Too Perfect, Perhaps
by Alexey Gusev
The one-shot film format should have become a trend after Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948); but it didn’t. It could have become a trend again, decades later, after Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002); but it didn’t. And yet another time has come when it could have become a trend, following the Oscar-awarded Birdman by Alejandro González Iñárritu; but apparently it won’t. Of course, any continuous shot film (even a short) is automatically destined for unreserved attention of audiences and critics alike; if, moreover, it has any worth, it can immediately be proclaimed remarkable, distinguished, outstanding, and legendary. And if the director would accidentally slip a phrase like “montage is a damned manipulation”, all these praises could turn into frenzy. That is very tempting for any filmmaker, and one might wonder why not every filmmaker makes at least an attempt. There are two good reasons. The first is obvious, simple and therefore not important: to make a one-shot film is really difficult. The second reason is much more complex and important: to make a one-shot film is really bad taste. You have to be from Latin America, where any bad taste is, by the ancient and noble tradition of those places, a sign of sincere passion; or you have to have a whole Hermitage at your command; or, ideally, you have to be Alfred Hitchcock. But, generally, you are not.
Jun Robles Lana, the director of the one-shot Shadow Behind the Moon (Anino sa likod ng buwan), is not Hitchcock, either; fortunately not, since Rope was not only one of the most ambitious films of Sir Alfred, but also one of the weakest. (And he knew it.) It was too schematic, too didactic, too revealing of its theatricality. Iñárritu saved his Birdman from such theatricality with refined camera motion; in Russian Ark Sokurov did the same. Lana does the opposite: his two-hour story about the queer, over-sophisticated friendship between a refugee couple and a government trooper is not about the Civil War on Philippines, in spite of the director’s statements. Or, maybe, it is about that, but inseparably linked to another statement: this war is just a theatre – “the theatre of war”, “the arena of war”, “the scene of operations”, – all this quite official vocabulary is not just a set of metaphors, but refers to the very core of war (or theatre, if you prefer this point of view). And this literal rendering of the metaphor could be comparatively simple (at least its intention) – but there are no battles or “operations” in Lana’s film. There are only three persons, a small cabin, and one night; nothing else, but excellent cues. The civil war means a psychological war which means theatre: this tripartite formula is the film’s foundation.
The director doesn’t try to hide or smooth over the theatricality; on the contrary, the inevitable documentary effect of a hand-held camera, the use of black-and-white film and continuous shot (along with the poor visual quality, resembling VHS) comes into a fruitful and intense collision with the structure of plot and text that is full of sudden and undeviating regular sharp turns that would do the honour to a prominent Broadway playwright. Add to this three equally brilliant performances (I’ve never heard of a great Philippine acting school but now know I should’ve), which might remind you of Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994). The flawless, pinpoint camera work creates an extremely intricate crossing between perplexing vagueness of atmosphere and claustrophobic rigour of action. Probably the film could be accused of bad taste (I already used the term “Broadway”, what else), but any attentive look will easily remove this accusation: any bad taste is based on exaggeration, that is, after all, a kind of inexactitude, but this level of complexity of task and of its precise execution doesn’t allow any leeway. The slightest deflection from this result wouldn’t be “better taste” or “worse taste”; but a failure. Fortunately, it is not.
All this is signified by the word “perfect” in the title of this text; in Jun Robles Lana’s film there is a final point. When all the shots have been fired and hope lost, one of the characters, for the first time in the film, looks straight at the camera – at the final step of ultimate despair – and fires at it. This is morally correct: the camera has no right to survive when all the characters are dead. It is conceptually correct: the camera is a witness, and no witness can be just a witness in wartime conditions. And it is theoretically correct: the camera in a one-shot film is potentially immortal, so its death – the annihilation of its gaze – is necessary. At long last, when cinema takes the risk to refuse montage, it begins to talk about the conditions and circumstances of its own death. Perhaps that’s the genuine reason why one-shot films are so rare, even if fashionable. One should talk about the borders of film art, and of its death, and of its impossibility. One should be too perfect.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2015