Friday, May 30, 2008

A quick stop in Singapore via Bhutan

A Tale of Two Journeys:

The clichéd statement "the grass is greener on the other side" is quite true for the two films Travellers and Magicians & Perth. In fact, one could classify the situation of the two lead characters in both films to be similar to that of the characters in Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. In the play, two men waited patiently for Godot as they expected Godot to take away their problems and bring them happiness. Similarly in Travellers and Magicians, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) is waiting for his American visa to remove him from the boredom in Bhutan while in Perth, Harry (Kay Tong Lim) is waiting to earn enough money to move to his dream city. But the journey of these two characters branches off in different paths.

At the start of Travellers and Magicians, Dondup has decided he cannot live in the quiet village [note: correction added] anymore because there is nothing for him to do (no cinemas, no women or entertainment). He believes he will be happier cleaning dishes or picking apples in America than doing the same jobs in Bhutan. So when he learns of his friend's visa invite to America, he heads to the city to prepare for his American trip. Along the way, he meets a group of travellers, including an apple grower/seller, a monk and a pair of farmers (father & daughter). As the monk narrates an interesting tale of the dangerous consequences of restlessness and desire, Dondup view’s start to change a little bit. Besides the influence of the monk's tale, Dondup's feelings for the farmer's daughter also start to soften his dislike for things around him. By the film's end, we do get a glimmer of hope that Dondup will be a better person and won't rush to hasty decisions in the future.

When Harry loses his job at the start of Perth, he is not too worried. That is because being unemployed cuts off another tie he had with his native city and he can now freely plan a move to his dream city of Perth. Since Harry does not have enough money saved up to make the move immediately, he takes up a temporary job as a taxi driver. But his vibrant personality puts him in some tricky situations and complicates his plans for leaving Singapore. On the DVD cover of Perth, a critic is quoted as calling this film Singapore's version of Taxi Driver. And to emphasize the point, there is even a soliloquy similar to De Niro's chat with the mirror. The difference in Perth is that the camera is at ground level and looking upwards to Harry's side profile when he looks at the mirror and utters the words "what are you looking at?" as opposed to De Niro's "you talking to me?".

Universal Teenage Angst & Rebellion

The film may be set in Singapore but the teenagers in Royston Tan's 15 feel and behave just like teenagers anywhere else in the world. The characters in the film would be relieved to know their soul brothers can be found halfway around the world in Larry Clark's films.

Ratings out of 10:

  • Travellers and Magicians (2003, Bhutan, Khyentse Norbu):7.5

  • Perth (2004, Singapore, Djinn): 6

  • 15 (2003, Singapore, Royston Tan): 5

  • Tuesday, May 27, 2008

    Asian Spotlight: Thailand

    The calm & poetic cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

    I first came across Apichatpong Weerasethakul at VIFF 2006 when I passed him in the hallway before the Dragons and Tigers award was to be presented at the screening of The King and the Clown. John Torres eventually won the award and Apichatpong Weerasethakul was the only present member of the three person jury responsible for the award. Apichatpong Weerasethakul came across as a very humble and pleasant person judging by how he reacted when some fans wanted pictures of him outside the theater and how he presented himself. Upto that point, I had not seen a single film by him and that evening Tony Rayns mentioned that VIFF had shown every one of his films to date including the new film Syndromes and a Century which was also being shown in 2006. I had to finally catch-up and see what kind of films this composed person could make.

    On a trip to Thailand later in Dec 2006 I managed to find a copy of his Tropical Malady but for some silly reason, I passed up on buying Blissfully Yours. Back then I did not think much of it but after I finished watching Tropical Malady as soon as I got back, I regretted not buying Blissfully Yours. This is because I enjoyed watching Tropical Malady so much that I did not want the movie to end. It was just a beautiful film to watch and it ended one with one of the most stunning shots in a film that I had ever seen -- near the film's end, there is a scene where the camera hovers over a tiger high up on a tree branch. The camera then faces the tiger head on as the tiger looks directly towards us. We can detect the tiger breathing slowly and that gaze has stayed with me. The setup of that scene was so well done that I am lost on words to describe it.

    After Tropical Malady, I next saw his fictional doc Mysterious Object at Noon. The movie, shot in sumptuous black and white, appears to be a documentary but some of the questions appear to follow a predetermined line of thought. Apichatpong Weerasethakul mentioned in an interview that he had a script that he gave to untrained actors and asked them to improvise and add their own stories. The end result is a journey to remote Thai villages with a topic of myths and even some alien tales. The film ends at an appropriate point when all the stories have been told but as per Apichatpong Weerasethakul the film ended when the old camera he was using broke down.

    I finally managed to see Blissfully Yours recently and once again, it was a relaxing watch -- a love story with some peaceful moments in the jungle and by the lake. But the film also has a political undertone to it yet it is so calmly tucked beneath the affairs of the three main characters. At the film's start, a woman is trying to get medicine for a man at the local hospital. The man is quiet and lets the woman do the talking for him. The doctor says that she can't give proper medicine or issue a full medical certificate to the man without proper id. A few scenes later we learn that he is an illegal Burmese citizen who has entered Thailand without proper papers. In order to forget their hassles, his girlfriend takes the man on a picnic in the jungle. As it turns out, the picnic spot is close to the Thai-Burmese border and if one listens carefully, one can detect some gun shots in the horizon. None of the characters react to the noise and continue to laze around peacefully in the sun. Like Tropical Malady, the film contains plenty of serene and beautiful shots. One memorable shot is when the picnic food gets taken over by an army of ants after the food has been left unattended for a long duration as the couple made love by the lake. Watching an army of ants cover all the food (including the satay sticks) was a memorable image.

