Friday, March 12, 2010

The End of the Line

Every day the clock runs out on someone's life or some item's usefulness. Whether people die of natural causes or simply stop fighting a long, lingering illness, whether an object stops working or becomes obsolete, the end is nigh. What happens once a person's death (or an object's destruction) becomes inevitable is a delicate subject for dramatists and filmmakers. Some handle it better than others.
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Back in the 1980s, when many Filipinos started to find work as nurses in the United States, the government of President Ferdinand Marcos passed a law that would allow Filipinos living overseas to get a special tax-free rate on shipments of balikbayan boxes made out of corrugated cardboard that contained gifts for friends and relatives. After their arrival in the Philippines (by container ship or by air), the boxes are then delivered directly to the addressee, who is usually a family member.

In Larilyn Sanchez's five-minute video short entitled Balikbayan, the audience sees a blurry shot of an elderly woman's face and hears the noise of excited family members who have gathered to unpack the contents of a newly-arrived balikbayan box. What the audience soon learns is that the woman is dead (her daughter has sent the old woman's corpse home in a box stuffed with gifts for their relatives).

As the letter accompanying her mother's body is read aloud to the family, the author apologizes for not being able to accompany her mother's body to Manila (she's an overworked nurse and the round trip airfare is too expensive). Item by item, she details the clothes the corpse is wearing (indicating which relative should get each piece of apparel and jewelry) and goes on to list the gifts -- ranging from T-shirts to a Playstation -- that have been included in the shipment. Some are meant to be practical while others are toys that have been requested by various nieces and nephews in Manila.

There isn't much of visual interest in this short (which was included in a program of Classic Filipino American Shorts shown at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival). However, it tells a poignant story that might not be known to those outside of Filipino culture.

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Scrap Vessel (a 51-minute video directed by Jason Byrne) follows the course of a 32-year-old freighter, the Hari Funafuti (formerly named the Bulk Promotor and Hupohai) on its last voyage. Built in Norway in 1973 to transport coal and iron ore throughout Northern Europe, the ship was sold to mainland China in 1985 and used to distribute coal along the Yangtze River.

Filmmaker Jason Byrne and his cameraman, Theron Patterson, boarded the ship in Singapore and documented the Hupohai's final journey across the Indian Ocean to the coast of Bangladesh, an area known as a maritime graveyard. During their journey, Byrne filmed the Bangladeshi crew celebrating the New Year and found traces of the ship's former life.

An envelope filled with 35-mm negatives revealed pictures of the ship's former Chinese crew posing in different ports. A collection of film cans found in the engine room yielded old 16-mm Chinese movies that provided a look back toward a lost era of entertainment and Communist propaganda.

The best footage was shot at sea (looking down from the ship's prow as the bow cut through the water or from over the aft rail, looking at the wake of roiling foam created by the ship's propellers. Following the vessel's beaching, Byrne follows some of the scrap metal to the Ali Rolling Mill in Chittagong, where he films it being melted down and turned into smaller scraps.

While meant to be a meditative film about the death and dismantling of a oceangoing vessel, Scrap Vessel will be a major disappointment for ship lovers (especially those who have already seen the German documentary, Eisenfresser (Iron Eaters) that was shown at the 2009 San Francisco Docfest). There is far too much grainy footage shot within the bowels of the ship -- or at nighttime in Bangladesh -- that degrades the overall experience. Here's the trailer:

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A brief glance at the cast page for the American Conservatory Theatre's production of O Lovely Glowworm was enough to whet my curiosity. It read as follows:
"Place and time: The Goat's imagination. Now.

After being dead for an unknown number of years, the Goat has been revived in a sort of consciousness by an ever-increasing pain; but being blind, deaf, and alone, he has no idea where he currently is or what year it might be. However, it is important to note that the Goat spent nearly all of his more-robust life tethered to a post near a rubbish heap by a cottage outside Dublin between 1910 and 1924."
Jon Joseph Gentry and Philip Mills (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Unlike Edward Albee's award-winning 2002 drama, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, the shaggy beast at the center of Glen Berger's 2004 play is the object of nobody's lust. In his director's note, Alex Harvey writes about the mysterious animal at the center of O Lovely Glowworm:
"For an ancient creature, whose eyesight is gone, whose hearing is gone, whose sense of who he is, is gone -- the attempt to fight off that painful feeling of fracture is often thwarted. To keep the pain at bay, he scrapes the bottom of his consciousness, mixing memory and desire to concoct (in the frame of his mind's eye) nostalgic scenes of great beauty.

His attempt is thrown into chaos when the lovely music from the phonograph and those Utopian advertisement fantasies get cross wired with all the other scraps of the dawn of the [20th] century. Scraps of war, scraps of the dead, of love lost, limbs lost, innocence lost, of anonymous factory laborers dying alone, of brotherhood corroding -- despite the Goat's attempt to assemble a kind of mental bomb shelter of wholesomeness, he cannot escape the fracture that characterizes all things.

