29 September 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's films are almost always about simple stuff that middle or upper-middle class people do or find themselves involved, be it love, money, relationship, life and death. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his latest film to date and it makes viewers wishing to forget their bleak and gloomy present and fly to Barcelona to enjoy the European sunshine and late night relaxation.

The film is simple yet elegant, touching upon human follies and cowardice when faced with choice. We have two main characters: Vicky, the stern and uptight woman working on a dissertation on Catalan identity, and Cristina, a carefree spirit on the pursuit of real happiness. The two fall for Juan Antonio, a painter who is charming and spontaneous, tending to let his emotion overcome reason. Thus, it's not surprising that Juan Antonio and Cristina hit it off pretty quickly, yet what's even more astonishing is that he manages to turn Vicky's life upside down, as she realises that she's not really in love with the man she's about to marry in two weeks' time.

So what we see here in the film is that love or attachment is no longer a two-way interaction; it's much more complicated than that. Somehow Cristina's relationship with Juan Antonio helps him relate to his ex-wife Maria Elena better. In the same way, Juan Antonio's relationship with Vicky casts a new light on her long-term relationship with Doug. Perhaps what Allen is doing is to show the audience that love is not simply an intimate relationship between two people, but involves the issues of comparison and contrast. One needs to look at other relationships in order to gauge one's own. In addition, Allen manages to convince that these issues of comparison and contrast can also bring catastrophic consequences to a relationship.

However, the ending doesn't promise any solution. It's really life-like in that Cristina's search for happiness or meaning of life still goes on, while Vicky settles for her bourgeois marriage with Doug. Perhaps what Juan Antonio says is right: life hasn't got any meaning, so why not just enjoy it?

In a way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona involves the politics of place, as Barcelona is seen as changing the characters' mindsets and helping them towards self-discovery (a journey that by no means promises satisfaction). In Barcelona, New Yorkers learn to discover their desire (not unlike the Italians' journey to Turkey in Hamam or the Germans' trip to Italy in Death in Venice). Yet, one wonders whether Allen here dwells too much on stereotypes. But he's nonetheless successful in making this film a commercial for Spanish tourism.

28 September 2008

Otto; Or, Up with Dead People

Otto; Or, Up with Dead People was shown here last week as part of the Bangkok International Film Festival. Directed by Bruce Labruce, the film showcases a lost gay zombie. I found the whole film pretty touching as we are led not only to the awareness of the plight suffered by Otto, an exploited, beaten zombie, but also his confused mentality.

Of course, the influence of George A. Romero's films are more than patent as the politics of 'the living dead' is used to the full effect here too. We tend to think that gay people can't be zombies simply because they're marginalised and tend to be aware of their living conditions. Common sense seems to tell us that only the mainstream or the majority can be zombies because they take their mainstream values and beliefs for granted. Thus I have seen zombies loitering in shopping malls or sometimes I can even see three hundred zombies sitting in an exam room, slaving away for best grades. However, Bruce Labruce turns the table around and shows that gay people can be zombies too, especially in their attempt to create 'gay essence' and stick to it. Examples of gay essence would be effeminate mannerism, clubbing, sleeping around and becoming good at languages. Perhaps in this sense gay people and mainstream feminists are more suitable for zombie-making than their straight counterparts.

However, in Otto's case, being a zombie has a different rationale all together. He becomes a zombie, not because he follows what the gay route dictates, but more because he is used ironically to show how other people around him, though living, are even more zombie-like than him. By being a zombie, Otto reveals his human side: his confusion, his victimised state, his alienation, as well as his exploitation. I can't help but sympathising with Otto's own trauma as a psychopath-cum-pariah and admiring his positive outlook in the end, when he decides to go north as it can help keep his body from corruption. Like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, despite the evils and prejudices against the marginalised in the contemporary world, Otto remains strong (in a zombiesque way).

There are many layers in this film and Bruce Labruce also parodies himself in the process. There is also a film in the film, with Medea Yarn directing (and exploiting) Otto in her new film about gay zombie liberation. Medea Yarn and her partner Hella Bent believe in the power of the film and Medea herself uses theory jargon that at times becomes inscrutable. In addition, we also see the parody of the cult film, especially its emphasis on flesh, sex, and death. However, the politics of this film is not to transgress or to ask questions, but rather to make fun of the whole cult film industry which at times tries too hard to be serious and forget one of the foundations of film-making: pleasure.

20 September 2008


It's not that surprising to know that Persepolis has been such a success in the Western hemisphere. Western people adore this coming-of-age tale of an Iranian woman who escapes the ruthless regime of her country to the free world of France. The whole film can be used as a propaganda and an excuse for the West to invade the Middle East, as it shows how living in Iran means you're always under the State's surveillance.

Of course, I don't deny that it can be such a gruesome experience where freedom is limited and moral collectivism is at an all-time high. The sense of morality, though, is portrayed as insincere and at best an excuse for bribery or tea money for those who have power, especially the police. Compared to Iran, Europe is much better as a place where one can enjoy freedom and choice. Marjane roams around Vienna wearing pretty revealing clothes and chain-smoking, understandably a reactionary result of the oppressive time in her motherland.

