Sunday, 27 September 2009

4:30 (Singapore, 2005)

Director: Royston Tan.

Principal cast: Xiao Li Yuan, Young-jun Kim.

Constant social interaction is not just an unavoidable subproduct of the ever-increasing urban co-habitation, it is also very much a prerequisite for our humanity in general and our own place in the surrounding society in particular. Every now and then, we learn about some young child who, not unlike Mowgli having been abandoned by humans after birth, grows up unaware of the expected human behaviour imitating instead the creatures that it has lived with, be it dogs, monkeys or whatever else. As a result, this child not only lacks any human language but often never even learns to walk upright. This aspect doesn’t apply to children only – humans learn throughout their lives, adapting to new places, new technologies, new people. But that is, of course not the end of line. The other main function of any social interaction is just that – social. Humans are also flock creatures who define themselves by their position in relation to the other humans surrounding them and whose mental stability depends on these relations. Loneliness and social exclusion are therefore some of the hardest things to endure for an overwhelming majority of the human kind.

Royston Tan’s second feature 4:30 is a study of loneliness and inability to break what is often just a shell created by circumstance and mounting bitterness towards fellow human beings as well as failure to communicate. The film’s central characters are Xiao Wu, an 11-year-old Chinese latchkey boy left to fend for himself after school while his mother is away on never-ending business trips and Jung, their thirty-something suicidal wreck of a tenant from Korea. The obvious obstacles to any communication between the two, such as the language barrier and the age gap, do not deter the boy from constantly attempting to establish a link to Jung. Just like a warmth-seeking missile, he never seizes to direct his attention towards him – he smells his chopsticks to find out what he had for dinner, he takes a photo of both of them together while Jung is asleep and even secretly cuts one of his pubic hairs – all to be entered into his journal which is entirely dedicated to documenting Xiao Wu’s observations of the tenant. Occasionally, he tries to get under Jung’s skin by putting on his boxer shorts and mimicking his daily routines, including shaving. Thus, his obsession with Jung becomes his own daily routine, a routine which he takes very seriously. Every night at 4.30, woken up by his several alarm clocks, he conducts his nocturnal forays into Jung’s bedroom. While the tenant is lying unconscious in his bed after yet another night of heavy drinking, no doubt aided by the pills which he also abuses, Xiao Wu inspects what little there is to inspect, searching for future entries into his journal.

Jung seems oblivious to Xiao Wu’s childish attempts at communicating with him. His own mind is grief-stricken by the loss of his girlfriend and he chooses to ignore even the boy’s unimpeded attempts at provoking a reaction from him. In a rare moment of actual interaction between the two one night on the stairs, the only thing Jung can think of is to offer the 11-year-old a cigarette while tears are welling up in his eyes. He even tries to say something to Xiao Wu in Korean, only the viewer doesn’t get any translation of what he says, just to emphasise the impenetrable wall between the two.

Leading a lonely existence in an adolescent world disconnected from the rest of the society, Xiao Wu is a typical product of surroundings which have little time to spare for one another. Growing up mostly on his own and feeling alienated in school, his only role models are fictional characters on TV shows whom he knows so well that he simply mimics every word one of them, ironically a disgruntled housewife, has to say. Unwittingly, Jung becomes his other role model being the only other person around. One of the focal scenes of the film has Xiao Wu reading out loud a composition he was supposed to write as part of his homework. The title of the composition is My Hero. In a somewhat shaky voice he presents Jung as his Korean father who has a distinct smell of beer and Johnson’s baby powder but also someone who loves him and cares for him and meets him every day after school. And herein lies the all too powerful distinction between the two – although they are both intrinsically lonely, their loneliness has been arrived at on two different levels which are never to meet. Most of the time, the two protagonists wear white shirts and tops. While in the boy’s case the white colour might symbolise his innocence, Jung’s white shirts resemble mostly a white flag. Xiao Wu is seeking human contact while Jung has given up on it.

Royston Tan’s art direction is impressive and his cinematography has a hypnotic, almost mesmerising effect. Although obviously not to everyone’s taste, 4:30 can be a rather meditating experience with sparse dialogue and long silent scenes where the viewer is given the opportunity to submerge in the significance of the seemingly insignificant. The film is also filled with subtle humour portraying everyday life of an extremely bored pre-adolescent boy. It cannot be recommended to any viewers craving action or wrapped-up explanations since much of the interpretation is left to ourselves but I would say that it’s exactly what gives this film a little extra to chew on after the credits are gone.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Mulligans (Canada, 2008)

Director: Chip Hale.

