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Directors Choice: Erik Matti on ‘Once Upon A Time In America’

At the Macao festival’s popular Director’s Choice strand, contemporary filmmakers are asked to choose one genre film that has had an impact on them. Three Asian filmmakers were asked to choose non-Asian films, while non-Asian filmmakers were asked to select Asian films. The Philippines’ Erik Matti chose Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In America.” He explains his reasons.

“I was choosing between ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ and ‘The Last Emperor’ as the films to show. These are epic films and the kind of films that is hard to come by nowadays unless there’s a superhero character in it or with spaceships. And to think, both films were made where the filmmaking was all in-camera.”

“I eventually decided on “Once Upon A Time In America” because of the contemporary narrative structure that it employed, whereas ‘The Last Emperor’ was very much classical and formalistic in its linear dramatic structure.”

“Both films were made by masters. Masters where you can turn the audio off and just by looking at each frame you exactly know what goes on in the mind of the filmmaker on how he wants the story to unfold. Nothing is done on a whim and no self-indulgent use of scenes. You know why a shot is a close-up and why it is on a wide shot. You know why the camera moved and why it was still and when to cut out the sound and when to bombard it with noise. The control on cinema is really something to aspire for.”

“A lot of the films now pick one tone and the filmmaker tries to control the film from end to end by keeping the same tone. I find that very boring. For films like those, you see five minutes of it and you already know the feeling you will get out of it when you finish it after 90 minutes. “Once Upon A Time In America over-all may be sentimental, but tonally it goes through a myriad of emotions from beginning to end. It’s bittersweet, nostalgic, romantic, thrilling, poetic, intriguing, and heart-wrenching all at the same time.”

“I also loved how the non-linear structure of the film echoed the mystery that Noodles [the protagonist played by Robert De Niro] is also trying to figure out in the whole film. It’s like the jumbled timelines became a discourse of the journey of Noodles discovering the truth about his childhood friends.”

“Once Upon A Time In America” plays Dec. 10.

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