East versus West

Big-budget, big-name US movies or a small-budget, big-hearted Singapore flick? The choice is yours

The first shot in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity lasts almost 10 minutes, a long, unbroken take of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in a gravity-less float, a mix of cosmic tumble and lyrical spacewalk backdropped by the breathtaking, panoramic orb that is Earth and specks of nameless stars. I watched the film on Imax 3D, and the enormous screen enhances so spectacularly the film's visual choreography, especially the depth: space seemed to extend beyond the edge of the screen and the infinite black swathe around Bullock and Clooney reaches further and further back. The 3D trickery has been much heralded, but here's a rare film where the technology is integral to the emotional register of the story.

Gravity

Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron.

Beautiful and poetic, the image of small humans in fathomless space is also elegiac and eventually frightening. With philosophical brooding, you could go on about how insignificant we all are in the face of such black might, such a great vacuum. But Cuaron _ the director of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban and Children Of Men _ isn't hung up on the cosmic wonder of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (though the Starchild image is obviously a reference). Gravity is a space thriller and a survival tale. Like shipwrecked sailors lost at sea as a storm hits, Bullock and Clooney are soon set adrift in space in a mortal nightmare after the blitz of satellite debris sweeps through them. Their Nasa space station wrecked and all the crew dead, their hope is to make it to the Russian space pod, or further on, the Chinese one, and propel themselves back to Earth.

At times abstract like Soviet sci-fi _ Bullock, as Dr Ryan Stone, drives the film alone almost its entire length _ and at times dense with action like Apollo 13, Gravity gives us the up-close terror of man's dream of space, the antithesis of fantasy movies like, say, the latest Star Trek, that usually render space impersonal and externally exciting. Here we see everything from Dr Stone's point of view, sometimes literally through her eyes, as the camera likes to sneak inside her astronaut's helmet, and her struggle against the wrath and loneliness of space has a kind of soulful vertigo, fearsome and touching.

My money's on it. The film's visual effects are a guaranteed Oscar winner, and Bullock is seriously contending for a best actress nomination. Gravity, for all its visual inventiveness, adheres to the dramatic playbook of a damsel in distress with a stock of routine twists, and while the film reminds us that in space we cannot hear any sound, the film's music _ a thrilling soundtrack built for grand emotion, not an elegant space waltz _ can be rather intrusive. Still a unique experience, this is a film that will make you thank the ground beneath your feet.

Prisoners

Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melisa Leo. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Face fuzzed with a dark beard more intimidating than Wolverine's, Hugh Jackman is a feral presence, a savage force untamed by his own faith in the all-forgiving divine, in one of the year's most thrilling edge-of-seaters. Playing a father whose young daughter is abducted by a mysterious criminal on Thanksgiving Day, Jackman howls, growls, prays to God and sides with the Devil as he performs a gruesome kidnapping of his own and drives Prisoners beyond the mould of a revenge narrative and into a study of anxious dilemmas: law vs vigilantism, futile logic vs practical torture, paternal compassion vs mortal anger. And sure, good vs evil _ the slippery line that demarcates one from the other, depending on how each of us defines it on and off the screen.

Prisoners is 2013's answer to, and an extension of, David Fincher's Seven (1995) and Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), charged with an R-rated amount of blood and probably a few touches of violent Korean thrillers, like Chaser (2008), which is also about perverse kidnapping. At heart, the film also taps into the root of the original American survival tale _ the Western _ in which the head of the family, evoking God and guns, takes the law into his own hand to protect his threatened family, only now the demon of the 21st century operates on a more twisted logic than during the days of the Wild West.

The script by Aaron Guzikowski sets the story in a rain-swept East Coast town, grim and drab and small and all-American. At times, the writing is over-smart and strays close to calculation, and yet it's director Denis Villeneuve who exerts tight control over the 150-minute material; skilfully he keeps the lid on and then lets the steam off, allowing bursts of animal fury from Keller (Jackman) to counterpoint the cool, measured, weary poise of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a fine turn), whose relentless investigation into the lost girls turns up dead bodies, poisonous snakes, and an atlas of mazes. Melisa Leo plays the aunt of the chief suspect, and Maria Bello is the distraught mother. Prisoners is a genre formula pushed into the realm of social scrutiny _ and one of the most gripping thrillers of the year.

Ilo Ilo

Starring Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tian Wen. Directed by Anthony Chen. With Thai and English subtitles at House RCA.

In this week of rich pickings at our cinemas, do not limit your viewing choice only to the star-studded American thrillers (see the two reviewed on this page).

A trip to House RCA is strongly recommended for a taste of Singaporean drama, a humbly moving, honest and relatable story of a family facing domestic and social difficulties. Ilo Ilo, directed by Anthony Chen, represents Singapore in the Oscars best foreign language race _ and mind you, my crystal ball is dusty but I have a feeling that this small film stands a good chance to make the cut into the shortlist.

Actually, the Singaporean government has already bankrolled a publicity campaign to push the film to Oscar voters, and its release here gives Bangkok viewers a rare chance to catch a movie from the island city on the big screen.

Set during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, Ilo Ilo revolves around the relationships of four characters in a middle-class family living in one of those anonymous flats that dot the skyline of Singapore.

At the centre is a 10-year-old boy Jiale (Koh Jia Ler, an adorable brat) and his newly-hired Filipina maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani).

The boy's parents are feeling the bitter pinch of economic crunch, but they grit their teeth and fight on. Singapore-based Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann plays the mother, who's pregnant with another baby, and Chen Tian Wen plays the father, a salesman recently laid off from a job he's had for 15 years.

Director Chen won the Camera d'Or for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and the confidence with which he displays in shaping up the narrative and emotional passage of each character is admirable.

The bond between Jiale and Teresa _ after initial bickerings _ isn't unexpected, but Chen's touch makes it look natural and believable.

The dynamics of the household _ the fine thread that holds the family together in hard times _ also speaks of the larger dynamics of the country and raises gentle questions about its values.

Above all, Chen's success rests on creating the characters that are not typecasts; this is neither a story of a callous Singaporean family that mistreats their Filipina maid that we've seen a few times before, nor a gleeful lampoon of Singaporean antics like Jack Neo's films.

The two actors at the centre, Bayani as the maid and Koh as the boy, also contribute abundantly to the film's heartfelt appeal.

Ilo Ilo is a simple film, and simplicity, when done right, proves a winner. It's time to make your way out to see it for yourself at House RCA.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist