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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Privilege' and 'Tong Tana': Disparate Documentaries : One is a boring work about menopause, while the other is a beautiful but heartbreaking journey to the rain forests of Borneo.

January 09, 1991|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This week, the Nuart presents two new films dealing with widely contrasting subjects: "Privilege" (today and Thursday) about menopause, and "Tong Tana: A Journey to the Heart of Borneo," about the endangered rain forests (Saturday through Tuesday).

Had Yvonne Rainer, an experimental filmmaker, set out to make the most boring movie possible on the subject of menopause, she could not have succeeded more completely. Part fiction, part documentary and wholly verbose, the film makes important statements about an ageist, sexist, racist society in which women are perceived as becoming old at an earlier age than men, but never really illuminates those statements.

We instead are presented with a rambling, awkward, monotonous collection of dramatized memories of several women intercut with archival footage composed of doctors (all male) speaking on menopause. All the while, Rainer is playing around with various sound and image reprocessing techniques. What should have been engrossing and provocative quickly becomes self-indulgent and off-putting.

Swedish filmmakers Jan Roed, Fredrik von Krusenstjerna, Bjorn Cederberg and Kristian Petri's "Tong Tana," which means "forest," is by contrast as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.

As the camera takes us farther and farther into the misty, ethereally beautiful, 160-million-year-old rain forest in the interior of Borneo, the film's narrator tells us of an extraordinary 34-year-old Swiss journalist, Bruno Manser, who lives and works there. Four years earlier, Manser left a cave-exploring expedition to join the Penans, the nomadic natives of the forest, and eventually won a price on his head from the Malaysian government for leading a resistance to the ceaseless logging operations that threaten not only the existence of the nomads but also ecological disaster.

We are taken into a harmonious, Garden of Eden-like existence, much as "Dances With Wolves" takes us into the serene world of the Sioux; unfortunately, they are as endangered as the American Indians of a century ago.

For once, the filmmakers have thoroughly captivated us with the Penans' gentle way of life, an effect enhanced by the use of Harold Budd and Brian Eno's hypnotic 1984 "Against the Sky" as incidental music. They cut to the logging operations, which if not halted will totally destroy the rain forest--and therefore, ironically, the lucrative lumber industry itself--by the mid-'90s.

In jolting contrast to the selfless Manser is Malaysian Borneo's glib minister of the environment, Datuk James Wong, who incredibly also happens to be the owner of his country's biggest logging operation. Fluent in English, Wong resorts to Victorian-style poetry to defend his actions; he is not merely greedy but also ignorant. "It rains far too much in Borneo," he has said. "It stops me from playing golf. The best way to improve your golf is to cut down the rain forest."

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