As a result, even his moments of beauty are mere shards. Heaven comes in quantized particles of light, mixed up with both hell and earth, and all else in between. Maybe, in the end, the good and the bad and the ugly become indistinguishable from one another in the great trash heap of existence, which might also be a glorious pile of treasure. The scenes of great beauty are of all types -- fierce beauty, compulsive beauty, foul beauty, incorporeal beauty, jocular beauty, ordinary beauty -- this play is indeed a mash-up of over-muchness.

Emily Kitchens as Philomel the Mermaid (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Even after the glowworm has been caught, chewed, digested, and shit out, it still glows -- it still goes on. Glowing on. and going on...are herein one and the same. O Lovely Glowworm can be daunting. What is the play about? Is it about a goat? A mermaid? World War I? Is it about a self-flushing toilet?"
I'll tell you what this play is about: It's about two hours too long.

Rather than referring to it as "a mash-up of over muchness," we should simply call it what it is: a fucking mess. Berger's bloated, self-indulgent folly is the kind of dramatic experience that leaves audiences with their fists clenched, praying for it to end only to discover that, indeed, there is no God.

David Jacobs as Halliwell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As performed by members of A.C.T.'s 2010 Master of Fine Arts program, this production was notable for three achievements:
  1. As always, Melpomene Katakalos challenged the audience with her junk-inspired set design.
  2. The use of an audio animatronic goat whose mechanics were far more interesting than its thoughts.
  3. The students performing in this production demonstrated the kind of total commitment and rabid professionalism required for an actor to give his all to a vile piece of drek.
While I understand the desire to choose plays that will stretch the talents of the students in A.C.T.'s MFA program, the hard truth is that they deserve to work with better material. I tip my hat to Kyle Schaefer (Marveaux), David Jacobs (Halliwell), Emily Kitchens (Philomel), Philip Mills (Macmann), Mairin Lee (as the mother and Kathleen), Jon Joseph Gentry (as the truant officer, old soldier, and clerk) and Tobie L. Windham (who doubled as a taxidermist and the voice of the Goat).

Tobie L. Windham and the Goat

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To go from the ridiculous to the sublime is quite a leap. But, after watching a poignant new film written and directed by Japan's Miwa Nishikawa, I feel purged, cleansed, refreshed, and revitalized. Dear Doctor stars comedian Tsurube ShĂ´fukutei as the mysterious Dr. Osamu Ino. And, boy, does he ever have a secret!

Nurse Otake (Kimiko Yo) and Dr. Ino (Tsurube Shofukutei)

For many years, Dr. Ino has been the nerve center of a tiny village in rural Japan with a population of approximately 1,500. Nearly half of the villagers are elderly. Their symptoms, however, are largely psychosomatic and often related to their loneliness and sense of isolation.

Dr. Ino (Tsurube Shofukutei) and Keisuke Soma (Eita)

When medical student Keisuke Soma (Eita) is assigned to work as an intern to Dr. Ino, he arrives in a little red sports car feeling as if this remote outpost could be an insult to his intelligence. Soma's father is an established physician who is much more interested in medicine as a business. By contrast, the humble Dr. Ino shows great compassion for his patients. He represents the kind of healthcare that Soma would like to practice but that has been driven out of Tokyo's hospitals.

Among the locals Soma encounters are:
  • Akemi Ohtake (Kimiko Yo), a former Emergency Room nurse who assists Dr. Ino in his clinic.
  • Masayoshi Saimon (Teruyuki Kagawa), a pharmaceutical salesman who delivers medications to the villagers.
  • Kaduko Torikai (Kaoru Yachigusa), an elderly potato farmer who has started to suffer from anemia as a result of internal bleeding. Her symptoms could be due to an ulcer, hemorrhoids, or stomach cancer.
Haruka Igawa and Kaoru Yashigusa

What the villagers don't know is that Dr. Ino is not a licensed physician. A former medical equipment salesman, he showed up in town posing as a doctor. With Japan's health system failing in rural areas, the town's mayor never checked Ino's credentials. His ability to use medical textbooks to diagnose the minor ailments of the villagers has, for the most part, kept him out of trouble.

But Kaduko Torikai's situation is different. She may need more advanced care. Embarrassed by her ill health, Kaduko doesn't want to become a burden to her daughter and thus conspires with Dr. Ino to keep her illness a secret from Ritsuko (Haruka Igawa), a busy Tokyo physician who barely has time to visit her mother.

Kimiko Yo, Tsurube Shofukutei and Eita

At the beginning of Dear Doctor, Dr. Ino suddenly disappears from the village. The story is told in flashbacks as two clumsy police detectives try to piece together the mystery of Ino's disappearance and figure out how he was able to practice medicine for so long without a license. Much to their chagrin, the detectives realize that Dr. Ino was so beloved by the residents of the village that their investigative efforts may not be appreciated at all.

I would urge anyone concerned with healthcare reform to catch a screening of Dear Doctor at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. The film examines many ethical issues about medicine, patient's rights, licensure, confidentiality, and a healthcare provider's ability to fall in love with the worship he receives from his patients. The surprise ending is also a gem. Here's the trailer:


Thisishollywood said...

Nice blog about your culture i like it
great images and video it's too important form me

Thisishollywood said...

Nice blog about your culture i like it
great images and video it's too important form me
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