“Now, do you have any other stories to tell us?”
Part I: Insiang, Mysterious Object at Noon, Revenge
Following its 2013 assembly of six global discoveries, The Criterion Collection has released another half-dozen titles from largely overlooked nations and filmmakers. And again, the new box set is under the auspices of The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and its founder, Martin Scorsese. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 contains movies from the Philippines (Insiang), Thailand (Mysterious Object at Noon), Soviet Kazakhstan (Revenge), Brazil (Limite), Turkey (Law of the Border), and Taiwan (Taipei Story), and like that first set (which was nearly worth the purchase price for Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki alone), this collection features an eclectic grouping of formally fascinating, wholly distinct films, all of which are just as vital for their aesthetic distinction as they are for their ethnographic revelations.
In the interviews and essay compiled for Criterion, Insiang director Lino Brocka is compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a similarly prolific filmmaker who passed away tragically early (Brocka died in a car crash at the age of 52), and one with whom, as Scorsese argues in his introduction to the 1976 film, Brocka shared an analogous national importance. As an artist keenly attuned to the pulse of his country, Brocka felt that human dignity and its relationship with one’s social environment should be of primary concern. It was a concept he put into practice with the at times pitiless world of Insiang. Beginning with an excruciating slaughterhouse opening, a hellish hands-on flood of flesh and blood, Brocka’s visceral initiation into the slums of Tondo, Manila finds its as-yet unsullied heroine in the attractive form of Insiang, a much-coveted young woman played by “Filipina screen goddess” Hilda Koronel. She resides in a raucous household presided over by her bristling fish vendor mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa). At first, they are joined by a large clan of ear-piercing in-laws, but those family members are soon pushed from the picture and replaced by Tonya’s much-younger crush, the brutish Dado (Ruel Vernal). Less chaotic than the earlier scenes of extended family commotion, the situation that develops with the mother-daughter-boyfriend dynamic is far more taxing and traumatic. Unable or unwilling to contain his lustful desires (the men in the film offer up empty excuses for their barbarity: “I’m a man. I can’t control myself”), Dado rapes Insiang and, in so doing, triggers a volatile, psychosexual series of events.
Subsequently faulted for the encounter and rebuked as a communal pariah, Insiang suffers social chastisement beyond her control, a token of the region’s pervasive hopelessness. Koronel, who plays the part with profound sympathy to start, intensifies her performance to a point of absolutely agonizing empathy. She falls into a deep chasm of desolation and aimlessness and, with nowhere to turn, feeling devalued and self-destructive, she reverts bitterly inward. Koronel gives a staggering, soul-crushing performance, embodying a simmering capacity for vengeance that, once enacted, is utterly devastating. “You can’t hurt me anymore,” she says at one point, to her mother and to the anguished humanity that surrounds her.
A comparatively decent boy, also enamored with Insiang, offers to help the poor girl escape her dire domestic situation—someday. But Insiang is not about the future, just as Brocka’s cinema is preoccupied by the here and now. In this film, he exposes a province enveloped by poverty and grime, where families and entire communities reside in uncomfortable proximity. There is a sweltering physicality, illustrated in these cramped conditions, in the boys and men routinely seen with their shirts off, and in the perversely commonplace molestation of the town’s young women. Yet despite this unpleasant veneer, life persists. People still go to the movies and make out, parents push their children into talent contests, and people like the no-nonsense Tonya carry on with a cynicism stemming from once-too-often scorn. Brocka, who also worked in television and in the theater, was known as a “man of the street,” an association and affinity evident in Insiang’s voluminous atmosphere. A politically active figure, his prodigious output enabled him to tackle any number of issues with great regularity (Insiang went from first day of shooting to theaters in 17 days), often causing consternation among the powers that be, primarily Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, whose lavish lifestyle stood in marked contrast to the gritty realism set forth by Brocka.
As unfamiliar as Brocka and Insiang may be, if there is a household name in this first batch of World Cinema Project titles it would be Apichatpong Weerasethakul (and what a name it is—even Scorsese has a hard time getting it out in his introduction). His 2000 feature debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, is a film that hovers somewhere between fiction and documentary, doing so with remarkable fluidity. It’s an enthralling work that, during production, left even its own director wondering how to solve the riddle he created. Starting with the printed primer, “Once upon a time…,” Mysterious Object at Noon takes the theme of storytelling as its self-conscious priority. At first lacking any semblance of narrative whatsoever, it is gradually revealed that the film will be about the very process of narrative construction. Taking a cue from the “Exquisite Corpse” game, a surrealist tactic where participants take turns advancing a given visual or verbal prompt, the film charts an impetus germ as it metastasizes into an ever-evolving storyline.
