30 June 2013


I Had No Hope of Ever Naming This Smackdown!!!
(Revisit Round 1, Round 2, the Intermission, and Round 3A)

Despite my dedication to blogging about movies few others care to sit through twice, I occasionally show some love to the really critically acclaimed films as well. In this post, I'm reviewing not one, but two Oscar winners filmed in the Philippines.

But the real difference between today's pairing and that of last week is not quality, but setting. I reviewed Bloodfist and Enter the Ninja not just on the conventional merits, but also on their use of the Philippines as a backdrop. Today's two movies, however, may share the same landscapes and extras, but with the full understanding that these are meant to pass for the scenery and locals of different Southeast Asian countries.

Remember to read all the way to the bottom to find out how you can earn an extra entry in the Annual Giveaway!

Round 3B
The Bloodfist Four

Apocalypse Now . . .

Before finally watching Apocalypse Now this, I tried to do some research on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness--specifically on its reputation during the twentieth century, before Chinua Achebe gave the lecture that now sticks to it like glue. I wanted to know how the first audiences of this adaptation would have received it . . . and whether modern viewers unaware of that context would be missing some trees in the (stunningly shot) forest of its universal themes. You know, we probably are--but at the moment, I can only guess at the holes in our understanding.

One thing I am sure of is that there was more to colonialism than just the racism it is reduced to these days--and that if you don't get that, then you won't get Conrad's novella. I'm sure of it because Francis Coppola's movie told me.

The story of Captain Willard's search for the rogue officer Colonel Kurtz blends historical accuracy with morality play symbolism, and this is its power. The shift from the nineteenth-century Congo to 1960s Vietnam is almost seamless--and everything Willard goes through is psychologically and spiritually true. War is indeed dehumanising in the very ways depicted: it surgically replaces a sense of shared humanity with tribal loyalty--and anaesthetises pain with porn.

I thought Martin Sheen carried the movie brilliantly in the first half . . . and that Marlon Brando dropped it so it smashed open like an overripe watermelon. Seriously, Brando was more convincing and more charismatic as Kurtz when all we had was his photo, his files, and Sheen's narration over them. I could feel there was a compelling reason for Willard to seek him out--not for the sake of "terminating his command," but for the sake of seeing what happens when the very best among us fall. (Hmmmm. Perhaps the once brilliant Brando was the best actor for the part after all . . .) The cathartic catch is that one cannot trace a fall without also descending into the darkness and reemerging shadowed. We see that in the famous image of a camouflaged Willard rising from the sinister river; but may not also notice it in our own experience of walking into the cinema one way and walking out of it new.

And now I must indulge myself with this last note . . . An older woman I work with had a bunch of friends who were hired as extras in Apocalypse Now: not to play Vietnamese peasants, but to stand in as American soldiers. "If you see any Creole-looking Americans who get no dialogue," she told me, "you're still looking at Filipinos!"

. . . The Year of Living Dangerously

Speaking of context . . . What an extraordinary movie about something I know absolutely nothing about! (LOL!) I started The Year of Living Dangerously prepared to make up for all the woolgathering I did in Asian History class in high school and ended it feeling as if I'd fail the unit on Indonesia all over again: a damning assessment, now that I think about it, of a movie whose characters are all trying to explain twentieth-century Indonesia to foreigners and to each other. (That is so E.M. Forster meets Grahame Greene, and I now regret not having read the Christopher Koch novel beforehand.)

The recreation of Indonesia is amazing. I kept trying to see the Philippines winking at me from the sets and kept failing--even when they were obviously in Banaue (which you may remember from Locus Focus: Take Fifty-Five) and when the Filipino actors were audibly ad libbing in Tagalog. Well, okay, sometimes their accents slipped and gave them away . . . but so did Sigourney Weaver's, on occasion. This is why I'm a bit disappointed that Indonesia stays mostly an exotic backdrop to the romance between two foreigners.

