Public Toilet (2002) Poster


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A Fecal Epic
honeybearrecords11 March 2005
Dong Dong is the God of Toilets. He was born in a toilet, he lives near a toilet and he understands life through toilets. The public toilet is a way of understanding world cultures whether it's his friends (Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Somali) or around the world. The public toilet is unique to its surroundings, which, as a common and natural function, is ultimately above judgment. Disdain and even disgust at other culture's public toilets can even be jingoistic.

"Public Toilet" is a film by Fruit Chan who has taken his internal camera and externalized it, audience be damned. The idea of the public toilet is the thread that goes from surface to subtext to depth and back. He's not interested in making a linear film and in the end has created something of a lo-fi epic. Using Digital Video with little or no concern to aesthetic quality or standard practices, he has made something beautiful and not just because of it's projected realism. The footage is ugly as hell at times and the repetition of dirty footage becomes a style of it's own. Ultimately, it becomes appealing in the way that Super 8 home movies have become beautiful. Chan is years ahead of his time.

Shot on location at the Great Wall, Hong Kong, Beijing, Korea, Rome, India, the variety of images are blunt and fluctuate in the filth of DV. But this helps to tell the story. Hey, it's a film called "Public Toilet". Were you expecting Merchant / Ivory? Spanning three continents, the film follows the lives of three different groups. The first is Dong Dong and his pals. His grandma is in a coma. His friend, Tony's little brother is also in the hospital with no cure. The two set off in different directions to find cures. The trip leads them across three continents and finds only existential solutions. Tony travels in India where he finds two brothers who speak Cantonese. They're going to India for the first time to help their dying father and to bathe in the Ganji. Dong Dong goes to Korea where he seeks a number of solutions.

This tangentially connects him with another story of a young Korean man who finds a woman living in his outdoor porta-toilet. Taking her to a doctor, he finds she has no bones. She claims to be a creature of the sea and therefore is like him and alien at the same time. For this, he thinks she is from the North. His best friend is also ill and takes off on a trip to find his own cure. Knowing he only has about ten years to live, he says a final good-bye to his friend not wanting to put that off for a decade.

Dong Dong travels to New York to find his cure. In Times Square he is almost oblivious speaking on his cell phone and standing in a tunnel of snow that connects him to the snow in China outside of the public toilet. While there, he meets a Chinese hit-man on his last job. He's quitting at the request of his girlfriend. She is at the Great Wall looking for a healer to help her ill mother.

Another story involves Dong Dong's friend who has returned to Italy but that story seems to have been cut short because of the tragic death of actor Pietero Dilleti.

Terminal illness is a theme that Fruit Chan has visited before and it represents Hong Kong and China's future. Not based around Hong Kong, in this film it takes the form of new China searching out its identity and future. Pusan is false histories. Manhattan is violent death for cash. India is the possibility of rebirth. But none dominate and the answer isn't provided or even supposed by the filmmaker.
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A quirky and amusing travelogue that's daft yet quietly breathtaking
fitchalex14 November 2002
Written, directed and produced by the improbably named Fruit Chan, Public Toilet is a freewheeling & vastly entertaining travelogue shot all over the world on digital video. Coming across as a cheaper, funnier and more scatological version of Wim Wenders' Until the end of the world, we follow various young people around the planet in amusing vignettes that cross over via telephone calls and chance meetings. Dong dong is nick-named god of the toilet as he was delivered in a public convenience in Beijing and abandoned there, where twenty years later he still hangs out with his friends and muses about bodily functions. As he points out, his foreign friends are shocked by toilets like this, where there aren't any cubicles, just holes in the ground and people sit / squat next to each other. But while you initially suspect the film will just be about this, when we follow him to his summer house and an encounter with a boneless mermaid we begin to suspect the film will be stranger and more enchanting than its original limited starting point. From here we visit a hapless assassin in New York who wants the tape of his last kill to be sent to his girlfriend in Hong Kong and join a quest to find a miracle cure that takes us from the great wall of China to the river Ganges in India. A film that manages to be low budget and somewhat improvised but yet a minor epic, with more far flung locations than an average Bond film, must be considered quite an achievement and certainly a cult film in the making. Some of the stories get resolved while others don't, but always the cinematography is somewhat magical and part of the delight of the film is that we never know where we're going to go next. The film focuses on bizarre little events - a boy with leukemia hides his water pistol in a toilet cistern and a pet octopus has a fight with crabs in a fish tank, and epic sweeps of the landscape - goat herders in the Himalayas and cranes on New York's liberty island. Even if you have seen the aforementioned Wenders film, it is safe to say you still haven't seen anything like this before. Humorous dialogue, wacky yet charming characters and a real eye for elegant camera framing combine to make another great film from modern Korea. Although a little flabby at just under two hours, this is quirky and innovative film-making that may inspire a new generation to pick up their cameras and start shooting movies..
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Like its name suggests
onekell27 September 2003
It is a strange film. I kept wondering the whole time what the theme/main plot/purpose was. That seemed to be public toilets and people seeking miracle cures for the terminally ill. If you like it, you might think it reflects life - absurd/inexplicable events, chance encounters, hope. If you don't, you might think that that's just an excuse for incoherence. There's no real resolution of the many plots that interweave, unlike Hollywood's predictable endings. Many images of sewage water and real filthy public toilets are repulsive. Personally interesting: seeing South Korea, India and NY through realistic images.
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Voyage of the Quantum Turd
tedg24 September 2006
This isn't really successful cinematically in the conventional sense. Usually one thinks that the cinematic values of the thing have to be stronger than the narrative values. That's so the body of what we get has blood. But sometimes the fractionated nature of how the thing is stitched together cinematically helps the narrative being. In other words, if the thing is broken in some areas, it becomes a stronger whole in others. I think that's what happens here.

