Film reviews/opinion pieces: Wayang@Budiman Presents 'Sinema Selera'

Official flyer for 'Sinema Selera.'
Good day ol' chaps! As you can see, I am NOT good at constantly updating my blog. Life happens, and laziness happens. And this shitty intro happens. 

Anway, this will be a collective review, short or long, of a handful of films that filled the 'Sinema Selera' slot (literally translates as Delicious Cinema or Cinema of Taste) which is held throughout September and October at Wayang@Budiman, a screening session organised by Pusat Kajian dan Apresiasi Filem (Centre of Film Research and Appreciation). More info on these screenings, I already blabbed about it on the intro in the first review of the first film in this slot, so go ahead and click that. It's right after the posters.

I got to say... I haven't really thought about food the way these filmmakers do. From Japan to Mexico, each of these countries sees food very differently, and maybe these functions would/wouldn't be discussed in each of the film's review/opinion. So let's get it on!

Posters for the films screened at Sinema Selera.
1. Tampopo
Well. Click the darn link. I'm not gonna repeat myself. But if you must know... it's VERY Japanese. An elaboration of that is (hopefully) explained in my full review. And as you can tell, by having this film to occupy its own entry separate from this collective one, Tampopo is my clear winner for the Sinema Selera slot. Kampaaai!

2. Big Night
Origin: United States
Language: English, Italian
Directors: Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci
Writers: Joseph Tropiano, Stanley Tucci
Producers: David Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Filley
Genre: Drama
Casts: Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rosselini, Marc Anthony
Release: January 24, 1996 (Sundance Film Festival), September 26, 1996 (USA)
Studios: Rysher Entertainment, Timpano Productions
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Now that these details are out of the way, let's talk about this film. Well, I can see that Stanley Tucci, whom I know about his career way, way after his muscular and decent looking heyday in Big Night. And he co-directed this as well. I wonder how many films did he helm. Or it could be just this one. Meh. Too lazy to find out.

This is a rather earnest effort from Tucci, with a simple story and simple dramatic elaboration with a rather strong message on defending your heritage and sustaining relationships with family, significant others, friends, and acquaintances in the face of capitalism, especially when living in the land of opportunity that Primo (Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci himself), siblings who are Italian migrants, call the United States of America.

Much of the film relies on chemistry of the cast, which is complimented with the tantalising display of Italy's amazingly huge dishes at the peak of the film, and other simple foods in between the confrontations and tantrums between the characters. They look rather natural in their acting. All of them, and especially the surprise performance by Marc Anthony whom I never knew had an acting career! Anthony as Cristiano is just a normal waiter working for Primo and Secundo who I think almost NEVER spoke throughout the entire film, but did actual acting... in a very minimalist fashion! He did NOT cause any of the big conflicts, he did NOT flinch or ticked off extremely in the face of heavy pressure unlike his employers, and was almost considered a NON-BURDEN around those who are in utter distraught at the time. In fact, they actually welcome him, EVEN in the powerful final, single-take, and silent scene of the film. Damn it, Marc! You should win an Oscar or something for your role! Another pleasant treat would be the appearance of Ian Holm, who is interestingly the voice of Chef Skinner, the head of a French restaurant in another food-based film, in this case the animated Disney/Pixar's Rattatouille, although his performance can be expected; he's a douchebag in Big Night, but is rather subtle in that role, unlike Chef Skinner, of course. Still, BIG applause to Marc Anthony! I did NOT see you coming, like, at all!

The food aspect? I can't say much about this. If I have to, then here it is. They are actually quite intertwined with the build up of the film's plot, and are well displayed, although not emphasised on the food itself; but rather the activities associated with the foods displayed, for example during the titular big night scene.

The cinematography and music? Well, both of those aspects managed to really capture the feel of the year 1950s, even though I'm really not familiar with the era. But the props and the building sure looks retro and does not display even the slightest display of modernity, so I guess they did have the appropriate props and music on lock then. Both of those aspects are quite flashy and are actually in-tune with the siblings' struggle in a country not familiar to them... I think.

I, uh, don't know what else to say about the film. It's good, with strong performances and good chemistry between Tucci and Shalhoub, but just not really my thing. Let's go to another one, shall we?

