The Center for Asian America Media presents the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) this March 11th-21st. The SFIAAFF is the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films, annually presenting approximately 120 works in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Since 1982, the SFIAAFF has been an important launching point for Asian American independent filmmakers as well as a vital source for new Asian cinema. For more coverage, visit our SFIAAFF 2010 homepage.

The Mountain Thief

Director: Gerry Balasta

Country: USA

“This film was acted by scavengers from Payatas, Philippines. The world’s largest dumpsite town.”

The road to mediocre film-making is often paved with good intentions…

Julio and his young, handicapped son Ingo arrive in the town of Payatas with limited personal belongings and even fewer expectations. The village is little more than a series of shacks filled with desperate and hungry people. Their days are spent atop mountains of trash, scavenging and digging for cans and other metal bits that can be sold for enough pocket change to keep them alive until tomorrow. Julio and his son settle in to their new lives of trash collecting are soon joined by a single woman also residing in Little Hope (as the locals call the village). All is as good as can be expected until a sexual assault leads to the death of another villager and Julio is accused of the crime. There’s only one witness to the truth of what happened, but he’s a glue-huffing thief with limited credibility and no desire to draw attention to himself. Where do you go and what do you do when even the most horrific and lowly place on earth won’t let you call it home?

The concept behind The Mountain Thief is a combination of two usually disparate goals. The first is to help draw attention towards the shantytowns of the Philippines and the people forced to live there in squalor and defeat. The second is to make the plea more palatable by adding plot, characters, and suspense. At the risk of being viewed as completely insensitive and inured to human suffering, The Mountain Thief barely succeeds at the first of those objectives. And the quest for the second almost kills even that limited success.

Director Gerry Balasta chose to use actual residents of Payatas in place of professional actors (and even set up an acting workshop prior to filming), but unlike City of God where a similar experiment paid off in raw talent and emotion the “actors” here are simply not up to the task. Dialogue about a child’s illness or a murdered friend are delivered with the same flat tone as ones about an upcoming basketball game. The performances are so lifeless that we’re left bored and uninterested when we should be captivated by the events and emotions unfurling onscreen. The singular bright spot here is young Richard Casas who plays Ingo. Casas’ handicap is real, but he manages to imbue his handful of lines with a hopeful energy missing from every other performer.

In addition to the flat cast, the movie itself seems peculiarly empty and disjointed. Part of the problem is Balasta’s jumpy narrative style that leaps forward and back seemingly on a whim. The constant back and forth leads to a certain amount of confusion… on more than one occasion I found myself temporarily confused if I was watching a scene from the present or the past. Balasta also plays the murder scene several times through without revealing who delivers the deadly strike. There’s no mystery who did it but he insists on forcing the artificial suspense to the film’s detriment. A possible mercy-killing scene towards the end contains the movie’s only true suspense, but even that is squandered through editing that drags it out way too long before ending it prematurely.

The desire to make a film highlighting social injustice is admirable, but it’s not a replacement for certain film-making essentials. And yes, I feel like a dick for slagging on a movie that exists for such noble and selfless reasons. The Mountain Thief wants to do more than simply draw attention to unnecessary suffering… it wants to help end that pain. As the film’s pre-credit coda shows Balasta and friends have actually already accomplished some wonderful things for the citizens of Payatas, and that alone makes it more socially relevant than most movies. But at the end of the day a movie has to stand on its own cinematic achievements and merits, and in that regard The Mountain Thief amounts to little more than a molehill.

Grade: C

The Mountain Thief is playing SUN 03/14 6:00pm at the VIZ Cinema and TUE 03/16 9:00pm at the Sundance Kabuki 6


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