    Syndromes and a Century is a blend of Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours. The film is broken up into two segments like Tropical Malady and like Blissfully Yours, Syndromes... starts off in a hospital. Also, in Syndromes.. a monk is shown trying to get medicine for people who are not present at the hospital, in a similar manner to the woman in Blissfully Yours wanted medicine for someone without proper id.

    The two segments in Tropical Malady were part of one story, with one segment steeped in reality while the other in myth (the tale involved a tiger who could transform into a human). On the other hand, the two segments in Syndromes and a Century are either alternate realities of each other or the second segment features characters who are reincarnated from the first segment. In the first segment the story takes place in a simple village hospital while the second segment takes place in a flashy hospital in a bigger city. Both segments start off with the same interview and feature the same characters. Although there is one clue connecting both tales. In the first segment we see a Buddha statue in the playground across from the hospital while in the second segment the same Buddha statue is shown in front of the new hospital. Later in the film, a character talks about reincarnation and that might lead to a clue regarding the connection between the two segments. Also, the word "century" from the title might indicate the passage of time in between the two segments. Like his previous films, Apichatpong Weerasethakul includes plenty of poetic shots in the movie. My favourite was the pipe in the new hospital's basement which is slowing sucking the smoke in the room. The camera moves closer to the hole's mouth and we are looking directly into a black hole or a time warp of sorts. Beautiful.

    If I had to describe the three features of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in two words, I would describe them as a "summer breeze". All of them are calm and relaxing to watch, while the films smoothly incorporate plenty of poetic and intelligent shots. What is interesting is that all his films reflect the kind of person Apichatpong Weerasethakul is -- a grounded and humble person.

    Basking in more calm cinematic shades

    Interestingly Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, another Thai film-maker, also directs calm and leisurely films. Even though his films such as Ploy, Invisible Waves and Last Life in the Universe deal with topics of affairs, murders, kidnapings and suicide, they are presented in such a relaxed manner that it is a treat watching his films. Even though Pen-Ek Ratanaruang did not use Christopher Doyle as a cinematographer for Ploy, his film still maintains the same dreamy rhythm as that ofInvisible Waves and Last Life in the Universe. Ofcourse, in Ploy the motif of dreams is more apparent than in the other two films. It has been a few years since I saw his second feature 6ixtynin9 so I cannot recall if that movie's tone was similar to the other three flicks.

    Bright colours, multiple cuts and some CGI

    Wisit Sasanatieng on the other hand employs a completely different cinematic technique from his country-men Apichatpong Weerasethakul & Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Tears of the Black Tiger uses a bright neon pallete background to depict an over the top Thai Western. The bright colors are present in Citizen Dog as well along with some fancy graphics. I took to Citizen Dog a lot more than to Tears of the Black Tiger but both films are still unique in the vision they present, along with some quirky characters.

    Noise, chaos and gore

    Chukiat Sakveerakul's 13: Game of Death is a cross between David Fincher's The Game and the Saw films. As per the title, the main character Chit has to play a game where he has to successfully complete 13 challenges which will lead to him winning plenty of money. At first, Chit is reluctant to take the challenge seriously but he is tempted because of his desperate need for money. Naturally the first two challenges are easy enough so Chit agrees. And as expected, the next few challenges get a bit messy and even disgusting.

    Ratings out of 10 for films seen as part of this spotlight
  • Blissfully Yours (2002): 8

  • Syndromes and a Century (2006): 9

  • 13: Game of Death (2006): 5
  • Monday, May 26, 2008

    Pregnancy in Cinema: assisted plot movement, with some clichés on the side

    Out of the three pregnancy Hollywood films from 2007 (Juno, Waitress and Knocked Up), two involved the use of alcohol in order to get the lead women pregnant. In Waitress, Jenna (Keri Russell) gets pregnant by her husband after a few drinks loosen her up and in Knocked Up Alison (Katherine Heigl) has a one night stand with Ben (Seth Rogen) under the influence of alcohol. It is safe to say that neither female character would have gotten pregnant if not for some drinks – both are shown to be responsible career women and neither would have had sex with their male counterparts in sober conditions (Jenna despises her husband and Alison was a bit out of Ben’s league). If these movies had been made ten years ago, then the women would have gotten pregnant without any alcohol. Back then a night of passion, a one night stand, and pregnancy would have followed if the script called for it. In 1997’s Fools Rush In a one time fling between Matthew Perry's and Salma Hayek’s characters results in her getting pregnant. Ofcourse, in the case of Fools Rush In, Juno, Waitress and Knocked Up, the story is more concerned with what happens to the characters after pregnancy; the characters are only required to get pregnant, one way or another.

    One line in the script and let us move on with the story

    A few years ago, it was ok for the women to get pregnant quite easily in movies and the story could have gotten to the really interesting portions. But nowadays, one cannot get away with showing the characters engaging in unprotected sex unless one shows the character’s lack of intelligence given the awareness of sexual diseases out there. Each of the three 2007 films finds a way to excuse its characters of engaging in their unprotected sexual acts – in Juno the main character is a young teenager and is reminded by her father that she should have known better; in Waitress Jenna is quite upset at her pregnancy and is furious that she allowed her husband to get her pregnant while in Knocked Up both Alison and Ben engage in a debate about why a condom was not used. Ben had tried to put one on but when Alison shouted “just do it already”, he assumed it was ok for him to continue without one as he figured Alison was using protection of her own.

