I’m still alive, guys and welcome back to Day 6 of this festival. If I could group this two films in a general sense, it is that both Kathryn Bigelow and Kirsten Tan are the most comfortable when they display the uncomfortable sense, Bigelow for the unflinching look of injustice, and Tan for her offbeat tone about her characters in an awkward situation (just imagine, how a wife could talk things out to her husband when he finds out about her dildo). While the two doesn’t necessary share many things in common. Placing the easy-going with a right dose of drama Pop Aye right after a frustrating and don’t-believe-in-people events from Detroit is the right choice to bring back the mood. And what’s better to gain back your mood than an elephant sprinkling water to your face? I’m bringing you Day 6, a night to forget and a road trip to remember.
Kathryn Bigelow: an American film director and screenwriter, noted for thriller films that often featured protagonists struggling with inner conflict. She was the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director, for The Hurt Locker (2008).
“Certainly, my first reaction when I heard this story was: ‘Am I the right person to make this film?’ Because I am absolutely not. But it’s been 50 years in the shadows, and what is more important than whether I am the right or wrong person to tell the story is that it is told. There is a responsibility the white community needs to take for racism in America. And I’m trying, with what means I have, to be a part of encouraging that conversation.”
Clocking over 2 hours and thirty minutes, Detroit is a long and messy account of Detroit’s riot in 1967, in both for its strength and weakness. The duo Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter, journalist Mark Boal have collaborated for the third time for another American tale in its vital moments. While Detroit ends up being like a little brother compared to their last two efforts, it still at times a demanding and frustrating look on the systemic racism in America during that era. Arguably one of the finest Hollywood director working today, Bigelow’s style is more than suitable for grand scale, semi-docu story like this. Along with Paul Greengrass, she has that long “you-participating-too” approach, where we are in the same distance as we would in real life. It comes as no surprise,l that they have the same DP, Barry Ackroyd, to shoot their film. The long take handheld cinematography that refuse to look away at these events unfold, make it a (rightfully) tense and exhausting experience for us viewers.
I consider the film hits its mark fairly early on, in the aftermath of the “unregistered party” in the black community that results in an angry mob and all-out war. Detroit is very good at building tension, and in this particular case you can sense very well how the tension boiling up and how that tension is bound to happen anyways, it’s just waiting for the fire catching fuel. The real event, however, happens later on in much smaller scale that take the biggest chunk of this film, the Algiers Motel incident in which after the police raid the hotel for a night, resulted 3 dead bodies, all black. When I said Detroit is long and messy, these are basically the characteristics of the film. The events itself are messy, that night feels like a long winded nightmare you can’t get out of, frustrating so. We see the police, lead by the young and racist Krauss (fearless and totally committed performance by William Poulter), investigate and torture the residents in the hotel at the time to find out about the gun. But there’s no gun to begin with. The compelling of the part is that, as Bigelow and the crew make no mistake that these events are results of systemic racial tension, the police side has their reasons for doing so. It’s not the kind of racism we see in movies like Mudbound, these police rarely outright insult their victims, but it’s more about their determination to repress the colored people at all cost, slowly and slowly stepping out of their boundary.
This uncomfortable feeling is elevated by Bigelow’s refusal to tone down or make shortcuts to what happening on screen. As the story unfolds, we see how a simple harmless prank could lead to such dangerous situations, and how what should be a mere “putting down pressure to figure out where the gun is” could lead to the abuse of power. Their most iconic sequences, which run for the length of an hour, feature the victims lining up against the wall, while the forces investigating (but more like yelling and abusing) them. You could feel the whole range of tensions from every member of this wonderful cast. This becomes a great strength in her films. Usually they don’t feed us much about the characters in terms of their backgrounds, but they act and do like real people, and their personal tension plus what they do tell you pretty much who they are. For example, you could feel one police has an intense sexual tension to those two white girls when he learns that they were in the same room with a black guy. Or Dismuke, a black private security ward, does his best to tone down the tension between two sides because he knows the drills. The sexual tension is especially on point because it speaks to the fear of black’s power from the white’s point of view.