Yet, one shouldn't treat the whole story as representative of women's experience in Iran, even though one is tempted to do so. Part of the reason is that Marjane's is an individual case which probably differs from the majority. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Marjane's family is pretty posh, revelling in their bourgeois condition. They seem to be well-absorbed in Western ideology, especially when we look at the character of her grandma who wears pearls and is more like a philosopher than an old lady. It makes me wonder how many old ladies in Iran are like Marjane's grandma. Are we touching on a highly rare case here?

The film itself says that the majority of Iranian people were illiterate, thereby voting for a Muslim nationalist party to take control after the Shah's reign. Marjane's family resented this, wishing that the communist party should really have taken control. However, I wonder if that really had happened, what'd happen to Iran now? Would it be even more oppressive? In this case, we find that Marjane's family was pretty intellectual and should by no means be taken as representative of Iranian culture. Her family is traced back to the Shah of Persia at one point and she was sent to study in Europe at high school. I wonder how many Iranian women would receive this privilege.

Perhaps at best we should treat this work as an autobiography which reflects Marjane's own singular experience. This experience, however, should not be exploited and universalised as Iranian women's, even though this tendency is tempting as the film and the book have been marketed as an ethnic-related story that tells the story of the whole tribe. I think this type of marketing is dangerous and misleading. In this case, I'd like to hear more from those working-class women. Perhaps they'd like to remain a devout Muslim and perhaps even view a woman like Marjane with contempt.

My opinion of this work is that I wish it could be less one-sided. It'd be better to consider this story from another point of view with a different set of rationales all together. In this story, we only see the Iranian State as the axis of evil while Europe is the axis of light. These rather facile stereotypes are in line with the two-dimensional graphic, which admittedly is well-crafted and charismatic in its own way. Perhaps it'd be a good idea to look for a second witness.

14 September 2008

After Dark ราตรีมหัศจรรย์

After Dark has just been translated into Thai and I didn't hesitate to buy it upon first seeing. Of course, you may accuse me of getting lazy to read the work in its English translation. But my rationale is that even the English edition is the translated one. So why bother?

Like Wong Kar Wai, Haruki Murakami has done a great job in making us believe that being lonely is cool, as well as listening to jazz and smoking in public places, coffee shops especially. In After Dark, Murakami revisits his signature themes, such as urban angst, loneliness, and alienation. Characters in this sleek novel loiter in the dark world of an anonymous city (probably none other than Tokyo). They are probably the Japanese version of those in Thailand who belong to the so-called Sleepless Society clan, engineered by the mastermind named Narongvit.

All the main characters are lost in some way or another in the big city, not knowing what they want or why they live. Mari likes to read a novel in a cafe at night-time; Takahashi likes to play his trombone in a secret place underneath a building. Then, due to the weird twist and turn of events, Mari needs to be an ad-hoc translator for a Chinese prostitute who has been maltreated by an unsatisfied businessman at a seedy hotel called Alphaville. But the irony is Mari never feels estranged at this hotel, even wishing to return there to talk to people at work there. Of course, she's more comfortable talking to strangers than to those she "knows well".

Some might say that this novel represents another optimistic turn in Murakami's career, when he sees some hope in this city life, when Mari manages to learn about love and care in one single night as she eventually returns home to help bring her sister Eri back from an existential slumber.

However, I choose to look another way. I'm more interested in violence in this novel. The guy who brutally beats up the Chinese prostitute turns out to be a simple guy, someone really normal who works in an unknown office somewhere in the city. His plainness is somewhat errie, as it means that we city-dwellers are prone to commit such an act of violence. Life in the city has somehow bestowed pressure upon us, whether we realise it or not. And this violence is infectious, spreading like a plague. For those who wish to survive in this urban arena, you must either be an alpha-male slaving away during the day time and becoming a sadistic evil at night, or you must retreat from the whole thing, sleeping yourself away like Eri in a condition of social withdrawal called hikikomori.

One of the scenes I like is the Chinese prostitute's mobile phone, which is left by the businessman at a 7-Eleven, to be found later by Takahashi and a sales assistant. Threatening messages from a Chinese gangster are heard by these Japanese characters. By such a symbolic gesture, violence is committed across time, space, and even language, to those who are not directly involved in the original act. But then can we really say that they are completely absolved from the crime? In this cityspace of intertwining, net-like human relations, we are all connected in some way or another. Without knowing, I by listening to the music of Pink Martini today may contribute to the genocide in a far-away country tomorrow.

Perhaps what Murakami is saying is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid an act of violence (either us being victimised, or on the contrary us hurting other people) in the city where the relationships among city-dwellers are both complex and ultra-sensitive. To live (or to just survive) therefore means simply to acknowledge this and to help each other go through. But then where's the destination? No destination but really just another site of darkness perhaps.