    In the hilarious film Idiocracy Mike Judge pokes fun at this unprotected sex issue. In the movie, he shows that educated couples are taking too long to produce babies as they are waiting for the right time but on the other hand not so bright jocks and athletes are getting multiple women pregnant and are mass producing babies. As a result, in a distant future the planet (or only America?) will be populated by idiotic people resulting in a complete collapse of society.

    All the above mentioned films are comedies (Fools Rush in is a romantic comedy) and conforms to the standard that males in such movies are stupid and are unable to handle the woman’s pregnancy. But then again, who would want to watch a movie about intelligent men getting smart women pregnant? Such a movie would not be funny and the script might never get funding in Hollywood or even Bollywood.

    Bring out the clichés

    Nine Months showed the woman (played by Julianne Moore) getting pregnant despite her using birth pills. The male (played by Hugh Grant) is puzzled and asks how such a thing could happen. To which Moore’s character replies that birth pills are only 98% effective. Grant’s character hilariously replies that they should put the fact that the pills are “2% bloody ineffective” on the box instead. The film based on a French film (Neuf mois) brings out all the clichés on both the male and female sides. And the Bollywood film Salaam Namastey bases its story on Nine Months and adds more relationship and pregnancy clichés.

    While some people demonstrate the following characteristics, they are not the universal norm:
  • All males emotionally melt down when a woman gets pregnant
  • All males faint when witnessing birth
  • All women have cravings during pregnancy
  • All pregnant women act irrationally and make impossible requests
  • A woman gives birth within a few hours or minutes of her water breaking

  • Talking to some nurses and doctors recently, it was interesting to learn that a pregnant woman can take as much 24 hours to deliver the baby after her water breaks while in some cases, women can be in labour without their water breaking. These professional people said that one of the first things they mention to newly pregnant women is to ignore what they see on Hollywood films regarding pregnancy. Now considering that historical and scientific facts are often blurred in commercial films, it should not be a surprise that pregnancy is handled in the some clichéd and poor manner. What is irritable the most is how easily the women can get pregnant in movies. The probability of a woman or a girl getting pregnant on her first time is rare but not impossible. Yet, script writers get away with this cliché time and time again while this aspect is never questioned. On one hand, sci-fi movies are put through the strictest critiques where every scientific aspect depicted in the movie is questioned, while in these pregnancy comedies a woman’s instant pregnancy is quietly accepted while watching the male character melt down when learning of the woman’s unexpected pregnancy.

    Resolving difficult situations

    Santosh Sivan’s 1999 film The Terrorist posed some challenging questions for its female character of Milli (Ayesha Dharker). Milli plays a suicide bomber in training for her big day when she will get to blow up a minister while presenting the minister with flowers (note: The story echoes the real life murder of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was killed in this manner in 1991). It would have been interesting to see the moral and ethical dilemmas Milli is facing while waiting to blow her body up. But Sivan comes up with an easy way to aid her decision making. He shows Milli getting pregnant after her first and only sexual encounter (ofcourse) and that forces her to think about about life vs death issues. If that pregnancy was not going to easily resolve matters, Sivan also adds a situation with a grandmother in a coma. We are told that the woman has been in a coma for a long time but anyone watching Indian movies through the 1990's (or even 80's) would know that the woman would wake up during an appropriate time ordained by the script. Sure enough, the grandmother grabs Milli’s hand in the climatic scenes.

    Now, I am letting my subjective views cloud my judgment of The Terrorist. While the film is a technical masterpiece (Sivan is one of India’s best cinematographers), I can not accept that the pregnancy is a very convenient manner to address such a difficult ethical dilemma. But that is not saying pregnancy is always an easy way to move the script along.

    In Pedro Almodóvar’s wonderful film Talk to Her the situation of a coma patient and pregnancy is depicted. In the movie, the male nurse who looks after the woman repeatedly rapes the unconscious woman and his crime is only found out when the woman gets pregnant and the pregnancy wakes her from the coma. Now the movie develops the relationship between the male and silent woman naturally and shows that despite the woman being in a coma, she still continues to have her period and her body still behaves normally. Even though the pregnancy resolves the coma, it never feels like an easy way out. Instead, we are presented with a convincing case and the film ends with some worthy questions – should the male nurse be thanked for reviving the woman or blamed for his crime?

    How many does it take for a pattern?

    Ofcourse, three pregnancy Hollywood movies in 2007 and two of them using alcohol as an aid cannot depict a new trend. But it will be curious to see how pregnancy is shown this year? And whether more stupid male characters are shown to faint and melt down when their fling, girlfriend or wife gets pregnant after a single sexual encounter?

    Cannes 2008: Winners & Wrap-up

  • Palme d’Or -- Entre les Murs (The Class), France, Director Laurent Cantet

  • Best Director -- Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Three Monkeys

  • Best Actor -- Benicio Del Toro for Che

  • Best Actress -- Sandra Corveloni for Linha de Passe

  • Best Screenplay -- Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for Le Silence de Lorna

  • Grand Prix -- Gomorrah, Italy, Director Matteo Garrone

  • Jury Prize -- Il Divo, Italy, Paolo Sorrentino

  • Caméra d’Or -- Hunger, UK, Director Steve McQueen

  • Sean Penn, the Jury president, talks about the awards.

  • Some Images via the Guardian.

