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: