There are few filmmakers whose next movie I look forward to more than John Sayles, and no film I was happier to see on the London Film Festival programme than the director’s new work, Amigo. Sayles’s last film, Honeydripper, was a late addition to the LFF in 2007 where it received a rapturous reception that, unfortunately, didn’t translate into the box office performance the movie clearly deserved. For all of its astute analysis of racial politics in the Deep South, Honeydripper felt like a somewhat lighter work for Sayles, building to a memorable feel-good climax that the movie really earned.
Amigo, in contrast, seems a tougher proposition. Inspired by research that Sayles undertook for his Cuba-set novel Los Gusanos (1991), the new film takes as its subject the US’s next “adventure” after Cuba, anatomising tensions between Filipinos, Americans and Spanish during the Philippines-American War at the turn of the century. The Philippines were a Spanish colony from 1565, but Spanish neglect and refusal to grant political rights resulted in an increasing number of uprisings against colonial rule, culminating in the revolution of 1896-1898, which led to the proclamation of the first Republic by President Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo accepted help from the US against the Spanish, with American assurances of independence. However, after the Peace Treaty of Paris, the country was claimed and occupied by the US.
Sayles’s movie begins after the Spanish defeat and focuses on a village in Luzon in which American troops have established a garrison. The “head man” of the village Rafael (Joel Torre) and his wife find themselves working the land again, while their son flees to join his uncle who’s fighting with the guerrillas. The thoughtful American Lt. Compton (Garrett Dillahunt) tries to hold to his image of his side as democracy-spreading liberators. A Spanish priest, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), is released from captivity to provide (often dubious) translations between the two sides. Chinese workers, digging shit-holes, find themselves targeted by the guerrillas, while the young American soldiers variously drink, hurl insults, make tentative connections, and begin to wonder what they’re doing in the country.
As ever, Sayles proves adept at locating the macrocosm in the microcosm in Amigo. I can think of few films that have better conveyed the intricacies of occupation from so many perspectives: those of the occupied, those of the occupiers and those caught in between. The tensions between these individuals (and in Sayles movies the characters really are individuals, not mere representatives of particular groups or factions) emerge in sharply written and beautifully acted scenes that chart the dailiness, the minutiae of occupation as compellingly as its more overt brutality. Parallels with more contemporary American “interventions” (Vietnam, Iraq) are inevitable - especially when the uncompromising General Hardacre (Sayles veteran Chris Cooper in what might be termed the ‘Kris Kristofferson role’) announces that “We’re supposed to be winning hearts and minds here” - but they’re not hammered home. What Sayles achieves, as often, is a stimulating complexity and breadth. Notwithstanding a couple of awkward touches (notably a late skirmish that’s rather crudely inter-cut with a cock-fight), the pace and tone seem just right, and the movie is strikingly shot by Lee Briones-Meily. As good as Sayles’s dialogue always is (and the status of language during an occupation is one of the movie’s major concerns), Amigo proves equally eloquent in wordless scenes: soldiers struggling through the terrain, buffalo immersed in water, monsoon rain finally easing, a boy defiantly banging a bell.
Amigo, then, is possessed of all the Sayles virtues: intelligence, wit, sensitivity, soul, intimate focus and epic scope, with gripping personal stories leading into wider social and political areas. It’s value also lies in the fact that it's a cinematic representation of a “forgotten war” which, according to Sayles, has had only one US film made about it, a 1939 Gunga Din knock-off entitled The Real Glory, which featured no Filipinos among the cast. “One thing a film can do is revisit official history and ask ‘Is that the whole story?’” said the director in the Q&A that followed yesterday’s screening. With Amigo, Sayles continues to interrogate the elisions and generalisations of the official version, producing yet another rich, absorbing and deeply rewarding film as a result.
Read Maggie Renzi's Amigo blog at: