Critic After Dark

The Lookout
Directed by Afi Africa
Aug. 10
Cine Adarna, UP Film Center,
UP Diliman, QC

AFI AFRICA’s The Lookout first appeared in last year’s Cinemalaya Festival, to less than stellar notices. You can hardly blame the skeptics: the script features largely unsympathetic characters, a complex plot told nonlinear fashion, a generous (or — depending on how you feel about such things — excessive) dose of langorously lingered-upon sex.

The film is flawed to put it mildly; the question one might ask instead is: Is anything here worth noting? Anything that might have been done different, maybe lessons that could be learned for next time?

Africa presumably wanted a noirish sensual feel and largely succeeded: with cinematographer Marvin Reyes, production designer Arthur Maningas, and art director Jay Anthony Gochingco he creates a look of dark hedonism, of plainspoken concrete boxes flooded with garish lights — deep reds and electric blues — where one can indulge in a fantasy of excess, or a nightmare of violence.

Africa was apparently not content; to the look he added a plot filled with hidden identities and twisted conspiracies, betrayals and double agents and siblings separated since childhood. To that he added a style of storytelling that withheld as much information as possible, to be doled out sparingly — sometimes in flashback — mentioned in passing, or implied somewhere in the dialogue.

Topping the heap like a sprinkle of 24k gold leaf is the theme of corruption of laws and morals resulting in wholesale murder: the government complicit in criminal activity, the innocent slaughtered in a series of extrajudicial killings. Arguably the single most affecting image is of a mother mourning her bloodied child Pieta-fashion, possibly inspired by one of several famous photos that capture Duterte’s costly drug war.

Affecting, yes. But the image only tangentially touches on the plot, and Africa doesn’t really build on the pity aroused or stoke any outrage at the dysfunctional society we live in. We experience the shock of recognition, we move on; the moment is soon forgotten.

The film is an assassination thriller, a crime noir, an erotic bacchanal, a queer love story. Too much? Yes and no; the production has the budget of the usual independent digital film, and Africa cleverly leverages what money he has to give the film a look. Arguably though to properly carry off the kind of narrative and visual excess he was aiming for he needed more money and resources, a more extravagant production design with more outrageous sets. You might call what he ended up with minimalist excess, or a sense of excess on a tight budget.

Or he might have pared his production down some, in terms of story, or subplot, or stylization. Saying that, the sympathetic viewer — if any — may instinctively rebel: “Why not have it all? Why not, on your debut film, execute a triple gainer, stick the landing, win the applause of all — or jeers from those who fail to understand?”

One can look to other filmmakers who triumph — Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for one, created lush eroticized films on a low budget. The man was fearless; in adapting Effie Briest and Querelle he simply slapped page after page of text on the screen; the latter production he shot completely in sets, under lurid honeyed lighting. For World on a Wire he suggested the artificial nature of a virtual world by shooting mirror reflections, video screens, dappled metal surfaces, glass transparencies — he had no money for special effects so he improvised brilliantly from what he had (basically 1970s Paris and the disco ball).

Fassbinder played fast and loose with narrative coherence and historical truth; he was however more careful about emotional truth. No matter how shapeless the script may be, the interaction between actors — even when stylized — retained some kind of baseline realism. Africa does attempt to get inside the heads of his assassin protagonist and lover — outré dialogue sadomasochism and all — but the result feels less than satisfying, more like a sketched-in affair that leaps arbitrarily in status from purchased prostitute to object of obsession to loved-hated Judas. If Africa had focused more on relationships than gangster machinations — who knows?

Then there’s Seijun Suzuki. Stylist nonpareil who doesn’t give a fuck about narrative, or so it seems. Suzuki is both inspiration and bad influence to neophyte filmmakers; watching his works you think: anything is possible, just throw enough color and craziness on the screen.

Not really. Suzuki didn’t pull that style whole out of a hat; he developed it over years. In an early film like Take Aim at the Police Van (1960 — from the title alone you can guess the genre) he’s already flagrantly digressing with long conversations at a bar, and over a toy popgun. A gunman sticks the gum he’s chewing on one end of a sniperscope; the same gunman is foiled moments later when a quickthinking girl slaps off the overhead light; a stripper staggers out of her room, an arrow sprouting from her naked left breast; a truck careens out of control, trailing a stream of flaming gasoline.

Suzuki is visibly more interested in outlandish gestures than in the humdrum plot (something to do with sex trafficking) but he doesn’t ignore said plot or the audience trying to follow; if anything he’s possibly more conscious than the average filmmaker. If the film were simply about story it would follow the narrative on autopilot, but because Suzuki keeps taking off in all kinds of directions he needs to keep a vigilant eye on the thread of narrative; he needs in effect to know where the runway is in case of an emergency landing.

Suzuki started from a relatively sober perspective, and later developed the confidence to run truly amuck with films like Branded to Kil, Pistol Opera, Zigeunerweisen. It helps, I submit, that despite Suzuki’s flaunting of conventional storytelling he doesn’t write the script alone; he usually has one to two other writers working with him, presumably as a check on his wildest instincts, a guarantee he doesn’t leave his viewers too far behind.

Africa, in writing and directing his debut, could perhaps have used a co-writer, a sounding board for his ideas; could have pared down the elements and focused on the romance, done a Brokeback Mountain with guns instead of horses (or likewise dropped the romance for intricate assassination scenarios, an In Bruges set in Manila). There’s no doubt the man is talented, no doubt he has substantial things to say. One hopes he can clear his head and map out a strategy for his next outing, something even crazier but more coherent, if that at all makes sense.