Saturday, June 14, 2008

Further Thoughts On The Happening

It's funny that for a film that I found to be rather insubstantial at first, The Happening sure stayed with me a long time and made me think about it a lot. And the more I thought about it, the more interesting the film became.

I've finally come to the conclusion that M. Night Shyamalan has hoodwinked us all. In a good way, that is.

I always thought the scene of people jumping off a building in the trailer was somewhat inspired by Kurosawa Kiyoshi. The apocalyptic angle and the suicides of course, is largely reminiscent o films like Cure and Kairo. But little did I realise just how much The Happening shares with Kurosawa's vision of the world.

Here, I have to warn that this post may contain (very) mild spoilers.

All of the reviews that have come out so far have focused on how little there is in the film in terms of the horror/fantasy/thriller aspect that Shyamalan has come to be known for. These reviews are, of course, early ones probably rushed out to be among the first, including my initial thoughts penned out here on this blog. But perhaps a little later, when reviewers have more time to mull over The Happening, we'd see more probing thoughts on the film.

Although there are some idiotic reviews out there, like this one that tries hard to be sarcastic and funny but trips all over itself in its haste, much of the general consensus cannot be blamed for expecting more of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. These are such strong works that I feel because of them, Shyamalan has very much directed himself into a corner. But to go into a Shyamalan film and not see beyond its surface is to be completely misdirected. His films have always been more than just what they're seemingly about.

I've always thought that The Sixth Sense was largely about the communication breakdown between men and women. It is only when the men are able to come to terms with themselves that the walls are broken down. In fact, this has been Shyamalan's preoccupation in every one of his films. In The Happening, this is taken steps further and expanded to include an entire population. This expansion has turned it into the alienation in society, how modern life actually alienates us despite the tools of communication getting more and more efficient. This was at the heart of Kairo, where technology like the Internet that is supposed to bring us closer and make the world a smaller place, has in fact left us little space to breathe.

The modes of communication in the film gets pared down to the barest minimum, the most essential of necessities. It all begins with cellphones, the television and other modern wonders. Then as the situation worsens for the people, these tools start to fail. The trains stop. Mark Wahlberg's character asks the train operators what was wrong, and one of them says, "We've lost contact."

"With whom?" he asks. The reply is: "Everybody."

At one point, Mark Wahlberg's character and friends resort to a transistor radio to try and pick up the latest news about the toxin attacks. And here, something else arises. The static through which a semblance of a voice comes through seems to metaphorically suggest that the real message is always muddled and that it always requires us to negotiate through the noise and static of the world at large to get through to each other.

And as the film progresses, so it empties out, and become less populated by people. The static and noise somewhat clears towards the end. The old woman who lives alone in the forest, encountered by Wahlberg's character and his wife, has lived in years of self-imposed exile from the world she no longer trusts. And she's gone a little kooky. The moral here is that people always need each other, but as we already know, sometimes too many cooks can spoil the broth.

In this respect, The Happening and Kairo share a lot, both films empty themselves of people, in a world that needs to purge itself to be able to hear itself better. But the difference here is that Kurosawa is a much more cynical and pessimistic storyteller, and Shyamalan is a romantic one. The former thinks we're basically doomed, Shyamalan would rather believe that in the silence and solitude of the aftermath, from people communicating via cellphones down to people talking through just holes in a wall, two persons can finally find each other and what really matters the most.

In Shyamalan's films, love always wins in the end.

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