Essentially revolving around a disabled boy, his teacher, and a round ball that falls from the teacher’s dress, which magically and mysteriously transforms into another adolescent, individual recitations of this set-up are marked by random, often quirky contributions. Invited to take a basic scenario and run with it, modifying it and amplifying it along the way, the participants engage in reenacted and reimagined renditions, theatrically performed or even done in sign language. As Weerasethakul moves from one group of characters to another, the film blatantly ruptures the fourth wall, with spontaneous silliness, the juvenile antics of unaffected kids, and even Weerasethakul himself as he pops in to make his directorial presence known.
The “at noon” of the film’s title refers to an epilogue concluding the picture, a post-credit “bonus track” (in Weerasethakul’s words). Forgoing the loosely-binding model of narrative creation, the film glides to a close as its milieu continues on for a few uninhibited moments, with Weerasethakul recording the setting and its populace without any intent other than slice-of-life candidness. It is one thing for a film to be shot in a given country, but it is something else altogether for a film to capture and express that nation’s essence in such vibrant, unmediated detail—time and again, Weerasethakul does this exceptionally well. Shot over the course of two years and supplemented by effusive lighting and coarse 16mm black and white photography, Mysterious Object at Noon ripens into a mesmerizing film about how cultural anecdotes are fashioned and distorted, how storyteller methodology becomes a mutable development worth examining, and how cinema is ideally suited for such scrutiny.
Prominent visuals and an intriguingly expanding storyline also distinguish Ermek Shinarbaev’s Revenge. A seventeenth-century prologue establishes the fundamental crux of this 1989 film, which has to do with external expectations versus individual ambition. In this opening section, a prince is trained to be a warrior, as his royal father dictates, while a poet who opposes violence is cast away; one dutifully does what was demanded while the other stands his ground and chooses a divergent path. The story of the film proper starts in 1915 Korea, where a female student is murdered by her teacher. The girl’s father seeks revenge, but as time goes on, he grows unable to complete his mission and so the responsibility falls to the old man’s son, a foreordained descendent sired with a mute woman after his aging wife can no longer bear children. The boy’s sole purpose in life, his very reason for being, is to continue and complete this act of vengeance. But the boy never knew his slain sister, nor does he, especially in his young age, comprehend the meaning of his foretold existence. As the years pass and the boy matures in his own right, he struggles with the task at hand, a task he never asked for and never fully appreciates, encountering physical and psychological obstacles that continually impede his goal.
Like Mysterious Object at Noon, the narrative trajectory of Revenge proceeds through the ages one person at a time, frequently shifting its point of focus from one chapter of the tale to the next. But unlike Weerasethakul’s film, which is based on the notion of rather arbitrary advancement, Shinarbaev’s picture hones in on the fated interconnectedness of its central characters, and on the inevitable lives touched by the unremitting reckoning. The natural facts of life and death lend Revenge a sense of eventual finality (everyone is going to die at some point), but even this seems incapable of lifting the burden of predetermination or allaying the potential for individual variance from the track laid forth. Ultimately, Revenge is a touching portrait of a boy whose lifelong journey exemplifies how youth so often gets tangled in the “nets of destiny” sprung by prevailing, preexisting forces.
Revenge is a sedate, tranquil film, and Shinarbaev’s direction is correspondingly measured and painstaking. With cinematography by Sergei Kosmanev, the picture is a glorious sight to behold, sparkling with brilliantly luminous flares of scattered light. It takes on a mystical tone, unfolding like a parable, intensifying in its reserved build-up to the seemingly inescapable retribution. As his third collaboration with writer Anatoli Kim, Shinarbaev considered Revenge akin to a poem, but when discussing the film in his Criterion interview, he spends most of the time placing the work within its sociopolitical framework. While significant and enlightening, this context fails to expound upon the film’s formal nuances, which add far more to the work than its historical background. Kent Jones’ excellent essay on the picture likewise devotes considerable space to the film’s making and its international perspective, but little to its artistic qualities. It’s almost as if the absolute poetic potency of Revenge is beyond words, beyond explanation. This was something Shinarbaev himself discovered when he would ask Kim about perplexing actions or lines of dialogue—“Don’t ask,” came the curt reply. As far as the viewer’s attempts to fully comprehend and interpret all that the film conveys, Shinarbaev offers up this tip: “Don’t even try to guess. Just go with it.”