JEONJU 2012 Review: Raya Martin's THE GREAT CINEMA PARTY
Raya Martin's The Great Cinema Party, the final third of the 2012 edition of the Jeonju Digital Project which includes new works by China's Ying Liang and Sri Lanka's Vimukthi Jayasundara, is uncharacteristically joyous. Despite starting with several minutes of footage of war, the film is surprisingly held together by an atmosphere that seems new in a Raya Martin film. While Martin's preoccupation with Philippine history is still there, it isn't met with the same sorrow or regret that features pronouncedly in his previous works. There's something more than the erstwhile levity here, an emotion that overpowers Martin's expected angst about the painful inadequacies of what we presently perceive as a country's recorded past. There's actual joy.
The monochrome snippets from various unearthed footage of the Pacific War are edited together like a rousing action film replete with explosions and images of destruction, opening the film with a communal memory of a violent past. The absence of sound only makes the visuals stronger, allowing blasts and explosions created by a very fertile imagination to marry their appropriate images shotgun-style. The story, possibly invented again by the same fertile imagination, has foreigners waging war in the Philippines, with the hapless Filipinos, forced either to take sides or die without even trying. Like the rubbles from the war of those imperialists, Filipinos are but reminders of a history that is not their own. Lav Diaz, the foremost figurehead of Filipino independent filmmaker ends the turmoil and welcomes everyone to the great cinema party like some kind of deus ex machina.
A group of friends assemble in Corregidor, a tiny island in Manila Bay that has preserved relics from the Pacific War as its foremost attractions. Like the picnickers from that mysterious early Peter Weir film, they explore the curious landscape, digging for memorabilia, taking photos, and relishing in nuggets of trivia about the place. An explosion is heard from far away. It is more than a ghost from the past. They retire in a rustic mansion. They have escaped the fate of the famous Weir picnickers, thankfully. There is more to Martin's film than manufactured atmosphere and head-scratching endings. In the mansion, another guest reveals the filmic past of the mansion, how it played opulent settings to celebrated films of those anonymous golden ages Filipino cinephiles reminisce with both glee and regret.
The film's third half features the party itself. Local film personalities arrive in hordes, brandishing bottles of San Miguel while carrying plates full of food over a makeshift tent that is cinematically ornamented with globes of yellow light. Music drowns the discussions, the topics of which range from movies to nonsense. Everything fades to black. Only the high-spirited music's left, teasing the fertile imagination, the same way the wartime images teased it to invent sounds and stories, to conjure images. Against the oppressive darkness, suggestions of light, of pictures, of figures, of a formation of friends expecting a fireworks display to cap the night, are displayed.
These images are our fireworks display --- the patches of light over darkness, the cinema. We form our own tableaus, united and eagerly awaiting for the cure to the temporary void, that violent war. Where history is a wellspring for melancholy and regret for Martin, cinema, which has evolved for him from the absorbed art, the made-up philosophy, the tainted theories, the remembered experiences of being alone or together in a darkened room with a random work of a random artist from a random place in the world to that and the relationships that cinema has pushed to surface, becomes the reason to live. The Great Cinema Party is Martin's modest monument to the lifetime joys of the art for which he suffers for.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)