Principal cast: Dan Payne, Charlie David, Thea Gill, Derek Baynham.

Why would anyone choose to live a lie? In great many societies across the globe gay people are effectively coerced into heteronormativity. In reality, succumbing to it is their only chance of survival with their secret emotions and desires usually forever remaining just that – a well-kept secret. But why does it happen in free, liberal societies where, to a great extent, you are supposed to be able to make your own choices? Hasn’t the iron grip of the heteronormative peer pressure become a lot weaker in the so-called enlightened West? Or do gay people here have completely other reasons to commit to a poster image of heterosexual suburban bliss? Whatever the answers to those questions, one thing seems to be a given – sooner or later the facade will collapse and many people will get hurt. Every choice that you make has certain consequences and you don’t always get a second chance. The title of the Canadian director Chip Hale’s debut feature „Mulligans” means exactly that - second chances. It’s a term used in golf which shouldn’t be surprising since the screenplay’s author Charlie David, who also plays one of the main characters, is said to be a keen golfer.

Chase (Charlie David) and Tyler (Derek Baynham) are best friends in college. When the summer break comes, Tyler takes Chase to his parents' summer retreat on the picturesque Vancouver Island. His dad, Nathan (Dan Payne) is a passionate golfer who spends most of his time on a golf course nearby while his domesticated wife, Stacey (Thea Gill) is mostly concerned with the appropriate „summer fun” for their youngest child nicknamed Birdie (and yes, it’s a golf term too). To the outside world Tyler’s family would certainly have looked like a textbook example of a successful traditional family – Nathan’s career is apparently quite rewarding since he can afford to drive around in a Porsche (not to mention this summer residence) and his wife doesn’t have to work, instead being able to concentrate on being a good wife to a caring husband and a good mother to healthy and intelligent children. The beautiful natural settings around them only emphasise the apparent harmony of their happy relationship. But if Chase, whose own father died when he was five and whose mother apparently isn’t really part of his life anymore, had an initial feeling that this was a family he would have loved to have himself, it couldn’t have lasted for too long for there was definitely „something rotten in the Kingdom of Denmark”.

When Tyler arrives on the island, he’s instantly thrown back into his seemingly traditional social circles for the summer with friends throwing wild parties and even what appears to be a steady „summer” girlfriend. Not aware of Chase’s homosexuality, he duly tries to set him up with girls, both at parties and at their house. Chase, who grows weary of pretending, finally decides to come out to Taylor which puts the latter into a certain state of quiet turmoil. Trying to come to terms with such turn of events, he even confesses to his father that „although it doesn’t change anything, it changes everything” and suddenly, small things, like close body contact with Chase while playing basketball, become troublesome and confusing. But as they are both trying to redefine their friendship, another person gets emotionally involved – Nathan, who turns out to be a classical closet case. Struggling with his own sexuality and his budding feelings for Chase, also he is cast into a state of mental turmoil triggered by this sudden confrontation between the life he has lived so far and what could have been.

When most of the family leaves for a weekend at Stacey’s mother’s place, Nathan and Chase stay behind. And it isn’t difficult to figure out that Nathan’s feelings give way to irrational behaviour and the two end up in bed. He is head over heels in love with Chase and can’t keep his hands away from the guy who grows more and more uncomfortable with the situation. Needless to say, they are soon found out by both Stacey and Tyler and the hell breaks loose. While Chase, in all essence, can just walk away, it is, of course, a completely different story for Nathan who has to make some serious choices in his life which will affect not only him but also those around him. Will he get a mulligan in his life? Or does he even really want one?

Nathan is pathalogically scared of making serious choices, especially if it involves something radical. Even when his wife forces him to confess that he is gay, his sheepish reply is still „I think so”. And when they contemplate their future, all he can say is that they shouldn’t rush things and ought to wait with any radical decisions. I guess Nathan’s pathologically indecisive nature is also what got him into this marriage in the first place and it’s definitely what gets some closeted gay people to procrastinate with their lives – „let’s just see how things develop from here”. Of course, not everybody was born strong-headed but if you continue living a lie for too long, you may never recover from it and eventually, it might just be too late to change anything. Desire to fit in and be like „everybody else” is a powerful one but if you aren’t like these fairly elusive „everybody else” sort of people, no amount of "wait-and-see" will ever change that.

