Woof (Sun Dogs)

Before beginning this review, a tip of the hat to sun dogs, aka parhelia, those common bright circular spots on a solar halo. Sun dogs are “an atmospheric optical phenomenon primarily associated with the reflection or refraction of sunlight by small ice crystals making up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds.”

Also, a little love for the Arizona Sundogs in the Central Hockey League and for a few favorite dog movies: snow dogs, rain dogs, desert dogs, moon dogs, straw dogs, stray dogs, reservoir dogs, dish dogs, lawn dogs, dead dogs, rabid dogs, chilly dogs, sleeping dogs, miracle dogs, road dogs, old dogs, dealing dogs, tap dogs, angry dogs, war dogs, catwalk dogs, deck dogs, top dogs, lost dogs, trinity dogs, urinoir dogs, bad dogs, barking dogs, fence dogs, devil dogs, gift dogs, good dogs, hot dogs, performing dogs, sea dogs, restricted dogs, society dogs, trained dogs, tokyo dogs, training dogs, wild dogs, zombie dogs, prairie dogs, and a dog’s dog.

And to note that Kingston is overrun with dogs. Dogs of all colors but of similar size. Dogs tough in body and in spirit; wary dogs, but not as wary as the cats; and hungry without exception. No other Caribbean island that I know of, and that includes the DR, has such a wealth of stray dogs. I don’t remember seeing any at all on Trinidad or Barbados. There might be a thesis for someone in this.

So. Sun Dogs. A documentary filmed in Jamaica, Minnesota, and Scotland. Stray dogs and huskies. Scenery. Socially responsible slum scenes. More scenery. Talking heads. Easy-listening and upbeat get-the-juices-flowing we’re-having-fun it’s-sunny-and-warm-down-here trust-what-you’re watching Jamaican music. Accents. When is the last time you heard white folks talkin with heavy Jamaican accents? It’s fun. More scenery. 90 minutes.

First time out for the director of the film and for the director of photography. The director of photography did a swell job.

About cynical movie reviews: The world is full of cynicism. It leaks into our lives. We can’t avoid it. The demands of the 24/7 newscycle breed it, for example. In the world of cinema, a director starts out to make a movie – something caring and responsible, but also fun – a movie about saving a few strays, canine and human – a movie that might give Jamaica a little boost that it can surely use – and invariably some sorehead comes along and eyeballs the whole project and all the good work that it entails, and treats it as if it were some hack job with a (barely) hidden personal commercial agenda. If this sort of thing disturbs you as much as it does me, read no farther. Or further.

But again, that beginning: Jamaica. Lush. A paradise. Happy tourists. But lots of poor Jamaicans. One of the poorest countries in the world. Wouldn’t it be cool to gather up some stray dogs from the slums of Kingston and train them as sled dogs?

There is a line between silly/stupid/entertaining and silly/stupid/toxic. Which side of that line are we on here? Assorted talking heads ensue, alternately dour and avuncular. “No harm done, no humans or animals injured during the making of this documentary. You will be entertained.” Or, “Brudda, if you want a movie about the social ills of Jamaica, don’t queue up a movie about dog sleds on wheels.”

Or is it that the first ten minutes of this movie are just utterly wrong? Is the director tone deaf? Is she oblivious to the dissonance created by juxtaposing a bunch of comfortable white guys talking about a crazy-but-fun idea with the sights and sounds of a nation of seriously freeped-up black Jamaicans? Saving a few strays who are left to represent the poor of the island by doing a little cart-pulling? Is this film like a movie made in a veteran’s hospital, forgetting the amputees and brain-damaged patients while focusing on the pigeon-racing project out back? Is it like working for PETA in the middle of a holocaust? That is, is this a priority thing? Not to say that you can’t collect stamps during a genocide, but if you want to make a philately documentary, please leave the death camps out of it.

Whoa. Let’s not go off the deep end here. Instead, let’s just ignore the intro and restart 10 minutes in.

But, no. At 20 minutes, we’re back into it. The dogs go to school. Segue to problems with the education of children in Jamaica. Talking heads. But, hey, a lot of great closeups and, as mentioned above, I realize that I can’t remember ever hearing heavy in-country Jamaican accents falling from Caucasian lips. It’s like grandma acting rasta. Different. And horseback riding. Diverting. So just watch the damn movie and worry about the poor later? Take the ride? Dog interest, musher training, social conditions on the island, sledding as sport, Carribean history. A Jamaican pu pu platter of subjects.

Sigh. I paused the movie to take a minute to find out who is who or whom here and why I should care, and why instead of righting social wrongs these old white guys are fooling around with dog sleds on wheels. In other words, sadly, I decided to follow the money.

Some years ago, businessman Danny Melville (a guy with a John McCain vibe, I thought), the first old white guy to speak in the movie, tripped over a metal frame with wheels in a fabrication shop in Edmonton, Canada, while shopping for dune buggies. An employee in the shop told him that the thing was a snowless dog sled. Warm-weather dog sledding is picking up around the world because of global warming – rig racing, canicross, dog scootering, bikejoring – an ecological silver lining. Refer to my reviw of Out of Balance for more good news along these lines.

Anyway, the notion of a Jamaican dog sled team came to Melville on the spot, as he tells it. With the success and noteriety of the Jamaican bobsled team in mind (Cool Runnings, the Calgary Olympics), Melville swung into action. We see him for the first time in Sun Dogs at the beginning of the movie, his idea implemented, dogcarts in action. Following that quick, upbeat, life-is-good montage of beautiful scenery and happy poverty-stricken island inhabitants that I noted, with a rousing Jamaican beat urging us to jump up and dance, Melville speaks with great earnestness about this crazy sled-dog idea of his, and then Jimmy Buffet pops up to endorse him, with a quick cut to Buffett performing in front of a crowd of ten thousand or so, to remind us that this isn’t some washed-up bum we’re listening to, so pay attention. Then quick shots of endearing mutts in harness, with folks cheering them along in some unknown sunny context, a woman getting her shirt autographed by Buffet, dog urinating on tourist, so forth. Melville, sitting by the dog pens in a casual open-necked shirt, a personable sincere old duffer with a neat white beard, tells us that his plans include touring dog teams, sled racing, and promoting Jamaica to the hilt. “Sustainable” teams, that is, which means that they’re to pay their own way, mutts or not.

Melville tells us that he also had the idea of making a movie about the dogs, the day after he had the idea of starting the sled dog project – a feature-length cartoon, maybe, with Jamaican mutts racing against Russian Mafia huskies, something for Disney Pixar to implement. That would work! Samples of such a cartoon are cut in throughout Sun Dogs. Behind Melville in the frame, folks mill about in a country setting. Jamaica must project itself into the world, the dog sleds will help, so forth, Melville tells us. He’s a loquacious guy.

