The debut film from Cambodian director Sotho Kulikar, “The Last Reel” starts shakily but adds nuance and layers as it progresses to become affecting and gripping by its closing section, something noted by the committee who gave it the “Spirit of Asia” award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. This is the second Cambodian film that we know of to use the history of the country’s pop cultural/filmmaking past to comment on both the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge, and the cathartic power of storytelling. The widely lauded documentary/personal history “The Missing Picture” (review here) is the other picture, while the documentary “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” which plays at this year’s stacked DOC NYC fest and investigates the country’s relationship with rock ‘n’ roll, looks set to be a third entry into this mini-subgenre (and our attention was drawn to another — “Golden Slumbers” reviewed here). But “The Last Reel,” though heavily autobiographical, is not a documentary, and the unmistakably personal nature of its story allows it to become, by its close a passionate cri de coeur, and a lamentation for a period of cruelty and perverted ideology that scars, perhaps even maims, the collective Cambodian memory.
As simple fiction, the film flounders a little, especially initially when we are expected to invest in the rather empty-headed star cross’d romance between a young Cambodian girl and her no-good gang affiliated boyfriend. The snapshot it gives of current Cambodian attitudes to gender relations and familial duty is interesting, but the tale is an overfamiliar one, and the filmmaking, never terribly sophisticated, doesn’t give us much reason to suspect just what a stunning story Kulikar has up her sleeve. In fact, if it were our business to do so, we’d strongly urge her to make substantial cuts to this portion—essentially, she buries her fascinating lede under some not terribly interesting filler. And throughout the rest of the film, she only occasionally manages a true synthesis of the real story with the rather melodramatic turns the fictional overlay takes.
But no matter, because the real story that emerges, somehow all the more evocative for being told in glimpses, builds into a desperately moving, and surprising tale. A married, fragile ex-movie star, her overbearing husband, and the owner of the dilapidated cinema who pines for her, become entangled in a young girl’s desire to reshoot an ending to a currently unfinished film, and soon the secrets all three hide as to their roles and actions during the terror come to light. More about story than style, “The Last Reel” relates a personal, cross-generational tale of love and hate to the loss of cultural heritage and identity that occurred when Khmer Rouge outlawed moviemaking and destroyed a thriving national industry, and if only in its own last reel, it has both educational and deeply emotional impact. [B]
During one of the most entertainingly batshit interviews your humble correspondent has ever, well, “conducted” seems the wrong word, maybe “hung on for dear life and tried not to get thrown off” is closer, name-brand cinematographer Christopher Doyle spoke passionately, and occasionally incoherently, in defense of non-narrative film. And the film he was promoting at the Tokyo International Film Festival was “Ruined Heart” from Filipino post-punk director Khavn.
Starring immensely hip Japanese hearthrob Asano (whom you might know from “Ichi the Killer” or “Zatoichi” or Hollywood forays “Thor,” “47 Ronin,” and “Battleship”), alongside Nathalia Acevedo (“Post Tenbras Lux”) and German-Russian Bollywood actress Elena Kazan, that strange hodge-podge of nationalities and influences should give you some idea what you’re in for. Unfortunately, however, “Ruined Heart” is non-narrative the way a fashion spread or a subpar music video is non-narrative—it is not only devoid a story, it is devoid of any dialogue, and of anything but the most tired of ideas, which even Doyle’s energetic, colorful, textured, handheld digital camerawork cannot compensate for. It feels like something that should be on in the background somewhere, maybe of some trendy downtown clothing store.
That’s perhaps the weirdest thing about it—while it’s of a resolutely micro-budget, guerrilla sensibility (which makes it unlikely to see much of an international release), in its moodily lit, trashy aesthetic, as hot women stumble and pout through the streets and seedy clubs of Manila, occasionally having collision-like sex with a similarly moody, scowly Asano, “Ruined Heart” feels, of all things, commercial. Not that it can be sold, but that, right from its tiredly self-aware sub-title (yes this really is “Another Love Story Between A Criminal And A Whore” though “story” is pushing it) to its cooler-than-thou rock’n’roll soundtrack, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before, usually used to flog you overpriced denim or to convince you that some new band of fresh-faced kids are in fact super edgy. But absent even that agenda, “Ruined Heart” just feels entirely empty, having, in fact, very little heart and not a single idea rattling around its little clotheshorse head. [D+]