Overview: A Year with Strong Feminine Presence By Lim Fong Wei

in 9th Singapore International Film Festival

by Lim Fong Wei

The Da Vinci Code seems to rock both the religious and the pop cultural world is its assertion of the feminine presence in christianity and the systematic silencing of the feminine voice. The novel’s popularity is not surprising since this thought also echoes New Age secular spiritualists’ claims that the world is transiting into the age of “the goddess”. Coincidentally, the Singapore International Film Festival’s Silver Screen Award this year reflects the strong feminine presence.

Jocelyne Saab’s Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (Dunia) from Lebanon which opens the fest questions how the Arab culture, tradition and literature celebrates sensuality and pleasure in music, dance, food and perfume, can also savagely deny women’s rights to these pleasure by condoning female circumcision. Dunia, a circumcised young woman, delves into the world of belly dancing to restore her sensuality. Her newly wed husband became possessive as she comes more in touch with her “inner goddess” and independence. Saab’s bold celebration of female sexuality is condemned as pornographic in her home country and she has received a few death threats since. The lead actress, Hanan El Turk, has been ordered to put on the veil, which is as good as ending her film career. The jury awarded her the Best Actress Award not only for her compelling and fiercely intuitive portrayal of the woman in quest of her self, but also in recognition of her boldness of embracing such an evidently risky role.

Saab’s film is the most overtly feminine of the whole festival. In other films, the female presence stood up because the men were simply too damn emasculated. They are either never-do-good men and dysfunctional father figures in Ying Liang’s Taking Father Home from China or the arrested developed men, or the conflicted men frozen and impotent when their complex emotions smack them right in the face.

Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk (Yawarakai seikatsu) from Japan, clinching the Best Film award, is a compelling and deeply heart-felt study of a maniac-depressive woman Yuko and her failed relationship with four perfectly screwed-up men. One is a pervert she met on the internet who would only connect with her in the context of kinky sex – watching her masturbate with a vibrator in his car, and caressing her with his feet under a chic restaurant table. Next in line is her old classmate from university, an impotent political activist. The quirkiest of them all is a young retiring yakuza who asks Yuko to take him to a playground made out of tyres. Their scene at the playground is one of the more tender and sweet moment of the film, but when Yuko offers to take things further, the yakuza froze. It turned out that he also is under medication and is happy to discussing his anti-depressants with Yuko. The characters in the films, representing a kind of lost generation of thirty-somethings in modern Tokyo, are all fragile and messed up but were not afraid to own up to it. They seem like a bunch of confused actors melting down when they find that they really don’t know how to act out the roles of adults suddenly thrusted onto them. Hiroki is one of the few directors in contemporary Japanese cinema who sensitively captures the fractured inner world of women, and the mesmerising Shinobu Tersahima (equally astounding in Hiroki’s Vibrator) is his Anna Thompson who always carved a red-blooded full woman, no doubt screwed up but always courageous and a dreamer who fights to keep her right to dream.

A funny Samuel Beckett like Men at Work (Kargaran mashghoole karand) from Iran is a dig at four middle-aged men who driving along a winding mountain road from a failed skiing trip, encounter a strange, enormous rock which they jockishly tried to dislodge. The grunting men, acting like a bunch of overaged teenagers resort to brute forces and the pulling power of their car, while the women who came to their assistance calmly suggest a lever system constructed out of some branches would suffice. Although none of their efforts work, the men’s frivolity and immaturity is a stark contrast to the women’s scientific solution.

Under the Ceiling by Nidal Debs is a rare film from Syria where less than a couple of films are approved for production. It is a Bergmanesque chamber drama about a group of friends dealing with the death of Ahmad, a poet who is also their emotional and intellectual pivot. The handsome Marwan is in love with the poet’s mistress, but he whimpers and suffers with his conflicted emotions and dares not to seize the chance that now has now opened. Meanwhile the mistress rages and rebels against the new role of a widow. In one scene, the widowed mistress, dressed in a slinky red dress, took on the dancefloor alone with her sensual girates under the watchful glare of the party goers, whereas the frustrated and emotionally constricted Marwan like some of the early Atom Egoyan’s characters curled up and hid behind his video cameras and tv monitors, too afraid to embark on a new life with her.

Gie fom Indonesia, a hot favorite with the jury, and the deserved winner of the Special Jury Award. Detailing the life of Chinese-Indonesian Soe Hok-Gie, an idealist, teacher, writer, rebel and a central yet unknown political activist in the 1960s, the film does not fall into the trap of most political epics. Instead of just crowning halos on the political hero, director Riri Riza makes one feel deeply and understand the loneliness of this idealist political fighter. More of a St. Francis like saint than a sexy Che-like revolution hero, Gie also comes across as asexual. He walks with a slight effeminate sway, pushes away the prostitute hired by his friends to initate him into manhood. He seems not to consumate any of the relationships with the two women he loves. Though there is nothing to suggest or question Gie’s sexual leaning, a jury member simply could not get over the Brokeback Mountain element of the film. Who could blame him, when Gie always dreams of his lost childhood buddy — two tanned naked feet on the beach running in slow-motion unison towards the caressing waves. One is surprised that the director did not show him waking up with a damp spot on his boxer. When queried at a lunch session, director Riza simply smiled and said, in interviews with the surviving women romantically linked with Gie, they remembered him as always being shy and somewhat asexual. Interesting enough, the film is getting some attention from gay and lesbian film festivals, despite having no gay references at all.

It doesn’t happen often but sometimes it takes just the last ten minutes of a film to flip your mind. A recurring tagline for a arthouse channel advertising in this year’s film festival gushes, “I love movies, they are better than sex.” Sitting through the first 90 minutes of Todo Todo Teros by John Torres from the Philippines, I wonder if it were so, why does this feel like 90 minutes of anal probe san lube? I have to admit that up to this point, it is mostly indulgent, tedious, 80 minutes too long and quite testing. Found footage of home videos of a rock band, a performance artist and a lot of their horsing around, director Torres uses a voiceover to tell the story of an artist who wakes up one day as a terrorist and is sent abroad to bomb subways. Midway, the artist becomes enamoured with a beautiful Russian exchange student in Germany, and the camera focuses on her with a puppy-dog infatuation. Switching back to Manila, the narrator suddenly yanks the carpet from under the viewer’s feet by revealing that he could be led to believe this is a film about a terrorist under the narration of the protagonist. This is when the film flips and becomes really interesting. The narrator switches gear and suggests that what the audience sees as a man and woman meeting to discuss a terrorist conspiracy might also be a date under the moonlight. This film could well be a romantic comedy. The mood of the film changes, and suddenly everything built up from the last 90 minutes topples over. The narrator also reveals that the terrorist/artist’s wife has chanced upon the videotape of his Russian love interest, and in an act of vengeance stole the footage, added her own perspective on it, and handed it over to a video bootleg ring. The bootleg videos have travelled to various parts in the Philippines, playing at outdoor screening halls. The wife subversively claims that the film is no longer the artist’s, but her own film now, with her own presence and interjections. Metafilms like Todo Toto Teros could fall flat on its face, but John Torres carries it to the end with refreshing aplomb and in the end provokes the audience into a spiral of afterthoughts. A somewhat self indulgent artist started the film, but in the end a woman yanks and hijacks the ownership of the film. It is this unusual and intelligent insight of the ownership of narrative that moved the jury to co-award this promising debut film the FIPRESCI prize.