Tuesday, April 28, 2015
the sleeping typhoon
by douglas Messerli
Kidlat Tahimik Mababangong bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) / 1977
When Philippines filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare was first shown in the United States in 1980, The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby—despite somewhat disparaging the idea that any film might be described this way—characterized the film as being “primitive,” while also being “sweet, funny, witty” and “intelligent.” But, although Tahimik’s movie is shot in 8 millimeter film stock; presents it titles on hand-held cards; portrays numerous static images in a grainy, slightly washed-out color of the quality of a home-made movie; and casts much of its narrative in the form of fables, Perfumed Nightmare, in its humorously clever analysis of international economic disparities and in its unsentimental embracement of the handmade over what is industrially created, is highly sophisticated. Just as the director reveals the locally-made jitneys to be far more beautiful and useful than the Westernized modes of public transportation (the Philippine jitneys, moreover, are crafted our of war tanks and other leftover US weapons, machines of war being converted into things of beauty), and as he suggests the narrow village bridge of the small village of Balian to be just as wondrous as the great architectural feats of Charles De Gaulle Airport, so does Tahimik demonstrate that his little film is more pleasurably infectious and moving than many an grand American motion picture—and at a far smaller cost!
Our hero, performed by Kidlat himself, is a naïve lover the new, an admirer of everything his economically backward community has no opportunity to offer. Born in the 1942 Occupation of the Philippines, the character Kidlat has spent his 33 years in “a cocoon of American dreams.” Working as a jitney driver in his primitive village, he is presides over a small group of young boys and girls as head of the Werner Von Braun fan club, listens nearly every day of his life to The Voice of America on radio, and dreams of visiting Cape Canaveral and witnessing the wonders of American and European technology.
Wise elders attempt to warn him against his absurd idolatry, and his mother even recounts how his father died, in a furious reaction (mythically described as the breath of a typhoon) when, after fighting against the Spanish colonists, he is locked out of Manila by American soldiers. Yet Kidlat remains unconvinced. Why would anybody prefer the old over the new, and how can anyone not recognize that the new is encapsulated by the US?
At the same time, however, the film slowly builds up a series of images of daily life in Balian that convinces us that these simple people are living, in many respects, a life richer and clearly more satisfying than many of us in the Western world. Sacred white caribous stare down at the natives; a patron saint, carried to the cathedral each morning, protects from evil; a rather painful-to-watch mass circumcision deep in the woods, welcomes the young boys in manhood. The beautifully decorated jitneys transport ice, statues, beauty queens, animals, and the citizens of Balaian through the town and across its single bridge in grand style. An old man with a mythical butterfly tattooed across his chest, weaves sturdy bamboo houses that stand up to the most violent of storms, and tells wonderful tales, including his personal myth that when the sleeping typhoon wakes up, it releases the butterflies to new life.
All of these images, moreover, are accompanied by a lush score composed of sounds, words, songs, and native music that utterly enlivens the narrative.
The American in this fable, stomps out—wades out might be a better description—of this meeting to flag down Kidlat’s jitney to take him to Manila. In the director’s gentle satire the locals get their revenge as the jitney fills up with villagers and their animals, forcing the indignant would-be-leader to sit atop the suitcases trailing behind.
Yet he takes a liking to Kidlat, promising to take him and his jitney with him when he returns to his castle in Paris. Suddenly the whole village is buzzing with news of the event. Kidlat get his picture taken (posing with a charming smile that expresses the joyfulness he will leave behind) and a celebration of their soon-to-be wayfarer—replete with marching bands, dancing children, and beauty queens—is organized. One of the few people of Balian ever to fly on an airplane, Kidlat is suddenly the town hero.
His first views of the West are just as he might have imagined as he is awed by walkways that move people forward without their walking, doors that open automatically, and bridges, bridges everywhere he looks! Just as the director had created a kind of travelogue in the Philippines countryside, so now does he continue to film Paris: only the Paris he shows us, from Kidlat’s perspective, is quite the opposite of what we know as the stately tourist city. Everywhere he goes, things are crumbling; rooms are over- jammed with junk; buildings are scaffold, with pylons jutting up like ugly eyesores which block out the view of the great cathedrals and Eiffel Tower. The American, it turns out, is chewing-gum magnate, and immediately puts Kidlat to work filling his ugly gum dispensers placed at tourist destinations (including cemeteries) throughout the city. Kidlat’s Paris, in short, is the polar opposite of the glamorous city of lights depicted in most films.
In his off hours, the likeable Kidlat seeks out the friendship, just as he had back in Balian, of local workers, learning snippets of French and befriending these figures by transporting them about the city in his jitney. He becomes particularly close with an egg seller (each egg containing two yolks) named Lola. Lola and her compatriots work at small carts parked by a mammoth new building project, a supermarket which is also soon to be fitted with several enormous plastic chimneys, that is also gradually eating up the space of the fresh-food vendors. Lola tells him of a dream in which she has been forced to close her stand. Finally, Kidlat begins to ask a few questions he has failed to perceive back in his unbeknownst Eden of Balaian. Why displace the beautiful produce of these simple vendors with lower quality foods sold in a vast department store? If the old chimney’s work, why replace them with a chimney big enough for 6 people to live in?
During the celebration a pregnant woman he has met in the town suddenly goes into labor, and Kidlat saves they day by taking her, presumably, to the hospital in his still-elegant jitney. Drivng back to Paris, he feels almost as if the newly-born child, who the woman has named Kidlat in honor of her savior, looks somewhat like him.
In Paris, he discovers that Lola in no longer among the remaining vendors. The American, knowing that the nearby chimneys will soon be belching their smoke in the direction of his castle, announces that he has sold his chewing-gum enterprise, and is planning to return to the US where he has purchased a company which manufactures blue jeans, the logical next step—so he declares—in his rise to become a munitions and tank manufacturer for the US military. Once more, he promises to take Kidlat with him, suggesting he’ll be the first of his kind to fly on the Concorde.
Before the two leave, however, this ugly American plans one final celebration, inviting some of the world’s leaders, who have come to Paris for a conference, to his castle.
This is a handmade film, one must remember, with no budget for actors with makeup and costumes which might allow them to resemble those dignitaries. Kidlat presents the entire affair somewhat like a masked pageant of old, as each figure arrives decked out in archaic clothing one might expect to find in a film studio storeroom, a handmade mask representing distorted depictions of the celebrities hiding their faces.
Introduced to these grotesque figures, the normally amicable Kidlat becomes terror-stricken, suddenly feeling that he, like Alice in Wonderland, is growing smaller and smaller by the moment. In reaction to his feelings, Kidlat, like his father before him, suddenly begins to blow up a typhoon, leveling all those before him and destroying the American’s castle. With seemingly nowhere to go, he escapes into one of the giant chimneys, closes it tightly, and flies off in what now resembles a Martian space ship, back to Balian.
The following credits are presented on a series of letters and postcards, each of them bearing a stamp from a small country that features one of the US space ships, the last of them, a Philippines stamp depicting the chimney in which Kidlat has returned, proving the assertion as he has repeated throughout the film, “I choose my vehicle, and I can cross any bridge.”
And so too does Kidlat Tahimik prove that he can create a stunningly profound film by his own means, without the help of wealthy financers.
Los Angeles, April 28, 2016