  • Wrap-up comments: NY Times, Peter Bradshaw
  • Thursday, May 22, 2008

    Oil & Africa: Three Books

  • Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil by John Ghazvinian

  • Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil by Nicholas Shaxson

  • The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts

  • In the film Blood Diamond when Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is traveling in search of the coveted pink diamond along with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), they encounter a lone villager in a deserted village. Terrified of Danny, the villager asks Solomon if he can ask the white man to not shoot him. Solomon smiles and tells the villager to not worry and replies that just like the other white men, Danny is also crazy for diamonds. The villager then gravely looks at Solomon and says that thankfully oil has not been discovered in their land, otherwise they will "have real problems."

    Equating discovery of oil with "problems" is one of the most accurate assessments, especially in today's time. Although it did not have to be this way. The Oil crisis of 1973, which showed the political power of oil for the first time, should have led the West to try harder for alternate sources of energy and cut down their dependence on oil. But nothing came of it. In America & Canada, the cars got bigger, the suburbs were spread out even more, public transportation suffered and the firm dependence on oil was set in stone. In North America, virtually every item is manufactured or assembled in nations with cheap labour and as a result, ships with giant containers float through the ocean everyday carrying precious goods. Food, clothing, electronics, etc are now all depended on oil to get them through international waters. If the price of oil goes up, then every single industry feels the rising cost.

    Unfortunately, this dependence on oil cannot be changed over-night. Alternative energy sources will take time, so in the meantime the scramble is on to find the next source of oil. While en route to Nigeria for starting the research for his book Untapped John Ghazvinian engages in a conversation with the airline ticket operator who inquires if John's trip to Lagos is for business or pleasure. After John mentions that he is going to Africa because of his book on oil, the operator is surprized to learn that there is oil in Africa. Just as John is explaining the abundant resources present there, the operator cuts him off by saying that they need to get the oil from somewhere.

    As John outlines that his journey to Africa is a journey to that "somewhere" to find out more about this source of oil which will help satisfy America's need. Both Untapped and Poisoned Wells cover mostly the same African countries (Nigeria, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Sao Tome and Principe) and overlap on similar material but their presentation style is different. Untapped follows the author from one country to another in each chapter, while in Poisoned Wells Nicholas Shaxson structures each chapter around a pivotal character's influence on an African nation's fortunes. While both books start off in Nigeria, Africa's most well known oil producer, Nicholas Shaxson talks about the musician Fela Kuti and uses the musician's voice to reflect upon Nigeria. Both books end while talking about the growing influence of China in Africa -- while John spends an entire chapter on China, Nicholas spends just the last page.

    Both authors admit that they changed their views from what they saw and learned. Initially when it came to oil, Nicholas Shaxson's anger was "...directed principally at African rulers or the oil companies from whose oily treats the rulers suckle." But after learning some of the dark plots which surround oil, his "revulsion is now directed less toward these actors and more in two other directions: first, towards oil itself -- the dirty, corrosive substance-- and, second, toward the system--the global financial architecture. In this regards, Shaxson offers some solutions which would decouple this awful cycle of oil, power & money which allows the crimes in Africa to continue.

    What is impressive about both books is the research the authors spent in trying to unravel how each African nation got to their current problems while trying to understand the complicated economic impacts that oil has on a nation. One of the most interesting aspects was the discussion of the negative influence oil had on a country.

    Oil is found, a few get rich, the rest get poor

    Some call it the oil curse but it is better known as "Dutch Disease". John Ghazvinian discusses this in good detail in Chapter 2 of Untapped. Essentially, when a country starts exporting a coveted natural resource (such as oil), it gets an influx of foreign currency (dollars, euros) as opposed to getting paid in its own currency. This artificially inflates its own local currency and makes it look like the country is swimming in money. With foreign money comes foreign imports and things that were locally produced are now replaced by foreign goods. As a result, the local economy suffers and industries such as agriculture are left behind. People are rendered jobless and in search of a better life, they head to the city in droves. Since there is no place to live in the city, they end up dwelling in make shift slums and find cheap labour.

    "And, in what is probably the bitterest irony of all, thanks to the collapse of the agricultural sector, life in the big cities becomes increasingly reliant on expensive foreign food, which is largely out of reach to these new arrivals from the hinterland, who find themselves dependent on government handouts and international food aid. In short, given a sudden infusion of foreign currency, a country that was once a regional breadbasket and net exporter of food can quickly turn into one that is unable to feed itself." Chapter 2, Pages 96/97 Untapped by John Ghazvinian

    This theory refers to developing countries but I believe the new money that oil generates in any city or country can cause immediate inflation and a mad rush for expensive foreign goods unless a nation can control the wealth generated by a resource. Nicholas Shaxson mentions the rare example of Norway who have learned how to properly handle their oil money whereas plenty of other nations indulge in personal glory and wasteful spending. At the end of the day, oil is a finite resource and one day it will run out. Nations that do not properly plan to use the oil money could find themselves in deep trouble when the oozing black liquid vanishes.

    Note: In his excellent book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis looks at the increasing amount of slums cropping up around the world. The urban growth of Lagos in the last few decades has been staggering and the timeline of the city's urban growth + increase in slum dwelling coincides with the glory years of Nigeria's oil boom in the 1970's.