But as the character who serves as the voice of Indonesia tells us, dramas are a little different in the East. For instance, Javanese shadow puppet theatre establishes setting not with scenery behind the figures, but with a screen before them. And the conflict is not considered resolved until the characters achieve not victory, but balance. This "oriental" moment early in the film is the key to the whole "western" story. Director Peter Weir is letting us see the lens through which screen on which we will be watching the struggle between Sukarno's nationalist government and the Indonesian Communist party--and the theme which is more or less reflected in shadowed by the inner conflicts of the main characters. Sometimes these parallels work and sometimes they don't, but they could have only been drawn in Indonesia.  

Despite the great performances and gorgeous cinematography, there is a good reason The Year of Living Dangerously has not proven to be a classic. There is no sense of a universal theme beyond the sketchily-presented politics, and even the easy moral that our personal ties should take precedence over our professional ambitions struggles to transcend the particulars of the characters' relationships.

Now I wish I could share an interesting local anecdote about this film, but so far, everyone I've mentioned it to either had no idea it was partly filmed here or had no idea what it was. =P

Apocalypse Now vs. The Year of Living Dangerously

Winner: Apocalypse Now--because the morality play beats the shadow puppet theatre with both hands tied behind its back and in its sleep.

* * * * *

Since the last mini face-off ended in a tie, despite all my tweeted pleas for someone--anyone--to come in and break it, I guess Apocalypse Now can swing straight into the Finals without squaring off against yet another contender. (It would have been no contest anyway, aye?) It also means that I had to think of another way for giveaway entrants to earn an extra point on the Rafflecopter. And I did, with the last mini face-off of the smackdown . . .

Circle of Fear vs. Deathstone

The most significant thing these two movies have in common is that I didn't stumble upon them until a few days ago. Such unlucky timing, as I think one would have been a shoo-in for the Apocalypse Now Sixteen! (What an unexpectedly sad thought to have now that the smackdown is almost over . . .) So what will it be, my blog friends: a revenge-driven Action movie about an American who must bust his estranged half-Asian daughter out of an evil slave ring in the Philippines or a supernatural Thriller about an ancient amulet from China that is being sought in Manila by a reincarnated warlord? And not that you should vote this way, but can you also guess which of these premises is--to my country's great shame--the more plausible one?

Remember to claim your entry on the updated 2013 Rafflecopter after you vote . . .

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Image Sources: a) Apocalypse Now poster, b) The Year of Living Dangerously poster, c) Circle of Fear DVD, d) Deathstone DVD


cyurkanin said...

I've seen them both... what the heck is wrong with me? I'm suddenly very tired. #Deathstone

Paul Stilwell said...

Oh I so agree about Brando's performance.

It's tough seeing two great films go against each other, but yeah, Apocalypse Now is ultimately the better. The year of Living Dangerously is, as they say, a "slice of life" - that is, a slice of foreign romantic "dangerous" life. I tried writing about it once, but left it. The conclusion I came to was the film doesn't reach for a universal theme because it must play exactly as what the title says: the year of living dangerously. Like a slice of memory.

Anyways, I think it's the most sweaty movie I can think of. Literally sweaty. The palpable feel of the climate.

But you know I would love to see a smackdown between it and Witness. So many parallels and so many differences, and one is definitely the superior.

Paul Stilwell said...

I'm voting for Deathstone just because of the poster.

cyurkanin said...

"Cool Hand Luke" #sweatiestmovieevermade

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher -- You never cease to amaze me. Never.

Stilwell -- That's a great analysis! It certainly helps to crystallise many of my scattered thoughts about it.

I've also been reading a bit about the book (but sadly, not the book itself), and know that one of its themes is identity: Hamilton is Australian at a time when Oz was struggling to find out who it was, distinct from Mother England; Billy is half-Australian, half-Chinese and a little person--a misfit in all worlds. And as expected, the crisis in Indonesia parallels that. One day, I'll read the book and see for myself. But my point for the moment is that although Peter Weir doesn't focus on that at all, at the end of the day I don't really mind.

I do love the artistry of The Year of Living Dangerously. If life must be sliced, then it should be as thickly and generously as this year was.

Thanks for your vote. =) I don't yet know when I can feature Witness, though I'll keep it in mind for your sake.