Episodes out of the 10-year Peruvian presidency of Alberto Fujimori have been adapted in various forms of fiction — including John Malkovich’s film “The Dancer Upstairs” and Ann Patchett’s novel “Bel Canto.” But as documaker Ellen Perry seems keenly aware, there is really no need to embellish the Fujimori story, which has enough unlikely melodrama for six Italian operas. Pic can look to a healthy life internationally wherever political docus are welcome, on the tube and in possible limited theatrical situations.
Employing what is often graphic and bloody archival footage, satisfying sound bites from Peruvian intellectuals and journalists and a revealing interview with Fujimori himself, Perry creates a smart, insightful and revelatory portrait of one of late 20th century’s more enigmatic world leaders. The first person of Asian descent to become head of a non-Asian nation, Fujimori, the child of immigrants, was an academic and university president when he scored a surprise victory over novelist Mario Vargas Lhosa to win Peru’s highest office in 1990.
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Nicknamed El Chino (“the Chinese”), Fujimori may actually have benefited from being ethnically Japanese. Peru is populated predominantly by Native Americans and many harbor an historical distrust of their Spanish-descended countrymen.
Perry introduces Fujimori in transit, via clean, bright, virtually antiseptic DV footage of the ex-president (and current fugitive) making a plane trip to a book signing in Japan. This is not, in fact, the fleeing ex-president, who resigned by fax and promptly hit Interpol’s most-wanted list. But the implication is clear: Fujimori is a man in flight, be it within his sanctuary of Japan, or in the world at large.
At the same time, he is fastidious in his dress and comportment; he does his own makeup for his interview with Perry; he is polite, almost courtly. These characteristics, so well captured, are all reflections of a mind that can rationalize the crimes of a regime that waged an effective but dirty war against internal terrorism, and left a trail of constitutional outrages and innocent lives lost.
The story Perry tells — concisely, briskly and with a sense of squandered opportunity and bitter circumstance — is of an idealist sucked into the maw of corruption and lust for power. Peru was, as Fujimori puts it, “an interesting challenge”: Cocaine was a $1 billion a year export, inflation was at 7,500 percent and the use of violence as a political tool by the Marxist paramilitary organizations Shining Path and MRTA threatened to tear Peru apart in a manner both terrible and final.
Fujimori, allowing end to justify means, broke the back of Peruvian terror, something managed through the celebrated capture of Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman, and the thuggish methods of Vladimir Montesinos, de facto head of Peruvian security and, per Perry, the Igor to Fujimori’s Frankenstein.
Without comment, Perry allows the viewer to draw his own parallels between the current U.S. war on terror and the one Fujimori waged. Those parallels, once recognized, give the film a scope far beyond that of a straight political biography. How Fujimori rationalizes or simply disregards the crimes of which he is accused — corruption, kidnapping, murder — makes the interview Perry conducted with him a classic in the psychology of power. Its echoes are unavoidable.
Perry has a strongly cinematic as well as political sensibility, Kim Roberts’ editing makes the film as fluid as the Fujimori family life was full of potholes: Although his daughter Keiko, a prominent presence in the film, remained loyal to her father, Fujimori’s wife Susana Higuchi actually ran for president against her husband while still living with him in the palace (“It was crazy!” Fujimori admits to an incredulous Perry).
“Hollywood actors pale next to my husband,” Higuchi says, and it’s a bracing moment for the viewer, who can’t help but like Fujimori — so gentlemanly, so seemingly logical. It’s a great performance. And, if one believes his critics, a lifelong one.