3. Babette's Feast
Original title: Babettes Gæstebud
Origin: Denmark
Language: Danish, Swedish, French
Director & writer: Gabriel Axel
Producers: Just Betzer, Bo Christensen, Benni Korzen, Pernille Sisbye
Genre: Drama
Casts: Stephane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Jarl Kulle
Release: August 28, 1987
Studio: Nordisk Films

This film is about Babette Hersant (Audran), the multi-speaking French servant of the daughters of a passed-away Protestant pastor deep in the west coast of Jutland, in 19th century Denmark. Denmark. FUCKING DENMARK. That Scandinavian country. So you can definitely bet that they would capture the serenity and beauty of that place; and that is served together with the backdrop of a very religious and humble village. This film, for obvious reasons, is telling us that food is for the soul, and makes us closer to our loved ones and to our Creator.

Oh yeah. This might contain SPOILERS, since I really can't say much about technical works; it's perfect and you won't fucking care about it, since its cinematography and editing is adequately done to portray a simple story with very lush and intricate mise-en-scene workings on display. Okay, the story and maybe a little commentary on the actors' performances... and maybe the food.

Before Babette's arrival, the now elderly council members of the Protestant believers, which include the pastor's daughters Filippa (Kjer) and Martine (Federspiel), are always at each other's throats, as personal problems that piles up clouds their real purpose of doing meetings; to discuss on the activities for their small congregation to remember their leader. Other than that, they also used to eat rather tasteless meals throughout their lives, which would also explain their bitterness against each other. Then, comes Babette, a servant recommended by Achille Papin (Lafont), Filippa's former suitor, after a revolution in Babette's hometown of Paris forced her to flee to Filippa and Martine's humble abode way back in Denmark.

Honestly, despite the everyone-see-coming epic dinner scene consisting of exotic French cuisine to commemorate the founding of the Protestant teachings in the humble village, I'm gonna have to agree to the majority of the crowds discussing this film right after it ended during the night of screening; it's all about the act of eating. Yes, there are some focuses on the foods here and there, but it's really how the foods act as a medium to make us forget about things that just worry us too much and is a medium of togetherness, like what Big Night and the next in line to be reviewed, Eat Drink Man Woman, is telling us.

Yeah. That's about it. Honestly, it's my second least favourite of the bunch.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman
Original title: 饮食男女 (Yǐn Shí Nán Nǚ)
Origin: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Ang Lee, James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang
Genre: Drama / comedy 
Casts: Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang
Release: August 3, 1994
Studio: Ang Lee Productions, Central Motion Pictures, Good Machine
Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Now, why does that sound familiar? Oh, that's right! Ang Lee! Of Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Life of Pi fame! Those are very culturally different movies! And this is him doing his thing in his native Taiwanese culture! I think, over the years, even though I don't really follow his career, modernisation watered down his filmmaking prowess, especially in Hulk and Life of Pi; you know, CGI. But hey, at least in Life of Pi, he gets to do that intricate shit he does with all the props and philosophy he's injecting in his films, giving the utilisation of CGI a whole new meaning; and totally made him atone his sins for the atrocity Marvel Studios (during the sucky days) call a Hulk film. With this one, however, and particularly with this genre in Eat Drink Man Woman, he shines a damn lot.

Plot is pretty normal; it's basically what you call a slice of life movie. It just shows the day-to-day ordeal of a Taiwanese family of differing professions: the dad, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), is a master chef; the first daughter, Chu Jia-Jen (Kuei Mei-Yang), is a Christian who is also a teacher at a high school that has a long history on her deeply broken heart; the second daughter, Chu Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), is an airline executive, very independent, and inherited his dad's mad culinary skills; and the last daughter, Chu Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), a high-schooler who works part time at a local Wendy's. And at every Sunday, Mr. Chu would hold a banquet which doubles as a place for everyone in the family to talk about their day and to, most of the time, give out 'surprise' announcement; in every sense of the word.

Things would just turn interesting every time the announcements are made. Much like Babbete's Feast, it's also about people eating and not the food itself; but the focus on food is as equal as its focus on the film's story. Each food shot does not need any narration to it; it's enough to just soak in on all the close-ups of the food shots, and the way everyone enjoys the food. Maybe I can call it Tampopo without the over-the-top Japanese nonsense, but way more relatable with the ordinary folks.