What makes this event scary, moreover, is that 50 years on it’s still as relevant today as ever. As much as we try to look other ways, black oppression is still going on. And while I have issues with the focus on this particular event (which I’ll address later), the filmmakers nail it by making this just a peak of a systemic racism from the forces that root deep down in an American identity. If that particular event isn’t outrageous enough, what come after raise the anger to a higher notch. The cops were ruled out from murder to self-defence, and the only black guy in forces took the fall. Being said that, in many instances the film could benefit much better if they can cut some unnecessary parts. The earlier scene with the Dramatics got cancelled from their gig, for example, doesn’t offer much and could reduce into few lines in the dialogue. The aftermath, in addition, runs half an hour too long and they reduce compelling characters into some generic characters in service of the plot. Lastly, while Detroit is undoubtedly another homerun from Bigelow and Boal, the focus on smaller scale (compare to their previous features), make it not as impactful and earth-shattering as The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty.
Kirsten Tan: A versatile filmmaker with a penchant for bold visual storytelling, Kirsten Tan’s works straddle a range of genres, but are consistent in their humanity and off-beat humor.
“I do remember it was very common back [in Thailand] to see elephants roaming city streets begging for money and that image always struck me because it is very sad to see an animal as majestic as an elephant and yet you see him right in the middle of a concrete jungle. It is sad and yet at the same time there is also something surreal about it, how this elephant is removed from his natural environment to live amongst man”
Pop Aye is another road tale about a man and his pet, except, you know, the pet this time is an elephant. The production of this film is a curious case, Kirsten Tan, a Singaporean, directs this Thai-set story based on the tow years she was living there in her early 20s. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s outlook to make the story that feel distinctively the place it sets (we have more example of that later on this project). Suffered from a mid-life crisis where he’s being oppressed in both at work and at home, Thana (Thanete Warakulnukroh) bumps into his childhood elephant and decides to make a trip, on foot, to bring the animal back to his hometown. It’s not much about the elephant, but more about him, to make sense with this trip. Tan has a knack for putting this straightforward story an offbeat and somewhat surreal tone. The image of a man walking with his elephant, is both striking, whimsical and distinctive. As two halves of the narrative, both Thana and the elephant Popeye have a strong chemistry together. Although Popeye hardly expresses anything, as time passes where can see him a gentle and sweet creature. The most notable scene, as such, is the long take on Thana slowly climbing up to him, as he keeps raising up one of his leg so that Thana could step on it.
As typically in road movie, along the way the duo encounters various characters and each of them add something extra to the table. A bum, the police, a trans, a long lost crush, Thana’s uncle. This is where I could say Tan has a eye for depicting this part of Thai that we don’t see much on screen. Some of them aren’t realistic, like the part about a bum who strain many convenient plot points later on, but they are portrayed in such singular light that they add up nonetheless. All of them have their own stories to tell, and they’re fascinating as like they’re a central in their own narrative. The falling apart relationship between him and his wife, on the other hand, doesn’t develop into its full potential. We could see the frustration, but don’t see much into their core of the relationship. Being said that, the line in the end, strangely sums up their trust for each other and the film’s narrative.
The editing, however, falls out of place sometimes. The segment where the elephant literally is in the room, for example, could flow much better if it is in an natural order, instead of cutting back and forth as a flashback like this. There’s a bit of a bitter tone regarding the modernization whether it’s the hectic pace in the big city Bangkok, or his uncle selling their own land for apartment, or whimsical bit about the Buddhist priest accepts credit card, Pop Aye is a celebration of a stripped down life, where life is simpler, where money doesn’t mean much and where people (and elephant) can connect to each other more wholeheartedly. Moreover, this road trip is pretty much a trip for Thana to take a step back to his crisis, to reconsider everything happening in his life and his relationship with others, especially his wife. Ultimately, Pop Aye is a worthy addition to this well worn road trip, and despite its inconsistency sometimes, it raises itself for it offbeat tone and offer a side of Thailand that I would love to see more on screen.
And with the end of Day 5, we reach the halfway point of the 2017 Women’s Cinema festival. It takes a bit of a time to get here, but I promise that latter half will be quicker since I’ve watched many of them and it’s just a matter to write up reviews. Next, however, we’ll have a mid-break with a day dedicated to our Honorary Director of 2017, Claire Denis with her three features, Chocolat (1988), Beau Travail (1999) and Let the Sunshine In (2017). I’ve only watched one of her film before, 35 Shots of Rum so there’s a lot of her films I need to explore. The next post will be a brief overview about her, her works and the reviews of those three films. See you then, folks.