The moving image is one of history’s newer forms of art, and it is arguably the most powerful. Yet, unlike in other art forms — such as paintings, literature, music and sculpture — the most common origin of popular films is the United States.
In the Global Cinema Series, I will write about gems of international cinema available to watch for free or currently streaming on mainstream platforms.
First up — in celebration of Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik’s 79th birthday this past weekend — is his standout film “Perfumed Nightmare.”
Perhaps my favorite movie of all time, this film is an idiosyncratic portrayal of neo-colonialism. Tahimik somehow created a story using quirkiness and comedy to effectively show the devastating effects that capitalism and modernization can have on imperialism’s victims.
The film is best described as a semi-autobiographical mockumentary. Tahimik himself plays the lead role — the character’s name is also Kidlat — as a jeepney driver from a small town in the Philippines. The character is obsessed with Western culture, from the music to the urbanization to the women. He has aspirations of flying into space, and Kidlat idolizes the white people who can make that possible.
During the first half of this 90-minute film, we see Kidlat going about his daily activities in his small village. He drives around, talks to his mother and is the president and founder of the Wernher von Braun Club.
Eventually, Kidlat is able to travel to Paris, where his first reaction is amazement at the number of bridges the city has. His hometown has just one. He writes back to his family, “Do you know Paris has 26 bridges? Why can’t we have progress like this?”
He is fascinated by many elements of the country — including how each egg has two yolks and how many gumball machines there are. Things are often boiled down into numbers with Kidlat, as the Western influence upon him has led him to believe that the bigger something is — whether in size, quantity or both — the more progress had to have been made.
But this numeric society soon takes its toll on Kidlat. He’s crying in a car when he is told by an American, “Stop crying like a baby. One market vendor less means one parking space more.” He also becomes less impressed with the large scale of man-made creations and starts thinking about how they can be used to serve meaningful purposes to his village. When seeing the very large chimneys that release the fumes from burning Paris’ trash, all he thinks about is how each chimney could house 30 people and how 10 of those chimneys would be enough to provide shelter to half of his entire village.
At the end of the movie, Kidlat withdraws his membership from the Wernher von Braun Club he founded and declares himself independent from “those who would build bridges to the stars.” Kidlat has experienced the perfumed nightmare that is the Western ideal and realizes he wants no part of it.
This film is full of English-dubbed and unpretentious thought-provoking quotes that compliment frugally stunning visuals. A favorite of mine is “If small markets work, why supermarkets? If small airplanes work, why super-flying machines?” Comedic and clever, yet it remains in line with the fierce criticism that Tahimik is making on neoliberalism and the West’s reality of excess in the facade of progress.
There are long pauses of diegetic sound throughout, and the void is often filled with various American radio snippets. Neil Armstrong’s famous soundbite, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” is played alongside footage of Kidlat sleeping under a tree with pigs and chickens around him and a cow looking into the distance. It is with these small moments of artistic decision that Kidlat forces the viewer to think about the true meaning of supposed landmark moments of history. A few Americans standing on the moon doesn’t help most of the world’s population, so is it really a giant leap for mankind?
“Perfumed Nightmare” is an example of a movie with creative origins that stem from a place other than Hollywood. It’s a unique collage of moments that form a comically sad story of a man who falls for the American Dream without ever stepping foot in America. While it was made nearly half a century ago, it feels so new because it’s truly unlike anything in the Western film realm. The film can be streamed on Kanopy using your BU Kerberos account.