Yawning Bread. April 2007

Cinema: Two stories from the slums


    

 

 

They are both set in the slums of Southeast Asian cities where making a living must necessarily be an illicit business. They both contain a scene with a character caring for another who has been beaten up. But other than these similarities, the two films are different as chalk and cheese.

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The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros) by Aureus Solito, is an accessible, ultimately heart-warming family drama from the Sampaloc shantytown of Manila. At first sight, it seems to be a somewhat campy love story -- which gives it its moments of humour -- but from just beneath the surface rises a conflict between law enforcement and survival.

Papa Oliveros (Soliman Cruz) steals and fences mobile phones together with his two older sons, Boy (Neil Ryan Sese) and Bogs (Ping Medina) at the same time as they're  running numbers betting. In the slums where they live, where government services are hard to find and legit jobs even less so, this is as normal a way of life as any.

Swishy, 12 year-old Maximo (newcomer Nathan Lopez) is the homemaker for the family. He doesn't go to school anymore but instead washes and cooks for the rest. One day, he is saved from bullies by the new constable posted to the district, Victor (newcomer J R Valentin), and is smitten by him. Thereafter, in his spare time, Maximo follows him around and eventually takes packed lunches to him at the station as well. Lopez' performance, by turns a young boy's awkwardness and tentativeness, another moment an impulsive forwardness, is quite endearing and a joy to watch.

Problems begin when eldest brother Boy botches a robbery and ends up stabbing and killing the16-year-old victim. The scrupulously earnest and incorruptible constable sets about investigating the case, his suspicions leading him to the Oliveros family. This naturally puts Maximo on the spot, having to choose between his family and his first love.

But things take an even uglier turn when a new police commander arrives in the district. At first, he too looks like a straight shooter, but in fact he has a personal agenda against Papa Oliveros, putting the family and the police on an even more traumatic collision course.

Despite Maximo being quite flamboyantly queer, his sexuality never seems to be an issue for his father and brothers; they are remarkably accepting of it, teasing him at times. Constable Victor's feelings, on the other hand, are always guarded and ambiguous, thereby maintaining an elegant tension between the pre-teen lover and the object of  precocious affection. Yet it's precisely because the boy's sexuality is never an issue for anyone that the story is able to avoid getting stuck as a queer flick, moving on to a bigger tale about love and morality. And about the impotence of good men when the system is rotten.

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I do not want to sleep alone (Hei Yan Quan), the latest offering from Tsai Ming-liang, is one more film in his trademark style, which people will either love or hate. Like all his previous films, it is very slow-moving, featuring long, static camera takes, with hardly any dialogue. The main characters are isolated, lonely, often dysfunctional, yet always longing for a sexual connection with another.

All Tsai's films are like that, and each time one comes out, one wonders when he's going to run out of creative juice rehashing the same bleak material. But he never disappoints, showing how such ennui can fester in all sorts of different situations. In this case, in a different country altogether, for this is Tsai's first film made in Malaysia.

Set in probably the most tatty parts of Kuala Lumpur that the director could find, I don't want to sleep alone begins with two parallel narratives (if despite their languidness, you can call them that) that come together in the second half.

In one thread, a weary young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) has to look after a paralysed man (Lee Kang-sheng), while working for the mother (Pearlly Chua) of this man in a coffee-shop. The young woman's life is trapped between the attic of a run-down shophouse where she lives with the paralysed man and the coffee-shop where lowly-paid foreign workers while away their time.

In the other narrative, a homeless guy (also played by Lee Kang-sheng) is beaten up by some thugs and left by the side of the road. He is rescued by a group of Bangladeshis -- I got the impression that they are illegal overstayers in the country, but I don't remember it being made explicit -- and carried back to their room down a dark, seedy alley. One Bangla guy in particular, Rawang (newcomer Norman Atun), takes a special interest in nursing the homeless guy back to health, feeding him, sharing his bed with him, giving him a bed bath and helping him in the toilet. There's a palpable tenderness in these scenes despite their nearly penniless circumstances and crumbling environment.

Then, for reasons not terribly clear, Rawang moves out of the shared quarters, taking his mattress, mosquito net and the homeless guy with him. They move to an unfinished multi-storeyed building that has long since been abandoned by the contractors, making the grand but empty hulk their home.

As the homeless guy gets better, he starts to wander out on his own, eventually spotting the young woman in the coffee shop. A silent tango develops between the two, both wanting the same thing -- sex -- but with nowhere to consummate it.

Then things happen. Amid the worst smoke haze rolling in from Indonesia, the homeless guy and the young woman finally connect, only for Rawang to see them go off together. This brings on a heart-stopping climax quite unique in any of Tsai's films.

It is Tsai's mastery of minimalism and restraint that gives this simple tale its power. Dispensing with dialogue -- or much movement for that matter -- he still manages to infuse his characters with emotion.


 

Ambient sounds, uncollected trash and putrid pools of water are used to effect. His camera angles are often fascinating. At times, the action takes place in the background, or is glimpsed through a mirror, while the foreground remains utterly still. And yet that stillness is rewarding, giving your eye the time to take in the scene -- all the little details that gradually tell a story by just their presence within the frame. His art is the kind that haunts you way past the final credits.

Yawning Bread 


 

 

 

 

  

Trouble with Malaysian censors

I don't want to sleep alone was banned by the Malaysian censors earlier this year, but after an appeal, it has been approved for the arthouse circuit, provided the director agreed to 5 cuts. It is not yet known whether Tsai will agree to them.

The Malaysian government was upset that the film portrayed Malaysia the way it did, with crime, poverty, pollution and urban decay. 2007 is the Tourism Ministry's Visit Malaysia Year.

 

Footnotes

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Addenda

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