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Miguel Gomes’ Elusive Asia-Set Fever Dream

Miguel Gomes’ Elusive Asia-Set Fever Dream

Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes deepens his brand of unclassifiable, globetrotting cinema with Grand Tour, a period drama that’s not really a period drama at all, or is it?

Set in Southeast Asia circa 1918, and following the trajectories of a British civil servant and his fiancée as they trace similar paths across the continent, the film hops between present-day documentary footage and historical recreations, with voiceovers in several local languages and a plot that slowly nudges along. Fans of Gomes’ breakthrough 2012 feature, Tabu, will find much to love here as well, and in terms of craft his latest offers some truly beguiling moments. But anyone looking for a good story, or characters to get hooked on, may find themselves admiring the scenery without ever relishing it.

Grand Tour

The Bottom Line

Beautiful and bold, if not always believable.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Crista Alfaiate, Gonçalo Waddington, Cláudio da Silva, Lang Khê Tran
Director: Miguel Gomes
Screenwriters: Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro, Maureen Fazendeiro, Miguel Gomes

2 hours 9 minutes

Despite a simple pitch, Grand Tour is, at least aesthetically speaking, anything but simple, jumping between epochs, genres, color and black-and-white without warning. Gomes has forged a unique style over the years that blends past and present until they become indistinguishable, as if the period piece we’re watching is, in fact, a documentary shot over a hundred years ago that was only unearthed today. Or rather, today’s footage actually comes from the past, as thought it were sent back to the future.

If this sounds perplexing, that’s because it is, and Grand Tour is not for those who like their movies served up succinctly and without too many digressions. Playing in competition in Cannes, which is a first for the director, it should find bookings in plenty of other festivals and select arthouse theatres, though mostly on a niche basis.

The film is split into two parts that both follow the same winding path, which takes us from Myanmar (still known as Burma back in 1918) to western China, with many, many stops in between. In the first half we follow Edward (Gonçalo Waddington), who’s about to meet his fiancé, Molly (Crista Alfaiate), at the train station in Rangoon. They haven’t seen each other for seven years and are supposed to get married, but for some reason Edward gets cold feet and sets off on a journey toward parts unknown.

Actually, the title of Anthony Bourdain’s continent-hopping foodie series, which trekked all over Asia as well, isn’t that far off from what Gomes is doing here. As Edward heads to Singapore, Bangkok and a host of other cities, the director cuts between grainy ethnographic footage of those locations in the present and costumed period recreations that were mostly shot on soundstages in Portugal.

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It’s supposed to be 1918, but suddenly we’re in a karaoke bar in Manila and a guy is singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in Tagalog. Or wait, we’re in an old home in Vietnam owned by a creepy colonial (Cláudio da Silva), but there are modern cars swirling around a traffic circle as “The Blue Danube” booms on the soundtrack. And why, by the way, do all these Brits speak in Portuguese?

Gomes could care less if this is a bit confusing at times. What interests him is capturing the essence of a certain place and putting the viewer in a certain state of mind — both of which he does quite well, even if Grand Tour seems stretched at over two hours.

The film’s second half offers up a little more plot, as we switch to Molly’s point of view upon her arrival in Rangoon. From there she tracks the elusive Edward across the continent, picking up a Vietnamese companion (Lang Khê Tran) along the way. The two eventually make it to Shanghai, then head west to Chengdu and the Tibetan border, where we lost Edward’s trace during the first part. By then Molly seems lost as well, suffering from a fatal malady and unsure if she’ll see her future husband again.  

The director, who co-wrote the script with three other scribes, builds some tension out of the pair possibly crossing paths, although neither party seems totally interested in that happening. While Edward is on the run and never looks back, Molly bursts out laughing anytime someone mentions her situation, as if she’s aware that the couple’s fate has already been sealed but realizes it’s too late to give up. In one sense, the two are on a honeymoon-like death trip, they just don’t know it.

While Grand Tour is not a love story by any means, it is about a couple falling under the sway of all the strange and new places they visit — places that seem to alter their bodies and minds. As Edward and Molly make their way from one location to another, Gomes cuts in contemporary footage of karaoke performances, puppet shows, panda bears, martial arts exhibitions and, in one case, two women using their arms and hands to mime chickens making love. Southeast Asia becomes a spectacle of sights and sounds for both the characters and for us, and the best you can do is plunge into it without asking too many questions. In the words of one Japanese monk that Edward meets on his long journey: “Abandon yourself to the world and you’ll see how it rewards you.”

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