A Diptych about the Modern Philippines: “For Example, the Philippines” (2010/2015)

I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.

However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.


Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.

Wake (Subic) (2015)

Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).

If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

大象席地而坐 Da Xiang Xidi Erzuo (An Elephant Sitting Still, 2018)

One of the most striking feature debuts of recent years is this almost four-hour Chinese film by Hu Bo. Perhaps part of the reason it gained distribution is that it was also, sadly, the final film for its director, but I think it stands on its own as a rendition of life in a northern Chinese city. Most Chinese films of this length can’t seem to help but allegorise some aspect of Chinese political life, but Hu Bo puts the focus more resolutely on his characters and, one assumes by extension, on himself and his own feelings. Its length and the sadness contained within it make me feel like I didn’t really do this film justice with my brief notes below, and I want to revisit it again in future with a bit more hindsight.


This is a film filled with darkness. At first that that’s just literal darkness; the early scenes feel like they’re only barely registering in the half-lit gloom of darkened rooms in a miserable industrial town that nobody really wants to live in. But it’s also the darkness that lies within the characters (and, it would seem, from autobiographical details, the director), most of whom seem to be grappling with feelings of mortality or worthlessness or self-hatred or disgust toward their parents or spouses or authority figures… There’s this sadness branching off in so many directions, but mostly it’s directed inwardly.

The film appears to be set over the course of a single day — or at least that’s my reading of it — and is made up of these long takes, often following behind a character. There’s a lot of violence, but you never see this on-screen, it always just happens outside the frame, so instead the camera stays on the faces of those witnessing it or inflicting it; there’s no cathartic release, only the pain of violence refracted back onto the participant. Therefore it’s important that the actors are all excellent, really finding space within this bleak town, within their characters, in an almost documentary-like way.

If that all makes it sound less than entertaining — and be mindful too that this film is almost four hours long — then you would indeed be reading my review correctly. That said, I think there’s a lot of fantastic talent in there, and for all the darkness, there’s still something which connects, but it connects in difficult ways.

An Elephant Sitting Still film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hu Bo 胡波 (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Fan Chao 范超; Starring Peng Yuchang 彭昱暢, Wang Yuwen 王玉雯, Zhang Yu 章宇, Liu Congxi 李從喜; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 15 December 2018.

ハッピーアワー Happy Hour (2015)

So far in my ‘long films week’ I’ve focused on films which are long due to their aesthetic ideals of slow, long-form cinema which moves very and deliberately slowly, but there are other reasons films go long. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 derives its durational intensity from a series of acting improvisations that cohere around a mystery plot, and in this Japanese film from a few years ago it is again improvisational work (all with non-professionals) which provides the length, as the situations they work on start to build up in complexity and emotional resonance. In such cases, the length may feel necessary for a true depth of character, and makes such films rather closer to the TV mini-series format, whereby character takes prominence over plotting.


Much like the “happy hours” which are advertised in pubs and bars, you know that what you will end up getting will neither be an hour long nor ultimately result in happiness, and so it is in this film. It is five and a quarter hours long, and although it’s not exactly a tragedy, it does seem to deal with four different routes through unhappiness (some of which at least may end up somewhere positive).

It follows four women, all friends in their late-30s in Kobe, all of whom are first seen happily eating together on a hilltop promontory and planning a trip to a spa town. Three of them are married and one is divorced, and throughout the film we get a sense of each of their characters: Jun (Rira Kawamura), the linchpin who brought them together, unemployed and going through a divorce; Akari (Sachie Tanaka), the tough-minded nurse; Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), who keeps the home and raises her teenage son; and Fumi (Maiko Mihara), an administrator for some kind of a creative/arts space. As the film progresses, we get the sense of each of them, and their relationships (with men and with each other).

In taking on a story with four main characters, the film seems interested in the balance between them, and an extended workshop scene near the start facilitated by Fumi with an ‘artist’ (a shady character who comes across like the kind of role Adam Driver might play) uses trust exercises and the like to forge bonds between the performers, looking for natural points of balance in both furniture and people. If he seems to be on the make for a pick-up, the husbands aren’t very much better, being instead rather detached from their wives. Fumi’s husband is a literary editor working with a younger (woman) author, while Sakurako’s is well-meaning but a bit stupid (even his mother has to slap him upside the head at one point, in a particularly amusing moment amidst a family crisis that is not so).

Much of the acting seems to be deliberately downplayed, delivered frontally with clear diction and a noticeable lack of characters talking over each other. It suggests a heightened dramatic register that is perhaps borne out by the trajectories the characters take. The events of the film, indeed, might be considered melodramatic, but any such hint of that particular register is keenly avoided by the filmmakers at every step, and the performance styles certainly contribute to that.

There’s ultimately a lingering sense of mystery (one of the characters even largely disappears about halfway through, à la L’avventura perhaps except for the sense that she’s still in the world somewhere). Relationships are continually fractured and reconfigured, but there’s also a simple joy to the ensemble performances. There are also plenty of sublime moments. For myself, I want to mention the scene where Sakurako listens to the young woman author speak (her name is rather distracting for the English-speaking audience when transcribed: Ms Nose), and then at dinner afterwards offers her halting opinion: that she has shared the same experiences in the same place as the author, but is saddened because she never felt any of the same intensity of emotion — an observation hinting at the lack of stimulation Sakurako receives from life, and which the actor conveys so well in her performance. There are plenty of such observations in the film, and plenty of rewards to receive.

