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For a proposed monthly column on for Rogue Magazine on Filipino Film Culture, in

all its forms (short filmmaking, feature filmmaking, independent, commercial,

criticism, teaching, screening venues, pirated DVD culture, archiving, history, etc).

The Great Smoke: The Humanist Cinema of Rox Lee

As Joel David notes in his introduction to an essay by Anne De Guzman, Roque
Federizon Lee’s cinematic personality is as singular as the name he is affectionately is
know by: Roxlee. Roxlee’s entry into the Filipino consciousness came via the bizarre,
humorous and occasionally touching comic strip Cesar Asar. While he has turned his
camera on and directed or collaborated on several live-action short films (as well as one
independent feature), it is the belief of this writer that it is for his work in hand-drawn
animation (often utilizing inserts of photographs) that he will be best remembered.

“The Great Smoke”, a classic among Filipino shorts, is a shining examples of the
wildness of his imagination (stunningly creative visions), perversity of his genius (self-
explanatory), and the singular talent of his craft (casually turning accidents in his favour
by virtue of his artistic inspiration: such as the flashing of a film camera caused by a low
battery, used for dramatic effect—implying the horror of flashing lights caused by the
nuclear bomb).

In “The Great Smoke” Rox begins in medias res, with sounds and sketches starting
abruptly after a title card. He starts by showing us images of perversion, first of the
physical variety and then of the mental, as sketches of deformed bodies warping
themselves further occupy our retina. The sketches are playful but harrowing [insert
example], and one laughs as much as he winces, believing full well in his mind that Rox
has taken artistic liberty, exaggerating his depictions in order to produce a stronger effect
on his audience.

As the sketches continue we remain entranced by his depiction of an otherworldly

inferno. Rox turns the tables on our expectations of cartoons; the violence of his images,
like a hammer repeat and pound our retina, while a harrowing, cackle on the soundtrack
mocks our eardrums. As the sound gets more intense and kicks stronger, the first
“recorded” human imaged appears on screen, via photographs. We are shown humans,
faces, feet, legs: images of bodies that are mutilated beyond our wildest imaginations.
Beyond even Rox’s. The images repeat, and the nail is plunged into our eyes: Rox’s
visions weren’t exaggerations; they were conservative. The film then cuts faster back and
forth between Rox’s hands sketching and the real life images of Hiroshima victims. The
intensity rises once again as a Pink Floyd guitar kicks, signaling its shift.

The images that we see, while also serving their function as examples of the horror man
can and has done to man (and man’s protest of man’s inhumanity against man: there are
also images of human rights activists, and war protesters, some take on local terrain), can,
also, be seen as images emanating Rox’s subconscious. There is a point I have withheld
from mentioning that is important to tell you now: we have not just been shown moving
sketches, but have been shown the artists hand as he sketches, creating a detached
awareness in the viewer that what they are watching is not the manipulated finished
project, but the act of creation itself.

This distinction must be noted, and when considered informs our alternative reading of
the use of still images in the film. The images serve not only to enforce the notions of the
horror of atomic war on those who were directly affected, but also on those who live with
the images of the recorded horror. These images that we see are images that the artist has
seen; images that have not escaped him, that have haunted him, scarred his imagination,
inspiring, or rather, perhaps, compelling him to make this film in order to purge himself
of them… these are images that were drawn from Rox, and not by him.

At a point late in the film a cartoon, normal, one of the more innocent visions in the film
is seen standing erect, holding a sign that in solid block letters reads: “YES TO
NUCLEAR WAR”. The character, which may be the character we see on screen the
longest, bends over and bangs his head on the floor, repeatedly. Drops of ink representing
blood, fly into the air and spill on the ground. He dips his brush into newly formed pool
of liquid on the floor (where did the brush come from? We don’t know, and this is
important), crosses out the “YES” on the sign, and, dipping it again, writes a “NO” over
it. Pedestrian, bystander, blood, pen, protest. Roxlee’s point, whether it is one he made
consciously or not, is clear.