The plot of „Mulligans” touches upon a highly relevant topic which hasn’t been discussed all too much in queer-themed cinematography and Charlie David deserves credit for his debut screenplay. However, the script suffers from several flaws. First of all, I find it somehow hard to believe that Chase and Tyler could have been best friends for apparently some time with Tyler being totally clueless about Chase’s sexuality. I’m sure there would have been plenty of opportunities to „test” Chase’s sexuality at college parties which undoubtedly would have been just as unrestrained with moral issues. Tyler’s reaction to Chase’s coming out was fairly believable and very plausible but I still couldn’t help noticing how mostly politically correct he and the rest of his family sounded, also after the revelation. It was also rather remarkable how quickly the storm actually died out and everybody was set on forgiving each other and „go steelers” (a reference you will understand if you watch the film). In the acting department it was often difficult to tell if the characters' overall stiffness should be attributed to the characters themselves or the actors. Well, to be honest, Charlie David, who is mostly known for his roles in Here TV!’s pseudo horror series „Dante’s Cove” which can in fact be better described as gay erotica in Carribean settings as well as a hustler in Casper Andreas’ „A Four Letter Word” (see my earlier review), is more of an onscreen hunk than a Shakespearean actor and I’m sure that Dan Payne’s physical appearance wasn’t completely coincidental either. Nevertheless, the film as a whole is thought-provoking and well-executed which certainly makes it worth your while.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

And here is a song from the film - Turn Around by Ben Sigston

turn around master -

Sunday, 12 July 2009

La León (Argentina, 2007)

Director: Santiago Otheguy.

Principal cast: Jorge Román, Daniel Valenzuela, José Muñoz, Juan Carlos Rivas.

Being gay in a rural area is always more complicated than in any urban milieu. Countryside’s conservativism owes partly to the fact that rural communities are relatively small with everybody seemingly knowing everybody and their entire family histories. Strangers are easily spotted and viewed with suspicion, often directly as a “threat” to the community’s integrity. “Otherness” among own folk is not appeciated either since any form of change is feared to tip the delicate balance between the underlying traditionalist understanding of how things should be and those “dangerously different” ways of the outside world. So why do many gay people who are definitely not included in the traditionalist understanding of the ways of a rural community still choose to stay instead of seeking a more accepting environment?

Well, being gay doesn’t automatically turn you into a cosmopolitan person. Nor does it always mean that a city is where you belong. And just like Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” couldn’t leave his native redneck-riddled Wyoming simply because his heart belonged there, also Álvaro, the main protagonist of “La León” had chosen to stay on his native island, concealed deeply in the wetlands of the Paraná region in the humid northwest of Argentina.

It is easy to become mesmerised by the hypnotic landscapes of the Paraná Delta where the main river splits into several branches forming a complex labyrinth of subtropical wetlands. It must be this hypnotic effect that makes the inhabitants appear somewhat drowsy and definitely not very talkative. Each word that is uttered seems to come out due to sheer necessity and not for the pleasure of conversing. Forget all about the alleged Latin American temper and fast-paced living! People’s lives here are a far cry from the Brazilian samba – if anything, it’s a tango with some very slow steps. And some kind of bizarre tango of two bulldogs at each other’s throats is exactly how I would describe the growing tensions between Álvaro and Julio, nicknamed El Turu, the self-proclaimed guardian of the island’s traditions and values.

Álvaro is a soft-spoken gay man with big puppy eyes who makes his living harvesting reed and restoring books for a library on the mainland. He spends his free time boating the canal-like branches of the river fishing and occasionaly engaging in sexual encounters with visiting strangers in the woods where his sexual escapades are observed by some migrant labourers from Paraguay, illegally felling trees on a private property. Apparently not particularly judgemental, these misionaros, as El Turu scornfully refers to them, form a special bond with Álvaro. Being an outsider to a certain degree himself, he doesn’t share El Turu’s assessment that these people have come to destroy their community by taking all their work from them and flooding the village with their families. Actually, he couldn’t care less about these allegations. El Turu, on the other hand, whose position in the community apparently comes from being the captain of La León, the only boat connecting the village with the outside world, is full of contempt and hatred towards the migrants. Throughout the entire film, El Turu tries to persuade his fellow villagers “to do something about it”. His bigoted frame of mind comes to the viewers’ attention already in one of the opening scenes when he refuses to believe that a young man from the village committed suicide over some girl, claiming instead that the misionaros are surely behind his death. But the danger from the outside is in his eyes well aided by the danger within, namely Álvaro’s apparent homosexuality. In a community like this one, you are usually left alone if you go about your “non-traditional” sexuality quietly and aren’t caught out but unfortunately, there also always tends to be the odd bigot, the self-proclaimed defender of virtue who will try to catch you out and “teach you a lesson”. However, since the question of homosexuality preoccupies and troubles such people so much, it is also quite legitimate to assume that there is a very good personal reason for that – their own latent queerness. And El Turu is no exception. The two axes of confrontation in the film – the one between El Turu and Álvaro and the other one between El Turu and the misionaros reach a climax when El Turu himself, boiling in his frustration, tips the afore-mentioned balance.

