Tsotsi (2005)

There is an exchange between the titular character and Miriam (Terry Pheto) about Miriam’s two glass art pieces. Both pieces have similar geometric shapes yet are different in color. Tsotsi, played by the incredible Presley Chweneyagae, asked about the differences and what they represent. Miriam replied when she created the rusty and bleak glass art piece, she was sad, oppose to her colorful and vibrant glass art piece, which she was happy. This is an excellent example of how screenwriter and director, Gavin Hood, illustrates the two different social classes in Johannesburg, South Africa, by using symbolism with color, dialogue, and unique film techniques. Through Lance Gewer’s amazing cinematography and Hood’s direction and writing, Tsotsi tackles difficult subject matters about class, individualism, and the powers that may dictate a person’s livelihood. 

Throughout the film, there is a through line about social classism. Tsotsi is from the township in Soweto, marginalized in society. He lives in a small shack with very little to his name. Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana), the woman that Tsotsi shot while stealing her car, is wealthy and lives in a neighborhood outside of the slums of Soweto. The aforementioned glass art pieces of Miriam epitomize the two main conflicting social classes in Johannesburg, the poor and the rich. Tsotsi’s shack is made of rusty sheets of corrugated metal and plywood. It is barely standing up. Like Miriam glass art pieces, the rusty piece was created out of sadness, similar to Tsotsi’s upbringing. The trauma he experienced echoes the sadness he has endured throughout his life. From his mother’s death to his father’s abuse, Tsotsi’s rusty shack is a representation of lost hope. Contrary to Tsotsi’s shack, Pumla and her family home is vibrant and full of color. Her baby’s room is imaginative with colors. The animals in her crib are colorful and seem to be alive. Even Pumla’s master bedroom with her husband is gaudy. Pillows, bed sheets, and curtains are purple and violet—perhaps it represents royalty and honor, and how their lives are prosperous—while the red decor is a representation of their love. Unlike Tsotsi’s life, Pumla’s family is happy and buoyant. For both cases, Tsotsi’s shack and Pumla’s home are expressed in Miriam’s glass art pieces. They are a reminder of what had happened during the Apartheid, and in many cases, it wasn’t just institutionalized racial segregation, but also institutionalized class segregation. From Tsotsi, there is resentment towards people who are financially stabled or fortunate to live their lives without living his struggles. Yet, the institutions that are supposed to provide resources to Tsotsi, also ignore his circumstances. As a viewer, we are supposed to believe the people living in the slums are dire and hooligans, granted Tsotsi is a gang leader, but he does petty crimes, until he shot the woman. The classism is reflected upon what the viewer thinks of Tsotsi’s situation. He was wrong but the system is not benefiting him, it failed to recognize him. 

Besides the symbolism in colors, the dialogue, although subtle with its message, is thought-provoking. One particular scene stands out. Several characters socializing at a restaurant, or some sort of establishment. A wealthy gang leader, Fela (Zola), is attempting to recruit Boston, Aap, and Butcher (Mothusi Magano, Kenneth Nkosi, Zenzo Ngqobe)—all are Tsotsi’s friends. They are joking and gambling, until Boston challenges Fela about the meaning of the word ‘decency’. Fela obnoxiously answers but doesn’t really know. Boston replied with “Respect, man, for yourself”, in a way, this is one of the main messages in the film. Having dignity, pride, self-respect. We watched Tsotsi and his friends propel themselves into a horrendous predicament, because their erratic decisions got the best of them. Every decision isn’t thoughtfully decided. They always acted on emotions. They aren’t living decently, instead it is inappropriate. We can’t blame them. Throughout Tsotsi journey we see him trying to live decently. He is challenged since he accidentally kidnapped the baby. He is looking to find respect through the baby, which allows him to reconsider his decisions, and for the first time, probably in a while, he isn’t acting on his emotions, but through compassion and goodwill. I believe all the characters are trying to find decency. Living a decent life. Can’t imagine how an individual is living in South Africa, especially in Johannesburg. 

Relating to decency, is also the idea of individualism in the film. Whether or not Tsotsi can live independently without relying on friends or strangers. In many cases, Tsotsi relies on a weapon over his intelligence. It is always leading his decisions. Due to his traumatic experiences, he has lived on his own as an orphan, until he met his gang. In his gang, he adapted the moniker, Tsotsi. His actual name is David. I found it fascinating that his name was David. The name is Hebrew, which means “beloved”. There are several stories about David in the bible, but one particular parable is well known, the story of David and Goliath. In the parable, David defeats Goliath. Goliath can be a representation of many things. For Tsotsi, it is his will to change. He must overcome the obstacles of a broken system, that is constructed to keep people poor, classism, and the Apartheid. To earn this, he seeks individualism by taking care of the baby he kidnapped. He finds empathy through characters like Miriam, Boston, Morris (Jerry Mofokeng), and to an extent, Pumla’s husband, John. They are individuals representing the different social classes, yet due to the Apartheid, they are not necessarily equals to their white South Africans counterparts. 

Towards the end of the film, there was no better interpretation about Tsotsi becoming a better human being than him interacting with Morris for the last time. Prior to the scene, Tsotsi decided to return the baby to his family but before he does, he wanted to make amends with several people he had interactions with throughout the film. Morris is one of the individuals. The scene is endearing. Right before meeting Morris we see Tsotsi leaving a train. He has a white shirt, which represented his purity, because throughout the film he has always wore dark clothes, this represented how unclear his life is, hindered by uncertainty. He walks upstairs, which is literally him rising above. This scene encompassed his growth as a character. He is growing, gaining goodwill, earning respect. Although it might feel obvious, the messaging of the scene is subtle. It’s literally a couple of seconds long but it’s a remarkable feat for Tsotsi. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of Tsotsi character. I despised him. I don’t condone his criminal actions in the film, yet I also have to consider the circumstance he was put into. In America, we are also faced with the same division in our social classes. After watching Tsotsi, I learned that we need to be more empathetic and listen to each other, especially those who are marginalized. Understand, as individuals, we are not alone, and we need to help each other.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

In Wong Kari-wai’s In the Mood for Love, there is a soothing yet melancholy ambience throughout the film that is contrasted by the stylized and elegant cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin. It is not obvious at first, but it is a subtle approach that works well with Wong’s direction. Wong has a distinctive and unique style, especially when it comes to his overall ability in conveying a vibrant yet somber story through his particular use of camera angles, camera movement, framing, editing and motifs. His ideas and themes of the exploration of love, the uncertainty of love, and perhaps also the missed opportunity of love is a testament of how I resonated with the film. Although I was not married at the time, the characters’ skepticism towards their spouses’ devotion reflected in my past life, and how secrets can be a catalyst to something hurtful, or something lovely. With help from Doyle and Ping Bin’s cinematography, Wong’s direction will reinforce those ideas and themes, which will allow the viewers to also resonate with them.

The main characters, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), are interwoven by the mere idea that their spouses, who are both away, either due to a business trip or overtime shifts, might be having an affair. Although Su and Chow are met with an unfortunate commonality, it is also the reason their relationship began. Because there is this distance between the main characters and their spouses, what I immediately noticed is the opposite, when it comes to Su and Chow relationship, it is juxtaposed by the narrowness and the emptiness of the rooms and spaces that they are occupying, and how Wong’s ability to capture and invoke pensiveness between the two characters is entrancing, yet ultimately sad. They are trapped, physically and emotionally. They are physically trapped between the walls of the narrow hallways, between the walls of the small rooms, and also trapped between the frames of the film, this is demonstrated by how tight and enclosed each shot is, usually putting the characters in unsettling places. In one particular scene, Su and Chow are confined in Chow’s room. I understood the tension and uncomfortableness of the scene because I have been in that situation. It’s not easy, especially if you’re waiting out the storm. They had to entertain themselves, even if they couldn’t interact, yet they still managed to survive the ordeal. Several other scenes follow this pattern of claustrophobia. When they were sitting in a cab or when they were working separately at their offices, they were trapped for a brief moment, outside from the world.

They are emotionally trapped too. Su and Chow’s spouses are almost physically absent in the entire film. We get a glimpse of what they probably do for a living, and a reason why they’re away, but we never get to see their faces. Instead we get letters and a birthday greeting on the radio. The narrowness and the emptiness of the rooms and spaces are a representation of Su and Chow being emotionally trapped, and perhaps drained, by the pressure they must face as they move forward in their relationship. The pressure is represented by the walls of the frames and literal walls in their homes, squeezing them. Can they handle the pressure of cultural and social norms? Culturally it is not acceptable, especially if your spouse is away, to interact with the opposites sex in an affectionate manner. It is forbidden. Su is reminded by her landlady about not to be too social because a woman in their culture and society might give the impression that she is being promiscuous or not faithful. Yet, Su and Chow sneak into hotel rooms, restaurants, and dark alleys, just so they can experience each other’s presence. Longing for affection and attention, they go above and beyond to not get caught, and to keep it a secret. This can be alluded by Wong’s choice of camera angles and the cinematography, and how Su and Chow’s relationship is represented in the film.

There are moments that are voyeuristic and intimate, peering from a distance, that allows the viewers to sit quietly in the scene, watching two people enchanted by their company’s existence. Wong’s camera placement is usually slightly behind the curtain, a chair, inside a home but using the window as a frame, while looking inside out, this is wonderfully demonstrated when both Su and Chow are dinning at the aforementioned restaurant. Yes, there is a dialogue in the scene, a conversation between the two characters, but there is also a conversation between the viewers and the camera. From a couple of quick panning shots back and forth, to a couple of close medium shots, the camera movement created a cadence in the scene, and the many scenes subsequently. Like a dance between two people, they developed a dance-like trance, cutting and editing into a harmonious rhythm. This comes more apparent yet subtle for both characters. And like a traditional dance, the man is usually leading. Chow is leading the scene. Su asked him to order for her, even when they are eating, he also suggests dipping the meat into the sauce. Throughout the film Chow is always suggesting, or leading, in their relationship. Where should they meet, where is the rendezvous. Although they never literally dance in the film, metaphorically the camera’s movement and edits created it.

Later in the film, we see the two characters in a dark alley, conversing about how Su wants to confront her husband about the affair. The weather is harsh; it is pouring rain. They agree to rehearse the confrontation. The camera is at a distance, the placement is behind a window with bars, at arm’s length, and like a prison cell, framed ominously, they are imprisoned by their own dilemma. She cries, like the rain, and Chow reminds her that it’s only a rehearsal, yet I believe Su is also crying about letting go of her relationship with Chow. The scene last for ten to fifteen seconds but my interpretation is she doesn’t love her husband, she is with him out of convenience, but her love belongs to Chow, and she can’t stand to lose him too. As heartbreaking as it is, I understood the decision. I too have been in this predicament. And like myself, they do not want to be like their spouses. They don’t want to be prisoners in their own relationship.

As I mentioned before, Wong’s direction can be metaphorically interpreted as a dance. From the beginning of the film, there are several elegant and exceptional camera pans and camera angles that can be interpreted as dance moves, each scene follows a rhythm and beat. Wong’s unconventional filmmaking can be credited for this. He doesn’t rely on mundane direction, instead he challenges the viewers. There are scenes where we don’t get the full scope but just a glimpse, using the frames of the doors and windows. With the gorgeous set design, Su’s bountiful dresses, and the brilliant cinematography, the film is nothing short to being beautiful. But behind the beauty is the desolation of two human beings. Yearning for love, or at least, the presence of love. Usually a dance is accompanied by a song, and in In the Mood for Love this is complimented by a motif of a song composed by Shigeru Umebayashi. One of his pieces from the enthralling score is “Yumeji’s Theme”, which is a haunting and alluring waltz that echoes throughout the film. It is introduced when both of their spouses, including Su and Chow, are playing mahjong. We don’t see their faces but we do get the sense of constriction. Perhaps because of the enclosed framing and the narrow spaces of the hallway and rooms. There is tension building. The tension last throughout the film. The last time we listen to “Yumeji’s Theme” is when we see Chow in Angkor Wat, where he is visiting the ruined monastery. This time the melody is reworked, the original tune is there, but slightly intact. This is juxtaposed from the first time we listened to the theme because Chow is no longer in a busy and enclosed space, he is in a spacious area. There aren’t many walls, and he can maneuver anywhere, without secrets. The camera pans to the ruins, Chow is imposed by the monuments, he is merely a tiny human being. We only get a glimpse of him in the scene. He is no longer trapped physically and emotionally. This allows him to move forward in life freely, with some closure, without hesitation. The viewer might resonate with this idea. The idea that we can be free from worries, from struggles, and live a life that is meaningful.