Brand Jamaica. 2.5 million visitors a year. More shots of happy people, turquoise water. But then serious talk by the government’s national image-and-identity advisor: the country and the people don’t benefit from the tourist proceeds; annual revenues are funneled into the pockets of others, others who remain unnamed by the advisor onscreen; we presume that offshore leisure-based corporations and the upper-tier Jamaican rich figure into this. Next a serious word from the executive director of Jamaicans for Justice, Dr. Carolyn Gomes. “We’re the best at what we do, be it criminality or murder.” Deadpan. Next a serious word from a member of the bobsled team. Then serious words from Wilmot Perkins, talk-show host and perhaps the strongest public voice regarding the dysfunctional understanding, behavior, and social problems between races on the island. Gist: Jamaicans are bright, energetic, full of promise, but led astray. Shots of bright, energetic, but glowering poor citizens in the slums. Then all of this again, with similar but different words. Melville deplores the situation along with the rest. The music has become exceedingly somber by now. Somber. Then Melville explains that the dog sled project is just another zany idea of his, so that people will shake their heads and say Jamaica! (Ok, this makes no sense, but the man is just riffing.) And people will say, Why didn’t I think of that! (That is, “Melville has scored another win.”) Now the music picks up again. Jamaica! And with the music appears a shot of the sign at the entrance to Melville’s Chukka Cove. Adventure Tours. Experience the Real Jamaica!

Danny Melville’s dad bought Tropical Battery back when Jamaica was protected from U.S. companies by high tariffs. The company manufactured vehicle batteries and enjoyed a monopoly on the island. When the tariffs began to be removed, the Melvilles left the island, with only Danny remaining to run the business, which in due course went downhill as the competition moved in. Melville also purchased 50 acres of undeveloped land in St. Ann in the early 80s and subsequently started an equestrian center at Chukka Cove. He hoped to lure dressage and polo enthusiasts away from Argentina and the UK, but failed. At this point he contacted his sons, away at school in Florida, and told them that he could sell everything or they could come back and help him try to save the businesses. Andrew and Mark returned to the island and joined the company.

Long story short: the battery company switched from manufacture to import and bounced back, and the family got into the soft adventure business. If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you’re familiar with soft adventures. You get a great price on the cruise itself, but hopefully you’ve factored additional costs into your vacation budget, because at each port you’re confronted with a variety of extra fun activities, each at a sometimes-fancy price. If you’ve tubed or taken a canopy tour or rode a horse on Jamaica or in the Dominican or Belize or various other locations, there’s a good chance you’ve paid the Melvilles something for the privilege. Expansion. Gaming machines. Evolving relationships with cruise lines. 500 or so horses. 500 or so employees. Over a billion a year in revenues from a number of interlocking companies shared with long-time business partners, and that’s not counting the auto-supply business.

See, the thing is, I’m sitting here remembering the ruined wreck of a home at the edge of the Yaque river where it curls through Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Santiago is the DR’s second-largest city. On December 11 in the early morning, as hurricane Olga brushed the island, Tavera dam workers upriver decided to open all six floodgates, fearing a dam failure that could kill thousands in Santiago. This sent 1.6 million gallons of water/second into the river.The lives of the family of ten living in the house that I visited were snuffed out by the water roaring downstream in the dead of night. And the members of that family weren’t the only casualties. For months after that night, folks have come to the edge of the cliff above, standing along Av. Mirador del Yaque to look down on the wreckage below. For many of the poor, it was no more than luck that they lived far enough from the river’s edge to escape drowning. This was the second time in the year that this happened. I spoke to more than one upper-class resident of Santiago who, privately of course, were not sorry to see the mostly ramshackle buildings along the river washed away, along with the poor living in them.

If a movie, documentary or otherwise, wants to add footage meant to raise the consciousness of viewers about the plight of so many in the Caribbean, whether the film be documentary or drama or cartoon or science-fiction flick about life on Venus, I for one will cut it some slack. I will not say “Ok, I get it. Move on.” However, if the footage is doing no more than wrapping one more big-business vacuum cleaner for middle-class dollars in a flag of righteousness, then burn the film.

I found plenty to savor in Sun Dogs: young men conversing quietly in a lilting Jamaican English that almost required subtitles; the enlistment of Newton, a poor young man living in a tin shack, to be a musher; Newton applying for a passport; Newton visiting Twig, Minnesota in the winter, to see snow for the first time and to learn about real dog sleds and sledding; Newton eating a fig newton; Jamaican  music in the snowy north; Newton learning to drive and later taking his boss’ car without permission, totaling it, and being banished, sent back to sit on the plank in front of his shack; the enlistment of Devon Anderson, then, to train as Jamaica’s first musher, getting the dog sled 101 crash course from sledding experts from Twig; serious Scots commenting seriously on Anderson, over to Scotland from his island to theirs to compete in his first sled race and to win the “Came the Farthest” prize; Anderson at the end of his race exhausted with one dog from his team out of harness and on the sled tucked into an emergency dog bag; first class photography, great color, great closeups; driving around Jamaica on the wrong side of the road; a call to renowned dog sled trainer Alan Stewart in Scotland;  and, of course, the recruitment and training of the dogs. Several dogs picked out at the pound. The dogs’ names appear onscreen in big yellow letters – so that you can remember to ask for them when you come down? Scenes of the dogs being introduced to the dogcarts and other wheeled conveyances that they will pull. Benji the scared hound. The biggest dog, who doesn’t relate to the other dogs. I remember hearing once that if a dog doesn’t learn social skills early, it can’t learn them later. Guess that doesn’t apply to this big dog, because apparently he does, after first gnawing one or two of his mates.

The last movie that I reviewed as a Spout Maven was Africa Unite, a Palm Pictures documentary in which the Marley family journeys from Jamaica to Africa in search of peace and/or treasure. Sun Dogs is also a Palm Pictures documentary, wherein stray dogs replace the Marleys but remain in Kingston. Chris Blackwell, the founder and head of Palm Pictures, and David Koh, head of acquisitions and production, negotiated the financial terms of the movie with Andrea Stewart and Danny Melville. Stewart produced as well as directed. Blackwell, Koh, Leigh Ingleby, and Melville were the executive producers (i.e., they put up the money). Palm Pictures nailed down all worldwide rights to the movie. The rumor is that the third film in this Jamaican documentary trilogy, nearing completion, is Spawn of Love, about the homeless illegitimate children fathered by rich white men vacationing at island resorts and sneaking away from their spouses at night for a few moments of forbidden love. Sign me up for the trifecta!

