The General Specific
AFS Essential Cinema explores the singularities and commonalities of the human experience
By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 29, 2009
The pages of my passport mock me with the paltry number of stamps that document my international comings and goings. Yet I know that despite such evidence to the contrary, I am a world traveler. This is because I have gone to the movies throughout my life, and not just the movies that arrive by way of Hollywood, movies made by my fellow Americans in American-bred idioms: cowboys and Indians; cops and robbers; songs and dance; love discovered, thwarted, and denied. Nor am I talking about seeing Casablanca, Paris, and Timbuktu as imagined on a Hollywood soundstage. The experiences I'm referencing come from watching movies from around the world, films made by inhabitants of other cultures, films drenched in the sights and sounds of "elsewhere." Although there's an undeniably ethnographic lure, the pleasures of these films are often smaller and more specific. Differences and commonalities among global communities can be made vivid. Fragments can linger lovingly in the memory like a cherished souvenir. This summer the Austin Film Society's Essential Cinema film series visits the Asian continent, with stops in Mongolia, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Japan, and numerous excursions into China. So it's time to prepare your carry-on bags for some distant journeys.
On the plains of Mongolia, a young boy discovers a Ping-Pong ball gleaming in a nearby stream. He has no idea what the orb is, never having heard of the game. He and his friends are entranced by the mysterious object. His grandmother assures him it's a glowing pearl belonging to spirits up the river. Others tell him it's good for nothing but plugging up rat holes. In Mongolian Ping Pong, this unknown object grows from a curious plaything into a fetishized item when the children hear a random mention of Ping-Pong during a fuzzy TV report seen via a satellite dish (which is seemingly made out of hubcaps and beer cans). There's no game footage, only the newscaster's mention of Ping-Pong as the "national ball." Thinking that they have in their hands a precious national treasure – the national ball being the equivalent of the panda being the national animal – the kids take off from home to return the ball to the government in Beijing, certain that officials are looking for their lost artifact.
Watching these films can sometimes make one feel like the children in Mongolian Ping Pong: confident yet lost in a world of inferred meaning and skewed context. But we also see how exposure to the world beyond one's own immediate horizons can expand personal knowledge and understanding. A further delight is the way in which electronic images can aid in information dissemination. Not only do the kids learn about the "national ball" from a rickety TV transmission, but they are also fueled by a band of traveling entertainers and merchants who project a newsreel that shows people playing the unheard of game of golf. Maybe their mysterious orb is a golf ball. Information may not always lead to truth, but it usually leads somewhere. You never know going in to a movie what you may ultimately take away.
For example, one image I can't get out of my head is the strange-to-my-eyes sight of a sick baby camel seated in the handcrafted wooden sidecar of a veterinarian's motorcycle in Tulpan. The man and the animal are traveling across the Kazakhstan steppe back to the vet's infirmary as the camel's upset mother belligerently traipses after them the whole way. It's heartwarming, comical, universal, and specific all at the same time. Tulpan is appropriately the series opener, a movie which, if nothing else, will provide a cinematic view of Kazakhstan that has nothing to do with our goofy Borat associations. It's an almost indescribable movie, more ethnographic than narrative, a story about a young man forging his identity and about a young, de-Sovietized country finding its voice. The climax of the film is an extended dramatic yet documentary sequence of a lamb being born. Unforgettable.
Far from the birth of farm animals, another film shows us the unforgettable horror of a human baby being sold by her father. That film is Stolen Life, a Chinese confessional drama about a young woman's obsessive love, which eventually goes awry. Writes Director of Programming Chale Nafus in his introduction to the series: "Naturally, love plays a big role in many of the films. The themes include looking for a wife in a desolate area, finding a mother in a war-torn region, growing up in Mongolia, finding love in retreats far away from war, realizing that the joys of life may be right at home, making sacrifices for a dying child, discovering the evil beneath a smile, searching for one's children in a big city, and sharing a love of cinema." Putting it like this makes the films sound as though they could come from anywhere on earth, so universal are the situations and predicaments. The differences are in the details, the scenery, the cultural beliefs and attitudes.
The Chinese film In Love We Trust could not be more up-to-the-minute in terms of the bioethical dilemmas it presents. When a child's only chance for survival is a bone-marrow transplant and neither of her parents are a match, the mother strives to bear another child whose blood would have a good chance of compatibility with her sick daughter's nine months henceforth. Complicating the situation is the fact that she and the child's biological father have both remarried, so she must convince her ex-husband and both of their spouses of the necessity of her decision. And then there is also China's one-child policy of family planning that would have to be sidestepped. Questions about the future of a child brought into the world as a life preserver for another also come into play. On the frontiers of biology, will our forms of love also mutate? Amid the complexity of new possibilities afforded by the advances of medical science, it's almost reassuring to see such things as a pile of Chinese nudie magazines in the sperm donation center: a familiar sight made culturally specific.
A Peck on the Cheek, a 2002 film from India, is a marvelous melodrama that helps shed some deeper understanding on the more than 30-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the militant secessionist Tamil Tigers, who coincidentally conceded final defeat a mere few weeks ago. Although the film predictably contains some of the type of song-and-dance numbers (with music by Slumdog Millionaire's A.R. Rahman) that we associate with traditional Bollywood films, A Peck on the Cheek mixes it with a strong pacifist statement. The destruction and untold casualties of the decades-long terrorist actions of the Tamil Tigers and the diaspora of the Tamil citizenry are related in human rather than political terms. A young girl who seeks the truth about her parentage is both enlightened and horrified by what she learns.
Also in the series are a couple of rediscovered films by Japanese director Shimizu Hiroshi, which are the only movies in this collection that were not made in the current millennium. The Masseurs and a Woman dates from 1938 and Ornamental Hairpin from 1941, and with running times of approximately 70 minutes each, they will be shown together on a double bill. Both are lyrical stories with lovely compositions set in country resorts far from the urban turmoil of the impending world war.
The Asian experience offered by this series spans a huge continent and several time periods. What it offers are perspectives on the singularities and commonalities of the human experience. And it may be one of your only opportunities to experience the incredible sight of a rainbow across the Mongolian steppe.
Love on the Largest Continent: Ten Asian Films
Films screen Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar). Admission is free for AFS members and $6 for nonmembers. For more info, visit www.austinfilm.org.
June 2: Tulpan
June 9: A Peck on the Cheek (Kannathil Muthamittal)
June 16: Mongolian Ping Pong (Lu Cao Di)
June 23: The Masseurs and a Woman (Anma to Onna) & Ornamental Hairpin (Kanzashi)
June 30: Travellers and Magicians
July 7: In Love We Trust (Zuo You)
July 14: Stolen Life (Sheng Si Jie)
July 21: Luxury Car (Jiang Cheng Xia Ri)
July 28: Electric Shadows (Meng Ying Tong Nian)