Monday, 18 May 2009

Caramel & Sell Out!

I watched Caramel some time ago, a Lebanese movie by first-time director Nadine Labaki (who also wrote the screenplay and acted as the lead character Layale). The title refers to the confectionery that is used as a wax at the parlour (ouch!), and is a metaphor for the bittersweetness of life and love. There isn't a prominent plot arch: the film simply centers around a few women who work in an unremarkable Beirut beauty parlour, and explores their relationships with various clients, friends, family members and love interests.

It's very much a small-scale, art house movie; its low-fi, understated approach is very apparent (and effective) throughout. Most of the movie is set in prosaic interiors or along cramped city streets; don't watch it expecting any stunning panoramic shots. Despite its art house approach however, I never felt like I was watching an avant garde artist's experiment in film or a socio-political documentarian's exposé (not that I have any problems watching those). The movie's production values are wonderfully strong, the camerawork polished and the cast consummate.

All the characters (even the minor ones) were engaging, convincing and endearing, and before long they were tugging my heartstrings. They opened a window to a mesmerising and wonderful world which I would otherwise have no access to, and through their stories, I learnt much about the society they live in. I learnt, for example, that like in Malaysia there are Lebanese who live in the same area but can barely communicate with each other due to different first languages (Arabic and French in their case). I learnt that there is a large, active Catholic population in Lebanon (or at least Beirut) which lives and works alongside the Muslim population there.

I found out all this and more unwittingly, almost subimally—I never felt preached to, which was wonderful. The movie never took on any grand theme it couldn't handle. It was neither a telling of "The Great Story of Lebanon", or an exploration of the role of women in Muslim and/or male-dominated Lebanon, or a study of religious and cultural plurality there. It was really just about a few ordinary women who happen to live in Beirut.

Another highly enjoyable aspect of the movie was how much was conveyed without a single word uttered. Whole scenarios were evoked without any verbal explanation. I could understand what problems the main characters were facing (for example Layale's affair) by merely looking at their faces and actions. I could detect worry, joy, love, fear, longing, pain, apprehension and relief in the subtlest of expressions and movements.

This economy of speech created an impression of authenticity: the scenes, emotions, problems and relationships felt real rather than staged or forced, because none of the women in the movie go babbling on about their feelings and problems to their close friends—in real life, your close friends (should) already know your problems and how you feel. For a first time director and script-writer, this approach to story-telling is truly a sign of self-control and talent (Hollywood scriptwriters and directors: please, please take note).

I cannot fault the acting here. Even the outrageous characters were portrayed with restraint and never turned into over the top caricatures. Jamale (played by Gisèle Aouad), the post-menopausal out-of-work actress and Lili (played by Aziza Semaan), the paper-collecting crackpot, were both hilarious and absolute pleasures to watch on screen. The editing, however, is imperfect at times, as scenes don't always flow well, but this shortcoming is minor compared to the movie's many strenghts.

For a first venture, the film showed great wisdom and compassion, and even managed what few dramas do: convey the universality of the human (in this case female) experience without turning into an NGO pamphlet. Ms. Labaki not only showed potential but exhibited the skill and talent of a far more experienced film-maker, and I will definitely be looking out for more work by her.

Sell Out!
Another movie I watched recently was indie comedy and part-musical, Sell Out! by Malaysian director Yeo Joon Han. It's been getting some international attention, and is also a first feature length effort, but unlike Caramel, subtlety is neither the movie's strong point nor its aim, and the absense of traditional plot is even more prominent here.

From the very first scenes you can tell the movie aims to be absurd and satirical. It opens with Rafflesia Pong, the female lead, interviewing (the real) Yeo Joon Han about his (fictitious) film: Love is Love is Love is Not Something Else for her (very unpopular) arts show on Fony TV11.

From then on, it's a zippy farce all the way to the end (in a good way). The movie deliberately pokes fun at everything that comes along its way (and a few things which don't). There are no sacred cows: the arts community, indie films, directors, film awards, musicals, eurasians, soya beans, originality, Chinese mediums, Chinese names, taxi cabs, surrealism, doctors, bosses, conglomerates, shopping centre assistants, cashiers, wealth, reality tv, accents, families, love, sickness, suicide, old people and even death is on the chopping block, with joke after joke rolling along regardless of its value (and sometimes, even relevance).

The male lead is Eric Tan, a half-English inventor working in Fony Corporation's Engineering Department who has created a machine which can turn soya beans into, well, everything that comes from soya beans, really. Problem is, his bosses insist the machine is too good: he needs to insert a mechanism which will wreck it after the warranty period is over before they'll agree to produce it, hence Eric's dilemma which is the main premise behind the movie. I found the theme easy to relate to, but wished it was more thoroughly explored.

Eric is played by Peter Davies, and I personally found him to be a charming character (albeit unemotional) with his boyish good looks, impeccable manners and a troubled Conscience (unfortunately for Eric, not just a little voice inside his head), and, unlike his bosses, I liked his "half English" a lot. He (or at least a part of him) likes Rafflesia (quite convincingly played by Jerrica Lai), a hardened, somewhat bitchy host who's jaded with "those over-rated underachievers we call artists" who also works for Fony Corp. Unlike Eric, her heart's been numbed long ago and she's in fact simply wishing for an opportunity to sell out (which comes in the way of a dying ex-boyfriend).

You'll either find Sell Out!'s farcical self-depreciation and satire hilarious, and thus forgive its intentionally higgledy-piggledy style, or find it impossible to swallow from the start, and thus find its shortcomings glaring and quirks exasperating. I don't recommend it if you merely "tolerate" art house/indie/experimental films. And if any of those adverbs gives you rashes, avoid this one like the plague. But the movie is undoubtedly and unashamedly Malaysian and is a worthy addition to our growing film landscape (unfortunately, there were only 2 other people in the entire cinema when I watched it!). If you watch indie movies all the time, you'll find the movie (and its abundant inside jokes) a riot!

And oh yes, the characters sing in the movie (a bit la).

Note: I don't think either movies are still playing but look out for the DVDs!


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