Blackwell also founded Island Records back in 1960 (he’s 71) and signed up an unknown Bob Marley, earning a reputation as the man responsible for the popularity of reggae. I didn’t deal with the question of personal financial gain in the case of the Marleys and Africa Unite, although some other reviewers did. At the time, I was more interested in the dynamics of holding a conference meant to be liberal and democratic in an illiberal country. If I had examined the financial aspects of Africa Unite and the movie’s effect on future iterations of the event, I might have mentioned that after the first edition of it in Addis Ababa, in October, a Ghanaian delegation came to Jamaica to discuss business opportunities between the two countries. Alexander Melville attended the talks and the second Africa Unite was held in Ghana four months later. However, I’m not aware of any other particular connections between Melville and Blackwell, which might argue for taking Sun Dogs as a fun movie and letting it go at that.

Danny Melville started Chukka Caribbean Adventures in 1983.  It’s now the largest land-based nature adventure tour provider in the region, offering more than thirty tours in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Belize, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The business sells more than a quarter of a million adventure tours to cruise and hotel guests every year, including canopy tours over the jungle, mountain-to-sea cycling, river kayaking, a horseback ride and swim, and a Bob Marley retrospective bus trip. Plus, of course, the Jamaica dog sled Experience. “With a commitment to deliver the highest quality tours with well-trained guides and stringent safety standards, Chukka takes pride in showcasing the natural beauty of the Caribbean through unique and sensational experiences and providing opportunities for local residents and businesses.” (chukkacaribbean.com)

Chukka Cove, where it all started, caters to horse lovers who stay on the estate’s landscaped grounds, near the stables. There are six two-bedroom villas, each suitable for four guests, each with a veranda, plank floors, and the feel of Old-Country gentry. Meals are prepared for you on-site. Nickering, and presumably barking, can be heard through open bedroom windows in the moonlight.

The Melvilles are businessmen and make no bones about the fact. When Danny had the sleddog idea, he approached the thing as a money-making proposition from the start and is clear about that throughout the film. “It’s good business,” he says. (N.b., I’m paraphrasing these quotes from memory and notes.) “We’ve got an unexploited brand.  If we can be successful, like the Jamaican bobsled team, the tourists will become ambassadors for us.” (Here in the movie a quick clip of the bobsled team, stars of the 1988 Calgary Olympics.) “You know, you have to believe in it and dive into it wholeheartedly. Tourists will go home and say, ‘I went dog sledding in Jamaica!’ Of course I hope to make a profit: the Jamaica Dog Sled Experience. Our dogs come from the local pound – because, you know, if Jamaica didn’t have the image of being crime-ridden, violent, and poor, it would fly. So, dog sleds pulled by strays, after they’ve been neutered and vaccinated for rabies, that’s the good news. Listen, after Devon’s first race, we were in the Indian newspaper. We were in the Australian newspaper.”

Tourists trot past on Melville horses.

Guests first receive an orientation on sled-dog racing and how the Jamaican team was formed. They also get a lecture on the stray situation in Jamaica. (A percentage of the tour fee goes to the JSPCA.) Finally, visitors get to meet, hug and pet the dogs and learn their personal stories before receiving instruction on mushing technique and heading out on the three-kilometer trail around Chukka Cove Farm.

“This is going to help the dogs because you’ll soon have everybody wanting to get a dog to train them to pull a sled or cart,” says musher Anderson, standing with dogs milling around his ankles. “And eventually, we’ll get rid of the stray dogs on the street.” 20 down and 35,000 to go.

“The Jamaica Dog Sled Encounter at Chukka Caribbean Adventures, home to the only dog sled team and dog sled tours in the Caribbean, is offering children between 6 and 12 years a complimentary Jamaica Dog sled Encounter, with one child free per paying adult. The tour includes a visit to Dunn’s River Falls, and to Island Village for shopping, plus complimentary lunch at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.”

Bottom line on the movie, if not the tour: If you’re more interested in the dogs in particular, or the mushers learning about and training with the dogs, or social and economic conditions on the island, or the physical aspects of the island itself, or the sport of dog sledding, or Caribbean history in general, to the exclusion of interest in the other elements of the movie, then you will not get much of what you crave and will probably feel impatient, dissatisfied, and that your time has been misspent. On the other hand, if your interest runs to the conception, inception, nuture, and support of a fledgling business, then the dogs, mushers, and scenery provide a little spice, or spoonfuls of sugar, to the business; that is, as aids in getting you to hear, learn, and internalize the root message, or hook. Stewart might have been making her first feature-length film, but her backers knew exactly what they wanted and what they needed from the film and there is no doubt that they vetted her work every step of the way to make sure that they got what they wanted. A little local color; a story line that takes you out behind your resort hotel room and not to the Iditarod; a little upbeat music; a break from the intensity of Rick Steves; a story arc of “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Come down and ride on one,” not “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Compete and win/lose.”

I thought about calling the director about this movie and asking her where her head was at when she made it, and how much “input” she got from  Melville and Blackwell and Koh, and Leigh Ingleby (audio-visual interests and arts funding), but I didn’t because I’m conflict-shy and a question like that might really piss her off. Instead, I called Dr. Gomes at Jamaicans For Justice. She impressed me in the movie and I felt that I could trust her answers. I missed her twice at her office but she was kind enough to return my calls. After a few introductory niceties, I asked her if she had seen Sun Dogs. She had. I told her that I was calling with one question in mind, namely, that although the film raised some questions about social justice and poverty in Jamaica, it struck me more simply as a commercial for one more “Caribbean adventure” from a large leisure company, an adventure which, so far as I could tell at present, hasn’t materially aided the poor of the country. So, Were the sun dogs in fact, in her view, of some use as a pro-social force on the island? It took a while for me to get all that out. She listened in silence and her reply, as it struck me, was stony. She said that she had consented to be interviewed for the film and that she had answered the questions put to her to the best of her ability. Period. No love shown by Dr. Gomes for the sun dogs.

So come on down for a ride ($100 adults, $76 children, or $352 plus tax for a family of four if you don’t find a coupon to use in advance, or buy a package of adventures). The dogs pull in, say, $1000 an hour, ten hours a day, 350 days a year, two sites. A modest $7 mil a year. Overhead costs: kibble. An unknown percentage of the net returned to the JSPCA, which from the looks of it hasn’t been spending it on glitz at the pound. The ride is a nice addition to the many adventures in many locales that help put the Melville enterprises over the billion-a-year mark.

We can hope that Newton is not still sitting on his plank down at his tin shack.

If you do decide to go on down and stay at Chukka Cove Farm, you’ll know what to expect after watching this movie. The north-central coast of Jamaica. Turquoise ocean. Lush hills. Magnificent waterfalls. Cool mountain rivers. The poor of the island changing your sheets and refilling your wine glass at dinner.

Good. I got all the way through the review without using the word “infomercial.”

Summer Palace: Chinese Thoughts On Love

Spoiler Alert: If you want the ending of Summer Palace to be a surprise, read no further.