The impressive black and white cinematography of “La León” is somewhat reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” – the panoramic loneliness set against the river calmly flowing by while the minimal dialogue in the film bears resemblance to the moody style of his pal, Aki Kaurismäki. Nevertheless, this feature film debut from the hand of Santiago Otheguy has its own unique signature and I’m certainly looking forward to his future work.

You can watch the film's trailer here (in Spanish with Portuguese subtitles)

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Were The World Mine (USA, 2008)

Director: Tom Gustafson.

Principal cast: Tanner Cohen, Nathaniel David Becker, Wendy Robie, Judy McLane.

How many of us have not, at some point in our lives, fallen for straight guys and wished that they would somehow reciprocate our feelings but to little avail? Quentin Crisp used to muse about the great dark man (of the straight variety, that is) that all gay men allegedly dream about but can never get as it would be a contradiction in terms for a straight man to fall in love with another man. But although his theory is highly questionable, not to say pure nonsense if applied to all gay men, it is a fact of life that a mutual infatuation is hardly the way things always happen even among men who identify themselves as gay. And if you have no idea how to win the heart of your prince, wouldn’t a love potion come in handy? And a love potion is exactly what makes the main character’s day in Were The World Mine.

Timothy, a very handsome but somewhat shy high school kid is in love with Jonathan, his hunky classmate who plays on the school’s rugby team and dates one of the cheerleaders. Taunted at school for his queerness (which in small town America equals a lack of ambition in sports and no interest in cheerleaders), Timothy divides his free time between Max and Frankie, a self-proclaimed heteroflexible couple and his single mother, who not only struggles to make the ends meet by taking up the odd jobs of peddling cosmetics and such but (naturally) also has a hard time coming to terms with her son’s homosexuality. Nothing particularly spectacular is set to happen in Timothy’s life until he graduates the school and swaps his narrow-minded hometown for the big and, hopefully, more tolerant world. Or rather – nothing would have happened, had it not been for his literature teacher, the mysterious Ms. Tebbit who has a very special plan not only for Timothy but all of the town’s inhabitants.

As part of the school’s curriculum all the high school’s seniors, including Timothy are required to perform in a play. The play chosen by Ms. Tebbit happens to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare and Timothy gets to play the part of Puck who, although actually an elf, is here referred to (surprise, surprise!) as a fairy. While learning his lines, Timothy comes across a recipe for a love potion which he then proceeds into making. When his friend Max comes to rehearse the play together with him, Timothy puts the love potion to test by sprinkling it through a pansy (!) into his eyes. And lo and behold, Max falls madly in love with him on the spot! Before long, Jonathan is all over Timothy while all his tormentors are making out with each other and his mother is pursued by her homophobic female boss. The town’s unaffected residents are in a complete state of shock and disbelief at this “epidemic of gayness” while the (apparently affected) mayor is busy marrying gay and lesbian couples in the Town Hall. But the love potion is bound to wear off sooner or later and the judgement day comes for Timothy when everyone’s free will is restored. Will everything just go back to “normal” then and will Jonathan forget all his feelings for Timothy?

It is clear that Timothy’s attempts to win the heart of his prince are not the only premise of this film. At one point, as he sprinkles the love potion into the eyes of his mother’s homophobic boss, he tells her to try walking in his shoes. A genuine understanding of someone else’s life and feelings is almost impossible to achieve unless you are forced to experience the same things and under the same conditions as this person. So what better way is there to change a homophobe’s mind than letting him/her fall in love with a person of his/her own sex, thus forcing these people to walk in our shoes. The real pity here is that this love potion will stay in Shakespeare’s Fairyland as I really wouldn’t mind trying it on the likes of Scott Lively and Pat Robertson. It would definitely do some good not only to them but also the rest of humanity.

