San Sebastian Film Festival: Day Five

Death and birth, Genpin, October and John Sayle's Amigo.

by Amber Wilkinson

Many of the films here this year seem to be dealing with old age and, specifically Alzheimer's. These have ranged from films which consider the disease as a main theme - Bicycle, Spoon, Apple (which I am finally managing to get in the right order) - and Addicted To Love (a Chinese film I haven't managed to catch) - through to those which feature the subject matter more obliquely, including Paul Giamatti-starrer Barney's Version.

It was something of a change of pace, then to find myself watching documentary Genpin, which is concerned with the other end of life's rich tapestry - birth - although thoughts of mortality are never far away. Director Naomi Kawase's film is an intimate consideration of the work of Japanese obstetrician Tadash Yoshimura, who has spent the past 40 years extolling the virtues of natural childbirth at his clinic. He believes that, although modern methods are sometimes useful, mostly doctors have a tendency to completely frighten mums-to-be, leading to difficult and painful labours.

He encourages pregnant women in his care to share their experiences with one another, plus gets them in trim through a series of squat exercises and an awful lot of wood chopping. And there's no arguing that it does rather seem to do the trick. Three or four sets of birth footage are included in this film and what strikes you most is the almost zen state of calm that each of the mothers seems to be in. It is clearly no walk in the park, but equally there is no screaming blue murder or panic - just an awful lot of joy as each new life slips almost silently into the world. In fact, the degree of fuss is so minimal that often the women's other children - many just toddlers - are present at the birth, helping mum and dad greet the new arrival.

Kawase's film broadens out to include Yoshimura's reflections on death as well as life and she makes good use of nature-driven segments to emphasise the natural world order.

There is a baby, too, in my second film of day five - October (Octubre) - although this one is very much a surprise arrival and causes money-lender Clemente (Bruno Odar) to have to seriously adjust his life. The child belongs to a prostitute he once slept with and since she is in the wind, he hires in his neighbour (Gabriela Velásquez) to help. This is the debut film from Daniel and Diego Vega and shows an incredible amount of restraint and maturity for a first-time feature. They put static camerwork to terrific use, cleverly leaving certain things just out of the frame. Sex, for example is deliberately stripped of any sort of eroticism by being kept out of the picture. The film is rich in absurdist humour and the Vegas show themselves to be in masterful control of the soundscape as well as the image to accentuate both humour and, where it is called for, drama.

In many ways October feels like a more well-rounded and mature effort than John Sayles' latest Amigo. There's no doubt the heart of this film - set during the American occupation of the Phillippines circa 1900 - is in the right place, but there is little here that hasn't been seen before. Clearly intended to draw parallels with Iraq, and particularly, Afghanistan, there's a sense of the local village chief - the Amigo of the film's title - getting trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea as both the 'friendly' forces of the US and the local insurgents (led by his brother) expect him to help them regardless of personal cost. "I'm fucked both ways," he says in an early scene that sets the tone for a film in which there is no way out for an innocent populace caught in a war zone.

The film is strongest in its scripting, which features multiple languages and explores the absurdity of "winning hearts and minds" when those around you can barely understand what you are saying let alone your intentions and where local politics matter very little to those in office in a farflung spot. The staging, however, is rather flat and decidedly too polished for the period. The acting, too, feels far too one-dimensional to really engage. Also, the inevitability of the action works against the film, with the emotional highs and lows so obviously signposted - partially due to the acting doldrums - that it is hard to be carried along with the story. This isn't a bad film by any means but I was left with the feeling that there is a better movie being held captive here, unable to get out. It might, in some ways, win your mind, but it will never win your heart.

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