Regular readers of my comments know I harp on and on about narrative folding, techniques which are the basic tools of enriching narrative in general. I'm particularly interested when this is done in ways that can only be done in film, like certain ways that identities can be blended or that the images that denote certain narrative milestones can be overlapped visually.

What strikes me about this project is how formal it is. Oh, it looks sloppy and accidental. And the apparent subject matter is literally the discarded parts of life. But the ideas behind it are pretty cerebral indeed. When the French did this — made philosophical essays about the nature of life and perception — and coded it in narrative, it got pretty tiresome. And I suppose the ideas in this would be too if I saw them again. But this seems fresh. In my mind, I think of it as "Tampopo," but without the humor (any humor at all) and dealing with the other end of food.

The ideas are those of quantum narrative. Nothing we see has clear edges, bones. Everything we see has already had the nourishment taken from it and is given to us as a sort of residue of life instead of life.

There's the literal notion of excrement of course. And of health not as wholeness but as a sort of moving the incomplete parts to the right places. Also of trails of cause. The literal stream is that the cast off, the residue of one life being that which nourishes, even heals another in various ways. This is given to us here as ambiguity about matters of life and death. The metaphors themselves aren't sophisticated, and I suppose the crudeness of them in matter and form is something of the point, a bodily version of beautiful violence we see in other films.

I'd like to point your attention to the most clever thing, what I'll call the Quantum Mechanics of the story. Actions are often accomplished by doing the opposite of what is intended. Identities overlap and scintillate. Matters of time jump, reverse and overlap. There are huge shifts that occur when you observe, and there is one segment (the core) where we watch a video of someone making a video and then watching it.

The video becomes residue, a turd and is flushed away, only to be recovered in the way that (and because of the way?) Hindu dead are flushed into a river in a manner that the water becomes cleansing. This video, of an event which is one of several life-death scenarios set in public toilets... using one of several gun-like things associated with toilets... and referencing the Jesus-Moses story in a few ways too...

This video is presented to us in an amazing compendium of ways. Focus on that if you have trouble getting a foothold here. The quantum mechanical idea is that things shift, they jump and the key driver is how and when you look at it, or if you do and how you sneak up on that barrier between being in the story (literally in the toilet) or outside, or using it or casting it off. And even that QM idea jumps about itself before you can apply it.

So look at the video here, something that appears as found (in ordinary commercial videos) and as made. Look at how we see it, the actual footage of a murder where the murderer is murdered. Where the eye jumps from one camera to the next in the most inexplicable ways (but which makes sense afterward).

This isn't just clever editing of the type that different perspectives encircle the story. It uses the same vocabulary, but the jumping about is more arbitrary, broken. And so becomes stronger. The octopus-mermaid jumps tanks. The casting off becomes the eating.

You'll like this, you will.

The ending is one of the most striking images you will see in any film, ever. A driving, Andean flute over a pulsing spacemusic guitar line. A terrain that incongruously is beach, desert and fertile plain. Is that water or sky? Is this where mountains start or where land ends? Is that forest or cloud on the left there where we desperately grasp for something to anchor our eye and give us permission to be here.

Sheep — I suppose — occupying the entire frame, then moving to left with growing but calm urgency. Why? An endless line of men appears from the right. Then we shift to align with them horizontal instead of diagonal. Instead of men in a place we have men arrayed, defining a place. Wait. Are they men? No they are walking like children aren't they, arms swinging as if striding into life.

Its worthy of Herzog but so much more deftly set up, and may be the most engaging single image you will see all year. Years. The gentle way we leave it is almost as precious. This, my friends is what you come to see and the hour and forty minutes beforehand is mere stretching for the race.

Please see it. Perhaps we have a new Kar-Wai Wong entering our lives.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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