Were The World Mine is also a musical film where songs are mostly performed when Timothy is daydreaming, providing for some very beautiful imagery set in the Fairyland. Fortunately, the film’s director doesn’t overdo the singing segments, so you don’t have to be a fan of musicals to enjoy this lighthearted comedy. Most of the cast is very goodlooking and there is no shortage of kissing scenes which would account, at least in part for the many audience awards this film has received at gay and lesbian film festivals. But it is also a beautiful fantasy which should appeal even to hardcore realists.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Sunday, 8 March 2009

20,13 (Portugal, 2006)

Director: Joaquim Leitão.

Principal cast: Marco D'Almeida, Adriano Carvalho, Carla Chambel, Maya Booth.

It happens ever so often that people resort to religious arguments against homosexuality not because they are very religious but simply because they have run out of any rational ones. And these religious arguments are apparently powerful enough to lead to committing what ought to be considered as the ultimate sin – a murder of another human being. It seems, however, that in the minds of many so-called Christians homosexuality is a far worse sin than murder and they will murder you for your homosexuality believing that they are acting according to the will of God. But actual reasons for committing a homophobic murder can, nevertheless, be very prosaic and far more selfish than “saving” humanity from the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the acclaimed Portuguese director Joaquim Leitão’s latest feature “20,13” it’s nothing else but scorned love.

The film’s plot is set on Christmas Eve of 1969 in a Portuguese army outpost in Mozambique during the ongoing colonial war. The outpost’s commander’s wife is flown in by a helicopter to join her husband on this occasion, only the good captain doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed with joy. In the meantime, an away mission headed by Lieutenant Gaio returns with a prisoner from the rebels’ forces reporting of some suspicious activity on the other side of the border. The prisoner is thrown into a makeshift cell while the reports of an imminent attack are dismissed as smugglers’ activities by the visiting Colonel who came with the same helicopter as the captain’s wife. It’s Christmas Eve and the army unit, seemingly consisting mainly of semiliterate country bumpkins from Salazar’s Portugal are mostly preoccupied with the approaching Christmas party.

Still, not everyone has partying on their minds as the private Vicente is doing his best entertaining the crowd singing a coquettish duo with Esperança, the unit’s paramedic’s wife. The captain suddenly leaves looking distraught while Esperança’s husband is steaming with jealousy, accusing her later on of rubbing herself up against every man in the unit. But it doesn’t last long before the cheerful party comes to an abrupt end just as the field chaplain is about to deliver his sermon when several shells explode outside and the unit finds itself under attack. The ensuing turmoil comes to a swift end when the enemy cannon suddenly stops shelling but it is soon discovered that someone attempted to murder the prisoner in his cell during the attack. The whole situation becomes even more enigmatic when Lieutenant Gaio and his fellow investigators also discover a passage from the Bible written in blood in the prisoner’s cell which turns out to be a quote from Genesis: Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah - from the LORD out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities - and also the vegetation in the land.

The prisoner is quickly brought to the unit’s medical bay where Esperança’s jealous husband is baffled by the unauthorised absence of Vicente, his asistant. After several more sporadic attacks on the unit, the paramedic decides to go looking for Vicente only to find him lying inside one of the barracks shot dead and with a piece of paper in his hand with another quote from the Bible written on it: if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. The chaplain consults the Bible and finds out that the text found in the murdered private’s hand is the exact wording of Leviticus 20:13 (hence the title of the film) and he and Lieutenant Gaio set out on a murder investigation riddled with Biblical references while the “burning sulphur” literally is pouring over their heads as the enemy attacks resume. But does anyone really want to know the truth?

There is no doubt that by placing the story’s protagonists in the middle of a dirty colonial war the director questions the morality of the people who can only be described as moralistic bigots. When “God” starts “raining the burning sulphur” over the colonial army unit, is it because of the homosexual love found there or is it because it’s fighting a war where the only thing that counts is the body count? If the former were the case, I’m afraid it would be raining burning sulphur everywhere in the world pretty much non-stop. No, the burning sulphur came upon them for completely different reasons. And it certainly didn’t come from God or any other divine being. Those, who frothing at the mouth talk of God’s will and spend their lives shouting about it till they get blue in the face often drop dead with a heart attack. Wouldn’t you call that God’s will?