After watching two hours and twenty minutes of cigarette smoking in yet another Asian movie (see also my comments on the subject in my review of Drifters), I finally bestirred myself long enough to fish up the following news bites:

“Guiyang, China — Here’s some exciting medical news from the Chinese government: Smoking is great for your health. Cigarettes, according to China’s tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers. They also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.”

“With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for almost one-third of all cigarettes smoked on the planet today. Two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers, and surveys show that as many as 90 per cent believe their habit has little effect on their health, or is good for them. Even in China’s medical community, 60 per cent of male doctors are smokers. Few are aware of the studies forecasting that cigarettes will soon be responsible for one-third of all premature deaths among Chinese men.”

“There is no market more important to the tobacco industry and no nation posing more challenges to tobacco control than China. With 350 million smokers and 1 million tobacco-caused deaths annually, China is the biggest challenge in international tobacco control.”

Summer Palace begins with its heroine Yu Hong (Lei Huo) at home in her village. Her boyfriend doesn’t have much to say to her, but he does urge her to try his imported cigarettes. Now I know why; he’s concerned about her health.


As much as I admire and respect Pauline Kael’s reviews, which appeared in the New Yorker for years, nevertheless, I began to take some of them with a grain of salt as she approached the end of her career, because I had the feeling that by then she had simply seen too many movies. She began to dismiss the familiar too quickly, or so it seemed to me, and began taking an interest in the unusual instead, whether the unusual in question merited her interest or not. I was thinking about this while watching Summer Palace because the film is a staring-off-into-space-athon and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m in the same boat as Pauline – seen too many – at least as far as this type of dialog-eschewing personal-interaction film is concerned. Have I seen too many anguished protagonists gazing moodily into the middle distance to react to the heroine Yu Hong as director Ye Lou would have me react? What is Yu Hong thinking, up there on the screen? Which way will she jump?

Why the pain? Is that the thousand-yard stare of a stunned brain I’m seeing, or a portal into her seething emotions? Can I apprehend and empathize with and finally appreciate her internal struggles or will I just shrug them off, always assuming that I can figure out what they are in the first place?

In American movies these days, the strong silent type is typically a man with limited acting skills who ends up pulling and using a gun or otherwise kicking major ass after being pushed too far. The problem with the silent stare in a movie with intellectual pretensions like Summer Palace is that as the film wears on, the protagonist can literally do or say anything and we’re obliged to take it and like it. Consistency cannot be an issue, since we can’t know for sure what the character has been thinking. The consequent action is the result of deep thought, we presume, or mental instability, or, as they say, whatnot. Or perchance the character will do nothing in the end, just continue to stare.

I watched an episode of The Wire just before watching Summer Palace.
Dense dialog, dense narrative. Corruption in a city where in the final analysis nothing is going to change. Meanwhile, in Summer Palace, one billion people undergo a decade of profound and radical change as the regime gradually opens into an authoritarian economic system. Scant dialog, scant narrative. Ironic.

And speaking of not talking to each other – during sex, Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), Yu Hong’s main squeeze in the movie, wears earphones. Call me old-fashioned!

Non-dialog reaches new heights in a scene where the lovers are floating on a lake in a rowboat. This is one of those couples-in-a-boat-wordless-montage scenes, only this time, after stretching out interminably, the scene goes no-dialog time-lapse into the night with a full moon rising. Yu Hong will probably tell her diary that she
and Zhou Wei were talking into the night, after watching Zhou Wei rest on his oars for eight hours, smoking.

And then, back at the hotel after languishing in the boat, sex. And then, “Zhou Wei? I think we should break up.” “Why?” “Because I can’t leave you.” This is the signal to us that whenever things seem to be going well in the movie, Yu Hong will turn away and step off the curb into traffic, metaphorically speaking. An example of the viewer not knowing what is coming, not being a mind reader.

I believe that Yu Hong was still a frosh at this point. When I was a frosh, I had a couple of painful wordless dates but they didn’t end with me wearing headphones. Or not wearing them, either.

Waiting for the dialog in a film like Summer Palace is like reading a Henry James novel. He doles out the spoken words most sparingly – dialog was the crest of the wave, I think he said – but most of the time I was deep under water, longing for any sign of a set of quotation marks, on pages of solid print often missing even a paragraph break. I’m speaking of his late novels.

If director Ye Lou were making Casablanca here instead of Summer Palace, Ingrid Bergman would step into Rick’s Cafe with her husband, sit down at a table, and smoke and drink beer without speaking to Paul Henreid or anybody else, while Bogart stood at the back of the room, alternately staring at her and looking away, smoking, wordless. Their eyes would meet once. Later, at the end of the movie, after a clinch, Bogart would stare into her eyes and say “What next?” and Bergman would drag on her cigarette and look away, and he’d look away, and she’d look back but he wouldn’t, and she’d reply, “What next?” Then she’d look at him looking away some more and then one or both of them would turn and walk away. Lights up.

Lei Huo does a nice French inhale or two (or Irish waterfall, if you prefer) in the movie, while not talking, I’ll give her that. And there is a scene in a car where she and Zhou Wei drive, with lots of staring. He stares ahead. She stares ahead. Then she stares at him while he stares ahead, and that was good, her staring at him. That scene had some juice, wordless or not. Plus, they were filmed dead-on from in front of the windshield with the car vibrating from its motion, the most realistic such scene that I can remember seeing.

Director Ye Lou, a 43-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors (the Fifth Generation, growing up during the Cultural
Revolution, was more familiar with the rural than the urban), which also includes, for example, Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000), Xiaoshuai Wang (Drifters, 2003), and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). There is a definite trend in many Chinese Sixth Generation movies to skate over narrative and dialog (see, for example, The Wayward Cloud). Obviously, I need to be in the mood for this.

In Ye Lou’s case, the lack of dialog seems to grow out of his philosophy of film.

“I want Lei Huo to be the character, not pretend to be the character. If she’s just pretending, even if she’s a very competent actor, she’ll still harm the character, because the audience will just see her as a very good actor.”

Not so.

That’s why they’re called actors.

This reminds me of Olivier’s reply to Hoffman, who was using The Method in Marathon Man to get into character and asked Olivier about the technique that he used to do the same. “Dear boy,” Sir Lawrence replied. “It’s called acting.”

Because to ensure that Lei Huo will “be the character,” Ye Lou provides her with virtually no dialog – he can’t presume, you see – and, unlike in a Mike Leigh film, she doesn’t trouble herself to develop any herself. Which
leaves us to divine what’s going on in her noggin by the expression on her purposely expressionless face. Lei Huo says “the character is like me in real life. She’s going to break my heart” but this doesn’t help me, since
I don’t happen to know Lei Huo personally. She’s a force though, with her nose often a little red.