    New oil vs New methods to get old oil

    John Ghazvinian highlights the fact that African oil is not a new phenomenon. "In reality, sub-Saharan Africa has been supplying a healthy flow of crude oil to the international market for decades. Nigeria made its first shipments of oil in 1958, two years before it had even declared independence from Britain, and the lush tropical forests of Central Africa have been drilled by French companies since the early 1950s." Untapped

    But previously, African oil was deemed too expensive to drill and explore. Plus the low price of oil in the 1980's did not make the African crude seem very appealing. But the following factors made oil companies look at African oil differently:

  • Changing political climate from late 1990s onwards

  • Oil companies want cheap oil and would like it without any relative difficulty. But since the mid 1990s onwards, plenty of oil producing countries became not so friendly places to get oil from. The crisis in Nigeria in the mid 90's is attributed towards causing oil to jump to $50 a barrel for the first time in history. And since 1990, the Middle East has been transformed drastically in terms of the political climate. Also recently, Venezuela has been trying to assert its political muscle using oil.

  • New offshore Drilling techniques

  • The Gulf of Mexico saw some major improvements in offshore drilling in the 1990s when new technologies could allow companies to drill upto a depth of 5,000 feet into the ocean to get oil. Suddenly, oil buried deep beneath the Gulf of Guinea was viable again.

  • Rising oil prices

  • The record profit of oil companies with the rising oil prices allowed them to start spending more money in research to get out of the ground or ocean faster.

    Given the above combination, the oil beneath the Gulf of Guinea seemed too good to pass up. Since the oil is buried in the ocean, it is free from some of the political problems faced on land in Nigeria -- the oil can be loaded directly onto ships heading for the U.S or Europe and this would avoid any problems while transporting the oil through troubled borders and armed gun-men wanting their share of the profits. The new oil rush in the African waters is just starting.

    My country, no, your country, but under my watchful eye

    Even though the colonial powers have officially left Africa, they cannot let go of their former colonies. Nicholas Shaxson examines some of these situations and highlights the French as one of the culprits in trying to maintain a hold on its colonies. In some cases, foreign nations are on friendly terms with a dictator because it suits their needs while in some cases, it is better for them if an elected leader is removed. The story of Equatorial Guinea's coup attempts might not be well known but they make for some fascinating reading.

    The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts reads like a thriller probably because the events surrounding the two coup attempts were spawned from a fictional writer. It is alleged that the mastermind behind the first coup attempt in 1973 was the famous writer Frederick Forsyth. In 1973, these allegations were just rumours. But in 1974, when Forsyth’s novel The Dogs of War came out the rumours were turned towards suspicion. The story of the novel mirrors in almost exact detail what happened in the 1973 coup. Recently obtained material in 2005 might implicate Forsyth. When Adam Roberts interviewed Forsyth in 2006, Forsyth did not confirm or deny the rumours but said that Roberts can make up his own mind. Forsyth did confirm that in 1973 he went undercover in South Africa to collect information on coups and mercenaries. He claims that some of his data was mistakenly believed to a diary of a coup plot. One thing that can be confirmed is that the people involved in the second coup in 2004 used Forsyth's book The Dogs of War as a blueprint. Forsyth actually finds it amusing that his book was used as a plan and jokes that strange ideas can be hatched over beer.

    The influence of beer

    Adam Roberts begins The Wonga Coup by mentioning how the idea of the 2004 coup was first talked over plenty of beer. Also the idea's funding also lay in beer money as the architect of the coup, Simon Mann, came from a family which made money from a brewing company. The Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski often talked about the importance of a cold beer in Africa to combat the oppressive heat. One lasting image of Africa's portrayal features foreign expats, spies, mercenaries sitting in a bar sipping cold beer while discussing their political or financial plans. Even in Blood Diamond Danny Archer (DiCaprio) explains the African situation to Maddy (Jennifer Connelly) with the following words in a bar:"“over there it is bling bling, but here it is bling bang..".

    In the early years of Iraq's invasion, plenty of journalists wrote about experiences of drinking beer in hotel lobbies while waiting for the next big explosion or story to chase. In most cases, beer was used to pass the time before the next big story arrived but in the case of Equatorial Guinea, consumption of beer by a group of mercenaries may have led to a coup's origins.

    The full story, please!!!!

    When the media reports about crime in Africa, we are only told the obvious things -- who killed whom and in some cases by what weapon. Sometimes, some reports talk about how the weapons arrived in Africa in the first place but in most cases, the full story is never given. There are no weapons being manufactured in Africa, so they must have come from some nation. Did the foreign nation trade weapons for African oil? Why do nations continue to deal with rogue states? Oil, diamonds are obvious reasons, but what else? Who were the middlemen who conducted the weapons trade? Which nations did they come from? Are these weapons traders like Nicolas Cage’s character from Lord of War?

    If a Western nation's spy or former military officer is involved in an African nation's coup, then can the Western nation quietly deny involvement? What about Oil companies? In Untapped John Ghazvinian talks to some oil company representatives and engages them on the African situation. He gets some honest answers and some usual run of the mill answers about how foreign oil companies are not to blame for Africa's problems.

    The truth is that the world needs oil. It has to come from "somewhere". Oil companies will rush wherever they can sense oil and money to be made. In quite a few cases as mentioned in Untapped & Poisoned Wells, Western Oil companies made deals directly with dictators/rebels to get at the oil. So then is oil the problem? Is oil blinding all reason? Yes and a little no. Oil has become a problem today because the global economy is tied to it. But more than 70 years ago, that was not the case when gold was the universal currency. In the future, when all the oil has run out, then a new resource might take its place.

    For now, until there is oil under the ground in some part of the world, the following will always happen:
  • Elections will be rigged

  • Governments will be toppled

  • Wars will be waged

  • Money will change hands

  • And Finally....

