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Los Angeles Film Festival 2012: On the Edge, P-047, Return to Burma, & The First Man

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Los Angeles Film Festival 2012: <em>On the Edge</em>, <em>P-047</em>, <em>Return to Burma</em>, & <em>The First Man</em>

In 1954, William Burroughs wrote that “Tangier is a vast overstocked market, everything for sale and no buyers.” Half a century later, circumstances in the city may have changed, but that same sentiment finds itself modulated by a cab driver as he tosses a portentous glance to Badia (Soufia Issami) and tells her that “Tangier only gives to foreigners.” The protagonist of Moroccan writer-director Leila Kilani’s On the Edge, Badia is a young woman who’s moved from Casablanca to Tangier to make a living. Hoping one day to land a job in the more prestigious factories of the city’s Free Zone, we see her at work in a less glamorous shrimp processing facility, where the sterile whitespace is marred by the orangish slime and grime of piles of shrimp shells. That kind of grime permeates the film and the dingy, noirish urban environments that Badia wends her way through.

Badia isn’t a personable or empathetic character, but as the driving force of the story, her behavior is a fascinating display. She seems continuously possessed by a hyperactive, twitchy nervousness, and her thoughts come across to us not via the steady drip of personal reflection, but in salvos, through internal and external monologues that serve as bursts of consciousness from a stormy mind. Everyone around her can sense the jagged edges of her personality; at work she’s told that she may have mastered all the parts of the process, but “you don’t fit in with the other girls.” She’s well aware of this, and doesn’t plan to stick around; she has other goals in mind. The web of intrigue that drives the film comes from the other side of her life; in the evenings she goes out with her friend, Imane (Mouna Bahmad), parties with strange men, and then steals from them. On one of these encounters they meet another pair of girls, the thievery escalates, and complications ensue inside and outside the Free Zone.

On paper the structure resembles something approaching a crime or heist film (the specter of the “one big score” is even invoked), but Kilani confounds expectations by enveloping us in the intensity of Badia’s subjectivity. The film lurches into manic, frenetic passages of Badia in action: When she eats, she shoves bread and milk into her mouth because the time demanded by a leisurely meal is outside her consideration—or she’s frantically scrubbing her skin raw, trying to get the stench of shrimp off her. If we received a sense of the bigger picture, we might see the petty stakes underlying Badia’s world. But that big picture is a luxury she doesn’t have, and neither do we. Instead we’re plunged through the narrowness and claustrophobia of crowded nighttime streets where the people are as invisible to Badia as she is to them.

These techniques effectively produce the destruction of geography and dislocate us in space. We sense the importance of the Free Zone and the corporations within, and the threat of gangland retribution by Badia’s targets lurks at the edges of the story. But if these places feel disconnected, and the people escape our full understanding, then we might begin to see the world as Badia does, through the surety of objects. Whether it’s a bucket of shrimp or a crate of iPhones, to take or have or lose these things is what matters. Burroughs also wrote that “Tangier is running down like the dying universe, where no movement is possible because all energy is equally distributed.” Here, Kilani gives us a portrait of a woman rebelling against that state of affairs, driven by ambition and desperation; in the Tangier that we see, those two seem like the same thing.

P-047The first image of Thai writer-director Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s P-047 irises in from a milky haze toward an enigma: two men in white gloves, sitting and swirling wine in their glasses as they listen to Debussy. They’re in a house that doesn’t belong to them. They’ve broken in, but they aren’t thieves in the traditional sense. They inhabit the lives of the owners for a brief respite, and then they leave, eliminating all traces that they were ever there. They are, of course, uniquely skilled for the crime: Lek (Parinya Kwamwongwan) is a locksmith who can pick any lock, except for the retinal scan ones you see in the movies, he tells his partner Kong (Aphichai Trakulphadejkrai), who has an eye for detail, honed from his time working continuity on movie sets (he’s the one obsessed with Debussy; maybe “this song is about the girl of your dreams,” he tells a blank-faced Lek).

For a long while, Jaturanrasmee is content to let us wander with the pair, their designs not driven by a sense of urgency, but by an emptiness that’s never spelled out. It’s merely evoked by the negative space that haunts the film’s compositions. Daily routine and rhythm come to a standstill as Lek and Kong break in, and the film captures the stasis—the quality of frozen time—of a house that’s empty, that might as well not exist when we’re not in it. Of the pair, Kong is flip and joking, but Lek is possessed by a melancholy that seems to fill the empty spaces. “There is nothing good about my life,” Lek announces.

As the narrative hops and skips across time and space, it’s as if we’ve been asked to explore the ramifications of that statement. Information is parceled out to us through memories and nested flashbacks and jumps in subjectivity. A random character seemingly stumbles her way into the story, a woman with a pathological urge to sniff things, and as she tells Lek a tale about going to a hotel and realizing “this room already had an owner,” the story is helpfully illustrated by a cutaway slideshow. Techniques like the intrusion of other voices and other texts (as in text that literally forces its way onto the image) signal that Lek may have one of the more privileged viewpoints, but he’s in a film unafraid to wander away from him and trace thematic and syntactic connections wherever they might lead. It’s a story in a state of transmutation.

That narrative sensibility is complemented by Jaturanrasmee’s visual sense, lingering on open and sparse compositions. Like the way Lek and Kong seem to step into frozen time when they break in, these frames take on a kind of abstraction, rendering familiar domestic spaces into arcs and nested panels and swatches of color. The sum of these techniques results in a dispassionate film driven by intellectual curiosity rather than emotional resonance. Yet even within that framework, the film finds the poetry in small moments: the feathers of a peacock, or the points of light that make up a dead man’s memories. The film has an ethos that matches its style in that it’s not bluntly hammered, but instead teased out in the middle of an oblique conversation. Kong’s reading The Bourne Identity, and he takes issue with the redemptive, closed-off ending. “Maybe he doesn’t want to remember,” he muses.

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