But. Having said all that. It’s true that throughout the movie, once she gets to university, Yu Hong tells us what she is thinking by reading excerpts from her diary in voice-over. However, her thoughts as verbalized do
not illuminate; they merely reiterate the non-look on her face. Viz, after meeting her one true love for the
first time and dancing with him to “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” (neither of them speaking, needless to say):

“Had I not viewed my life in the light of the ideal, its mediocrity would have been unbearable. That’s how I saw things when we met. You came into my life. You are my most refined friend. It’s very simple. I knew the
moment I saw you that we were standing on the same side of the world. And then we talked the whole night long. For all that, there are troubling aspects to our relationship which can’t be reduced simply to pleasure or lack of it. I want to live more and more intensely. It’s clear to me, nowhere more so than in our relationship, because there are times when I’m clearly imposing my will on you. If one takes desire lightly, action will be
constricted. It was through love that I understood this. There’s no getting around it. There are only illusions. Illusions. Those lethal things.”

This load is dropped on us at one go, intercut with tracking shots of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), her new university lover, walking and gazing but not speaking. Perhaps they talked the night away and we never saw it, but more likely all the talking is being done directly into the diary. The message: the course of love never did run smooth. I think I can say with assurance that I never dated and danced and talked the night away
with a girl who had these thoughts running through her mind.

The dictum is “Show, don’t tell.” Here we have the opposite. The silence doesn’t show and the voice-over diary reading tells constantly.

Later from the diary, we get the likes of:

“As soon as love touches you, life is knocked off balance.”

“True love can only appear at the most intense moments of anguish and suffering.”

Later one of Yu Hong’s lovers says, “You’re so simple. You’re different from other women. You’re simple and straightforward.” He obviously did not get his hands on the diary.

Of course, there are language and cultural issues here. In the absence of a gloss for the subtitles, this is where you pause the movie and turn to your spouse or significant other, if he or she happens to be from China,
to solicit some cultural and linguistic input that might help you pick up on the nuances in those diary entries and in the dialog and action in general. Because these are our fundamental hints about what is going on in the
minds of the characters and the hints are just enough but not more than enough to mute any surprise we might feel when, at the apparent height of their happiness, as they lie full-frontal (a Chinese first. Fifteen years
ago, kissing was hardly allowed), staring up at the ceiling with the camera aimed down at them, Yu Hong suggests that Xhou Wei get circumcised. Why? he asks. (Xiaodong Guo speaks as quietly throughout this movie as
anyone I can remember speaking on film without actually whispering.) Yu Hong replies, Because it would be less painful. Who told you that? he asks. My professor, she says. Why did he tell you that? Because, she says, we were making love. This puts an immediate damper on the couple’s romantic outing. Yu Hong follows an old romantic convention and walks away from happiness whenever she chances to encounter it.

Another quick scene that might benefit from a little cultural interpretation: Yu Hong is sitting in a public park next to a basketball court, waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. He’s late. She’s watching some young men play a pickup game. Her boyfriend rides up on his motorcycle, hops off, and apologizes for being late. Suddenly, an outcry. He’s parked on the court or on a part of the street serving as the court. Immediately there is a struggle and he gets a shiner and scraped cheeks. The young woman joins in the fracas. The problem is, the conflict is instantaneous and obliquely shot, so that it is impossible to tell what’s happening, exactly. The scene feels clunky and staged, which is strange considering that it follows several quiet and evocative scenes that open the movie. Surely this doesn’t mean that Ye Lou doesn’t have the chops to handle a little action, action as majorly simple as this? He obviously isn’t a fan of Hong Kong movie brawls, but I’m thinking that I’ve missed some cultural nuance in the scene that might help account for its amateur feeling.

And one more word about taciturn actors: we don’t even get diary entries from Zhou Wei. He drives away from Yu Hong at the end of the movie without a word but with, we presume, extreme regret (though his face doesn’t show it). Who knows why?

Earlier, hanging out in Berlin because that is what the director did after he got out of school, separated now from Yu Hong, his true love, Zhou Wei sits next to a young Polish woman. The two are gazing out at a Berlin
wasteland. One presumes, on the evidence of the movie so far, that they are casually intimate, perhaps lovers.

“What is Warsaw like?” Zhou Wei says.

Pause for some gazing and brow-wrinkling by the girl.

“It’s ok,” she says.

Mutual space-gazing.

“And Beijing?” she says back.

Gazing in tandem. I like it that the man from China and the woman from Poland are conversing quietly in German. Xiaodong Guo continues to speaks in a too-cool quiet voice.

“It’s ok,” he says.

I figured that that was going to be it for the scene but after another bit of gazing, she asks him if he has a girlfriend. He says that he does. We feel the painful significance of this terse reply. Where is she? the girl asks. Somber piano notes.

“Very far away,” he says in German with a Beijing accent.

“In China?”


“Where are we right now?” the girl asks. Zhou Wei exhales cigarette smoke. She says, “In Berlin?”

What she means by this, I have no idea. The first time I watched the scene I rolled my eyes. By the fifth time I was liking it. At least they were saying something to each other, even if it didn’t make any sense.

The director wanted to make an organic movie that grew, as if alive, and that involved the actors. What are the implications of this for the movie’s story? Is “organic” code here for “no plot,” or “no narrative,” or
“juryrigged narrative arc”? The makers of Manda Bala, which I just reviewed, went on a five-year hunt for a story with limited success. Ye Lou didn’t take that long, unless you count the fact that he’s been thinking about this film since his graduation from film school in 1989. His struggle is evident, though, in the same way that Jason Kohn’s was in Manda Bala – nurturing a hope that something will crop up. A failure of ability or imagination or no failure, but simply the constrictions on storytelling imposed by the original vision. The suicide in Summer Palace (wordless), and its wordless aftermath (serious staring off), and the abortion (wordless), and Yu Hong getting hit by a car, and some of the sex, and most of the rest of the staring-off-into-space in this film could have been eliminated, to the film’s benefit, by replacing it all with a little sharp dialog. Having said that, the movie never dragged for me; the two hours and twenty minutes it ran felt like less.

“I don’t want a construction, with a clear beginning, middle, and end,” says the director. In his opinion, the story would naturally end with the events in Tiananmen Square in ’89, which occur halfway through, but he must
show the consequences of Chinese economic and political development with respect to the students during the ten years that follow. He wants his film to live and it appears that in his view, forcing it into the straightjacket of a story would kill it. “One of the challenges in the narrative is that the climax of the story is actually in the middle of the film and not at the end. But it wasn’t possible for the story to end there. That moment had to be in the middle of the film.” I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m oblivious to
metaphor in film. To the extent that the lives of the students in the decade after Tiananmen stand in for the economic and political developments in the country, the film doesn’t work for me. The director says that it’s a
melodrama, not a political statement; some commentators think that Western viewers will take the movie as a melodrama while Chinese viewers will react to the representation of China ten years ago. I got the melodrama and not so much the mood of that country in the 90s.

Regardless of my issues about dialog and narrative, I have nothing but respect for Ye Lou as a maker of movies. He made Weekend Lover in 1995 and then Suzhou River without permission, in 2002. Suzhou River won prizes and was praised as “exhibiting the most eloquent and
effortless command of the post-Wong Kar-wai pop idiom yet.” The Chinese government then put him out of business for two years. Ye Lou takes his movies seriously. After making Purple Butterfly in 2003, he did Summer Palace and was hit with another suspension by the government in 2006, for five years this time, because he entered the movie at Cannes
without permission. A sacrifice like that requires us to take second and third looks at his filmmaking philosophy. As does the praise for Summer Palace from the likes of A.O. Scott and David Denby.

“I’m just a director. I’m not a politician. I don’t want to get into boring politics in my films. Many Chinese directors practice self-censorship because of the tight controls. But I think this is fatal. Directors must be free. So I say to everyone when we are working, ‘Let’s forget censorship.’ That’s why there are always so many troubles after the film. But while I am shooting, I am very happy… In my opinion, in its current condition, we still have a lot of problems. First and foremost, Chinese cinema still isn’t free, either in terms of creativity, management, or regulations. If you can’t express your opinions freely, you can’t accurately judge the value of other people’s words. We need to be able to express what we really think before we can judge the form or soundness of another expression.” Summer Palace was withdrawn by the producers at Cannes after the Chinese government’s reaction to its release.

The movie had more film-making resources available to it than most Chinese films. Scenes were shot in six different cities, through four seasons, with rain, wind, and summer heat. (Do Asian movies do rain best? It can come down in buckets. Rashomon – now that was rain.) To make this romance about the youth of his generation, Ye Lou returned to the same dorm rooms he had lived in at university. If I returned to the dorm rooms that I lived in at Occidental and Tufts and dressed them to match the time that I was there, and then filmed moments of political, cultural, and physical awakening in them that matched my own, I expect that the results would resonate powerfully with me. Wow. But probably not with anybody else. Would this cloud my judgment around the dramatic and esthetic issues that arise while making a film? I know nothing about Beijing University and the Summer Palace next door to it, other than that the school’s interior looks a lot like a hard-used middle school I used to know in the toughest neighborhood in Detroit.

Similarly, after college the peregrinations of the students reflect the director’s own post-graduate travels. Zhou Wei hies off to Germany (Ye Lou met his wife in Berlin), Dong Dong to the U.S., the others to large cities in south China. We see the wall in Berlin coming down, Gorby, Hong Kong reverting to china. But there are two hundred cities in China with a population over one million and I can’t name three of them; the director’s
scheme of moving south city by city to indicate, metaphorically, the opening of Chinese economic policy in the 90s (it having always been easier to operate in China the farther south you went) was lost on me. Perhaps if these students had started in Detroit and headed down to St. Louis, and then Nashville, Texarkana, Santa Fe, and Venice Beach, and Italy instead of Germany, I might have registered more fully the zeitgeist presented in the movie. I was talking to a couple of young people the other day who are working in online data acquisition in Boston. They’ve been having the feeling lately, after a couple of years in private industry following a lifetime in school, of “This is it? This is what it means to finally be an adult?” Questions which anyone in this movie would understand. At university in Beijing in ’89, everything seemed possible. The world could be changed. In the second half of Summer Palace, the former students learn that this feeling was an illusion, something that Yu Hong realized much sooner.

The ’90s were a time of confusion for many twenty-somethings in China. The characters in Summer Palace spend a lot of time acting confused. I take the point. There is old China here but there is also Coca Cola in the big red bottle on the ferry, and this is the first time I recall seeing a mainland China gas station. It wasn’t self-serve. Just off the freeway. Had a mini-mart. The thing about character confusion is that, in the absence
of dialog, it can edge into boredom, aimlessness, and ennui, which can then translate into boredom for the viewer, especially if the viewer doesn’t knit. It occurred to me to wonder at one point about the difference, if any, between the boredom of childhood, the boredom of adolescence, that of young adults, of parents, of the middle-aged, of seniors, and of pet dogs. And whether the boredom engendered by a bad action flick is the same as or different than the boredom caused by an art movie with a bad case of the longeures. These are questions to pursue in a later review, when a truly boring movie comes along.

Mick LaSalle in his podcast the other day said that the key to an effective romantic sex scene (as opposed to the other types of sex scene) is to make sure that longing precedes it. This is a forte of current Chinese
filmmakers. They tell love stories, with all the difficulties so often attendant to them, and they seem to specialize in longing. Consider the movies I’ve mentioned above, or any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain. Summer Palace begins with an entry in Yu Hong’s diary:

“There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It takes you off guard and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow and it’s impossible to shake. I don’t know what it is, so I can only call it love.” Love blows in like a wind, and it’s an ill wind that blows no good. With fifteen minutes left in the movie, Zhou Wei learns that Yu Hong is married. The longing on his part takes a final, major step up.

You’ve got to look long and hard to find this kind of movie in the West. Romantic comedies, sexual-attraction movies, historical romances like The Age of Innocence from time to time, but modern longing and romance? Not so much. This is not to say that most of Yu Hong’s sexual activity is meant to be romantic. Instead, she says in her diary, “It’s only when we’re making love that you
realize that I’m gentle.” She teaches a number of men that she’s gentle by using this direct method. She has tried countless other ways but has chosen this special direct method as the most efficacious. I have a feeling
that the word “gentle” does not do justice to Yu Hong’s original conception, but one way or another, it’s all about her trying to be accepted as good and tender. Thinking back, I’m wondering if any of those women I knew
were just trying to show me that they were gentle. Question: Does longing for one person make sex scenes with someone else work? Yu Hong, for example, while longing for Zhou Wei, finds love with Wu Gang (at least until “material poverty can only lead to resentment”). Hmm, now that I think of it, most of the sex in the movie involves longing for someone absent.

Li Ti (the suicide) wouldn’t allow anyone to love her for fear of hurting them. “Love is like a wound in the heart. When it heals, love disappears. Or never existed.”

Ye Lou calls Summer Palace a melodrama, not a historical study. Most of its two-and-a-half hours is spent examining love, watching young men and women in love, trying to explain love.

Ye Lou: “Then love is like a leaf in the universe. if the universe were a tree, love would be a leaf on the tree. And we can glimpse at the shape of the universe by looking at just one leaf. So I can just depict the love. Once I’ve protrayed the love, I’ve portrayed the universe.”

Well, if I see an elm leaf, I can’t tell you what the trunk of the tree looks like. Does Ye Lou succeed in explaining love, or are we simply peppered with notions?

“Why was it that nothing he had said to me or done to me could prevent my heart from going out to him,” Yu Hongs says. I never spotted Zhou Wei actually saying or doing anything in particular to her, so I take the
question to actually be a statement. The director has said that love is uncontrollable, that is goes beyond events, that it can’t be restrained, that we can’t demand anything of it. We can’t expect it to bring happiness, or marriage, or a long and happy life together. He says that emotional torment takes time, a lot of time, to resolve. For Ye Hong and Zhou Wei to come back together and stay together, the director says, would have taken them another decade of longing and would have taken him another hour of screen time. Now I don’t feel so bad that they didn’t get back together.

So, a movie about love. What do I take away from it? If you’re in love and you have sex repeatedly, it doesn’t lead to boredom, as in real life, but to unhappy longing for your absent partner. Or vice versa. I hope the director has had better luck with love than his characters in Summer Place, because, in this movie, not to lower the tenor of the review, if love strikes, you’re f**ked.

Not a movie to see with your mom, or your priest (Madeinusa)(2006)

This review contains spoilers (but first, a bit of business. I contacted the star of Madeinusa, Magaly Solier, to let her know that I have formed the Magaly Solier Fan Club and am its charter member and president. (No, there wasn’t one already, unbelievably.) When Magaly comes to the U.S. on tour following the completion of her current project, I will host the meet-up with her and will offer to take paid time off from my job and personally supervise her activities in this country. Stand by for more details. Meanwhile, you can learn more about Magaly at her Myspace page. (In the first scene in Madeinusa (pronounced Ma–den–OO–za), Magaly, who comes from Huanta, Ayacucho, Peru (check your map of the Andes; it’s off Highway 3, north of Ayachcho – the highlands area where Shining Path was at its worst back in the 90s. We should be sensitive about this when chatting with Magaly at the meet-up (brush up on your Spanish) because she would have been a child at the time of the most violent incidents in that internal Peruvian struggle. The writer Maria Vargas Llosa did research on the involvement of the Iquichanos in Sendero Luminosa violencia and I presume that Magaly is of Iquichanos blood. She speaks Quechua in the movie and the director and writer of Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (30 years of age, lives in Spain now; this is her first movie), is Maria Vargas’ niece. When I meet Claudia, the first thing I’m going to ask her is how she met Magaly, who was just out of high school at the time and had never been inside a movie theater, much less done any acting, before starring in this movie. All Magaly has to say on the subject is “El destino puso en mi camino a Claudia Llosa, quien cambió mi vida y me llevó hasta el cine.”), is seen putting out rat poison (if you’re going to use that shotgun on the wall, have someone hang it up there at the beginning of the movie. In Madeinusa, in addition to the initial poison-spreading, we get several camera shots from the perspective of dead rats and on several occasions Magaly’s sister, played by Yiliana Chong (for my views on beautiful young women with names like Cheung or Chong, refer to my review of Clean. As mentioned there (I didn’t include Rae Dawn Chong in that review, but everything I said there goes for her too), I was founder and president of Maggie Cheung’s fan club until, as part of my settlement of the bogus harassment and stalking charges lodging against me by her, because she took the terrible advice of her manager, and the restraining order that the judge subsequently imposed, I had to give up my presidential position and membership in the club. The gears of justice ground slowly but exceedingly fine in the matter and after two years of litigation I was lucky to get off without pulling any hard time. That’s love in Hollywood for you. I can only hope and pray that Magaly’s new manager (Lalo Ponce (did she have to sign with a manager named “Ponce”?)) doesn’t give her any advice like that), tells Magaly and the gringo from Lima, Salvador (played by Carlos J. de la Torre, one of the two professional actors in the movie (the other is Jaun Ubaldo Huamán, known in S.A. for his comedic work (speaking of which, every good movie needs at least one unforgettable scene and Madeinusa provides it when Cayo, Madeinusa’s father, played by Huamán, takes out his wife’s red earrings, which she had left behind when she ran off to Lima and which Madeinusa prizes above all things, and, furious as he is that the gringo has beaten him to his daughter’s virginity, which he has waited and wanted to take for so long and now has just missed by an hour or so, and drunk, sitting alone in the town’s little bar, he drops the earrings into a glass of whiskey, fishes them out and sucks them dry, lays them down on the bar and bends forward and pounds them to pieces with his forehead, and then picks up the remains and gnaws and chews on them before dropping what’s left into his coat pocket to wait there for the climax of the movie (you can rape me but keep your filthy paws off my mom’s earrings). Huamán, who chews the scenery from act one onward, now chews the props.). This is one of those movies with so much drinking that you just want to join them and pour it right down your throat straight from the bottle instead of sitting there like you are, drinking it out of a jam jar with a little jam still in it.) and coincidentally born in Santiago, D.R., where, as I mention in my review of Sun Dogs, I was staying in the neighborhood that he and his dad came from before he moved to Lima with his mom.  In the movie, any white guy from Lima is a gringo.) that rat poison brings good luck, so that we know from the git-go that somebody is going to be eating rat poison before we’re done. Chong is the oh-so-sassy one. If I didn’t have any morals, I’d be founding her new fan club as well as Magaly’s (“Did you see his eyes?” Magaly says of the gringo. “Why should I?” Chong says. “They are lighter, like in the magazines,” Magaly says. “And yours are the color of your shit, so don’t get excited,” Chong says. Sassy.).) and she appears to be a grown woman. In the next scene (her name in the movie is Madeinusa, by the way (“Madeinusa” is a normal given name in rural Peru, as are names such as Usanavi, Jhonfkenedi, and Marlonbrando. Western influence acting strangely on native culture. The title “Madeinusa” might mean something beyond being the name of the protagonist; if so, I have no idea what; when Madeinusa sees it (“Made in USA”) on the tag of Salvador’s T-shirt, she reacts, but what she’s thinking I couldn’t say. (Claudia sidesteps the question of symbols in interviews, symbols which in Madeinusa if and where present do not obtrude, by saying that they depend on the viewer. “What they read on the film depends on their own subjective universe. But I’m the type of person that thinks that when somebody have an emotional reaction on a subjects, it because, deep inside, something is moving. No body reacts on nothing.” (Kudos to her for taking on interviews in English.) As a viewer who remains oblivious to most metaphor and symbol in film, and pooh-poohs especially symbols discovered by the director, by accident, post-facto, like the frogs in Manda Bala, I’ve let any hint of allegory and message slide by here, not to be mentioned again in this review. And there are no bits of magic realism, either. The town is real, the film in parts could function as a documentary, every character projecting psychological depths. Buñuel has been invoked, on a literary foundation that Uncle Llosa could appreciate. (Claudia locates the action (conflict between the old and the new) in a small town in the mountains, during the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which is dubbed “Holy Time.” God is asleep, Jesus is removed from the cross and blindfolded, and sins go unrecognized and unpunished until God wakes up again. This sounds somehow familiar to me, but maybe that’s because I grew up in Turpentine, Mississippi, where