Death March: Cannes Review
Adolfo Alix Jr.’s film based on the forced move of Filipino and American prisoners of war by the victorious Japanese in 1942 premieres in the Un Certain Regard section of the fest.
The infamous forced march of Filipino and American soldiers by the victorious Japanese after the Battle of Bataan in 1942 has all the impact of a little theater production in Death March. Attractively shot in black-and-white on artificial sets with actors generally grouped in tight formations that combine with slow-motion and a dense soundtrack in aspiring to a kind of hallucinatory claustrophobia, director Adolfo Alix Jr.’s film can be theoretically admired for trying something different, but the repetitiveness and tedium soon take over. Walkouts were numerous at the first Cannes showing and only festivals with a comprehensive Asian focus will likely go for this self-conscious art piece.
“Anyone who surrenders deserves to be treated like a dog,” barks one Japanese soldier, effectively summing up the attitude of the emperor’s troops as they regard their disarmed captives at the outset of the 80-mile journey that saw countless thousands die of starvation, thirst, disease and arbitrary execution. When someone mentions Geneva Convention rules about the proper treatment of POWs, a Japanese replies, “I don’t remember Japan signing.”
And so it begins, as actors in realistic uniforms march in place, crowd together in jungle filth and stench, are fed handfuls of rice at most, defecate in their pants, see their buddies bayoneted and decapitated for no reason and, at the very least, are pushed to the brink by their ordeal.
The men moan and groan, speculate about where they’re headed, cope with ailments, look for chances to escape, have visions of a white angel and find a single Japanese officer (Jacky Woo) with some sympathy and understanding (later on, he mystifyingly appears in a white tuxedo). In the last few minutes, Alix provides a breath of fresh air by abruptly switching to real locations, but this merely points up how the novelty of the painted and decorously arranged jungle backdrops has long since worn off.
To achieve greater impact, Alix and screenwriter Rody Vera would have had to develop some strong personal stories among the men to extend the viewer’s attention beyond the production’s surface physical aspect and into a deeper, more emotional realm, a move that would have required far greater dramaturgical and acting skills than anything on display. What they’ve made instead is a stylistic experiment that engages the interest for about a quarter of an hour.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production: Forward Entertainment, Phoenix Features
Cast: Sid Lucero, Zanjoe Marudo, Sam Milby, Jason Abalos, Jacky Woo, Carlo Aquino, Felix Roco
Director: Adolfo Alix Jr.
Screenwriter: Rody Vera
Executive producer: Jacky Woo
Director of photography: Albert Banzon
Production designer: Art Nicdao
Editor: Mark Locsin