The Pablo Larraín Duology

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 23, 2015

As we’ve mentioned before, The OPEN Film was supposed to kick off with a trilogy of films by the acclaimed Chilean director Pablo Larraín, exploring the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from the viewpoint of the common man.

The first film of the trilogy, Tony Manero, was subject to cuts by the MDA, so SIFA decided not to screen it. The objectionable material was a heterosexual blowjob (which is in fact legal in this country since 2007). I am told we are the only nation in the world that has sought to censor this film. Hashtag #uniquelysingapore!

Nevertheless, I did get to catch the other two films in the trilogy at Singapore’s lovely new independent cinema, The Projector. And (even for a non-film buff like myself) it was totally worth it!

What’s really interesting is that the two movies bookend the dictatorship: Post-Mortem takes place at its beginning, with the military coup massacring thousands of people in 1973. No takes place at its end, when Pinochet gives up his power due to a popular referendum in 1988.

There’s clear similarities between the two – both focus on ordinary men – neither committed to a particular political ideology – who end up being caught in the grand sweep of history, party to the fates of presidents and generalissimos. Larraín also has a fondness for dialogues that zip, almost mid-sentence, between locations: a couple may begin a conversation in their home, develop it in a taxi, and end it in a restaurant, without skipping a beat. Plus, he seems to enjoy being metatheatrical: treating us to cabaret shows and autopsies (occasionally with audiences in attendance) in Post-Mortem, TV commercials framed by a Sony monitor in No.

But the contrasts between the two are even more striking. Post-Mortem (2010) is, at heart, an intimate, low-budget film, conjuring up the emotional journey of a lonely old man from a single name on the autopsy report of the toppled President Salvador Allende. In the midst of all the horror about him, any actions of altruism or atrocity he is responsible for are worth nothing.

No (2012) takes place on a much bigger scale – loads more crowd scenes and locations, all the flashy colours and commercialism of the eighties, and an internationally famous Mexican star as the lead (¡Gael García Bernal! ¡Me encanta!). And it is optimistic – he plays a young, fictional adman who engineered a thoroughly effective ad campaign against Pinochet – apparently proving that one man can make a difference.

(The truth of what happened is vastly more complicated - see here.)

It’s kind of marvellous to realize, from watching these films, how an auteur can have astonishing versatility in his treatment of the same historical topic, and yet remain true to a certain vision. And it would’ve been great to see how Tony Manero (2008) fell into these patterns. Lord knows it was also metatheatrical – its very title refers to the protagonist of Saturday Night Fever, who is idolized and emulated by the lead character of the film. There’s also a strange class progression visible in the trilogy: they’re successively told from the viewpoints of an underworld criminal, a humble civil servant and a yuppie.

In fact, I found myself wondering, while watching these two films, why MDA didn’t deem them objectionable instead of Tony Manero. There’s on-screen sex in Post-Mortem (though not the kind that would titillate anyone). As for No, it’s all about a campaign to topple a dictator who has brought economic progress to his country while also being responsible for human rights abuses in the past, and is now trying to clean up his image by appearing all friendly and cuddly and civilian. Why on earth doesn’t that scare the censors? Are they all secret opposition voters?

Ah, I’d better stop giving them ideas. Sadly, I won’t be able to watch most of the other films – I’ll be covering the live bits of the The OPEN, the talks and performances and exhibition openings. Would love to hear your thoughts on the movies, though!

  • 2015