Hereditary (2018)

The Mechanism: While watching a horror film, particularly in a theater, they say audiences anxiously laugh to combat a certain dread or apprehension. It is a defense mechanism. It is in our nature to react in such a way because we usually do not want to be in an unsettling state of fright and despair. We rather react in a celebratory manner, especially unifyingly, to allow ourselves to not be overwhelmed. This might not always work for all horror films and most importantly, this might also restrict our enjoyment for the horror genre. Not allowing us to be attentive, when we need to be, will probably remove any aspect of heeding into a film’s plot or story, that would only create a hindered experience. They also say, to tell a good story, you would need compelling characters, with nuances and complexities, and the horror genre is not exempt from this rule.

The Advert: While Hereditary is dividing most filmgoers, there is a certain lure to the film’s marketing. From the set photos to the trailers, it is obvious that A24 is evoking some of its hits, when it comes to their horror films, like The VVitch and It Comes at Night, and those films were specifically designed to create uneasiness, and perhaps perplexities in their characters, in understanding what is happening by being thorough and deliberately quiet. But films like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and Suspiria, have paved the way, prepared us to interpret such mosaic and interesting films. But what if you were not interested in those films that came precedent? Why would we need to watch dozens of films to enjoy one particular film? This is where the film’s writer can connect us to their characters. Allow us to draw experiences of our own trauma, our own fears, our own horrors, so when we are immersed, we are not only immersed in the film, but also immersed with the character’s lives. Although the marketing of the film have been superb when it comes to concealing the character’s motivations and the overall plot, filmgoers probably wanted a different experience. They perhaps projected something more accessible and less broad, something easy to comprehend. And it looks like the main focus of audiences’ gripe is usually the last act of the film.

The Last Laugh: This is where the laughter comes into play. When Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) chilling revelation happened, filmgoers were either totally into it or 100% resentful of it. They perhaps didn’t appreciate the artistry of director and writer, Ari Aster, has constructed, or they felt they were duped. Either way, it was a bold undertaking. Hereditary is not a family drama dealing with the horrors of grief, suffering, and the uncertainty of our offspring’s future, it is horror, with a capital H, about the dynamics and failures of our family’s uncertainty, and how it is not fully secured, no matter how much you take care of each other, how much money you have, or how loved you are, it’s all uncertain for the future. That’s the connection Ari Aster is building in the film, and yes, there are supernatural elements, but to use the genre in an allegorical fashion, evoke the aforementioned films like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, it instills that in our minds, the closest people we love and care for in our lives, can just perish, is truly frightening.

So, the audience laughed instead, not because it was funny, but because they were perhaps concerned about their future. And if laughter is their way to expressed the future they want, a defense for the future’s uncertainty — then who are we to argue otherwise?

Game Night (2018)

Immediately after the opening credits, I was intrigued.

The Look: The cinematography by Barry Peterson and how particular scenes were framed and lit, boggled me. Hats off to the directors, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, each scene seems to execute in this avant garde direction that we usually don’t see in comedies. Mesmerized by the specification of each shot, you would wonder, “is this necessary?”, then gaily come into terms, “YES!”. In the middle of the film we get a wonderful yet zany long continuous shot of the characters being chased, while still illustrating their quirks and revealing a sense of atmospheric claustrophobia along the way. It would’ve made Alfonso Cuarón proud. And this is just how appreciable the direction was, it was just icing on the cake. The scenes didn’t need to be biting and imaginative, but the filmmakers utilized the tools, and that was admirable.

