Arabian Nights (2015)

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I was about to round up 2015 best actress with Saoirse Ronan and also begin on The Goodbye Girl (Yes, I have not given up on my 70s best picture quest yet), but I got sidetracked by my own life events and projects. This year, I am performing in an arts festival, and this entitled me to watch all of the plays and films that are going to be shown. I also watched Perhat Khaliq, the Uighur singer who came in second in 2014 on The Voice of China. He performed with Uighur rock band Qetiq and holy shit, that was an absolutely magical, amazing and mesmerizing experience. I didn’t even understand Uighur but I was completely sucked into his performance and voice, which I actually felt was more suited for the Uighur language than his mandopop songs. The next day, I also watched Riding on a Cloud, a theatre piece performed by Yasser Mroué, who recounts his recovery process after being shot in the head. It was beautiful and moving, even though the lady beside me fell asleep HAHA. I admit I didn’t understand every single clip he shared with us, but there was something undeniably beautiful and personal with the way he shared his story with us.

But anyway, this blog mainly discusses films, so I thought I should jump straight into the 6 hours epic that is Arabian Nights. It was a pretty insane day yesterday. I had rehearsals from 10am to 1:3opm, and then I had to settle some stuff in school before rushing to The Projector at 3pm to embark on this long journey. I didn’t manage to have lunch so I was terrified that my grumbling stomach was going to bother the people around me. Of course, we didn’t watch this in one sitting. There was a 1 hour break in between each parts, so I managed to grab a bite afterwards.

Arabian Nights was not an easy watch, but at the same time I am kinda glad that I did watch it. It’s a true “ARTHOUSE” film, for the lack of a better way of describing it. As usual (I don’t even know why I have to keep qualifying myself in every post), I am not an expert or professional film critic, so I can only share with you what my feelings for this trilogy are on a superficial level (which is funny, cause the film curator was ordering us to THINK, not FEEL in his message on the booklet). The film is so abstract, surrealistic and allegorical that I am not entirely sure whether I actually “got” it. But it was certainly quite an experience to say the least.

There is a certain self-awareness in Arabian Nights that I always find amusing. It begins with Michael Gomes, the director, running away from his film crew after ruminating on the massive jobs layoffs in a shipyard as well as an invasion of angry wasps. He claims that he doesn’t know what is the connection between the two, except that there is a connection. And in essence, this sums up the whole trilogy for me.

Gomes makes it clear at the beginning of each part that this is not an adaptation of the book, which by the way, makes good bedtime reading. He does however, adapts the same structure, with a beautiful queen telling stories to her insane husband each night to delay her imminent execution and save the lives of many virgin girls. Each story is a commentary on the effect of the austerity measures imposed by the Portuguese government on the people. Throughout the series, it is always clear that Gomes is mocking the system and capitalism. In the first story, he portrays government officials and merchants as indecisive and impotent men. Their impotency is solved by a magic spray that gives them enormous erections beyond their controls…and I think you get my point. Like the connection, or rather, lack of connection between the wasps and the shipyard layoffs, these stories don’t make sense for the most part, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hooked. There was something truly magical about this film and its surrealism, especially with the way Gomes mixes the modern and the traditional elements together – hobo genies in a modern world, a cockerel being put on trial for making too much noise, a talking cow recounting its experience of being stolen, a mermaid coming out of an exploded beached whale.

Most of us agreed that Part II was probably the best part. Everybody loved the “The Tears of the Judge”, which is about a trial that becomes increasingly complicated and absurd as more and more parties, mythical beings included, become involved. It was a hilarious satire on the people and the government debt. I also loved The Owners of Dixie from this part, which told the stories of the various owners of a dog named Dixie. I thought it was a sad look at death and poverty, which the dog being the most optimistic (and adorable) character.

However, it would also be pretentious of me to claim that I fully “appreicated” Arabian Nights. The third part was the weakest for me. I get that the queen was running out of stories and she deliberately dragged the tale about the unemployed bird trappers but it was damn boring (people were walking out of the theatre at this point). There wasn’t even a voice-over narration anymore – it just appeared as text on the screen while it introduced one bird trapper after another with details about their mundane lives (Yes, I think he is commenting on the banality of unemployment, but it was painful to sit through). What I loved, however, is how Gomes is clearly aware of this – halfway through, he randomly introduces a brief character known as “Hot Forest”, an unseen lady Chinese lady who narrates her brief love affair with one of the bird trapper. I am guessing that this served as a breather before it resumes the hyper dull narrative about the bird singing competition. I also thought that not all of the stories in the Part I and II were very engaging too – the one about the serial killer who is worshiped by the local people was also very dry. I mean, I am really not that interested in watching the guy eat his chicken in silence for what felt like over 5 minutes, sorry.

As a whole, I am still kinda confused about Arabian Nights because it is such a trippy film. I feel kinda positive about it, but at the same time, Part III was just hard to sit through in my opinion. I think this positive feeling stems from a personal sense of achievement from sitting through all 3 films, considering that I only signed up for 2 initially. However, even though I kinda had no idea what the heck was going on at times, I was engaged by this bizarre epic. Is the absurdity of the whole trilogy and the dullness of Part III forgivable because Gomes himself admitted that he had no idea wtf he was doing? In a way, I would say yes because he did shed light on issues that he felt strongly about, even if the way he told them made little sense, like the connection between wasps and shipyards. But as a whole, there is something magical about this explosion of weirdness, and I guess combined with my personal sense of achievement, made it an unforgettable watch I don;t regret. I am unable to assign a rating for this, and I don’t think it is the kind of film that should be rated too.

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