Saturday, August 25, 2012


As I've probably said before, I live for the crazy off-the-wall surprises which don't crop up that often for me in the world of classic film.  When they do happen, they're usually courtesy Turner Classic Movies, as this one was. Not only is it a movie I'd never heard of, it's a two-strip Technicolor silent film from 1935 shot in Bali. If you're a film buff like I am, you'll know that running across a Technicolor film (in good shape) from that era is pretty rare, but a silent film released six years after sound became the norm in theaters is even rarer. Finally, the fact that this is actually worth watching for reasons having nothing to do with the above rare qualities is the layer of bubbles on the surface of the glass of champagne. In the mold of a film like Murnau's TABU, this combines the ethos of ethnographic filmmaking with a fictional narrative. There is no pretense that the story being acted out is real—it’s scripted—but the backgrounds (Balinese natives going to market, engaging in ritual dancing, holding a funeral ceremony) are largely shot documentary-style. The actors are amateurs and some of the camerawork feels on-the-fly, but none of that matters as the hour-long film holds your attention all the way.

We're told in title cards that this story of Bali, "isle of perpetual summer," is one of simple joyful people. Poutou is a chaste maiden and one of the participants in Legong, the Dance of the Virgins, which is held during the Temple Feast. During one religious festival, Poutou falls in love with the handsome Nyong who plays in the temple orchestra and she gives him a flower, the public sign of romantic interest (sort of like getting pinned or exchanging rings, I guess). Nyong seems to like her just fine, but when he meets her sister Saplak, he becomes smitten with her. Their father awaits his visit to ask for Nyong's hand in marriage, but when he asks for Saplak instead, the father becomes upset, realizing that Poutou will be humiliated because she made her choosing ritual in public. During what was intended to be Poutou's last virgin dance, Nyong and Saplak run away together; Poutou collapses during her dance and later, when she sees the two lovebirds leave the village together, she throws herself into the river. The last scene is an elaborate cremation ceremony in which her ashes are taken out into the ocean so her spirit can return to the village.  

The print, put together from three different source prints, is in good shape. The red-green color scheme of the two-strip method means that reds, green, oranges, and browns predominate; there are no blues or purples to be seen. Still, given the exotic island setting, the colors seem right. Though the film is silent, there is background music and occasionally, during some of the rituals, there are ambient sounds and chanting as well. The title cards alone are quite lovely. The women are topless for much of the running time, but that quickly becomes commonplace and it rarely feels sexy. The oddest element of the film for me was that there was no judgment of Nyong and Saplak for running off together; clearly, the father is upset and, of course, Poutou comes to a sad end, but the two lovers aren't really blamed for the events, and as far as we know, they live happily ever after. Quite an interesting film. [TCM/DVD]

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