“20,13” is a drama of surpressed passions where glances are more honest than words since honest words dare not be uttered. Full of emotional tension and aptly illustrated horrors of war, Joaquim Leitão’s attempt to combine a colonial war with the issues of morality and Bible-bashing comes across as an honest voice raised against the criminal double-facedness of not just the army in question but the society it claims to defend at large. But it is also a murder mystery, so if you want to know who did it, you’ll have to watch it for yourselves!

Here you can watch the film's trailer (in Portuguese):

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Clandestinos (Spain, 2007)

Director: Antonio Hens.

Principal cast: Israel Rodríguez, Hugo Catalán, Mehroz Arif, Pepa Aniorte.

How does one become a terrorist? Is there a terrorist hotline a potential martyr can call to clarify such things? There must a number of criteria any terrorist wanna-be would be expected to fulfill before being able to join up. One thing, for instance, that would puzzle me is whether one can be gay and a terrorist at the same time. While the answer is self-evident when it comes to the radical Islamists, it isn’t necessarily a given when it comes to our own European brands – IRA and ETA. In any case, 18-year-old Xabi, the main character of the Spanish director Antonio Hens’ first feature film „Clandestinos”, should have called this hotline before he decided to try and win the heart of Iñaki, an older ETA commando, by staging a self-styled terrorist attack in the middle of Madrid, thus proving himself to be „worthy” of the old terrorist’s love, for they might have told him that the monochrome worldview of a terrorist’s mind doesn’t seem to have the ability to see any of the rainbow colours.

Xabi and his Mexican friend Joel stage a dramatic escape from a juvenile correctional facility in Ciudad Real in the south of Spain. Facing an imminent deportation to his native Morocco, also Driss seizes the opportunity and flees the prison with them. Soon thereafter the trio boards a bus bound for Madrid where they meet two girls who are returning from the sunny beaches of southern Spain. Joel doesn’t waste any time and quickly befriends the girls, so when they arrive in Madrid, it goes almost without saying that he stays with them. Driss who feels that he ows his new found freedom to Xabi follows him to Iñaki’s flat only to discover that it’s empty and the man himself is gone. Iñaki doesn’t reply to Xabi’s calls and seems to have vanished without a trace but that doesn’t make Xabi lose his heart. On the countrary, he is determined to prove to him that he has all it takes to be a useful gudari, fit to fight for the Basque cause.

Short of cash, he goes back to turning tricks, something he also did before ending up in prison. One day he is picked up by an elderly policeman who takes him back to his house. In the morning, while his trick is still asleep he goes through the drawers of a desk in his study and finds a gun. When the old guy suddenly appears in the doorway, Xabi panicks and flees the house with it. This turn of events prompts the old cop to initiate an investigation of his own which soon enough leads him to the correctional facility in Ciudad Real. Here he examines the young fugitive’s former lodgings, full of Basque flags and banners where he also comes across a photo of Xabi and Iñaki, a well-known Basque terrorist. Different pieces of the puzzle start to fit together.

In the meantime, Xabi is set on implementing his plan – he is to blow up the massive Spanish flag on Columbus Square in the Spanish capital with some home-made explosives. And it actually turns out to be a piece of cake to get hold of all the necessary ingredients for the bomb in a local DIY store. He also enrolls the help of Driss who would do anything for his new friend. At the same time, Xabi continues to pursue Iñaki whose female companion starts getting suspicious. After answering Iñaki’s phone to Xabi once, she decides to find out who this unwelcome stalker is and even pays him a visit threatening him with dire consequences if he doesn’t lay off. Obviously being a complete closet case, Iñaki denies any knowledge of the boy to his companion but when Xabi’s bomb does go off sabotaging the real ETA commandos’ plan, the Xabi problem becomes too paramount to be ignored any more. But the old policeman has his own plan how to rescue the lost soul of the wanna-be terrorist.

Despite its main premise, „Clandestinos” isn’t as much a film about terrorism and its roots as a need for identity and search for love. Being abandoned by his parents as a child, Xabi finds himself drawn to a trick who turns out to be a Basque terrorist. Through him he feels that he too has found not only love but also some sort of purpose with his life. People who have never been short of love rarely become fanatical supporters of a cause which doesn’t even have anything to do with them. The need to be loved and respected by the object of one’s desire can lead to extremes if one’s despair is bad enough. At the age of 18 people also tend to be uncompromising in their beliefs. The black and white understanding of things is also what actually helps the terrorist recruiters to find so many willing to die for the sake of a cause. The reason why Xabi, who was definitely ripe enough to be plucked by the ETA recruiters, was never taken onboard has to be sought in the circumstances under which he and Iñaki met. For Iñaki to admit to being gay would most probably have meant a political suicide.

