Category Archives: Critique

The Foolish Bird (2017)

January 29, 2019
[Review]

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Set against the backdrop of contemporary China’s technocratic and dissimulated culture industry, Ji Huang and Ryuji Otsuka’s contemplatively paced film The Foolish Bird (2017) articulates a moral gaze towards China’s disgruntled and alienated youth, a sector fully consolidated into China’s technocratic system. It argues on the surface that the problems of youth sector is symptomatic of a bigger societal problem: the displacement of the family structure in China’s aggressive development as an imperialist state. As a whole, the film particularly sketches a cautionary rationalization of the youth’s alienated condition.

In the film, Lynn is the ‘foolish bird’, a sixteen year old high-school, who, like many Chinese children and adolescents of contemporary China, is left behind in the custody of her grandparents while her parents work in urban centres far away from home. Without any traditional family structure regulating her activities, Lynn is free to roam the streets at night, to join overnight parties, and also to engage in illegal activities such as smuggling and reselling of confiscated cellular phones in her school.

However, The Foolish Bird’s style may not be entirely moralizing. Its stylistics says otherwise. Instead of using the suture effect of popular cinema, it places a camera from a distance, as if witnessing, while also maintaining a meticulously observant image of subjects in the execution of its shallow shots. In general, its cinematographic effect attempts a kind of fragile realism keenly self-aware of its function of distancing in the film. Ji Huang and Ryuji Otsuka is careful not to disturb the rhythmic passage of time and distort the spatial design of the film that fully grounds it to the Chinese social sphere.

The film’s aporia is its insistence of a place – Lynn’s place, a mobile place, a woman’s place, impermanent yet vacuous, a place which is always already under erasure. Lynn is a mobile bird looking for a home, looking for love, and yet, she ended up in the wrong side of law, in the wrong side of social order, wrong company of people, which gradually accumulated into a host of other problems. The film narrative is an accumulation of Lynn’s mistakes, seemingly putting her into blame – ‘here is Lynn and she made mistakes because of her foolishness’ – a bird whose adolescent awkwardness lacks the social imagination of a mature adult persona. Shall we blame her for her mistakes? Maybe, but the film argues otherwise.

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As the film waltz into the realm of the sexual – Lynn, who insisted that she was raped, tries to recover a first experience, maybe perhaps to justify her pregnancy, to erase her pregnancy due to rape, she invites her lover for sexual tryst which ended up badly. She was humiliated after her lover discovered that she is not a virgin. She cried, yet while her lover disowns her over her non-virginity, we do not see the lover. Her lover is off-camera; her face filling-up the dimensions of screen. What we are witnessing is a complex image of a young woman in the face of patriarchal forces at work: her immediate patriarchal family unit, who never really cared for her; the law and its punitive institutions; the male ego and its privileging of the virginal woman; the Chinese state and its total neglect of the plight of its women.

As a character study, The Foolish Bird is inclined to deconstruct the idea of the heroine, by deploying a realism the shatters any form of mysticism of Lynn’s character. She is not an avenging angel, but she knows the idea of justice, the idea of oppression. We see her act according to her means, her own resources in pursuing a kind of social investigation into the toxic masculinity that runs in her neighbourhood. She is fragile yet persisting; she is determined to cast a stone on her oppressors. She works alone, but she is not anti-social; she cares for her friend May, who, like her, was also raped in the same party that she attended, and, as a result, led to her friend’s suicide. She also care for her lover. Yet she is, most of the time, a figure of independence.

Lynn is not the foolish bird at all that the film insists. She is the face of China’s disenfranchised youth sector, a sector bullied by its own patriarchal structure. Like the disenfranchised youth of Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), the film constructs the youth as an expression of critique of China’s contemporary social conditions. Lynn’s conflicts has also revealed the extent of debt economy in her local. Chinese government’s conservative control of its technocratic enterprise has led Lynn to consider smuggling phones. Indeed, it shows that the means of subsistence of Lynn’s immediate family is not enough to allow her to afford luxuries. She earns extra cash from re-selling confiscated phones, while in the process accumulating debt. In the end, when she was caught, her grandfather has to pay 4,000 yuans to her classmates, who were the rightful owners of the confiscated phones, just to appease their parents. This amount have proven to be difficult to accumulated given their desolate economic status.