Glass Tables: The comedy is quite charming. The entire film is anchored by the leads, played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. You understand their chemistry, their connection through trivia, board games, and film references, not one moment you’ll feel detached by their relationship, and that was adorable. McAdams gives the most memorable performance between the two, and perhaps because we rarely watch her in this strange element. Although she is a great dramatic actor, seeing her doing similar roles would be quite enjoyable, and not to say she wasn’t great in such comedies as Mean Girls and her infamous role in The Hot Chick (the latter was a joke, please don’t watch and support The Hot Chick), seeing her in highbrow comedies would be refreshing.

Lastly, praise Mark Perez’s script. It was witty, quirky, and never halfhearted. Each scene had its own punchline yet, the entire film as a whole, was never stagnant. Everything worked well, in this Rube Goldberg kind of way. The entire supporting cast also delivered with some memorable moments too, most notably, Jesse Plemons character. One of today’s great character actors, he immersed himself in this film, and the payoff is great.

Wouldn’t be a surprise if this film will have a cult following. It’s deserving. A hilarious experience overall.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Written by Mark Perez


Hello. Here are some photos from my Instagram. It’s a ongoing project I titled, LIKOD. Enjoy

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Safe travels.

The Magnificent Rant: Part IV

I haven’t had the time to write on the this site, but when I do, I get stuck. Not necessarily writer’s block too. So much of it is pondering, delicately trying to convey my thoughts into words, but not just any words, words that can justify the amount of excitement, frustration, and pure love I have at the moment. When I write I usually listen to a  particular film score, especially a score that fits the mood of my writing style or even my existence. It’s an existential experience when notes of music are neatly defining your presence in the world. This happens to be the score to Interstellar by Hans Zimmer. Granted, I listen to his score often. There’s this sense of religious nascent that intertwines with how grand yet desolated the universe is. It’s scary yet reaffirming.

Off the soundtrack, please listen to the track, ‘Mountains’, From the get-go, there’s a sense of urgency and a sense of unsettledness. From the rambunctious ticking to the pressing melody of the organ pipes, It buries you like a massive tidal wave. Though that is not my favorite track. That goes to ‘Cornfield Chase’. The track is only two minutes long but it certainly feels like eternity. And like the chase, it feels like the track is either ahead of you, or you’re ahead of the track. The Journey is intense yet pleasant. I usually listen when I’m about to write or when I am preparing my schedule for the month. It is awfully reassuring when it gets to the end of the track too. Anyway, that’s about it. Please go out your way to listen if you haven’t yet. Indulge yourself.

Until next time, safe travels.

VOX Musica’s Nisenan: A Cultural Music Project


Here are several photos from our project. At the moment the film is untitled. I was the 2nd Unit Cinematographer. Very thankful for the opportunity and the experiences. The entire team was wonderful. Happy to be in such a defining and personal project. The following photos are from Shelly Covert’s Nisenan collection of artifacts and behind-the-scene photos of the VOX Musica’s Nisenan: A Cultural Music Project. Hopefully people will one day watch the film. Anyway, enjoy.

Special Thanks to: Shelly Covert, Rob Fatal, Daniel Paulson, and Sabian Lawlor.

Camera: Minolta X-700
Film: Fujifilm Superia 800 Speed 35mm

A Minute in the Woods

Grass Valley & Nevada City.

Recently I’ve been working on a film project with some cool folks. Can’t say what we’re exactly doing yet but I shot some 35mm film of Grass Valley and Nevada City. The experience, so far, has been unbelievable. Very grateful for this opportunity. Can’t wait for y’all to find out, but in the meantime, enjoy the photos.

For those curious souls, I used my Minolta x-700 with Ilford HP5 Plus Black & White 35mm film.

A Minute with Noise in the Attic