Monday 27 May 2019

On demand: "Nervous Translation"

Shireen Seno is a Filipino writer-director who learnt her trade as an assistant to Lav Diaz, that nation's foremost manufacturer of vast historical chronicles, and from her mentor, she would appear to have gathered the importance of close and patient observation. Her second film as director, Nervous Translation, opens with a young girl returning home from school, removing her shoes, and then wiping the soles of those shoes with tissues that fragment to form the onscreen title. Time and again in this quietly fascinating, disarmingly eccentric film, Seno returns to the same tactic. A cassette comes unspooled, and the girl, Yael (Jana Agoncillo), assiduously winds it in with a pen; she fixes a meal for her soft toys on an agreeably tiny chopping board; she sifts her mother's head for grey hairs. The sustained scrutiny gradually reveals the inner workings of a lopsided household at some point in the late 1980s, one where, with the father away on business (that cassette is one of the recordings he routinely sends home) and the mother out at work, the girl has nothing much else to do but try and entertain herself. As a study of a child left to more or less their own devices, the film begs for an alternative, more immediately graspable title: Home Alone.

What these formative moments represent and add up to is another question, and one that proves far trickier to answer conclusively. The flickers we catch of TV news coverage - with the Reagan administration threatening to freeze the country's assets, and the Marcoses countering with a renewed power grab - suggest these scenes might be meant to stand for some other haphazard and largely underobserved development. The peace and quiet Seno establishes during her first half is so lulling that we feel the affront when Yael's front room is suddenly invaded by strangers with chatter and video cameras - and more outgoing girls besides; the film concludes with a force majeure that only underlines how vulnerable these characters are to the elements. Equally, however, Nervous Translation might just be a straightforward account of a girl's life in this kind of at least middle-class household in this particular country at this particular moment in history - that Yael is in some way a surrogate for the writer-director (b. 1983). Certainly, the detail Seno's camera hoovers up on its travels around this house - the dark-grained wooden furnishings, the tattoos on the newcomers' bodies - is such that we do feel we could be watching autobiography.

Agoncillo is as photogenic as the kid from recent arthouse hit Capernaum, but so much more convincing as a representative of her character's social milieu: headstrong, self-sufficient and possessed of the privilege of the time and space to be imaginative, but also somehow lonely and in desperate need of both guidance and stimuli. Is this why everything Yael sees on TV - the zombies of the horror film Demon Wind (released as late as 1990, if my sources are correct, and with a supporting role for current British theatre maestro Rufus Norris), a pen being flogged in stroboscopic adverts - eventually manifests in the girl's reality? Does the pen really have magical properties, or is what we're seeing a representation of that childhood conviction that a single item - be that a pair of football boots, a computer game, an album, or indeed an item of stationery - could be possessed of the power to change your life for the better? To ask such questions is to acknowledge there are elements here that, while intriguing, only partly translate, or which have been left hanging in the air like artful question marks. Yet unlike Diaz, Seno retains the benefit of brevity in describing this household's every nook and cranny to us: a mystery in a nutshell, Nervous Translation doesn't travel a single second beyond ninety minutes.

Nervous Translation is now streaming on MUBI.

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