Happy Hour film posterCREDITS
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara 野原位 and Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa 北川喜雄; Starring Sachie Tanaka 田中幸恵, Hazuki Kikuchi 菊池葉月, Maiko Mihara 三原麻衣子, Rira Kawamura 川村りら; Length 317 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 10 March 2018.

Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Jonas Mekas isn’t making slow cinema, but seems to be going for a truer form of autobiographical reflection, one that requires time — a lot of time — to convey. After all, he’s spent his life’s work documenting the world around him from his point of view, so he has a lot of material to work with, and he was almost 80 when he put together this magnum opus.


Jonas Mekas is a playful filmmaker (or “filmer” as he prefers it on the voiceover — though he’s involved in every level of his craft, so he seems to me more a “maker” than many). In this film, divided into 12 chapters, he pops up on the voiceover, an elderly man explaining how this film is his life, how these are his memories, how he (and his children) are in every frame, and then, also, to tell us it’s a film about nothing. Nothing happens, he says, and occasionally also flashes up a written placard saying the same (when it doesn’t say “this film is political”). It’s true that the prospect of five hours of what amounts to home movies isn’t enticing, but Mekas with his little Bolex camera has developed a fully-fledged aesthetic, and it’s one that seems perfectly suited to the idea of memories, fragmentary glimpses of another life (his own life), largely from the 70s and 80s as far as I can tell from what’s in here, and largely in NYC. So in fact, it’s all beautifully composed, fragmented, layered, with voiceover and snippets of music, it’s like the playfulness of Godard’s pomp without the overweening self-seriousness and intellectualising. This is a beautiful assemblage.

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jonas Mekas; Length 288 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 1 May 2018.

Sátántangó (1994)

Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.


I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.

Sátántangó film posterCREDITS
Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.

Melancholia (2008)

Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour epic The Irishman is out in UK cinemas on Fri 8 November, ahead of it dropping on Netflix (for whom it was made), and it got me thinking about other very long films. I have a tag for such films, which I define as more than three hours, but it’s impossible to think of durational filmmaking without also thinking of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, who has made his name making intensely long films, where something the length of Scorsese’s latest, something like Norte, the End of History, would be considered a fairly short work. In any case, I’m doing a themed week around excessively long films, so if you’re trying to watch what I’m writing about, you may well run out of time.


I don’t tend to do plot summaries in my write-ups (I hesitate to call them “reviews”) because that kind of thing can be discovered elsewhere, or by watching the film. For example, Melancholia‘s Wikipedia page has a pretty thorough summary that’s mostly quite accurate and yet I noticed at least one stretch of about an hour that took place between successive sentences of that summary, and that’s hardly an anomaly. Because that, after all, is Lav Diaz’s filmmaking, a man not unreasonably known as an avatar of the modern “slow cinema”. Melancholia does have more ‘plot’ than some of his other works (I’m thinking of Heremias or even Norte or A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery): the setup of two people and their zvengali-like ‘therapist'(?) who are enacting real-world role-playing scenarios suggests the theatre group in Out 1 gradually breaking up, ripping apart not just their interpersonal relations but the narrative of the film itself. There is, of course, a lot of wandering about in the jungle (particularly in the film’s last act), with Diaz’s beautiful fixed long shots of mountainous roads a familiar sight from anyone who’s seen any of his films. And within the film’s psychodrama, there’s a story of what I suppose is the Philippines itself, colonised and cast aside, featuring an elaborate end game that makes no sense except in the mind of the power-mad manipulator. I can’t really describe it better than that, I’m afraid; if you don’t like durational cinema, you may not find much that will sway you, but there are interesting games being played here.

Melancholia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz; Starring Angeli Bayani, Perry Dizon; Length 450 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 31 March 2018.

Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil, 2018)

I’ve seen a fair few Lav Diaz films now (which means several days’ worth of running time probably), and reviewed some of them on here, but I have yet to really have my Damascene moment with his work. I like his style, I like the way his films are shaped, which seems to me to be distinct and different from a lot of contemporary cinema. Yet for all that I’ve at times really liked the experience of watching one of his often epic-length narratives, I still don’t find them as thrilling as I should, and I fear that may be the case for this one too. It’s a musical, yes, but it’s very much a Lav Diaz film too, for all that this might entail. I do, however, feel like I’ve learned a lot about Filipino society and history from his work, which can be its own reward of course, and will be why I keep returning to him. (I hope to do a themed week around cinema of the Philippines soon.)


In most musicals people sing to express joy or love, where the heightened presentation reflects the characters’ excessive emotional states, but then there are those musicals where the songs mask a deeper pain that cannot be expressed through simple words, and, well, I’ll let you guess which of those categories this film falls into. It’s called Season of the Devil and it’s set in the late-70s during the Marcos regime, as bands of vigilantes have been organised into uniformed militias (the CHDF) to maintain local order and the power of the regime through violence and repression. The setting is a remote village where a young woman (Shaina Magdayao) has set up a free clinic, and the lush black-and-white cinematography recalls Lav Diaz’s recent historical epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016). This one moves at more of a clip, but it still expresses a great deal of pain, and feels like one of his bleaker films of recent years, and we see the people of this small community in pain at the violence and tyranny wrought by the government. Fairly uneasy viewing in Duterte’s Philippines, one suspects, and this perhaps explains why it was shot in Malaysia.

Season of the Devil film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Larry Manda; Starring Piolo Pascual, Shaina Magdayao; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 18 August 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)

My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”