For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Rotterdam 2010: Attack of the Camera

I didn’t know what I was missing until I saw it right in front of me.  Beaten and exhausted by 8 days at Rotterdam, I decided to end the festival on a high genre note with Tsui Hark’s Hong Kong “new wave” third film, Dangerous Encounters: 1st Kind. After being neck-deep in contemplative films for a brief but intense period of viewing, I had forgotten what the influx of young blood into Hong Kong at that time (including John Woo and Ann Hui, the latter of whom has a quite good film at the festival) meant:  hunger.  Hark’s screed—as it indeed can only be described as that—is a blood-shot, parasitic work of extreme angry energy and invention, fueled by MTV new aesthetics and Hong Kong problem solving, and ends up thrillingly shoving the our faces in the nihilistic and extremely bitter and paranoid culture of youth and politics on the island at the time.  In a swirl of mere minutes Hark unites 3 disparate lowlives: the misanthropic, anarchistic waif of a young girl (introduced during the credits sequences pinning needles into the heads of mice), the amoral accidental killing of a man by 3 nerdy teens, and the white, homosexual, ex-Vietnam vets whose mercenary activities course through the island's blood stream.  Feuillade would be proud; this is phantasmagoric serial plotting condensed into 90 minutes (even featuring the downhill chase from Tih Minh, only with guns, flaming torches, Japanese bank drafts, and a more vicious, spunky heroine), with many silenced bullets and Hong Kong's massive hilltop cemetery to settle all bets.   Finishes with the post-massacre coup de grâce of a montage of photos of recent news events and a water balloon filled with blood dropped on an old woman.  Voracious.

Being stilled all week by the measured, the thoughtful, I forgot that cinema can leave you breathless, that a filmmaker’s need to put something on celluloid can be palpable, that energetic vitality, the hunger to film, to capture an explosion, to try and make that captured violence not just popular but new and exciting.  There’s something about the culture of film festivals and the kinds of films it encourages that strenuously denies these kinds of films exist, are art.  I lament that in 2010 there must exist filmmakers who feel such a need but also feel the financial, assimilative need to dull their frayed edges and jittery nerves to create something more attuned with the art that must be in the art cinema of festival programs.  More dangerous still is to take a path to mainstream cinema and be lost in the crowd, move from being Tsui Hark circa 1980 and to being Tsui Hark circa 2005.

Ironically, the movie I caught right after Hark’s must have heard my mental lament, as the hour-long Filipino video Engkwentro rams the camera through the movie like a rally racer sprinting to hand off the baton, with understandably ragged but nonetheless respectably intense results.  A series of very long handheld takes that crawl around a labyrinthine slum of sheet metal alleys, kid gangs, shadow threats of the government death squads, and ubiquitous radio speeches by the mayor denying the horrors of everyday life, Pepe Diokno's short feature confines its story to the typical moral melodrama of family and gang violence (older brother wants to escape the slums, younger brother attracted to the nihilistic hedonism of a rival gang), but at least barrels his camera through the world like there’s something in there to prove about it.   And considering the video’s assertions about officially denied but bloodily existent groups of tacitly approved vigilantes, it definitely looks like there is.  Even more interesting is that Diokno constructed this space rather than documenting a real slum.  Confined by genre artifice, confined by plastic artifice, the camera gobbles all the fakery and spits out something very angry and quite sad.

Local politics takes on a video shade far more subtle and still in Lav Diaz’s expansion on his Jeonju digital short film, Butterflies Have No Memories.  But this is not the hackneyed meditative tranquility of festival aesthetics.  The video is marred by some fairly awful English voice acting, but Diaz’s local cast and his motionless frames, tight puzzles of textures, objects, foreground and background details, and minute angles, tells more than enough about a close-knit small town descended into moral squalor after its local mine shut down.  Is this what a Nostromo sequel would look like, shot by Pedro Costa?  Paired in a program with Engkwentro, this other short Filipino feature likewise follows a path ending in a moral point, but while Diokno literally tackles his subject head-on to the detriment to local color and subtlety, Butterflies successfully marries small observation about the life of the location to the story's evolving and, finally, heartbreaking moral mythology.

Might be worth mentioning that there’s two cuts of Dangerous Encounters, both worth seeing on their own merits; dunno which one Rotterdam screened, but the original cut has less of the gun-running business and more overt “terrorism” on the part of the leads. The French DVD distributor graciously included both (although much of the original cut had to be sourced from VHS). And both have that same brilliant climax.
I’d be curious to know the difference TFN, as the programmer said they tried as hard as they could to track down the “uncensored” version of the film on film and couldn’t find it. So they apparently screened the 35mm “censored” version, which still seemed to me both hyper violent and quite political. Do you know the specifics?
As far as I know the first cut was banned by the Hong Kong colonial government because it featured those 3 teens making bombs and put them in movie theaters. There was a fear that it would trigger a discontent towards the authority and copycat crimes. Hark Tsui could not do anything else but replaced the bomb scenes by unlicensed driving as the main ‘anti-social behavior’ in order to make it through the local censorship department. The second half of the films of two cuts are more or less the same. So there is nothing ‘more violent’ in the first cut. I also want to add that the camera work at the final scene in a cemetery was far beyond the standard of its contemporary Hong Kong films. Hard Tsui was the real leader of Hong Kong New Wave in the early 80s.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features