Andrew Stephen Lee – Manila is Full of Men Named Boy (2018)

By Andreea Patru

There’s something about Pierre and Francine’s encounter in Emmanuel Marre’s Castle to Castle (D’un château l’autre, 2018) that reminds me of the endearing camaraderie between Harold and Maude (1971) in Hal Hashby’s homonymous cult film. Francine overlooking Paris heartbreakingly confesses about her sons’ estrangement: “when they come I am so happy that when they leave it breaks my heart.” In this year’s Las Palmas Film Festival short film competition, society gets in the way of how bonds form, altered to the point blood ties seem meaningless. With identity formed and transformed by political dynamics, the clash between the personal and the social is higher than ever in a polarized world. While in Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood (2018) a son is alienated from his family after returning from Syria, in Andrew Stephen Lee Manila is Full of Men Named Boy (2018) the causes of the rupture are more subtle.

The protagonist generically nicknamed Boy returns to the Philippines for his father’s anniversary in an attempt to regain his affection and approval. He goes so far to impress his father that he hires a child, Bing Bong, to impersonate his fake son. The background of the breaking news announcing Michael Jackson’s death tops local terrorist attacks on the television agenda to capture the absurdity of cultural imperialism. Boy, a returning immigrant, is already seen as assimilated to the American culture, receiving condolences for Michael’s death as if one of his own had died. The comical “sorry-for-your-losses” turn hostile as the familial narrative line develops to reveal the irreparable crack between father and son. At first, Boy creates an intricate deceit to maintain the appearance of success in the States. He lies about his family and career in accordance to the expectations he thinks he’s supposed to meet. The American Dream doesn’t include returning a nurse instead of a doctor, or being uncomfortable with one’s adopted culture.

The struggle to find his identity is portrayed in contrast with Bing Bong’s facility to integrate and through a reductionist approach of East versus West. To shorten this gap, the people he encounters adopt Western cultural tropes with the openness of a postcolonial country. In a scene reminiscent of a familiar, yet eccentric influx of Western culture, the partygoers sing along to a 60s classic karaoke. Shot in black & white, the image cuts to black only to cut back to a different setting, highlighting the feeling of displacement that transpires from being an outsider, neither Filipino, nor a Westerner. The director explores Boy’s desperate search for validation in the small gestures, wearing tropical t-shirts and posing for tacky studio photos. One can almost feel his discomfort at his father’s birthday gathering where he barely joins the noisy crowd, mimicking having fun. The tension builds up as his father’s affection ignores blood ties, narrowing the narrative focus to intimate frustrations that reveal a deeper knowledge of belonging.

Emmanuel Marre – Castle to Castle (D’un château l’autre, 2018)

Alternatively, the mysterious routes of closeness are explored through an unlikely bond of opposites in Marre’s Castle to Castle. In a hybrid narrative mixing fiction with documentary, the political science student Pierre gets closer to his wheel-chaired older lady landlord, Francine. While living together the two share thoughts about the French electoral spectacle taking place. The camera alternately follows the undecided Pierre to Macron and Le Pen’s political rallies in a display of electoral luring that feels intimidating. The imminency of this civic decision and the character’s unease is depicted through hand-held smartphone cinematography where the subject is lost in the crowd. A working class student, opposed to Francine’s privileged position, Pierre is tempted to vote for the National Front, a decision he debates with his proprietor. Surprisingly, Le Pen’s discourse about extreme capitalism and the slavery of the working class strikes a note in Pierre, reminding of Francine’s remarks about robotization and the need to offer humanity in exchange.

Rather a conversational mood piece than plot oriented, Castle to Castle captures the confusion and lack of role models in an apathetic society where the differences between parties seem blurred. In a confrontation between the past and the future, Francine asks her tenant what is he doing to change things. The two find a consensus beyond the age gap and divisive beliefs in the civic activism. Francine responds to Pierre’s inner turmoil with a provocation: what is he doing instead of what could he do. The camera infiltrates from one castle to another, exchanging political and ultimately life views by changing the point of view and the shooting formats from digital to analogue. Though radically different, the protagonists and the worlds reconcile in a humanistic mutual understanding of each one’s individuality. The intimacy of the apartment transcends the megalomaniac political spectacle in grainy closeups that show the protagonists’ fragility in the face of transition. In a similar fashion to Andrew Stephen Lee’s film, closeness is built upon tenderness and sympathy regardless of filiation.

Meryam Joobeur – Brotherhood (2018)

With a lesser subtle approach than Castle to Castle, but a shared 4:3 aspect ratio, Brotherhood depicts a young man seduced by ISIS. The paradox of people voting against their own interests, like poor citizens voting for parties owned by corporations, could be explained by people’s frustrations and shared values that blur the differences between the extremes. While Pierre was attracted to vote the far-right National Front because of its economical discourse, Malek, the protagonist of Meryam Joobeur’s short film, joined ISIS because of his belief in jihadism and an empowerment of his masculinity. After having joined the Daesh, Malek returns home to his family in a remote Tunisian village with his wife. But unlike the biblical prodigal son he doesn’t make apologies to his hostile father Mohamed, leaving room for reproaches and unvoiced suspicions. The camera underlines the growing anger with subtle gestures and meaningful short exchanges. While the casting of the excessively freckled brothers marvelously accentuates the fraternal connection, the consequences of Malek’s return move the story to a predictable resolution. The silent girl dressed in a niqab is the target of Mohamed’s attacks as he voices his discontent with his son through her. Her subdued presence in Mohamed’s house turns into the symbol of the threat of radicalization. Again, like in Manila is Full of Men Named Boy, the contrasting of characters reveals their motivations and identity traits. Malek is depicted as opposed to his smaller brothers who obediently comply with the patriarch’s domestic requests. In an apparently harmless conversation, Malek offers to fix a broken fence in disagreement with his irritated father who replies “leave it broken”. The scene represents an attempt to gain the independence and respect that made him leave in the first place. It is a delicate revolt against the alpha man that speaks more about the motivations that define us as social persons than being fathers and sons.