the United States. This thing needs to be stopped, and beginning with Congress refusing fast-track authority to President Obama. NAFTA, which I was all for twenty years ago, turned out to be a mistake. The TPP will definitely be a mistake and a much bigger one.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (December 12th) on his blog on why he doesn’t think the TPP is a big deal. Dean Baker explains on his blog why his friend Paul is in error on this, that the TPP is indeed a big—and bad—deal.

2nd UPDATE: Joseph Stiglitz has a must read article on the TPP, “On the wrong side of globalization,” on the NYT op-ed page. (March 15, 2014)

newTPP map cropped

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Fukushima’s worst-case scenarios

t1larg.map.japan.fukushima.daiichi.radius

I have had absolutely nothing on this blog on the Fukushima accident, which is not to say that I haven’t been following the story closely over the past 2½ years and fretting over it. A certain number of articles I’ve read on the subject, including lately, have been alarmist, indeed catastrophiste, as to the situation at the plant and how it could go from bad to worse, particularly in the coming months. But I just read this article in Slate by former WaPo journalist Paul Blustein, who lives in Japan, informing us that “[m]uch of what [we]’ve heard about the nuclear accident is wrong.” The article is based on an initially secret—and still not widely known—evaluation of the accident by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The bottom line: there is no plausible worst-case scenario that threatens the city of Tokyo. Even in the most nightmarish of eventualities, 30 million people—or even a portion of that—will not need to be evacuated. A very interesting article and absolutely worth the read.

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Ini Avan & Metro Manila

ini-avan-movie

‘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.

metro manila

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