„Clandestinos” may seem like a heavy drama. It is not. Honestly speaking, I’m not sure any Spanish director is actually capable of making a drama à la Fassbinder or Bergman. Even the delicate matter of terrorism, which has claimed many Spanish lives, is treated here with a great deal of black humour. It should also be noted that the film provides a fair deal of eye candy too since our protagonists aren’t shy of their bodies and don’t mind showing them off. Terrorists or not, the feeling that you get after watching this film is definitely not terror.

Here you can watch the film's trailer (in Spanish):

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Lost Coast (USA, 2008)

Director: Gabriel Fleming.

Principal cast: Ian Scott McGregor, Lucas Alifano, Lindsay Benner, Chris Yule.

Sexuality is never black and white. No matter how much the mainstream society is set on mainstreaming people in its midst by trying to categorise everything and put everyone in a box with an easily recognisable label on it, there will always be grey areas defying such approach. Gabriel Fleming’s second feature film „The Lost Coast” navigates through one such grey area challenging, in director’s own words, the dominant gay/straight dichotomy. Well, other people may call this grey area bisexuality but I guess that’s also just another box.

Mark and Lily, who share a flat, are joined by Jasper and Caleb, their old high school friends for the Halloween celebrations in San Francisco’s Castro district. All four of them still in their early twenties, they are ostensibly set for a raucous night out, one night per year when you can look like Charles Manson or Mother Theresa and still get laid. But what is supposed to be a fun night out turns into a miserable wandering through the desolate inner landscapes of the film’s protagonists, unearthing old half-secrets and potent emotions barely hidden behind their cynically cool exterior.

The story is narrated as an e-mail which Jasper writes the day after the Halloween night to his girlfriend, currently somewhere overseas, the purpose of which is as much to clear Jasper’s head and put words to his feelings and frustrations as it is meant to explain to his girlfriend the nature of the relationship he and Mark shared in high school. Now an out and proud gay man, Mark actually used to date Lily in those days. But once, when all three of them went on a camping trip to the titular Lost Coast somewhere in northern California, the two boys struck a relationship which couldn’t be described as other than intimate. The two boys weren’t, however, exactly on the same wave length when it came to the feelings that this „fooling around”, as Lily refered to it at one point, aroused in them. Mark was always seen as the cool and smart guy, always excelling at everything he did while Jasper was more of an introverted person, feeling privileged to be Mark’s friend. By being with him, he felt better about himself, letting Mark’s coolness spill on him too while to Mark, he apparently was mostly a guy that he could experiment with. After graduation they parted their ways, evidently no questions asked but now back face-to-face with each other, the ghosts of their past relationship came back to haunt them - feelings that were never discussed, words that were never said. And the situation isn’t made easier by the presence of Lily whose resigned and melancholic disposition is only reinforced by her Pierrot’s outfit or Caleb whose tactless open-mouthedness only serves as a catalyst for the unavoidable confrontation.

At one point, as the foursome are mooching about in Castro’s district, Caleb asks Lily if Jasper is actually straight to which she only replies with a „well” which sounds more like „where do I begin”. Being able to put people in boxes, especially with respect to their sexuality, makes things easier for so many people as it replaces any need for independent thinking and any imagination whatsoever. Sexuality, just like people’s personality traits, is individual and although most people find themselves attracted to one gender in the end, it doesn’t mean that they have never had or been capable of having feelings for both genders. Jasper may not be gay but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t in love with Mark. At the same time, Mark’s feelings for Lily may have been as genuine when they dated.

„The Lost Coast” is very much a poetic film. Its dreamlike pseudo-flashback sequences of Jasper, Mark and Lily wandering through the cold and unhospitable landscapes of the fateful coast resonate perfectly well with the lyrics of their emotions. They walk through thick grass, swamps and barren bushes, sometimes waiting for each other, sometimes barging ahead on their own. The nearly transcendental atmosphere of the film complements its sense of raw authenticity, well aided by the convincing performances of the young actors. All in all, it’s one of those rare films where the slow-pacedness eventually leads to a meditative state of mind and that’s not so bad for a change.

Here you can watch the film's trailer:

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Piao lang qing chun (漂浪青春, Drifting Flowers, Taiwan, 2008)

Director: Zero Chou.

Principal cast: Lu Yi-Ching, Serena Fang, Chao Yi-Lan, Sam Wang.