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Ji Huang and Ryuji Otsuka’s The Foolish Bird is more than an expression of foolishness of Chinese youth. It is an expression of anger. With its slow pacing, the figure of anger builds up, slowly constructing a singular image of the disenfranchised women of China, effaced, silenced, and under erasure by the patriarchy that discombobulate her. What could be her future? At the end of the film, Lynn, overwhelmed by her fate, threw her phone on the river. As Lynn bikes away from the audience, she is still a bird but definitely not a foolish one anymore. The film’s ending seems to suggest a radical opening, a defiance, but a defiance of what? The technocratic state and its patriarchal conduits? The film does not resolve this fact. Instead, it unfolds in the open.

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Edel Garcellano on Cinema // Étienne Balibar on Critique in the 21st Century

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Films do not allow for long-term, liberative transformation. If they did, the Filipino movie fan would have drastically altered the politico-social landscape. It is precisely on this premise of ideological ambiguations that the Frankfurt School started to question the so-called “culture industry” and its power or non-power to lead us to greener pastures. We know better: popular culture delivered via the electronic and print media has made us laugh ourselves to death.

– From Interventions (PUP Press: 1998, p.245)


Garcellano/Balibar on the Erasure and Disavowal of Violence as Violence

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Photo from here

Balibar:

I would say that what seems to characterize the world-scale dimensions [la mondialité] of the ‘crisis’ – which is at once local and global, and is not foreign to the eschatological connotations it takes on in our discourses and conscience – is the superposition of two ‘phenomena’ that seem at first sight heterogeneous, but that we can try to relate to one another in a quasi-analytical, or perhaps pseudo-analytical, schema. The first is the emergence of an economy of generalized violence that cuts across borders and combines endemic wars with other forms of exterminating violence – indeed, eliminating violence, since what is involved is not death in the strict sense, even if there are at this moment many deaths, under different modalities. [9] Exclusion, for example, or, perhaps even better, to use the category that Saskia Sassen recently deployed with impressive force and scope, the generalized expulsion of individuals and groups from their ‘place’ in the world, in any world whatever. [10] No one doubts that violence is immemorial, that it assumes myriad forms and has myriad causes, or that it is an anthropological characteristic of the human being as such. But the violence that seems able to cut across any and every border, and indeed to use borders themselves as the instruments of its own generalization, is in a way a new phenomenon whose novelty rests on the fact that every person may in time be potentially confronted by it. (link)

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A still from The Fatima Buen Story (Mario O’Hara / PH / 1994)

Garcellano:

In a sense, Fatima Buen is symptomatic of how violence in Philippine cinema has worked to the entrenchment of fascist powers as well as state discourse on aesthetics and functions, where the disavowal of violence is the very affirmation of it, thus enabling the consuming public to suffer violence, denounce it, and accept it once more in a ritual so catatonic as visiting the Church every Sun– day where redemption is implied on a seemingly recurrent cycle. It is precisely on the banalization through repetition that the state machine replenishes itself, energizes itself, and rules the crowd in a never-ending turn, as it were, of the bizarre carousel of life, death, ennui, eros.

[…]

Such a film as Fatima Buen in fact supplements the denial of liberative violence, rechanneling eros and visions toward the extra-communal formulation of violence. Redemption — as in most Filipino films — is a personalized, and apolitical concern and does not trace itself to the hegemonic order that triggers it.

Interventions (PUP Press, 1998, p.244)

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Hello 2017!

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Dropping by to say hi!  This note is intended to be short, just a run down on what happened to me these past few weeks of the year and some updates on my research on Lav Diaz:

  • At last, after two and half years, I’m done with my coursework for MA Media Studies (Film) last December 2016. I am currently awaiting for the decision of the Graduate Studies Department of UP CM if whether I am indeed qualified to take the dreaded MA Candidacy Exam this coming February 2017. Wish me luck! 
  • UPDATE: MA MS (Film) Comprehensives exam will be on February 11! Shiet! I got 25 books and 10 films to speed read and speed watch in less than a month. I’ll be charting my progress here, so stay tune. Hope I can put some of my digests on chapters/essays here. Wish me luck for the compre exams.
  • Also, after being unemployed for two years, I already landed a job last August 2016. So there.
  • As for my research on Lav Diaz, I’m currently doing a historical study of Diaz in relation to technology and the political economic history of Philippine cinema, following the framework of cultural materialism/techno-criticism. It’ll be a baseline study wherein I can finally look into Lav Diaz beyond his aesthetics and content and dwell on the necessary historical problems that haunt his cinema. One of the main questions that I want to problematize in this study is what were the technological and socio-economic conditions what led to the emergence of Diaz’s long form style.
  • Will try to draft something for DLSU’s 8th KRITIKA: National Workshop on Art and Cultural Criticism 2017 due tomorrow, Jan 15 and KRITIKA KULTURA CRITICISM WORKSHOP due on March 15. I already have ready-made unpublished essays. I just have to refine them. Hopefully, I will not be too distracted tomorrow.

