While sharply reminding us that political campaigns are essentially advertisements promising their political products to voters, “No”, an engaging movie about the national plebiscite of 1988 in Chile, tells us a fictional story of how one clever campaign strategy effectively turned the tide during that crucial historical moment for Chile and its people. It was started from a very disadvantageous position at first, but there was a possible chance of victory through the creative use of advertisement images on the media, and how this came to be an effective visual weapon against the dictatorship is a compelling underdog drama to watch.
The story is mainly told through René Saavedra(Gael García Bernal), a young, promising advertisement creator on the way of success in his company. On one day, he is approached by a key member of the left-wing group, and he is asked to work as a consultant for their campaign against Augusto Pinochet for the upcoming plebiscite. Pinochet had ruled Chile for 15 years while backed by the US government since his bloody coup against the left-wing government in 1973, but, due to the increasing international pressure from the outside, his government decided to hold the plebiscite in 1988 which would let Chilean people decide whether they wanted another 8 years of his regime, and all they had to was simply voting for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ after several weeks of campaign.
On the surface, it looks like a fair election, but many of left-wing people are pessimistic or cynical about their campaign. 4 weeks are given to both sides, and both get equal 15 minutes on TV to persuade the voters at every night, but there is not much of hope of winning for them because it is apparent that the government will do anything behind its back for its win – and most of the voters are not very willing to participate in the plebiscite because of the very same reason.
In such a situation like that, being a consultant for the “No” campaign does not look like a wise career choice, but René agrees to help the campaign even though, as reminded by his boss Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro) later, he can just choose less risky jobs which come along with more payment and promotion. Rather than directly underlining the motive behind his decision, Pedro Peirano’s screenplay based on Antonio Skármeta’s unpublished play wisely lets us sense it through the small scenes of his interactions with the people around him including his activist ex-wife Verónica(Antonia Zegers) and his young son Simón (Pascal Montero), and Gael García Bernal’s good performance suggests a man who is not only a professional attracted to a challenging assignment but also a father hoping for a better world for his son.
Unlike many people in the campaign who think they should concentrating on increasing the public awareness of the atrocities committed under Pinochet’s dictatorship rather than trying to win, René has the other idea about their campaign strategy; instead of emphasizing that dark past, he thinks they should go in the completely different direction and focus on the bright possibility of change which can be realized through this election.
As an advertisement guy as good, if not slick or dashing, as Don Draper, René quickly develops the ideas for the campaign in a short time given to him and others, and then, after going through the presentation and some discussion, they move onto the production level. While René is the fictional hero, the results shown in the movie are the actual footage of the campaign advertisements broadcast during the campaign weeks, and you can see they did a really good job with those sunny, hopeful images and catchy music, which effectively branded them as a new alternative for the people of Chile.
The second half of the movie is a tense media match between “No” and “Yes” campaigns, and the movie has a fair share of amusement while vividly capturing the society on the verge of a possible change at that time. Due to their excessive confidence on the plebiscite and the narrow mindset of Pinochet and his cabinet members, the government spectacularly embarrasses itself right after the successful start by the “No” campaign on TV, and one particular shot in its crass advertisement is almost hilarious due to its sheer tastelessness(and, yes, this is also actual footage from that time).
Nevertheless, Pinochet and his government still have the upper hand in this match, and we see how the government tries to inhibit René and others in many unfair ways. While mildly pressured by his boss at work who later comes to supervise the “Yes” campaign as a insurance tactic for his company, René later finds himself threatened at home, and the government tries all the dirty tactics including stealing tapes or blocking broadcast through censorship. The competition between two groups also becomes fiercer on TV; as the “No” campaign goes further with its sunny brand while cheerfully mocking the opponent, the “Yes” campaign fully counterattacks with more negative advertisements, and it even copies the advertisement from its opponent in a reverse way at one point.
For getting us closer to the time and space and people depicted in his film, the director Pablo Larraín takes an interesting visual approach to the story. He shot the scenes in 1:40 ratio on Sony U-Matic magnetic tape, an early analog recording videocassette format before VHS which was used by most Chilean news media during the late ’80s, and the resulting mix between actual footage and the scenes of the movie is nearly seamless on the whole. When I watched it on Blu-ray at last night, I was a bit caught off guard at first by its rather low image quality represented by grains and faint color rings, but the verisimilitude generated from this raw approach is palpable with its authentic period details, and the movie works well as a vivid and realistic window to an important political event in the past.
“No” received the Art Cinema Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and then got Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film early in 2013, but the movie has not been introduced yet to the South Korean audiences, who will definitely find something common with the Chilean people in the movie considering that South Korea also went through the brutal era of dictatorship during the 1960-80s and then started the first major step toward the democratization in 1987 through the increasing public demand for it. To be frank with you, I have been quite dismayed by how the current president was illegally elected and how much she has been trying to turn the clock back with the ghosts of dictatorship from her dictator father’s time, but, as many recent demonstrations in South Korea did, the movie indirectly reminded me that we still have a right to say no to her and must protect that precious right no matter what will happen in this year or next years. This is surely a terrific film, and I am glad that I ended my movie journey of 2013 with this movie.