    There Will be Blood!

    Thursday, May 15, 2008

    Oil & Latin America: Three Films

    Before Oil

    Film: Caribe (2004, Costa Rica, Director Esteban Ramírez)

    Pristine beauty. Calm waters & beautiful coastlines.

    This is the untouched beauty of Costa Rica that the camera in Caribe returns to on multiple occasions to remind us what would be lost if the proposed oil drilling mentioned at the film's beginning would go through.

    The story of the oil drilling/explorations off the coast shown in Caribe are based on a real episode in Costa Rica's history. In the film, before the oil drilling could start, explorations were made to determine how much oil there really was underneath the ocean. As part of the process, the oil companies exploded bombs in the seabed. This scared the fish away and the town's fishing supply was depleted. The town of Limon mainly survived on two income sources -- fishing and tourism. The environmentalist groups feel that once big oil moves in, tourism will take a hit and cripple the local economy. The groups turn to the locals to raise their voice and stop the oil companies.

    One of the most respected town members is Vicente (Jorge Perugorría),

    who owns a banana plantation. But his business is in danger of collapsing after a new European tax on Costa Rican fruit exports makes his supply less profitable to his exporters.

    There may be more to Vicente's contracts getting cancelled and the audience is given an indirect hint. Vicente is told that because of the new European tax, the exporters only want to deal with big plantations and not independent producers. This could be an indirect way to force the local people out of a job thus making the lure of big oil and its promised jobs seem as the only option to move forward.

    Vicente is torn between his principles to help fight the oil companies and the need to keep his business alive. The money offered by the oil companies to get his support is too tempting to turn away. Equally tempting is his wife's sister. The stress and madness lure Vicente away from his beautiful wife (below) into the arms of the sensuous sister.

    Even if the oil issue was not around, a few early clues do indicate that Vicente would still have cheated on his wife. But the timing of his betrayal are interesting as they coincide with the arrival of the oil corporations which threaten the peaceful environment, while the new arrival of the long lost sister threatens his perfect marriage. As a result, both the paradise in his mind and around him are shook up.

    When Oil arrives

    Film: Le Salaire de la peur (1953, France, Director Henri-Georges Clouzot)

    In Caribe the locals eventually fight away big oil and save their land. But that is not always the case. Most times, the promise of new jobs and money allow oil companies to easily move in. The town (or city/country) then depends on oil as the main source of income. Other industries may collapse as young & old rush to work for the oil companies.

    At the start of Wages of Fear, we find men languishing in a sleepy un-named Latin town. Oil is the only work around as men earn their money working in the oil fields. There are plenty of foreigners who work in the town and want to save enough money to eventually leave one day. Mario (Yves Montand) is living the happy life between work and chasing a woman.

    His good friend Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives in town for the sole purpose of earning money. We can tell he is not allowed in this place as just before he heads for immigration, he slips money in his passport. This ensures his passport gets stamped, without even a glance at the pictures of people on the wanted list.

    Jo discovers an old acquaintance in the American boss of the Southern Oil Company (the initials SOC point towards the real life Standard Oil Company) and heads to ask him for work because he really needs the money. But he is told that things in this country are strict and Jo can't get work because of his past.

    Things are quiet in town with work progressing at a slow pace until an emergency stirs things up. A fire at a remote oil field kills a few people and requires to be controlled before it threatens to rack up more financial losses. One way to curb the oil fire is to use explosives around the wild gushing oil station. For that, nitroglycerin has to be used.


  • Interestingly, Daniel Plainview uses this same tactic in There Will be Blood. And some of the shots of a man against the backdrop of black smoke reminded me of Plainview.

  • There is an interesting shot of three naked natives watching the oil fire. The three natives simply stand by looking at the fire and are told by the oil operator to go away but seeing that the locals don't understand his words, he walks away in frustration.

    In Caribe we see the local natives getting upset at the plans of big oil as that would threaten to take away the land they have lived on. One can infer that the three natives shown in Wages of Fear used to live on or nearby this land which is now being used by SOC.

  • Since the remote oil site is a few hundred miles away, it is a tough job to get nitroglycerin there because a spilled drop of nitroglycerin can kill an individual. On top of that, there isn't proper equipment and none of the trucks have shock absorbers or safety features to safely transfer this dangerous explosive. So the American bosses decide the only way this can be done is to get two trucks to carry the dangerous good there. They only need one truck load of nitroglycerin but two will be sent out in case one doesn't make it. One of the owners wants to pay the drivers "peanuts" but the American boss refuses to short change the drivers since they are going on a suicide mission. So the wage is set to $2000 dollar. Oh, and to avoid any problems the drivers will be hired from outside the union.

    Plenty of men show up wanting to get this deadly job because of the money.

    Eventually 4 men are chosen (including Mario) and once again Jo is shut out. But mysteriously, the German driver chosen does not make it to the 3 am departure time and magically Jo appears to take his place (it is clear that Jo did something to make the German disappear).

    As to be expected the journey of these 4 men and two trucks is tension packed and full of dangerous obstacles. The trucks have to go at a certain speed otherwise the potholes on some of the roads could cause the explosives to go off (hmm, the idea of not going above a certain speed limit reminded me of the concept in Speed).

    Some of the obstacles include a giant boulder in the middle of the road which has to be blown up using a pinch of nitroglycerin, a shaky bridge which the truck has to back onto in order to make a tricky turn and an oil lake.