A train relentlessly whisking in and out of tunnels while the accordion’s cheerless wailing fills the air shared by disconsolate people with no self-evident destination may not be everyone’s first idea of a Taiwanese film about lesbian life, nor may it be to everyone’s taste. Still, Taiwanese LGBT-themed cinematography continues to provide a breath of fresh air to the contemporary depictions of queer life on film. The 2007 winner of The Best Feature Teddy Award for “Spider Lilies”, the director Zero Chou impresses with her third feature film “Drifting Flowers”, a three-parter with interrelated and mostly unconventional storylines about the perpetual search for happiness and love and its many failures.

The first part which is titled “May” relates the story of a relationship between May (or Meigo, as she is properly called in Chinese), an 8-year-old girl and her much older sister Jing who is blind and works as a singer at a local restaurant where her performances are accompanied by the accordion-playing Diego, a very tomboyish appearing girl. The little girl is fascinated by Diego’s androgynous look and finds it hard to call her “madame” as her sister insists. Soon enough Diego starts walking Jing home, taking an interest in her which is certainly beyond their work relationship. The trouble begins when May’s fascination develops into a crush on Diego. A child’s egocentric nature and very uncomplicated, yet single-minded frame of mind has no place for sharing when it comes to owning its suddenly discovered object of childish desire. And predictably enough everybody loses, with the possible exception of the heteronormative society in whose midst the three are planted.

As Jing and Diego are rutinely performing at the restaurant for yet another wedding party, the film smootly glides into its second part, “Lily”. Only this particular occasion isn’t very ordinary as they are performing at a sham wedding between Yen, Diego’s camp gay friend and Lily, a lesbian girl and the only daughter of an ill-tempered puppet theatre owner. The real lovers of both newlyweds are actually at the wedding too and at one point they even restore some sort of normality in a backroom of the restaurant where they shortly convene. But from there we promptly take a jump into their future which looks as bleak as the past looked festive. Lily who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and looking rather old and feeble is visited by Yen, her official husband who also appears in a state of decay. We quickly learn that he has been HIV-positive for years and his lover seems to have found a young and healthy replacement for him. Lily is brought out of her near-catatonic state by Yen’s sudden appearance only to mistake him for Ocean, her old love who evidently left her years ago when Lily had become ill. Yen’s somewhat androgynous traits make the situation believable, and although he tries to persuade her that he isn’t Ocean, it falls on deaf ears and Lily applies her whole remaining arsenal of wit and emotional inducement to try and prevent the person she sees as her old love from leaving her again. “Lily” is easily the most moving part of the film, full of despair but also unexpected hope.

The third part, “Diego” provides another jump in time, only this time backwards. We go back to the young version of Diego, full of frustration and lust. She is often mistaken for a boy and finds the girly clothes that her mother tries to make her wear gross and highly uncomfortable. She hangs out with the young version of Yen wishing that he was a girl who in turn would love Diego to be a guy. One evening after her homophobic brother, obviously afraid that she may claim half of the family business, makes her quit their parents’ puppet theatre, she gladly joins on stage scantily-clad Lily whose father makes her sing cheery popsicle songs drawing a joyous crowd, much to the annoyance of Diego’s parents whose somewhat more “traditional” performances fail to draw much attention. Diego radiates happiness while dancing away to Lily’s rendition of “The Heartless Train”, a Chinese line dance classic, and later the two of them share brief moments of intimacy, making out and talking about future - future that we as viewers already know a thing or two about.

We know about “the heartless train” whisking them in and out of tunnels - never pausing, never giving them a break. But we also know that at the same time they will never stop searching for love and happiness. One critic called “Drifting Flowers” a morose portrayal of gay life. I disagree. Both the conditions that societies outline for gay people and the choices that we make ourselves make our lives morose or otherwise. Portraying people who have suffered blows in their lives or are desparate or frustrated is not morose. It’s a reality for many people, and this film certainly doesn’t suggest that the train they’re on will now crush into a brick wall, killing all onboard.

“Drifting Flowers” is an atmospheric film which feels warmly about its characters. It is also a fairly big step away from the traditional Taiwanese arthouse cinema which most audiences find unaccessible. The film is rather moody in its tone and its musical score is mostly melancholic but it shouldn’t be mistaken for depressing. It should be experienced more like the flowers that it alludes to, taking in all the fragrance while they are drifting past you.

Here you can watch the film's trailer: