Friday, October 09, 2009

War, love & sex

The Deer Hunter, a 1978 war drama co-written and directed by Michael Cimino, is not your typical Vietnam war film. It's not your Apocalypse Now or Platoon. Perhaps its appeal lies in its small town characters, primarily factory workers, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and some other actors. Meryl Streep plays the love interest of Christopher Walken. Robert De Niro is also interested in her. The innocence and playfulness of their lives suddenly vanishes when they are thrust into the Vietnam War. The war upturns their lives and they are never the same again. The scenes in Vietnam, especially the underwater prison scenes and the Russian roulette scenes, are unforgettable.

More than the performances (though Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and streep have given fine performances in this film), it's the film's structure and its editing that struck me as unique. The film starts with scenes of happiness, a bunch of wild, playful factory workers, wedding and frolicking scenes in the small town and ends with a death and a funereal atmosphere engulfing the townsfolk. But life goes on. The editing is without frills. Notice it especially when the story goes back and forth between America and Vietnam.

It is difficult to imagine soldiers like Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and many others coming to Singapore for R&R during the Vietnam war. But this is largely what happens in Saint Jack, a 1979 film based on 1973 novel by Paul Theroux.

The movie, which was banned in Singapore until a few years ago (2006), is about Jack Flowers, an Italian American pimp in Singapore, who tries to make money by setting up his own bordello. His plans go awry when he is beaten up by the Chinese mafia and his brothel is destroyed. He goes a little more deeper into more humiliating circumstances before he finally wakes up to his own dehumanization and finds his moral compass.

Ben Gazzara plays the main character in the film, and I loved his performance. He is totally into the role. The film's director, Peter Bogdanovich, has done a great work--at least it shows us the Singapore of 1970s. This was the first Hollywood film to be shot on location in Singapore.

According to the director, the film was suggested by Orson Welles to Peter's Guru, Roger Corman. Corman bankrolled the project and Peter came over to Singapore to shoot the film. The Singapore government was opposed to the film's shooting. Peter had to create a fake synopsis (more than 35 pages long!) for a film called "Jack Of Hearts". The film was shot and made purported to be "Jack Of Hearts" and not Saint Jack. Peter counts it as one of his two best films (his most famous and acclaimed film being The Last Picture Show, 1971). It won him the best director award at Venice.

The film is part of, as it were, Singapore's history now. Though there is some nudity in it, there is an uncanny charm in Ben Gazzara and his friend's character, who dies in the film. Even Peter Bogdanovich plays a part as Eddie Schuman.

There is something in the picture--maybe it is Ben's moodiness, his interpretation of the Jack character, his walk and talk, his gait, his soulful gaze, his philosophical smile--that makes you aware that you are watching a classic. I was moved (and disturbed) by the scene where Jack sends his dead friend's ashes to Hong Kong via post and the post office girl flicks the pack (Jack says the packet contains personal effects) into a pile of postal stuff. Life, gone--just like that! What if it were me in that box? Is life so meaningless that it could be flicked off and forgotten like that? It is elements like these that ennobles the film, despite its seedy setting, and in turn, the viewers.

No comments: