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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (26/1/2024)

(Reviews of Samsara; and In Broad Daylight)


SAMSARA.


There isn't much genuine novelty in cinema. So, when a film asks viewers to close their eyes for 15 minutes and submit to a cascade of colour flashes and enigmatic sounds, it's bound to attract attention.


Taking its title from the Buddhist wheel of life concept of deaths and rebirths, Lois Patiño's Samsara approaches a fascinating subject with imagination and sincerity. But there's a distinct aroma of snake oil about this experiment in sensorial cinema's exploration of the medium's potential for stimulating altered and transformational states of consciousness. Moreover, by setting his bookending stories in Laos and Tanzania, the Galicían film-maker also risks prioritising the First World gaze.


In Luang Prabang in northern Laos, Be Ann (Toumor Xiong) meditates with his fellow trainee monks at a Buddhist monastery. When not taking classes or doing good deeds within the community, Be Ann ponders his future, as he is approaching 18 and has to decide whether to pursue his vocation or follow his dream to work with computers. He envies Amid (Amid Keomany), the son of the monastery cook, who can do what he wants and make choices without pressure.


Amid does have a responsibility, however, Each day, he takes a long motor boat along the Mekong River to visit the elderly, ailing Mon (Simone Milavanh). He delicately drips water on to her fingers to wake her in order to read aloud from the Bardo Thodol, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, to help her prepare for her journey into her next life. She is grateful for his solicitude and confides that she had been dreaming that she was a red starfish in the sea.


Be Ann also has a dream when Amid agrees to fellow a party of novices to a nearby waterfall. Having used his phone to film the saffron-robed youths paddling in the clear water, he dozes off under a tree and - as we see his subconscious thoughts being superimposed over his slumbering body - he imagines a confrontation with an elephant. However, Be Ann is left stranded when Amid gets a call to say that Mon is slipping away and he arrives just after she passes on.


At this point, captions ask us to close our eyes until the film falls silent so that we can participate in our own way in Mon's bardo transition to her next incarnation. As unintelligible voices murmur against a backdrop of natural sounds, the darkness of the screen elides into blocks of colour or flashes of bright light. How the viewer responds to these stimuli is entirely dependent upon their willingness to be receptive and their imagination.


As the sounds fade, we find ourselves on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, where a young Muslim girl called Juwairiya (Juwairiya Idrisa Uwesu) wakes to the news that the family goat has given birth to a kid. Defying her mother, Juwairiya allows the little white animal into the house and carries her on a walk around the village to introduce her to its sights and sounds. After much thought, she decides to name the creature Neema, which pleases her father, as this is the Arabic word for `blessing'.


Juwairiya takes Neema to school, where she's petted by dozens of eager hands. She's forced to stay outside during lessons, with her bleats punctuating a lesson in which the children learn the names of different animals. On the way home, Juwairiya and her friend, Mariam (Mariam Vuaa Mtego), get chatting to some young Masai men, who tell them about the changes they have had to make to their lifestyle since the old ways started to disappear.


The women in the village have also adapted to changing circumstances. They have begun to harvest seaweed in order to make soap and lotions to sell to tourists at the nearby hotes. However, they are convinced that contaminated waste water is threatening their livelihood and they grumble as they sift through the crop. Juwairiya's grandmother explains that she is working to give her a better future and offering her a way to be less reliant on the menfolk. She also reminds her that `life is change' and that we have to adapt in order to survive.


Wandering through the shallow pools, Juwairiya spots a red starfish. But she loses sight of Neema and has to fetch her mother to help her search. As the film ends, she urges the kid to find a safe hiding place. But it looks exposed and vulnerable, as it hops between some jagged rocks in the closing shot.


Asking cinematographers Mauro Herce and Jessica Sarah Rinland to create 16mm contrasts between the two locations, Patiño strives to portray ways of life that audiences are not used to seeing. Interested in ethnographic and anthropological film, he has explained that `cinemas are dominated by the west and I feel it is important to reflect other minority ways of life that are not often seen, to show that life can be experienced in many different ways'. But, while Patiño manages to avoid exoticising the scenes in Laos and Zanzibar, he doesn't entirely avoid the problems of appropriation and romanticisation.


Having explored distance in the 2013 documentary, Coast of Death, and immobility in Red Moon Tide (2020), Patiño began contemplating how to depict the invisible on screen. On coming across the Bardo Thodol, he knew he needed to shoot in a Buddhist country and hit upon Zanzibar for the contrast after conducting a video art workshop in Tanzania. Working with small units in each place, he spent a couple of months preparing and shooting the storylines, with their measured insights and social critiques.


But few are talking about the spread of tourism into the world's beauty spots, the pollution of pristine landscapes, or the creep of modernity into a religion predicated on meditation and contemplation. There has even been little discussion of the ambitious visual effects created by Pablo Lamosa to superimpose dreamscapes over dormant figures. All anyone seems to want to talk about is the mid-point caesura.


The majority of reviews have focussed on the experiential aspect rather than considering its influences and intricacies. Patiño has been quick to acknowledge the importance of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to his thinking, along with such avant-garde film-makers as Peter Kubelka, Paul Sharits, John Latham, and Tony Conrad, who have all created flicker films to explore the medium's perceptual properties. Moreover, in the 1960s, Jordan Belson sought to evoke mental states beyond rationality by fusing colour, movement, and sound in such abstract shorts as Allures (1961) and Samadhi (1967), which impacted upon the Stargate sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).


However, Patiño is also aware of the Dream Machine that was created during the same decade by Brion Gysin in collaboration with novelist William S. Burroughs and Cambridge maths student Ian Sommerville. Inspired the transcendental trip induced by sunlight coming through the trees during a bus journey through southern France, Gysin claimed this was `the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed'. It has recently been updated by Jennifer Crook, although Patiño has cited the rhythmic fading in and out of light in artist James Turrell's `Light Breathing' as a more immediate influence, along with Derek Jarman's Blue (1993), in which the screen was filled throughout with a single unchanging block of colour.


He also credits the `Audiosphere' exhibition curated by Francisco López at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, which brought together some 800 pieces by over 700 sound artists to provide audiences with closed eyes a unique hour-long aural experience. In order to give the impression of routes down which Mon's soul doesn't travel, sound designer Xabier Erkizia utilised a dialogue between an old Swiss man and his grandchild and a passage spoken in an endangered language by a Timorese woman while she was cooking. The buzzing of bees can also be heard, which harks back to the sound of the chirruping crickets in the opening temple sequence.


Even viewing in isolation, it's not easy to `turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream', as John Lennon put it in `Tomorrow Never Knows', the 1966 Beatle track that was also inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's tempting to try and identify sounds rather than simply let them wash enrapturingly over you and this will presumably be the case in an auditorium. However, a collective will to participate in a communal experience might make this `colour-bath segue' more emotionally potent. Yet, whether you surrender or resist or view this docufictional triptych as visionary or quacksalverish, Samsara still feels more like an insubstantial tease than a radical departure for the moving image as we know it.


IN BROAD DAYLIGHT.


Inspired by a series of scandals involving Hong Kong's old people's care homes, Lawrence Kwan's In Broad Daylight follows in the wake of George Gallo and Francesco Cinquemani's Poison Rose (2019), J. Blakeson's I Care a Lot, and Mark Lamprell's Never Too Late (both 2020) in exposing conditions inside institutions supposed to protect rather than exploit society's most venerable and vulnerable.


A1 News journalist Siu-ling (Rachel Leung) enters the Rainbow Bridge Care Home to do a story and poses as the granddaughter of Chau Kin-tong (David Chiang), who is suffering from dementia and cannot challenge her claim. Warden Cheung Kim-Wah (Bowie Lo) frets about budget cuts and staff shortages, but does nothing to stop Nurse Chan Mei-Fong (Pui-Yue Bo) from mistreating both the elderly residents and those with learning disabilities.


Facing the closure of her own department at the newspaper and concerned that the very future of reporting is at risk, Kay is determined to prove the value of investigative work. She isn't amused when her editor saddles her with rookie Jess (Yuet Sheung Vanora Hui), but she soon proves her worth when she comes up with a lead about Rainbow Bridge. Kay also gets some inside information from Sam (Charm Man Chau), a resident who helps out with the cooking and cleaning when not making a quick buck by stealing supplies and selling them to nearby shops. She also befriends Ming Chai (Henick Chou) and tells him to fight back against Nurse Chan.


Chau is pals with Shui (Fung Woo) and Kay takes them to his daughter's wedding, only for him to be thrown out after a scene. He dies the following morning and Kay is appalled when Nurse Chan does nothing to help him. Following a surprise Winter Solstice food delivery with colleague, Leung (Chung-hang Leung), Kay films Chan and Nurse Ho (Mimi Chi-Yan Kung) hosing down disabled residents in their wheelchairs and this finally persuades editor Eric (Pak-Him Chu) to run the exposé. With the Social Welfare Department shamed for outsourcing care to profit-making companies, Cheung is warned by his boss to avoid further slip-ups.


However, Jess discovers that Cheung has twice been moved on for molesting young girls in his care and he is busy seducing Wong Siu-Ling (Rachel Leung) with ice cream when Ming jumps to his death from an unlocked window. Although he's fired, Ling's mother is reluctant to bring a case against him because she's ashamed at letting her daughter down. When Kay captures Ling accusing Cheung on camera, the case goes ahead. But, even though Chau filmed Cheung ushering Ling into his office, the case is withdrawn to protect the victim.


Having told Kay that he was discarded as a child because of defective vision, Cheung claims to care more for his charges than their families or wider society. He sneers at her for exploiting Chau to gain access to Rainbow Bridge and suggests that she reflects on the tragedies that have occurred since she intervened. Lawyer Poon (Pak Hon Chu) insists it's impossible to beat the system and Eric warns Kay that newspapers can't change the world, as he reluctantly accepts her resignation. She also parts company with her mother (Hee Ching Paw), who has been staying in her flat while organising a last resting place for Kay's beloved grandfather.


Abused by Sam and the other residents when the home is closed down, Kay gets reassurance that she's done the right thing from Chau, who gives her his baseball cap in downpour as a memento. She drives home with tears in her eyes, as `We'll Meet Again' plays on the soundtrack and a closing caption warns that this story represents just the tip of the iceberg where mistreatment is concerned. Blame is also laid at the door of the SWD for allowing waiting lists of up to a decade to build up for state-run homes, which forces people to entrust their loved ones to often shady institutions.


Scripted with sincerity by Kwan and co-writers Fung Li and Tong Chui Ping, this feels as much like a plea for a free press as it is a denunciation of Hong Kong's flawed social service system. Clearly taking cues from Hollywood pictures like Tom McCarthy's Oscar winner, Spotlight (2015), Kwan tells his story steadily with few directorial flourishes. But the sketchiness of the characterisation makes this more of a painstaking procedural than a heart-wringing drama.


At odds with her mother, editor, and colleagues, Kay isn't the most empathetic heroine. But she's played with integrity and grit by Jennifer Yu, whose scenes with David Chiang (as the `grandfather' putting on an act of his own for an easier life) have a dignified poignancy, even though they don't quite make up for her lack of backstory or emotional depth in the Ling and Ming subplots. Her confrontation with the excellent Bowie Lam as the cynical warden is also well judged.


Yet some will be disquieted by the casting of non-disabled actors and by the lingering shots of the naked bodies during the hosepipe sequence. He might also have toned down Wan Pin Chu's occasionally over-emphatic score. But Kwan is right to raise such issues as the provision of care, the legal flaws that prevent redress for victims of the system, and the dwindling power of the print media.


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