I also like how Ang Lee treat its lead female ensembles despite sometimes maybe their sexuality is flaunted, although in a very mild amount. In fact, I can hardly see the dudes dominating the scenes! Their father raised them to be damn fine ladies; a damn fine, strong ladies who can take on any shit thrown at them, using their own personalities as weapons. You could say Ang Lee is a firm believer in feminism, by making its ensemble female characters having a very strong upbringing while at the same time retaining the basics of being women, or so I think. I'm not a woman, so I can't blab too much on this shit. So yeah. Moving on.

Story wise, we can see that there's a lot to digest, and yet we are able to soak it all in, thanks to the ever awesome philosophy of  if the movie's draggy, it might drool people up. Each scene cuts up just nicely with no loopholes whatsoever. The part where Jia-Chen find out about how the apartment she spent her entire savings to buy just got abandoned by their developer striked me as a very powerful scene; it's abrupt, shocking, but closes up in a way that everyone can tolerate with. It doesn't need like a montage or anything like that, 'cause hey, shit happens, right? I'm not gonna elaborate on the very last scene everyone will talk about when I talk about this film. Yes, it's powerful and confusing onhow he managed to get his taste buds to work again after all these years!

All in all, Ang Lee should put up more stuff in his native tongue, or just something like this. I can sense that he made this with all his heart and soul.

Yeah. Next!

5. Like Water for Chocolate
Original title: Como Agua Para Chocolate
Origin: Mexico
Language: Spanish, English 
Director & producer: Alfonso Arau
Writer: Laura Esquivel
Genre: Drama / romance / erotica
Casts: Marco Leonardi, Lumi Cavazos, Regina Torné, Mario Iván Martínez
Release: April 16, 1992
Distributor: Miramax Films

Although Tampopo is meant to confuse and shock, this film however, is MUCH WORSE THAN THAT.

An adaptation of a novel of the same name, Like Water for Chocolate tells the convoluted drama between Pedro (Leonardi) and Tita (Cavazos) in their struggle to finally getting into each others' pants. This is all thanks in part to the taboo that Tita's mother, Mamá Elena (Torné) have imposed, which is actually a long family tradition: the last daughter of a family (which Tita unfortunately is one) is forbidden from ever having a family of her own, since she must take care of her mother until she dies. 

And in between that plot, there are a bunch of very short, unexplainable subplots, presumably thanks to its nonsensical yet mind-fucking magical realism elements. This is especially used to accentuate some abstract stuff that happens; like, the struggle of a mother to give birth to her child, in this case, when Mamá Elena's struggle to deliver Tita I think, for example; the belly juice pops out like a bursting water tank, and as soon as it dries, instead of vaporising into thin air, the sun crystallises them which rendered them into solid state that resulted into the production of a generation supply of... salt. Maybe that's why Mamá Elena is being a jerk to Tita? Since it's her salt that's been used to give flavour to their food? Maybe? Another one would be that sensation Tita's second big sister, Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé) felt after eating Tita's rose petal-based recipe to cool off her... literal burning horniness at the household's outdoor shower room (there was literally fires around her!) due to Tita's insatiable lust toward Pedro is presumably poured into the cooking? What the hell just happened? It's like... WAAY weirder than the man in the white suit's erotic pursuits in Tampopo!

The way the director weave the subplots? I think it's basically like a 2-hour version of a 100-seasons worth of those Spanish... er... Mexican soap operas on TV called telenovela. Imagine the over-arching plot of feuds, dramas, and romances being compressed into a feature film, and the result would be Like Water Chocolate. Yep; you guessed it right, i's a damn mess. The stories were not given the chance to breathe at all, even during the pinnacle of the film where Tito and Pedro finally gets to make love for the last time. It's like... watching Roland Emmerich's Godzilla or something. Damn.

I guess that's that with Like Water for Chocolate. Honestly, Tampopo's absurdity is way more understandable than the one portrayed in this film. Also, this is the film that I have the least interest in, with Babette's Feast come in second.

Aaand, that's all folks. These are all my additional think pieces after the Sinema Selera slot's Q&A session... written after like a couple of weeks after the slot ended. Good job. Didn't think I could finish writing this. I hope you guys find my review helpful before any of you readers who didn't catch the slot who wanted to watch any of these films. Boy, what a treat these films were, man! In addition to the actual awesome treats they serve during the course of the slot of course.

Hope for more good shit from PKAF! More awesome slots, please!

*Boy was this another looong overdue review! 

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