    I believe there is a newer DVD copy of this movie but I found an older DVD in the original French language and no subtitles. But thankfully, three important sequences in the film are in English -- the meeting between Jo and the American boss, the discussion of the oil field fire and explanation of the dangers of the nitroglycerin transfer. This is all the information I needed because after the 45 minute mark when the two trucks head out on their mission, the tension of the situation kept me riveted and I hardly noticed time pass by or the fact that I could not understand most of the words. Such is the power of the images, the editing and camera work that words can't compete with the beauty of what is put on screen.

    Plus there are plenty of scenes which are just wonderful to watch. One such sequence involves Mario and Jo sitting in the local bar when Luigi (another person who gets picked to be one of the 4 drivers) asks the barmaid to dance.

    Mario is upset as this is the woman that he likes.

    Jo decides to stop the music.

    At first Luigi is startled but within a second he continues singing the song and dancing, much to the delight of the other patrons who clearly support Luigi.

    Nothing fancy about this scene but it is so free flowing and full of life.

    Some side effects of oil..

    Film: Keepers of Eden (2007, USA, Director Yoram Porath)

    The oil lake shown in Wages of Fear shows one of the side effects of oil pipelines and drilling is that oil could accidentally spill over. It becomes more dangerous when this spilled oil finds a way into a water supply. The documentary Keepers of Eden shows nauseating scenes of the harmful effects of oil tainting fresh water supply resulting in skin diseases and sores in people who use the water source. The areas shown in the film are some sections of the Amazon in Ecuador.

    Keepers of Eden shows that the blame not only lies with big oil but with a government that rushes to allow oil companies to move in. In Caribe Vicente tries to argue that there are ways for oil companies to be "eco-friendly". Ofcourse, he did not believe that himself but he was speaking those words because he needed the money from big oil. He eventually decides that he can't sell his soul but what the film showed was that in certain circumstances even a proud local like Vicente was willing to forget the environment because of the money offered. And that is the problem really. Oil means money. Why else was Daniel Plainview so eager to drill in There Will be Blood and switched over to oil exploration from gold/silver hunting? And when the bottom line is money, then sadly the environment and other safety measures take a back-seat. A few years ago, the cause of the environment was put forth and it seemed that someone would listen. But as each passing day goes by and the price of oil dominates the media headlines, it is hard to believe that events/scenes shown in Caribe & Keepers of Eden won't continue to repeat themselves.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    I See Book, You See Movie!

    A few days after I finished Roberto Saviano's wonderful book Gomorrah, I found out that a fictional movie based on the book was in the Cannes competition line-up. Last night, I came across a book Johnny Mad Dog by the Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala. I had never heard of the book or the author but the sale price of $0.50 (yes that's right, 50 cents!!) was too good to pass up. And today, I discover that a movie based on the book is playing in the festival's Un Certain Regard section. Interesting coincidences. Hmm, what other books can I discover in the next 11 days before the Cannes festival is over?

    Although, I have no excuses for the Jose Saramago book Blindness. I started reading the book about two years ago but never finished it. And today Fernando Meirelles' film version opened the Cannes festival. I am still not sure if I will finish the book before I tackle the film.

    Wednesday, May 07, 2008

    Tsai Ming-liang: Taiwan to KL

    Shifting location from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur:

    Tsai Ming-liang returns to his birth country Malaysia to make his first feature outside of Taiwan. For good measure he transports his cinematic character Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) to hot & humid Kuala Lumpur.

    At the film's start, the rain has stopped and leaves an empty building packed with water.

    After getting beat up by a bunch of street thugs, Hsiao-kang is rescued by a group of Bangladeshi workers who let him stay with them. One of them (below) takes a special interest in Hsiao-kang.

    But Hsiao-kang does not recognize the love showered upon him and instead chases women around the city.

    It may be a different city but loneliness follows him around, along with a few quirky affairs.

    Will there be more adventures for Hsiao-kang? I certainly hope so as I have not tired of his characters in Tsai Ming-liang's features.

    Here's a recap of the older films:
    [Correction added: I keep making the mistake of using Lee Kang-sheng's name everywhere as opposed to using his character's name of Hsiao-kang. Since the character's name is hardly (or never?) spoken in the movies, I blur the line between the two.]

    A teenager rebels:

    1992's wonderful Rebels of the Neon God shows a young Hsiao-kang developing a crush and getting jealous. But before he fell for the girl, he was angered by an act of vandalism directed towards his father. Despite his young age, he is patient and quietly waits to extract his revenge. In the end, he feels a tinge of guilt for his actions yet continues along his drifting ways. His relationship with his parents is starting to crumble as he is rebelling against society and himself -- he drops out of school and uses the money to spend time at arcades and wander aimlessly around the city.

    Love and a place to stay:

    Lee Kang-sheng's character has grown up slightly when we meet him next in 1994's Vive L'Amour. He now has a job, being a door to door salesman. Ofcourse, he is still as mischievous as ever. During a job visit, he finds a key hanging outside an apartment door. He quietly snags the key and sneaks in one night to find an empty apartment. The vacant apartment is in the process of being sold with the realtor (May Lin played by Yang Kuei-Mei) dropping by occasionally to show it to prospective clients or to use the place for her own sexual acts. It turns out that May Lin's lover (Ah-Jung played by Chen Chao-jung) also uses the apartment as a place to stay. So both Ah-Jung and Hsiao-kang find themselves as unexpected room-mates. While Ah-Jung is able to satisfy his desires with May Lin, Hsiao-kang finds pleasure by spying on the two making love and gratifying himself. But all three characters are extremely lonely in the vast and cold city. At the start of the movie, we find Hsiao-kang attempting suicide. His appetite for life is slightly increased thanks to the unexpected encounter with Ah-Jung.

