Ernesto, Ramon, Fernando

All I knew about ‘Che’ Guevara (go, Gael, go!) was from The Motorcycle Diaries and his face on a thousand red t-shirts. After 270 minutes of Che Part 1 and Part 2, excluding a 15-minute intermission, I feel as though I’ve lived two lifetimes with the man — through the insurrection in Cuba led by the 26th of July Movement, and the attempted uprising in Bolivia that ended in order number 600 — his execution.

Four and a half hours, unbegrudged.

Spanish is mesmerising.

Che Part 1

This is on the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro and the Communist party to power in Cuba. Certainly the revolutionaries are portrayed as heroes here, in love with humankind, clear-eyed and steel-sure about what they’re fighting for.

This stands tall and strong on its own without Part 2, whatever you think about revolutionaries and guerrilla warfare, or movies about them. After the initial getting-to-know-who period — no belitting the audience’s focus here, yeah — it’s easy to see why folks would be gripped by revolutionary fervour and inspired leadership. The first rock star revolutionary, hated and revered in equal measure?

Loads of bashing American imperialism (but don’t use ‘America’ to refer to the US alone, or South Americans will take offence) and deification/humanisation of Guevara. Marvellous weaving of parallel threads: the revolution itself, Guevara’s portly incarnation as minister of agriculture, and glints here and there that foreshadow the events of Che Part 2.

I was really glad this film didn’t glamourise or mickey-mouse the violence (though some audience members seemed to think carnage can be funny). Enough it is to know that these things happened. And I was so relieved that the filmic tropes of unreasonable violence didn’t apply, except in one instance — when people yelled to surrender, they were allowed to do so.

This actually shook me into violent remembrance of the Singaporean girl murdered by the terrorists in the Mumbai Oberoi. I’m sure she begged for mercy but received none, as happened with the many others caught in crossfire and dispatched point blank. Terrorists are not revolutionaries. They are mass murderers. Who will seek vengeance for their victims?

Che Part 2

The path to death in the altitudinous forests of Bolivia — a tiring landscape rendered familiar by good ol’ Michael Palin — was easier to stomach when I reminded myself the film was borne out of real events, not violent fantasies. Death met with sureness of heart is not the same as bullet-ridden bravado.

Following the adrenalined highs of Part 1, I did have to struggle for focus for a while — wonder why the aspect ratio was changed — and the short cameos by Lou Diamond Philips, Matt Damon and that Run Lola Run / also in Bourne gal did perk me up a bit, before the millstone hit the bottom of the ravine.

It’s here that Benecio Del Toro’s caps off his immersion in the role. Other than Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, I’ve never witnessed an actor swinging between weights and guises like Del Toro did in a single movie (admittedly I’ve not watched that many intense movies). He has undeniable charisma that he deploys and melds into the Guevara iconography. And maybe all asthmatic portrayals are the same, but his wheezing, coughing and gasping sure made me feel like I was sinking in an airless world. And realise how I’d never really understood the simple anguish of the asthmatics in my life.

I’ve came to the conclusion that Steven Soderbergh is a masterful director of unerring taste. If you want a film that challenges, lulls, reels and delights with formidable grace and deftness, he’s your man. The choice of how to film Che’s execution … wow. Wow. This goes beyond the wow-ness of how Harvey Milk’s assassination was shown in Milk.

Savour Part 2 only after Part 1, I would say. In both Part 1 and 2, the epic isn’t what interests the filmmakers — it’s the everyday, the choices of now and the vagaries hereafter, that paint people in all shades of light and shadow. That, and the moral compass by which they navigate shoals of piranha and invisible cages. That, and the roles of literacy, a free press and economic justice in one’s homeland.

PS: I got to know about this biopic from The Colbert Report. O Colbert, what have you wrought! How many consciences and consciousnesses must you awaken before you rest?

PPS: The crowd at the HK film fest screening was supercool — intellectual and dreamy and full. Love it.

PPPS: Ernesto is Guevara’s birth name; Ramon his assumed name to smuggle himself into Bolivia; Fernando his final name change to elude the Bolivian authorities.

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