Let’s rock on for 2017! Goals for 2017: more publications, more conference, more blogpost,  more papers!

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The Monstrosity of Ars Colonia

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The soldier

First published in La Furia Umana (Paper Issue) 8, 2015.[1]

In answering the question: ‘What is Cinema Becoming?,’ I return to Raya Martin’s Ars colonia (2011). What I am after really is to find a line of critique – what is becoming in cinema – and to insist that there are no ‘beings’ in cinema, only ‘becomings.’ Consider this a ‘monstrous’ writing, a writing emerging from the back alleys of rhetorical writing, a polemical miscarriage, a vomit of words, an ejaculation of death… While the conventional road of linear discourse can acquaint me with nursed and dolled-up concepts about cinema, I insist on slippages of anything onto everything: netherworlds and farmworlds folding into the thickness of the vegetation; the thinness of the earth folding into rhizomes of the universe – an adieu au langage. One must open the language to let ‘becoming’ take place.

I return to Ars colonia to pay it a visit, to reconcile myself with its images. One night, I was half-awake in bed knotting thoughts upon thoughts: thinking, nursing a monster in my head, creating a dwelling place, a scary place, a decentered place, lingering and looming in the darkest corner of the mind – and it was there, the film becoming a nightmare, a monstrosity.

I return to Ars colonia not to write about it as a subject, but more of elaborating an encounter, a dream, a feeling, a memory of coming back, of coming into sense. I have been haunted again and again by the image of soldier walking at sea in Ars Colonia. I wonder why such a walk would involve a vast sea accompanied by islands. I wonder through and through, in sleeping and waking up, in lying in my bed, in my friend’s bed, in my lover’s bed with his arms wrap around me. I wonder about the soldier and sea and the islands and the explosions and the marching on and on and on… The film, although only one-minute in length, lengthened inside me to hours, days, weeks. It folded the past into my present. Its images distorted my thoughts like how all memories became – a forgetting. The gesture of walking, the feeling of the water brushing through the myriad spaces of the trousers, the weight of the metallic gear on the head – all form an assemblage of an Ars colonial soldier – a haunting, a ghost from the netherworld – I, myself, beginning and becoming the soldier in my dreams.

Ars colonia is a parcel of Martin’s labyrinth. As part of a labyrinth, one does not simply arrive in Ars colonia. One wakes up inside it, trapped and punctured by the lines and forces it bequeaths, for to experience is not to ‘be’ but to ‘become’. To see Ars colonia in its full state, one must ‘become’ the eye of a dreamer sleepwalking along its intersecting planes of virtualities. Ars colonia is an ‘and’ between Independencia (2009) and Buenas Noches, Espana (2011), two other labyrinths in Martin’s career. Ars colonia says goodbye to Independencia by walking out of it, carrying within its body remnants of colors from the last shot of Independencia: a sky etched with sanguine blood seemingly bridging and continuing towards the colored skies of Ars colonia; whereas Ars colonia’s hues and saturations continues towards Buenas Noches, Espana. In effect, Ars colonia becomes a short conduit between the two feature films. It is not, however, a bridge but a passageway, an underground tunnel buried beneath the surface of the earth. It is not a canal but a rhizome, a segment that transforms as it transports liquid. The color effect in the two films Independencia and Ars colonia achieves a tectonic state in Buenas Noches, Espana: as the latter film among the three, Buenas Noches, Espana settles the destiny of its colors by transforming it into an earthquake, a catastrophe of saturations, a chaos aimed to break the retina of the eye more than what Godard’s two films Film Socialisme (2010) and Adieu au Langage (2014) can do.

The Ars colonial landscape is choleric born from Martin’s etching of the celluloid with colored felt-tip pens. Martin suspends, via this process, the portraiture of the ‘old’ in the film, disturbing its supposed historical body with evasive coloring of the sky and the sea. In effect, the whole figurative landscape achieves a vibrational state, heaving and breathing, life-like but animated. The colors’ coarseness, its disruptive energy, leaves a trace of the past in the present. It is as if the artist’s manipulation of the color takes the shape of penetrative pulses of the present intervening the past.

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