    A strange illness:

    At the start of The River (1997), Hsiao-kang is quietly heading towards a department store. A girl heading down the escalator recognizes him and the two hang out together. This chance encounter proves to be fatal for Hsiao-kang. While tagging along with the girl, he finds himself at a film-shoot and is asked to play the role of an extra -- the film's director wants him to play a dead body floating in the river. Hsiao-kang is reluctant to play the role because the river appears to be 'filthy'. Still he agrees and is very convincing playing a dead body floating away. But shortly after that role, he develops a strange itch in his neck. Gradually, the itch develops into a mysterious illness which takes over him -- he is in constant pain and wants to die. His worried father is willing to try anything to cure his son but Hsiao-kang's condition gets worse.

    In this film, we truly get to see a different side to Hsiao-kang's parents -- we get to see his father's secrets and observe his mother's day to day life. The illness that inflicts Hsiao-kang temporarily brings the parents together but it is clear their lives are drifting away. And a strange encounter between father and son also ensures that the two won't ever see eye to eye.

    Rain & cue music:

    In 1998's The Hole Taiwan is getting pounded by heavy rainfall on the eve of the year 2000. Most apartments are suffering from leaky ceilings. A plumber comes to a man's (Lee Kang-sheng who is credited in the movie as just "the man upstairs") apartment to check for leaks. But the plumber makes a big hole in the man's living room. Lee Kang-sheng still plays a lonely character like in the other Tsai Ming-liang movies. One night, he returns home terribly drunk. After he stumbles in his apartment, he throws up over the hole.

    The results of his drunken exploits find their way to the apartment below. Needless to say, the woman living downstairs is not amused. "The woman downstairs" is played by Kuei-Mei Yang, another familiar face found in Tsai Ming-liang films.

    Both the man upstairs and woman downstairs are lonely. Eventually, the two start finding a common bond with each other. The hole which is a cause of dispute ends up being a salvation for both.

    Musical numbers -- This is the first Tsai Ming-liang film where musical numbers make an appearance. Such musical dances later show up in The Wayward Cloud as well but they got a start here.

    The numbers provide some humour and respite away from the bleakness of the character's situations. The dance songs are shown from the woman's perspective as her feelings are mirrored in the song lyrics.

    Another job and a real love:

    Hsiao-kang's father passes away in 2001's What Time is it there?. While Hsiao-kang is not too concerned with his father's death, his mother is convinced the father's ghost visits them. Also the flooding problem in the apartment that the mother had fixed in The River mysteriously returns. Hsiao-kang has found a new job selling watches on a skywalk. One day a girl (Shiang-chyi) wants to buy his personal watch which has dual times. At first he is reluctant to part with the watch but eventually gives it to her. The girl tells him she is leaving for Paris the next day. After she leaves, Hsiao-kang is obsessed with Paris and the thought of that woman. He goes about changing all the watches around him (and even in the city) to reflect Parisian time. Meanwhile, Shiang-chyi is lonely and having a hard time adjusting to life in Paris.

    This film is the first clear reflection of Tsai Ming-liang's influence. Just like François Truffaut used the same actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to play the role of Antoine Doinel in multiple films, Tsai is doing the same with Lee Kang-sheng (playing the character of Hsiao-kang). The one difference is the character of Lee Kang-sheng has gone on for more than 16 years and multiple films while Antoine Doinel was used in three films over a period of 11 years. In What time is it there? Hsiao-kang watches The 400 Blows and falls in love with the film, while Shiang-chyi comes across an older Jean-Pierre Léaud on a bench in Paris. One cinematic circle is tied.....

    The girl returns:

    The short film The Skywalk is gone (2002, 26 minutes) is an epilogue to What Time is it there?. Shiang-chyi returns from Paris to discover that the skywalk where she bought the watch from is gone. In the absence of the skywalk, she attempts to cross the heavy traffic road and gets a ticket from a traffic police officer. Somewhow, she loses her id card as the officer was giving her a ticket. The loss of her id card is a symbolic reflection of her mental state -- she is at a loss because the missing skywalk represented a link to her past life in the city.

    Near the end of the short, Hsiao-kang makes an appearance. He crosses paths with Shiang-chyi as he is going upstairs in an underground pathway. But Shiang-chyi does not recognize him and continues walking. Hsiao-kang stops, turns around and ponders. But he has no time to chase after her as he has a job interview to rush to.

    Watermelon and sex:

    What is Hsiao-kang's next job? We see him giving a nervous interview to be a porn actor at the end of The Skywalk is gone. He does not perform very well in the interview but the start of 2005's The Wayward Cloud finds him pleasuring women while eating a juicy watermelon all in front of a camera crew. So he must have impressed his employer somehow!

    Fade to black, end of film, theater shutdown:

    2003's Good Bye, Dragon Inn shows a theater running its final shows before the inevitable shutdown. We see how the movie hall goes from days when it was completely packed to the modern time when only a few film buffs bother showing up. The once polished cinema is now falling apart and the rains causes water to flood the hall floors. Lee Kang-sheng only has a brief cameo playing the theater projectionist. One can imagine his character, Hsiao-kang, working this job as a secondary stint to his porn star career. In fact, given Hsiao-kang's past behaviour, I would not put it past him to splice the film with shocking images from other films, a la Tyler Durden (Fight Club).

    Curtains down. Rain drops.