DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Hot Docs Film Festival: SHADOW BILLIONAIRE

Friday 8 May 2009

Hot Docs Film Festival: SHADOW BILLIONAIRE

Shadow Billionaire (2009) dir. Alexis Spraic


It’s impossible to discuss the brilliance of “Shadow Billionaire” without revealing some of the plot. But of course, the less you know of any plot the better – and in particular, this film. So, if you decide to read this paragraph only, I understand, as long as you track down this flick. My suggestion, bookmark http://shadowbillionaire.com and chart its progress.

So here’s the review which I've tried to keep as spoiler-free as possible:

Often time genius comes with the burden of madness. Howard Hughes was like that. Larry Hilblom was like that - the founder of DHL, the super gigantic international courier company. His entire life, he’s been an odd duck, an intelligent, ambitious but intensely secretive man with many skeletons in his closet. Later in life he became a recluse living on the near-remote island of Sai Pan in the south Pacific. In 1995, when his private plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean, killing him (supposedly...more on that later) all his skeletons become revealed in almost impossibly dramatic fashion.

Hilblom left an estate of a billion dollars, with no wife, no kids, no will. His lawyers assumed the fortune in trust of his foundation and other philanthropic ventures until… a Sai Panese woman claimed her 9 year old son was fathered by Hilblom. Soon after more women, all Philipino or prostitutes come forward with similar claims.

Ahem... did I mention he had a penchant for underage Asian girls?

Anyway, a lowly Sai Pan lawyer takes the case and demands a paternity test. This proves not so easy… Hilblom’s body was never recovered. And that’s all that needs to be said.

Contradictions and logic inconsistencies fill every corner of Hilblom's life – as if his life and death were manufactured for a film such as this. Hilblom was a lawyer, so why wouldn’t he have a will? He co-signed a law in Sai Pan giving illegitimate children the right to their parents’ estate, so why wouldn’t he just include them in a will?

Director Alexis Spraic doesn’t need to do too much to turn this story into a brilliant potboiler. It’s mostly talking heads with polished recreated footage and archival material. There’s a well needed slickness to it which elevates it above a Dateline NBC episode (and there was one made back in the day). The snowball rhythm pacing makes the 90mins go by with lightning speed, like a skier on a slalom course trying to cover every possible twist and turn. Everything gets covered and revealed with every morsel of intrigue and suspense wrung out.

"Shadow Billionaire" is more than mere details. At its heart is the Sai Pan lawyer David Lujan who uninhibitedly expresses his desire for vengeance against his opposing lawyers for taunting and condescending him in court - an uphill battle he climbs and with patience, lawyerly creativity and good old fashioned due diligence. Though we never meet Hilblom and despite his sexual predilections, he's a fascinating psychological case study. And squeezed in there is an overriding story of human rights and the exploitation of underprivileged Asian poverty by the affluent west.

We even forget that Hilblom's body was never recovered but it silently casts a veil of mystery over the entire film – adding even more layers of complexity to the beguiling case. In the end, it doesn’t surprise me, nor the subjects of the film, if all of this was an elaborate attempt of Hilblom's to watch the world suffer in the chaos of his life. Only time will tell, and it’s quite possible we haven’t seen the end of this crazy story.

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