God was often asleep for more than just a long weekend, and that’s back when everybody was a Democrat; Christ knows what it’s like there now. But Father Bob assures me that nowhere in the world does the Church really permit such sin-free weekends, regardless of local pagan folk beliefs or the size of a parishioner’s tithing remittance. As far as he, Father Bob, knows, anyway. The director and her helpers spent seven months designing the religious procession that starts the sleeping-God time, and the costumes worn during the weekend’s religious ceremonies, and designed the look of the village (Manayaycuna (“the town no-one can enter” in Quechua), located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca), Madinusa’s house, so forth. I think I read somewhere that Indiana Jones got his hat idea from a trip to a village like Manayaycuna. The hat wrangler for the movie did a helluva job.).), she speaks to her older sister Chale (Yiliana) in the voice of a child. I’m wondering at this point- here at the start of the movie (of course, before contemplating founding a fan club and hosting a meet-up!!), is this a child who looks older than her age, almost adult from certain angles, or an adult with the voice of a ten-year-old, or what? Long story short, Magaly is playing a fourteen-year-old but was twenty when she made the movie. She’s twenty-two now and still has that little-girl voice. (In addition to her film work, which includes Ms Llosa’s second film, in which Magaly again stars, La Teta Asustada, Magaly has been in Josué Mendez’s Dioses (Perú 2007) and in Fragments of Grace (a German/French, Belgian production). She has also signed with Phantom Music Group and has performed in a concert or two. She does a little singing in the movie, not American-Idol quality, but two songs that she wrote, which I can picture entertaining us while we sit on a rock in the mountains waiting for the next llama cart to come along. And for those of you, by the way, who might be interested in joining the fan club but have a problem with the fact that in the movie, as a fourteen-year-old, Magaly gives herself impulsively and rather graphically to an adult male and then later that night, with some resignation but not much, to her own father, I would point out that she was dealing with Claudia Llosa’s script; that is, a story written by a Lima native who has been living in Spain for some years away from her institutriz. As far as Magaly was concerned, the doings on the set were probably as foreign and weird as those written by someone from Mars. I’m not taking her behavior in the movie personally. (Per the plot, a young geologist from Lima is stuck in the village over the weekend because a bridge is out farther up the road. Madeinusa gets the idea that he could take her to Lima where she can find her mother and escape the pending attentions of her father. So she gives it up to him, no sin, instead of to her father. When she pulls down her unmentionables in a dark alley in invitation, the geologist gets local religion on the spot. Come to think of it, I believe that one of my Peruvian friends, who will NOT be in the fan club, might have come from Manayaycuna, the dog.). (Which reminds me that one critic presents the lamebrained idea that Claudia set out to combine beautiful photography, third-world indigent cultural references, and a modern plot with a twist, not so much to make a good and entertaining and satisfyingly-understated-but-deep movie, but instead to make a commercial movie that would sell internationally. Note to this reviewer: If you want to make a movie that sells in the U.S., DON’T DO BANUEL IN THE  BACKYARD OF NOWHERE WITH A BUNCH OF NON-ACTORS. Without the good offices of Film Movement, this film would currently be enjoying an exclusive run in Puno Province at the world’s only llama-cart drive-in, the Titicaca Starlighter. Even with Film Movement, every local metroplex in the U.S. will have returned to the dusty earth from whence it arose before Madeinusa ever plays there. Jerk.)) Could it be that the voice of the star, as much or more than his or her looks, influences me? I remember that I couldn’t get enough of June Allyson. (Oh, and speaking of misguided reviewers, I also emailed the critic who found the film well-directed but unbearably dull, and asked him if the multiple sex scenes with blood included, the head-lice combing and squashing, the ground glass in the knees, bathing in a washtub, baldfaced pig theft, cast of hundreds, drunken spitting contest, mountain scenery, dead-rat flinging, corpse abuse, townwide mutual simultaneous public wife-swapping, necktie cutting with pointed scissors at the throat of the tieless gringo, sweeping a dirt floor, great fly foley, human clock (old man flips card every minute. White cards when God is awake, red cards from 3 P.M. Friday when Christ dies until 6 A.M Sunday), red-white-and-blue Andean color-coordinated female styling, cow piss, Christ coming off the cross blindfolded, foaming-at-the-mouth poisoning death scene (you can rape me but keep your filthy paws off my mom’s earrings!), and another data point supporting my theory that just as every French movie contains the word “personne,” every Spanish-language movie contains the word “preoccupar” didn’t liven things up for him enough to avoid the “D” word, but it turns out that he mostly reviews for Fangoria, so nothing I say is going to change his mind. Dude is desensitized. Roger Ebert once wondered in a review, “How is it that the same movie can seem tedious on first viewing and absorbing on the second? Why doesn’t it grow even more tedious?” His guess: “Perhaps it helped that I knew what the story offered and what it did not offer, and was able to see it again without expecting what would not come.” That is, the first time through we’re sometimes watching a movie that isn’t really there because input is perturbed and shaped by expectation. For example, the first time I watched Old Joy, which is about two guys who go off into the woods and spend some time together and then go home, I had seen so many horror movies, and Deliverance, and such, where folks go off into the woods and then bad things happen to them, that all the way through Old Joy I was waiting for some bad thing. The movie wasn’t about anything like that. In some sense, the two guys could have spent that time at the seashore or walking around Manhattan. Second time through, I could listen, hear, see, enjoy. Likewise, in the movie Sounder: dad, boy, and a big buzz saw. I kept waiting for somebody to lose a body part. Didn’t happen. I laughed at the opening sequence in Walk Hard, which runs a bunch of those scenarios past us without result before finally pulling the trigger. As for Madeinusa, knowing that it was a low-budget work filmed in the highlands of Peru as the first effort of a young woman from Lima, and seeing in the opening scene a young indigenous woman preparing and distributing rat poison whilst at one point picking up a dead rat by its tail and flinging it away, I slipped into viewing-third-world-documentary-style mode and was not expecting and for a while did not pick up on the fact that I was watching a droll, sly, sophisticated, sacrilegious little riff by a director/writer of wit and intelligence, who had assembled an expert crew (Raúl Pérez Ureta (who shot the film on HD digital video. This prize-winning master has been working more outside of Cuba lately, in Argentina, Colombia, and Peru. He does himself proud here), Patricia Bueno, Susana Torres, Eduardo Camino, Roxana Rivera, Miguel Rubio) to realize her vision. I wonder if her uncle read the script. He’s been on a few film-festival juries, including Cannes. Seven of his books have been made into movies, including one that he directed. I’d also be interested to know how Spanish vs Peruvian influences are manifest in the movie. (Visit http://www.cinencuentro.com/ for a sample Peruvian film blog.) Back in the time of violence there was a law that required a Peruvian movie to play in the theater before a foreign film could play. This created a huge demand for short Peruvian films and caused a lot of youngsters to be trained by filmmakers such as Francisco Lombardi, good news for the future of film in Peru.).) A good movie.