Sunday, September 25, 2016

Manuel Conde at 100: Genghis Khan (original 1950's version)

Manuel Conde is, in a manner of speaking, one of the pioneers of Filipino independent filmmaking. His films, made outside the influence of the studios of the day (Sampaguita, LVN, et. al.,) were imaginative, ahead of their time, and also socially conscious. Unfortunately, a lot of these films (and many films from the era) were lost to time due to inadequate systems for film presentation. The films that made it to the present day are mostly hailed as classics. To celebrate his body of work and legacy, the CCP, the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA) and the NCCA put together a short series of screenings of some of these films.

One of Conde's most well known films is Genghis Khan, released in 1950. It has the distinction of being the first Filipino film to be released in a foreign film festival. In this case, it was in Venice. The international cut of the film was  restored in recent years, but that version has English dialogue dubbed over it, and over 20 minutes was cut from the film. This screening was for the original Filipino version, and this is more or less how Filipino audiences would have viewed it in the fifties. It's recorded from an old VHS copy, and the sound is a bit spotty. Long story short, it's still a great film, and I can see why it's considered a classic.

Genghis Khan is a dramatization of the historical figure's life as he rises to power. Historical accuracy was not the aim of the film; at several times in the movie our titular hero, a Mongol, wears a Samurai kabuto as his headpiece. The movie frames him as a shrewd leader, possessing Filipino traits like utang na loob. Conde's Khan is vengeful but listens to reason, and in the end is probably not as rapey and pillagey as the real thing.

This is a film where I can't simply say that it's a product of its time. On the contrary, - its structure and themes are unique for its time period. It's a mix of comedy, drama and swashbuckling action that is uniquely Filipino. Superficially, one is tempted to compare the film to sprawling epics produced by the Hollywood studio system at the same time. One might make the mistaken judgement that this film is inferior compared to those behemoths, as the film was shot on the smallest of budgets. That judgement could not be farther from the truth. Instead, the end product is wildly entertaining, partly thanks to Conde's team of collaborators, many of them National Artists themselves. This original cut is far superior to the cut with the English voiceover - it's almost like watching a different film.

There was also a small discussion at the end of the screening, which included a short presentation on the impact of the film and comparisons to other adaptations of Genghis Khan's life, and a session with actor/director/comedian Jun Urbano, who is actually Manuel Conde's eldest son. The post screening programs were almost as entertaining as the film itself. The various clips of the other Genghis Khan adaptations includes a 40's Japanese film that could double as propaganda, a Bollywood song and dance interpretation of the material, and clips from a horrible Hollywood adaptation starring John Wayne, channeling his inner hammy Mongolian cowboy with every frame.

Today's screening was a whole lot of fun. Next week we go from Mongolia to Vietnam as the CCP screens Conde's 1956 film Krus na Kawayan.

The CCP Dream Theater will screen more films by Conde on October 1 and October 8. Admission is free.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Godzilla Resurgence

The Kaiju film genre was born with Ishiro Honda's 1954 film Godzilla; though earlier filmic examples existed in other countries, none helped plant the genre firmly into the ground more than this film. After a long hiatus, a Japanese-made Godzilla returns to the big screen - and the results are quite astonishing.

Shin Gojira, otherwise known as Godzilla: Resurgence, follows a rather simple premise on the surface: a large reptilian monster emerges from the sea and wreaks havoc as it walks through Japan. Meanwhile, the Japanese government tries to figure out a way to stop the monster before other governments decide to use drastic measures to stop it.

Godzilla Resurgence is a prime example of how a classic concept can be re-conceptualized for modern times. The original 1954 film was both monster movie and a cautionary tale warning us against excessive hubris: lessons learned by Japan after the war and the horror of the atomic bombs. Godzilla then was the personification of the dangers of nuclear energy and atomic weaponry; more a force of nature that humans can neither control nor understand completely. With the new film, we see images that strongly evoke memories of the recent Great Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, wounds still fresh in the minds of the Japanese. We see government officials covering up various things about the disaster and releasing statements to the press to save face or to try to reassure the public. We see the proliferation of videos and information on social media, something that would never have happened in the 1954 film.

And yet, even in this new context, many things still remain the same. Much of Godzilla Resurgence is framed in meetings and conferences, usually in government halls, as officials try to make sense of the entire situation. Godzilla now becomes a walking, fire spewing Fukushima nuclear disaster, and this time the film wisely places the spotlight on the Japanese government, who now becomes both Japan's greatest hero and enemy. The inefficient response of the government, and its unwillingness to break from common thinking, proves costly. The old government is shackled with traditional politics, paralyzed from decades of stagnation and shortsightedness.

One would think that a monster movie that elects to base its story on a bunch of meetings would be extremely boring, but this is hardly the case. One couldn't have picked a better pair of directors for the film. Shinji Higuchi's experiences with Kaiju and Tokusatsu productions (notably a number of Gamera movies, and the recent Attack on Titan live action adaptation) gives the film a realistic feel with a combination of miniatures and CGI.  Hideaki Anno's experience with Evangelion proves valuable here. In many ways the film's structure resembles Operation Yashima from episodes 5 and 6 of the anime, and remade in Evangelion 1.0, where the entirety of Japan collaborates to defeat an enemy. Resurgence is edited briskly, much like Anno's other live action forays, using interesting camera angles to help ratchet up the tension. This is complemented with a soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu that reminds one of both the 1954 original film and recycles certain tracks from the Evangelion soundtrack (which Sagisu also composed).

The film's themes also touch upon nationalism.  As Godzilla ravages Tokyo, it's only when a more proactive government takes over that things begin to change. The film challenges the current political system of Japan to challenge its own status quo and have a bit more political will in dealing with threats and disasters - and this includes asserting sovereignty, especially when dealing with foreign powers. It emphasizes the need for the people of Japan (and even the world) to come together in solidarity, because the filmmakers know that the Japanese are tenacious, and a world that works together can defeat even an immortal mutant dinosaur.

Godzilla Resurgence is pretty amazing, and there are many aspects to it that are uniquely Japanese. It's a worthy addition to the body of Godzilla films, a fantastic reimagining of the franchise, and a fun film overall.