Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Cinema 16: #2. Sikumi (On The Ice) (Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, 2008) / Doña Lupe (Guillermo Del Toro, 1985)

Sikumi (On The Ice) (Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, 2008)
Despite its Alaskan setting Sikumi shares many common traits with the Western, presenting the archetypal loner drifting though a stark, uncompromising landscape and finding moral dilemmas in violence. Writer/director MacLean acknowledges the similarity himself, saying that "westerns are really often about morality. You end up with characters, outside the boundaries of society, dealing with issues of right and wrong on a very personal basis."

Apuna (Brad Weyiouanna) is hunting seals on the trapped ice of the Arctic Ocean when he witnesses a fight between two men, Taqi (Olemaun Rexford) and Miqu (Tony Bryant). Taqi is killed and Miqu pleads self-defence, leaving Apuna to allocate his loyalty to one man; the killed or his killer. It sounds like a clearcut situation on paper, and certainly our sympathies lie with Taqi, but it's hard to judge the worth and inherent goodness of a man under such extenuating circumstances. Miqu is an alcoholic. Was he aware of his actions, and should that pardon him? He raises a fair point when talking about Taqi's son, and promises to raise the boy if Apuna leaves the body to be found by somebody else.

Although Sikumi is the first film to be shot in MacLean's native Iñupiaq language it largely unfolds in barbed silences, the cold surroundings (shot in anamorphic 35mm by DoP Cary Fukunaga) adding to the intensity of the scenario. There's not much psychological depth, nor is there much debate to be taken away, but Sikumi is a quietly affecting film which makes great use of space and silence. For a short while it puts hermetic violence under a microscope and asks us to examine, question and respond - with whom do our loyalties lie, and what is the right decision? I wish there was more meat on the bones of these ideas, but Sikumi is an efficient drama nonetheless.

Doña Lupe (Guillermo Del Toro, 1985)
Two cops, Bienvenido (Jose Luis Vallejo) and Chato (Jaime Arturo Vargas), rent rooms in a house owned by Doña Lupe (Josefina Gonzalez De Silva), an old woman in deep financial trouble. She doesn't trust the men but needs the money, so agrees to let them stay. Soon suspicions are confirmed when they change the locks and begin smuggling suspicious materials into the house. So Doña Lupe decides to take drastic measures...

Del Toro directed this short (his ninth) when he was just 19 and it certainly feels like the work of an amateur artist getting to grips with his craft. The film stock is poor, and much of the image in this transfer is pretty grainy. The lighting often seems overexposed or not exposed enough; many scenes are meant to play out in shadow, but perhaps not to the pitch-black degree accidentally achieved here (Del Toro discusses problems during shooting on the commentary). The photography is nice if a little basic; Doña Lupe is bathed in a warm orange glow, while the cops get a cold blue and are often cast in darkness. It's an obvious visual contrast but an effective one. Outside of some inventive camerawork - especially in the final bloody shootout - there's not a whole lot to recommend in Doña Lupe, although it's clearly a film made with passion. The story is interesting if underdeveloped, and the characters are enjoyably unpleasant. Faith plays a large part in the action, as it does in Del Toro's current cinema, but Doña Lupe isn't as thematically rich as those features. It's a little protracted in length but fans of the Spanish auteur will likely get a kick out of this film nonetheless... it certainly shows promise.

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