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Friday, January 19, 2007

Inarritu's BABEL

Babel poster

(Back from Shanghai! Finishing up a review that took me three nights to complete!)

Babel had just won the Best Drama award at the Golden Globes last night. Howsy noted my lack of Golden Globes prediction this year, to the few who cared, I make my predictions, but on a message board instead of this blog, because I am insecure, and I feel rotten when my lifelong personal interest in film awards shows is greeted with indifference and disinterest. So yes, my predictions were, as usual, pretty good, getting 9 out of 12 categories correct (I was wrong about Best Drama, Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film).

So, I immediately went to watch Babel upon learning of its victory, because my ego does not permit me to NOT see an Oscar frontrunner when the Oscar nominees are about to be announced. I am so insecure that I can only derive pleasure from telling people things like 'hah! i've seen all five of the Oscar Best Picture nominees! and you haven't neener neener!' Of course, the 99% of the people I know generally do NOT care about the five Oscar Best Picture nominees, so in the end, I just continue feeling as insecure and miserable as before.

Such misery is endured also by the characters from the four different plot threads of Babel, which is basically a harrowing drama where bad things happen to normal people under the most unexpected of circumstances. Small unintentional mistakes leading to major tragedies, the breakdown between human communication, language and cultural barriers, xenophobia, racism, well, basically, the ugliness of human nature.

Watching this film can make you real angry as it aims for the sore spots. The stupidity and assholeness displayed by certain characters in the film felt utterly real, because you know that these kinds of people do exist in real life, or worse, you might have even encountered people like that before. Policemen who justify their misdeeds with the badge they were wearing, selfish strangers who care much more for their own well-being despite knowing clearly the kind of crisis you are enduring, insensitive moronic high school kids who are incapable of viewing someone physically-disabled as a normal person.

But then, not everything is bleak and gloomy, a sliver of light creeping into the darkest of places, things like redemption and hope, people displaying kindness and selflessness towards strangers, love rekindled amidst agony, forgiveness and acceptance leading to the healing of fractured relationships.

Like life, nothing is completely good, but neither will it be completely bad either.

Director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu had always been exceptional when portraying the various different aspects and consequences of human relationships, I remembered first watching Amores Perros two years ago on DVD and was entirely blown away by the three plot strands that were weaved together for the entire film, the first story about a young man being in love with the wife of his violent abusive brother and then things turned really ugly. The second story about a couple, a supermodel and a magazine publisher who left his wife and two children for her, initially happy, a major car accident left her crippled and ended her career, and the after effects of this event began to test the once-rosy relationship between the two. The third is about a professional hitman who lives with remorse after abandoning his wife and daughter as an ex-guerrilla many years ago, his years-long inability to contact his now-adult daughter was changed one day, when he was hired by one brother to kill another over money.

Then there's Innaritu's first English-feature, 21 Grams, where three characters were brought together by tragedy. A woman lost her entire family one afternoon in a car accident, the man who accidentally killed the woman's family had to deal with the kind of overwhelming regret and guilt one would get for causing something like this, then there's also one other, who was drawn towards the woman after he was saved from the brink of death by a heart transplant, the benefactor being the woman's late husband. The woman, understandably, harboured an anger towards the second guy, and intended to get her revenge.

Brad Pitt in BabelWell... if you haven't actually seen either of the two movies mentioned above, and can actually followed what I was saying, I applaud you, I don't think I could follow what I've written. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Innaritu is good in showing us realistic characters and presenting their naked emotions to the audience without any attempts to pull any punches. That's what makes his films, in my opinion, so engaging to watch. Not just the realism, but because the characters, while not the most likable of people, are actual human beings whose problems, points of views, moral compasses etc. audiences can easily understand or relate to. And in Babel's case, the settings were unmistakably real too, issues of global importance where order in contemporary society is seemingly maintained by fear.

Like 'Amores Perros' and '21 Grams', the screenwriter for this film is Guillermo Arriaga. Unfortunately, I think this creative partnership is ending after this film.

There are four interweaving stories in Babel:

- The first is about two Moroccan kids Yussef and Ahmed (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) received a rifle from their father to protect their sheep from predators, but things turned ugly when they tested the rifle by shooting at a tour bus from a distance.

- The second story is about an American couple, Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) vacationing at Morocco, the latter accidentally shot by the stray bullet fired by the Moroccan kid. The US Government claimed that a terrorist attack.

- Back in US, an illegal immigrant, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who happened to be the nanny of Richard and Susan's children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble), had to cross the border to Mexico with her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) for her son's wedding. The children's parents couldn't make it home in time, so Amelia had to bring the kids along with her. Despite the fact that she was actually an illegal immigrant.

- And finally, in Japan, a deaf-mute girl Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) with anger issues. Her mother had just committed suicide. She lived with her father (Kôji Yakusho, whom I last saw in the Japanese film, Suite Dreams aka Uchoten Hotel) but had been pretty chilly towards him. Living in a world without sound and speech, her only way to seek acceptance and connection was to get laid. Unfortunately for her, despite her cuteness, getting laid wasn't going to be easy.

Despite taking place in three vastly different countries, the language and cultural barriers that seemed prevalent at first were stripped away as the film managed to show that human emotions are universal, especially something like pain and loneliness. I guess the title of the film is meant to point at this unity. (I'm referring to the biblical story about the Tower of Babel, read about it here if you don't know anything about it)

Rinko Kikuchi in BabelEverything about the film is really good, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, directing, I don't think there's much to complain about for me. Each of the four stories were strong in their own ways (though they are not without flaws), but for me, the one that left the deepest impression was Chieko's story, and it's not because of the frontal nudity and her flashing (as my friend Sebastian had suggested would be the main reasons why I liked it), because I was shown her perspective, and it was rather disturbing for me. While using a silent soundtrack to depict the perspective of a deaf person isn't something I've never seen before, the fact that this was used to juxtapose with club scenes made Chieko's plight even more poignant to me. All those strobe lights, all those people dancing around, yet she could never hear the music. And then she walked through the night streets alone, there was a band performing. She walked past them. The audiences never got to hear the music either.

And also, everything is not told in chronological order, we would revisit a scene we had seen at the beginning of the film towards the end, but from another person's perspective, adding more complexity and emotional depth to the whole story.

So yes, Babel is really good, but I wasn't as affected as I was when I first saw Amores Perros. Maybe the pain is somewhat dulled when I underwent it the third time.

Anyway, here's the official Rinko Kikuchi website. Seems to be an expert in kendo (I assume), horse-riding and archery. You can read more about her here. I thought she was pretty at the Golden Globes, hoho.

Babel trailer

Someone's fan video of Rinko Kikuchi using Air's Cherry Blossom Girl