Global Cinema 18: Belize – Yochi (2017)

The problem with the challenge to watch a film from every country around the world is that there are all too many that basically have next to no film industry or even film production, and Belize is certainly one of those countries with a very short list of films. I might have chosen a Hollywood production set there, like The Mosquito Coast, but this short film popped up on a YouTube search, and it was made in Belize for the country, ostensibly to showcase a problem with poaching native birds.

Belizean flagBelize
population 408,000 | capital Belmopan (14k) | largest cities Belize City (57k), San Ignacio (18k), Belmopan, Orange Walk Town (13.7k), San Pedro Town (12k) | area 22,966 km2 | religion Christianity (74%) | official language English | major ethnicity Mestizo (53%), Creole (26%), Maya (11%) | currency Belize dollar ($) [BZD] | internet .bz

A small Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, Mexico and Guatemala, with the lowest population density in the region. The earliest reference to the name is in the late-17th century, in relation to the river, and is possibly derived from the Mayan belix meaning “muddy-watered”. It was one of the areas where the Mayan civilisation first emerged in the 3rd millennium BCE, which continued through to the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century CE, though despite Spanish claims over the territory, it was the British who first settled the country in the 18th century. After repelling Spanish attacks, it was integrated into the British Empire as British Honduras. Self-government was granted in 1964, and the country renamed as Belize in 1973. Full independence was granted on 21 September 1981. The head of state remains the British monarch, with an elected parliament led by a Prime Minister.

Although music and even theatre are part of the cultural life of Belize, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a local film industry, so very few films have been produced there.

Yochi (2017)

This short film has clearly been made with an interest in drawing attention to the illegal trade in exotic birds, specifically the yellow-headed parrot found in Belize. However, it’s also a story — and at 25 minutes it can’t really be more than a fairly simple one — about two indigenous brothers. The younger brother lives at home and doesn’t speak, while his older brother comes to visit from the city, slipping easily between the local Mayan language and English, as he disburses electronic gifts to mother and brother. So there are a few tensions in play — not speaking vs saying too much, city vs nature, the corruption of money (the brother, it turns out, is loaded down with debt) — and the film has resolutions to these, but even if it’s not surprising, it is very nice to see the lush jungles of Belize, its wildlife, and get a sense of life for some communities there. Plus, if like me you’re trying to watch films from countries around the world, there’s not much for Belize.

Yochi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ilana Lapid; Cinematographer Robert Dugan; Starring Kerry Johan Landero, Evan Martinez; Length 25 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Tuesday 18 August 2020.

สัตว์ประหลาด Sud pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004)

There is no doubting that Tropical Malady is a strange film. It is perplexing and operates in registers that few films do, and thinking back on it I really want to like it for what it does, and for being so resolutely unlike other films. It is a film that pushes at the boundaries of what being human means, and what separates us from animals, but it does so in a demandingly oblique way, so much so that I’d actually seen the film nine years earlier but could not remember it at all (though that may just be my own memory being terrible).

The film uses a two act structure and through the re-use of the same lead actors the possibility is held out that the second part is a re-telling of the first. However, that doesn’t account for the experience of watching the film, which is to have one’s narrative expectations constantly rebuffed, though partly that’s just from my overfamiliarity with (and reliance upon) Hollywood screenwriting structures. Here, the characters are built up through short scenes suffused with silence, glimpsed haphazardly, accruing details of life in layers (Tong’s time spent in the army, riding on buses through the city, working in an ice factory). By the time the first act is coming to a close, we only have a sense of these two people, Keng and Tong, and their growing feelings for one another, and this is where the film abruptly and surprisingly changes tack.

For the second part of the film, the screen fades from black and a new credits sequence begins, with a new title, and now we’re in mythic territory, where the line between human and animal is limned by mystical figures. Keng is now a soldier stranded alone in the jungle and Tong, naked and tattooed, is hunting him, ostensibly a shaman who can take the form of an animal. This second world is one where a bird can communicate, subtitled on screen, but it’s shot in the same naturalistic style as the first part, just with a new, deeper and darker, jungle setting.

What we’re left with then is an atavistic psychological terrain, which takes elements of folk tradition and blends it with contemporary naturalistic filmmaking practices. It’s been a consistent thematic interest of Weerasethakul, up to his most recent film Lung Buymi raluk chati (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010), which shares some of the same atmosphere, and which is in fact foreshadowed by some dialogue in Tropical Malady.

The film leaves open a lot more questions than it can possibly answer, and is shrouded in enigma. For me, I just had trouble enjoying the way the film unfolded, and found the pacing and characters uninvolving. I concede that other viewers may have a quite different reaction, gauging from some of the more gushing reviews, and I just want to be up-front about my reactions. I am conscious that I have trouble with films dealing with the supernatural (many of which tend to fall into the horror genre, though here it’s more of an arthouse tradition), as I tend to be rather prosaic in my interests. Lovers of ghost stories with a tolerance for elliptical and quiet filmmaking may find Weerasethakul’s work rewarding, but speaking for myself, I found the experience tested my patience.

Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographers Jarin Pengpanitch จริน เพ็งพานิช, Vichit Tanapanitch วิชิต ธนาพานิชย์ and Jean-Louis Vialard; Starring Sakda Kaewbuadee ศักดา แก้วบัวดี, Banlop Lomnoi บัลลพ ล้อมน้อย; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 24 October 2004 and Sunday 28 April 2013.